Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
Who don’t believe in anything?
We make it out alive
All right, all right
No church in the wild
– No Church in the Wild by Kanye West and Jay Z
A frequent criticism of Tom King’s writing is that it’s just a bunch of straight (usually) white men having a crisis. It’s a fair critique of the scope of his work, but it also highlights his highest virtue: giving voice, empathy, drama, and meaning to a crisis of masculinity.
It’s been a perennial media narrative since the 1960s that masculinity is in some kind of decline or crisis, and it usually gets framed as a loss suffered by gains made by women — despite the fact that feminist thinkers have been some of the most consistently sympathetic interlocutors (like Susan Faludi’s Stiffed).
A common line of feminist thinking is that while patriarchy operates by privileging men over women, that privilege comes along with strict codes of conduct, behaviors, and dress that can take an incredible toll on anyone. Especially when the results of deindustrialization and stagnant wages collide with the unchanged societal expectations of a man being the primary, if not sole, breadwinner for his family.
Yet the popular narratives validating the idea of a crisis in masculinity usually take one of two forms: framing men and boys as the bewildered collateral damage of feminist overreach, like the recent Esquire cover story “The Life of an American Boy at 17,” or a pretext for the kind of misogynist revanchism peddled by pick-up artists and other elements of the “Men’s Rights Activist” sphere.
These narratives cause more harm than good in some obvious ways, further burdening girls and women with responsibility for the behavior of men and boys, but it also discredits and obscures what is absolutely a genuine crisis. Mister Miracle doesn’t present itself as an overt statement on the currency of toxic masculinity in superhero fiction the way that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s seminal Flex Mentallo did or indulge in cheap point scoring against the openly misogynist underbelly of the fanbase as is currently de rigeur.
Instead King and Mitch Gerards atomize their hero Scott Free, deconstructing contemporary manhood with a thoroughness, care, and empathy that is breathtaking to behold. The subtle reference to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in the composition of Nick Derington cover to the first issue isn’t arbitrary, it’s a statement of purpose. Scott is a schema, a blueprint to be analyzed, many things at once, and captive to a set of ideals that cannot be lived up to. The Vitruvian Man, after all, is a neo classical meditation on a mathematically ideal man and the product of Da Vinci’s belief in the human body as a microcosm for the universe. Which is an idea central to the execution of Mister Miracle.
The pithiest way to describe any Mister Miracle comic, but this one more than any other, is to call it Wonder Woman for boys. There are a lot of bondage motifs in superhero comics outside of William Moulton Marston’s lasting imprint on Wonder Woman from Carol Ferris as Star Sapphire to the Hellfire Club, but Scott has always had an inexplicable proximity Marston’s worldview. This reveals itself not only in the overt bondage play and iconography of the devices that Scott struggled to free himself from, but his state of perpetual loving submission to Big Barda as the dominant feminine presence in his life.
Just as the classic dynamics of the character echo Wonder Woman’s earliest years, so too does King and Gerads’ approach to Mister Miracle echo more contemporary takes on the Amazon Princess. Since Greg Potter and George Perez re-introduced Wonder Woman in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths there have been at least half a dozen storylines focusing on Diana having an existential crisis that frequently went as deep as questioning her womanhood and humanity. To wit, Allan Heinberg and Terry Dodson’s arc following Infinite Crisis is simply titled Who is Wonder Woman?
Mister Miracle finds Scott in a particularly acute version of this in the wake of a suicide attempt while also processing the death of his mentor Oberon and waging a forever war against Darkseid. The ne plus ultra of the popular feeling that everything happens at once, a key element of the series’ unconventional approach to a cultural moment that feels like it lacks a roadmap. Mister Miracle doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense of there being an inciting incident, a heroic journey, or any of the other staples of what defines most comics, film, and thirteen episode Netflix arcs. It’s a process, one long undifferentiated tracking shot.
