The Miracleman series is easily one of the most interesting yet frustrating series to ever grace the comic medium and is one that I have talked about at length here on Comic Book Spotlight. As covered in previous articles, the books’ ownership rights history is an epic saga of crooked businessmen trying to screw over creators and each other over names and trademarks and relatively small sums of money. Then later on, the actual creators ended up doing the same thing, resulting in a twelve year long legal battle between Neil Gaiman and Todd MacFarlane and is a prime example of how sometimes life can be stranger then fiction. But then you read the books themselves and find them a bit wanting.
Reading and analyzing Alan Moore’s run on the series was, without a doubt, the most frustrating and infuriating thing that I have ever had to do here on Comic Book Spotlight. While his run undoubtedly had some highpoints, the first book actually felt like you were reading the beta version of Watchmen and had every creative hiccup that you would expect from someone who was tackling this kind of subject matter for the first time. Book Two, in all honest, was very good but, like Book One, it will never escape the stigma of being a kind of beta version of Watchmen as many of the themes and ideas that are present in this book were perfected in Moore’s magnum opus. Book Three was perhaps the most pretentious piece of crap that I have ever read from an otherwise great writer and is one that fills me with such frustrating rage that I cannot help but yell whenever I talk about it. Yet somehow all three of these books are far more interesting, enjoyable, readable and visually appealing then Neil Gaiman’s first book in the series, Miracleman Book Four: The Golden Age.
The book takes place after the events of Olympusbetween 1987 and 1994 after Miracleman effectively took over the world and turned it into an apparent paradise and focuses on a number of relatively ordinary people and how their lives have been affected by this new order for good and ill. Sadly, that’s about it and turns out to be one of the book’s largest faults. The biggest problem in this regard is the stark contrast between what the reader expects out of a Miracleman book and the story that Gaiman and artist Mark Buckingham wanted to tell. Up until this point the series had been all about superheroes in a relatively realistic world and the consequences that they ultimately wrought upon it. After having read the first three books it is not entirely unreasonable for a reader to expect more in this regard and see some of the more long-term consequences of Miracleman’s actions. The story that Gaiman wanted to tell, on the other hand, is effectively an anthology series about the lives of six different people in this so called Golden Age.
This, in all honesty, actually isn’t the worst idea for a story that takes place within this universe. It gives the reader a chance to breath and take a break from all the epic struggles of superheroes and reflect on what these actions can and do mean for the common man in more subtle ways. The problem is that when it comes to superhero stories, deconstructions or not, these kind of tales are always better off as subplots, one shots, or bookends and certainly not as the main driving force of the entire series. For example, in Alan Moore’s Watchmen the narrative would occasionally shift over to a New York news stand and focus on two characters who happened to be named Bernie. In this part of the story the creative team gave us some clear insight as to what the everyman thought of the situations regarding Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan but never dominated entire chapters of the book, ensuring that the main plot with the heroes remained its primary focus. Unfortunately, this book flips this idea around and puts the relatively dull everyman story front and center while the theoretically more interesting Miracleman material is shoved to the bookend of each issue. As a result you can’t help but feel as if you’re reading an extended subplot that somehow ended up taking the majority of the book.
The Golden Age is not at all helped by the fact that the individual stories are not particularly interesting. You may recall that at the end of Book Three the Earth had been turned into a paradise with most of its problems having been resolved. What this book tries to do is tell us stories of people whose life problems weren’t necessarily resolved by Miracleman’s takeover. The problem is that none of these stories are particularly interesting nor do you ever really connect with any of the characters. Each story more or less sticks to a formula where we are introduced to the protagonist at the start of the story, learn about his or her connection to Miracleman and only at the very end do we really learn anything about them in terms of motivation or personality. For example, in the first chapter of the book we are introduced to an unnamed protagonist who makes a journey to the top of Miracleman’s palace to ask the new God of Earth for a boon. What is the boon you may ask? Well, as it turns out, his daughter was gravely injured during Miracleman’s brawl with Kid Miracleman towards the end of Olympus and is now in a coma as a result. At the end of his journey he asks Miracleman to give her one of the new bodies he is creating for the people of Earth he feels are worthy enough to join his pantheon. Miracleman flat out refuses and departs, leaving the man sobbing and broken and is something that should have hit the reader like a ton of bricks the way it obviously hit the main character.
