For more than two years, I have been trying to figure out how to explain Mister Miracle — a twelve-issue miniseries about the DC Comics superhero of the same name — to the layperson.
The solution: A guide to one spectacular issue.
Mister Miracle, written by Tom King, drawn and colored by Mitch Gerads, and lettered by Clayton Cowles, will finally be out in a collected edition on Feb. 19. And the book holds plenty of value for someone who’s coming to the character fresh! But if you’ve read the original 1971 Mister Miracle (which I actually recommend), it’s as if you’ve unlocked all the map markers in an open world game. And if you know the behind-the-scenes story of Mister Miracle’s creation, well, that’s like a whole secret ending.
Which brings us to a grand experiment:
Polygon presents: The annotated Mister Miracle #5
Mister Miracle, aka Scott Free, is a god; part of a space-age pantheon called the New Gods, created by Jack Kirby in 1970 for DC Comics. The New Gods were original creations intended to stand up with other superhero mythological mainstays, like the Greek and Norse pantheons. Most of them live either on the outwardly idyllic planet of New Genesis or the fire-filled ecumenopolis of Apokolips, which are locked in an eternal interstellar war.
If that sounds operatic, well, in practice ... it was still very operatic. There’s nothing else in the DC Comics universe like the Fourth World, and very little in Marvel’s either (except the bits that Kirby created or that other creators cribbed from him). So the Fourth World can seem deeply weird, but, in a genre where an idea survives only if other creators want to pick it up and use it themselves, it has been successful because it is expertly constructed out of universal archetypes.
The New Gods can be difficult to wrap your head around. They’re not technologically advanced aliens, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Asgard, nor are they dependent on mortal worship, like the mythological deities in Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett stories. They’re gods; strange, fantastic, sometimes terrifying, and indifferent to mortal concerns. Just like the Greek and Norse pantheons would seem if you hadn’t been hearing stories about them for most of your life.
King’s version plays deeply in those archetypes, and thrives on the weirdness of Kirby’s operatic heroes colliding with every day life on Earth — as Fourth World books often did — telling a story about depression, existential dread, love, trust, and self-actualization.
To give you a clearer idea of what that means, Polygon is giving you the chance to read every page of Mister Miracle #5. Accompanying those pages you’ll find my annotations — every reference, backstory, and visual motif that I noticed in its pages — so you can get an idea of just how deep the book goes. There’s even some input from King and Gerads themselves.
Why #5? Why not the first issue? I think #5 is a better introduction to the overall themes of Mister Miracle than its first issue. With a little explanation up front, it also functions as its own self-contained story — and, more importantly, doesn’t spoil the series’ biggest turns.
So without further ado, please enjoy our deep dive into Mister Miracle #5.
Previously, on Mister Miracle
In King’s book, Scott Free (Mister Miracle) and his wife Big Barda (just Big Barda) are showbiz celebrities on Earth, a modernized update of their lives in Kirby’s Mister Miracle. But they spent their childhood in the (literal) fire pits of the (literal) hell world of Apokolips, ruled by the god Darkseid. Barda was groomed as the leader of the Female Furies, an elite strike force, while Scott was to be a foot soldier. He attempted to escape, and was captured and tortured for it, so often that it earned him a cruel joke of a name: Scott Free.
In the first four issues of King’s Mister Miracle, Darkseid’s forces assassinated Highfather, the leader of New Genesis, reigniting the war with a vengeance. Even though Scott and Barda were arguably still recovering from Scott’s attempted suicide, they were called to war by Scott’s foster brother, Orion, who inherited the title of Highfather.
They fought as generals for New Genesis. Then, Orion/Highfather accused Scott of having become an agent of Darkseid. Scott was tried. He was sentenced to death.
Mister Miracle #5 is Scott Free’s last day alive.
Scott’s mantra is that he can always escape. On Earth, he and Barda took those skills and turned them into Scott’s career as a world-famous death-defying showman and escape artist, Mister Miracle.
