Cracking the Equation: Mister Miracle #8

Part 8 of our running conversational commentary from Thomas and Adam on the 12-issue DC Comics series, Mister Miracle, by Tom King and Mitch Gerads. Previous installments located here

Thomas: Well now. This issue jumps right into the wetworks with Scott in sniper mode. Scott Free, Highfather, is personally behind the front lines killing Virman Vundabar, Granny Goodness’ second-in-command. In cold blood. As he speaks to his troops. Curiously every frame of the assassination has some kind of distortion. This could be attributed to the telescopic lens that Scott’s using but might also be another of Gerads’ signposts. I have no idea which it is but thought i should mention it just to simply state the obvious.

This kind of cold-blooded murder is not usually the kind of thing that Scott would do. Sure, they’re at war and unlike Orion he is a front line combatant / leader like his ‘Father’ before him but it feels . . . off for him to do that. But then this isn’t the Mister Miracle of our youth. It’s jarring in the same way the opening of the first issue was but is actually a far more natural projection of what has already been established previously. As we’ve already pointed out; Scott was raised in the fire pits of Apocalypse. He is a warrior and warriors kill.

Adam: The assassination of Virman Vundbar, with the way that Gerads shoots the scene through Scott’s rifle lens, and the wild gesticulations that the Apokolips military man’s making on his balcony – it all very definitely and very clearly recalls images of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s under Hitler, the Nuremberg Rallies for example. And it’s not the first time we’ve seen King and Gerads draw parallels to the Second World War – see the fate of the Bugs, or Granny’s awful parable in earlier issues. But while they’ve been making pit stops to humanise characters and highlight the painful and complex nature of war itself, as with the Furies’ appearance at Barda’s bedside in #7, the creative team are also presenting a classical conflict where good and evil do sometimes remain black and white. Much needed in the era of ‘very fine people on both sides’. Especially coming from a writer who has indeed experienced war first-hand.

There’s a crucial moment in the proceedings of this astoundingly-composed eighth issue when a worn-out, wounded Scott Free sees his feelings of disengagement return, but rallies himself with the thought of his baby son Jacob. It’s a momentary flash of the Scott who began this series with a severe and debilitating depression. Gerads’ occasional use of repeated panels here has the slightly wearying effect of forcing you to look at something again, for longer, invariably giving it more weight. Significantly, I think, the ‘total war’ nature of the Second World War made for a definitive conflict, the centrepiece of The Age of Extremes, one by which ordinary people’s identities were changed, re-shaped entirely. Scott Free is undergoing substantive, possibly redemptive change as he balances his duties as Highfather and as a father to newborn Jacob. With four issues to go, it’s very difficult to tell whether Scott has indeed survived his depression with the assistance of renewed dual senses of purpose, or whether his absorption and exhaustion are merely masking it. We have to hope he has, or certainly that he will before issue #12 closes its doors.

While this issue pivots between Scott in his dual duties, I certainly found myself at a loose end with Barda’s quite significant visual absence until the issue’s final pages. She’s there on the phone throughout, but as the couple rotate between military and domestic chores, we never *see* how Barda’s handling everything. Heard, but not seen in this outing. Which, given that this is comics and Gerads’ superb abilities when it comes to characterisation through action, expression and body language – it feels like a very deliberate evasion. Do we assume she’s struggling? Do we assume she’s totally fine?

Thomas: I would say that she’s fine. If anything she’s probably fluctuating between missing her son and missing the ‘thrill’ of combat, depending on where she is at any given time. Her absence makes sense though. As you say; Scott is falling back into the mire of his depression. Once you have it, depression is with you forever, a constant struggle that can never be truly won and is a battle that is, despite any and all support and love, a solo struggle – so of course Scott is alone in this issue, especially on the battlefield.

The loneliness of command is an old trope but a valid and justified one, and we see here how alone Scott is without Barda. Sure Funky’s around but we know he’s a flunky (sorry) as is Lightray, Orion’s best friend and all round arrogant s**t who, let’s be clear here, murders a defenceless child after killing its parent. A grim scene that begins darkly, humorously even but just sinks down into the blackness as fast as it can illustrating Scott’s distance from his Lieutenants in a pretty brutal way while adding something new to the myth – giving the Parademons a little more detail in the process.

