Sunday, 2 February 2014

Review: Miracleman #1 (2014)

If you're the type of person who notices this kind of thing, you'll have noticed that superheroes have become pretty damn popular lately, especially in film. Last year alone, we had the release of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, The Wolverine, Kick-Ass 2 and Man of Steel, and this year will see the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past. While I don't like all of the listed titles, and indeed could go on lengthy rants on a few of them, I am enough of a comic-book nerd myself to say that this trend is generally a good thing; if they carry on making good films with good stories, I'll carry on enjoying them. One thing that attracts my attention though is that pretty much all of these films centre on superheroes which live and operate mostly in the United States, with the exceptions being those who operate occasionally in the mythic realms or the farthest reaches of space.

Indeed, just about the only blockbuster comic-book superhero film which isn't about Americans is in fact the 2006 film release V for Vendetta. It was based off of a comic-book written by the somewhat infamous and strange Alan Moore, who was also known for having written Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. The latter two, though not really superhero titles in a conventional sense, are also notable for being partly based on British characters, either historical or literary. It's just a pity that their film adaptations had very little at all to do with the source material, and are pretty disappointing as films go.

My review today will focus on a somewhat older comic-book from Alan Moore, which is centred on a British superhero operating in the United Kingdom, with Miracleman #1, released in 2014.

Miracleman has a somewhat strange history in comic-books. The history behind this character is actually so long and so complicated that I could devote an entire blog-post to it, and indeed if there's enough interest I might. That said, all you really need to know about Miracleman is that it started off as a comic by writer-artist Mick Anglo called Marvelman back in the 1950s, and was later revised in a somewhat dark and gritty form by Alan Moore in the 1980s, and a few years later had to be renamed to Miracleman in order to avoid confusion with publications by Marvel Comics. That Marvel Comics later acquired the rights to the character and was responsible for the recent reprinting of these stories is intensely ironic to the point of hilarity.

In the years since its original publication in 1982, this story has become well-known as kind of a prototype to Alan Moore's work on comics like Watchmen, being one of the first comics to present a more 'real-world' look at superheroes. While this point of view became somewhat unpopular after the endless glut of copycat stories in comic-books, especially during the nineties, it's still significant enough in historical terms to perhaps give the first issue of these reprints a glance here.

The Story
At the beginning of the issue, we have a colourised reprint of one of the original stories, presenting a story in which Miracleman and his allies must battle off a band of time-travelling invaders from the 1980s, which to them is the future. It's short and cheesy, but does a good job of introducing the basic concepts of the character, as well as presenting a degree of irony for the reader since we know the real 1980s wound up being nothing like that. The cheesy feel of early comic-books can be offputting to some readers, but I'll admit a personal fondness for that sort of light-hearted weirdness, since I think that comic books can occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously.

One useful concept introduced is the idea of how Miracleman works, the idea of his being a young teenager called Michael Moran who is able to transform himself into a near seven foot tall adult superhero with superhuman strength, invulnerability and the ability to fly by speaking a secret magic word; 'Kimota!'

After the short story, the issue cuts forward to the then-present 1980s, and opens with Michael Moran having a nightmare in which he dreams of flying around in the sky, but subsequently getting caught in a trap which kills or seriously injures him. After he wakes up screaming, we quickly find out a few things about the protagonist of this comic; he's now an adult approaching middle age who seems to have no real memory of his previous life as a superhero. His life is fairly normal, with a freelance job as a journalist, and a semi-happy marriage to a loving wife called Liz, but he struggles with the nightmares of a former life he doesn't remember and the headaches related to it, with a particular difficulty being his frequent inability to remember a specific long-forgotten word.

However, in his job as a journalist he is involved in a robbery and subsequent hostage crisis at the local power station, which suddenly causes his headaches and migraines to start getting worse. This continues until he is dragged outside by one of the criminals, but in the process sees something which reminds him of the dream, and of his magic word. Speaking the word 'Kimota', he is thus instantly transformed and regains most of his memories as Miracleman, and very quickly dispatches the criminals and flies off with a sense of elation at remembering exactly who and what he is.

The third and final part of the story continues with Miracleman returning and trying to explain the situation to his wife. Which sounds like it'd make for a rather akward moment, I suppose;

'How did your day go, honey?'
'Oh, fine; I remembered I was a superhero and stopped a bunch of criminals from stealing isotopes from a nuclear power station to be sold on the black market.'

Though the third act of the story is basically just a recap of the character's basic history, occasionally pointing out how silly things occasionally were, it sets up for later issues with our first hints of a villain. A shadowy and barely-seen figure sees the news of this poorly-witnessed superhero event and deduces that Miracleman must have returned. And after he effortlessly destroys the desk in his office by slamming his fist on it, we realise that Miracleman is not the only superhuman in the world, and that he might wind up coming to blows with a new enemy before too long.

All-in-all, the issue itself does a very good job of introducing us to the character and the world he inhabits, and though it acknowledges the silliness of the concept, it does a good job of introducing the ideas without getting bogged down in the unnecessary decompressed storytelling of modern comics. And it raises a lot of questions and introduces a lot of mysteries to be answered in later issues.

The Characters
Miracleman is an interesting hero in concept. Unlike with a full-length novel, however, we don't have much time to get to know him as a character, but we do very quickly learn a few things about him just from the way that the writer has him act and behave. For all of his instinctive heroism and the idea that he's a superhero, he's still ultimately an arrogant superbeing, referring to his human form as 'old' and 'tired. And he has a temper which shows up every now and then with his punching a hole in the floor when his wife laughs at some of the silliness of his backstory.

There aren't many other characters who get attention in this issue aside from his wife Liz, and most of her role in the story is to serve as a surrogate for the audience when Miracleman gives the abridged version of his history. Given the silliness of the story presented to her, she has pretty much the same reaction that we would, which is either finding it funny or occasionally finding it terrifying when the truth finally hits her that, silly or not, her husband is still a man who could rip entire cities to shreds with his bare hands.

The Artwork
The artwork in this issue was provided by Mick Anglo when it came to the initial 'flashback' story, but the more recent stories were illustrated by Garry Leach. The style presented is somewhat unique in that it presents the characters not with the exaggerated proportions of most comics but instead as more realistic and human figures. And indeed, even in his form as the heroic Miracleman, the main character has a figure more like a male ballet dancer or a gymnast than a bodybuilder, and it gives the comic a very distinctive look that helps to keep it grounded and, for lack of a better word, 'realistic'.

This might seem a strange option for the initial story given the strange and often silly ideas presented, but as later issues would reveal, things aren't exactly as they appear to be.

Bottom Line
Miracleman is the long-awaited return of a classic comic that honestly deserves to be read, and I'm hoping that publication continues. While many may be put off by the occasional violence, and indeed the series becomes very violent as it continues on, it makes for an interesting break with the styles put forth in The Avengers, and is far more effective at exploring the consequences of super-powered violence than the recent and disappointing Man of Steel. That said, the idea of reading comics is something that most people are unused to, and many more might be put off by the strange and often bizarre ideas on show. For that reason I cannot recommend it to beginners.

And indeed, the violence, sexual references and occasional language mean that this story should not be read by children.

All that being said, Miracleman earns a Must Read score, but only to those who are used to comic-books, as others might find it a little too strange at times. While it's one of the more interesting comics out there, and a refreshing look at a more British-orientated superhero, it's perhaps a little too strange at times for some people to take seriously.

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