Though WATCHMEN will probably continue as the main touchstone for many readers regarding the talents of Alan Moore, MARVELMAN-- renamed MIRACLEMAN in its first and subsequent American reprints-- may carry more cultural weight in the long run. When the character first appeared in the first issue of Great Britain's WARRIOR magazine (1982), Moore's idea of examining the superhero in more realistic terms was far from new, as evinced by the 1970s works of creators like Steve Gerber (for DEFENDERS) and Ross Andru (for THE FLASH)-- to say nothing of the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN of the 1960s.
What Moore did was to up the game. Lee, Gerber and Andru all remained firmly within the ethos of melodramatic entertainment, but Moore created a sociological and psychological myth of the superhero that embraced the dominant critical attitude he'd apparently grown up with: that of literary modernism.
In this essay I touched on the salient differences of modernism and post-modernism as regards popular culture, so when I define Moore as a modernist, I'm thinking primarily in terms of my distinction that "modernism was essentially tied to a realistic paradigm not appreciably different from that of representational realism, and that post-modernism was in essence a reaction against that realistic paradigm."
In short, though Moore did not invent the idea of "the realistic superhero," he brought the idea in line with one particular philosophical outlook: that of rejecting the fantasy-appeal of violence and regarding it as a violation of "real" human values. Though not all literary modernist authors favored this view-- Jack London being a major exception-- it's a common trope throughout the early 20th century. A cogent example would be Simone Weil's 1939 essay THE ILIAD, OR THE POEM OF FORCE, whose radical interpretation of Homer's classic epic was grounded in a rejection of the credo of "force" that had plunged the world into a Second World War.
The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.
In old interviews Moore stated that in his MIRACLEMAN work he was seeking to exorcise the part of him that loved the "fascist power-fantasies" of the 1950s "Marvelman," of which MIRACLEMAN was a more "adult" reboot. Throughout the first large arc of the story crafted by Moore and various artists, the inhuman "force" which Miracleman incarnates-- as well as his fellow "monster" Kid Miracleman-- is treated as a source of horror rather than as an occasion for juvenile excitement. Moore's "overthought," as I've employed the term here, is clearly to interrogate the genre of superheroes for its love of "force before which man's flesh shrinks away," as Weil puts it. In many respects, Moore's tone sounds not unlike that of Frederic Wertham, decrying outrageous fantasies in favor of humble normalcy.
And yet, despite the mediocrity of this "overthought," Moore was-- and possibly still is-- too much of an artist not to allow for a deeper "underthought," in which he can still see superheroes and supervillains as transcendent presences. Thus we get this authorial observation during the city-smashing battle between Miracleman and his opposite number, Kid Miracleman.
They are titans, and we will never understand the alien inferno that blazes in the furnace of their souls. We are only human. We will never grasp their hopes, their despair, never comprehend the blistering rage that informs each devastating blow… We will never know the destiny that howls in their hearts, never know their pain, their love, their almost sexual hatred… …And perhaps we will be the less for that.
This poetic aside does not nullify the thrust of Moore's modernist critique, of course. In the "real world," superheroes are not made by stalwart young chaps being given powers by saintly old wizards. Such expenditures can only come from the government, and the government only makes such expenditures in the name of war-technology. That said, Moore can't quite resist the allure of a key trope of superhero fiction: the "supervillain-as-master-manipulator." The man responsible for turning an ordinary English bloke into an Aryan god is not a faceless bureaucrat, but the closest reality can come to a "super-villain:" an obsessed schemer whose whole project is to use the "superman technology" as a way of gaining personal immortality. The villain can only do all this through one of the most popular tropes in modernism: that of "everything you know is wrong"-- in this case, causing ordinary bloke Mike Moran to become consubstantial with Miracleman.
By now it should be obviously that I'm passing over the specific permutations of Moore's plot, with his confused double-identity hero and his no-less-confused wife, for the key to A DREAM OF FLYING lies in Moore's "Readers' Digest" version of Friedrich Nietzsche. Put bluntly, I don't think Moore read the German philosopher with any great insight. Nevertheless, as a teller of fictional stories, he's allowed to bowdlerize, as long as what he produces is a *good story.* Nietzsche serves the same purpose for Moore that he did for Wertham: he's a name everyone knows as a proponent of a "superman philosophy."
Happily, Moore only selects one or two actual quotes from the philosopher: like Wertham, Moore's real target is capital-F fascism. Both of the main villains of the arc-- "opposite number" Kid Miracleman and master manipulator Doctor Gargunza-- are strongly associated with Nazis. In the case of the former, he rants that "the real era of the Overman is here." Gargunza, though he is of Mexican nationality, ends up working under the Fuhrer himself, not to mention enjoying kaffeeklatches with famed "Nazi philosopher" Martin Heidegger, whose only purpose in the story seems to be as a stand-in for Nietzsche. Gargunza defects to England-- possibly a comment from Moore on the alacrity with which Allied nations accepted ex-Nazis into their midst. In Old Blighty the unscrupulous scientist comes in contact with the alien technology that will make the Miracleman project possible. Thus, as Moore points out at least twice, Gargunza is in a philosophical sense the "father" of Miracleman, but he hopes to become a "son" by impressing his brain-engrams upon the persona of the infant offspring of Miracleman and Mike Moran's wife.
The "Flying" arc ends with Mike Moran escaping a trap by Gargunza-- a trap which, like those of most super-villains, is entirely unnecessary, compared to the ease of shooting the vulnerable alter ego in the head. Moran manages to re-assert his Miracleman persona. First he kills various thugs working for Gargunza, all of whom seem to be practicing modern Nazis ("Forty years we have waited for you, for the first of the blonde gods that would replace us"), and then the hero executes Gargunza while Moore's captions invoke the "Star Light Star Bright" verse.
I don't take seriously Moore's political take on superhero psychology; while it's deeper than that of Steve Gerber, it's still fairly shallow. I do, however, regard him as a leading creator in the modernist tradition-- and my next mythcomic will show how one can examine some of the same content through a more "postmodern" lens.