In Tom King and Mitch Gerads’s critically acclaimed Mister Miracle, Scott Free toils in search of something seriously lacking in our own lives today: the power to escape.
But escape from what?
Viewed through the lens of an iPhone screen, the comparison might seem counterintuitive. After all, it seems like today we have nothing but escape, beset daily by streaming content, viral memes, and a disappointing succession of spandex franchises. Despite this parade of distractions, we sense too that the content stream is thin gruel.
Rather than losing ourselves to wonder and enjoyment, our condition is better characterized as a consumerist obligation, one that straddles both social and commercial spheres. We’re asked to enjoy the media glut, even when we don’t. A cruel irony accrues to the fact that the more we are inundated with commercial escapism, the more we are trapped by it, locked out of the sort of life we really want.
These contradictions of escape are captured nicely in the fact that the generation most connected by smartphones and social media is also the one that is statistically the loneliest. Depression and suicide rates climb at a time when we have historically unprecedented access to quick relief from life’s misery.
What do we make of the fact that neither feudal peasants nor the industrial proletariat had access to palliatives like Candy Crush or Netflix? Or how do we explain the coincidence of porntube emancipation and a so-called “recession” in sexual activity? Our instinct to wriggle free from the straight jacket of alienation only tightens the shackles.
Call our time what you will — late capitalism, postmodernism, the Anthropocene, an era of meme semiotics and post-truth politics — but today’s milieu leaves us trapped by all the wrong forms of escape.
The super escape artist Mister Miracle is one of the lesser-known characters in the DC Comics canon, but he’s been around for almost 50 years now. Mister Miracle was created by legendary comics artist Jack Kirby, who made his famous move to DC Comics in 1970 after over roughly a decade of collaboration with Stan Lee. Of course, Kirby’s tenure at Marvel founded an unbelievable proportion of today’s mainstream superhero culture: X-Men, Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Fantastic Four, Black Panther.
But what Kirby created at DC Comics was different. His principal work there, to date, boasts no tentpole franchises and begat no household names. But it remains one of the most significant and picked-over runs in comic book history, remembered for its scope, ambition, and titanic themes.
Kirby’s main project — known as The Fourth World saga or the story of the New Gods — was an anti-fascist epic, and the story’s political underpinnings were rooted in the artist’s own life experiences. The son of Austrian Jewish immigrants, Kirby fought fascism as a soldier in World War II, nearly losing his legs to frostbite while stationed in Normandy. As a result, Kirby embodied a certain macho, patriotic anti-Nazism typical of men of that generation.
Knowing that, it’s no surprise that Kirby’s ultimate villain, Darkseid, was cast as Carl Schmidt’s Diktatur incarnate, an “exceptional negation of democratic principles” blown out to cosmic proportions. In Grant Morrison’s autobiography-cum-comics-treatise Supergods, he describes Darkseid as a “monolithic personification of the totalitarian will to power, god of absolute control.”
What’s important to understand about Darkseid is that he isn’t just another villain enamored with power and greed. Rather, Darkseid is something far more elemental, personifying the very essence of authoritarianism. Darkseid is domination itself, anthropomorphized as a cold, hulking figure of iron and stone.
In his quest for power, Darkseid sought something called the Anti-Life Equation. Though Kirby always left it vague, the Anti-Life Equation was in essence a technical means of population-level mind control, and thus an instrument of flawless tyranny.
The primary hero of the story was Scott Free, better known as Mister Miracle, a scrappy runaway prestidigitator whose superpower was his literal ability to escape from bondage. What’s more, Scott Free was raised on Darkseid’s planet, and it was from beneath the thumb of Darkseid’s sci-fi fascism that he first escaped to become Mister Miracle.
In setting these two figures against one another and erecting a cosmic mythology around their complementary metaphors, the picture Kirby sought to paint was not merely one of heroes and villains — of, say, the classic choice between selfishness and altruism — but rather, in Morrison’s words, a fundamental struggle of “freedom versus repression, to the death.”