The overall atmosphere, the abiding condition of Mister Miracle is what Warren Ellis calls Baudrillardian Banality, which I previously unpacked as the condition of either feeling cheated out of a future or the sense of receiving it too late to use. In the same talk that Ellis rolled that particular bon mot out, he also drew on the concept of “manufactured normalcy” coined by Ventakesh Rao to describe how technology is currently designed around the goal of inspiring the sense that we are in a “static and dull continuous present.”
It’s the bleak end of William Gibson’s call to craft fiction that arrives feeling perfectly antique because speculative and science fiction has more or less lost the ability to outpace the spread and impact of technology, and it’s also the guiding principle behind Mister Miracle from both a philosophical and design perspective. As such, Mister Miracle’s principal occupation is with a loss of meaning and a loss of a future as anything more than the moment after the current moment.
Up until Mister Miracle, the process of losing faith, primarily in institutions, has been a central theme of King’s work. In Sheriff of Babylon it was a loss of faith in the stated mission of the Iraq War and more broadly, American exceptionalism. In Omega Men it was a loss of faith in the effectiveness and ideology of the Green Lantern Corps, tightly mirroring Sheriff of Babylon. In Batman, it has so far engendered a more deeply personal loss of faith in Bruce’s personal war on crime and his own decision making as he became paralyzed by paranoia and self doubt over the plausibility of Bane’s subtle manipulations.
Mister Miracle begins beyond those points, where faith and meaning have already been surrendered. It’s most obviously portrayed by Scott’s suicide attempt, but manifests on several levels throughout the series. One of the most jarring ways that the loss of meaning and a suffocating sense of banality operates in Mister Miracle is its portrayal of the concept of forever war and the professionalization of warfare in how King and Gerads portray the conflict between New Genesis and Apokolips.
War in Mister Miracle has been reduced down to the level of the quotidian, a task that calls Scott and Barda away with the same sense of irritation and frivolity that The Americans’ Elizabeth and Phillip projected onto the travel agency that operated as a cover for their espionage activities. Instead of feigning annoyance at the duties of a mundane job while doing something far more dangerous and exciting, the dangerous and exciting have been numbed by repetition into the mundane.
It’s a bizarre, but understandable application of the Marxist concept of the alienation of labor to the relentless professionalization of warfare in the United States. This is marked by the shift away from conscription towards a volunteer army and the diffusion of large scale invasions and troop deployments necessitating open declarations of war into dozens of interventions into low intensity conflicts conducted by specialist forces. As increasingly remote drone operations seek to distance the act of violence as physically and psychologically as possible from the finger on the trigger, the result is fewer personnel losses yet no measurable decline in PTSD.
In Mister Miracle, this results in a troublingly anesthetized depiction of warfare as an endlessly repeating ritual that has all the gravitas of Jack’s plane rides in Fight Club. It’s as toneless as Jack’s recitation of the calculus applied to determining the threshold at which deadly manufacturing defects in cars are deemed costly enough to merit a public recall over quiet out of court settlements for preventable deaths.
There’s a temptation to view this characterization of warfare as the product of pure fantasy rather than rightly contemplating how Mister Miracle frames warfare as one of the many unaccounted for externalizations of capitalism precisely because it ignores logistics and overt allegories to real world conflicts. But King takes great pains to insert otherwise out of context references to contemporary warfare like Desaad “welcoming inspectors” from New Genesis or the careful restaging of the literal negotiating table that he previously used in The War of Jokes and Riddles and The Sheriff of Babylon.
As a result, King and Gerads tie the present cultural and political condition of atemporality to the institution of America’s forever war to a degree that its chief theorists like Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and Warren Ellis have yet to account for.
Baudrillardian banality also presents itself in more subtle ways, like the motif of the superhero t-shirts that Scott wears throughout the series. Superhero toys and apparel have been slowly working their way into places of increasing prominence in comics over the last twenty years or so, but Mister Miracle differentiates itself by making them a major thematic touchstone rather than an artifact of artistic mischief.
