Content Warning: Any substantial discussion of Mister Miracle will involve the subjects of depression, suicide, and self-harm.
Mister Miracle has been available for less than a week and already CBR has positioned it as the second coming to save comics from itself and Tucker Stone has knocked them down a peg or ten; that comics journalism cycle moves pretty fast for folks who barely get paid (if they’re lucky). For all the hyperbole and the decrying of said hyperbole, Mister Miracle is a damn fine comic that has managed to linger in my mind far longer than I expected it to. The interiors look like Mitch Gerads’ went out for a bucket of KFC, grabbed a magnifying glass, and put the now-grease-slathered lens over Kirby’s concept sketches.There’s a darkness, a grime and a blur, that fits the story he and Tom King are trying to tell here. Scott Free wears his tiredness in a way that is certain to resonate with a not insignificant portion of the book’s readers, readers who will also recognize a different exhaustion on his beloved Barda and will certainly notice someone familiar — perhaps a parent, friend, or boss — in the portrayal of Orion.
It’s unfortunate that King’s inexplicable fascination with the nine-panel grid returns in Mister Miracle. The layout dominates the majority of the comic, and while it offers a payoff with regard to pacing and intrusive thoughts via the increasing interruptions of Darkseid is, it’s a payoff that feels far too similar to the countdown used in the climax of another Tom King joint: Omega Men. The grid also starts a few pages too early, offering a confusing and disorienting transition from hospital to home after Scott tried to kill himself. I’ll let you judge for yourself whether that disorientation is intentional, but given how well the nine-panel grid is used to establish pacing and rhythm after he returns home from the hospital, this scene feels like a failed opportunity to do something far more interesting.
Look at those untethered word balloons and imagine if a similar approach were taken to the layout of the page. Imagine a scene where you could be sure it was intentionally disorienting instead of accidentally so. There’s reason for a reader to be disoriented, after all. The issue begins with a close-up of Scott’s face on page one then cuts to a double-page spread of his attempted suicide. We won’t reproduce them here, but those pages feature Scott slumped on the bathroom floor in his Mister Miracle costume, forearms sliced open, gloves in the foreground adjacent a bloodied razorblade. They are not something I think many readers were expecting, and feel as though they are played for shock value more than anything else.
In cutting from a full-page image of Scott’s face to that double-page spread, King and Gerads managed to replicate a particular experience, like standing at the Belmont Brown Line station in January waiting for a train that will go to another train that will go to Southern Illinois for some reason and thinking what if I just stepped off the platform? Or when walking to that second train and crossing a bridge over the Chicago River and wondering whether hypothermia or drowning would win out if a person just climbed over the rail and fell in. When I told a psychologist he would need to be more specific in asking me if I have ever thought about hurting myself because I do not think about hurting myself, I have never considered hurting myself, but the images have been in my mind in much the same way they arrive almost spontaneously in this issue of Mister Miracle. He said those experiences were called passive suicidal ideation and that while he understood the fear, my reaction was indication that they weren’t something to worry about.
That was my experience, and it caused me to set Mister Miracle down and steady myself before going back in. For those who have never had those kinds of intrusions, have a comics-related example: I just thought “whatever happened to Nathan Edmondson?” but don’t really care about the answer and have no interest in following through on the question with anyone who might be able to answer it.
Those first few pages were jarring for me. I can’t imagine what coming upon that scene unexpectedly might be like for someone who has attempted suicide before or for someone whose loved one has taken their life. It works for what King and Gerads are attempting to do, I think, but there’s an irresponsibility in the promotion of the comic that feels as though DC and company are playing it for shock value.*
Imagine instead if the issue started with the hospital scene above. What would be lost? The shock of seeing Scott free bloodied and dying on his bathroom floor, certainly, but what else? By thrusting the reader into the disorientation of the hospital, the disembodied voices, the ambiguous flow of time, they will find themselves looking for a handhold, anything they can grab onto. Perhaps King’s nine-panel grid would serve a greater purpose there, offering that fraction of stability as the scene transitions into the blue TV glow of Scott and Barda’s apartment. Without explicitly stating what sent our hero to the hospital, the reader would be able to guess at or discover it for themselves, and if they didn’t pick up on it through more subtle means, there would still be a scene where Scott addresses his suicide attempt later in the issue.
