Or : Why some comic reviewers don’t know what the hell they’re on about.
I’ve been doing my own reviews/criticism of various comics now for around 18 months. I don’t pretend to be Clive James (I wish I had an inch of his talent from criticism) , though I do aspire to give an honest,fair and yes, even bad review of whatever comic I’m discussing. I’m clearly and obviously biased as it’s my opinion that is sometimes wrong, sometimes right but I attempt to be as objective as possible, even when reviewing comics created by friends or people I deeply admire as creators. One of those latter types is Alan Moore, a writer I’ve enjoyed for decades and met several times and never had a bad, or unpleasant experience with someone very willing to engage and discuss things beyond his work.
A few months ago a friend on Facebook pointed out a series of reviews of Marvel Comics reprints of Alan Moore’s Marvelman/Miracleman by someone called Michael Brown on a site called ComicBook.com, a site seemingly pushing the mainstream superhero side of comics not to mention reporting on the same genre fiction on TV and film that every other entertainment site does. It’s not a bad site, it’s just one that does a job dozens of others do. Brown’s review of Miracleman #15 has to be one of the most annoyingly bad bits of writing about a comic I’ve read in some time, and this is quite an achievement. Just for fairness here’s my own witterings just for the sake of transparency.
From the off Brown’s review sets itself up for a fall with it’s title.
Sound, Fury, and Pretentious Twaddle
I try not to use the word ‘pretentious’ in reviews mainly because at some point I’m going to fuck up and churn out a review that’s a lot of pretentious arse, and rightly get a slagging for it. I do however understand the meaning of the word, and I have read more than superhero comics in my life which from reading Brown’s previous reviews and this one, I don’t think he has.
In his opening paragraph, he establishes his position.
The impression that I get is that most people remember this issue for the violent depravity visited upon London by Kid Miracleman. Personally, I’ll always remember it for writer Alan Moore’s frustratingly excessive narrative captions.
The point of this issue is that Kid Miracleman (a violent psychopath that happens to be the most powerful creature on the planet) has escaped after years of teasing his escape, and is now destroying London to get Marvelman’s attention and to just have fun, because after all, he’s a violent psychopath. Moore has already established this and in this issue it’s clear from the off that this isn’t a superhero comic, but a horror comic.
This isn’t a normal superhero comic. It wasn’t at the time in 1989 and it isn’t in 2015. It isn’t the best thing Moore has written but it’s one of his best works not to mention an issue that is the wellspring for modern superhero comics, though written by mainly inferior writers to Moore.
However Moore’s use of narrative captions isn’t unique. It’s taken from European and British comics, and in American comics Don McGregor used them in his excellent Panther’s Rage series of Black Panther comics, though it’s mainly Steve Gerber that seems to be the largest influence upon Moore so when Brown says
…Moore seems completely unable to allow the art to speak for itself is maddening. Moments that should be impactful are unfortunately rendered somewhat sterile and cerebral with his verbose musings overlaid upon them
He shows an inability to recognise the literary legacy of this sort of superhero comic that McGregor and Gerber attempted in the 70’s that Moore expanded upon in the 80’s, or indeed, Moore’s attempts to create a type of poetic writing to compliment the art. Moore’s ‘musings’ don’t hinder the art, but expand upon the art. Brown seems so set to see comics as a purely visual medium (and it can be) yet doesn’t seem to be able to put aside his own prejudice against Moore, or indeed any comic that isn’t frankly, bloody simplistic and narrow in its ambition.
Perhaps the worst offender in my opinion is page 19. I hardly feel the need to warn the reader about spoilers for a more-than-26-year-old comic but I will be delving into plot here. Anyway, this comic chronicles the fight between Kid Miracleman and the group of Miracleman, Miraclewoman, the Warpsmiths, and the Firedrake named Huey Moon. While nothing seems able to defeat Kid Miracleman, Warpsmith Aza Chorn ultimately injures him sufficiently to force him to change back into Johnny Bates whereupon Miracleman holds him close before either snapping his neck or crushing his skull, the actual act occurring just off-panel. Page 19 consists of a repeated image of a screaming Miracleman cradling Bates’ lifeless body as the “camera” pulls back. This should be a powerful image, all the more because it is ultimately integrated into a two-page spread on the following page showing the full horror of London’s destruction. However, rather than allowing the art to speak for itself, Moore insists upon meditating on “firemen and the dumbstruck ambulance crews” before inserting the incongruous image of cats let out of the metaphorical bag and worms released from their equally metaphorical can. The saving grace is that the following spread is limited to one short narrative caption completing the worm diversion.
