The first thing people’s minds will go to of when they think of superheroes will (in about 95% of cases) probably either be Adam West’s portrayal of Batman in the 60s campfest (co-starring Burt Ward as a painfully naive Robin), or Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Siegel and Shuster’s Big Blue Boy Scout, Superman.
I have nothing against Reeve’s Superman. In fact the first two movies (as long as you watch the Donner cut of Superman II) are fantastic films and, in many ways, still stand up today.
Heck, I’ll even argue for Adam West’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Dark Knight. What can I say? Even someone as cynical as me has to appreciate a film and TV series that prides itself on being as ridiculous as possible (watch Batman: The Motion Picture and tell me that they aren’t reveling in taking the camp and sub-moron level writing of the TV series to new levels… Shark Repellent Bat-Spray? I rest my case).
But for decades, literally decades, there have been many writers who have been battling against these stereotypes of the superhero in modern culture. Notable authors\titles include Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, or genre-bending runs on Doom Patrol and Animal Man, Neil [insert totally heterosexual dreamy sigh here] Gaiman’s miniseries Black Orchid, Frank Miller’s early Batman work (Batman Year One especially), and (probably most importantly) Alan Moore’s ultra-violent paean to the modern-day superhero, Watchmen.
But before even Watchmen (published by DC Comics in 1986-87) came Marvelman. The year was 1982 and the character Marvelman has been missing from comics for the better part of two decades when Alan Moore revived the character.
You may be thinking to yourself… “Self, the base of the name ‘Marvelman’ reminds me of a certain publisher of comics that I won’t mention by name for fear they might sue me into the ground for daring to even use the term ‘Marvel.'” (SHIT!)
And you’d be right. So right, in fact, that when the character was revived, Marvel Comics sued over the name and thus, Miracleman came to be. There’s a whole fantastic story that goes before even this…
First came Captain Marvel, but a DC Comics lawsuit came down (after Captain Marvel started outselling Superman) necessitating the change to Marvelman. Later, DC Comics would acquire the character of Captain Marvel, but (in what can only be considered a hilarious bit of irony) is forced to change any mention of “Captain Marvel” in any sort of promotional manner (i.e.: covers of comic books), so any time the character in marketing or covers, he is referred to as “Shazam.”
Confused yet? Too long? Captain Marvel disappears, here comes Marvelman. But then he becomes Miracleman. And now we’re back in 1982. Marvelman basically didn’t exist since 1963 and the earlier comics were, at best, a thinly veiled knock off of Superman, with plenty of “golly gees” thrown in for good measure. Why was Alan Moore, erstwhile writer for 2000AD and current writer of V for Vendetta writing something so full of… pep?
Reading the first issue on Moore’s run provides even more confusion. The first fifteen pages are filled with odd phrases… Exon Ray, Chrono-cruiser, Science Gestapo… Oh Christ on a crutch, did that guy just say, “Holy Macaroni!”?
Knee-jerk reaction? Something in the vein of… What the fuck is this shit?
I knew it was based on comics from the 50s, but it read… well, like comics from the 50s. But patience is a virtue, and often rewarded with cash and women. Or something like that. A couple more pages and… oh, it was just a dream of mild-mannered reporter Michael Moran.
Michael is your typical guy. He works as a freelancer and is suffering from both massive migraine headaches and impotency. What? Well my doctor says… Oh, I’ve divulged too much…
Thanks to a set of miraculous coincidences, though, Michael is transformed into Marvelman, suddenly remembering a previous life where he saved the world from countless threats, alongside his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman. Michael’s wife laughs at his recounted stories of his adventures, upsetting Marvelamn.
But honestly, who wouldn’t laugh? After years of deregulation and union oppression in England, the doe-eyed, golly-gee-willikers style of superhero coming to save the day must have seemed ridiculous to someone as independent and rebellious as Moore. With the first issue of Marvelman, Moore set many conceptions of superheroes (not to mention what superhero comics could be) on their ear and he used his next 15 issues to further deconstruct the idea of superheroes.
Now the bad news… if it sounds interesting… you’re kinda out of luck. The original series is long out of print and no longer available in any affordable way (well, at least not physical copies anyhow). Years of copyright and other legal battles have locked the character up for almost 20 years and show no sign of letting up. But if you find the issues… read them. They’re among the best of a writer who has had many, many fantastic stories.