Waiting for a Miracle, Man

Is there a comic book cliffhanger that anyone has been waiting for longer than that of Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman?

It’s been nearly 30 years since the final issue of Eclipse Comics’ Miracleman came out, part two of “The Silver Age” storyline by Gaiman and Mark Buckingham. The comics company itself went out of business, Miracleman got stuck in a byzantine legal limbo for ages, and Marvel Comics eventually ended up with the publishing rights to the character but it still took years more to get around to completing the story. 

Finally, today, I picked up the first issue of Miracleman: The Silver Age, which will be republishing the first two 1990s issues of Gaiman’s story with new art and finally, finally, carrying on the story with #3. It’s been a while. 

Miracleman, back in the late 1980s, was one of those comics that blew my teenage mind, as written by Alan Moore and a series of often-astounding artists. To make a long, very complicated story short, Miracleman (originally known as Marvelman) was a sloppy Captain Marvel/Shazam rip-off in British comics in the 1950s whom Moore revived in the early ‘80s for one of his typically post-modern takes on superheroics in the pages of the British comics mag Warrior. It was later picked up for wider US distribution by Eclipse Comics, which went on to continue the story – albeit in stops and starts, a trend that has plagued Miracleman to this day. 

To this day, it’s still one of my favourite superhero comics. It takes the idea of a man who can turn himself into a superhero by saying a magic word (Kimota!) and turns it sideways and delves into all the disturbing possibilities of such a transformation. Moore presented Miracleman’s world with a gritty realism, contrasted with the kiddie-comics of the old Marvelman/Captain Marvel era, and ultimately, it took a dark turn into dual identities, sadism and power that still seems groundbreaking. It also asked the horrifying question, what would happen if a 10-year-old boy had superpowers and was corrupted by them? (The answer being Johnny Bates, Kid Miracleman, one of comics’ most indelible villains.) It was a comic that could be breathtakingly brutal as well as dazzlingly beautiful in the same issue.

I first came to Miracleman a bit later in the run, when the astounding painterly art of John Totleben joined with Moore’s scripts and the story moved into its zenith, setting up a clash between Miracleman and Kid Miracleman that literally changed the world. Instead of a superhero battle leaving a mess to tidy up, this fight ended up with Miracleman asserting control over the globe, eliminating poverty, hunger and war, but also forever changing humanity. 

I’m used to waiting for Miracleman. I still remember picking up Miracleman #14 at some comics shop in Oregon while on a road trip with my dad, decades ago, and its cliffhanger ending with Johnny Bates free and about to unleash his power on the world. The next issue didn’t come out for months and months, leaving me hanging. The issue after that, #16, Moore’s final issue as writer, didn’t come out for more than a year. 

After Gaiman took over as writer, he and Buckingham delivered an excellent “Golden Age” arc looking deeper at Miracleman’s ‘perfect’ world, and then two parts of “The Silver Age,” meant to dig deeper into its conflicts as his sidekick, naive Young Miracleman, is resurrected 40 years after his death to a changed world. (A final part, “The Dark Age,” was teased to follow.) Miracleman #24, released in 1993 was the second part of the “Silver Age.” And then…. nothing. For decades. 

In the many years since Miracleman first appeared, we’ve seen a zillion other reimaginings/dark reboots/postmodernistic takes on superheroes, most of them kinda dire. Even Moore himself went to that well a little too often in his career, but still, for me, years on Miracleman casts a daunting spell. Its peculiar combination of darkness and idealism still speaks to me.

Its legacy has been debased a bit – I utterly hate that Alan Moore is credited as “The Original Writer” on reprints due to creative/legal squabbles, even though it’s what he wants. I loathe the truly terrible idea of Miracleman being absorbed into the Marvel Universe proper which seems inevitable and has been teased for ages now. This story doesn’t need to be shared with that of Spider-Man and Wolverine, but then again, DC already crammed Superman into Watchmen, so nothing is unthinkable in corporate comix™. 

Still, I want to know what happens next for Miracleman, at long last. 

For 29 years now, I wondered what would happen next when Young Miracleman was revived into a utopian world he doesn’t understand, what would happen to Miracleman’s idyllic kingdom, and of course, of course, what might happen if the devil Johnny Bates returns. Barring getting hit by a truck or something on the way to the comics shop, it looks like it’s finally gonna happen soon. It may disappoint, it may amaze, it’s hard to know. But boy, I’m glad I get to see the end of the story. 

I still believe in Miracles. 

