By the time Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham took over "Miracleman" with issue #17, there was barely anything left of what was once known as "Marvelman." No, this was Miracleman, through and through, with an emphasis on the first three syllables of his name.

And yet, Miracleman barely appears in the first issue of their run. He barely appears in their first arc at all.

Because, as I wrote about last week in my examination of the final two Alan Moore-penned "Miracleman" arcs, Moore had taken the superhero as far as it could go. Miracleman became transcendent -- a god in the firmament -- and the only place he left Gaiman to go was down.

Instead of kicking off Book Four with Miracleman's fall from grace, Gaiman uses a strategy that has since become his hallmark. Most major comic book writers have a story structure they return to again and again. Alan Moore likes to tell the one about the darker sides of the supposedly wholesome fictional characters. Grant Morrison likes to tell the one about the end of the world, transcendence, and the way fiction bleeds into reality. Brian K. Vaughan likes "The Odyssey," and Chris Claremont likes "Star Trek" with a dash of "Aliens."

The story Gaiman ends up retelling -- the structure he often returns to -- is Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales." Is suppose you could just as easily say it's based on Boccaccio's "Decameron," but Chaucer's work is probably more well-known in the English speaking world, especially to those of us forced to try to pronounce the middle English of "knniGits" without giggling in that English survey class we had to take.

I'm sure you're familiar with "The Canterbury Tales" even if you've never read a single line of the poem, but Chaucer's story of a pilgrimage that breaks out into a short story anthology (as each pilgrim tells his or her tale) has been a cornerstone of Gaiman's work over the years.

Think "Sandman," which slipped into "Canterbury Tales" mode hard at a few points. Think "Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader," which was little more than a pilgrimage to Bruce Wayne's funeral, punctuated by stories-within-the-story and a tribute to Margaret Wise Brown. And think "Miracleman" Book Four, "The Golden Age," which is an arc filled with single-issue stories, all of which detailing one character's literal or metaphorical pilgrimage to see Miracleman. It's about each character's relationship to their god.

Knowing he couldn't really follow the groundbreaking work that Alan Moore had done with "Miracleman," Gaiman opted to tell stories about the human beings who live in the world of the ascendant superhuman. It's part palate-cleansing, and part reorientation of the reader's expectations, and for the first six issues of his "Miracleman" run -- spanning from June 1990 to August of 1991 -- Gaiman told six very different stories set against the backdrop of the utopia Alan Moore established in "Olympus."

The young Mark Buckingham -- now synonymous with Vertigo's "Fables" series -- drew each of the first six issues in a distinctly different style to match the different types of stories Gaiman was telling. Issue #17 starts with airily painted pages -- an attempt, perhaps, at a transition from the sublimely lush Totleben art of the final Alan Moore stories -- but then the main story in the issue is all harsh pen lines and geometric forms. It's as rigid as Miracleman's behavior in the issue (in his brief appearance at the end) when he grants the wish of one pilgrim only to deny another.

The wish he grants: helping an artistically-challenged young woman access "the right to art." The wish he denies: helping a father heal a brain-damaged child, a girl injured terribly in Miracleman's fight with Johnny Bates from issue #15. Miracleman says, simply, "no," and gives not a word of explanation as he flies away.

Gaiman's Chaucerian update lacks the clear moral lesson of the stories in "The Canterbury Tales," but the human struggle is there just the same. The eternal human struggle of hope and disappointment.

"Miracleman" #17 may be the best of the "Golden Age" stories from Gaiman's run, although it's probably the least ambitious. But its elegance and simplicity -- and a conclusion which offers little in the way of answers -- makes it a powerful piece of graphic narrative.

The following issue is a story of love -- the longing and physical consummation between a human and Miraclewoman -- drawn in thick ink and curvaceous lines in style closer to something Dean Motter or Ken Steacy might try. And issue #19 is by far the most visually ambitious of the group, as Buckingham goes woodblock-print and Warhol-crazy in a story about the relationship between art and artificial life, between duplication and cloning. The clone of Andy Warhol and the clone of Dr. Gargunza have a conversation, and you can see Gaiman and Buckingham walking the high-wire throughout the issue, dazzling us with their display of self-referential bravado.

"Miracleman" #19 collapses under its own weight at the end, resulting in a literal "so what" from its narrator, and while I don't think it's the most moving of the "Golden Age" stories, it's certainly the single issue that most keenly represents what Gaiman was trying to do with the series. Its ambition permeates every panel.

