These are the manic ramblings that go through my head at all hours of the day or night.
In lieu of reviewing any comics that came out this week*, I shall review the 16 (actually, 14) issues of Alan Moore’s acclaimed out of print and incredible obscure run on Marvelman. There’s been quite a bit of discussion about ol’ MM as the legal wrangling that has kept the book out of print for decades seems to be untangling. The Merry Marching Marvel Machine, having acquired seems poised to revive the character and has been slowly bringing reprints of the “classic” Mick Angelo era issues back into print; this strikes me as a somewhat odd move, since these issues are of note only to the most fanatical Golden Age nuts, but I can imagine it’s more about a rush to set the stage for MM’s “glorious” return, whether in reprints or reviving the character outright.
(Worst Case of the Farts EVER)
That in mind, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. The fact of the matter is that the books have been out of print and unavailable since before I was born, so the details I’ve obtained over the years have been scant, the legends towering. It was an early undertaking by Alan Moore, an epic reinvention of the Marvel family with vaguely Nietzschian themes. I also knew that Neil Gaimen followed Moore’s run with an equally ambitious run of his own (art by Mark Buckingham) that was interrupted by the publication’s cancellation.
I managed to locate the run via (ahem) semi-legal means and read it a few times over the course of the last week. The basic gist of the plot (which, in an Alan Moore book, is usually the least interesting thing about it) is that middle-aged, utterly mundane Michael Moran during a terrorist hold-up suddenly remembers the magic word “Kitoma” which transforms him into the all-powerful Marvelman, a Superman/Captain Marvel analogue. Through the course of the series, he unveils his secret history (he was grown in a lab by an ex-Nazi evil genius using alien technology and his memories of fighting dastardly yet relatively harmless threats were all an elaborate hypnotic dream); confronts his “father” and kills him; has a child with powers that rival and an intelligence that exceeds his own; battles his insane former sidekick in a battle that wipes out most of London; finally culminating in his deciding to refashion the world into an Olympian utopia free of war, violence, greed, forcing human evolution via his guidance and the careful but firm supervision of his fellow demigods.
My first thoughts, upon completing Moore’s run (after all his run is, for all intents and purposes, the definition of complete arc, ending with Marvelman having pretty much succeeded in recreating the world) is that the hype is for the large part earned, if not slightly pale in comparison to what actually occurs in the book. Like Saga of the Swamp Thing, the ideas in the comic aren’t just novel for the time, but would be considered brave (or even mad) if published today. You have aliens who can shift form at whim, a graphic birth scene, baby who immerges from the womb able to speak fluent English and can fly. This is not to mention the battle with the deranged, degenerate Young Marvelman; the carnage wrought by Johnny Bates (rendered both beautifully and hideously by John Totleban) showing a level of unchecked psychopathy that was always implied in the power of superheroes but never before (or really since) witnessed.
(Little Johnny’s Visit to the Magic Kingdom Goes Horribly Awry)
And then there is the ending, which is both visionary and seems almost painfully simple: Marvelman remakes the world, forcing a cataclysmic expansion of human consciousness, creating a true heaven on earth. He starts distributing his seed to human women, creating more superbabies. He eliminates hungry and want worldwide. He even conquers death, creating a limbo where the souls of the recently departed live on in duplicate bodies.
The conceptual heft of what occurs cannot be overstated, not can one hide behind the tactics used as merely set-pieces. Marvelman does not become a despot, drunk on his own power, recreating mankind in his image. Rather, he speaks of bringing mankind to his level; making gods of all men, not creating a theocracy.
Marvelman can easily as the third part of Moore’s mediations on totalitarianism, despotism, and the idea of utopia. Where Watchmen was largely about the problematic impact superhumans can have on humanity and V for Vendetta savored the anarchist perspective towards a totalitarian society, Marvelman can be seen as a potentially optimistic (or at least Nietzschian) take on the idea of the Superman as exalter of humanity. Superman, once and for all, saves the world.
Unfortunately, the execution of the book doesn’t quite live up to the philosophical ramifications. I’m struck by how sort of old fashioned and dated it reads; specifically, how compressed the action and how purple the prose. I’m not entirely sure where chronologically it falls it terms of Moore’s career, but, while it has loftier goals than say Saga of the Swamp Thing, the execution seems more shaky, more unsteady. It’s awkwardly paced, dynamic and alluring scenes (the introduction of Huey Moon, MM and the Warpsmith’s psychedelic journey to “attain more power” to fight Young MM, which has been brought to my attention is actually referenced in a yet unreprinted issue of Warrior annual) getting blown through with in the space of a few panels.