Scott’s shirts have no situational significance or context, there’s no indication that a Flash shirt has any meaning in the moment it appears to differentiate it from a Green Lantern shirt, or even the eventual Sheriff of Babylon one. It’s Scott cycling through his laundry, it’s just another way to mark time. Which is a 180 degree turn from DC’s major superhero work since the ostensible Zero Year of 1986.
From Mark Waid and Frank Miller to Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns, the grand DC project has been to deconstruct, reconstruct, reinvest, reconsider, and restage the iconic essences of its major heroes and the logos that pictorialize those essences. It’s a process that was enacted most transparently in Geoff Johns and Amanda Conner’s seminal Power Girl arc of JSA: Classified that constructed her notorious boob window as a metaphor for her rootless existence following Crisis on Infinite Earths, earnestly suggesting that her cleavage was actually the embodiment of a Lacanian lack of the kind of symbol that Batman, The Flash, or Superman splash across their chests.
So the interchangeability of that same iconography in Mister Miracle signifies a particularly acute loss of meaning in this context. In that sense, symbolism in Mister Miracle has a fatalistic quality to it that reads more like gestures than the accessing of meaning that transcends the images themselves. Poststructuralism sandpapered to the bone of Saussurian signified and signifier, shorn of even Roland Barthes’ addition of the mythic.
That quality hits home the hardest in the entire page taken up by Scott in a crucifix pose, reduced down to the positioning of his limbs and the emphasis in the tint of the panels making up the cross. There’s no commentary, no allusion, no epiphany. Just a gesture because the meaning is understood and symbols are the bleached bones of dead gods. Mister Miracle treats the implications of Scott’s status as a Christ figure as a given and doesn’t confer any status or weight to it.
We’re trusted to understand that Scott is the son of a god who was sacrificed for the good of all and to further understand the metafictional implications that Grant Morrison, Chaz Truog, and Brian Bolland layered onto the motif in the Coyote Gospel issue of Animal Man: Scott was put on the page by Tom King and Mitch Gerads to suffer for our entertainment and moral education. But even if the parallel is delivered bloodlessly, it serves to draw attention to Scott’s subject position as a son and lay the groundwork for the deconstruction of all the roles that Scott plays and the expectations they place on him.
The primary subject position that Scott has always been known for is that of the son, the heir to New Genesis swapped as a child with Orion, the heir to Apokolips, leaving him to be raised by Granny Goodness in what is ostensibly Hell. Bondage and liberation, death and rebirth have always been Mister Miracle’s thing, whether it was Scott Free or Shiloh Norman under the mask.
Saying that the primary innovation of King and Gerads vision of Scott Free is to expand Scott into two more subject positions — brother and father — sounds about as remarkable as Stan Lee telling Kevin Smith that his major innovation with Spider-Man was to take one dimensional heroes like Superman and Batman and give Peter a second dimension. What elevates that expansion is how they create a multiplicity of contexts for each of those subject positions, compounding the number of ways those relationships can be interpreted in relation to each other until Scott is effectively atomized, a conclusion that plays out on the page as he solves the riddle posed to him by Oberon before his death.
A blueprint for what King and Gerads subject Scott to has its roots in a playful exercise conducted in the pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While gathered together at Dublin’s National Library, Stephen Dedalus is called on by his peers to elaborate on this theory about Hamlet as if it were a card trick or the ability to dislocate his shoulder at will because Ulysses is a James Joyce novel and this is James Joyce’s idea of a good time.
Dedalus’ view is that Shakespeare himself is represented in Hamlet by Hamlet’s father, who appears only as a ghost (much like Oberon) by virtue of Shakespeare’s advanced age at the time of writing the play. He faces the rebuttal that Shakespeare sees himself as Hamlet, and a consensus is reached that, both readings are true, that Shakespeare saw himself in both roles.
