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Miracleman Book 1: A Dream Of Flying
Mick Anglo, Garry Leach, Alan Davis, and others
Marvel paperback £22.50

review by J.C. Hartley

So obsessed was I with Marvel comics in the 1980s, before rising levels of violence, ret-conning, reincarnation, and the fact that everyone and their aunt Fanny turned out to be a mutant turned me away, that I didn't immediately respond to the renaissance of home-grown comic-books happening under my nose. The Dez Skinn title Warrior, and Pat Mills and John Wagner's 2000 AD highlighted British writing and artistic talent, and launched the careers of a golden generation who would subsequently be spirited away to the USA to work for Marvel and DC and their various offshoots.

Skinn had been the editorial director of Marvel UK and drew on British writers and artists he had employed when in that role, as well as 'discovering' new talent. One of Skinn's innovations at Warrior was to revive the almost-forgotten British superhero Marvelman, created by Mick Anglo in the 1950s as an imitation of Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was an early American superhero first appearing in Fawcett comics in 1939, later to be adopted into the DC universe, and originally appearing in the UK in reprints.

Fawcett was sued by DC's forerunner National comics, as the latter felt Captain Marvel was an imitation of Siegel and Shuster's Superman who had made his debut about a year earlier. When the opportunity to reprint Captain Marvel in the UK dried up, the publisher Len Miller called upon writer and artist Mick Anglo to provide a replacement. Anglo's solution was Marvelman. Scripted by Anglo, and drawn by such luminaries of the British comic-book as Don Lawrence and Ron Embleton, among others, Marvelman pretty much ripped off the Captain Marvel canon with its supernatural origin story, magic-word super-power trigger, 'Shazam!' for Captain Marvel and 'Kimota' ('atomic' backwards) for Marvelman, and the extended superhero-sidekick family shared by both.

Anglo's story is a fascinating one and can be looked up online or read in Kimota! The Miracleman Companion by George Khoury. Suffice to say, Anglo spun a career in comics out of various manifestations of his creation, with an early claim to establishing creator's rights, as well as producing reprints of other titles, rewrites, and some other original work in SF and genre fiction, and associated hack-work. The mass import of glossy colour comic-books from the USA in the late-1950s seemed to put paid to Britain's superheroes, who were still living in a black and white post-war world of rationed thrills. It is claimed that Anglo had little interest in the revival of the character of Marvelman in 1982 for the Warrior comic, but who could have anticipated the dawn of post-modern pulp deconstruction, and the concomitant legal can of worms that was to follow his reappearance.

Enter, not Sandman not yet anyway, but Alan Moore. Moore wasn't the first choice to write the new Marvelman, but what Moore did arguably changed the superhero genre. Skinn's initial approach for writer was to Steve Parkhouse who turned it down and interestingly enough in the late 1980s, while working for Royal Mail in Carlisle, I used to deliver artwork from 2000 AD to Parkhouse's wife, the comic-book letterer Annie Halfacree, who was also to work on Marvelman. Not a classic anecdote to be sure but it amuses me.

Taking Anglo's character as a starting-point Moore's deconstruction was to challenge notions of heroism and villainy, while mixing-in conspiracy theory, and the secret state. Adding to the legend of Marvelman were the background shenanigans involving copyright and ownership issues. Marvel comics objected to the use of Marvel in the hero's soubriquet leading to the cancellation of the strip, although it is also alleged that Moore and Skinn had already fallen out. Skinn subsequently licensed the existing material first to Pacific comics and then to Eclipse, and Marvelman was reprinted as Miracleman, resized and in full colour, with Moore returning for a time as writer before handing over the reins to Neil Gaiman.

When Eclipse went bust, its assets were purchased by Todd McFarlane of Spawn fame. McFarlane understood the rights to include Miracleman and expressed the intention of incorporating the character into the existing Spawn universe. McFarlane's claim was opposed by Gaiman who claimed co-ownership of the character and, after a wearisome round of litigation, frankly too tedious to recount here, it transpired that Skinn had never held a legitimate claim on the character. With rights reverting to Mick Anglo they were subsequently purchased by Marvel comics. A bewildering amount of printed material was then announced, including reprints of original Mick Anglo strips, original stories with new art and, thankfully, what is under review here, Alan Moore's stories with the original Garry Leach and Alan Davis art.

I'm not entirely sure what is now out there as regards Miracleman. I've been interested in the strip ever since I missed the boat first time around, but when I came to track down the title I found Marvel's reissues seemed to have swamped the market with conflicting anthologies in different formats, or perhaps I'm just too old and easily confused. In any event here under review is a hardcover version of the original series, taking the story from Moore's rebooting of the character, through Gaiman's expansion of the mythos and beyond; Gaiman is supposedly returning at some point to finish the story. Slightly confusing is the Warlock of Northampton's re-invention as 'The Original Writer'. Not an 'Artist formerly known as...' move on Alan Moore's part, but apparently initiated by his concern that his work on the character was an incident of intellectual property theft from the outset, and that he may have opened himself to a charge of plagiarism and subsequent litigation. In any event Moore has consigned subsequent reprint royalties to Mick Anglo so that should be an end to it.

