So I’ve been talking about movies and television and old funnybooks lately, and haven’t covered current comics much. I’ve abandoned the idea of covering the stack of unreviewed comics on my desk (partially because I filed them all away this weekend in a cleaning fit), but there is one book I held aside because I thought it was worth wrestling with all on its own…
Mister Miracle 1&2
by Tom King and Mitch Gerads
I’m both intrigued and uncertain about this book. I love the narrative structure and the artwork, but there are times when I feel like it’s not true to the spirit of the character.
That’s something I’m particularly sensitive to with Jack Kirby’s Fourth World stuff, where the ideas are at least half of the appeal. So I hate it, for example, when Darkseid is presented as a generic space conqueror who sends his armies to crush Earth beneath his boot heel. If you want to write that story, just use freaking Mongul. Of all the Darkseid rip-offs Jim Starlin ever created (of which, to be fair, there are only two), he’s the one best-suited to that kind of story. Because even though he’s the god of fascism, crushing us militarily is the one thing Darkseid can’t actually do to us. Hell, he doesn’t even want to. We would be quite literally beneath his notice if we didn’t hold the key to the Anti-Life Equation. And that’s something he has to tease out of our collective unconscious, rather than squeezing it. So instead of sending massive armies of Para-Demons to kill us all, he has to have gangsters do his dirty work. He has to send the god of demagoguery to lie to us, and weird scientist types to experiment with our genetic structure. He has to (and this is my litmus test for how well someone really understands the Fourth World) build amusement parks that are secret torture chambers.
And Mister Miracle is no different. If Darkseid is the god of fascism, Mister Miracle is his opposite number. He’s the god of freedom. He doesn’t confront Darkseid directly. That may be what his family wants him to do. It may even be his birthright, as the son of Highfather. But he has to be free, even from that. So he responds by being an example, without even trying, of the one thing that can actually defeat Darkseid in his mad plan for universal dominance: a free soul. That’s why he’s an escape artist. No matter what kind of shackles are placed on him, he’ll get out of them. He’ll get free. It’s in his name: Scott Free. In fact, pretty much everything you need to know about him is spelled out on the cover of Jack Kirby’s very first issue:
And that’s why I’m of two minds about Tom King’s take on the character. As the series opens, we discover that Scott has tried to kill himself.
The escapes are becoming too easy, he reveals. There’s no challenge anymore. And Oberon. Oberon’s dead. Cancer. And Scott made the decision to pull the plug. All that’s weighing on him. He’s become disaffected, and he’s losing his grip on reality. He won’t quite admit it, even to himself, but he’s given up hope. The problem is, that seems antithetical to Mister Miracle as a character. As the god of freedom, he also in some ways represents eternal hope. That’s his greatest strength, in fact. He’s not physically powerful (at least, not for a god), but his will, his desire for freedom, is indomitable. He can be battered and bruised and challenged to the edge of his ability. But he can never give up. So that thousand-yard stare he’s sporting on Nick Derington’s cover for issue two of the current series…
…just seems wrong. There’s an element to the book that reminds me of the sort of pidgen-Alan-Moore deconstructionist takes we’ve gotten on so many licensed characters in the last quarter-century. Writers who’ve looked at a perfectly good idea and said, “It’s about this and this. But the really interesting question is… what happens if it’s NOT?” Oy vey. I’m not saying we’ve never gotten a good story out of that approach, but holy crap! Enough is enough! At this point, I’m far more interested in seeing someone explore what these characters ARE, rather than what they’re not.
So luckily, I don’t think that’s what King is actually doing here.
I think what we’re seeing is Mister Miracle facing the deadliest trap of his career. A trap made not of science and steel, but of LIFE ITSELF. Why do I think that?
That’s an incredibly well-conceived bit of propaganda that Kirby used to spell out, as eloquently as possible, exactly what Darkseid is all about. DARKSEID IS… What? Everything. All that matters. It’s the guiding principle of his empire, and the ultimate goal of the Anti-Life Equation. If Darkseid achieves it, free will ceases to exist. All that is… All that matters… will be Darkseid. We see the slogan on signs all over Apokolips in the original series, especially in Armagetto, the slum in which Scott Free grew up. And it repeats here, in his lowest moments.
These panels are peppered throughout the first two issues, with increasing frequency as you progress.
They play as a sort of Greek chorus to the action…
…interrupting the flow of events but also commenting on it…
…until they become stifling.
Finally, they take over the whole page, and seem…
But we already know what Mister Miracle thinks about inescapable traps, don’t we?
So what’s going on here, then? Well. I think the key scenes in the series to date are this one:
And this one:
So Darkseid has Anti-Life, and Barda’s eyes are a different color.
