Book 4 - 'The Golden Age'
Left with the unenviable task of trying to follow up on the scope of 'Olympus', Neil Gaiman quite wisely took something of a different approach for his first work on the title. Outside of the odd flashback, Miracleman himself has just two cameos in the main chapters.
The approach Gaiman takes is to tell of the world Miracleman has created, and thus we get stories about pilgrimages to Olympus, a 'Bates', Mors' underworld, Miracleman's super-intelligent children and so on. In some ways, this is a fine approach, exploring the true impact of the utopia, and masterfully turning throwaway frames in Moore's final issue into full stories. On the other hand, it leads to a read that feels like the crumbs left by Moore, which doesn't really do Gaiman's talent much justice. That he manages to exploit such small openings is laudable, but it hardly makes for an epic.
The problem is most of these instalments overstay their welcome. If I were feeling uncharitable, I'd state that the entire book does, considering it takes ~150 pages to make the point that utopia isn't the best thing for everyone, but it is better than that. The problem is that, even writing something as elegiac as 'Olympus', Moore never quite forgot he was writing a superhero book, adding drama and plot advancement to the philosophy and morality. 'The Golden Age', on the other hand, is virtually plot-less. It's a series of vignettes. Such an approach would make a nice selection of interludes, but a whole book of them is overdoing it. That the "Retrieval" strip (which ran in batches of two pages from Miracleman #17-21 with a four-page conclusion in Miracleman #22, but was irritatingly and inexplicably omitted from the TPB) is considerably more engaging than anything else illustrates the arc's problems.
All this said, some of the stories are fascinating. Best of the bunch is "Tales from the Underground", set in Mors' underworld of revived celebrities as one of the eighteen clones of Andy Warhol is tasked with looking after the revived Emil Gargunza. It's not as wilfully quirky as it sounds, with Andy being an engaging narrator. His discussions with Gargunza are fascinating, as is his ongoing dislike of the abolition of money - the human drive for the stuff, as noted, can sometimes stretch beyond financial concerns, in this case a need to feel like you're doing well in your chosen field. It's an impressive story, full of nice touches (such as Miracleman and Miraclewoman still fearing Gargunza, in case he reverts them to their human selves), and is as good a study of the complex Gargunza as anything Moore wrote. Mark Buckingham wildly varies his artistic style throughout the book, using a distinctive, and effective 'pop art' style for this segment that adds mood.
"A Prayer and a Hope" is also an impressive work, thanks to some interesting ideas. The crux of this instalment is how inaccessible and out of touch Miracleman himself is, and the vivid tale of an arduous journey by four pilgrims, juxtaposed with Miracleman's brief, uncomplicated audience with them. It helps that the central character is engaging, and the story is well told, involving the reader in the unnamed narrator's plight, so that Miracleman's curt, largely unexplained dismissal of his request is crushing.
"Trends", a tale of schoolyard gossip in the age of miracles, is also a fun little piece, as a teenage boy tries to find a way to rebel in a society of absolute free will. It's a fascinating little piece, showing the effect of the new world on children still too callow to fully understand it, who have grown up with miracles. Mark Buckingham rises to the challenge with a fun Leo Baxendale homage for the artwork too.
Another success is "Screaming", telling the story of Jason (the kid from "One of Those Quiet Moments", in Book 2) since his first appearance. It's an engaging little story, nicely adding a few details to the world (if something like London was to happen, there would be a documentary), and adding a slightly different perspective, that of someone who's met Miracleman, however briefly, before he became a God.
Sadly, several other stories are less successful. The device of a child's storybook in "Winter's Tale" is cute, but the surrounding narrative rather bludgeons home the main theme, that having one of Miracleman's children in the same family as a normal child creates a large amount of stress, and is disorientating for parents. Not only is this a little laboured, but it also covers ground already related in Book 3 (notably when it quickly became apparent that Winter was more advanced than Miracleman, something which proved to be as stressful for Liz as Mist's nature is for her mother). Once again, it's a demonstration of how the new system robs some people of responsibilities they enjoy - just as Warhol misses capitalism as his value helped his self-esteem, the mother misses having a child that needs her. Unfortunately, it makes this point very early on, and adds little more throughout its' length, beyond once again making the point that the precocious children of Miracleman are actually pretty annoying.
"Spy Story" makes the same mistake. While the paranoia of an ex-intelligence worker is captured well, and the (heavily acknowledged) Prisoner homage of a town for all these people so they can overcome their old ways of thinking and be reintroduced to the community are good ideas, once again it's not worthy of 19 pages. The Intel double thinking and plotting becoming tiresome very early on, despite some atmospheric art from Buckingham. Ruth isn't the most interesting of characters, and it's very difficult to care about her. It's a worthy story in its' own way, managing to get something out of such a minor angle, but surely there are more interesting stories to tell, and surely it could have been told with greater economy?
Also unsuccessful is "Skin Deep". This focuses on a narcissistic man named Jack Galloway, obsessed with finding the perfect woman. He falls in love with Miraclewoman, and has a relationship with her while she proves there's no such thing as perfection, and he then moves on with his life, learning to settle for something that makes him happy. I'm not sure if I've massively misunderstood something with this one, as it seems to be an arty version of that Eddie Murphy film. The basic message can be seen a mile off, and Galloway's a massive arsehole, the end result meaning it's difficult to care about any of it.
The final chapter, "Carnival", dovetails many of these people together, taking place at a festival in London to mark the anniversary of Bates' death. Most of these people are much more interesting interacting with each other and being out and around doing things - though I suppose the counter-argument would be that without their previous vignettes we wouldn't know who the Hell they were. The best parts are a low-key cameo from Miracleman, and the closing image of the pilgrim from "A Prayer and a Hope" forlornly holding a balloon, flying over London and looking like he wants to die. Utopia - it's not for everyone.
And neither is this collection I'm sure its' "slice of life in the age of miracles" approach is groundbreaking, but it's just not a terribly exciting collection in its' own right. The exploration of this new world is a very interesting subject, but I can't help but feel these ideas would have been better utilised as interludes to a set of stories with Miracleman as a more central figure. It's a brave and unconventional approach, but not always a successful one. 'The Golden Age' is still very much worth reading, even if radically different from the Moore material (and especially jarring if read off the back of 'Olympus'), even if it seems to largely take avoiding comic clichés too far, leading the reader hoping for the odd clichéd plot-twist. Its' best point is that the largely stand-alone stories give the reader the option of dipping in and reading the best ones easily, or skipping the poorer ones.
"The ideas are strong, but if you can't care about the people, what does it matter?" - Mist, Chapter 4