Yet that double page spread does let the art speak. Brown doesn’t understand what a metaphor is or if he doesn’t he’s being so obtuse as he’s trying to put a single point of view through that Moore uses too much flowery language and he should dumb down.
Without trying to sound too flippant, I feel justified in saying that I got the distinct impression of Moore practically jumping up and down shouting “Look how clever I can be!” throughout the majority of this issue. For instance, not content with merely describing Bates as our heroes potential “end” or even “Ragnarok,” he also describes him as their “Götterdammerung.” In doing so, he ensure that not only has he said the same thing using three essentially synonymous terms, but he has almost certainly included the most pretentious of these words.
Moore’s trying to create a myth here, so has used the language of myths throughout Marvelman/Miracleman. If he’s using such language then how on earth can he be ‘pretentious’ when Moore understands what he’s trying to do. It might not work, but Brown’s using the word ‘pretentious’ to suggest that Moore is trying to be smarter than he is, yet in the real world, Moore is assuming the reader isn’t as dumb as Brown thinks they should be.
Similarly frustrating, Moore has chosen to make the “Miracleman as god” concept explicitly and literal as opposed to metaphorical. It may be that others may not have the same reaction to this choice but to see Miracleman literally identify himself as the singular god of reality feels a step too far. It isn’t that I balk at what some might perceive as sacrilege. Rather, this feels definitionally incorrect. Going by the nature of a god as being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, Miracleman does not seem to meet the standard set for existence as a universal deity.
Yet again Brown doesn’t really understand what he’s reading. Moore isn’t just using the Abrahamic ‘god’ of Brown’s own obvious Christian culture, but the gods of a variety of cultures across the planet. It’s at this point that Brown displays a level of fuckwittery that is astonishing.
I wouldn’t even get into this if Moore didn’t specifically call out omnipotence and omniscience as traits that Miracleman apparently possesses. Honestly, the temptation is too great not to quote The Princess Bride’s, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Moore does understand. You don’t. Also, if you use that bloody quote then that makes you the sort of pretentious arse that uses only genre films, fiction and your own narrow worldview rather than trying to expand your view based upon what you’re reading.
Brown doesn’t get that Moore is making it clear that Miracleman is narrating in the past tense of a time when he wasn’t a god, or seen as a god by the people of the Earth. He’s still flawed. Still human in some ways. Moore’s made this clear in previous issues, and in the next issue it’s spelled out clearly as he wraps the story up, though if Brown is reading these reprints for the first time (as he says he is) and as they go out, then I’ll give him that he can’t understand what he’s not read as yet.
Another bit of unnecessary pretension which may be more of a sticking point for me than other is the way in which Moore frames the battle with Bates. He says in a narrative caption:
The battle, far too big to be contained by simple facts, has spawned so many differentlegends, each with its own adherents; as valid, if not more so, as the truth.
Moore’s talking about mythology.He has Miracleman act as a first hand and third hand narrator. Brown can’t see this wee bit of subtlety for the sake of his own ignorance or stubbornness as this next line shows.
He then goes on to describe a number of different scenarios that “might” explain the lead-up to the battle’s ultimate conclusion. This might make sense if the narrator was a third party not privy to the actual events but the narrator is Miracleman himself!
It’d not make sense if it wasn’t about building a mythology around a superhero. It’s also a way to include the Warrior Summer Special strip without interrupting the narrative flow.
He is meditating on the nature of myth and the ways in which humans build myths and/or twist facts in order to highlight certain values and ideas. I simply can’t stand it though when in order to accommodate such meditations a writer seems to ignore the established narrative and the concrete reality of the situation.
I mean look at that. The point is that Moore is playing with the reader’s knowledge of what’s happened previously and sowing the seeds of doubt in order to highlight the fact that humans do twist facts to build myths. As a Christian, Brown might find this hard to take, but it’s a fact that the stories in the Bible, Koran or Torah are just that, stories based in some cases upon real ones that over the decades and centuries have been twisted into something else. That’s what Moore is trying to do with superheroes in this world of Miracleman.
