They’ve been selling it in a plastic bag for the last year but finally, over thirty years after it first appeared, all of Alan Moore’s early and legendary Marvelman series is once again available to read, for the first time in over two decades. The publication of Miracleman 16 concludes the reprints finally released by Marvel Comics, not a single one of which mentions writer Alan Moore anywhere.
There’s an explanation of that, as well as the fact that Marvelman is being reprinted as Miracleman in the first place, which makes another interesting tale for those book readers who just don’t appreciate how different a publishing industry the comics are.
To understand the background to this story, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning and to Superman, the original superhero, the ultimate inspiration for all that have followed. But there are many whose creativity lies in copying what’s hot as closely as possible and hoping to score sales off the back of that. One of DC’s earliest tasks was taking legal action against Fox Comics over their Wonder Man, a very blatant copy of the Man of Steel.
Unfortunately, DC were not always punctilious in pursuing only those who ripped off Superman. Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel was superficially similar – super-strong, super-tough, able to fly – but in every other respect The Big Red Cheese was a completely different character from the Man of Steel, as the very nicknames neatly illustrate. However, Captain Marvel outsold Superman by nearly two-to-one, so DC’s legal department trained its eyes on Fawcett and started an infamous copyright action.
The case dragged on for the best part of a decade, kept alive by DC’s greater financial muscle. In the end, it was settled in the Fifties by Fawcett’s withdrawal: having taken a cold, hard look at the market, and understood that superheroes and comics were past their peak and sales were diminishing, Fawcett decided it was no longer worth putting in more money to protect a character whose commercial value would only diminish further. Fawcett took Captain Marvel and his supporting cast of Captain Marvel Junior, Mary Marvel et al, out of publication.
What seemed to be a simple, commercial decision had unexpected consequences elsewhere. In Britain, L. Miller & Son were onto a good thing in publishing black & white reprints of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, and were understandably disturbed to lose the source of their profits. They hired artist/writer Mick Anglo to come up with a solution, which consisted of a somewhat anglicised but basically direct rip-off of the Marvel family.
Instead of boy radio-announcer Billy Batson, transforming into Captain Marvel by speaking the magic word ‘Shazam’, newsboy Micky Moran was given the ‘key harmonic’ of the Universe by scientist Guntag Borghelm and by speaking the word ‘Kimota’ would transform into Marvelman. Similarly, crippled newsboy Freddie Freeman, who could transform into CM Junior by saying Captain Marvel’s name, became Post Office messenger boy Dicky Dauntless and Young Marvelman, by speaking Marvelman’s name. The changeover was, I understand, trailed over several weeks of stories that the Marvel Family were so well-known as Marvelmen that in future they would be known by that title.
I have always wondered how Anglo and his studio handled the third change, from Billy’s sister Mary Batson saying ‘Shazam’ and becoming Mary Marvel, into Johnny Bates saying ‘Marvelman’ and becoming Kid Marvelman…
Marvelman sold well for L. Miller & Son, an early and unusual example of superheroes doing well in Britain, until the series was cancelled in 1963. In a seemingly unrelated incident, a couple of years before that cancellation, a small-time comic book line that had started to have a great deal of success with titles such as Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, changed its name to Marvel Comics.
We now jump forward almost two decades. Marvel, in 1967, created their own character named Captain Marvel, and trademarked the name. In 1974, DC acquired the rights to the original Marvel Family. They could use Captain Marvel’s name, but not on the cover of any comics due to Marvel’s trademark, so the Captain was reintroduced for the first of many, many attempts under the title Shazam. And in England, a young, up-and-coming comics writer from Northampton, Alan Moore, was interviewed about what he would like to write in the future, and spoke of wanting to revive Marvelman, and reshape him for the Eighties, starting with the idea of the superhero having forgotten his magic word.
Enter Dez Skinn, comics fan, editor, shopowner and entrepreneur
Skinn had recently ended a spell as editor at Marvel Comics UK, where he’d tried to introduce a strong element of locally produced and derived titles, instead of merely heading up a reprint shop re-formatting monthly American stories for the weekly British market. Skinn wanted to parlay that experience, and his contacts with British talent, into a new venture, Warrior. This was intended to be a monthly black & white anthology magazine featuring the best of British talent writing and drawing series for very low page rates, but which they would own, and would profit from resales in America and elsewhere around the world.
In the absence of any of his contacts actually wanting to touch Marvelman, Skinn, who didn’t know Alan Moore, had the interview shown him by Steve Moore, and offered Alan Moore the chance to write Marvelman. Moore accepted, enthusiastically, believing at that time that Skinn had acquired the rights to the character.