Gaiman and Buckingham give us an illustrated short story in issue #20, a tale of Miraclechild Winter during her missing years in space, complemented by a comic book framing sequence about a new breed of Miraclechildren. Issue #21 is called "Spy Story," Gaiman's version of "The Prisoner" turned sideways, with art by Buckingham that foreshadows the style Alex Maleev would adopt in his "Daredevil" run. With extreme blacks, panels grainy like poorly-reproduced photocopies, and repeated images, Buckingham creates a sense of unreality and dread. And all of it -- the entirety of "The Golden Age" -- comes together in "Miracleman" #22 as our pilgrims converge and the lowly humans gain the opportunity to reach for the sky, dragged aloft by super-powered balloons.

The ending of Book Four is poetic, impressionistic, symbolic, but not as powerful as anything Moore accomplished in his three "Marvelman/Miracleman" arcs. Moore's work on the character -- on the series -- still remains a fascinating study in how to push the confines of the genre. Gaiman's stories read like Gaiman stories, full of clever little touches and a certain aloof playfulness. Honestly, though they're far from bad, Gaiman's "Golden Age" issues of "Miracleman" are a better showcase for Buckingham's chameleonic artistic stylings than they are examples of Gaiman at his best. They read a bit like "Sandman" b-sides, or try-outs for a "Miracleman Quarterly" anthology.

But Gaiman doesn't stop with Book Four (though I may have, mistakenly, led you to believe such a thing in last week's column). Gaiman's work on "The Silver Age" is decidedly different from even the eclectic mix of stories in issues #17-22. And though "The Silver Age" still remains unfinished -- cancelled, or, more accurately, stopped by Gaiman and Buckingham when Eclipse Comics ceased payment for the work -- the first two issues of the aborted arc show Gaiman stepping up to confront Moore's "Miracleman" directly, not just hiding in its shadows and telling odd little vignettes.

Issue #23 opens like a typical superhero comic -- a near-parody of the kinds of Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics that would feature bold declarations and even bolder visual imagery of characters in combat. But it's all a game -- it's the new generation of Miraclechildren, grown to adolescence, and acting out fantasies of their own long-forgotten past. And Young Miracleman, Dickie Dauntless, returns to cloned life, and its perhaps a chance for Miracleman to right some wrongs from his relationship with Kid Miracleman. Is it really as simple as Miracleman's search for redemption after having failed as a mentor to Johnny Bates? We never find out, as issue #24 only gives us hints at what might be coming, with bit more of Young Miracleman's awakening and an awkward bit of sexuality between he and his mentor.

Then...nothing. Though issue #24 features a "Coming Soon!" box which reads, "'Miracleman' #25. We swear."

And that's the last we heard of "Miracleman." (The REAL "Miracleman," at least. We're not counting the Todd McFarlane "Man of Miracles," are we? No. No, we're not.)

But now that Marvel has obtained the rights to the Marvelman character, does that mean that we might see the rest of the story after all these years? Might Gaiman finish "The Silver Age" and move on to his promised "Miracleman" Book Six: "The Dark Age"? I wonder if the name "Marvelman" would even make sense for the character Gaiman writes in issues #17-24. The word "miracle" appears repeatedly, and the god-like status of the character makes him more than just a marvel.

But whether Gaiman (or someone else) continues the Miracleman/Marvelman saga under a new publisher, I guess we'll never know what was originally planned for the rest of Gaiman's Eclipse run. If only there were some sort of book about Miracleman that interviewed Gaiman about that topic.

What's that? Oh, our own George Khoury wrote such a book earlier this decade called "Kimota! The Miracleman Companion"? Well, done George!

Here's what Gaiman had to say about a decade ago, regarding "The Silver Age" and what was to come: "I was using the classical model for everything, 'The Silver Age' was very consciously designed as one of those 'Heroes with a Thousand Faces' kind of stories. It's the story -- and they all have the same pattern in which the young prince leaves his kingdom, learns things and evidently returns. So that would have been the overall shape of 'The Silver Age' and I was halfway through."

Gaiman goes on to talk about the arc that would have followed, and provides some surprisingly specific details about the direction of the plot: "The idea of 'The Dark Age' is that it would have been set another 300 or 400 years on, maybe even as much as a thousand years on, and a lot of things changed. The children have gone. All the Miraclechildren grew up one day and left." Gaiman goes on to say, "You would have somebody who was claiming to be Mike Moran, who may or may not be, who has turned up a thousand years later. And then things get from bad to worse when Bates comes in." "It's strange," says Gaiman in Khoury's book, "I know generally how 'The Dark Age' would have gone exactly, how the very last episode would go...the very final episode called 'Two Voices.' And it's two people having a conversation on a fairly ruined planet while they wait for the last sun to come up."

And, one wonders, would Gaiman even be interested in finishing his planned stories. In 2001, Gaiman had an answer: "Well. Given the timespan of creating Miracleman, it would be very nice if I could finish that story before I die."

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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