This week saw the highly anticipated publication of Miracleman: The Silver Age #3 by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham — nearly 30 years after it was supposed to come out. It would have been the 25th issue of the acclaimed comic book series published by Eclipse Comics, if the company hadn’t been abruptly gone under, leaving the (completed!!) comic book in limbo for a long, long time. Remarkably that’s only one of the many, many publication complications this mighty superhero has faced over the years. That full epic journey is chronicled in rich detail in Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s Poisoned Chalice: The Extremely Long and Incredibly Complex Story of Marvelman (and Miracleman), and it’s a fascinating microcosm of the history of comic books and intellectual property rights.
I will do my best here to try and summarize that beautiful clusterfuck, if for not other reason than that I find it delightfully convoluted.
After DC Comics began publishing Superman, other companies came up with their own übermensches to try and compete. Fawcett Comics introduced Captain Marvel, aka Shazam, which quickly became more popular than Superman. DC sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, but the legal battle dragged on for a while. In the meantime, a British publisher called L. Miller & Sons began publishing reprints of the Shazam Captain Marvel. Eventually, DC won their lawsuit, which meant Fawcett could no longer publish Captain Marvel — which left L. Miller & Sons in a pickle. So they quickly created Marvelman as a blatant knockoff of Shazam Captain Marvel, so they could continue publishing without concern about rights or losing readership.
Seriously, it’s not subtle: instead of transforming when he says the word “Shazam!”, Marvelman’s magic word is “atomic” but backwards. They both have kid sidekicks whose names are just kid versions of the main heroes, who get their own powers by speaking the hero’s name.
Eventually, L. Miller & Sons shuttered, too; meanwhile, Marvel decided to cash in on that sweet trademark and publish their own Captain Marvel comic, which also featured a super-powered hero who transformed his body through fantastical means (in this case, bracelets instead of a magic word).
Some 15 years later, another British publisher bought the rights to Marvelman and hired Alan Moore to rejuvenate the brand … but things got complicated again when they tried to publish the Marvelman reboot in the US, thanks to Marvel. So they renamed Marvelman into Miracleman. The US publisher, Eclipse Comics, went bankrupt in 1994, shortly after Neil Gaiman took over writing duties on Miracleman. At some point, Todd MacFarlane claimed he owned the character, which led to further legal disputes, and the book and character were left in legal limbo until 2013, when Marvel bought the rights to the character formerly known as Marvelman.
(Bonus irony: shortly after publication of Miracleman, DC Comics eventually bought the rights to the entire Charlton Comics catalog, and brought in Alan Moore to reinvigorate a few of those characters including Peacemaker, Blue Beetle, The Question, and Captain Atom … which eventually turned into Watchmen. Which, in addition to being a great comic, was also the first of many instances where the comic book publishing industry would totally fuck over Alan Moore. Comics, everybody!)
I was at the Comic-Con when Marvel made their big announcement that they had obtained the rights to Miracleman. I was very confused; I was not familiar with the character, nor had I realized Alan Moore had worked on it, and didn’t understand why anyone would care about this blatant Shazam ripoff. Writer/editor Sam Thielman recently wrote a piece about Miracleman for Slate that made me curious enough to finally check it out — and holy shit, this is some fantastic comics. Moore (and later, Gaiman) was so far ahead of the trend of “What if superheroes existed in the real world?” If you’ve ever wondered, for example, why doesn’t Superman just put a stop to every war, well, that’s exactly what Miracleman does. And the resulting consequences from seeing a superhero usher in a utopian society through force is some seriously exciting stuff … that unfortunately, was never fully explored for the aforementioned reasons, until now.
Another curious bonus irony is that the last issue of Miracleman that was published in 1993 ended with the shocking cliffhanger of … Miracleman kissing Young Miracleman, at the behest of Miraclewoman. Which is worked well in the story as an exploration of changing norms around society and sex and superheroes, but is also much less edgy and shocking in the 2020s. Similarly, it’s neat seeing how Buckingham had originally drawn the pages 30 years ago, and comparing them to how he’s re-mastered and re-done the pages now.
This is all to say, I’m a recent convert to the church of Miracleman, and even I felt those decades of anticipation building up as I opened up the latest issue of the story. I’m excited to see what comes next, and how this 30-year-old story ends up picking up in medea res. The layers of meta-text in this continuing story make for an incredible retrospective on the entire history of the superhero genre. If you like superheroes and fascinating real-world meta-text, you should check out Miracleman, too.