When Siegel and Schuster published the first Superman story in 1938, it was of course a landmark event for many reasons, but one of the less commented-upon is the fact that this was probably the very last time anyone ever published a comic-strip superhero story without claims of plagiarism being made and someone somewhere reaching for their lawyer.
The rights holders to Superman (lest we forget: super-strong, super-fast, super-tough flying man in a cape) spent a lot of their time in the 40s and 50s suing the publishers of other, supposedly entirely different super-strong, super-fast, super-tough flying men in capes. These days the only one anybody remembers is the character formerly known as Captain Marvel (these days trading as ‘Shazam’), partly because he appreciably outsold Superman for an extended period and partly because Supes’ own publishers at DC Comics (these days the DC appears to stand for Dumb Choice) bought the rights to the character and folded him into their own fictional universe.
However, when Captain Marvel ceased American publication in the early 50s, the outfit responsible for UK reprints did not feel inclined to go gentle into that good night, and hit upon the wheeze of making the tiniest possible cosmetic changes to the character and continuing to do their own stories. Thus Captain Marvel – in reality young Billy Batson, who says a magic word to become a super-strong, super-fast, super-tough flying man in a cape – was boldly reinvented as Marvelman – in reality young Mickey Moran, who says a secret formula to become a super-strong, super-fast, super-tough flying man, although crucially one without a cape. Marvelman’s own career in British comics lasted until the early 60s, which was probably just as well as by that point the word ‘Marvel’ was just beginning to acquire the cachet it has retained ever since, and the company has accordingly worked tirelessly to prevent anyone else from using it on a superhero title (cf. the original Captain Marvel’s irksome current rebranding as Shazam).
So, just as the original Green Lantern struggled to cope with any threat made of wood, and Superman has well-documented issues with kryptonite, so Marvelman’s fundamental flaw is his terrible vulnerability to lawsuits on all manner of grounds. This is why Marvelman is a character most people have never even heard of these days: he has long since been rebranded as Miracleman. And even in this form he has experienced terrible difficulties, which is why his remarkable 1980s revival has only been intermittently available to buy and enjoy.
You would have thought that, as a Captain Marvel knock-off, that character’s rightsholders at DC would have first dibs on Miracleman, but no: apparently the Marvel connection is more telling, which is why Miracleman belongs to Marvel Entertainment these days. (He’s still called Miracleman though.) At least the good news to come out of all this is that they are finally reprinting the 80s version of Miracleman, which originally appeared in the anthology magazine Warrior over thirty years ago.
Here we hit a snag, as the original writer of the revival has opted to take his name off the reprints as a matter of personal principle, having long ago fallen out with Marvel. I feel sort of obliged to respect this, and in any case it’s not exactly hard to work out who we’re talking about: a brilliant British comics scribe, much prone to acrimonious fallings-out with major publishers, writing a post-modern deconstruction of a classic superhero, with themes including the terror and awe real superhumans would evoke, the psychosexual fallibilities of such characters, their impact on the real world, and so on. If you can’t work it out from those clues you probably wouldn’t know the guy’s name if I told it to you.
This is an early work, but Miracleman still burns up the pages with its energy and invention: taken hostage at the opening of a new nuclear plant, morose and troubled forty-something journalist Mike Moran stumbles upon the word he’s been dreaming about for decades: Kimota, the magic word which transforms him into the godlike Miracleman (a super-strong, super-tough… oh, never mind). He remembers years of adventures as Miracleman in the 50s and 60s, including a disastrous final mission, but there is no record of them: Moran’s wife laughs at the absurdity of his memories.
Miracleman is almost an absurd figure, living in a world in which superhumans are unknown, but he is also powerful enough to terrify the authorities, who have their own reasons for wanting him out of the way. A brief clash with his corrupted former-sidekick Kid Miracleman excepted, most of this first volume concerns Miracleman coming to terms with his own existence and learning the truth of his origins.
There’s a sense in which you can read Miracleman as the writer taking his first swing at the various themes he would go on to explore through the remainder of his career in mainstream superhero comics, but those themes hit the page here fully-formed and clearly articulated. As usual, he seems largely disinterested in the details of superheroic slugging matches: your attention is always drawn to the character elements, the poetry of the narrative voice, the legendarium of it all. Either this is superhero comics coming of age, or it’s everyone taking a very juvenile story much too seriously with rather distasteful results (or possibly both).
I tend towards option A. Even today, this first volume of Miracleman is an extraordinary book, combining a great superhero story with very traditional dystopian British SF. The brevity of the episodes (thanks to the anthology format), coupled to the restless creativity of the writing, means that if anything it’s almost too inventive – the writer comes up with a new motif or stylistic conceit every half-dozen pages or so, and the cumulative effect is somewhat exhausting.
The only real problem with this volume of Miracleman is that you can polish it off in a very brief session. There is some additional material, mostly dealing with supporting characters, but in terms of the actual Miracleman storyline there’s only about a hundred pages, which doesn’t feel like nearly enough. However, we are promised that at least one further volume – presumably containing the notorious Controversial Material relating to the return of Kid Miracleman – will be forthcoming before the end of the year. I can’t wait: this is an essential purchase for anyone interested in British comics or the history of superhero stories in general.