As Dedalus puts it, “the boy of act one is the mature man of act five,” suggesting that the arc of the play is for Hamlet to achieve synthesis with his father, which he does — ironically — in death at the conclusion of the play. Joyce scholar Declan Kiberd has it that this conversation is effectively a microcosm for Ulysses itself, as it is split between two protagonists; Dedalus, an unattached young man and Leopold Bloom, a middle aged husband and father, whom Kiberd views as Joyce’s own younger and present selves that he wished to reconcile. Joyce was forty when Ulysses was published, putting him in a similar stage of life to Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet or Dante Alighieri when he penned The Divine Comedy.
Kiberd justifies that position in part by claiming that no one could write a work with the power of Ulysses without drawing on autobiography, a belief that Joyce’s characters seem to share about Shakespeare and I believe holds true for Mister Miracle. Dedalus and his contemporaries aren’t satisfied with leaving it at Hamlet, though and continue on with their pet theories about what parts of Shakespeare himself (and those are close to them) are reflected in his work until they’ve all — to paraphrase Merchant of Venice — gotten their pound of flesh. In a sense, they pull Shakespeare himself apart, atomizing his life and self across his works.
King and Gerads’ atomization of Scott across his network of kinships functions similarly, as do the parallels to Hamlet. Scott is definitely visited by the ghost of his recently deceased (surrogate) father and on shaky terms with his own mental health, but more importantly, his overall arc across the series, as Dedalus says of Hamlet and by extension Kiberd says of Dedalus: “the boy of act one is the mature man of act five.” It’s Scott’s journey as a young man to reconcile his relationships with his diffusion of fathers by becoming one himself.
As such, within the multiplicity of subject positions that Scott is considered from, it’s that of the son that King and Gerads preserve the primacy of. In recognizing the metafictional nature of Daedalus’ view of Hamlet, Scott has to be considered the son of King and Gerads, who appear along with series cover artist Nick Derrington in the crowd for Scott’s penultimate on stage performance. Not simply as the product of a pair of men named Tom King and Mitch Gerads, but as the product — the gestalt — of a a writer and an artist.
As funny as it is to say that Scott has two dads, including King and Gerads, he has three pairs of father figures and the two fictional sets stand in binary opposition to each other. Scott’s sets of fathers, as portrayed directly on the page, are Highfather and Darkseid, Oberon and Funky Flashman. The former two hardly need an introduction as Jack Kirby’s cosmic embodiments of good and evil, justice and entropy. Where things really start to get interesting is that the story opens with Oberon and Highfather dead and Scott himself returning from the dead, or at the very least the brink of it.
That Scott’s preferred father figures in both configurations are dead is where their direct similarities end, as they represent very different values and belong to entirely different worlds for Scott in both a literal and figurative sense. That said, their loss establishes the depth of the disequilibrium of Scott’s existence and the dystopian, “manufactured normalcy” quality that pervades the story.
The loss of Highfather takes with it moral authority and certainty; Oberon’s loss is more literally visceral. As the wisecracking, cigar chomping, porn hoarding masculine presence in Scott’s life, Oberon was the embodiment of “the whole turning, farting, pissing, shitting mess” of the world, as Lord Byron put it in The Invisibles. His loss is at the root of the figurative bloodlessness of the comic.
Which leave Darkseid and Funky Flashman as the demiurgic figures who inform the construction of Scott’s world. Darkseid is, as ever, the living embodiment of entropy and Funky Flashman is artifice and simulacrum, the empty shell left behind by the retreat of the visceral. An ersatz death mask. Damien Hirst’s For The Love of God. Taken together, the results are a uniquely contemporary phenomenon that Bruce Sterling refers to as Gothic High Tech.
The most novel and insidious way that this condition makes itself known in the comic is through the periodic appearance of static or noise distortion in the art, drawing our attention to the separation between the reader and the events depicted, the artificial nature of what we’re looking at, and the more specifically digital nature of it. Read digitally, on a tablet or a computer, that aesthetic quirk of Gerads’ work serves to make the implicit explicit, but read in print it proposes to conceptually alter the medium, forcing the analogue to be understood as digital in a novel problematizing of Marshall Mcluhan’s axiom that the medium is the message. What does the message become when the medium is lying to you? Gerads further ties the usage of the distortion to the nature of truth by using it to indicate when someone is lying, intensifying the distortion according to the severity of the lie.
