by Sam Thielman
[This article contains teeeeeeeny, tiny spoilers. Sooooooo small. Very little. Please read it anyway.]
Eventually, in Alan Moore’s final story arc from Miracleman, our hero makes contact with an alien who, after a breakdown in communication, decides to literally take him to its leader. Before entering into the alien ruler’s chamber, however, Miracleman’s escort cautions him: “You must adjust notions of scale,” it says as the door opens onto a blinding white light. “Here, life is more big.”
It’s a terrific line, and maybe my favorite moment from the Moore issues of the series, which manage to imbue a very dark and scary and weird story with a deep and solid sense of wonder at the mysteries of the universe. It’s also sort of a micro-manifesto for the tale overall, which goes from gleefully dismantling all the silly, childish adventures of the character’s 1950’s life, to a scary Cold War-inflected thriller, then to full-on horror, and then back out again into beauty and wonder and celebration.
Moore is a writer of many incredible gifts (as is Neil Gaiman, whose work on the series is at least as good, though as-yet unfinished), but this is perhaps the best among them: he really can make a reader feel at 20 or 30 or 40 years old the same melting of the heart that comes so readily to us as children reading Superman or Mary Poppins, for that matter. When his endings are happy—and they usually are—his characters go a long way to earn their happiness, sometimes enduring terrible treatment at the hands of cruel villains or monsters or one another, and these pains make the rewards at the end of each story that much more valuable.
It’s ironic, then, that Moore’s efforts to revive the idea of heroism in an adult audience troubled by a complicated world have resulted in the cruelest, most pitiless aspects of his work accruing a massive, gravitational influence on the superhero genre and popular fiction generally. His ability to engender childlike awe hasn’t gone unnoticed (and has given quite a lot of people, me included, reason to keep reading comics) but the complexity of Swamp Thing’s Abby and Alec moving into their magical treehouse together after years of hardship is less easily imitated than, say, Rorschach murdering a child molester. Anybody as widely quoted, stolen from and imitated as Moore is probably going to have at most mixed feelings about his own influence (which seems to be part of why he’s credited only as “The Original Writer,” note title case, on the reprints), but it’s worth remembering why he tried aggressively aging comics forward a decade or two in the first place.
“The fictional heroes of the past,” Moore wrote in 1986, “while still retaining all of their charm and power and magic, have had some of their credibility stripped away forever as a result of the new sophistication in their audience.” That was mid-Miracleman, for him—he wrote the story over several years, beginning at Warrior in 1984 and concluding in its own series from Eclipse with the incredible John Totleben penciling and inking the final chapter in 1989. His last issue came out the same year Gaiman started writing The Sandman. “[U]nless we are to somehow do without heroes altogether,” he wonders a little further on in the same essay, “how are the creators of fiction to go about redefining their legends to suit the contemporary climate?”
In Moore’s case, the answer was to make the characters themselves as sophisticated as possible, frequently by teasing out inconsistencies in their original conceptions and then turning those inconsistencies into a story. Miracleman is his first attempt to do that. So perhaps that goes a little ways toward explaining why the series is so sought-after by grownups who like superhero comics (aside from the fact that the snarl of bad faith, double-dealing and hurt feelings around its publication rights kept it from being reprinted for two decades), and why so many writers who read it seem influenced by it.
Of course, the things that are influential in Miracleman, perhaps more than any other of Moore’s works, are the horror trappings that give the story its very high stakes. There is kidnapping, and a truly horrible rape, and a supervillain rampage so unbearbly violent that its shadow lies heavy across twenty years’ worth of “adult” superhero stories in the interim.
The term “realism” gets thrown around with respect to this book (and, indeed, many of Moore’s stories and the stories written during the 80’s grown-up superhero boom by peers like Frank Miller), and it is perhaps the worst possible word you could ever use to describe any of these stories. More than once I’ve read or heard someone explain Miracleman or Watchmen conceptually by saying, “It’s like what would happen if superheroes existed in the real world.”
This is an exhaustive and thus wildly unhelpful description of every work of literature, minus the word “superhero.” The Lord of the Rings is like what would happen if an entire pantheon of gods and monsters and an entirely different social system and geography and several wizards and some very short rural Englishmen existed in the real world. The Brothers Karamazov is like what would happen if a several low-level Russian aristocrats who might or might not want to murder their father existed in a small town in the real world. Fiction is interesting because, on some level, it comports with reality. Frequently it is interesting because it departs radically from reality with the inclusion of mad scientists and sorceresses and yet its characters are well-drawn in a way that we over here in “the real world” recognize, but sex offenders with heat vision are not intrinsically more realistic than headmistresses who can fly.
What fans of “realistic superhero comics” tend to like are the high stakes; the tension brought on by those horror trappings that weigh down any potential silliness and force the adult reader to take seriously the lizard-men and fire-breathing monsters in which he or she longs to believe. That, ultimately, is what the climax of Miracleman makes you believe in: a hideously evil supervillain, motivated in a way we can understand, who does things that fall under the rubric of “realism” only if you’ve personally experienced some sort of war crime. Moore’s final issue of the book, the one the comes after that notorious battle, begs you to believe in a better world in the same way that you unquestioningly believe in a worse one.
Of course, the idea of a utopia will always have some flaws in it, and exploiting those flaws to make a story is where Miracleman came in to begin with, and so, in the same spirit of questioning the foundations of the world, we then have the Neil Gaiman issues of the book, which explore the difficult and unsolvable problems of human happiness. Those tend to rear their heads irrespective of how great the surrounding circumstances are. In many ways, the later stories are much, much more realistic than the Moore issues, and yet the backdrop is utterly foreign. I’ve wondered for 20 years where the story was going; I can’t wait to find out.
It’s a very good thing that Marvel is reprinting this series. Steve Oliff’s lovingly applied colors have already improved the initial few chapters, and the editors at Marvel are hunting down several stories that didn’t make it into the Eclipse reprints (I’ve got them all in a box somewhere, because I’m a little obsessive about this book), a couple of which you’ll see on Wednesday. I’m frankly more than a little jealous of the readers who are getting to read the story for the first time; it’s a fascinating comic and at times a difficult one, but it’s also much more than a simple mash-up of crime fiction or spy fiction or the author’s bad mood and an old-fashioned superhero. Miracleman, ultimately, is about what it takes (and what can go wrong when you try) to make the world a better place; not your neighborhood or your country–the world.
To read it effectively, you must do something fairly hard and also totally vital: you must adjust notions of scale.
Here, life is more big.
Sam Thielman is a staff writer covering television and digital video for Adweek and a frequent contributor to Newsday’s books section. He has written about the theater for Variety, Newsday, Back Stage and The Washington City Paper, among others, and has appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and CNN’s Reliable Sources. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and too many comic books.