Before his own Watchmen, before Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, there was 1982’s Marvelman, Englishman Alan Moore’s milestone deconstruction of the American superhero.
If you ever need an example of why real art requires an outsider’s viewpoint, this is it. Moore took his loving familiarity with comic book conventions — the superhuman powers, the magic words, the skintight costumes, the youthful sidekicks, the secret identities, the archenemies — and juxtaposed it all in his imagination with mundane reality. The result was not the usual parody, but aesthetic insights that cut in more than one direction.
Using the American dreamscape to expose the American collective unconscious, Moore also explored a philosophical theme that paralleled Plato, who had suggested that with great power comes catastrophe. And Moore did it with a character who had an impeccable, if convoluted, pedigree. Marvelman was the son of Captain Marvel, the grandson of Superman.
When the Superman-DC lawsuit finally put Captain Marvel out of business here in 1953, his British publisher L. Miller & Son saw no reason why such a great concept should die there. Writer-artist Mick Anglo replaced “Shazam!” with “Kimota!” and created Marvelman, clearly a pastiche Captain Marvel, in 1954. The feature and spinoffs ran until 1963.
The character was juvenile even by 1950s standards, pretty thin stuff, but Alan Moore’s reimagining was anything but.
Through sheer luck, I acquired the first issues of the British comic magazine Warrior, seemingly rare in the U.S. I realized immediately that here we had something familiar yet completely original, that the ground had shifted under the superhero fans’ feet. Marvel’s Ultimate titles and the whole twilight atmosphere of today’s American superhero comics can be traced back and credited to that obscure black-and-white British magazine. Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon and Damon Lindelof all owe Moore a debt.
In the middle of a terrorist attack, seedy, migraine-ridden journalist Micky Moran sees the oddly familiar word “atomic” backwards through a glass door panel, mutters it and explodes into the god that he had forgotten he was. His wife is incredulous and the authorities are ungrateful. (An understatement. Their term for the superheroes is “the monsters.”)
Moore’s flair for dramatic surprises that amplify his themes appears throughout the series. When his wife expresses concern for his safety, Micky tells her not to worry — nothing can hurt him, he’s a superhero. Then, in an elevator, strangers hand him a baby, point out that he can’t transform without incinerating the child, and shoot him point blank. As Micky sinks into darkness, he is mocked by his own swaggering words…