This is a fundamental aspect of why Funky’s presence is so jarring in the comic. He represents artifice and frivolity in a time of war and emotional entropy, a perfectly antique vision of the 1970s in a world bifurcated between the pinnacle of contemporary banality and cosmic forever war. But Funky, at his core, is also someone entirely else, and that someone electrifies Mister Miracle into something far greater than the sum of its component parts.
Funky Flashman is Stan Lee, and not just Stan Lee, but Jack Kirby’s embittered, sarcastic parody of Lee. The artifice, ersatz, and Hollywood showmanship that Funky embodies in Mister Miracle are all of Lee’s qualities that Kirby magnified into cartoonish excess as he sculpted the character, but King and Gerads appropriate him as a mad prophet of the contemporary age, crediting both Lee and Kirby with the foresight to anticipate Tinseltown’s hegemony over superhero comics. Because Gerads’ Funky is a picture perfect reflection of Lee in the 1970s, he carries with him the implication that he was ready for the Hollywood invasion for at least that long, and because Funky is Jack Kirby’s conception of Stan Lee, he receives the same credit by proxy.
Kirby’s presence in Mister Miracle is much more direct than providing authorship of every character in the comic. In the same issue that Funky makes his debut, Scott visits Jack Kirby’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, putting his hands in the handprints of the ostensible father of fathers shortly before Funky bursts forth. The intimacy and reverence in the moment are powerful in their own right, but the moment serves to situate Kirby in the narrative in a way that Lee didn’t require because of the infamy of Funky’s origins and the simple fact that Lee was still alive at the time that Mister Miracle was originally published.
As soon as we recognize that Lee’s doppelganger is present and alive while Kirby is portrayed as dead, Scott’s father figures snap into place in one final, jarring way: Oberon is Kirby’s representative in the narrative, and his death is at the root of the disequilibrium of Scott’s world. It’s an incredibly powerful testament to Kirby, but it also reframes Mister Miracle as an unprecedented meditation on the intersecting legacies of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby conducted in the pages of a DC comic. It’s clever, it’s powerful, and it’s the heist of the century.
What makes Mister Miracle the ideal space for a thoughtful examination of Stan Lee is that its publication at DC and Funky’s provenance preclude it from falling into hagiography. It’s likely that all future renderings of Lee will toil in the shadow of Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse’s razor sharp portrayal of Lee as both genuinely inspirational and crassly capitalistic, but Mister Miracle created the space to spin those twin poles into a complex and affectionate portrait of the only person in comics to ever rival their creations’ branding power.
Funky arrives at the absolute worst possible time, in the lead up to Scott’s execution for defying Orion and he suffers a brutal beating at Barda’s hands for his inability to appreciate the gravity of the situation but he slowly integrates into Scott and Barda’s lives, becoming a surprisingly effective uncle figure to their children. His interactions with Scott’s son also contain the most hilarious depictions of the popular critique of Lee to date.
Of Scott’s kinships, brotherhood is the least developed, which is more or less necessary to maintaining the isolation and alienation he feels outside of his relationship with Barda. Scott’s only models for brotherhood are Orion and his old Justice League friends Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. None of those are blood relationships, but of all of Scott’s subject positions that the series examines, only Highfather and his own children are based on blood.
In Mister Miracle, kinship and family aren’t based on blood relation, but the institutions they’re created to sustain. Which is why Scott renounces all of his ties to the Fourth World save Barda, stating emphatically that Highfather is not his father, Darkseid is not his father, and Orion is not his brother. His loss of faith in the institutions of New Genesis and Apokolips resolve themselves not as a crisis or a heresy in need of repentance, but a necessary severing to become his own man. As he loses or renounces Oberon, Granny Goodness, Highfather, Orion, and Darkseid he regains or reaffirms Barda, Funky, Booster, Ted, and his children.