If themes like that sound pedestrian, then we should also admit that some believe Kirby was never much of a writer. But the scope and sincerity of his allegorical ambitions are reflected in his inimitable visual style. The voice of the Fourth World hums with graphic energy: fallen gods crucified in space, condemned by the indifference of an expansive intergalactic tapestry; the psychedelic futurity of extra-dimensional teenagers on the run; a wasted expanse of torture and flames juxtaposed with a dazzling techno-paradise in the sky; and most compelling of all, the rainbow body of Mister Miracle in chains, racked by the passions of bondage and release.
Kirby’s futuristic myth was one of color, beauty, and wonder. But it was far from naïve. It was a precarious dream of utopia, one under constant threat of extermination by the creeping fist of oppression.
At about the same time Kirby was crafting his anti-fascist mythos, the western Marxists of the Institute for Social Research were nearing the end of their careers. Biographically, the Frankfurt School philosophers shared a lot with Kirby — they were German speaking, Jewish, constitutively anti-fascist, and they all held a worldview indelibly scarred by the horrors of World War II. So perhaps it’s no surprise that they shared some philosophical foundations with Kirby too.
One of the group’s founding ideas was its critique of positivistic scientism and its relationship to industrial capitalism. As dyed-in-the wool dialecticians, they were skeptical of philosophical frameworks that relied upon the givenness of any particular goal, value, or principle. Chief suspects included the Enlightenment values of individualism and scientific rationality, which were harbored as articles of faith in the intellectual tradition of classical liberalism.
In particular, the work of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno took aim at deconstructing the ideology of commonplace epistemology. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, they emphasized the cold brutality of Enlightenment rationality, uncovering its perfect marriage with the dominating and objectifying processes of industrial capitalism. “On the way toward modern science human beings have discarded meaning,” they declared.
For these thinkers, scientific and mathematic rationality were packed with reactionary tendencies. Insofar as it could only describe and catalogue an existing present, positive science lacked the ability to imagine and generate a freer and more humane future. “The reduction of thought to a mathematical apparatus condemns the world to be its own measure,” they warned.
In service of the all-encompassing profit imperative, capitalism undertook a relentless pursuit of technical control over nature and society. Scientific description of the existing system could so easily be mistaken for its justification.
For Horkheimer and Adorno, the key error of positivism was in its assumption that everything could be reduced to a number. In declaring everything to be measurable, quantifiable, and tangible, Enlightenment liberalism lost something essential about human thought and dignity. This lent legitimacy to the technical processes of industrialization and economic efficiency, but it was bad news for anyone who happened to be in a powerless position.
“The impartiality of scientific language deprived what was powerless of the strength to make itself heard and merely provided the existing order with a neutral sign for itself.” Though dressed up in the language of individual freedom and scientific rationality, ultimately capitalism spoke only the language of power. If everything of value could be reduced to manipulatable data, then anything that couldn’t was necessarily worthless: “modern positivism consigns it to poetry.”
The gist of Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument was that under capitalism, Enlightenment values invited a perverse mathematicization of politics and culture, laying the basis for the objectification and exploitation inherent capitalism, and this led inevitably to fascism.
Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique dovetails with the conceptual particularities of Kirby’s New Gods saga. Recall that Darkseid’s quest was not for any old weapon, but specifically for a mathematical formula that would produce perfect domination.
As Morrison described it, “the Anti-Life Equation [was] an ultimate mind control formula . . . which could enslave all living things to a dark mathematician’s will.”
In seeking it out, Darkseid’s ambition was to uncover the underlying hard truth of things, to crack the code of existence itself. In this way, Darkseid emerges as the Enlightenment figure par excellence, which Horkheimer and Adorno held to be necessarily dictatorial: “Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent he can manipulate them.”
The notion of the Anti-Life Equation as an arithmetical truth inscribed oppression on the very fabric of space-time. It was as though, with the right formula, free will itself could be brought to heel. Figures and formulae could render obsolete the question of human dignity itself, revealing the human subject to be an object after all; the subject of liberalism was merely a slave that had mistaken itself for free.
