My favourite superhero comic: Mister Miracle

I’m a man in his 40s who reads superhero comics. Alan Moore has been clear about his opinion of this. “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults… delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” And, a lot of the time, he’s right. Most of these stories, even the ones for ‘mature readers’, are male empowerment fantasies which demean teenage readers, let alone adults.

But I keep panning for gold in this river of shit. Sometimes, something great comes along, like the Vision, or Gwenpool or The Wicked and Divine; but a lot of the time it’s tired stories where ethics are debated by punches. Superhero comics at their best move me more than any other art form (Enigma! Animal Man! Flex Mentallo! Doom Patrol! Promethea!). But, as I get older, I think I’ve seen all the best tricks, and should stop buying new series.

Miracle Man came out in 2017 and is the best superhero book I’ve read. It’s based on an old Jack Kirby series, part of his Fourth World mythos, which set out to invent a new group of gods. His story tells of the eternal war between the Highfather and Darkseid, the embodiment of all that is evil. The Highfather’s son was sent to the planet Apokolips in an exchange of children with Darkseid. There he grew up in the fearsome X-Pits, raised by Granny Goodness in one of her orphanages. He was given the name Scott Free for his attempts to flee Apokolips, his failures slowly teaching him to be the greatest escape artist the universe has ever seen. He finally escapes to Earth, where he later joined by Big Barda, one of the people he knew from his horrific childhood and they are later married.

It’s a hokey story, and the Miracle Man graphic novel opens with a retelling of the story so far, in a simple 6-panel grid. Every sentence ends in an exclamation mark! Then we find a double page spread of Scott Free, lying on a bathroom floor, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds to his wrists. After that, the hospital, Big Barda in a waiting room’s plastic chair, oversized, out of place, sobbing.

The book follows Scott Free and Big Barda as they try to come to terms with Scott’s depression while living in a suburban LA condo. The characters have always tried for a normal life, but cannot renounce their lives as New Gods and superheroes. They try making their home a refuge from the madness, but the war with Apokolips intrudes, sometimes with diplomatic meetings on their cramped sofa. Being gods is their job, the slaughter of sci-fi battles becoming drudgery, the Highfather an annoying boss. Scott and Barda know things between them aren’t good, but cannot fix them while their work life is so hectic. They struggle to maintain their domestic routine, discussing ‘Michelle feeding the cat’ as they head to battles on other worlds.

A lot of stories that merge everyday life with fantasy play on what is real or imaginary (a great example here being I Kill Giants). Mister Miracle’s text has ambiguities, but not intrusively. I prefer to read it as a straightforward superhero narrative whose hero is also struggling to escape depression.

Scott Free’s superpower is escape, but this isn’t enough. Scott and Barda are both struggle with the trauma of their childhood on Apokolips (as Barda tells Scott, “If you’re escaping the box, you’re still in the box”). Scott’s depression is linked with the fictional Anti-Life Equation, a mathematical formula that can take over the will of any living creature – playing on the way that if someone has full control of you, then you are not alive. This becomes a metaphor for Scott’s depression, while being treated as a straightforward piece of comics lore.

The book is impressive. PanelXPanel magazine discussed how the 9-panel grid is treated as a cage, trapping the character. Repetition and distortion are used to great effect; black panels intrude, proclaiming ‘Darkseid is…”, breaking up the flow. Captions are taken from the original Kirby series of Mister Miracle and placed against this more serious story, to jarring, mocking effect.

Superheroes were invented for young boys in the 50s, but maybe they do have something to say to middle-aged men in their 40s. How does fantasy survive alongside the parts of our lives that are boring or disappointing we hate, with feelings of doubt, exhaustion and sadness? The only problem with Mister Miracle is how hollow so many other comics feel in comparison.

Doomsday Clock: the world’s most dangerous comic

Crossing over Watchmen and Superman is an objectively-terrible idea, but so wrong that I had to look. And, I can tell you, Doomsday Clock is the ultimate act of vandalism against the DC Universe. It might also be dangerous.

Watchmen is the classic superhero book, appearing on several lists of the 20th century’s greatest novels. Its success has come at a cost. As Moore has said: “there has been, in the 15 years since Watchmen, an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these very grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories…. I’d have liked to have seen more people trying to do something that was as technically complex as Watchmen, or as ambitious”.

Instead of other great works, we’ve had the Dark Age of superheroes, which has been cursed with crossovers and reboots, while strip-mining every last idea Moore ever had. But, even then, a crossover between Superman and Watchmen was unthinkable. Until now.