Now, this confession — that his suicide attempt was not what it seems — occurs during a segment of the comic featuring Scott as a guest on Glorious Godfrey’s talk show. The blurry, poorly-tracked feel of an old UHF broadcast already puts the scene in an odd place; it must occur after the events in the hospital and apartment, yet it is made to feel like an old episode of The Tonight Show. Add in the fact that Godfrey is essentially Darkside’s Joseph Goebbels and Scott’s explanation for trying to kill himself should be taken with a grain of salt. So if we don’t need to show Scott slicing open his wrists and are given plenty of reason to doubt the explanation we do receive, then why did it even need to happen?
If the readers are to believe Scott tried to kill himself as a means to escape Death, then Mister Miracle starts from the most untenable of premises. One does not avoid their in-laws by inviting them over to Thanksgiving dinner, and the greatest escape artist would not dodge Death by attempting to end his life. If King and Gerads are looking to tell a story about depression and mental illness, about the mind of Scott Free, why not simply do so head-on? While no one escapes Death, one can avoid it by simply living. Depression, though, is a different beast; even with medication and therapy, it’s a chronic condition, one that unfortunately too many people attempt to escape via suicide. Both a lifelong trap and a master of disguise,
Depression arrives silently at the party and is later discovered sitting in your reading chair dressed as poor dental hygiene.
It is rotten clocks and
a corpse of bare trees,
yes, but also corsets and
cardigans and purple-
always sincere as pumpkin
patches come November.
It will gift you a lake
only to immediately
show you the floor;
fire will be on every-
thing which will be
on fire and it will want
to just take a nap or
to finally say aloud:
your dreams lived
in a cul de sac
these last few years
instead of on a horizon-
bound highway, they have
become teeth clustered
inside a fresh apricot
where the pit should be.
Despite everything above, I truly enjoyed this first issue. I felt someone a bit familiar in Scott, and Gerads’ style seemed simultaneously faithful to Kirby yet original in its own right. But there is a clumsiness to the story that kept nagging at me. Escaping Death is an idea that has some meat to it until you start to turn it over a bit, until you think about what it might mean if someone views suicide as an escape. And I think there’s definitely something to that idea, one where Scott’s attempt on his own life is both a necessary and valuable to the story, but it doesn’t feel like Mister Miracle is positioning itself to go there. Should King and Gerads overcome what feels like a flawed premise — a possibility, given the length of the series and the possibility that everything occurs as Scott’s mind is flooded with chemicals and his blood spills out over the bathroom floor — Mister Miracle could go on to earn a fraction of the praise CBR has already heaped on it. But I’m doubtful.
Tom King is the writer who used a serious issue of racism against indigenous peoples as a prop in an issue of Vision, and his last maxi-series at DC — Omega Men — was poorly paced, felt poorly planned, and has not held up well to re-reads. There’s also the problem with the well-executed intrusion of Darkseid in the comic.
Kirby knew to make abstract the horrors of war, and it gave us the Fourth World epic and the characters King and Gerads are playing with, but King doesn’t seem eager to deal in abstractions, at least not in the same way. Darkseid and the Anti-Life Equation appear as though they will be a significant focus for the series and a likely scapegoat. Rather than simply allowing the metaphor to be a metaphor, Mister Miracle is positioned to tackle an incredibly serious subject only to confess it was simply an evil space god all along. It is no “Captain America has always been a HYDRA agent, yes the real Captain America, no takebacks! Oh wait, no, it’s the Cosmic Cube.” It would be fuckery of the same kind, however.
I came to Mister Miracle because I was struck by the art more than anything else, and there’s a chance for a good story here if King is capable of getting out of the way of himself and focusing on earnestly addressing the themes the comic is building toward. But this feels like a clumsy start for important ideas that demand elegance.
*It should be noted that I did not know Mister Miracle was an M-rated book when I first learned about it, nor when I went to pick it off of the shelf at my local comic shop. DC has gone from Vertigo titles having “for mature readers” prominently displayed by their logo to burying it in the barcode. That bright blue DC logo and the pop of Nick Derington’s beautiful cover make it difficult to focus on much else and offer little clue to the darkness behind that sunny Mister Miracle title. I know DC has been placing their self-imposed ratings in the barcode for some time now — I remember having to point them out to parents asking what comics were appropriate for their kids when I worked in a shop — but with the material Mister Miracle has between its covers, this warranted something a bit more noticeable. Before extending the benefit of the doubt to DC, take a look at the extended preview of the first issue; the closest they come to indicating the gravity of subject matter is a page from Scott on Godfrey’s talk show plainly saying — maybe even joking — that he tried to escape Death.