Going back to your WWII observation; it’s apt that you should make that connection in so far as the fact that WWII was perhaps one of the only truly justifiable wars in human history, a conflict that was almost completely black and white in the way that Kirby’s original Fourth World books were. And don’t forget, The King fought for Uncle Sam in the European theatre missing the Normandy Landings by a matter of weeks.

Adam: Hearing it in those terms, I imagine you’re probably right about Barda. She’s almost definitely fine, and the decision to hide her visually from this issue is likely a conscious representation of an aspect Scott’s depression. Depression can often feel like everyone else must be getting on perfectly well elsewhere. Scott Free’s embarrassing defeat in scheduled hand-to-hand combat at the hands of Kanto also speaks to how depression can make even basic chores feel insurmountable. There’s no way that on an even footing Scott doesn’t absolutely demolish Kanto, but he’s unable to remain fully present, coming once more un-tethered from his immediate reality. It doesn’t help, of course, that the people he’s around in this issue are, as you say, chumps like Funky and Lightray, people with whom Scott doesn’t really share much meaningful connection.

The scene with the baby Parademon is definitely brutal, and does add to the lore of the Fourth World as well. Lightray’s cold-blooded murder is a strong example of how King and Gerads are balancing black and white binary perspectives, as in the broader WWII parallels we’ve mentioned, with a more complicated and nuanced presentation of moral and psychological grey areas. The complications of war, the complexities of depression. Again, it’s adult comics, with mature themes and yes, “grit” done so very well.

And actually, given the adult and post-superhero approach taken throughout this series of Mister Miracle, it might be worth unpacking the gently amusing and playful wardrobe choices for Scott’s downtime. He is always and without fail sporting a classic DC superhero logo t-shirt. This issue alone sees Scott showing his love for Wonder Woman, Nightwing, (Electric Blue) Superman, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle and Aquaman. As much as these characters may be his literal friends, his consistent choice of tees might hint at a yearning for the relative simplicity of conventional superheroes. And tellingly enough in this issue, when he rather surprisingly dons a Watchmen logo tee, its image is kept mostly obscured through the panels – hidden behind baby Jacob as his father cradles him, no less. Scott Free is a character who was once simpler, freer and more alive. He desperately doesn’t want to be the subject of a brutal, post-modern and morally-complex adult superhero story. And in some way, once again, that’s depression.

Thomas: The clothing thing is interesting as there’s a curious moment, a distorted panel, when Scott’s wearing the Electric Blue Superman shirt where it changes to the Electric Red ‘S’ shield for a single moment. This is of course a reference to the ’90s version of the Red and Blue Superman storyline where Superman is split into an emotional and a logical version of himself. With electrical powers. Don’t ask. Please.

“I never asked him what my name is” Scott said in issue #2 referring to the fact that he doesn’t actually know his real name. The name ‘Scott Free’ was a joke, a punishment given to him by Granny Goodness while ‘Mister Miracle’ was the stage name of Thaddeus Brown which Scott took for himself, along with Brown’s costume when he died in Scott’s arms. Scott Free doesn’t know who he is and is torn in half because of it. With the mask as a disguise, it covers the pain and the suffering that he’s endured and hides it all from himself and from the people he loves.

Further, Scott only seems to start to fall into his depression when he takes the mask off. This idea is cemented, in my mind at least, by the sequence where Scott is alone on the battlefield towards the end of this issue. He’s singing to himself / Jacob trudging through the wasteland of strewn bodies. He takes his mask off in the second panel and is on the ground from the fifth panel onwards ready to quit . . . Darkseid is. . . .

. . . and then a phone call from Barda, the first word spoken by his son; “Dah!” and Scott starts to sing as he pulls his mask back on and Mister Miracle gets back on his feet.

Adam: The people he loves, and who love him.

It’s a classic superhero identity polarity. With the mask on, as you say, Mister Miracle is a performer. Scott Free performs Mister Miracle: escape artist, superhero – and these days a commanding officer. Scott Free can generally perform those roles masterfully. As a man however, without the mask, Scott Free isn’t really anybody. He’s just a man, struggling with his own identity. And marriage and fatherhood look like they can only take him so far.

Unlike Bruce Wayne / Batman, where the mantle is a (mean / angry / self-serious) extension of the man’s damaged personality and trauma, Mister Miracle has until now been pure escape for Scott Free, in the way that conventional superheroes can be for real-world readers. Comics can be black and white, but life sure ain’t. That disparity blurs and distorts so painfully, so beautifully through the pages of each and every issue of Mister Miracle.