Sunday, October 26, 2008

Comics Review: Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham, Miracleman: The Golden Age

Miracleman was Alan Moore's first major work, and it features the basic approach to story material that defines his style. As I wrote in my review of his work on the strip (click here to read), he identifies the central discourses that inform a concept, and he then reconstructs the concept in ways that critique the old discourses and develop new resonances. In Miracleman, he recognized that an aspect of a superhero's appeal is that such a character speaks to a desire for divine intervention; one some level, people hope for a god to resolve the conflicts and injustices of the world. Moore crafted the story's conclusion to play off of this: he had Miracleman abandon all connection to his earthbound life and assume the role of a god. The character took over the world's reins of power, reordered human society, and brought about a utopia with no material or psychological wants. Moore had reimagined the concept of a superhero as divine agent probably about as far as it could be done, and he seemed to leave his successor on the strip, Neil Gaiman, with absolutely nowhere to go.

Gaiman's response to the challenge he'd been left was probably the only reasonable one. He didn't try to build on Moore's ideas, and he certainly didn't rehash them. Miracleman: The Golden Age, illustrated by Mark Buckingham, takes an approach to Moore's material that is best described as tangential. It borrows the milieu Moore created, but the characters and story material are all but entirely Gaiman's. The book is a collection of sketches and short stories dealing with the lives of everyday people in Miracleman's utopian world, and, unfortunately, most of it isn't very good.

There are some highlights, though. The best strip in the collection, "Spy Story," is told from the point of view of an erstwhile British spy whose mind is so caught up in the paranoia and suspicion of intrigue that it's driven her mad. It's a sharp, dynamic piece that builds tension by counterpointing the reader's recognition of the character's irrationality with concern that her terror is justified. Gaiman develops the suspense to a fever pitch, and he then resolves the story with a clever anticlimax. "Trends" is enjoyable as well, although it isn't so much a story as an entertaining scene of oneupmanship and flirtation among a group of teens. The strip isn't quite as charming as the early Jaime Hernandez stories it pays homage to, but it's pleasant enough. However, the rest of the material is quite dreary--one pointless study in alienation or self-absorption after another.

The major problem with most of the strips is that Gaiman seems to think that once he's struck a tone his job is done. It's not enough for a story to be somber; unless there's some dynamic at work in the narrative and the characterizations, it isn't going to carry much resonance or interest. Gaiman often tries to end the stories on an epiphanic note, but his work here is a far cry from James Joyce's in Dubliners--he lurches into the concluding insights about the characters and situations, and they just aren't that interesting. In fact, they're often quite banal, such as a woman whose family is falling apart finding solace in a children's-book fantasy, or an emotionally and intellectually vapid artist coming to the realization that a remarkably disagreeable acquaintance can't stand his company.

Gaiman tries his hand at confessional narrative in the poorly-titled "Screaming," but he can't make it work the way people like Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, or Joe Matt do, largely because his protagonist isn't idiosyncratic enough to be engaging. The only narrative tension comes from the context: the main character relates parts of his life story to the girl he's just lost his virginity to, but he's so oblivious to her that I kept waiting for her to get fed up with his self-absorption and leave. (I was disappointed.) Gaiman doesn't even make his relatively eccentric protagonists work in narrative terms. The main character of "Skin Deep" is a recluse whose obsession with physical beauty blocks his ability to relate to women emotionally, and one waits for him to set his attitude aside and learn to love--it's an obvious conclusion. But all he ends up doing is reconciling himself to a dull, loveless relationship with a physically plain woman. One doesn't know why one should care about this fellow, and I don't think Gaiman knows either. He doesn't bother to suitably craft his ideas.

The weaker examples of Gaiman's work here aren't entirely devoid of interest. He has a good ear for dialogue, and he knows how to pace a comics story effectively through the juxtapositions of text and image. He also has a good partner in illustrator Mark Buckingham, who often particularizes the styles for the stories. The Jaime Hernandez look of "Trends" is perfect for the piece, and the Xerox-abstracted photorealism of "Spy Story" heightens that strip's noirish, nightmarish tone. (I wouldn't be surprised to discover that the art in this story was a major influence on the work of Alex Maleev; the stylistic similarity is striking.) Buckingham's most compelling work is featured in "Notes from the Underground," where he makes dynamic use of a variety of artistic styles, including the look of German Expressionist woodcuts and, most spectacularly, the appropriation-repetition approach of Andy Warhol. He's a strong illustrator, and his versatility shines throughout.

The book's better aspects aside, though, I can't help but feel indifferent to this material being kept out of print for legal reasons. It's infuriating for Moore's Miracleman work to be forcibly consigned to the pit of the collector's market--it's an influential and landmark work in a major genre of popular narrative. Gaiman's efforts on this material, however, are poorly developed for the most part, and even the stronger pieces are so irrelevant to the strip's core concepts that they feel like they've been shoehorned in. The legal mess involving Miracleman's ownership has kept a lot of interested readers from seeing this book, but at least they can take some consolation in that they're not missing much.


Clint H said...

Sooo... how long ago did he write these stories?

Robert Stanley Martin said...

The copyright date on the graphic novel collection is 1992. If I remember correctly, the strips began appearing in the pamphlet series in 1990.