On the book’s first page, we see Scott confront an extremely metatextual reference: Jack Kirby’s handprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. King and Gerads give us four panels of Scott Free confronting evidence of his own creator, and naturally, Scott doesn’t quite measure up to his creator god-dad — both of these are themes that resonate through the series.
Jack Kirby’s handprints are not planted in stone at Grauman’s. But in a different world, a different timeline? They very well could be. Kirby totally redefined what superhero comics should look like, and built as much of our modern idea of how superheroes should be written as Stan Lee (who does have his hands in Grauman’s sidewalk) but with much less recognition and compensation.
The quote pictured here, “Comics will break your heart,” is Kirby’s most famous. As his former assistant and biographer, Mark Evanier, put it in a blog post, “There were times he was happier in the field than he was at other times. When he did say things like [the quote] it came from a frustration not with the form of comics, which he loved, but with the working conditions, bad compensation and loss of control of one’s work he encountered.”
In a huge industry shakeup, Kirby quit Marvel and took an exclusive contract with DC Comics from 1970 to 1975. At DC, he immediately invented the New Gods and introduced them in a suite of titles including the first Mister Miracle series. Collectively, the books were known as “The Fourth World.”
(Kirby had fancied killing off Thor and the Asgardians in a final “Ragnarok” and replacing them with something entirely new, but Marvel editorial never approved the idea. An attentive reader of Fourth World stories can find plenty of evidence that New Genesis and Apokolips are built on the ruins of Marvel’s famous pantheon.)
Kirby’s reasons for breaking from Marvel ranged from lack of credit and creative control, to editorial’s refusal to renegotiate an unfavorable contract. Also among his grievances at the time: his resentment of Stan Lee’s growing prominence as the “face” of Marvel. That resentment found expression in the Fourth World.
In Mister Miracle #6 (1972), Kirby introduces, and then thoroughly roasts, a fast-talking con man by the name of Funky Flashman. It all seems inexplicable until you realize that Funky Flashman’s brunette beard and habit of alliterating his speech is a pitch perfect portrait of Stan Lee in 1972.
In King and Gerads’ Mister Miracle, Funky is Scott and Barda’s manager and hype man, and, as you can see, he’s still all talk and no listening.
Each issue of King’s Mister Miracle opens and closes with a block of operatic narration from the corresponding issue of Kirby’s original Mister Miracle. Here we have text from Mister Miracle #5 (1971), featuring the story “Murder Machine.” All King has added is the occasional third exclamation point.
As a pantheon of deities, the New Gods’ aesthetic contains a mixture of polytheistic elements, but plenty of Christian and Abrahamic ones as well. (Kirby himself was Jewish.) Darkseid’s flying foot soldiers are not paratroopers but parademons, and the lowest levels of Apokolips are known as the “Armaghetto.” When I call Apokolips a “hell world,” it’s because it is dotted with pits of fire, and the lives of its citizens are often literally and figuratively torturous. On the other side of things, New Genesis is ruled by Highfather, a god with a big white beard and a crooked shepherd’s staff, who holds court in a utopian floating city.
On this page, Scott is depicted in a Christ-like pose — and it’s not a weak parallel at all. Though he was raised on Apokolips, Scott is not native to the planet. He is the son of Highfather, but he was sent to a world of suffering as an infant in the name of a larger peace. As an adult he gained fame as a maker of “miracles” and a cheater of death — and now he’s been tried and sentenced to death, also by the will of Highfather.
(Judaism has its own central story of a father confronting the holy sacrifice of a son, which was no doubt also in Kirby’s mind — but when Mister Miracle gives you T-posing Scott Free, you’ve got to go there.)
It seems natural that Scott and Barda would enjoy bondage recreationally in addition to professionally. Or, at least, it’s fertile ground for symbolism. Scott’s childhood was one of constant thwarted escape, confinement and torture in the false name of “love.” He won fame on Earth by binding and freeing himself.
