Review: Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerard

The title of this article is a lie.  This isn’t going to be a review.  Mister Miracle is my favorite story of 2018.  It’s not even up for dispute across all the media I’ve consumed this year.  The book’s release is something I look forward to every month.  In a world of constant stress and personal frustration, the eleven issues that have come out this year have been soul-cleansing for me, every single time.  But even beyond my personal affection for the book, Mister Miracle might be the most important piece of pop art to be released this year.

The problem is that Mister Miracle as both a book and character is both are super difficult to talk about.  The character, Scott Free, is from one of the most dense and self-referential corners of the DC Comics universe.  On one hand, Scott Free should be easy to explain: he’s a superhero escape artist.  He’s Houdini with Batman’s utility belt and Captain America’s physique.  But Scott is also a literal god.  Scott and his slice of the DC Universe were conceived by Jack Kirby, a giant of the comic book industry and frequent collaborator with Stan Lee.  Kirby created his Fourth World in the late 70s.  It was a space opera, Star Wars by way of the superhero genre, spread across three ongoing series.  The original Mister Miracle series was the most traditional setup in the bunch, a runaway from the tyrannical planet of Apokolips (the names are really subtle) who settled down on Earth and took up being a caped hero when he wasn’t working as a world-class escape artist on the stage.  But again, that’s just the surface.

Scott Free’s background and origin story are only one facet of his complexity.  Beyond the simple gimmick of “alien Houdini superhero,” Scott Free is that rare costumed hero who has a bit of symbolism baked right in.  Keeping in mind that Scott’s entire race are called “The New Gods,” he’s the son of Izaya Highfather, the king and god of the peaceful planet of New Genesis (again, subtle naming here but keep up).  At a young age, Scott was sent to live on the hellscape of Apokolips as part of a hostage exchange (New Genesis got the more traditionally heroic character of Orion in the deal) meant to ensure peace between the two worlds.  So even a cursory examination of that story reveals the son of a god that was sent to Hell for the sins of others.  Scott Free, the superhero Mister Miracle, is an allegory for Jesus Christ (and for what it’s worth, Jack Kirby was Jewish).  But where Jesus apparently suffered and died for the sins of others, Scott escaped his torment and fled to Earth where he works to save people on a more individual level in his capacity as superhero.  That has some serious connotations if you stop to consider it.

Okay, now we can talk about Tom King’s 2018 Mister Miracle series.  Mister Miracle, the series is set up as something of a sequel to the original series.  The only problem is that this sequel is pretty much a nightmare.  The story opens on Scott attempting suicide due to suffering from severe depression.  In the book’s first (of many) morbid joke, his publicist passes off the attempt as the ultimate escape trick.  Scott Free wasn’t trying to kill himself, he was trying to escape death itself.  The opening pages of the book set the tone in this regard.  But then again, there’s nobody better at writing realistically weary, exhausted characters than Tom King.  King’s route to being a comic book writer is fascinating as he served a Counter Terrorism agent for the CIA in the War on Terror before becoming a novelist.  Soon after, he was approached by DC and Marvel.  King has a knack for writing heroes that are haunted in some way.  His current run on Batman has taken a hard tack against the gritty anti-heroics of the character and has instead focused on Batman’s quest for genuine happiness.  And his award-winning Good Intentions thematic trilogy (which feel like a trial run for Mister Miracle) deserves an essay on its own for the depths of its writing.

King’s Scott Free is a man out of his element and terminally exhausted.  In the first issue, while still recuperating from his suicide attempt, his father is killed in the first salvos of a reignited war between New Genesis and Apokolips.  Shortly after, he’s drafted into that same war and finds himself fighting under the order of his counterpart Orion.  Normally Orion is portrayed as an almost tragic character in the Byronic mold, he is at war with his own warlike nature.  Instead, in the first half of Mister Miracle, Orion seems to have succumb to his demons and become a warmongering fascist dictator.   It’s even implied that the war isn’t the fault of Apokolips but Orion himself.  Orion’s blood-lust is the first of many allusions to the real world.  King made it clear in interviews that he was inspired by the current political climate when writing Mister Miracle.  The first act of Mister Miracle is defined by a palpable sense of unease regarding Orion and his leadership.  We never get a broad overview of Orion’s policies or strategies (Free and his wife, fellow superhero Big Barda still live on Earth and use technology to teleport to and fight on Apokolips) but we get glimpses.  It’s like tracking the news on modern social media, building a complete picture from snippets, sound bites and incomplete data.

The early portion of Mister Miracle is a death march of tragedy, and exhaustion.  But Mister Miracle is the ultimate survivor and so he soldiers on and we, the readers, follow in his wake.  Both the reader and Scott himself are always hounded by a simple two word phrase, superimposed against a black background and emblazoned in white text: Darkseid Is.  Darkseid refers to the evil ruler of Apokolips, one of the single most powerful and evil entities in the DC universe.  Darkseid is fascinating on a number of levels, much like our hero.  To call Darkseid a supervillain is a disservice.  Darkseid embodies evil.  His ultimate goal throughout his fictional history has always been to find and control The Anti-Life Equation.  According to DC Comics’ lore, the Anti-Life Equation is the fundamental mathematical proof which shows beyond a shadow of a doubt, the pointlessness of life.  It’s this quest and the character’s very nature that caused comic book writer Grant Morrison to coin the phrase “Darkseid Is,” to summarize him.  Darkseid does not commit crimes.  Darkseid doesn’t enact evil schemes or even perform “evil” deed, because he doesn’t need too.  Put simply, Darkseid Is.

