Content warning: This article contains discussions and imagery of depression and attempted suicide.
With the release of the collected edition of Mister Miracle, one of the most groundbreaking comics this century, I thought it would be fun to examine the first six issues of Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ run and discuss how they both celebrate and innovate on the classic stories and characters from Jack Kirby’s original run. DC has recently put out remastered reprints of much of Kirby’s work with the Fourth World tetralogy, including Mister Miracle, all of which highlight how much of a towering giant Kirby was – his hands shaped comics history in many ways, influencing all that followed.
Strap in, folks… we’re about to get cosmic!
Mister Miracle is the tale of Scott Free, a young man raised on the dread world of Apokolips under the watchful gaze of the nightmarish Granny Goodness. In Granny’s orphanage, boys are forged into troopers for the army of Darkseid and filled with a sick love and devotion for Granny, making them unquestionably loyal to her. Scott Free, however, refuses to bend to Granny’s will and with the help of Big Barda, a ferocious female warrior, escapes Apokolips for Earth where he begins a new life as the world’s greatest escape artist and showman.
Jack Kirby, however, does not begin his tale at the beginning. Instead, we are thrown in at the middle – Mister Miracle is already on Earth and demonstrating his incredible escape skills, aided by his trusty assistant Oberon. Kirby (ever a master of understatement) kicks off his story with a bang, proclaiming:
“Is he a master of spectacular trickery–or is he something more?–You will have to decide when you confront the strangest, most incredible hero ever to appear in comics! You will see what he does–you will wonder how he does it! But always waiting in the wings–are his two greatest enemies–the men who challenge him–and death himself!”Mister Miracle #1 (writer: Jack Kirby)
It’s a bold, forceful statement that immediately sets the stage for something different – this is new, this is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Kirby’s “tone of voice” veers slightly away from the earth-shattering, pulse-pounding declarations of a superhero comics narrator and takes on the feel of a carnival barker, exhorting the reader to ‘roll up, roll up’ and see the incredible Mister Miracle. In the corresponding splash page that starts the issue, we see the hero (garbed in his trademark dazzling attire) being locked up in a strange metal contraption by his short, white-haired assistant. He positively oozes confidence and swagger, smirking slightly as his assistant frets about the danger – he’s the consummate showman, resolute in his ability to defy death for the sake of pure spectacle.
In the first issue of Mister Miracle (2017), the same narration is used – word for word identical, with only the punctuation altered slightly to facilitate its use across several caption boxes. It has that same carnival barker feel – a refreshing ‘old-time’ voice that stands out in a modern comic, where narration often strives for grit, darkness and emotional turmoil. The corresponding images, however, could not be more different – Scott Free, unmasked, sitting on the floor of a bathroom with a frightening amount of blood running from his slit wrists. It’s the complete opposite of the confident, powerful hero from Kirby’s first page; here Scott is vulnerable, damaged and close to death.
Heroes in Crisis
This is a bold storytelling choice, and one that is consistent with writer Tom King’s previous work; he has often sought to show the superheroes that he’s written as real people, with real emotions. A notable example of that can be found in his work on Batman: Rebirth, from 2016 – the revelation (narrated over a stunning double page spread by artist Mikael Janin) that Bruce Wayne, at ten years old, sought to slit his own wrists because of his pain and sadness at the loss of his parents.
Rather than using that for cheap thrills, King works it into the core of the Batman mythos – that, beneath the cowl and the cape and the fancy gadgets, Batman is a hero because when he’s beaten down, he always gets back up. Introducing the element of suicide into the story simply grounds it in reality – a lot of people who struggle with their mental health have suicidal thoughts or have self-harmed. The idea that Batman, who fought through that experience to become one of Earth’s greatest heroes, despite his lack of a magic ring or alien birthright, is truly inspiring.
That aside, the attempted suicide that opens Mister Miracle has a different message – here Scott is seeking to conquer the last, greatest frontier, the trap that faces all humanity and which nobody has ever been able to escape… death. However, he’s not doing so for thrills or because of his desire to conquer the unknown – those feelings have been sucked out of him by the constant, nagging force of depression weighing him down.
In one of the most talked-about and bold artistic decisions of this run, King and Gerads decide to vividly illustrate the background hum of depression in Scott’s life, and the constant spikes it sends into his consciousness, through scattered, pitch-black panels emblazoned with the words “Darkseid is.” Darkseid, for those not aware, is commonly considered to be the “Big Bad” of the DC Universe – the ruler of the hellish planet Apokolips, a tyrant who seeks to subjugate all life in the universe using something called ‘the Anti-Life Equation’.
These “Darkseid is” panels are dotted almost haphazardly around the 9-page grids that Gerads is using, constantly yanking the reader out of the flow of narration or dialogue, and as issue #1 proceeds they begin to grow in frequency until the reader is greeted with one that takes up a full page. Darkseid is therefore, despite never appearing in person (at least, not until later in the run), a constant presence and sense of foreboding dread hanging over the pages of each issue.