Orion, as a foil for Scott, lost a surrogate father in Highfather in the same way that Scott did in Oberon, although the relationship between Orion and Highfather was formalized and institutionally mandated in a way that the kinship between Scott and Oberon never was. As a result Orion clings to the institutions of New Genesis as the only source of meaning in his life, consolidating power and enacting a ruthlessly rigid interpretation of the law.
As such, Orion’s purpose in Mister Miracle isn’t to speak to kinship or brotherhood, but to interpellation. It’s a key aspect of Marxist scholarship theorized by Louis Althusser that has gone on to inform feminist and queer theorists like Judith Butler in significant ways. Interpellation is effectively the ways in which our social positions are constantly established and re-established through interaction. In terms of how that relates to institutions and hegemony, a simple example would be getting carded at the liquor store. You’re put to a test to validate your ability to buy a six pack of beer based on the criteria that power dictates.
This principle is reproduced across all of our social interactions in ways that are both overt and subtle, and are fundamental to how feminist theorist Judith Butler describes the nature and performativity of gender. Butler describes gender as “the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes” and interpellation is one of the key processes through which cultural meaning is attached to our bodies.
All of the ways that we’re sorted and differentiated by gender in our lives rely on interpellation: the washrooms we use, the sections in clothing stores we shop in, and so on and so forth. All of these activities require that we respond to being hailed as a certain gender, and is more or less at the core of what Butler means by saying that gender is a performance that wears us.
However we choose to respond to this kind of interpellation is a response to the hegemonic sorting of signifiers by gender. At its most reductive, wearing blue as someone sexed as male is responding to gendered norms positively and wearing pink in the same circumstance is a negative response to the same. Both responses are predicated on how power determines the gendered connotations of those colors.
But as the liquor store example illustrates, interpellation is a process that operates on every level that people are categorized by, and it manifests intersectionality. Whether or not you’re going to get carded at a liquor store depends on a whole range of gendered, racialized, and classed assumptions around perceived age.
The bearing of intersectionality on interpellation and the penalties for “failing” to respond to being hailed on the terms that power dictates are most starkly illustrated in the rates of violent and fatal outcomes in police interactions with people racialized as Black in the United States. It’s also one of the key and only ways that interpellation is foregrounded as a site of resistance and oppression in contemporary comics.
Mister Miracle is a fantastic opportunity to expand our understanding of the universal and totalizing nature of interpellation because of the rigidity of the cosmic forces given life in the Fourth World. In the third issue, Orion brutally beats Scott because he fails to answer the way Orion wants him to: he fails to be interpellated according to Orion’s authority. When Orion hails Scott as “brother,” it’s an interpellation, a hailing for Scott to affirm his subject position relative to Orion’s authority, which Scott rejects, and is summarily beaten further.
That the primary, repeated violent action that Scott suffers in this beating is Orion’s boot in his face is a clever way of deputizing Orwell into King and Gerads’ vision of interpellation as an expression of hegemonic power. “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever,” goes the infamous 1984 quote, which operates as the subtext of the entire page of Orion declaring himself the face of god as the distortion on the page increases as an expression of Scott’s pain.
Repetition is critical to understanding interpellation, and if you vibe with Judith Butler, gender as well. The repetition in the Orwell quote, among other things, illustrates the arbitrary nature of hegemonic power and interpellation. The Orwell quote suggests that no matter how you respond to that hailing, it will be interpreted as failing and you will be punished.
There’s no “right” answer, an insight that Black Lives Matter activists have been attempting to communicate in the context of the conversations about around how Black people “should” act during police interactions and the fundamental logic behind the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture and chant. It’s a powerful, subversive demand that reverses the flow of power inherent in interpellation. It exposes the arbitrary nature of what is advertised in theory as a trustworthy, orderly process that produces just outcomes.
It’s also why activists describe people as “criminalized,” as it isn’t an inherent trait or accident of circumstance, but an intentional outcome of interpellation. It’s a condition portrayed in stark and deadly detail by Tony Isabella in Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands in the narration of a bodega owner being repeatedly targeted by a cop with a vendetta against him, pursuing as many minor infractions against him as he can until the man is eventually killed by police. It’s a brutal depiction of interpellation in pursuit of a pretext for punishment that is all too realistic.
