I’m a man in his 40s who reads superhero comics. Alan Moore has been clear about his opinion of this. “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults… delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” And, a lot of the time, he’s right. Most of these stories, even the ones for ‘mature readers’, are male empowerment fantasies which demean teenage readers, let alone adults.
But I keep panning for gold in this river of shit. Sometimes, something great comes along, like the Vision, or Gwenpool or The Wicked and Divine; but a lot of the time it’s tired stories where ethics are debated by punches. Superhero comics at their best move me more than any other art form (Enigma! Animal Man! Flex Mentallo! Doom Patrol! Promethea!). But, as I get older, I think I’ve seen all the best tricks, and should stop buying new series.
Miracle Man came out in 2017 and is the best superhero book I’ve read. It’s based on an old Jack Kirby series, part of his Fourth World mythos, which set out to invent a new group of gods. His story tells of the eternal war between the Highfather and Darkseid, the embodiment of all that is evil. The Highfather’s son was sent to the planet Apokolips in an exchange of children with Darkseid. There he grew up in the fearsome X-Pits, raised by Granny Goodness in one of her orphanages. He was given the name Scott Free for his attempts to flee Apokolips, his failures slowly teaching him to be the greatest escape artist the universe has ever seen. He finally escapes to Earth, where he later joined by Big Barda, one of the people he knew from his horrific childhood and they are later married.
It’s a hokey story, and the Miracle Man graphic novel opens with a retelling of the story so far, in a simple 6-panel grid. Every sentence ends in an exclamation mark! Then we find a double page spread of Scott Free, lying on a bathroom floor, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds to his wrists. After that, the hospital, Big Barda in a waiting room’s plastic chair, oversized, out of place, sobbing.
The book follows Scott Free and Big Barda as they try to come to terms with Scott’s depression while living in a suburban LA condo. The characters have always tried for a normal life, but cannot renounce their lives as New Gods and superheroes. They try making their home a refuge from the madness, but the war with Apokolips intrudes, sometimes with diplomatic meetings on their cramped sofa. Being gods is their job, the slaughter of sci-fi battles becoming drudgery, the Highfather an annoying boss. Scott and Barda know things between them aren’t good, but cannot fix them while their work life is so hectic. They struggle to maintain their domestic routine, discussing ‘Michelle feeding the cat’ as they head to battles on other worlds.
A lot of stories that merge everyday life with fantasy play on what is real or imaginary (a great example here being I Kill Giants). Mister Miracle’s text has ambiguities, but not intrusively. I prefer to read it as a straightforward superhero narrative whose hero is also struggling to escape depression.
Scott Free’s superpower is escape, but this isn’t enough. Scott and Barda are both struggle with the trauma of their childhood on Apokolips (as Barda tells Scott, “If you’re escaping the box, you’re still in the box”). Scott’s depression is linked with the fictional Anti-Life Equation, a mathematical formula that can take over the will of any living creature – playing on the way that if someone has full control of you, then you are not alive. This becomes a metaphor for Scott’s depression, while being treated as a straightforward piece of comics lore.
The book is impressive. PanelXPanel magazine discussed how the 9-panel grid is treated as a cage, trapping the character. Repetition and distortion are used to great effect; black panels intrude, proclaiming ‘Darkseid is…”, breaking up the flow. Captions are taken from the original Kirby series of Mister Miracle and placed against this more serious story, to jarring, mocking effect.
Superheroes were invented for young boys in the 50s, but maybe they do have something to say to middle-aged men in their 40s. How does fantasy survive alongside the parts of our lives that are boring or disappointing we hate, with feelings of doubt, exhaustion and sadness? The only problem with Mister Miracle is how hollow so many other comics feel in comparison.