Looking At The Genre With Fresh Eyes: On Re-Reading Alan Moore’s Marvelman

by Koom Kankesan

I’ve been re-reading Marvelman (reprinted as Miracleman in the U.S. but in the interest of consistency, I’ll use ‘Marvelman’) issues written by Alan Moore. I’ve re-read bits and pieces over the years but this is my first time reading the whole thing since the mid-nineties. And it is magnificent!

It ranks with the best of Moore’s work from the eighties and though it’s sacrilegious to say this, I prefer it to Watchmen… if I have to pick favourites. There are many reasons that Marvelman has long been a favourite amongst Moore’s fans and it’s impossible to cover all of them. Others, such as Julian Darius in his Sequart blog, have written about its importance extensively. For a long time, people in the U.S. weren’t largely aware of this major work because trade paperbacks of it were not available but Marvel Comics reissued it a while ago. I’m not sure if a lot more people have read the saga as a result of that but in my mind, it will always remain a little more obscure than V for Vendetta and Saga of the Swamp Thing and of course, the famous Watchmen.

One of the reasons I really like the work is because it’s Moore’s first long-term involvement with the praxis of superheroes. His enthusiasm and dedication to the project are evident from the first page and there’s an immense amount of thought that has gone into his plans to break down the old Marvelman from the British comics of the fifties and put him back together in an ingenious vision for the early eighties. The remodeled Marvelman embodies the politics, insight, realism, deconstructionist and revisionist sensibilities that Moore would become known for. Working in small six to eight page chapters in the then new Warrior magazine, Moore infuses the characters with human depth and writes scenes and dialogue that remain astounding (revolutionary even) three and a half decades later.

This is years before he decides to declare himself a magician and explore that in his comics. However, there is a real sense of magic and mysticism in his creation as he defines Marvelman – something more akin to a God and the mystical wonder that ensues from that. There’s an authenticity and freshness to the impossible divinity (without a sense of superiority, blase-ness, or postmodern dismissiveness) of such a being existing in an otherwise realistic Britain. He draws strongly on the idea of Nietzsche‘s overman/ubermensch and Greek/Viking mythology to frame this vision, while interrogating these ideas at the same time.

The poetic descriptions of the superhumans’ interactions with the human world are electric and riveting – it’s like looking at the genre with completely fresh eyes. Some of these ideas would be continued in Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen (especially in regards to Dr. Manhattan) writing but it’s really coined for the first time in Marvelman.

There are three books in Moore’s Marvelman saga (Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham would work on a fourth uncompleted book) and the writing is fascinatingly different in each. Moore is more than firing on all cylinders from the get-go but it’s amazing to see how much growth, experimentation, and individuality he gets through within a very short time in the eighties. Unlike Saga of the Swamp Thing and Watchmen, which were less fraught with interruptions and changes-of-artist, Marvelman’s vagaries allow you to see the shifts in pacing, storytelling, style, intensity of diction, and characterization as Moore moves through the three books.
In Book One, Marvelman must deal with a corrupt and twisted version of his protege, Kid Miracleman. Our hero just barely survives and defeats Kid Marvelman through ironic happenstance. Book One lays the groundwork and is plotted in an almost compressed manner. Book Two breathes a bit more openly, as Marvelman discovers the true origin of his roots and identity, and features narration from different players and points of view in the saga, but is still extremely tightly structured, narratively speaking. It also possesses some of the best and most breathtaking action sequences I have ever read, not to mention the astounding birth sequence that brought Eclipse Comics so much trouble.

Book Three is the book that really diverges. Moore remains faithful to the narrative he has begun and ties up the loose threads, but it’s as if he is no longer interested in conventional storytelling. The narrative, like a stream that flows in opposite directions, is set in a post-utopian present that spends half its time exploring the ramifications of that utopian world (the world that has been changed and influenced by the existence of super-powered individuals) and the other half recaps the narrative events that got them there. It involves a rematch with Kid Marvelman, horrific destruction, the introduction of alien entities that explain some of the science behind the world of Marvelman, and the establishment of a Valhalla upon Earth, rising above London, that humans can partake in.
Though Marvelman and Marvelwoman and the others are as benign and noble as one could ever ask of one’s Gods, there’s something sad and faintly melancholy about the ending. I think it’s this mixture of earnestness, poetry, and tragedy in Moore’s work I admire the most. It straddles the worlds of divinity and humanity, epic poetry and working class realism, so lovingly and faithfully that it produces nothing but unceasing wonder as you read each caption, turn every page. The writing and story achieve the kind of aching pathos, the union of high and low realms, that Marvelman himself cannot achieve as he struggles to change society.

The property has been plagued with a succession of different homes, legal entanglements, and disputes over ownership so perhaps they will never make a movie out of it. I think this is a good thing. It means that the only way for people to experience this ‘lost’ (it’s not really lost) great work is to seek it out and read it. I think Moore has disowned the work, along with much of his 80’s mainstream product, and the Marvel reprints credit him as ‘The Original Writer.’ The funny thing about this appellation is that the word ‘original’ can mean at least two different things in this scenario. One use implies that Moore was the original writer of this series but Marvel has taken it over, and perhaps intended to bring other writers on board (in the same way DC Comics did with Watchmen in a fairly disrespectful ploy to monetize that stand-alone work) but as far as I’m aware, this didn’t successfully happen. The Marvel issues sold poorly.

The other (unintended) meaning could be that Moore is an original writer, and the only one, using wit and originality to forge something new and brilliant, while other comics writers pale in comparison – their work is derivative, unoriginal, and they are little more than copycats and hacks. There are some who feel the property is cursed and that is why comic book companies’ intentions to profit from it never get off the ground.

Moore has good reason to resent the way he’s been treated by the large companies and of course, he is justified in disowning those great and seminal works if he so wishes. But if there is a spirit to the Marvelman corpus (esprit d’corpus?), and even if it is cursed like some people have suggested, what must it feel like to be disowned by its creator? Would there be some realm or room in Gaiman’s Sandman comics where the spirits of books hover and lament and discuss with one another their lives, public perception, their futures, kind of like Lucien’s library but even more personified? What would the spirit of Marvelman feel? Would it feel a sense of aborted childhood, a sense of fondness and longing for Moore that is the opposite of what Marvelman feels for Dr. Emil Gargunza in the comics, though Moore’s name is nowhere upon its current pages? Or would it flicker to light, briefly – like a firefly – every time a new reader turned its ‘lost’ pages? I’d like to think that it flows like a river of molten ore in at least two directions, through time, glowing, waiting to pour itself into whichever vessel waits below.

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