(*Speaking of miracles, I barely noticed that October marks exactly four years since I revived my regular blogging on this site, picking up a blogging ‘career’ that started way the hell back in 2004. Blogging again, uncool as it may be in the age of TikToks or whatever, has really sparked my creativity and I’m writing more for profit and for fun than I have in ages. So, thanks to you out there in the internet void who read this junk, it is appreciated!)

Yes, they suck: My top 13 movie vampires

It’s the spooky season, and Halloween is nearly upon us! What better way to celebrate than lining up a handful of horror movies – since I outgrew trick-or-treat, my favourite way to mark the holiday.

Vampires are a Halloween mainstay, and for my Halloween post, here’s my Top 13 Movie Vampires (many more could have made the list, but I decided to stop with the spooky 13).

Where it all began 

Nosferatu (Max Schreck) Nosferatu, 1922: One hundred years old this year, the first major screen vampire in this not-quite adaptation of Dracula is still horrifying. Apparently some people even thought Schreck was a real vampire! The movie is brisk and terrifying even after a century, and features several shots that are among the greatest in horror history. Sure, you could argue this Nosferatu doesn’t really have a character, but who cares when he’s this scary?

Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Dracula, 1931: The ultimate interpretation of Dracula, so iconic that Lugosi spent the rest of his life both chasing and running away from it. It’s hard to look at a role like this that’s passed into legend with fresh eyes, but watch it again sometime and see how Lugosi sinks his teeth (sorry) into his sexy, strange vampire. Everyone from Anne Rice to Twilight owes him a debt.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) Lots of Dracula movies, 1958-1973: The thing about Christopher Lee is he looked great as Dracula in a whole series of Hammer Films vampire flicks even when the movies themselves were rather sloppy and stilted and had titles like Taste The Blood of Dracula. They even made the mistake of having Lee – one of the best horror voices of all time – nearly mute in several of the movies and his character and competence seemed to change from film to film. None of that really matters, because besides Lugosi, Lee is the finest dark prince ever to play the role. 

Regal vampires

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) Dracula’s Daughter, 1936: It seems weird in these days of never-ending franchises, but Lugosi did not return for a proper Dracula sequel. Instead, this ‘sidequel’ introduces his supposed daughter, the gloriously goth Holden. It’s one of the many bashed-out Universal Horror cheapies that barely run over an hour, but Holden’s sultry Zaleska is a striking, strong and modern creation – witness the barely concealed lesbian subtext in one famous scene.

Lestat (Tom Cruise) Interview With A Vampire, 1994: Man, there was an outrage back in the day about Tom Cruise playing Anne Rice’s bratty vampire, but every time I watch this, he seems a little bit better – preening and smug, he blows a sleepy Brad Pitt off the screen. I still haven’t seen the new TV reboot yet, but for my money this flick captures the lush absurdity of Rice’s prose very well. 

Blacula (William Marshall) Blacula, Scream, Blacula Scream!, 1972-73: William Marshall was better than the material in the Blacula movies, which are a silly blaxploitation hoot with few moments of real terror. But boy, did Marshall act the heck out of Blacula, giving a wounded dignity and majesty to his cursed African prince that lifts the movies themselves. His grand booming voice alone ensures a place on this list. 

Totally ‘80s Vampires

David (Kiefer Sutherland), The Lost Boys, 1987: Come on, who didn’t want to be a Lost Boy after watching the hooligan vampire gang led by Sutherland’s David storming around Santa Cruz, where weightlifting saxophonists wail away the night? Flashier, sexier vampires became a big thing in the ‘80s, and the hair-sprayed, sultry crew led by David were among the vanguard. 

Jerry Dandridge (Christopher Sarandon), Fright Night, 1985: As this list shows, the ‘80s were a terrific time for vampire reinventions. Here’s the yuppie vampire, smooth scarf-wearing Jerry Dandridge, played with memorable charm and snark by Sarandon. The meddling teenager next door is sure Dandridge is a vampire – needless to say, the kids are always right. 

Severen (Bill Paxton) Near Dark, 1987: The white trash dark reflection of that same year’s Lost Boys, Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western is a magnificently tense and gorgeously filmed story of a band of roaming vampires and the young cowboy who falls in with them, but the whole dang movie is nearly stolen by the late great Bill Paxton’s swaggering, sleazy Severen, a member of the vamp gang who honestly does not give a damn and storms through every situation like a pure creature of the id. He’s terrifying, and hilarious.

