“I can always escape!”
Synthesis. That’s very much the word that comes to mind when one looks upon Tom King, Mitch Gerads and Clayton Cowles’ smash success maxi-series Mister Miracle. Tom King’s a writer that’s made his bones out of maxi-series at the big two, from The Omega Men and The Vision to The Sheriff of Babylon. He’s very much a scribe that enjoys working in the 12-issue format, writing to its exact pace and requirements. The former is a cosmic war epic, whilst the other is a family tragedy set in suburbia, with the latter book being a war-noir story set in Iraq, inspired by King’s experiences there during the war. All of them are vastly different books, but all of them are bound by the same core ideas and themes, explored through a multitude of lens’ and genres. All of them feature King’s penchant for the classic 9-panel grid.
But they also feature another’s love for the grid: Mitch Gerads. Gerads was the co-creator of The Sheriff of Babylon, working with King to build a book of relentless formalism. Cowles, on the other hand, lettered The Vision and pulled off the third person omniscient narration that was so vital to the book, alongside some other demanding tasks. So many variables, all linked by Tom King. And in Mister Miracle, they all come together as one. Gerads’ grasp of the grid and textured artwork full of great range and grit, Cowles’ meticulous mastery of controlling the reader’s eye to best suit the story, King’s existential tales rooted in trauma. Sheriff’s grounded drama, Vision’s struggles of domestic life and sacrifices for family, Omega Men’s mythic and cosmic scope, all these disparate elements, which worked to great effect on their own, with specific creatives serving them, are brought under one unified umbrella this time around. Mister Miracle is all of the above. But it’s also more. It’s a razor-sharp refinement of the entire team’s skill-set and work up to this point, one that synthesizes all the best elements of their oeuvre’s into one work of art. A Magnum Opus.
The basic premise of the book revolves around the life of Scott Free, Mister Miracle, following his suicide attempt. Opening on a splash image of Scott’s face and then cutting to a double-page spread pulling back to reveal his suicide attempt, the book sets a somber tone. To juxtapose the setup, the imagery is accompanied by classic Jack Kirby captions from the original Mister Miracle series. They’re big, bold, fantastical and flashy captions, as one expects of the King, but here they serve a different purpose. The flash and bombast is used to mask the deeper darkness, the pain within, which is very much Scott Free’s own story, where in he performs in an extravagant manner to escape the horror of his past. He’s an escape artist. But beyond that, it also emphasizes the book’s intent and approach. This is no attempt to tell another epic space saga, no, it uses what Kirby laid down, for its own purposes of internal character examination.
From there on, the entire book enters the 9-panel grid which the team so adores and the grid is only broken in two rare exceptions to prove a point. We’re trapped, stuck, jailed away in the bars, the gutters of the grid, much like Scott Free is. We’re not sure what is necessarily ‘real’ from there onward, as the book clearly communicates that there is clearly something wrong and rather…off. The biggest hint at this are the series of recurring black panels with the white text ‘Darkseid Is.’ etched on them, evoking absolute dread and despair. The phrase, coined by the legendary Grant Morrison, is a textual representation of the horror of the devil god and here it’s given even more visual flair to convey the message.
But beyond that, we also get panels with massive glitch effects, where in the very nature of this story, this world and narrative we’re in, is under question. Aiding this sense, the book also deliberately characterizes or presents familiar figures of the Kirby mythology in ways that seem…off and wrong. Scott’s only solace through all this uncertainty is his dear wife, Big Barda. The fundamental spine of the book is the domestic drama of these two characters which ties together the mundane struggles of everyday life with cosmic struggles, digging into the anxieties and struggles that persist. Structured so that the first half explores New Genesis, while the latter digs into Apokolips, the respective Heaven and Hell of Kirby’s Fourth World mythology, the entire book is a journey through death and hatred, in affirmation and pursuit of life and love. Firmly rooted in the experience of living in a world that doesn’t make sense and is horrifyingly absurd, it’s a book about how to survive through the struggles that plague us, especially in current times.
King’s signature lyrical dialogue is ever-present, working in perfect rhythm with Gerads’ impossibly varied artwork, able to manifest any emotion, expression or little nuance that the story requires. As a result, the characters, while inhabiting larger than life contexts, come across as incredibly human and personable and those intended to be the opposite also carry a kind of charm that rings right when they appear on the page. Cowles letters the book with a confidence that is striking, whether it be floating captions, the average balloons, the Darkseid Is panels, the regular boxed captions or background noises.
A remarkable moment, for instance, is a scene during which Scott listens to a series of moans by the tortured victims of Apokolips. Cowles brings them all to life by varying up the fonts, sizes, alignment, color and balloon type, shape, border size or through even absence of a balloon, ensuring each voice stands out and is distinct with its own vibe, conveying a similar but different state. It’s absolutely clear storytelling, where in the reader knows exactly what the creative team needs them to know and it’s only instance of such skill. The 9-panel grid is about slowing down the reader, controlling time and readability of the reader with a greater grip, guiding them through each moment carefully, in order to elicit the reaction one wants. It’s a device of precision. The book could never accomplish its intended goal without Cowles’ craft, which carefully guides the audience from panel to panel, landing King’s dialogue without taking away from Gerads’ artwork and simultaneously contextualizing the scenes and bits of story with clever variations and techniques.Gerads, meanwhile, cohesively ties together everything that ranges from the grimy and the real to the fantastical, the wondrous and even the psychedelic. His color-work is both muted and lush when required, thriving off juxtaposition and serving story. Neon laser beams or dull homes, you name it, he can do it. King has had a slew of excellent collaborators over the years, but in terms of a storyteller that simply and almost instinctually grasps King’s intent and sensibilities and shares them, it’s hard to find a better match than Gerads. The pair really works well together, as is evident from their spectacular collaboration on Sheriff, but they reach new heights here, experimenting with the form, pushing forth and challenging one another. Whether it’s Gerads’ take on the Kirby Krackle, or his own addition of the glitch effects, which are so crucial to the book now or his process of achieving interesting textures and visuals such as tape or other things, it all finds its perfect partner in King’s thoughtful and relentlessly human script.
Mister Miracle is a rare book. It’s a team of creatives working at their absolute pinnacle, delivering the work of their careers. We live in a strange climate and there are a great many titles grappling with that. But few books capture the feeling of living in our bizarre times, where in we feel trapped, where there is no escape and the world seems to have gone crazy. Everything is…off and not what it’s supposed to be and anxiety, depression and fear are all that seem to remain. Darkseid Is. But then, that doesn’t mean we simply give up, does it? We have to go on, we must continue living and face all that comes at us. We must stand. And Scott Free is here to show us we can.
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