On this page, Barda has both the power to bind and free Scott. The bedroom may be the only place where he chooses to be trapped (in the name of a true and consenting love) without seeking to escape. He has the safety of knowing that even though he can always escape, he doesn’t always have to.
“To me that scene’s about trust,” Tom King told Polygon over email, “about two people letting their guard down and showing the other one who they really are what they really love and finding a connection in that. And yet. That scene is also about lies, about two people going through the routine of a thing that they know they love and not talking about the deeper, emotional issues that are haunting them. The second coming together in [issue #5] then is the opposite. The trust is gone and the lies are revealed.”
The 9-panel grid — a page sliced by two horizontal and two vertical gutters to create nine equally sized panels — has a long history in comics. Tom King’s career has shows a particular affection for it, and a particular talent in wielding it.
Nearly every page of Mister Miracle is a 9-panel grid, broken up by the rare full-page spread. Unlike Watchmen, the ur-text of 9-panel grid stories, King and Gerads don’t even pop out the occasional gutter for an extra wide or tall panel. Every page is a standard nine. At DC’s Tom King spotlight panel at the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con, Gerads darkly joked that he’d started to dream in 9-panel grids.
In the final pages of King’s Omega Men, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner (whose day job is as a freelance comic book artist) likens the 9-panel grid to a cage. “The story, the adventure, is locked behind [the panel borders] — separated from us.”
And when I asked King why he chose the grid for Mister Miracle, he says something similar:
“This is a book about being captured and trying to escape and whether that’s good, bad, ugly, or possible. The 9 panel grid symbolizes all of that. It literally puts bars between the reader and the pictures. It creates cramped spaces on the page where the action occurs, giving [the] reader a sense of being squished, shut in. It’s the form reflecting the content, an old but good trick.”
Oberon is Mister Miracle and Big Barda’s trusty stage manager and assistant — and resident loveable wisecracking curmudgeon. On his tombstone, King gives him a surname for the first time, “Kurtzberg,” the same as Jack Kirby’s given name, Jacob Kurtzberg.
This page also gives us the issue’s first appearance of a Mother Box, a TARDIS-like piece of Apokoliptian technology that is part teleporter, part smartphone, part Swiss army knife, and part companion.
Scott and Barda were both raised by one of Apokolips’ cruelest citizens, Granny Goodness. Her name is a deliberate deception, a perversion of a loving force into an abusive one. She turns Apokolips’ children into mindless cannon fodder, by making blind worship of Darkseid the only way they feel whole, safe, and loved.
At Granny’s orphanage, boys are promised that they can rise above if they give themselves to Darkseid. “YOU’RE NOT A BEAST — IF YOU KILL FOR DARKSEID” “YOU’RE NOT A LIAR — IF YOU LIE FOR DARKSEID” “DIE FOR GRANNY — AND SHE WILL LIVE FOR YOU” scream placards in the orphanage’s mess room in Kirby’s Mister Miracle. Death is life. Lies are truth. Cruelty is love.
This page reminds us that although the book is “about” Scott, Big Barda is just as screwed up as he is. Characteristically, King does this by merging tragedy into dry humor.
King’s Mister Miracle is about trauma — how we confront it, how we live with it, whether it is inevitable that we pass it to our children. This might be Scott’s last day, but as their opening dialogue hinted, this issue is also one about Barda working through some things.
Throughout Mister Miracle, Scott wears a parade of different superhero t-shirts. This issue, it’s the Flash.
They might be refugees from a hell planet, but King and Gerads give us a Scott and Barda who have built their lives around real Los Angeles locations. Two pages ago they were stuck in traffic on the 101. Here, they visit MacArthur Park Lake, with Westlake Theatre visible in the central panel.
Next stop, Santa Monica Pier.
