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Don?t Say the ?M? Word: The Strange Story of Miracleman

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There are some characters whose names become well known because they simply fire the readers’ imagination, and become best sellers or at least cult figures as a result. 

And then there’s Marvelman.

In the early 1950’s, British publishers Len Miller & Sons specialized in reprints of US comic books, and their best selling titles for awhile were those reprinting Fawcett’s Captain marvel and associated characters. So when, in 1953, Fawcett’s much publicized legal problems with Superman publishers DC forced them to discontinue the Marvel Family’s adventures, Millers had a problem.

Len Miller’s solution was inspired. He had an audience for superhero adventures, but no superheroes. So, he hired writer/artist Mick Anglo to create some, and in 1954, Miller’s Captain Marvel became Marvelman!

The changes were superficial enough for the title to retain its readership-Cap’s alter ego, young Billy Batson, became Micky Moran. Shazam, the wizard who empowered him, became “astrophysicist” Guntag Borghelm, who taught Micky the magic word “Kimota” (“atomic” spelled backwards, near enough). Captain Marvel Junior became Young Marvelman, while Mary Marvel underwent a more conspicuous change and morphed into Johnny Bates AKA Kid Marvelman! The Marvelman titles retained the sense of whimsy which had made Captain Marvel so popular, and they sold well for almost a decade before fading away in 1963. End of story, it seemed.

Fast forward to 1982, and Dez Skinn has been working in comics for awhile. He has worked on fanzines, and he has worked  for big companies. And now, he has a dream. His dream is called Warrior, an adult orientated comic magazine which will break all the rules by letting creators retain the rights to their characters!  Most of those characters are new, but Dez wants to revive an old character to provide a main feature, and he decides on Marvelman. Millers have long since gone out of business, but Dez pays Mick Anglo for the rights and goes ahead anyway. Warrior is a success, and so is Marvelman!

Under the terms of their contracts, writer Alan Moore and artist Garry Leach each owned a third of the revived Marvelman (Skinn owned the other third) and from the first issue, in which a middle aged Mike Moran, troubled by bad dreams, finally remembers who he really is, they transformed the whimsical knock off character into something amazing, a truly frightening look at what would happen if superhumans existed in the real world. Leach soon moved on, giving his third share to his replacement, artist Alan Davis. Marvelman continued to climb new heights, with Moore penning a dark tale of secret government experiments with captured alien technology, implanting false memories in children transformed into super soldiers. And then, it all went wrong.

Made overconfident by Warrior’s success, Skinn published a Marvelman Special, and, echoing the fate of Captain Marvel decades earlier, Marvel Comics threatened to sue. Warrior #21 was MM’s final appearance in a British magazine, his story unfinished, but he wasn’t beaten yet.

Unable to publish him in Britain, Dez Skinn took Marvelman to America, and after several attempts, in 1985 he found a buyer for the character-Eclipse Comics. Naturally, Eclipse couldn’t risk the wrath of Marvel, but that problem was easily solved. MM’s name had changed once, now it did so again, Marvelman becoming Miracleman!

After reprinting the material from Warrior in issues #1-6, Eclipse continued the story of Miracleman’s battles with both his sinister “creator” Dr Gargunza and his deranged former sidekick Kid Miracleman, written as before by Alan Moore. Davis was unwilling to return to the strip, so Chuck Beckum took over the art chores, later followed by Rick Veitch and then John Totleben.

Over the next ten issues, they took the story of a superhuman in a real world setting to its logical conclusion, breaking new ground in the process (as in issue #9, which dealt with the birth of Miracleman’s daughter and included a several pages long step by step view of the birth in graphic detail). It ended with Miracleman and his cohorts, Miraclewoman and the alien Warpsmiths, effectively conquering the world and transforming it into a benevolent dictatorship where poverty, war, disease and potentially even death are no longer problems!

His story told, Moore handed his “share” of Miracleman over to incoming writer Neil Gaiman, who, with artist Mark Buckingham, created “The Golden Age”, less a story than a multi issue exploration of Miracleman’s world, through issues # 17-22. This acted as a kind of extended set-up for “The Silver Age”, beginning in #23, in which Miracleman’s long dead partner, Young Miracleman, is resurrected to find the world changed in ways he cannot understand or approve of…

And then, Eclipse went bankrupt. Miracleman #24 was the final issue published; though #25 was completed, Gaiman and Buckingham were never paid for it. The story was never completed.

Though Moore, Gaiman and their collaborators  crafted  a truly unique saga well worth investigating in its own right, though, Miracleman’s subsequent notoriety stems from the ongoing wrangle over who actually owns him.

Following Eclipse’s dissolution, Todd McFarlane bought their stable of characters, believing this to include Miracleman, but was seemingly unaware of the rights sharing arrangement set up by Skinn and Co. McFarlane still seems to consider himself the owner of Miracleman, but was unable to use the property due to it’s being a part of a years long legal battle with Neil Gaiman, who “inherited” Alan Moore’s share, Eclipse having apparently bought only Dez Skinn’s third share.

In addition, Garry Leach claims that Alan Davis gave his share back to him after leaving the strip, Mark Buckingham might also have a claim, and there is even doubt as to whether Dez Skinn ever legally bought the rights in the first place, since Mick Anglo was almost certainly in no position to sell them, having created the character under a work for hire agreement. The actual rights to Marvelman might still lie with the Official Receivers in Britain, since Miller went bankrupt!

So, who owns Miracleman? Who knows. Possibly anybody, maybe nobody. All that seems certain is that when and if this strangely enduring character does finally return, sparks are going to fly...

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