We’ve only seen a couple of takes on Anti-Life over the years. Kirby, perhaps wisely, never defined it. But Grant Morrison (one of only two writers other than Kirby I’ve seen handle the New Gods well) presented it as a negation of the self. I think King is playing with a similar idea here. But Highfather also says that Anti-Life gives Darkseid control over reality itself. Now, if he really had that, I’m not sure we’d be seeing the war we get in the second issue. I’m pretty sure it would all be over before we knew what was happening. So I’m left with two possibilities:
1. The series is taking place after Darkseid’s already won. He’s got Anti-Life, All is now Darkseid, and we’re witnessing Scott Free’s own personal hell.
2. Darkseid hasn’t won. He doesn’t have Anti-Life. But Scott is nonetheless trapped in a prison made of his own fears and insecurities. Whether that prison is of his own devising… something he’s experimenting with because normal physical escapes have become too boring… or whether it’s something being done to him… perhaps by Darkseid and his minions as a tool to unlock the Anti-Life Equation… I have no idea.
But that, generally, is what I think is going on. And both those theories come from the same place: inside Scott’s own head. It would explain a lot. Because Scott’s yearning for freedom could be interpreted another way: as a refusal to accept responsibility. Having to take responsibility for Oberon may have broken him, for instance, but beyond that… He’s the son of Highfather, rightful heir to the throne of New Genesis. But he’s never shown the slightest interest in accepting that birthright, and I have to think there’s some fear involved in that. Fear that he’s not worthy of replacing his father. Fear that he’s too big a screw-up to take on the job. So here, in Scott Free’s own hell-world, he falls apart before he even has the chance. And when Highfather falls in war with Apokolips, that leaves New Genesis to be run by Orion. Darkseid’s son, left to be raised as Highfather’s own. A situation that… really doesn’t seem to be going very well.
This is another one of the things that makes me think the story we’re seeing isn’t real. This doesn’t feel like New Genesis. It doesn’t feel like Orion. And it definitely doesn’t feel like Lightray. I would think that, instead of being the friendly explainer of Orion’s new kneeling policy, Lightray would instead gently mock him for it. Of course, if Darkseid really has won, this could be Orion’s personal hell, too. Becoming more like his birth father than his adoptive one, and staining New Genesis in the process, might very well be his worst fear realized. But regardless, it’s one of the sour notes that tell me not everything is as it seems in this series.
That’s why I think Barda’s eyes are so important. It’s a glitch. A wrong detail. The trap tries to explain it away by making Scott think he’s crazy. But it might be something else. It might be Scott’s mind fighting back. Telling him that something’s not right. That may also be why he has a chat with Oberon.
So Scott’s having a conversation with a dead man (if Oberon’s really dead, which I’m not entirely sure of). But the joke he tells seems really important to me. If nobody knows what God looks like until now… Is that because Darkseid is now God? And what he looks like is a world where your best friend dies of cancer and you can’t take the pain of it, so you slit your wrists, abdicate your throne by default, and leave the world in the hands of an asshole. An asshole who sends you off to fight a war that he is losing, and losing rather badly.
So, yeah. That’s what I think is going on. Scott’s caught in a trap, and to get out of it he’s going to have to overcome his own worst fears. And maybe in doing that, he’ll save the universe as well as himself.
Of course, there is another possibility: everything we’re seeing is exactly what it seems to be, and Scott’s just going nuts. The “DARKSEID IS” stuff could just be him having flashbacks to the crushing hopelessness of his childhood as he sinks deeper and deeper into a pit of despair. In that case, the trap would be a metaphorical one. He realizes that his freedom is a lie, and he can’t face accepting responsibility. That’s a far sadder reading, and one that I think I would ultimately find disappointing. It would make this series just another deconstructionist take-down, and I can’t imagine anything more boring than that.
Except, of course, that it is so very well-done. King is capturing the confusion and fog of Scott’s depression really well, with queasy, disjointed scenes that don’t fit together quite right. But it’s not confusing or choppy. It just feels like a dream, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off. And Mitch Gerads is turning in the best work I’ve seen him do, playing around with Zipatone to mimic the original series’ Ben-Day dot coloring, and video static effects that add to the book’s air of unreality. Plus, the whole thing’s done in a nine-panel grid, which locks the story down in much the way Scott himself often is, adding to the claustrophobic feel.
So there’s a lot to unpack in this series, in both story and art, and we may not be far enough in yet to even know how to do it properly. You’ll note, for instance, that I haven’t mentioned the very strange Granny Goodness sequence from issue two, and that’s because I don’t know quite what to make of it yet. But that’s the kind of writing I like best. Something tells me that this book, good as it is chapter by chapter, will reward re-reading, in spades. So even in the face of my misgivings, Mister Miracle is exciting stuff. One of the best books on the stands today.