Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.

This week, it is Mister Miracle #12. Written by Tom King (The Vision, Batman) with art by Mitch Gerads (The Sheriff Of Babylon, Batman), this issue concludes a miniseries about creators and characters breaking free from the shackles of superhero expectations. Note: This review reveals major plot points.

It’s time to change what “matters” in superhero comics. For too long, readers have flocked to books that are hyped up by their importance to a larger superhero universe, stories that promise to have long-reaching ramifications that change the future of these fictional worlds. These events are often empty calories, lacking substance because creators are primarily focused on creating universe-shattering stakes at the expense of character development. There are notable exceptions, but publishers will continue to publish lackluster events as long as people are willing to fall for the deception that these are the important books.

Cover by Nick Derington
Image: DC Comics

This mode of thinking has been partially responsible for the decline of the miniseries. If these books don’t have a publicized connection to a larger plan, some readers will have no incentive to pick up the monthly issues rather than waiting for the trade. But if people don’t buy the single issues for miniseries, companies won’t continue to release them. Tom King has done more to change this than any other current comic writer. He’s built his career on the 12-issue miniseries, and his work on books like The Omega Men, The Sheriff Of Babylon, and The Vision earned him the high-profile gig of writing the main Batman series.

Mister Miracle is the first 12-issue miniseries King has written after gaining his new elevated status, reuniting him with his Sheriff Of Babylon and Batman collaborator Mitch Gerads for a take on Jack Kirby’s superhero escape artist that is as hilarious as it is devastating. Scott “Mister Miracle” Free is trapped by life, and in the first pages of the story, he slits his wrists to attempt the ultimate escape. This creates significant tension between Scott and his wife, Big Barda, but their somber marital drama is consistently interrupted by their duties in a cosmic war that is getting deadlier every day. Like The Vision, Mister Miracle exists in the world between everyday domesticity and amazing fantasy, but in keeping with the spirit of Kirby’s work, King, Gerads, and letterer Clayton Cowles up the fun quotient in this series.

Mister Miracle is a superhero tragicomedy, and as sad as the story gets, the creative team maintains a humorous through-line to give the book more complex and engaging narrative dynamics. This is clear from the first pages, when Scott’s suicide attempt is paired with dramatic Kirby-style narration introducing readers to “the strangest, most incredible hero ever to appear in comics!” That humor is extremely grim, but it’s still there. Each chapter begins and ends with bombastic narration to give the story retro bookends, contrasting an otherwise modern creative approach deconstructing genre elements and experimenting with the parts. The body count is high and the atmosphere is bleak and unsettling, but then there will be a moment like Darkseid eating a baby carrot that lets the reader have a laugh and catch their breath before the next brutal sequence.

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Image: DC Comics

King and Gerads’ storytelling is in your face in a very different way than Kirby’s, which is more of an explosion outward rather than a tight close-up. Mister Miracle begins with a full-page zoom-in of Scott’s face as he’s lying on the floor of his bathroom, followed by a two-page splash showing the rest of the bloody tableau. The foreboding phrase, “Darkseid Is,” appears throughout the story, taking up entire panels (and even a whole page) with blocks of black that have the words printed in a distressed white typewriter font. King and Gerads often fill an entire page with nine panels focusing on a single image, like the one devoted to Scott gradually breaking down in the shower, and they use repetition to sear moments into the reader’s mind.

Image: DC Comics

Jack Kirby and his wife, Roz, stayed together from their marriage in 1942 until his death in 1994, and Mister Miracle can be read as a tribute to the couple’s stalwart commitment during periods of intense strife. The idea that love is the thing that sustains you and makes life worth living is at the core of this series. King’s very first Twitter tease established this with an image of Barda and Scott holding hands, accompanied by an abbreviated Tom Wolfe quote: “Is this not the true romantic feeling; not to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping you.”

King understands the value of romantic love in superhero stories, and he writes lovers with tender yet thorny relationships, a dichotomy that stems from the trauma in their lives. These character find solace in each other, but that trauma tends to bubble up and create new problems that need to be worked through. Scott and Barda are one of the most compelling couples in superhero comics, and the sheer range of experiences they go through in this book, from the most banal to the most revelatory, gives them more dimension than the majority of superhero romances.

Image: DC Comics

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I’ve praised King and Gerads for their use of sex to inform character in their work together on Batman, and in Mister Miracle, they don’t shy away from the kinkier elements of a hero whose whole schtick is escaping bondage. Issue #5 does exceptional work exploring the various types of intimacy in Scott and Barda’s relationship, and in this final issue, we see the two of them rediscovering the passion they’d lost. The two of them make out in a boom tube teleporting them away from Earth. When they land on Apokolips, Barda has her legs wrapped around their husband’s waist.

Cover by Nick Derington
Image: DC Comics

There are many structural ties between the first and last issues of Mister Miracle, beginning with Nick Derington’s main covers. The first issue shows Scott bound in an elaborate trap in front of a red curtain, beginning a show for his latest audience. The image puts a literal spotlight on restraint, anxiety, and vulnerability, but the tone completely changes for the last issue’s cover. Barda joins Scott onstage, the show is over, and the crowd is on its feet, showering the pair in roses.