Warrior was an immediate critical success with Moore, writer of two major series (the other being V for Vendetta) an instant star.
Initially, Marvelman was drawn by Garry Leach who, along with Moore and Skinn – as Quality Comics – enjoyed a one-third share of the rights to the character. However, Leach’s meticulous art took too long for him to produce AND earn a living wage, so art duties, and a share of the rights, were transferred to Moore’s fellow-Northamptonian Alan Davies, already collaborating with Moore at Marvel UK on Captain Britain.
All was well until Skinn came up with the idea of a Marvelman Special, in which four new pages by Moore and Davis framed the reprinting of a number of Fifties stories, alongside Skinn’s unsuccessful ‘Big Ben, The Man with No Time for Crime’, whom Moore had woven into his first Marvelman Book.
The special drew the attention of Marvel UK’s lawyers, who promptly wrote a cease-and-desist letter demanding an undertaking that Quality would not produce any more stories featuring a character who was so obviously trying to operate under the benefit of Marvel’s good name.
This was an issue that had been waiting to happen. Legally, Quality et al were in the right. Marvelman had been created twenty years before Marvel UK and five years before Marvel in the US, and every story printed had carried a legal disclaimer that the character was based on the 1956 L Miller & Son character and had nothing to do with Marvel Comics. This cut no ice with the lawyers, whose main – and telling – argument was based on the fact that Marvel had considerably more money to conduct a lawsuit than did Quality. It was the old Captain Marvel case over again.
Skinn reprinted his correspondence with the lawyers in the pages of Warrior, from which Marvelman had disappeared abruptly, two-thirds of the way through Moore’s second Book. It was not merely legal caution that kept the character out of Warrior’s last five issues, however, for there were other factors.
One was that Moore and Davis had had a terminal falling out, as a result of which they have not spoken to each other to this day. Moore, who has always acted on his principles, no matter how much the commercial cost to himself, was already aggrieved at Marvel over their bullying approach to Marvelman, when Marvel US reprinted a couple of the Dr Who strips Moore had written for Marvel UK, without his consent.
It was an innocent move by Marvel, in the sense that they had assumed that they had bought all rights to the stories, as would have been the case under American law. They had failed to take into account that, under British law, they had actually only bought first reproduction rights and thus needed Moore’s approval for reprints. Moore responded by refusing consent for Captain Britain being reprinted in America. Davis, who had no such political concerns, was infuriated by the loss of income, hence the irreparable rift.
The second, and more serious long-term factor was that Moore had learned that Skinn had lied to him when he had claimed to have acquired the rights to Marvelman. All he had done was to pay Mick Anglo for whatever rights he held, without making any attempt to determine the provenance of L Miller & Son’s rights post-bankruptcy. An infuriated Moore refused to speak to Skinn again at having been dragged into an unethical position.
By the time things had reached this point, an agreement had been reached over reprinting Marvelman in America, and in colour. The issue of the name had already been the topic of much debate. DC passed, not willing to offer their rivals that amount of provocation, Marvel had passed because Jim Shooter couldn’t allow a minor, and English, character to carry a name that made him a virtual personification of the entire company.
Moore was still hopeful of retaining the Marvelman name, having the legal right behind him, even if it meant following DC’s example with Captain Marvel, and publishing under a series title of Kimota. But in Marvel Comics’ homeland, with their overwhelming domination of the market, no-one was willing to take the risk, and eventually a deal was done with California’s Eclipse Comics to publish Miracleman.
(The irony of that was that Marvel already had claims to the name Miracleman, courtesy of Alan Moore. During Moore’s run on Captain Britain he had included a brief scene on an alternate Earth whose heroes were gathered to be slaughtered by the Fury: these were mostly based on classic boys’ comics heroes of the Sixties, but one of the victims was Miracleman…)
The Eclipse series was progressing satisfactorily until Moore and Davis’s flare-up. Editor Cat Yronwode arranged for the art to be taken over by Chuck Beckum (now better known as Chuck Austen), but his stiff, inexpressive art was quickly found inadequate and Rick Veitch, one of Moore’s collaborators on Swamp Thing, took over until the end of Book 2.
The third, and from Moore’s viewpoint, final book was to be drawn by another of Moore’s Swamp Thing artists, John Totleben. His art was superb, a complete contrast to everything that had gone before it for a six part story that was itself a complete contrast to everything that had gone before it, but Totleben had been diagnosed with a degenerative retinal condition that slowed his work down to less than a crawl.