Mister Miracle and Big Barda have been a couple since the moment Kirby introduced her in Mister Miracle #4. According to Mark Evanier, Scott and Barda’s relationship dynamic was cheekily based on Kirby’s relationship with his wife, Rosalind, or “Roz,” Kirby — which is to say that Kirby’s Barda is big, gorgeous, immensely strong, and utterly sure of her capabilities.
Scott and Barda form something of a gender-swapped archetype in pulp fantasy couples, with her the larger and more physically capable warrior and he the smaller, slighter, agility-focused acrobat.
King continues that on an emotional level — his Scott Free is nothing if not a verbalizer. If he’s figuring something out, he says it out loud. Barda, on the other hand, is outwardly stoic. It’s not that she doesn’t feel strong emotions, it’s just that putting them into words doesn’t come naturally to her.
Ever since Scott’s suicide attempt in the beginning of Mister Miracle, it’s been unclear to him whether what he’s experiencing is real. He’s had some false memories, some strange hallucinations.
Mister Miracle leaves something else unclear to the reader: Does it take place in the DC Universe? While Scott wonders if his experiences are real, the reader is left to wonder whether his experiences are in continuity, whether they “count.”
Which, in superhero comics, is just another way of saying whether they are real.
Scott deconstructs Descartes. The most obvious read on this, as previously stated, is that Scott isn’t sure if what he’s experiencing is real, and he’s turning to the fundamentals of philosophical thought.
But the question of the existence of god is not a disconnected one for Scott. He and Barda are gods. His biological dad, Highfather, is a god. His foster dad, Darkseid, is a god. Does god exist? Does he exist? Do the root sources of his trauma exist?
For Scott, these are all sort of the same question.
Two more infamous experiences of Los Angeles: Being stuck in traffic on the 10, and looking at the lights of the Valley. Scott is still grasping for more — Barda is prepared to hold on to what they’ve already got.
By this point, you might have noticed one of Mister Miracle’s key visual motifs: Glitched panels. They first appear in Mister Miracle #1, while Scott is making an appearance on late-night TV, and then, slowly, they begin to appear on other panels that otherwise seem entirely real.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to find a coherent pattern in their placement, although they tend to appear more often in moments when Scott is experiencing great emotion or internal conflict. It’s never entirely clear what they represent in the text. When I asked King about it, he said that they were Gerads’ invention.
“I personally love it,” King said, “and I know what it means to me. But I leave it to the readers and Mitch to sort out.”
Gerads said he came up with the layout idea while working on Mister Miracle #1, and that King left the placement of all of the glitches entirely up to him. But their “meaning?” It was all about the 9-panel grid.
“By using the nine-panel grid on every page I control exactly how the reader perceives time,” Gerads told me by email. “Like a newspaper comic strip. There’s zero guesswork from the reader as they move through the page. They’re forced to take in events in a linear fashion [... The glitches are] there to remind the reader this isn’t all hunky dory. Something is very wrong and you should be uneasy. The glitches are me forcing the reader to feel existential woe in a given moment.”
Black panels bearing only the text “Darkseid is” are Mister Miracle’s other main visual motif.
In Mister Miracle #1, there are 24, including one that takes up an entire page. But in most issues, we only get one. They show up when Scott is at his lowest. They show up when he’s at his most confident. “Darkseid is” bursts out from Scott’s intrusive, depressive thoughts.
King says that he was taught about “Darkseid is” by artist Julian Lytle.
“When I first started on Miracle,” King said, “I complained to Julian that I thought Darkseid was kind of lame, just another omnipotent Thanos-ish villain with plans to take over the universe or whatever. Julian set me straight, asking if I knew about ‘Darksied is?’ I said I didn’t. Julian asked me if I’d ever made a wrong choice even though I knew to make the right one. I said, yes. ‘Darkseid is.’ Julian asked me if I’d ever woken up late at night convinced it was all over, everything was done, I might as well be done, too. I said I had. ‘Darkseid is.’ Had I ever been convinced that the world was deep down broken and we were all just playing the shards? ‘Darkseid is.’ Mitch and I had been using black panels with sound effects in them in Sheriff of Babylon to obscure violence, and while Julian was talking, I got this vision in my head of these black panels coming up at these moments in Scott’s life, moments of doubt and evil, just black panels that laid out the truth: Darkseid is.”
