The return of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore's Miracleman

Feature Seb Patrick
15 Oct 2013 - 06:28

Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore's British superhero is making a comeback! Here's everything you need to know about Miracleman...

At the weekend's New York Comic-Con, Marvel pulled a huge and unexpected announcement out of their hats, with the news that starting in January 2014, they're going to be bringing back into print – and publishing the previously unseen conclusion of – Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman's 1980s masterpiece Miracleman (aka Marvelman). 

The news wasn't entirely out of the blue – ever since Marvel announced in 2009 that they had obtained the rights to publish the character, there's been hope among fans that the tangled mess of rights might be sorted out and the series would return – but the timing was certainly a surprise. Marvel have made a number of other major announcements at NYCC – many of them teased in advance – but things have been so quiet on the Miracleman front over the last two or three years that few in the industry expected such conclusive news was on the horizon.
So, what is Miracleman, and why is it such a big deal that it's coming back?

Marvelman – as he was originally known – was one of the first and most notable British superheroes; and, appropriately enough given what would come later, had his origins in messy copyright litigation. The UK publisher L. Miller and Son had had reasonable success reprinting Captain Marvel stories from the US – but when that character's owners, Fawcett Comics, were sued by DC over the Big Red Cheese's similarity to Superman, the supply of new material dried up (the first in a series of ironies, of course, would be that DC eventually obtained the rights to Captain Marvel themselves).

Len Miller hence turned to writer/artist Mick Anglo, who quickly whipped up a knock-off of Captain Marvel so that the same style of stories could be continued. So Billy Batson became Mike Moran, who said the special word "KIMOTA" ("atomic" backwards) rather than Batson's "SHAZAM", to become the imaginatively-named Marvelman. While there were some differences – Moran's powers derived from science rather than magic – there were clear analogues throughout the comic, from Kid Marvelman (Captain Marvel Jr) to the evil Doctor Gargunza (Doctor Sivana).

The Miller/Anglo comics ended in 1963, and the story might have ended there too – had Dez Skinn, editor of a new monthly anthology title called Warrior, not been casting around for eye-catching ideas in the early 1980s. Capitalising on the publicity rush of reinventing a classic British comics character, Skinn hired Alan Moore – who was also contributing V For Vendetta to the magazine – and artist Garry Leach to put their own spin on the concept.

Moore was fascinated by the idea of exploring a grown-up version of Moran who could no longer remember his adventures as Marvelman – and this was the starting point for what quickly became a staggeringly metatextual take on superhero comics, rooted as much in psychological drama as in flashy fight sequences. Moore explored many of the themes that would characterise his later work – such as the idea of putting superpowered characters in a more "realistic" setting, as well as adding a dark undertone to the brightly-coloured superheroics of the 1950s and 1960s. In Moore's story, it transpired that Marvelman was the product of an experiment to try and create superheroes – using otherdimensional technology to grant him a powerful second body, and implanting in his brain tales of 1950s-style superhero adventures (in other words, the Anglo stories).

If the legacy of Moore's Marvelman began and ended with the Warrior run, then it would still be significant – but it was what happened after Skinn's magazine ceased publication that elevated the series to one of the most mythologically significant in comics history. An American publisher, Eclipse, opted to carry on the series – first recolouring and reprinting the Warrior strips, before then allowing Moore and a succession of new artists to continue the story. Due to the objections of Marvel Comics, however – who argued that due to their own trademark, and despite Anglo's character pre-dating the company by almost a decade, the word "Marvel" could not be used on the cover of another publisher's superhero comic – the character had to be renamed "Miracleman", with the original strips being relettered to follow suit.

In the Eclipse issues, Moore pushed the boundaries even more – as well as peeling back the character's origin yet further, he gave him a daughter (in an issue, drawn by Rick Veitch, that attracted controversy for its deliberately graphic – and medically authentic – birth scenes) whose development accelerated such that her own powers far exceeded her father's. The final "volume" of Moore's stories, Olympus, was drawn by the brilliant John Totleben, and focused on the return of the now-evil Kid Miracleman, who devastated the city of London (in another issue that, by the standards of the time, was shockingly graphic and intense) out of nothing other than sheer boredom before being defeated at great cost.

Moore left the series with issue #16, and had established a status quo that – without giving too many spoilers away – would surely be impossible for another writer to follow, presenting itself as the natural consequence of superbeings with godlike powers having to co-exist alongside mere mortals in the real world. His handpicked successor, however, was no ordinary writer – and Neil Gaiman was able to explore life in the world that Moore left him in the six fascinating issues that made up the arc The Golden Age.