Darned weird vampires

‘Space girl’ (Mathilda May) Lifeforce, 1985: She’s a kind of space vampire, and she spends about 95% of her screen time utterly naked in Tobe Hooper’s bizarrely grandiose sci-fi/horror epic. It’s a trashy movie but it’s also so determined to be weird, from an overacting Patrick Stewart to its swirling, cosmic climax. It’s not a very coherent film, but May’s stoic, creepy otherness makes her nude dark creature fascinating.

Jiangshi, Mr. Vampire, 1985: Chinese vampires are weird. This insane Sammo Hung comedy horror introduced mass audiences to the Chinese folklore “jiangshi,” hopping corpses who are somewhere between zombies, vampires and leapfrogs. The vampires in this movie are creepy because they’re so far from what Bela Lugosi made us think of, more animal-like than anything, and its success led to an explosion of wild, weird films.

Not quite vampires

Blade (Wesley Snipes) Blade, Blade II and Blade III, 1998-2004: Wesley Snipes’ attitude-filled vampire killer who’s also a reluctant vampire himself was the first Marvel comics character to actually star in a hit film, and the blood-splattered, over-the-top Blade series is still a heck of a lot of fun, combining action movie energy with gory horror. 

Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage) Vampire’s Kiss, 1989: Cage is well known for going over the top. In Vampire’s Kiss he not only goes over the top, he launches himself into outer space. In this unhinged, extremely black comedy, he’s a yuppie sleazebag who apparently is bitten by a vampire. Cage goes “full Cage” as his character gradually loses his mind, eating cockroaches and screaming through the streets of Manhattan. It’s hilarious, but it’s also one heck of a piece of method acting. You’ll never forget it. 

Honourable Mention: The vampires from What We Do In The Shadows; The Hunger; Let The Right One In; Nosferatu (Herzog remake); Only Lovers Left Alive; Count Yorga; Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Well, at least Liz Truss will go down in history

Watching British Prime Minister Liz Truss’s brief tenure go down in flames has been an exciting spectator sport. After a mere 45 days in office, she’s resigned, and while the debates over her car-crash of a tenure will be going on for some time, eventually, she’ll be a footnote – the shortest serving UK Prime Minister ever. At least she’ll have company, in that weird world of history’s short-timers.

In fact, Truss is not anywhere near the record set in other countries for the shortest leadership – the briefest US President lasted a mere 31 days, while in New Zealand, our shortest-serving Prime Minister was only 13 days. In Australia, it was just eight!

US President William Henry Harrison is a footnote in Trivial Pursuit games. He died a mere month after his inauguration, the then-oldest US president at the age of 68, after giving a nearly two-hour inauguration speech in the freezing cold. His health declined over his short term, not helped by a habit of going for long walks without a coat or hat in wintry March weather. Because it was 1841, his treatment during his illness consisted of fun things like enemas, “cupping,” castor oil, opium, and a lovely cocktail of camphor, wine and brandy. It didn’t help. He lingered until April 4, 1841, only his 31st day in office. He gets points for what is perhaps the most “I love my job” deathbed speech of all time – “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government; I wish them carried out, I ask nothing more.” 

Harrison’s death has long been attributed to pneumonia, but more recent research has found it might have been some kind of enteric fever, spawned by Washington’s then literal swamps. He didn’t leave a whole lot of accomplishments other than running what might be considered the first “modern” campaign, yet his death, the first of a US President in office, did help establish the precedent of the Vice-President becoming President. Many thought John Tyler should only become an “acting President” but he simply assumed the full office, which is how it’s worked ever since. 

Henry Sewell, considering career options.

Here in New Zealand our shortest serving leaders have mostly been during the earlier days of British colonial government. Henry Sewell was New Zealand’s first premier, Prime Minister or “colonial secretary” from May 7 to 20, 1856, during the very earliest days of our colonial government – “he was too reserved and elitist for the rough and tumble of colonial politics, as the brevity of his premiership showed.” Other earlier PMs had pretty short terms as well. In modern times, the late Mike Moore served for only 59 days in 1990 before his Labour Party was voted out of office. Despite his short term, he went on to have a pretty solid career in world politics and was given that crowning kiwi accolade when he died at age 71 – “an everyday bloke.”

Across the ditch, there’s certainly been a lot of turnover in Australia’s Prime Ministers, including what I believe is the only Prime Minister ever lost at sea, but they’ve got work to do to catch up with poor Frank Forde, who only lasted 8 days in 1945. He became Prime Minister when John Curtin died suddenly, but a week later his Labor Party picked someone else to lead, and well, it was farewell, Forde. 