Gerads uses glitch effects to give the visuals an inherent instability, inviting readers to question what is and isn’t real. That ambiguity remains until the very end, but with a tension between heaven and hell rather than reality and illusion. Throughout this final issue, Scott is visited by ghosts from his past, including Forager and Orion, a fallen comrade and brother who have conflicting ideas about what Scott’s life has become. Forager visits Scott while he’s on Apokolips, fulfilling his regular duty in a never-ending war, and tries to convince him he’s in hell. Orion visits Scott while he’s home on Earth, and upon seeing Scott’s relatively calm routine as a husband and father, Orion shames him for choosing to stay in heaven.

Image: DC Comics

But Scott refuses to be boxed in by the heaven/hell binary. He refuses to be boxed in by any sort of religious limitations, which means denying his true god: the DC Universe. In Mister Miracle’s penultimate chapter, Scott and Barda defeat Darkseid only to encounter Metron, who reveals the “face of God” to them. This isn’t one face but many, and a wave of DC characters in their current post-Rebirth costumes rushes toward the reader in the kind of two-page spread you would find at the end of a crossover. This is the world that Scott and Barda belong to, and the cliffhanger leaves readers wondering if the miniseries is about to veer into the main DC line.

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That’s not what happens, though. King and Gerads choose to keep Scott and Barda in their own separate world, avoiding continuity restraints and editorial mandates so that their story can exist on its own. That might make some fans angry, but there are things that matter more than having this story tie in to Heroes In Crisis.

Image: DC Comics

The release of Mister Miracle #12 just two days after the death of Stan Lee significantly affected how I engaged with this issue, particularly with its commentary on larger superhero universes. Stan Lee is an integral part of Jack Kirby’s story, and even though he didn’t have a direct creative role in the New Gods, Lee still influenced the concept. There are a lot of complicated, problematic aspects of how Lee operated as a businessman, but as a creator and an editor, he understood what his audience wanted and worked with artists who had the vision to shape and execute ideas with verve and imagination. Working with Lee to create cosmic characters like Galactus and the Silver Surfer prepared Kirby for the ambitious task of creating the Fourth World and its mythical scope.

Kirby’s DC work still had ties to a larger shared universe, but because DC’s books didn’t have the intense connectivity of Marvel, there was more freedom for Kirby to make his storytelling more personal and innovative. Kirby introduced a character based on Lee, Funky Flashman, in Mister Miracle #6, and the description of Funky on the very first page says a lot about Kirby’s feelings toward his former collaborator: “In the shadow world between success and failure, there lives the driven little man who dreams of having it all!!!—The opportunistic spoiler without character or values, who preys on all things like a cannibal!!!—Including you!!!

Mister Miracle Vol. 1 #7 art by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer
Image: DC Comics

Funky’s role in King and Gerads’ Mister Miracle is that of babysitter, teaching Scott and Barda’s son basic moral lessons while they play with superhero action figures. Stan Lee had a child’s enthusiasm, but by many accounts, he also had a naïve understanding of his relationships with his collaborators and how his business practices affected their lives.

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On a storytelling level, Lee changed the superhero genre in two fundamental ways: He created multidimensional, dysfunctional heroes with vulnerabilities readers could connect to on an emotional level, and he brought all of these heroes together in a shared universe where they could easily interact with each other. He got readers to see themselves in the characters, then used that personal investment to make them care about a larger universe, increasing the likelihood that they would try out new titles that expand that universe.

Image: DC Comics

Here we have the seeds of the mind-set regarding what “matters” in superhero comics, especially because Lee was such an aggressive hype man for his titles. He built up the Marvel Universe to the point where the universe as a whole became more valuable than a creator’s unique vision, and readers became more interested in largely superficial changes to the larger landscape rather than stories that genuinely push the genre and the art form forward.

Scott’s deceased mentor, Oberon, is Mister Miracle’s Jack Kirby stand-in, a connection made explicit by giving the character Kirby’s original surname, Kurtzberg. In his final scene, Oberon comforts Scott by telling him not to doubt his decision to reject that other world of “crises and continuities that never really make sense,” where superheroes’ lives always end up hunky-dory. This is as much a character decision as it is a creative decision, and rather than fold this story into Rebirth continuity, King and Gerads choose to let it exist on its own.

Image: DC Comics

Considering Lee’s role in pioneering the idea of a shared superhero universe that would eventually lead to those confusing crises continuities, this scene becomes a fascinating examination of how Lee and Kirby shaped superhero comics. Lee’s dedication to the humanity of his superhero characters is taken to the extreme in Mister Miracle’s deeply introspective emotional storytelling, but the book is also a rejection of Lee’s shared-universe philosophy. The creative team doesn’t want those limitations, so they look at Kirby’s example and follow creative impulses that are personal and unconventional and potentially alienating.

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In the biography Kirby: King Of Comics, Mark Evanier recalls an anecdote about his friend at a comic art festival in the ’70s. When a librarian suggested that comics should mirror reality so that more people could understand them, Kirby pushed back: “When you mirror reality, you see it all backward. When you start transcending it, that’s when you have a good shot at figuring out what’s going on.” The creative team of Mister Miracle uses the epic framework provided by Kirby to delve into depression, guilt, trauma, and how they affect a man’s ability to function as a husband and father. King and Gerads don’t have it all figured out, but by leaving questions open, they compel readers to find their own answers.