Gaiman's follow-up arc, The Silver Age, was drawn by Mark Buckingham, and focused more on Miracleman himself than his prior issues had done. Only two issues of it were published, however, with issue #25 making it out of the gates in August 1993, prior to Eclipse's collapse and bankruptcy.

You'd naturally suspect that an unfinished comic by Neil Gaiman would be hot property for someone to snap up in the mid 1990s, and might therefore be surprised that it's yet to be continued or even reprinted following Eclipse's demise. The reasons why it hasn't been, however, are a story almost as long and complex as the one that took place in Miracleman's pages – one which can be read in more detail here. To summarise, however, it began when Todd MacFarlane, of Spawn and Image Comics fame, purchased the assets of Eclipse at auction in 1996, for around $40,000.

At this point, it was commonly held that the rights to the character of Miracleman were owned 70% by Eclipse Comics (who had gradually purchased shares that had been owned at various times by Skinn, Leach, Alan Davis and Warrior's publisher Quality Communications) and 15% each by Gaiman and Buckingham (who had shared between them the 30% originally given to Gaiman by Moore). MacFarlane believed, therefore, that he held sufficient rights – along with assorted trademarks the Eclipse purchase had given him – to use Miracleman in his own comics, which he announced his intention to do. Gaiman, naturally, disputed this – and so began a decade-long wrangle that also drew in a dispute between the pair over various characters created by Gaiman for use in Spawn.

This sitation remained at an impasse until 2009, when Marvel Comics (ironically enough) announced that they had purchased the rights to the character. The company had taken a much more "friendly" stance towards Marvelman/Miracleman ever since Joe Quesada had become editor-in-chief in 2000. Quesada hired Gaiman to write the series 1602, with the intent of the fees being used to help pay Gaiman's legal fees in his battle against MacFarlane, and made public pronouncements to the effect that if Gaiman could sort out the rights situation and get the series back into print, then Marvel – under his watch at least – would not object to the original name being used. It was therefore little surprise, however, when they eventually took the lead – with Gaiman's blessing – in actually bringing the saga towards a conclusion.

But how had they managed this? Simply put, the original shares claimed by Quality, Skinn, Moore and Leach had never been valid in the first place – it transpired that Skinn had never purchased the rights from anybody. While it was unclear exactly who should have got the rights after L. Miller and Son folded in the 1970s (and that question is disputed to this day), Marvel's belief was that they should have been held by Mick Anglo all along – a view that Moore and Gaiman agreed with. As such, Marvel paid Anglo and his representatives directly for the rights.

Even with the rights to the character seemingly established, however, there remained the question of the rights to the original stories themselves, which is why up to this point Marvel have only been able to publish stories by Anglo (reprinting stories as Marvelman Classic anthologies). From Warrior through to the Eclipse issues, all the writers and artists involved have always held the rights to their work – meaning that this work can only be reprinted with everybody's agreement. And this agreement couldn't simply be taken as read, with various of the creators being potential holdouts – and even the complication of some of the Warrior issues making use of characters from other creators' stories…

With this announcement, however, it seems that Marvel have finally straightened everything out – or, at least, they believe they have. While Alan Moore's involvement with Marvel is a delicate situation – in that he doesn't, and never wishes to, have any – and so they've agreed not to use his name in publicity, it's known that he is keen to see the series reprinted so that royalties can go to the family of Anglo (who sadly passed away in October 2011), while Gaiman and Buckingham have often spoken of their desire to complete The Silver Age and the final arc The Dark Age – which they'll now have the chance to do.

It's interesting that, despite saying a while back that they wouldn't stand in the way of the use of the name Marvelman, Marvel have been clear that they will be printing the series under the revised title – although this may have something to do with the fact that MacFarlane's claim to a trademark on that name was abandoned last year, and in practical terms, it probably makes more sense to use pages that have already been changed from "Marvelman" to "Miracleman" than it does to reletter all the newer "Miracleman" pages (particularly as some of Gaiman's issues make specific use of, and reference to, the word "miracle" thematically).

Whatever you want to call it, however, the important thing to take away from all of this is that a series that has long been only available in battered (and expensive) second-hand copies or less-than-ideal quality illegally-distributed scans is now going to be published properly once more, and so a whole new generation of readers will get to experience one of comics' great runs. And not only will those who've been waiting two decades to see how it was all going to end will get their wish, but the prospect of the modern-day Neil Gaiman essentially collaborating with his younger self on those final issues is a mouthwatering one, to boot. You might even say it's a marvel – or a miracle…

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