This dark epiphany was precisely what Horkheimer and Adorno feared. Further, they argued that it was already happening under industrial capitalism. Like the stupefied slaves of Apokolips, subjects of capitalism are condemned to suffer alienation and reification. Forget the Anti-Life Equation; an economic system of private property, competitive markets, and wage labor was already turning human beings into objects.
But then again, Horkheimer and Adorno would be comfortable characterizing Darkseid’s fantasy of perfect oppression as just another cosmic myth. The parallel development of capitalism and modern scientific knowledge fostered an ideal of objective domination, taking the form of an occult knowledge to be extracted from reality and repurposed for commercial purposes. Ultimately, this measure of perfect scientific knowledge could impose order on chaos, and thus fix nature for good.
Such a mission, however, was not an incident of progress but rather a hidden regression. Horkheimer and Adorno saw in the Enlightenment’s excesses as a crass reinscription of classical mythology. Myths, after all, were in their origin adopted to tame and pacify nature, just like scientific knowledge. In this sense, the authoritarian will to power that drove Darkseid to seek out the calculus of enslavement was the same one driving capitalism all along—and it was that which impelled both toward fascism.
The deeper irony, both for the New Gods and liberal capitalism, resides in the materialist inevitability of their collapse. It’s easy to miss, but one of the most interesting plot points in Kirby’s epic is the fact that Mister Miracle’s ability to escape—his dialectical drive toward freedom—was what triggered the story’s central conflict.
In “The Pact,” perhaps the most famous issue of the Fourth World saga, Kirby laid out a founding mythology of his New Gods. He posited a Manichean war between two worlds: New Genesis, the empyrean utopia, versus Apokolips, the charred hellscape. Their war ended in a feudal armistice. Scott Free, the heir apparent to New Genesis, was sent to Apokolips, while Darkseid’s son Orion found a new home on New Genesis.
Through the mythical exogamy of transposed sons, the New Gods struck a delicate balance between heaven and hell. But when Scott Free escaped the fascist prison of Apokolips, his newfound freedom was what tipped the scales back toward imbalance. The pact broken, Darkseid undertook a renewed campaign of imperial aggression.
Thus, the tragedy of Mister Miracle’s determination to escape was the same as the Enlightenment’s pursuit of intellectual liberation: both unwittingly cleared the path to fascism.
Thus, we can read in Mister Miracle a parallel that Horkheimer and Adorno sought to show in Enlightenment’s dialectic. The Enlightenment, like capitalism, in its drive toward liberation from the past only managed to resurrect old modes of self-destruction. Consonant with Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism, the internal drives and contradictions of Enlightenment liberalism led to its own negation, producing the horrors of European fascism.
And this is precisely the lesson of historical materialism. The collapse of any given system — be it a mode of economic production or a philosophical paradigm — never carries with it a guarantee for something better. Marx and Engels noted as much in the Communist Manifesto: class struggle might find a happy ending in communism, but it was always at least as likely to end in common ruin.
That we live in an increasingly unhappy society is objectively measurable. Our multitudes are increasingly peopled by opiate victims and anxious depressives, entire populations yielding to despair. Perhaps the starkest measurement available is the alarming increase in the rate of suicide, that tragically misguided form of escape. As the CDC reports, suicides have gone up by 33% since 1999. Meanwhile, a number of studies link suicide rates to the ravages of economic inequality.
The first issue of King and Gerads’s modern take on Mister Miracle sees Scott Free splayed on the bathroom floor, wrists slit. His suicide attempt occurred as he was already deep in a pit of alienation, estranged from his rightful place on utopian New Genesis, and having lost his earthly mentor Oberon to cancer.
By the end of the first issue, we learn why the darkness has crept into Scott’s life so acutely: Darkseid has, at last and already, gained control of the Anti-Life Equation. As a result, the patriarch of New Genesis has been beheaded, the new norm will be total war, and Scott will be dragged inevitably deeper into a pit of despair.
