Mister Miracle #2 drops this week, which marks this as the best possible time to review the initial reaction to Mister Miracle #1. It was a very well received debut, perhaps the most critically acclaimed new comic from a mainstream American publisher so far in 2017. That praise is deserved to some degree as the comic does offer far more than most mainstream fare: a heady mix of themes, purposeful execution in style and structure, and a rewarding reading experience that is not diminished with repetition. However, the most praiseworthy aspect of the first issue of Mister Miracle is the excellence with which it teaches readers how to engage with the story. Mister Miracle #1 is not a complete story, it is an introductory chapter and clearly establishes itself as such. In this way it makes for an interesting comparison to the original Mister Miracle #1 published in 1971, a bold statement if there ever was one in superhero comics.
Mister Miracle (1971) was one of four titles written and drawn by Jack Kirby upon his arrival at DC Comics. In tandem with the other series, it established the mythology of The Fourth World. While those others focused on the epic battles and adventures occurring on warring planets and distant gods, Mister Miracle was more humble in scope, if only by comparison. It followed the exploits of Scott Free, an escapee from the hellish planet of Apokolips, who picked up the mantle of an escape artist on Earth. The first issue provides the origin of Scott Free, his mentor Thaddeus Brown, their introduction, Brown’s tragic demise, and the mounting conflict and resolution between them and villainous gangster Steel Hand. Kirby would write 17 more issues in the series, but #1 contained an adventure that exists without need for prefaces or follow up.
More than 45 years later Mister Miracle (2017) presents itself very differently; it presumes some foreknowledge with the mythos that surrounds it. There are brief mentions of whom the many characters, like Orion and Highfather, are in this story, but others like Glorious Godfrey appear with no explanation. If a reader does not already know Godfrey is a pawn of the god of evil Darkseid, than his cameo is only disconcerting insofar as artist Mitch Gerads’ frazzled VCR effects inform readers it ought to be. The issue occurs well into the life of Miracle on Earth and at a turning point in the war of the Fourth World, picking up more like the serialized nature of the first Star Wars film than the start that the #1 on its cover might indicate.
The most notable aspect of the 2017 issue is Gerads’ layouts. The first four pages lack any borders and only the fourth affects multiple moments by repeating the same image of Scott moving diagonally from left to right. Following these initial splashes, the comic is quickly ordered in a nine-panel grid exactly like the one popularized in Watchmen. This change both draws attentions to the new use of panels and how consistent that usage is.
Kirby’s original issue utilizes a similar layout as its basic form of storytelling, a two-by-three grid. While this is noticeable when readers look for it, it does not draw attention to itself like the 2017 issue. Instead, it is part of a pattern within Kirby’s work in which each page is utilized to tell the maximum amount of story. That grid is discarded or modified in a variety of instances without any clear intention except to more effectively deliver an action sequence or provide more space for a single moment.
The design of 2017 pushes each change as something exceptional, though. When the borders and gutters on pages change between black and white, it feels purposeful as the scene and time within those bars also changes. This also serves to make one more splash page, a single black page with only two words, stand out even more.
Formalism is a key element in how the new Mister Miracle is being told, but so is style. Gerads differentiates a story filled with multiple timelines (and possibly realities) by altering his methods of coloring and drawing. The VCR effects in one scene compared to the taped-over and aged style of another distinguish timelines and suggest that the narrative is not told chronologically, and there may be unseen layers to the story (or stories) unfolding.
There is also the continually embedded black panel that states in plain white lettering “Darkseid is”. It reoccurs on almost every page at least once, establishing enough of a pattern that readers should recognize when it is broken. In a handful of pages, the panel appears more often or not at all. The why and wherefores behind this pattern are unclear, but readers already know where their focus ought to lie.
The original Mister Miracle is not establishing mysteries for future issues to reveal. It is as bold and direct as Kirby was throughout his life. His style is idiosyncratic and clearly establishes each moment of the story. Changes in mood or time are stated, but there is no doubt that the world in which Mister Miracle and Steel Hand square off is the same in which Brown reflects on his son’s death in the Korean War.
Kirby masterfully established what Mister Miracle was in 1971 with a complete introductory adventure. It laid out themes of escape, heroism, and confronting authority as clearly as each bold stroke of the man’s pencil. The newest volume of Mister Miracle appears to be approaching similar ideas, but it has only begun to address them in a meaningful way. Its first issue is not remarkable for what is has to say, but how it says it. Few comics today or in 1971 were so clear in teaching readers how they ought to be read, and that is a commendable connection.