While he generally isn’t committing the sin of neglecting to “show don’t tell” since his text is attempting to augment the action rather than stand in for it, there is one moment where this in a sense takes place and the story is poorer for it. On page 14, Miracleman throws a car at Bates and the narrative caption states:
My apologists have claimed the car that I first hurled at Bates was empty, those who’d been inside having all previously escaped. I’m sorry, but that isn’t true.
The problem is that its one thing to tell me that there were people in the car but the art gives no indication that this was in fact the case. Intellectually, I know that this is horrible but it doesn’t really hit me on an emotional level in the way it would have if I’d seen the people that were in the car prior to it being thrown.
You don’t need to see them in detail. That’s the point. To Marvelman these people are just part of the bodycount that he regrets, but by acknowledging that he as a ‘god’ has apologists that excuse his sins. Again, as someone that looks like they follow one of the Abrahamic gods Brown is avoiding looking at his own possible faith for examples of supposed gods whose sins are excused by their followers.
This actually could be said of most of the destruction in this issue. It’s all so big and impersonal that it loses impact. Intellectually, I know that what I’m seeing is an atrocity but I never connect with anyone Bates murders or mutilates, and thus doesn’t have the same kind of lasting sting. This isn’t helped when Miracleman narrates with the kind of semi-ludicrous terminology like referring to “coral reefs of baby skulls.” Dead babies, regardless of what the internet or infantile bro-y friends might say, are not funny but referring to coral reefs of them is so odd as to take the horror out of the idea.
The line ‘coral reefs of baby skulls‘ is trying to create an image of a massive amount of baby skulls. It’s not supposed to be ‘funny’ but horrific as the idea of that many baby skulls mounting up that reefs of them exist is actually bloody horrendous, so I’ve no idea how Brown finds it just ‘odd’?
One last element of the story itself worth noting is the method of Bates’ demise and how it doesn’t quite make sense to me. Ultimately, since no one can really harm him since he is protected by a force field, Aza Chorn teleports a hunk of cement and rebar into his head followed by a girder into his chest. The items appear inside Bates’ force field rather than try to punch through it. Bates is thus caused harm because foreign matter is attempting to occupy the same space as his own, seemingly resulting in a painful displacement or destruction of some sort. My problem is that earlier in the issue, he is teleported almost entirely inside a marble arch, matter attempting to share the same space as other matter. Shouldn’t this have had an even more deleterious effect upon the villain? Why does teleporting small objects inside Bates hurt him when the vast majority of his body being inside a large object does nothing? You can make the argument that Bates teleported inside the marble displaced the marble while items being teleported inside Bates displaced Bates’ body itself. Still, this feels like splitting hairs and perhaps Moore would have been well-advised to not confuse the issue by having Aza Chorn teleport him inside a solid marble structure at all.
Here he just shows he’s not read the comic. The force-field that gives the Marvels/Miracles their power surrounds them, so teleporting them into a solid structure means they’re in a solid structure surrounded by their force-field. Teleporting a pebble inside that force-field means that you can harm them directly. Read and understand the bloody book you’re reading!
The problem is that criticising something like Miracleman #15 should mean taking into account the larger context it lies in as a historical work, or indeed understanding just what Moore is trying to do with what still is a moribund genre as the superhero. Now as bad as these reviews are, they highlight the problem in the supposed mainstream comics media of bad criticism.
Far too many reviewers are clearly not very well read, though their assumption that because they’ve read X Men all their lives, they can understand some of the concepts the likes of Moore has in his work, when in fact they show they can’t. If your main frame of reference is The Princess Bride, then as good a film as that is, you really need to expand your reading and viewing material so you can expand your knowledge so you become better. There are good reviewers out there (The Comics Journal still provides some splendid examples) on the mainstream sites, but there’s so many either displaying this level of daftness, or are just so pandering in the product they review that essentially you’re reading advertorial for the publishing companies.
As said, I don’t pretend to be brilliant. I try to be honest. What I read of Michael Brown’s reviews is someone that thinks they’re smarter than they are and someone not being honest with the reader. I don’t especially mind slagging things off, but this sort of review is frankly, a load of bollocks for a work that deserves better.