Darkseid is the ultimate villain of Kirby’s New Gods, whose goal isn’t to rule the universe by conquering it, but by discovering a cosmic formula that will allow him to invade the thoughts of every sentient being, everywhere, and bend them to his will. In the meantime, he wields the tools of tyrants everywhere: Cruelty, doublespeak, autocracy, and rule by fear. A deity of ultimate evil created by the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants who was also a veteran of World War II, Darkseid is a god of fascism.
On a personal level, Darkseid is Scott’s foster father — when Highfather sent him to Apokolips as a baby, it was in a trade that sealed a peace treaty. Highfather got Darkseid’s biological son, Orion, and raised him as his own, while Darkseid delivered Scott straight to Granny Goodness’ orphanage.
“Darkseid is” also reflects another facet of Scott’s existential uncertainty. Descartes struggled to prove that he was not “a brain in a jar, or in a dream controlled by a demon or whatever,” and as an answer he tried to prove that god is just. Unfortunately for Scott, he knows that Darkseid is. He knows that even the “good” gods of New Genesis traded him for peace. God isn’t necessarily just.
On a lighter note: See all those white circles? They’re Gerads’ version of Kirby Krackle (or Kirby dots).
Kirby developed this graphic shorthand over the course of his career to stand in for all kinds of science fiction “energy” that was difficult to dynamically render in the limited capabilities of the four-color printing process. He rendered ray-gun blasts, cosmic portals, space phenomena, magical auras and just plain old explosions in a fractal wash of circles of negative space.
Now that you know where it comes from, you’ll start to see it everywhere in comics. And I do mean everywhere: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s entire climax is surrounded by flowing, multicolored Kirby Krackle.
King draws this page’s narration from the ending of Mister Miracle #5 (1971), hinting at the introduction of Funky in Mister Miracle #6 (1971). In the background of some panels, you can see a framed print of Kirby’s Mister Miracle #1 (1971).
This is also the issue’s closing moment. At the beginning, Scott tells Barda that she can release him from the trap he’s in — and she tells him she can’t be his way out. He has to choose life for himself.
“Scott does something very selfish in the beginning of the issue,” King tells me by email. “He tells Barda she can stop him from dying if she asks, essentially giving her partial responsibility for his death or his life. Barda’s smart and tough and sees this play and rejects it outright. Basically tells him to go F himself; it’s his life, he needs to embrace it or not. As the issue goes along she sadly accepts that she loves him more than she loves doing the right thing here. She lets him be selfish in order to save his life, perhaps in the hope that he can evolve, perhaps with no hope at all. Whether this is noble or naive is up to the reader, but it’s part of Barda’s growth throughout the book.”
As a native of New Genesis, turning against Darkseid allowed Scott to embrace his true nature. But for Barda, an Apokoliptian born and bred, turning into a “good guy” reclaims nothing for her. King’s Mister Miracle has her struggle with her own trauma alongside Scott: She has trouble believing in love, believing that she deserves it, and believing that she can ever trust it.
At the end of Mister Miracle #5, Big Barda has finally figured out the thing she’s been chewing on all issue: That she deserves to ask Scott to fight for his life, if not for himself, then for her. If it’s selfish, it’s at least not any more selfish than Scott in the beginning of the issue.
Like in their bedroom, Scott entered a trap and handed Barda the metaphorical key. And just like in their bedroom, Scott and Barda find trust. The key to freedom is real love, not the perverted thing that Granny Goodness sold them. The one thing Scott Free never chooses to escape is the way he’s bound himself to Barda.
DC’s full Mister Miracle collection arrives on Feb. 19.