By Molly Jane Kremer. Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters were always larger than life (quite literally, in some cases). Between their never-ending interplanetary war, their black-and-white depictions of good vs. evil, amidst paradise and firepits writer Tom King, artist Mitch Gerads and letterer Clayton Cowles have managed to provide these same characters with something tangible. Whether you’ve been steeped in tales of the New Gods for most of the last half century, or this is your first foray into the Fourth World with Scott Free and his dysfunctional family(s), Mister Miracle #1 is a brilliant first issue.
These are characters with lives that feel lived-in and real, anxieties and affections that are easy to identify with. Yet they strike deeper chords: Barda is formidable and loving, Orion is a dick, Oberon is an encouraging jokester (and bears a resemblance to one Mr. Jacob Kurtzberg), and, well, Darkseid is. Appearing only to the reader, and only in those two words at least once a page, Darkseid is the bleakest outcome, the idiomatic Darkest Timeline, lurking at the edges of everything.
Taking a bright, hopeful character and pulling them “down to our level” is often a lazy narrative move, and I deplore making an aspirational character more identifiable by “gritty”-ing them up. It’s done too often (and shoddily) in comics, by creators merely aiming for big splashy crazy shit to happen in the process — the kind of stuff that gets thirteen-year-olds real excited. Thankfully Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Clayton Cowles ignore that nonsense. They imbue these characters with a hushed melancholy, a creeping unease, never going for the splashy option (aside from the issue’s second page, maybe). This is a deeply quiet comic, which might be why the sense of disquiet it conveys is so pervasive.
Nine-panel pages are now expected from Tom King’s scripts, but thankfully, he’s real good at ‘em. More importantly, Mitch Gerads excels at rendering them, utilizing all his storytelling prowess to cram these static, often claustrophobic layouts with emotion and tension. Each page has at most eight panels of art, since at least one panel per page is a black void with the words “Darkseid is.” centered within it. (Another of King’s oft but well used literary devices.) These black pages give letterer Cowles a chance to shine, though he already deftly manages to keep the issue’s small panels from feeling too cluttered with word balloons.
Gerads uses all the tools at his command, and its a formidable arsenal, to make this both a beautiful and unsettling comic book. Ben-Day dots color the first three establishing pages, the immediate retro connotation on page one’s close-up contrasting with the subsequent double-page splash’s distressing imagery drawn with more modern angles and effects.
In sequences that may or may not be imagined, the backgrounds are rough sketches. Tape marks seem to imply that a character has inserted their own perspectives after the fact. The scrambled, pixelated images of Scott’s televised appearance on a talk show is somehow incredibly unnerving, again toeing the line of uncertainty between memory and invention with a high-contrast realism. Even as Scott and Barda sleepily watch TV together on the couch, we perceive the unease in Scott’s stare, the din of his inner anxieties.
Mister Miracle is traditionally a hopeful character, masterfully escaping anything and everything put in front of him, be it an onstage deathtrap or the clutches of an authoritarian tyrant with ambitions for galactic domination. But this is a more personal story, and has the stakes to prove it. King and Gerads weave subtle uncertainty into a narrative of hope. This Mister Miracle is about keeping the faith, even in the face of debilitating doubt; standing up against your own disbelief and fear. It’s one of the best, and most essential, comics to be released this year.
Written by Tom King.
Art by Mitch Gerads.
Letters by Clayton Cowles.
10 out of 10