(Huey Moon: Combating a racism by using the term “atchly.” I think, “Man, I burn all kindsa shit.” should take the place of “Sweet Christmas!” in the modern African American superhero lexicon)
Despite having almost 14 issues to tell the story, it feels like Moore is rushing through it, cramming 25 issues worth of ideas into a story half that length. The characterization, specifically (and oddly) of the female characters in the book, (Marvelwoman, MM’s wife) is flimsy at times, almost embarrassingly so given Moore’s talent and the magic he’d work on books like Watchmen. In fact, Moore later addresses this gap in technique in this interview where he calls Marvelman “Much more of a spontaneous process.”
(Young MM, channeling Glenn Danzig, describes another “spontaneous process…”)
And the narration, jeeeeeeeesus. One could argue it a stylistic choice, either a send-up of the over narrated golden age books or just trying to create a air of mythology, but it gets pretty brutal. As though he doesn’t trust the artist to be able to convey his divine vision, Moore really piles it on, which a shame, since he’s got some really great artists on the book (Gary Leach, Alan Davis, Rick Veitch, John Fucking Totleban). Some pages suffer from sheer volume, others that have scant narration don’t really need it. And while Moore has been known to use some flowery, indulgent language, lines like, “The cold lightning of fear skewers then, and they feel the terrible hunger in the heart of the storm… They see the smile on the face of the tiger,” are like embarrassing high school poetry. There are like 8 different metaphors in those two lines alone.
In terms of the art, you’ve got some really talent working hard. Some of them (Gary Leach and John Totleban) are at the peak of their game and it shows. Others (Alan Davis, Rick Veitch) aren’t quite the superstars they would become, but they turn in some damn fine work. Gary Leach ‘s art from the first few issues is probably my favorite, his expressions naturalistic and his scenery detailed, but still relatively uncluttered.
In all, it’s sort of a mixed bag. I can see why it lends itself to such legend because the undertaking was, in a sense, legendary. For better or for worse, it is successful in taking a hastily redrawn knock-off of Captain Marvel and crafting a unique character, one that has been been regurgitated countless times since then, the cultural Xerox filter upping the contrast and downplaying the subtly over time. The lack of cynicism (the hope of utopia) in the work is actually rather refreshing. It’s nice to see Moore’s work end not with yet another “Evil Superman” (the latest being found in the pages of Mark Waid’s “Irredeemable”), but with a benevolent, truly enlightened dictator gently pondering his loss of his humanity without mourning it like an asshole. On the other side of it, it’s sort of a hurried, slapdash work that resides on the lesser end of the scale of Moore’s genius (the slurping sound you hear is me felliating the bearded Limey as we speak). Still, I would be delighted to see it reprinted as a) it’d be much more rewarding to have the bloody thing in my hands while reading it and b) it’d allow (in theory) Gaiman to finish his arc on it, which would be both lovely to read and satisfying to hear Gaiman shut the fuck up about it (seriously, the guy has been dropping hints about how gnarly it was going to be for fucking decades. Get over it. Sandman was great).
*An interesting side note regarding why I didn’t get to read this week’s new issues: instead of going to Vault Of Midnight, the truly wonderful comic book store in downtown Ann Arbor, I decided to go to their only competitor in town, who shall go unnamed for reasons that will soon become clear (hint: you might find a minotaur in them). Why? Because VoM, as awesome as it is, is obsessive about putting all new issues into bags and boards before they hit the self. This is a collector’s dream; but as an unemployed, temporarily living out of a van comic book nut on a fixed (government) income, it’s somewhat off-putting. Coupled with the fact I’m too intimidated to ask if I could remove the books from their bags (seems like a faux pas) I was seeking to find a nice, amiable shop where I could stand and browse like the freeloader I am, perhaps making pleasant conversation about how droll the conversation between the Firestorm matrix was in newest issue of Brightest Day. Yes, I know I win.
Upon descending into the depth of what seemed like some kind of industrial sub-basement, I cautiously entered the shop. Definitely more Gaming oriented, the surprisingly large shop was made up on several glass cases with Warhammer figurines, a stack of boxes containing what I can only assume to be Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and a long, stained table like you might find in a cafeteria; the comics selection was relegated to two moldering shelves. No recent issues were present and, in fact, the era of comics most represented appeared to be the late 90s, early 2000s. Several issues of the “Heroes Reborn” Avengers sat next to Sonic The Hedgehog’s first meeting with Knuckles in the Archie series. Despite having what appeared to be a largely intact run of Garth Ennis’ Hitman (which, with the trades slowly coming back into print, makes the floppies less appealing to me) I was deeply put off. The staff barely seemed to acknowledge my presence, wrapped up in discussing and upcoming campaign, but the conversation had suffered a momentary hiccup when I entered. They knew I was there. They were observing me, subtly, to see which way I’d jump.
I casually strolled over to the massive bulletin board calling for participants in various upcoming games (“Any else play Pokemon: Mystery Dungeon? I know it sucks, I just love that game…”), nodded my head in mock-interest, and then faked a call, not taking into account we were under maybe 12 feet of solid concrete. Trying to avoid eye contact, I scurried out, back into the sunlight.