Alan Moore tends to leave very deep footprints in his non-creator-owned work. His run on “Swamp Thing” still reverberates to this day whenever someone tries a new take on the character. The short stories he told with Batman and Superman still stand as some of the most memorable ones featuring the characters. Even his run on “Wild C.A.T.S.” stands as one of the few good things to come out of the endless parade of crap that was 90’s Image superhero titles. Then you have “Miracleman” which stood as one of the great revisionist superhero epics of the 80’s that still holds up well today. The final volume also served as a transformative narrative that left the series in much different shape than when it began with Miracleman and his companions becoming virtual Gods on Earth. How do you follow up something like that? Who would be crazy enough to try?
In case the title of this review wasn’t obvious enough, the answer to that second question is Neil Gaiman. These days he’s a living legend in the industry, but he had only been writing “Sandman” for a few months when this series hit the stands. That he would be following up Moore on this series seems, in retrospect, to be an unbelievable stroke of good fortune. However, Gaiman’s run was never finished as only eight issues were published before “Miracleman’s” publisher Eclipse went bankrupt and the rights entered a legal purgatory for the next couple of decades. With Marvel having finally sorted them out, we can now expect to see the completion of the epic the writer started with artist Mark Buckingham.
Eventually, at any rate. Their second volume, “The Silver Age,” was supposed to have started being reprinted by now with the first all-new story to debut in issue #3. These three issues have since been cancelled to be re-solicited at a later date. Frustrating, to be sure, given that people have been waiting decades to find out how the story will end only to have that promise snatched away from them again. I imagine that the reason for this is something along the lines of Gaiman suddenly realizing that, “All of the issues of ‘The Golden Age’ have been reprinted? Oh shit! I guess I’d better get started on finishing this!” After all, the writer did cop to being the main reason for the long delays between issues of “The Sandman: Overture.” That series turned out to be well worth the wait so I’m not too concerned with this latest delay.
Yet how does “The Golden Age” hold up after all these years? Not quite as well as Moore’s work, it has to be said. Gaiman provides an interesting and thought-provoking look at the new world Miracleman has created with his fellow superbeings with the six loosely connected stories here. The problem is that there’s this dissonance between what we’re clearly told is the best of times and the melancholy, occasionally tragic experiences of the characters in these stories. That may even be the point here, except that it casts a depressing cloud over the inventive scenarios cooked up by Gaiman and the stunning artistic versatility displayed by Buckingham here.
Take the first real story after the prologue, “A Prayer and Hope” which focuses on a man who is climbing Miracleman’s citadel along with three other pilgrims in order to pray to their new God. It’s a demanding journey filled with strange sights and still remarkable that it exists at all. Here we have the act of communication with an ostensibly divine being (in the context of the story at least) made real and tangible, even afflicted by bureaucracy. In this case, other humans have decided that it’s safest for people to go up and pray in groups of four. When the man and what’s left of his group meets Miracleman at the top and their prayers are heard, the abstract one is granted while the materialistic and more personal one is denied.
Is this a statement on the limits of Miracleman’s power or his decision on how things should be? Subsequent stories indicate that the latter statement is more likely the case. In any event, we have the volume starting off with a story that, after telling us that humanity exists in a “Golden Age” right here and now, makes it explicitly clear that it’s one where not everyone is happy. War, disease, and poverty may be things of the past in this utopia, but happiness is still something that you’re going to have to work on yourself.
Gaiman continues to work that theme throughout the stories that follow in this collection. Whether it’s about the young man who met Miracleman when he was a boy and winds up finding the right girl through the new matchmaking program, the man looking for the perfect woman who thinks he’s found her in Miraclewoman, a resurrected Andy Warhol striking up an unlikely relationship with the similarly returned Emil Gargunza, or the woman director who tries to balance being a mother to a normal boy and a super-intelligent Miraclebaby, they’re all struggling to find some kind of happiness in this fantastic world. A lot of the scenarios Gaiman creates for these characters are interesting to see unfold either from a narrative or artistic perspective. The underworld where famous personalities live again is one such example as it expands upon something Moore set up in the previous volume while potentially foreshadowing a future plot point. Because resurrecting Gargunza in the hopes of rehabilitating him is something that’s sure to pan out well for everyone involved.
Also, I was hoping that Winter was the exception, but with the introduction of Mist here it’s plainly obvious that Miraclebabies are CREEPY no matter who’s writing them.
I guess my main problem with what Gaiman is doing here is that he keeps hitting that same note of uneasiness in this utopia over and over again. Even in episodes like “Spy Story” which have genuine cathartic moments of hopefulness, the writer can’t seem to resist closing them out with an indication that things haven’t really improved. In actuality, he’s carrying on in spirit from that uneasy note at the end of Moore’s run where Miracleman is left wondering if he has done the right thing after all of his remarkable achievements still have his ex-wife rejecting him. Yet the repetitive nature of the sentiment that people are living in the best of times, only not really, gets old after a while and started to drag on my enjoyment of these stories..
Something that doesn’t wear out its welcome in this volume is the ever-changing art of Buckingham. I’m most familiar with his work as the regular artist on “Fables” for the majority of its run, where he turned in consistently appealing work that struck a great balance between its mundane and fantastic aspects. His work on “The Golden Age” is on a whole other level. Buckingham starts off with conventional painted and pencil art in the first couple of stories with elements of caricature and offbeat stylization creeping in around the edges. Then Buckingham starts departing from convention with the 80’s art deco look of “Skin Deep,” giving Miraclewoman the otherworldly goddess look that the story demands in an effortless manner. From there we get comic-strip-esque takes on kids in a playground that transition at the end in magnificently creepy fashion to a riff on former “Miracleman” artist John Totleben’s style. Appropriate given that the specter of Kid Miracleman hangs over that story. Buckingham also gives the title’s underworld a haunting stencil-ized look and appropriates Warhol’s work in a fittingly arty manner for this story. The man’s versatility in the stories here is frankly amazing. I mean, I knew he was good but after seeing his art here it feels like he was just taking it easy all those years while working on “Fables.” Buckingham sets the bar for himself so high here that I worry about subsequent volumes coming off as ordinary in their artistic presentation.
We shall see about that, though, when they finally arrive. There is a glimpse into what Gaiman originally had planned for his three-volume run on the title back when he first started in the supplemental material for this volume. It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that the third volume was going to be called “The Dark Age” with its three-word description being, “Things go bad.” After reading the stories in this volume, it feels like the writer is stating the obvious there. Whether or not he can make it interesting, it’s certainly possible. I think Gaiman is one of the all-time greats and if anyone can make a successful return to a series that they had to stop writing after a couple decades, it’s him. That still doesn’t change the fact that this volume represents one of his lesser efforts as a writer.