The problem is that you don’t know what the boon is and how much it means to the protagonist until the very end of the story and is the only real characteristic we see from him. It doesn’t hint at this in anyway nor is the reader told that he even had a daughter before this point. We don’t learn anything about him before he made his journey and we don’t see or learn anything about this daughter outside of the reveal. In fact, the vast majority of the story’s text is mainly devoted to telling us what the palace looks like and a few world building bits here and there and very rarely devotes any time to developing its characters in any meaningful way. As a result, the reader lacks any real emotional attachment or connection to the character. Because of this, when we finally learn what the boon is, Miracleman’s rejection of his request doesn’t hit nearly as hard as it was obviously intended to nor do we really care that the man didn’t get what he wanted. The rest of the stories, sadly, follow a similar style with some being slightly more successful than others. There is enough text to tell us about the protagonists’ own personal world and current situations. Unfortunately, we don’t learn enough about them to really connect with them and as a result we don’t really care about their personal situation and how they have learned to deal with it by the story’s end.
The art direction of the book suffers in a similar way thematically. Not unlike the story, the art of the Miracleman has a very distinguished look that longtime readers are more than likely used to at this point. Unfortunately, artist Mark Buckingham decided to scrap that original look for a more stylized approach. Each story has its own unique aesthetic and changes quite dramatically depending on what kind of story is being told. And, like the premise of the plot, it is something that was an interesting idea in theory but the execution leaves something to be desired.
Once again, the first issue is the best example as to why the book doesn’t work. The story is supposed to be this epic climb to the top of the largest building in the world with the characters seeing all that the building has to offer. The problem is that we never see the scope of the building in the art itself. Every panel is limited to showing us small bits of the palace and lots of close ups on particular areas but never gives us any indication as to just how big the place really is. The drawings themselves are full of strange, unnecessary details in both the backgrounds and the characters’ faces that end up distracting the reader more than anything else.
Later chapters also suffer from the more stylized approaches but in different ways. The second issue’s main story for example is one that has the opposite problem as Issue #1, where the images are so lacking in details that end up looking bland. Issues #3 and #5’s main stories feature art that is, quite frankly, visually repellant and an eyesore to look it. In fact, the only time this stylized approach really works is during the fourth issue were it mainly centers around a woman reading her stepson a bedtime story, where the bizarre, outlandish look actually makes sense. The stuff that happens in the real world, however, is just as annoyingly detailed as it is in the main story of Issue #1. While I may understand the artistic purpose behind it, it doesn’t stop it from being anymore of an eyesore to look at.
On the whole, Miracleman Book Four: The Golden Age is a massive disappointment on all fronts. It lacks the novelty of seeing a great writer cut his teeth in the genera that Book Onehad. It lacks the narrative and artistic brilliance of Book Two and fails to get one worked up in an insulted frenzy the way Book Three does. It’s just an all-around subpar book that fails to get the emotions going in a series that has always been known how to get the blood flowing one way or the other. Will this pay off in the long term? Who can say? The second book in Gaiman’s run, The Silver Age, has been delayed numerous times over the past couple of years and as of right now doesn’t even have an official release date over at Marvel. All we can hope for is that it turns out to be more engaging than this disappointing turn for the author.
Trey Griffeth is the Head Writer of The Nerd Hub's Comic Book Spotlight section as well as a contributing writer to Video Game Spotlight. In addition to his work with The Nerd Hub, he is also a Staff Writer for Heroic Hollywood.