The story progresses as a curious patchwork of domestic tedium, bloody warfare, parental anxieties, and the vertiginous agony of traps within traps. Throughout, the pages are haunted by a repeated phrase. Two dozen times in the first issue, a panel of pitch black intervenes on the otherwise colorful story, bearing the phrase: “Darkseid is.” Over and over, the twelve-issue series sees the same panel interject 34 times, its starkness and mystery forming the story’s central aesthetic riddle.
Whence the phrase, Darkseid is?
The answer comes in issue six, when Darkseid completes the maxim: “Darkseid does not do. Darkseid is.” In this Nietzschean collapsing of agency and identity, Darkseid’s authoritarianism occurs as a triumph of fatalistic determinism. A Darkseid in possession of the Anti-Life Equation forms a principle of perfect ontological identity, locking in the immutability and finality of a doomed present.
Scott is hammered with the phrase over and over again, suggesting his submission to its cold determinism. If the objective laws of the universe have already calculated our fate, then that is a trap that none of us, not even Mister Miracle, can escape from.
If Darkseid is, then none of us ever had a chance to begin with.
Happily, the story ends in a gesture of liberation.
In the penultimate issue, a double-page splash of color depicts the characters bursting forth into a new sense of shared reality, one renewed by affirmation and wonder. But the inherent ambiguity of such an image only returns me, my nose buried in a comic book rather than a newspaper, to the question of contemporary escape.
What is the nature of escape, and how do we discover it? The Frankfurt School psychoanalyst Erich Fromm suggested that freedom is something we’re psychologically disposed to escape from, leading us to fetishize powerful leaders and find solace in our submission to them. Walter Benjamin, perhaps the most influential and celebrated Frankfurt School thinker of all, once characterized revolution not as a leap forward, but as the emergency brake on a fugitive train of historical progress.
To Benjamin’s metaphor, Fredric Jameson once responded that such an interpretation always conceded too much in favor of capitalism’s false “monopoly on change and futurity.” For Jameson, getting a grip on the future would mean far more than hitting the pause button. This is particularly true for a political left with its heart still set on utopia.
In the recurrent enchainment of Mister Miracle, Jack Kirby dreamt of an escape that was more Jamesonian than Benjaminian. Collectively, Kirby’s New Gods represent an exceptional transgression of boundaries, paragons of radical shifts in perspective and the expansiveness of omnidirectional momentum.
Most of all, the type of escape that the New Gods represent is founded on the courage needed to face that which is entirely, utterly new. For Tom King, this is the meaning of the Fourth World: it’s not past, present, or future, but rather the embodiment of the same utopian impossibilities that constituted the original object of critical theory.
As the final issue puts it, the Fourth World is “the world I see when I close my eyes and try to escape.”
Today, we seek an escape from the hell of a fixed present and the threat of a doomed future. Mark Fisher, the late anti-capitalist cultural theorist, was perhaps best known for his conclusion that the future had been canceled. Instead of the destiny that humanity had always imagined for itself, we’ve been turned around and sent back again.
Caught in a sociocultural loop, we’re lulled by a record skip of postmodern repetition. Humanity is haunted by its own broken promise to itself, and our lost futures tease us with the fading potentialities that could, and should, have been.
Recently, the accounting firm Deloite’s annual survey of over 10,000 global millennials confirmed what the depression and suicide statistics suggest: the younger generations are less optimistic than ever, and they continue to lose faith in business, politics, or technology to save them.
In this sense, we’re all still Scott Free, wrists bloodied on the bathroom floor, escaping only deeper into our own traps. But King’s take on Mister Miracle suggests something more: the only way to escape death is to give birth to something new. Hope remains as we rediscover the critical project, a dialectics of escape, one that can see beyond the gray skies above and sustain its lonely vigil through to the next sunrise.
With any luck, the finality of a canceled future is something we can squirm out of. But it’ll require something besides a lockpick or trapdoor, and something a lot more like a miracle.
Tom Syverson is a writer living in Brooklyn. He can be contacted and engaged on Twitter.