This principle comes into play in Scott’s trial in the fourth issue, where Orion declares himself accuser, defender, and judge using the language of the (Source) law to justify the arbitrary, capricious nature of his power in general and the trial in specific. He goes on to explain the parameters of how Scott is allowed to answer his questions, true or false, with no opportunity for doubt, subjectivity, or nuance. Orion reserves for himself the ability to dictate the nature of truth, to define epistemology (the difference between justified belief and opinion) itself according to his own terms.
When Scott responds outside the scope of “true” or “false,” the distortion in the artwork intensifies as an expression of how Orion’s authority is capable of shaping reality and further points towards validating the linguistic construction of reality, of the inability to live beyond language and how language is subject to ideology. Orion then leads Scott in a chain of questioning designed to entrap him, force him into condemning himself according to the logic of the system.
It’s fairly clear that this is the anti-life equation in action, the epitome of agency and self worth being annihilated by the crush of an unyielding authority but its deployment in a mock trial serves to illuminate how power is formulated and wielded at an institutional level. David Simon once articulated that The Wire was essentially modeled after an ancient Greek tragedy with the institutions taking on the role of petty, vindictive gods. King and Gerads more or less accept that characterization and re-embody that contemporary view of the institutional through Orion.
What this episode also serves to illustrate is just how deeply all of Scott’s bonds of kinship prior to his marriage to Barda were formulated entirely around the formation and deployment of power. For Scott, family has almost nothing to do with biology and is dictated entirely by the maintenance of an equilibrium of power between New Genesis and Apokolips, which of course, is paradoxically a position he was put into by the accident of his birth. What the tension between Scott’s desires for himself and the power structure he was born into bring to light is the curious reversal of gender dynamics built into the Fourth World mythos relative to the European monarchies they’re derived from.
A key insight of Antonia Fraser’s seminal biography of Marie Antoinette is that princesses of her era were effectively born to be hostages, traded away through marriage to ensure diplomatic bonds between frequently hostile nation states. As such, Antoinette was viewed as an interloper in the French court throughout her life there yet also was quickly delegitimized and viewed as an agent of French interests by her former relations in Austria, especially following her mother’s death.
The similarities with the trajectory of Scott’s life are striking in that he was traded away to Apokolips in exchange for Orion, their entire lives predetermined by the rituals of power that their fathers subjected them to. What should be a privileged position that does come with clear tangible benefits is also an encumbrance that comes with lethal consequences when strayed from. What becomes clear in this is that the institutions that invest Scott with power and privilege do so conditionally and Scott himself is secondary at best to the perpetuation of those institutions.
All of this serves to reinforce the fact that so much of what makes Scott a misfit out of step with the norms of the world around him revolves around the inverted gender dynamics of his upbringing and adult life. His role within his family mirrors that of a princess, he’s physically smaller than Barda, sexually submissive, and leads with emotion over reason. Scott is formulated to lead us towards an insight into the rigidity of the expectations that patriarchy places on men in much the same way as Kiberd suggests that the feminization and emasculation of Leopold Bloom works in service to Joyce’s vociferous opposition to hypermasculine Irish nationalism in Ulysses.
Insofar as Scott is presented as a feminized man relative to the expectations of New Genesis and has the potential to be read as a figure capable of bridging the gap between contemporary male alienation and the feminist critique of capitalist patriarchy, Scott remains a man by both his own reckoning and his positionality within the narrative.
While Scott’s superhero t-shirts are reflective of the catastrophic loss of meaning inherent to his condition, they also represent the repeated stylization of the body inherent to Judith Butler’s conception of gender. Despite lacking in individual meaning and shorn of their usual connotations, they achieve collective meaning as a reference point for Scott’s self identity codified by the shirt that he wears to go drinking with Booster and Ted: a yellow plaid shirt that integrates the embellishments of his Mister Miracle costume into itself.