But where Morrison used the phrase to emphasize Darkseid’s divine nature as a literal god of evil, King takes a different approach.  Instead of using the pair of words to define the antagonist, King uses them as a reminder.  Throughout the book, and especially in the first several chapters (just think of the individually released issues as chapters in a singular work) Scott is still struggling with his depression.  The phrase “Darkseid Is” begins to refer, less to the villainous ruler of Apokolips, and more to Free’s mental state.  Early one, especially in the first chapter, the words appear every other panel on some pages.  As time goes on, and Scott finds a modicum of solace in his situation, the words appear less and less.  But while their frequency dies down, the effect they have on both Scott and reader increases in intensity.  And this is where I get to talk about Mitch Gerard’s fantastic artwork on the book.  Every time the two words appear, it’s as though the world is breaking down.  The art seems to glitch out on the page before us.  Characters flicker out of reality, textures melt and colors begin to mosh together.  It’s like the comic book reality is breaking down.  But that broaches the question: is it reality that’s breaking down, or Scott’s perception of it?  Did Scott Free really escape death at start of chapter 1?  Has anything in the past twelve volumes been the truth?  I’m not going to spoil it, you’ll have to find out for yourself.

There’s so much I haven’t even begun to discuss about this book.  Like how the relationship between Scott and his wife Barda is quite possibly the most well-realized one in all of modern comics.  Scott and Barda (who is a nearly seven foot tall warrior woman) have always been one of the best couples in DC Comics, but King writes them with a realistic sense of companionship.  They’re a married couple and their quite literally each other’s better half.  The war on Apokolips doesn’t fill the Free couple’s entire life and we have ample time to see them going about their daily lives in Los Angeles.  They plan for Scott’s shows, discuss personal matters like redecorating the kitchen and go through the rigors of domestic bliss when they aren’t fighting aliens half the galaxy away.  And it’s funny!  Most humor in superhero comics is derived from witty one liners and other dialogue exchanges but King and Gerard mine endless material from the visuals of the surreal scenarios of the book.  Like how Scott asks to be put on trial in his own living room.  And because it’s a special occasion, the family buy a veggie platter for everyone.  Or how Scott’s wardrobe seems to consist entirely of jeans and T-shirts based on other superheroes.  When characters do or say funny things, it’s very rarely sarcastic or quipped through a grin.  The line “Batman kills baby,” is genuinely hilarious in context and it’s delivered with deadpan seriousness.

But more importantly than the excellent writing and constantly on-point artwork is the thematic heft of Scott Free’s story.  If the opening and that paragraph about the main villain didn’t give it away, Mister Miracle is a story about dealing with hardship and mental illness in particular.  I do no suffer from depression, but I’ve dealt with it in the past.  It was a fleeting dalliance in my case.  Depression and I passed each other like ships in the night, though in many ways I’m still dealing with the aftermath.  The book equates living with mental illness to living in hell.  In this metaphor, hardship (in the form of mental illness or otherwise) isn’t something you can escape because it’s all encompassing.  As one character muses, “this devil came after that last one, and after this devil comes another one.”  But that’s life.  Taken from one perspective, life is nothing but an endless cavalcade of pain and misery.  On the other hand, you take the good with the bad and “escaping,” the bad would also mean escaping the good.  It would mean turning away from family and friends, as well as all the triumphs of life, both big and small.  This might seem like a trite moral “living life is better than the alternative,” but I’ll take a simple moral told eloquently over a complex one any day of the week.  Plus, that thematic denouement and the twelve issues building up to it are why I love Mister Miracle.  That sentiment is why it’s the most important piece of pop art to come out this year, at least to me.

This is where things get tricky.  I know the majority of people who read this blog aren’t actively into comic books.  So if you want to enjoy Mister Miracle you have two options.  You can either buy all the individual issues, all of which have been released at time of writing.  The alternative would be to wait a few months and pick them up as something called a trade.  Trades are paperback collections of comic books, which turn individual issues into chapters more or less.  Trades have exploded in popularity in recent years and are actually a major part of how and why I got into comic books.  The trade paperback of Mister Miracle is scheduled to come out in February 2019.  If you intend to pick up the individual issues, firstly it’s the more expensive option and secondly, if you’re having trouble finding or going into a brick and mortar comic book store, most ink and paper comics are available in some form online.  I read all twelve issues of Mister Miracle through the Comixology App on my phone and tablet.  Though yes, I’ll be picking up a physical trade when it comes out.

Normally this is where I would put any comments or criticisms of Mister Miracle but I honestly cannot think of any.  If you twist my arm I might say that the early chapters aren’t paced as well as the later issues but that’s a minor complaint at best.  Otherwise, this series is pretty much perfect.  It deserves to be discussed in the same breath as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.  It’s the best and most necessary graphic novel of our time.

Thanks for reading.

Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerard is available through DC Comics.


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