Dispatches From Sector 2814: Miracleman, From Alan to Zarathustra

SUPERVISING OFFICER(S): Staff Sgt. D.H. “Unkie” Jeffries, Col. David “Babbsy” Babbitt, Technical Sgt. James “Silent H” Hrivnak

TIME: 1:17 PM
LOCATION: London, ON
MOOD: Childlike whimsy
CLIMATE: Cloudy with a chance of meatballs

REPORT: Miracleman, From Alan to Zarathustra – Pt. 1

mm1

Why do you have to say there there’s always someone
Who can do it better than I can?
But don’t you think that I know that walking on the water
Won’t make me a miracle man?

Elvis Costello

Let’s face it: the gang behind this blog and podcast are a bunch of colossal nerds, and realistically, if you’re reading this, then you’re a colossal nerd by proxy. Yet despite what The Big Bang Theory may suggest, us nerds are not singular in our tastes. I for one am yet to understand David’s love for Dr. Who (though he gets bonus points for our shared love of Devo), and it’s impossible not to mock Dru’s longstanding and genuine love for Sting. I myself am not immune, and a simple tour of my basement will reveal a treasure-trove of mock-ready holdovers from years long past. The point is that despite what the singular banner of “nerd” would suggest, we have a lot of difficulty agreeing on most things: coolest costumes, best age of comics, whether Liefeld is a visionary or a hack, and so on. This is multiplied exponentially when we debate the big picture questions: was Deckard a replicant? Betty or Veronica? And of course, what is the single greatest comic book run of all time?

Well rest easy, true believers, because I have the answer. It’s Alan Moore’s 16 issue run on Miracleman. Case closed.

Okay, you all probably deserve a little more than that. This post is going to parse out some of the many, many reasons why Miracleman represents a stunning and singular achievement in the medium of comics, and easily one of the greatest things you will ever read. However, the real difficulty lies in finding a way to read it: five decades of ownership disputes and legal snafus have left Miracleman out of print and prohibitively expensive. So until Marvel uses Disney’s coffers to untangle the legal disputes surrounding the title, or until you spend a night in a haunted house and gain your eccentric uncle’s inheritance and buy the run yourself, I guess you’re gonna have to settle for this primer. Take a deep breath, yell “KIMOTA,” and get ready to ride the lightning.

Now, the story of Miracleman is both incredibly straightforward and incredibly complicated. So let’s begin at the beginning: who is Miracleman? The easy answer is that he’s Captain Marvel.

The long answer requires a bit more of a history lesson. You see, kids, way back when in the 1950s, there was such a thing as “a sustainable print industry,” and comics were a hot commodity. The astounding popularity of Superman, created by Siegel and Shuster and published by National Allied Publications (the forerunner to DC), convinced publishers that the real money was in superheroes, and they hopped on the bandwagon. In some cases, this meant coming up with original characters and stories. But the far more popular option was to transparently rip off Superman comics wholesale, changing the colour palette on occasion, and giving everyone a different set of alliterated names. In England, there was a third option: at the time, the British government had placed a ban on print imports, so an entire cottage industry formed around British publishers reprinting and distributing American material. L. Miller and Sons was one such publisher.

Led by the eponymous Len Miller, the company had struck a pretty lucrative deal with Fawcett Comics in the early 1940s. Golden Age enthusiasts will happily tell you that Fawcett was responsible for creating Captain Marvel and his metahuman family. Though the Cap’n himself was self-evidently an ersatz Superman, the title proved popular, and ended up outselling Superman comics for a time. Naturally, this irked National, so they ended up taking Fawcett to court on the grounds that Captain Marvel was an illegal infringement of their trademark. Round one proved to be quite embarrassing when the courts ruled in Fawcett’s favor: funny enough, National discovered it was pretty hard to defend a trademark when you kindasorta forget to file one in the first place. But as is often the case when there’s money on the line, National dug in their heels and kept up their efforts, waging a legal challenge that ran for over a decade. In 1951, the case was taken before the Court of Appeals, and Judge Learned Hand – Okay, sidebar: Learned Hand? How did this guy not get a comic strip of his own? – ruled that National’s copyright claim was valid after all, and Captain Marvel and the family were in direct violation. Fawcett left it at that, cancelled the majority of their superhero titles, and closed up shop.

Of course, this left Miller in a bind: with Fawcett’s closure, they lost their major major cash cow. After all, you can’t reprint material if there’s nothing being printed in the first place. And so Miller tasked writer Mick Anglo – again with the wonderful names! – to find a way to roll Captain Marvel’s popularity into a new, legally untouchable strip that Miller would publish. After much deliberation, Anglo and Miller took an enormous gamble, creating a wholly unique and original title that radically altered what we think of superheroes, and the medium of comic books as a whole.

Oh wait, that part happened in the 1980s. What happened here was that Anglo decided to rip off Captain Marvel, who himself was a Superman ripoff, change the costume, and call it an afternoon. Okay, perhaps that’s a little harsh. There were some critical differences between the two characters: whereas eager young go-getter Billy Batson says the word “SHAZAM” and turns into a red and yellow-clad metahuman, young go-getter Mikey Moran says the word “KIMOTA” (‘atomic’ phonetically backwards) and turns into a blue, yellow and red-clad metahuman.Yet the path of least resistance proved to be a smart play, and the new title, dubbed Marvelman, proved to be something of a hit, running until 1963. Not quite the long legacy of, say, Detective Comics, but it lasted longer than any single incarnation of Doom Patrol! Three years later, Miller closed up shop, and Marvelman returned to the infra-space from whence he came, a footnote in the history of superheroes, and a slightly bigger footnote in the history of copyright law.

Or at least, that’s how the story WOULD have ended had it not been for Warrior magazine, and a little-know British writer by the name of Alan Moore. Yes, THAT Alan Moore. Here’s where the story really gets interesting, and in true comic book fashion, that’s precisely where I’ll leave off for today! Check back soon for the second part of the long and lurid history of Miracleman, complete with Warpsmiths, more legal challenges, and Todd MacFarlane generally making everybody else’s lives more miserable!

Andrew

Andrew is a devoted partner, a loving father, and half a grad student. He also reads comics and occasionally watches movies based on them. He’s neat. You should follow him on Twitter.

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