Moore refused to countenance dropping Totleben, and the end of his run was published on an erratic schedule that included a twelve-month gap between the final two issues.
Having completed his story, in a most singular fashion that all but closed off the possibility of any further stories, Moore passed his rights in Marvelman over to his successor, Neil Gaiman, whose plans called for three six issue stories, titled successively ‘The Golden Age’, ‘The Silver Age’ and ‘The Dark Age’, all drawn by his frequent collaborator, the versatile Mark Buckingham.
Eclipse reprinted all but one of Moore’s various Marvelman/Miracleman stories in three Graphic Novels, planning to do the same for Gaiman’s books. And indeed ‘The Golden Age’ appeared.
And then it all went wrong again. Eclipse co-owners Dean Mullaney and Cat Yronwode separated, the company went into bankruptcy. One issue of ‘The Silver Age’ had been published, another pencilled, but just as after L. Miller & Son had crashed, the rights to Miracleman went into a legal limbo.
And Miracleman all but vanished.
A limited number of the Graphic Novels had been published, but there were no new copies, and those that appeared, on e-Bay and the like, went for crazy prices. One of Moore’s fundamental series had vanished, as if it had never been published, an ironic reversal of his situation with Watchman, whose grief was that it was never out of print.
Enter Todd MacFarlane. MacFarlane had made his name as a freewheeling and extremely popular artist on Spider-Man. But the rough-hewn MacFarlane had a deep entrepreneurial streak and subsequently led a half dozen of his equally popular artists into an independent venture, Image Comics, which, in its early days, pushed DC down into third place in the industry.
MacFarlane’s comics, and Image’s, were flashy and splashy, with intensely detailed art that the kids loved, but they were heavily criticised for their lack of story-telling. MacFarlane responded by inviting four writers to contribute guest issues: Moore, Gaiman, Dave Sim and Frank Miller. Gaiman, on the understanding that he would retain rights to any new character he created, contributed the demon-hunting warrior angel, Angela. But MacFarlane subsequently claimed that the contract was a standard Work-Made-For-Hire agreement, and he had all the rights to Angela.
This stand-off became relevant when MacFarlane picked up the remaining Eclipse assets in a bankruptcy sale and made known his intention to bring Miracleman into his ongoing series, Spawn. Indeed, Mike Moran appeared but, when the issue with the planned debut of Miracleman came round, he had mutated into Man of Miracles.
This was down to Gaiman challenging MacFarlane’s claim to any rights in Miracleman.
Another extended legal issue followed. Gaiman tried to negotiate a deal whereby he would relinquish his claim on Angela in return for MacFarlane withdrawing any claim to Miracleman but despite many efforts, that didn’t. Gaiman even formed the company Miracles & Marvels as a vehicle to fight for and gather in all the rights, and wrote his two extremely popular Marvel series, 1602 and Eternals to finance the battle.
In the end, it was Skinn’s admission that he had never even tried to investigate, yet alone acquire Miller’s rights in the first place that exploded MacFarlane’s claims, based upon the complete illegal usage of Marvelman throughout all those years
At long last, the way was open to bring Miracleman back. In 2009, Gaiman announced a partnership with Marvel Comics to reprint and make available once again all of Moore’s works and, all this time later, allow himself and Buckingham to finish their story. Gathering together all the legal interests took some time, but in January 2014, Marvel began the first of its Miracleman reprints. Digitally restored art, new colouring, background materials, original art, features, even Mick Anglo stories and serials from the Fifties.
Out of nothing but nostalgia, I began to buy it. I already had the complete Warrior series, and all the Eclipse comics that weren’t just reprint, but I wanted the enjoyment again
Each issue is credited to ‘The Original Writer’. This is at Alan Moore’s insistence: he has not attempted to prevent publication in any way, but no longer wishes to be associated with any series that he doesn’t own. His name is nowhere upon the new Miracleman, and any payment due to him as writer goes upon his instructions to Mick Anglo, as the ultimate creator whose rights have been so badly infringed for many years.
It’s not the first time Moore has insisted that his name be taken off old work, published in the mainstream comics industry and in which he does not have ownership, and not the first time he has, as a matter of principle, refused income from his old works. It’s easily understandable that, after everything that has happened, he should look back on his Marvelman work as not only apprentice work, full of imperfections, but also as something that carries a bad taste with it, but it is an honest shame that he should not receive proper credit for what was, in its time, and even now, superior and highly entertaining work.