Few will mourn Liz Truss’s brief term as Prime Minister, but its mere brevity indicates she’ll go down in history for one thing, at least – just maybe not the way she wanted. 

In defence of… The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Weirdly low-profile for a giant green monster, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is the forgotten overshadowed superhero stepchild of the same movie summer that brought us Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. 

It’s flawed, for sure, and lacks the machine-tooled precision that the MCU movie-making machine has settled into. But when it works, The Incredible Hulk still feels to me like the best Hulk movie we’ve had to date. I think of all the Hulks we’ve seen on screen, it remains the closest to the “classic” Hulk – doomed scientist on the run from his curse, haunted and heroic. Ang Lee’s muddled 2003 film mixed intriguing ideas with a bizarre plot and felt like a Hulk in name only, and in a series of Avengers and Thor movies, Hulk has been more of a superheroic comic sidekick. 

Incredible Hulk opened mere weeks after Iron Man but these days is often lumped at the bottom of lists ranking the 30 or so Marvel movies. Still, nearly 15 years on, The Incredible Hulk is having a weird revival in the MCU – its villainous Abomination portrayed by Tim Roth has returned in the She-Hulk TV series, and the super-smart Hulk villain The Leader, whose heel turn by Tim Blake Nelson was only hinted at way back in 2008, is reportedly set to appear in the next Captain America movie.  Often dismissed in MCU fandom, there’s still a lot I like about Incredible Hulk.

Edward Norton’s tense, nervy turn as Bruce Banner owes a lot to Bill Bixby’s classic stressed-out Banner in the 70s Hulk TV show. The movie wisely skips over the Hulk’s origin in a quick few cuts and jumps to the status quo of Banner on the run from the government, hiding out in a colourful Brazil favela. The South American setting for the movie’s first act is already something a bit different, grittier than the typical superhero movie, and while there’s barely a Hulk to be seen for the first part of the movie, Norton’s haunted portrayal and the sense of impending doom carries the film well. 

We follow Banner from South America back to America, where he catches up with long-lost love Betty Ross (a great Liv Tyler) and the late William Hurt’s cruel and stern Thunderbolt Ross, as well as a tightly-wound soldier named Emil Blonsky (a coiled and ruthless Roth) who wants to take down the Hulk. When the Hulk does finally appear in broad daylight in a university campus battle, it’s suitably impressive. No, the Hulk doesn’t get a lot of screen time here, but when he does, he leaves his mark. The 2008 CGI is perhaps less smooth than modern motion-capture, but I like the somewhat ravaged, demonic look this Hulk has. 

Incredible Hulk captures the cat-and-mouse game that Banner played with his pursuers so often in the comics, reminding us that the Hulk at his core is a misunderstood monster, not a superhero (and really, not an Avenger despite the movies – in the original Avengers comics, he lasted to the second issue before quitting the group). 

Where Incredible Hulk goes off the rails is in a rushed and silly final act, where Roth’s Abomination becomes a CGI gumby and New York City ground zero in a battle that doesn’t feel like it has any of the stakes or tension of the preceding hour or so of the movie.

Director Louis Leterrier isn’t really A-list – movies like The Transporter or the terrible Clash of the Titans remake – yet the many deleted scenes on blu-ray show he and Norton were trying to make a different sort of movie than it turned into when it was shoehorned into a Marvel Cinematic Universe building block. Norton clashed a lot with Marvel and wasn’t invited back to play the Hulk again.

There are brief moments in Incredible Hulk that feel raw and adult compared to a lot of superhero flicks – Betty calming the enraged Hulk down when he’s frightened by a rainstorm; Bruce and Betty’s fleeting hotel room tryst, ruined when Banner realises, “I can’t get too excited,” or the keen glittering madness in Roth’s Blonsky, which has been erased for comic effect in She-Hulk.  

The Hulk has proven a remarkably protean character in the last few decades in the comics – after settling into the childlike “Hulk smash!” brute for most of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the mid-1980s writers started experimenting with variations on the Hulk’s dual identity, pioneered by the great, tragically curtailed writer Bill Mantlo when he introduced a lengthy take on the “smart” Hulk – one with Bruce Banner’s intelligence – and perfected by Peter David in his iconic 12-year run on the character where he brought us the calculating Grey Hulk, a “merged” Professor Hulk and much more. Since then we’ve had Red Hulks and Immortal Hulks and Robot Hulks and Son Hulks and much more. There’s so many Hulks. 

