Mister Miracle is, on the face of it, one of the cheesiest of all costumed super-heroes. Created by Jack Kirby in 1971, he’s a gaudily dressed glint from the last gleaming of the Silver Age. Like the fictional ‘Escapist’ created by Michael Chabon in his Kirby-drenched Kavalier and Klay, Scott Free is part superhero and part vaudeville act — forever wriggling free from mountainous shackles or making nick-of-time exits from water-filled coffins or tea-crates in the paths of runaway trains.
But when we first meet him in this 12-issue trade paperback he’s slumped on the floor of a bathroom with a razor blade in the foreground, bleeding out from his slashed wrists. We follow him to a very ordinary LA hospital where his wife Big Barda (still in her Amazonian superhero get-up) waits head in hands in the waiting room as he’s revived. Leaving the hospital in hoodie and dark glasses he’s mobbed (‘Scott, talk to your fans’).
At home, he’s near catatonic. Barda frets about his dressings (‘Do they itch, Scott? Doctor said if they itch really bad we should call them.’) In a talkshow interview, back in full costume, he presents it as a progression of his act: ‘I was just thinking… you know, what can’t I escape from? What doesn’t anyone escape from? Death. No one escapes from death. So I killed myself.’ Hahahaha. Clap Clap Clap Clap. Scott’s sort-of catchphrase — ‘I can always escape’ — takes on a special resonance in the pages that are to come.
Scott’s backstory is wound deep into Kirby’s New Gods mythology: the warring twinned planets of New Genesis (nice) and Apokalips (not so nice) struck a truce when the leaders of each, Highfather and Darkseid, agreed to entrust their infant sons to the care of the other to raise. Darkseid’s blood son Orion was raised in nice New Genesis; baby Scott (for it was he) was given over to the care of ‘Granny Goodness’ (not as nice as she sounds), who tortured him for years in something called the X-Pit. Scott finally escaped, married Big Barda (herself an X-Pit graduate) and emigrated to Earth, where he was trying to lead a quiet life as a showman.
But in the aftermath of his suicide attempt Scott learns that the war is back underway, Darkseid has got hold of the Anti-Life Equation, and he and Barda are dragged back into the fray. They divide their time between a supernatural planetary war and an LA in which they keep getting stuck in traffic, buy vegetable trays and have inane conversations with till clerks about loyalty schemes. There’s a memorable sequence in which Scott and Barda fight their way into New Genesis (‘Warning: lasers will now obliterate you’; ‘Warning: acid gas will now melt you’; ‘Warning: tidedragon will now consume you’) while arguing about how they’re going to redecorate their condo.
The counterpointing is cleverly and consistently done. The narrator’s captions, for instance, have the kitschy excitableness of vintage Stan Lee: ‘A trap which is diabolical in its simplicity! A trap meant for the masked challenger of death!’ And the high camp space opera stuff doesn’t undermine but reinforces the serious material. Comics are, after all, a form of escapism. And within a pretty rigid nine-panel page, Mitch Gerads paces his beats and effects expertly — deflating bombast here, inserting pathos there.
The in-jokes are funny, too. Heroes are celebrities. Scott wears Flash and Green Lantern T-shirts, and wins Barda a Wonder Woman plushie at the funfair. The babysitter (Stan Lee analogue Funky Flashman) gives their infant son a Batman cuddly toy. Looking sentimentally for the ‘our song’ that soundtracked their first meeting, Scott and Barda settle on playing the ‘moans of the damned’ from the X-Pit. Perhaps the finest moment sees Darkseid, genocidal god of evil, munching on a carrot stick.
Comics — with their vast, incessantly self-cannibalizing mythologies — have always been fertile ground for the sort of allusion, self-consciousness and genre-mashing that get called things like ‘postmodernism’ and ‘intertextuality’ when the straights do it. Tom King and Mitch Gerads go magnificently to town on it here. Is this a moving, grown-up story about trauma and depressive illness, marriage and parenthood? Or is it a joke-filled wham-bang superhero fantasia about a cosmic war, featuring Boom-Tubes and Mother Boxes and the desperate struggle to deprive Darkseid of the Anti-Life Equation? The answer is that it’s both — and that if you’re open-minded enough to read a superhero comic you’ll see that it’s extraordinarily well done.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.