The anthology begins with a classic story from the hero's past. To avoid confusion, and 'cease and desist' letters from Marvel's legal department, we'll accept the character in his Miracleman persona from here on in. In a story set in 1956, Miracleman, Young Miracleman, and Kid Miracleman, together the Miracleman family, are called upon to thwart an invasion from the future by Kommandant Garrer and the Science Gestapo. In 'our' future of 1982, freelance journalist Mike Moran dreams he is a super-powered being investigating a mysterious spaceship with his two young associates, before a devastating explosion tears them apart. When he wakes up from the recurring nightmare next to his wife Liz, Moran has his usual migraine and the memory of a special word just out of reach of his memory.

Attending a demonstration at a nuclear power plant in his role as journalist, Moran is taken hostage by a group of terrorists; struck down by his migraine Moran sees the word 'atomic', written in reverse on a plate-glass door, and when he mouths the word he is instantly transformed into Miracleman once more. Returning to Liz, Moran reveals himself in his Miracleman persona but is baffled that not only does she find his origin story ridiculous but she points out that there is no documentary record of his existence and exploits. Then Mike is contacted by Johnny Bates, formerly Kid Miracleman, who it seems also survived the explosion that robbed Moran of his memory. Bates is now a millionaire science entrepreneur, but as it turns out he is also psychotic, having had to grow up knowing he is potentially the most powerful being on Earth; and he is less than pleased about the return of his mentor. As Miracleman and the entity formerly known as Kid Miracleman clash, a branch of air force intelligence known as the Spookshow is reactivated to deal with a perceived menace that it thought it had dealt with in 1963.

Mike Moran, Miracleman and the Miracleman family were, it seems, part of a genetic experiment based on retrieved alien technology, 'Project Zarathustra', a project to create the ultimate weapon, the super-human. Moran's recollections of a life as a superhero were implanted false memories, a programme of psychological conditioning. When the directors of the project got cold feet, a mission to a mysterious abandoned spaceship was contrived as a means to destroy the super-powered trio they had created. Former director of the project, Sir Dennis Archer calls in Evelyn Cream, a hitman, to destroy Miracleman a second time, but Cream is intrigued and joins forces with his target to get to the truth. The pair penetrate the research establishment where the experiment took place but first Miracleman comes up against Big Ben, another super-soldier created as a crime-fighter, but completely mentally unhinged, his 'reality' a construct of psychological conditioning in the same manner as that of the Miracleman family. Enraged by the way he has been manipulated, Miracleman trashes the facility.

As the episode concludes, what remains unexplained is why the directors of the project got cold feet about their experiment and, if it was simply for fear of what they had created, why did they try again with Big Ben? Also in the little coda to the story, as two wide-boys arrive to clean-up the abandoned facility, even given their task, is it really likely that alien skeletons and conditioning tapes would be left around for them to see? The big cliff-hanger of course is that Liz Moran is pregnant, not with husband Mike's child but with that of his alter-ego Miracleman. This will not end well. There are some interesting grace-notes in the story. Evelyn Cream and Big Ben, the latter spun off into his own series, have something of the TV Avengers vibe that was very much part of Moore's stint on Captain Britain with the agents of S.T.R.I.K.E. Captain Britain, of course, had his own supernatural origin-story with the intervention of Merlyn.

This is a nicely-presented book with good production values. Along with the main serial you get another Miracleman story The Yesterday Gambit and a story of the Warpsmiths, the teleporting aliens created for the Miracleman series by Moore and artist Garry Leach. You also get a lot of pages of concept art and variant covers, which is commonplace now in graphic novels and trade paperbacks. God knows I'm a big enough fan of original comic-book art, the walls of our house are covered in it, and it's only right and proper that artists should get the same creative acknowledgements as writers, but don't we all rather flip through these pages wishing there had been more story?

I'm probably going to stick with this series, the next instalment Book 2: The Red King Syndrome is out in the autumn. I'm also looking at a strip I used to read in 2000 AD, Grant Morrison's Zenith. I didn't buy 2000 AD, I just used to stand in the newsagent's and read Zenith. Zenith is also out in hardcover in the autumn. Morrison's storylines were brilliant, but I don't remember him being best served by artist Steve Yeowell, whose artwork I always found to be a little static, if that isn't tautological. I'm prepared to accept I was wrong, and will forgive him anything for drawing Robot Archie as an acid-casualty riding a dinosaur. Robot Archie is called Archie the racist robot in our house but that's another story.

Miracleman book 1



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