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It starts, as most things do in comics, with Superman.
In 1938, Action Comics No. 1 introduced the world to a new kind of hero and a new genre.
And the success of that naturally prompted others to create their own superheroes.
One of these others was Fawcett Comics, who in 1939 created a character called Captain Marvel.
He was strong like Superman, and fast, and his alter-ego was a reporter
but there was one major difference: Captain Marvel's alter-ego, unlike Clark Kent, was a child--
Billy Batson--
who, when he spoke the magic word "shazam", magically transformed into an adult superhuman.
Captain Marvel went on to become the most popular superhero of the 1940s,
his comics outselling even Superman.
But in 1941, Superman's publisher, National Comics, later called DC Comics, sued Fawcett,
claiming that Captain Marvel infringed on their copyright by being "based too closely" on their hero.
Whether that's really true is for you to decide.
I'm not really convinced, personally.
But regardless, the litigation dragged on for twelve years and ultimately resulted in Fawcett settling with DC
and agreeing to completely cease publication of Captain Marvel comics in 1953
before shuttering its entire comics division.
Meanwhile, in the UK, a small publisher called L. Miller & Son had been making money
by reprinting the Fawcett Captain Marvel comics for a British audience
But with the result of DC's lawsuit in '53, they suddenly found themselves without any new material.
So, what did they do?
They created their own version of Captain Marvel completely overhauling the name to...
...uh
Marvelman.
It was a thin disguise.
Billy Batson became 'Mickey Moran'
Shazam became 'Kitoma'
Captain Marvel Jr. became 'Young Marvelman'
Mary Marvel became 'Kid Marvelman'
With writer Mick Anglo at the helm, L. Miller & Son had success for nearly a decade.
Then in 1959, Britain lifted the ban on imports of American comics
and the black and white Marvelman just couldn't compete with the bright colors of the Silver Age.
In '63, Anglo's Marvelman run ended and L. Miller & Son closed its doors too...
...History became legend,
legend became myth, and for twenty years Marvelman passed out of all knowledge.
Until, when chance came, it ensnared a new writer.
Almost 20 years later in 1982, Dez Skinn decided to revive Marvelman for his new comics anthology, Warrior,
and settled on a young writer named Alan Moore to do it.
What resulted changed superhero comics and superheroes forever.
This is Alan Moore's Marvelman.
You can tell from the first few pages that this Marvelman is radically different from his previous incarnation.
Mickey Moran is no longer a child.
He's a disheveled man of middle age, still a reporter, but financially insecure
and, most importantly, he has no memory of ever being a superhero
though he is having some strange dreams.
At a hijacking a few panels later, Moran discovers the triggering word—
"Kitoma",
and explodes into Marvelman, suddenly remembering the history of his heroic exploits.
He flies home to tell his wife who he really is and she...
...laughs in his face.
She points out that his backstory,
essentially the basis of all superheroes, where he and his friends fight colorful villains on a regular basis,
is ridiculous.
And if it is true,
how come nobody remembers it?
Moore reveals that the entire history of Marvelman is a lie.
He and his super-friends were actually created in a lab, with alien technology
—by a scientist who was a murderer, and a rapist, and a former Nazi—
in order to give the British Government a superior weapon to the atomic bomb.
Their memories were dream fantasies, programmed to test and control them.
Why did Moore retcon the entire Marvelman story?
Well, in order to pose the question that he actually wants to explore:
what if superhumans existed in the real world?
Now, realism in superhero stories is something we're very familiar with today.
In fact, it's something we sort of demand.
We want our heroes to have flaws, emotional depth.
We want our villains to be, if not sympathetic, then at least plausibly motivated.
We want the actions of both to have consequences;
we want that world, in other words, to resemble our own.
Common as it is today, Moore was really the first to explore these ideas comprehensively,
and he did it in the pages of Marvelman,
and the answers to the questions he asked were not always pretty;
in fact, they were often horrifying.
What Moore suggests in Marvelman is that power changes the world.
Irreversibly.
And if great power was embodied in individuals,
those beings would inevitably look on the rest of us as we look on animals;
they would not be subject to our laws or even our morality.
They would do as they wished and if they wish to be cruel, their cruelty would be catastrophic.
And just as we would be insects to them,
they would be gods to us: incomprehensible.
"We will never grasp their hopes, their despair.
"We will never know the destiny that howls in their hearts,
"never know their pain, their love, their almost sexual hatred."
"We are only human, and perhaps we will be the less for that."
It's clear that quote-unquote real super-humans wouldn't just fight crime like they do in the old comics,
it's clear that their battles would result in death and destruction,
in modern comics those things are often depicted,
but after the fight is over and the havoc is wreaked,
things usually go back to something approximating normal.
For Moore, the presence of superheroes signifies a more fundamental change: there is no equilibrium to return to.
Marvelman doesn't switch back to Mickey Moran once his nemesis is defeated,
he gives up the weak Moran forever. The superheroes work together to alter every aspect of life on earth.
They abolish money. They bring back the dead. They create new superhumans. Power like that doesn't restore balance to the world.
It makes a new one.
Marvelman, now called "Miracleman" thanks to more legal stuff it's not worth it to get into, is not perfect.
Its edges are a little bit rough.
Moore would go on to treat these ideas about superheroes more elegantly in Watchmen
but this comic is a watershed, and still able to shock and stimulate
even after so many copycats have desensitized us to its ideas.
Whether these themes have any juice left in them after almost 40 years is a question for another video.
Regardless, it's worth it to go back and see how Alan Moore brought superheroes into the modern age.
Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching.
I hope you're safe and well in this crazy—absolutely crazy time.
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Thanks, guys. I'll see you next time.