30 March 2012

Faster than a DC Bullet Special: Superheroes and Utopia, Part I: Miracleman: The Golden Age

Comic trade paperback, 158 pages
Published 1993 (contents: 1989-91)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2012
Miracleman: The Golden Age

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Mark Buckingham
Art Assist: Gail Pople
Painters: Sam Parsons, D'Israeli
Letterers: Wayne Truman, Elita Fell

Since reading Peter Paik's From Utopia to Apocalypse and then rereading some of the original Superman stories by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, I've become fascinated by the idea of superheroes and utopia. Superheroes are people with powers so immense that they can change the world for the better, but rarely do we see this explored in superhero fiction. We are drawn to Superman because we believe he can make America better, but most of his stories involve him slugging it out with Lex Luthor. Alan Moore's Watchmen is one of the few superhero texts to really look at the superhero's utopian potential, and his own Miracleman series is another.

Unfortunately, copyright tangles mean that his Miracleman stories are all out of print and difficult to get hold of, even through libraries, so when I decided to read some Miracleman all I could get hold of was one volume, collecting Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham's run. As far as I've been able to tell, at the end of the previous volume, Miracleman defeats the evil Kid Miracleman and takes over the world for its own good, ushering in a utopia. In their stories, Gaiman and Buckingham explore that utopia. It's rare enough for a superhero story to show a utopia being created, and much rarer for it to try to tell stories in it afterwards. What do you talk about in a world where, by definition, nothing can go wrong? The Golden Age doesn't provide one big answer, but rather a number of little ones, and so I shall provide a number of little reviews to correspond.

"The Golden Age"
This story is simply a series of beautiful shots of the new London and new Earth created by Miracleman, with narration telling us how amazing the new world is. It's merely a prologue setting the tone for the stories to come.

August 3, 1987: "A Prayer and Hope..."
In this story, a group of three people go to pray to Miracleman, which requires climbing up a tower so high that they need spacesuits near the top. It's hard to see some aspects of this story as utopian-- why does Miracleman make it so hard for his people to see him?-- but what is particularly interesting about this grueling climb is the ending, when Miracleman refuses one petitioner's request that his daughter be healed, but answers another's that she can't draw as well as she'd like with "You are correct; each of you should have the right to art. Yes. I will see what I can do." What is important in this utopia isn't an individual life, but the lives of many.

A group of schoolkids talk, drawn in a cartoony style. What I found interesting about this was that the counterculture that is springing up values Kid Miracleman, using him as the basis for their aesthetic. But aesthetic is all it seems to be, or at least the values are those of every coutnerculture movement.

A man paired with a woman by computer reflects as they lie in bed together after having sex. He very nearly missed out on dying in the battle between Miracleman and Kid Miracleman. This story shows us the emotional cost of utopia-- but also its power, in a flashback to a moment where the man, as a young boy, had a brief encounter with Miracleman and was awed. Despite it all, he admires Miracleman, not hates him.

June 1990: "Skin Deep"
A man recounts the story of how one night, working at a windmill in the middle of nowhere, he had sex with Miraclewoman, the embodiment of female perfection (just as Miracleman is male perfection). They have sex many subsequent times, but when he accuses her of being perfect, she reverts to her "civilian," non-superhuman form, and they have sex one last time. The story seems to say that Miraclewoman is not perfect, or rather that she is only perfect because all people are perfect; it is only easier to see with her. It's an interesting, touching story-- probably the one that stuck with me most out of the book-- and I like what it says about the superhero archetype, that it represents the possibility for perfection within all of us. But it suggests that archetype's dark side, too: that because we can never fully realize perfection in our own lives, we will always be disappointed...

May 1 - October 1, 1993: "Notes from the Underground"
This is an odd story: one of Miracleman's alien allies has created a series of androids based on Andy Warhol, but has also resurrected Doctor Gargunza, the deranged scientist who helped create Miracleman to begin with. The alien, we eventually learn, has been resurrecting Gargunza again and again, hoping to someday change him into a better person. It's a dark, unsettling story with interesting potentials.

October 28, 1993: "Winter's Story"
After his victory, Miracleman allowed women without children to apply to be injected with his sperm, creating a race of superbeings. This story shows a family with one such child, Mist, as they read about the first one, Winter. Again, it's an unsettling story: you have a woman granted the gift of life, but unable to connect with her daughter's cosmic consciousness. Does Mist treat her mother unfairly? Or is her mother simply failing to adjust to the glorious new world they live in?

"Spy Story"
A group of spies unable to let go of the old world have been made happy by being placed within "the City," where they can play out their spy games to their heart's content. Pretty good, but derivative of The Prisoner (or at least Danger Man), and pretty tangential to the world of Miracleman.

August 22, 1994: "Carnival"
The last story brings together at least one character who appeared in each previous story, on a day in London where Miracleman's triumph over Kid Miracleman is celebrated. It epitomizes what works about the rest of the book: at the same time we mourn the old world and people unable to transition out of it, we see the glimpses of potential that make this new world wondrous. The book's last two pages, as hundred of people take flight supported only by balloons, is wondrous.

It's a shame that we'll apparently never see more of this story to come, but in a way, I like that. The Golden Age explores the sadness that comes with the passing of a way of life, but if what comes next is a genuine utopia, it really would be impossible for there to be a sustained series of stories. The Golden Age really only succeeds at that by using Miracleman as a god, not a character. Without Gaiman's planned next two volumes, we'll never see the degeneration and corruption of Miracleman's utopia, and we'll be able to forever stop on that image of the people of Earth floating away on balloons. It makes The Golden Age a much more unconventional work than it might otherwise have been, one that shows a utopia that though it has cause for sadness, has much larger cause for joy and wonder.

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