Best Shots Review: MISTER MIRACLE 'Personal and Epic' (10/10)

Mister Miracle
Credit: Mitch Gerads/Clayton Cowles (DC)
Credit: Mitch Gerads/Clayton Cowles (DC)

Mister Miracle
Written by Tom King
Art by Mitch Gerads
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10

“We’re all bound by something.”

Duty. Family. Country. Loyalty. Love. Death. Life… and Anti-Life. These are all the threads that come together to bind Mister Miracle, an ambitious and deeply realized story that can only be described as a comic book masterpiece. With the series’ 12-issue trade paperback now in stores, writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads deliver a heartrending story that feels both personal and epic, tackling issues of fatherhood and bloodshed in a way that never fails to escape your preconceptions.

Credit: Mitch Gerads/Clayton Cowles (DC)

For Scott Free, everything in his life is an act of escape - perhaps none more jarring than when we see him attempting suicide, in what he claims is an attempt to escape death itself. It’s that general sense of trauma that permeates King’s work throughout the series, because no matter how many locks he can pick or cells he can squeeze through, Scott finds himself trapped again and again by his own memories, the scars he still carries from years being tortured in the X-Pit of Apokolips. This dynamic provides a strong counterpoint with Scott’s wife Big Barda, who was raised in similar circumstances as one of Darkseid’s Female Furies - she is often stoic to a fault, and while she cares about her husband, she seems impervious to the heartbreak that Scott seems incapable of unshackling himself from.

But that doesn’t mean Scott stops trying. On the contrary, each issue of this series tackles Scott’s past from a different angle, with his own shifting mental state changing with the political and familial landscape around him, each shift raising the stakes and tension for the rest of the series. At first, King keeps things familiar, juxtaposing Scott following his suicide attempt with the worsening state of the war between New Genesis and Apokolips - seeing Scott’s suspicions slowly turn against his brother Orion feels like Game of Thrones levels of political intrigue, as King winds these questions of loyalty, reality and finality with the ever-rising tides of anger that threaten to tear Scott apart. But throughout this series, King tries new settings and new narrative tricks to keep each issue feeling special: Who needs supervillains when we can see Scott attempt to grapple with an almost unimaginable war, or to fight for his life in a court of New Genesis law? Who needs portentous purple prose when you can hear heartwrenching stories of Holocaust refugees, or the deciding how to spend one’s last day on Earth?

Credit: Mitch Gerads/Clayton Cowles (DC)

But midway through the series, Scott unlocks a part of himself he’s never been able to imagine - namely, his role as a father. This is where King’s writing increases in complexity, beyond the mental proofs and word puzzles that tease and dissect philosophy and theology. (And that’s even including the particularly gutsy decision to skip over the entirety of Barda’s pregnancy - another hallmark of the series, as time seems to skip and jump ahead, like a dream or a glitching memory.) The birth of Jacob Free is what really catalyzes Mister Miracle’s signature narrative cocktail - alternating between the horrors of massive-scale interstellar war with the small but no less cherished victories of parenthood. It’s Jacob’s babbling (abetted by his nanny Funky Flashman, a lighthearted jab at Stan Lee that’s delivered with a wink as much as an elbow) that builds this series’ stakes: not only does it allow Scott to confront the horrors of being traded by his own father, but it provides a unique perspective for the series’ ultimate twist.

Like King, artist Mitch Gerads has earned an Eisner for his work on Mister Miracle, and to be honest, after seeing his work on these pages, that feels like the least the committee could do for him. King smartly paces his pages out on nine-panel grids - not only does that allow for a density of storytelling, but gives a claustrophobic effect to Scott’s high-pressure adventures - and in a lesser artist’s hands, this would have spelled disaster. However, Gerads packs in an incredible amount of emotion and heart to his characters, doing so much of the heavy lifting in terms of making audiences fall in love with Scott and Barda, who really seems to steal the show on every page she’s in. It’s Gerads who occasionally shows the cracks beneath this Female Fury’s emotional armor, the brief flashes of vulnerability that show why she and Scott have such a deep and powerful connection to one another.

Given New Gods creator Jack Kirby’s status as a legendary artist, you could understand an impulse to try to outdo the King, but Gerads is smart enough to know that that’s a sucker’s game - instead, he takes his characters down to earth, showing the beauty of the real world before juxtaposing it against the bleak horrors of Apokolips. Gerads’ production work is also jaw-dropping - in particular, the gauss warping effect that occasionally creeps into his panels, reminding readers that either reality is shifting under the Anti-Life Equation… or Scott Free’s mental state might be more frayed than we realized. (In particular, it’s Gerads’ haunting take on Darkseid that allows readers to conjure up their own sense of fear around the character - which is all the more surprising since he hardly appears in the book.) It’s because Gerads is a one-man band, executing his own pencils, inks and colors by himself, allowing him a deliberateness and care with his visuals that places him in the same echelon - if not higher - as an Alex Maleev, a Michael Lark, or even perhaps a Bill Sienkiewicz.

Credit: Mitch Gerads/Clayton Cowles (DC)

What will divide readers of Mister Miracle, of course, is its final ending, which is less of an explosive emotional punch and more of a quiet denouement, leaving the full nature of the twist open to some degree of debate. Perhaps Scott never survived his suicide attempt; or perhaps he has taken the Anti-Life Equation as more of a home than the rest of the post-"Rebirth" DC. I wrote this while I reviewed the final issue of the series as a single issue, but I stand by this assertion even more having read the series in collected form - ultimately, life is just the act of building your own cell, with the materials and memories and people you love and hate most. Scott Free can always escape - but King and Gerads’ greatest trick is letting him build a trap that he would never want to leave.

And in many ways, Mister Miracle also gets to escape the gravity and pitfalls of many superhero comic bookss in today’s landscape. With double-shifting titles and the expectation of regular storytelling events to boost up sales, I can only imagine how punishing the schedules can be, and how difficult it can be to really imbue characters with their own voice and their own perspective when they’re constantly going through the motions of building up a greater mythology. And that might be what makes Mister Miracle such a special book — there is an artistry on display from both King and Gerads that is unmistakable, a deliberateness and particular stylishness to their work that sears this book into your memory. From its Eisner Award wins to its well-deserved claim on many "Best of 2018" lists, you can’t escape Mister Miracle - and after reading it, there’s really no reason you would want to.

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