In Kirby’s original run, we discover bits and pieces of Scott’s past and the entire pantheon of Kirby’s “Fourth World” in fragments – after the opening splash page, it’s revealed that Mister Miracle is in fact Thaddeus Brown, an old, white-haired (and entirely human) escape artist who’s built a career as a showman but cedes his costume and secret identity to Scott after his death midway through the first issue. Introducing himself, the young Scott Free simply tells Thaddeus “I was raised in an orphanage,” – not going into any detail about the horrors he endured as a child.
Kirby was careful not to overload the reader with the backstory that he had devised for his characters – Apokolips is mentioned in future issues, as is Darkseid, then the mighty female warrior Big Barda arrives at Scott’s home and provides a little more detail about the world both she and Scott escaped. It isn’t until issue #5 of the run that we’re shown a story of “Young Scott Free”, being raised by Granny Goodness on Apokolips. This was partly because there were several other titles based in the Fourth World mythology also released around the same time as Mister Miracle (‘Forever People’, ‘The New Gods’, and even ‘Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen’) so Kirby saw no need to force those characters and stories into this book in a way that would be detrimental to the action-packed escape stories he was telling.
By 2019, of course, much of mainstream superhero comics is built on a shared universe where characters and stories move from title to title as editorial demands it – which explains why in King and Gerads’ Mister Miracle, the story must also be entwined with high-stakes cosmic drama around the death of Highfather, the benevolent ruler of New Genesis and Scott’s father, and his dangerous brother Orian’s ascension to that throne in the face of a military threat from Apokolips.
However, there’s a careful effort to keep the focus on these characters and largely ignore the wider DC world – Scott wears Batman and Green Lantern t-shirts at various points, and the Justice League are mentioned, but fundamentally this battle is for Scott and Barda to fight. Kirby did increase the scope of his run to include the New Genesis vs. Apokalips conflict over time, with issue #7 (my personal highlight of the collection) showing Scott and Barda’s return to Apokolips to face down Granny Goodness in response to the attacks she has sent against them on Earth, but at least initially the stakes for Scott and Oberon were lower.
There are particular parallels here in the relationship between Scott and Barda – while in King and Gerads’ story, it’s well-established that they are a couple with a deep, abiding love for each other, in Kirby’s run there were merely hints of the beginning of that romance. However, in both stories the two of them decide together to face their destiny – the end of Kirby’s issue #6 has Scott proclaiming “Our battle is with the forces of Apokalips!–and with ourselves!!” Barda replies by telling Scott that he’s “beautiful inside” and that she’s worried about what they’ll do to him if he returns; a suggestion (expanded on later by Kirby) that Barda is falling for Scott.
Meanwhile, King and Gerad’s issue #1 closes with a beautiful fusion of the mundane and the cosmic – first, Barda talks about how she’s called a friend to look after the couple’s cats while they’re away. Then they begin to discuss the threat ahead of them, with her telling Scott “You’re the son of Highfather, the son of God, heir to his throne, raised by his greatest enemy. You may be the only one who can save us.”
Scott continues to doubt himself, telling her that he can’t escape the challenge in front of them – only for Barda, ever a fearsome warrior, to smack him across the face before demanding he stand upright so that she can hold his hand as they cross into the unknown together. It’s a perfect summation of the love that this fierce warrior woman has for Scott; she’d fight and die for him, but she’s not averse to tough love if she thinks he needs it.
“The Making of a Legend!”
While a gulf of nearly 50 years separates these two versions of the character, I’d argue that the timeless nature of Jack Kirby’s creation – who is still as fresh and interesting today as he was back in 1971 – lends itself to reinterpretation. King and Gerads have accomplished the feat of presenting their own new take on a classic character and doing so in a way which celebrates the legacy of Mister Miracle; the use of the classic narration is an excellent postmodern twist that calls back to the halcyon days of classic comics while also allowing them to put a different spin on the words for today’s audience.
However, they’ve also deepened the emotional heart of Kirby’s original stories, weaving in the spectre of depression and the weight of several worlds resting on Scott Free’s shoulders. These ideas weren’t overtly present in Kirby’s originals (his goal was to entertain with thrilling stories of adventure!) but they were definitely lurking under the surface – it makes total sense that a child raised in the fire pits of Apokalips by a sadistic monster would have traumatic memories of that experience, and the 2017 version of Mister Miracle brings that subtext to the foreground in a powerful and compelling way.
Mister Miracle: The Complete Series is now available wherever comics are sold.
Chris has been writing comics for a large chunk of his life, but only started making them properly in 2011. He’s worked with chap-hop superstar Professor Elemental on a series of anthology comics as well as writing stories for a number of prestigious small press publications including Futurequake, Aces Weekly and the Psychedelic Journal and creating his own comic book series ‘Brigantia’ with artist Melissa Trender.