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On Miracleman Book Two: The Red King Syndrome – Comic Book Spotlight

            Welcome to the third part of Comic Book Spotlight’s look at the Miracleman series where we examine the history of the classic character as well as review the actual books that he was involved in.  Last time we took a look at the first volume in Alan Moore’s run on the series but ultimately found it wanting.  There were occasional moments of brilliance but was bogged down by questionable narrative choices, poor pacing and odd page layouts that made things hard to follow.  While it wasn’t a bad book by any means it was certainly a far cry from the works that tend to be associated with The Original Writer.  Thankfully today’s subject managed to eliminate all of these problems and is an all-around better crafted and more enjoyable book.  And of course, this book is Miracleman Book Two: The Red Kind Syndrome.

            The book begins sometime after the events of A Dream of Flying.  Michael and Liz Moran continue to grapple with the fact that Mike can turn into a godlike entity at will as well as the fact that she is carrying said entity’s child.  Matters, however, are greatly complicated when Doctor Emile Gargunza, the former head of the project that created Miracleman, resurfaces and kidnaps Liz and sets a decades long plan in motion for the two.  With his ally from the previous book, former British asset Evelyn Cream, Miracleman sets out to find the doctor, rescue his wife and end the life of the man who created him, unaware that Gargunza has been planning for this day for a long time.
            The first thing that the book does right is the artwork and visuals.  While the art in the previous book wasn’t necessarily bad it did at times feel rushed and seemed as if a lot of corners had to be cut in order to make deadlines.  This time around it seemed as if the artists were either taking their time with each panel or knew how to better manage their time and energy.  This is most apparent when one examines the backgrounds and foregrounds of each panel.  In the previous book they were so minimalistic that they called attention to themselves in the most negative way possible and often consisted of single color backgrounds or an environment that was just detailed enough for one to tell where the characters were but offered nothing substantial outside of this.  In this book, however, the artists were able to strike a perfect balance with the characters, backgrounds and foregrounds.  The latter two have enough details to them that they hold up under closer inspection but don’t have so much going on to where it overwhelms the panel.  In fact, whenever a panel does contain a single color background, it’s usually to make some kind of thematic point or insure that the reader’s attention is completely focused on the subject for dramatic purposes.  The art itself is also loaded with foreshadowing and little details here and there that work as sly little commentaries on the story itself.  It’s a bit difficult to write about without spoiling the book but it should suffice to say that from the visuals alone it’s pretty clear as to why Neil Gaiman and Todd MacFarlane spend over a decade fighting over the rights to these books.
            The narrative and page layout in the book is also a huge improvement over its predecessor.  The odd placement of narration boxes in-between panels, for example, are gone and is an easier read as a result.  This time around they made the wise decision to abandon or vastly improve the narrative structures A Dream of Flying sometimes employed; mainly the constant jumping from points in time as well as locations and character focus.  On the occasions that they do this it improves it in two critical ways.  The first is that the flashbacks add additional context to what is going on in the present and contributes to the narrative in meaningful ways.  The second is that it allows us to spend actual time with the characters and gives us entire little story arcs within these flashbacks that have a payoff in the present, making it all worth the effort of reading what was before just an annoying cut away from the main plot.
            This time around the writers actually allowed the artwork to tell the story.  For some reason writers in the comic industry, especially up until the 80s, had a strange habit of describing what was going on in the panel as opposed to letting the images speak for themselves.  Sometimes this would be necessary as the artwork in the Silver and Bronze Age of comics wasn’t always the best and was generally aimed at a younger audience that sometimes may have needed explanations like these.  With this series, however, that kind of explanation is completely unreasonable as the book is clearly geared more towards an adult audience and this book seemed to be more aware of that fact then A Dream of Flying.  This book actually allows the art to tell the story visually with the narration boxes being the characters’ reflections or commentary on the situation, giving us some insight into their state of mind as opposed to telling us what should already be apparent.  The narrative is also greatly helped by the fact that the narration boxes are smartly written as it truly gets the reader into the mindset of the characters, going into themes of power, religion, immortality and fatherhood that all perfectly match what the artwork in each panel.
            The book is further helped by the vastly improved panel layout.  In many of Moore’s other works such as Watchmen and The Killing Joke, the panels fully accounted for the movement of the characters, showing us exactly how they got from Point A to Point B.  While this book isn’t quite at that level it is significantly closer than its predecessor, giving us clear indications as to how the characters got to where they are and allows for a more fluid reading experience. 

             The actual plot itself, on the other hand, is something of a weak point.  In spite of all that happens in the panels and all the clever narration that goes into it, it doesn’t really amount to much more than Miracleman facing his creator and attempting to overcome him.  The story, however is another matter as it seems to really be about the development of Miracleman and how his wife is reacting to it.  In Book One we saw that he wasn’t eager to kill people and seemed to actively avoid it.  There was also a clear difference between the Mike and Miracleman personas but it seemed to be more of an odd curiosity then a definitive problem and the split identities seemed to be more or less in sync with one another.  It was also pretty apparent that even though Liz thought it was odd she really didn’t have much of a problem with the fact that her husband could turn into an invincible seven-foot-tall superhero at will.  Unfortunately, by the time the book comes to its end it’s very clear that this has changed in very serious ways.  We see that Moran, for example is more willing to use Miracleman to solve his personal problems as well as feeling increasingly inadequate as his mortal self.  Liz also begins to fully comprehend the realities of having a godlike being locked away in her husband and after the events of both books she is discovering just how dangerous and horrifying it actually is.  Miracleman himself has also clearly changed as he is clearly less willing to change back into Mike unless he absolutely as to.  By the time the book has ended whatever hesitation he had for killing has utterly vanished as he butchers several people in cold blood showing us the eventual evolutionary route this kind of character would take if he were ever introduced into a realistic environment. 
            There are, however, two major weak points in the story.  The first is the character Cream, who I suspect was meant to have a longer role in the book but was cut short due to the falling out between Moore and Warrioreditor Dez Skinn.  While there is a pretty decent build up to the character’s finale, it feels like his realization as to what working with someone like Miracleman would lead to was something that should have been drawn out over a longer period of time.  The bigger one, however, is the character of Doctor Gargunza.  While I get the impression that he was meant to be a darker version of a Gold/Silver Age evil scientist he simply comes off as too evil and seems to be made up of every evil scientist cliché that you can think of.  Early on in the book it is revealed that he was a gang leader in Central America who killed his first man at 14, a former Nazi researcher, the head of a project that actually kidnapped orphan children in order to experiment on them and plans to use an unborn baby in order to gain immortality.  In all honesty, the only way that they could have made this guy more blatantly evil is if they gave him a pitchfork and devil horns.  As a result, he can’t help but come off as a bit cartoonish for a story that is all about the moral ambiguity of superheroes and the effect that they would have on a realistic world.  It’s not at all helped by the fact that he literally exposits his entire backstory to Liz Moran for no reason beyond the fact that they needed to tell us this guy’s backstory.  While is back story isn’t uninteresting by any means you do get the feeling that it could have been better incorporated into the main narrative. 
            Despite a few flaws, The Red King Syndrome is a radical improvement over its predecessor.  The page layout is great, the pacing is fantastic, the artwork is nothing short of amazing and while the plot is nothing to write home about the actual story and development of the characters is nothing short of the work of a master and is the book where we finally see Moore’s skill in the medium come into full blossom.  It’s a great book and I guarantee you that if you were not sold by A Dream of Flying this book will make you a fan of the series. 

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Written & Co-Edited by, Trey Griffeth
Co-Edited by, Jack Flowers

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By Trey Griffeth

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.