At the end of Watchmen Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandius, had unleashed his scheme to save the world at the cost of thousands of lives. The omnipotent Dr Manhattan then left the universe to look for new ones. Doomsday Clock begins in the Watchmen universe, where the unravelling of Ozymandius’ scheme is leading to international tension, and nuclear war is imminent. In an attempt to fix things, Ozymandius sets out to find Dr. Manhattan, following his trail via the magic of quantum tunnelling into… The DC Universe!

My first response is that a lot of this is competent. The book looks likes Watchmen, using the basic rhythm of the nine-panel-grid, although it doesn’t contain anything like Moore’s wonderful formalist experiments. The scenes involving Marionette and the Mime are superb – they are the character finds of 2017 (which is when this series was first published – it’s running very late).

But there are also a lot of crass notes, such as the resurrection of the Comedian. Or the promotional pancake mix – DC have no shame. And the whole thing feels a little over-weighted with meaning, like how the TVs in the background only seem to play one old movie, whose dialogue reflects what is happening to the nearby DC characters. There is also a lot more punching in Doomsday Clock than there was in Watchmen.

One of the best things about Watchmen was that it was ambitious. The book deconstructed the medium, pushing the limits of both the comic book form and the concept of superheroes. But it wasn’t just about comics – if you knew little more than the basics of comic books, you could still enjoy the murder mystery, or the philosophical questions about fate, or the subtle background details.

Doomsday clock, like most modern crossovers, feels like creative book-keeping, attempting to tidy up continuity errors. Since 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (designed to prune the DC Universe’s confusing parallel worlds) we’ve had a torrent of ever-more extravagant crises, which devalue their credibility: zero hour, final crisis, Flashpoint, and so on. This book ties up some problems between the ‘New 52’ from 2011, and the ‘DC: Rebirth’ from 2016: it turns out that all these continuities are Dr Manhattan tinkering with the universe.

Watchmen didn’t require readers to know decades of continuity, but Doomsday Clock relies on it. I didn’t get the significance of the sub-plot about Saturn girl being corrupted by the dark age of superheroes; and a huge part of the plot depends on caring when the Justice Society of America was created, whether it exists and if Superman was a member. As usual with DC’s crises, the Flash is at the heart of it, but I can’t be bothered to keep up with that character, and I am so fed up of continuity. Most of what happens in Doomsday Clock is an obscure debate about canon and continuity, of little interest to most people. Issue 1 ends with Superman talking about his parent’s death when he was at high school. I have no idea whether this was meant to be a shocking revisionist twist or not.

The most interesting thing about this book is the way it tangles universes together – and that is where the true danger lies. Superman exists as a comic book in the Watchmen universe, where he was the inspiration for Hollis Mason, the first Owl Man. And our world has often been folded into the DC Universe as Earth Prime.

Obviously, the comic book universe is affected by the publishers in our world, but comic books also affect this world. Grant Morrison has given the example of people’s lives being changed by the inspirational scenes in All-Star Superman; and I know people whose political views were formed by Marvel comics such as X-Men and Black Panther. There have also been physical interactions between comics and the our world, such as real-world sightings of the magician John Constantine, or the time when Grant Morrison nearly died after writing about injuries to a character he’d based on himself.

Interactions between comics and the real world are strange but they are there. It’s not surprising – the DC Universe is one of the most complicated structures in our world, more complicated and densely networked than the human brain. Grant Morrison was obsessed with the idea that this is sentient, and we have to ask what something like Doomsday Clock does to a living story like this. It is not far off torturing it – and it is inevitable that such things will have an effect on our world in time.

Even if I am wrong, Doomsday Clock is still a book you shouldn’t read. It’s not intended for regular people anyway. Alan Moore once dismissed The Killing Joke by saying “The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life… [it] had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.” Doomsday Clock has nothing to say about the real world. And that’s OK for me, because I care about this continuity, but it’s a waste of time for almost everyone else.

But as far as Watchmen goes, this work is on the  level of getting Duchamp’s moustache drawn on the real Mona Lisa.. It’s audacious and it’s vandalism and I cannot take my eyes off it.

Re-reading the Invisibles

I’ve just set up an online forum for Re-reading the Invisibles. It’s almost 25 years since the first issue of The Invisibles came out, and I wanted to invite people to re-read or (read) the series in real time, issue-by-issue, 25 years after they were originally published. This will take us into 2025. If you’d like to join the forum, anyone is welcome. Just sign up at invisibles.orbific.com.