Yet, I’m still a bit partial to the simple, crisp duality of the “Incredible” Hulk, a lumbering Frankenstein-ish monster who isn’t inherently evil but is treated that way, and a Bruce Banner whose life is ruined by trying to live with this unpredictable curse. 

To be fair, I like Mark Ruffalo and his charmingly dorky Banner, but too often his Hulk has never quite felt like more than a CGI strongman. His Banner seems annoyed by being the Hulk, not haunted like Norton. The “merged” Hulk introduced in Avengers: Endgame is more awkward and bumbling than the confident version introduced in Peter David’s comics. Endgame skipped past all the settling of the Hulk’s inner conflicts introduced in Infinity War, waving all that off in a time-jump. I simply feel there’s a little too much Ruffalo in the Hulk in his current MCU incarnation and not enough, well, Hulk. 

It’s a big “what if” whether Norton could’ve been good as a Hulk in an ever-expanding, ever-calculating Marvel Cinematic Universe. His portrayal is a bit too idiosyncratic, a bit too “real” to play well with others. But it’s still the screen Hulk I like the most. 

My friend Freedy Johnston and me

OK, we’re not actually friends. I’ve never met the man. Never even seen him play. But in the way you sometimes bond with a singer/songwriter, it feels like I’ve been friends with Freedy Johnston, a tremendously underrated musician who’s helped provide the soundtrack to my life for nearly 30 years now. 

Johnston’s latest album, Back On The Road To You, just came out, and it’s already added several distinctive earworms to my brain. Freedy’s songs are like that to me – they sneak into your bloodstream, with a poignant chord or a cutting lyric that you find you can’t stop listening to. 

Born in Kansas, he’s hardly a household name, and had his biggest brush with mainstream fame with his 1994 album This Perfect World, which is where I first discovered him, too. I was working at Billboard magazine as an intern for the summer, and his disc was one of a pile of albums the editors were passing along once they were reviewed. (It seems weird to think, now, but piles of free CDs were like liquid gold then, and I ended up having boxes of them to ship back after my Billboard stint.) Freedy stood out from the Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish soundalikes. Always, he’s seemed slightly a man apart from his time. 

The single “Bad Reputation” was a brief gorgeous outlier in the summer of peak grunge in ’94, and This Perfect World is a melancholy gem of heartbreak and insight, like most of Freedy’s work. He’s not a flashy guy, more in the mold of singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, John Prine or Ray Davies – observational. He’s got a sweet voice with a slightly rough edge, always tinged with just a bit of yearning. 

My attachment to Freedy is personal, because so many of his songs felt like they were tailored for my life at the time – or maybe that’s just the universal seeping through his work. In the late 1990s, when I was doing lots of the moving around and unsettled romantic chaos that comes with your late 20s, his albums Can You Fly, Never Home and Perfect World were in constant rotation. 

Each song meant something to me.  I moved back to California, and listened again and again to the ringing chords of “California Thing” hoping for an optimistic fate – “High off the roof we rise / Flying to a hand up in the sky.”  “The Mortician’s Daughter” was about every girl I stuffed up a relationship with and the stolen moments you never forgot – “I used to love the mortician’s daughter / We rolled in the warm grass by the bone yard fence.” 

At times, Freedy’s work has gotten a little too dour and melancholy, but for the most part he’s had a remarkably consistent sound over the years. I tend to like the slightly rockier numbers the most, where at times he sounds like he’s about to erupt. 

He paints a picture with spare words – “I just told her that’s she’s my number one / And she went ‘maybe’” tells you everything to know about the relationship in “There Goes A Brooklyn Girl.” 

At his best, in a song like “He Wasn’t Murdered,” a few short sentences tell a short story – “It was a roadside stop with a broken name / And he sat there all alone / In the used-up mirror he saw his ghost come slowly walking over.”

Freedy Johnston is still plugging away in the trenches of the music business and I’m happy to be a fan. His latest album shows he’s still got it, and it’s got a gentler, optimistic edge that we kind of all need right now – I’m particularly fond of the killer harmonies of “That’s Life,” “The Power Of Love” and “Tryin’ To Move On,” which suits this uncertain time we’re all somehow, getting through. 

Anyway, listening to him all of these years, it’s felt like a secret friendship of sorts, which is perhaps the highest goal any creator can have – that their work was meant for your ears alone. His songs have kept me company through the good and the bad.

Like all of us, Freedy’s getting older, and the world is getting weirder, but there’s a comfort to know he’s around, singing songs for his friends. Cheers, mate. 

Please enjoy a playlist of bespoke Freedy Johnston tunes curated by yours truly: