"Be content with your past greatness! During these years of inactivity — time has passed you by!"
Oberon's words to the first Mister Miracle in the opening pages of Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle #1 from 1971 seem particularly prophetic now. The character has never been a breakout hit, a cult-favorite at best, but that hasn't stopped writers and artists from trying to figure out the trick that The King pulled off all those years ago. Steve Englehart tried, J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen tried, Grant Morrison tried. Now, in 2017, in the year of Jack Kirby’s centennial, Tom King and Mitch Gerads are the latest creative team to try to pull off a miracle.
This week's most anticipated release was undoubtedly Mister Miracle #1, by the aforementioned team of King and Gerads (best known for their collaboration on Sheriff of Babylon) from DC Comics, and today it is the subject of the second installment of Then vs. Now. In this column we dig into two different comic books from two different eras, but with the same title and issue number. In the first column we explored two versions of Valiant’s Secret Weapons that were 24 years apart, and this time we'll be dissecting two issues titled Mister Miracle #1 that are separated by 36 years.
King recently told SYFY (in a video you can find at the bottom of the page) that you can't "out-Kirby Kirby," but some comparisons are simply … inescapable. And so we couldn't help but to see how they stacked up.
Beware, there are spoilers for Mister Miracle #1 ahead! Both of them.
MISTER MIRACLE (1971)
Written, drawn and edited by Jack Kirby, with inks by Vince Colletta
In a way, with his series of "Fourth World" titles, Jack Kirby was trying to make his escape — his own personal miracle — happen. After living his whole life in New York City, he'd left for California, chasing Hollywood dreams and trying to leave comics behind him. But comics had a hard time letting go.
After a less than amicable split with Marvel, the last thing he expected was work at DC — who had alienated him even before Marvel had — but with new blood in charge who'd risen through the ranks admiring Kirby's work at the House of Ideas, the impossible happened, and Kirby returned to comics, but this time at the Distinguished Competition. They let him create his own line of comics that also included The New Gods and The Forever People, where he'd weave an elaborate and vital new mythology ... at the heart of which was the character Mister Miracle.
The first issue of Mister Miracle's series, appropriately, defies your expectations, whether you're coming to it completely fresh or are familiar with the character's story. We're introduced to Mister Miracle on the very first page in a splash that features his assistant Oberon locking him into some extravagant restraints as an ordinary-looking man looks on far in the background. Mister Miracle is then placed inside a wooden box, which Oberon lights up with a flamethrower as the onlooker rushes into action to try to save him. But he doesn't need help, because he's Thaddeus Brown, the super escape artist known as Mister Miracle!
As he talks to the onlooker, with the too-perfect name of Scott Free, a group of criminals working for Intergang show up to take Brown to their boss, Steel Hand (not to be confused with Iron Fist), who had vowed to create an inescapable trap for Mister Miracle — death! Mister Miracle and Scott Free escape to Thaddeus' home, where Scott shows him a few escape tricks of his own, using his mysterious bag of gadgets. Scott then joins Oberon and Thaddeus in practicing a new escape, but in the middle of the trick, Mister Miracle is shot and killed by one of Steel Hand's snipers.
However, a short time later at Steel Hand's headquarters, Mister Miracle inexplicably leaps through the window and tries to take out Steel Hand, but is subdued and knocked out. When he comes to, he is strapped to a rocket, which is shot into space and explodes. But when a satisfied Steel Fist returns to his office, he finds none other than a very alive Mister Miracle sitting in his chair. Mister Miracle uses a variety of gadgets to subdue the criminal as Oberon arrives with the police and reveals that it had been Scott in the costume the whole time.
The entire issue then, becomes a bait-and-switch, revealing that the person we were loudly told was Mister Miracle on the first page ended up not being the one who'd use the identity for the rest of the series. In fact, it was the unassuming man, barely noticeable in the background, that was the protagonist all along. It's a rather clever trick that Kirby plays on his readers in the issue, effectively using a "body double" in the origin of a super escape artist.
However, despite the clever narrative trick, there's not a lot of what would later make Scott Free so interesting. No hint of his New Genesis heritage or his being raised on Apokolips, no relationship with Barda and not much of his devil-may-care personality. That would all come in later issues, but this one, while being a fine introduction and an above-average superhero origin, didn't really stand out too much, especially knowing how wildly imaginative Kirby could be, and the hyperbolic description of Mister Miracle being the "strangest, most incredible hero ever to appear in comics!" The art, however, is Kirby at his best, with dynamism, bold lines, bright colors and incredibly efficient storytelling.
All in all, the original Mister Miracle #1 is entertaining, clever, a joy to look at and has aged well compared to a lot of comics of the era.
MISTER MIRACLE (2017) #1
Written by Tom King with art by Mitch Gerads
Inviting comparison to the original right out of the gate, this week's Mister Miracle #1 opens with the exact same words:
"Is he a master of spectacular trickery or is he something more? You will have to decide when you confront the strangest, most incredible superhero 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!"
But unlike the original, we don't see the words emblazoned above Mister Miracle making a daring attempt at escaping fancy shackles. In this issue, the words narrate the scene of Scott Free bleeding out on the bathroom floor after trying to kill himself.
The rest of the issue is fragmented and non-linear, as we see the events following his suicide attempt as he's rushed to the hospital, patched up, and begins to recover — physically, at least. We see his wife Barda distraught over her husband's pain, and we see Orion, his brother in the most twisted of ways, arrive to beat the crap out of him for what he did. He orders the still frail Scott to stand, which he does, before Orion punches him hard in the face, knocking him down. "Stand." Orion commands him again and again, and Scott keeps standing, and keeps getting knocked down.
And that right there is the core of the series. Scott can escape anything he sets his mind to, and people expect him to. But how does he escape the pain of the world around him? How does he escape the monotony of waking up every day knowing there is suffering in the world and in his life that can't be prevented? How does the man who can escape everything escape the ultimate trap — death?
The entire issue is intercut with blacked out panels with the words "Darkseid is," in seemingly random places, eventually reaching a crescendo towards the end of the issue where there is an entire black page with the words. There's no rhyme or reason to the panels, as far as I can tell from spending too long trying to analyze their placement, they're simply always there. Because that's what Darkseid is: the ever-present oppression of life that is always trying to creep in. He isn't Death (in the Fourth World mythos that's the Black Racer); he's suffering, he's fascism, he's the drumbeat of war marching ever forward against freedom and life.
And that's what Scott seems to really be trying to escape in this issue. He isn't trying to escape death — if he was he wouldn't have tried to kill himself — death was the escape. It was the only way he saw out of the bigger trap, the one he finds himself waking up in every day. Darkseid is the trap, and by the end of the issue, Scott and Barda are walking right into him. We'll have to wait until next month to see how that turns out for them.
This is a spectacular work of comics, with an awareness of form and symbolism that isn't often seen, especially in mainstream superhero books. The artwork from Mitch Gerads is hauntingly mundane, but somehow also dreamlike, putting readers right into the confused headspace of the recovering Mister Miracle, even as we don't know what he's thinking at all.
There's a lot more to this issue that I could dig further into if I had the time, with many layers of layout, pacing, color and repetition that I could attempt to decode, but I think we should maybe save some of that energy for the next eleven issues of the series.
It's amazing how different these two issues are and how they both have similar conversations about escaping the circumstances of your reality ... but with wildly different tones and approaches.
Kirby had to work within the confines of what his readers expected from a superhero comic while also defying them, while King and Gerads had decades worth of leeway given to them in the form of comics that shattered expectations of form and content. Both comics are well worth your time — especially if you're looking for some good reading to celebrate the Kirby centennial — but if you're looking for something that's a little more than (ironically) escapism, I have to give the edge to 2017’s Mister Miracle #1 over the original.
That isn't to say that the newer comic, as King put it, "out-Kirbyed Kirby," but it did deliver a reading experience that was a much more engaging and rewarding single-issue experience than the original. Whether that will remain true for the series as a whole remains to be seen.
So the lesson here is that you pretty much can't go wrong with Mister Miracle (the 2005 miniseries is definitely worth a read as well), and you can add 'quality' to the list of things the character can't escape. Whether you read both issues or read just one, whatever you do, obey the final words of both issues and "Follow Mister Miracle! Enter the next trap."