There are three obvious questions:

  1. What is the Invisibles?
  2. Why re-read it?
  3. What stops this being just an exercise in nostalgia?

The Invisibles was a three-volume, 59-issue comic book series, which ran from 1994-2000. It was an attempt by the author, Grant Morrison to talk about everything: conspiracy theories, magic, and the secrets of the universe. The book is also designed as a magic spell, what Morrison referred to as a ‘hypersigil’, with the intent of making the world more interesting. The series was published by Vertigo alongside other classic series such as Preacher, Sandman and Transmetropolitan. Despite being loved by its audience, The Invisibles teetered close to cancellation, and hasn’t had the same post-publication life of graphic novel sales or adaptations.

So why re-read it? Because it was one of the biggest influences on my life. Because it never got the response it deserved at the time. Because a lot of people I know want to read it, but haven’t found the opportunity or a way in. Because it’s interesting to revisit a work that was so intentionally futuristic and see how that future has aged. Because reading things as part of a group is more interesting. Because everyone I’ve met who has read the Invisibles has been fascinating.

But what stops this being just nostalgia? Just this week, I was complaining on twitter: “This week the Guardian has had articles on: The Abyss at 30, the Sixth Sense at 20 and the reboots of the 25-year old Matrix. Nostalgic journalism has so little to say. Is my future just reviewing things that happened a certain number of years ago?

I’m not re-reading the Invisibles to relive my youth. I mean, it’s connected to the parts of my past that involved sitting in a room by myself reading comics – there are more exciting bits to re-live. Instead, I think this is a book that connects directly to things that are currently happening in my life. The book has references to magic, Robert Anton Wilson, Philip K Dick that seem even more relevant than they did back then.

But, more than that, this is a book about a conspiracy of people coming together to make the world a better place; a group of misfits struggling in the face of an overwhelming reality of ordered boredom. And that part of the book very much speaks to today.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

During my post-easter downtime, I’ve been reading Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. This history looks, not at Marvel’s stories and characters, but the personalities and corporate politics behind them. The shameful treatment of Kirby and Ditko is a significant part of this narrative, but what fascinated me was how the corporate politics drove the stories I remember from childhood.

I first got into the comics with Secret Wars II – a massive cross-over story drawing in most of the Marvel Universe. Many of the issues started with recaps, explaining, say, why Mr Fantastic’s arm was broken, or why Tony Stark was a drunk. It was a strange and confusing introduction to the continuity of the US comic books. The original Secret Wars series had emerged from a toy-line, which needed some comic books to promote it. The resulting rise in sales was irresistible, so the sequel followed, drawing in even more books.

Growing up, I was in love with the melodrama and florid prose of comic books. Take, for example, the captions from Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk: “The world seems to stand still, trembling on the brink of infinity as his ear-splitting scream fills the air”. I loved the authorial intrusions and captions – the more naturalistic style popularised by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, among others is more mature, but misses something of the energy I loved.

When I was 10 years old, I didn’t think much about the junk bonds and corporate raiders that drove the Marvel universe. During the over-heated speculator boom of the 90s, this became more obvious, with reboots, collector’s #1 issues, special covers and character deaths all distorting the storytelling. Marketing consultants led the plots, trying to ensure the stock-holders received the returns they demanded. The special issues with expensive covers would spike the sales for a month, and then they would fall lower than before. Marvel actively turned away from the children’s market in favour of speculators. By the time Howe’s book was published, the average reader was in their 30s.

Despite its shoddy history, the Marvel universe is an amazing artefact. As the book describes it, “Over the course of a half century, Marvel’s epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.”

Storylines started to refer to each other early on, beginning with Marvel Mystery Comics #7, where Namor is warned that the Human Torch is after him. The stories seemed more real through being set in New York City rather than, as in DC, fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham. In addition, Marvel’s characters seemed more textured than the archetypal DC heroes. The human flaws made them seem legendary than the ‘distinguished competition’s’ characters.

The continuity of both DC and Marvel has become incredibly complex, with alternate realities and timelines interacting, along with shock ‘retro-active continuities’ revealing new interpretations of well-known events. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken further copies of the characters, tweaking the legends for a new audience (how many times has Spider-man’s original appeared on the cinema screen now?).

But there’s something magical about the legends that remain – the Hulk’s rage, the arrogance of arm’s dealer Tony Stark, Spider-man’s struggle for self-discovery. And the stories continue: “Multiple manifestations of Captain America and Spider-man and the X-men float in elastic realities, passed from one temporary custodian to the next, and their heroic journeys are, forever, denied an end”.