Scott’s masculinity is also reinforced and contextualized by Barda. Barda has typically been the more explicitly recognized subversive one with or without Scott because of her size and power, but when taken together in the context of a deeply thoughtful work like Mister Miracle it becomes clear to what degree Barda subverts the dregs of Enlightenment thinking that still cling to our notions of gender, especially her forceful preference for logic over emotion and activity over passivity.
Despite their unconventional, subversive natures, patriarchy catches up to Scott and Barda in the gravitational pull of their sexed bodies and the patriarchal norms that inform their lives in both the Fourth World and Los Angeles. Barda represents the last vestiges of Scott’s attachment to materiality, the aspect of the world that he lost his grip on with Oberon’s passing. When Scott confesses to Barda that he sometimes doesn’t know what’s real anymore she tells him to not to worry, that she’s real. She means this in the sense that he can trust that she isn’t a hallucination, but in the broader context of the series, she’s also the character most closely associated with the realm of the tangible and the most connected to the full spectrum of bodily functions or, as Grant Morrison articulated through Lord Byron, “the whole turning, farting, pissing, shitting mess” of the world.
Barda’s body is a canvas for blood, sweat, and tears that culminates in the apotheosis of human connection to the material: giving birth. In that sense, Barda is yoked to the Enlightenment construction of femininity as tied to nature, but it manifests as a source of tension rather than capitulation or exaltation. Barda is simply too big for the confines of the nine panel grid; less of her body appears in the tight close ups, she gets almost entirely cropped out of photos, and is bifurcated by the gutter.
It’s a symbolic representation of the hyperfocus on Scott’s struggles and the valorizing of men’s emotional journeys over women’s lived realities that finds voice in the narrative through Barda herself. Despite her equally unconventional upbringing and rejection of gender norms, she is expected to bear the bulk of the emotional and physical labor of parenthood while Scott undergoes his personal crisis.
Barda literally going through labor is the series’ first real window into the unequal nature of their relationship as she takes on the immense physical ordeal of giving birth while Scott sits helplessly outside. It’s a lopsided dynamic that Barda challenges and foregrounds across the series. She reassures him that she’s real, but she pushes back against the burden of being Scott’s entire attachment to materiality. She calls out his distance its untenability in a deeply memorable panel where she faces the reader asking when she gets a break.
It isn’t a glamorous, easily digestible portrayal of her -especially given her secondary role across the series- but it’s difficult to argue against Mister Miracle comprising the best and fullest depiction of Big Barda that DC has ever published. Despite the limitations acknowledged by the narrative itself, Barda is allowed to be sexual, maternal, and physically imposing in a way that she has never been before and that women in mainstream pop culture are rarely allowed to be, especially within the boiling toxic stew of male chauvinism that comics inhabit.
All of these complications and contradictions are what carry Scott into fatherhood, the subject position into which he achieves synthesis and reconciliation. The transition is obviously marked by the birth of his son Jake, but also in his assumption of the role of Highfather, following Orion’s death, which forces him to literally take on the role of his father and re-enact his father’s decision making process as he contemplates surrendering Jake to Darkseid as part of an equivalent bargain to the one that Highfather brokered to send Scott himself into Darkseid’s hands.
It’s the point at which Scott’s pivoting from one subject position to another in masculine familial roles takes on the heaviest biblical overtones after seeing him as the sacrificial son and Christ figure and an ambivalent positioning with Orion as Cain and Abel. This time, Scott comes to find himself in Abraham’s shoes, asked by God to sacrifice his son to seal their covenant (in a way that God would later reciprocally sacrifice his own son in the form of Christ as a fulfilment of that covenant with Abraham’s descendants).
The sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis represents one of the fiercest and most puzzled over philosophical and ethical debates of the continental tradition thanks to Soren Kierkegaard’s reframing and Jacques Derrida’s dizzying extrapolations thereof. The core of Kierkegaard and Derrida’s musings on the subject is to what extent God’s request of Abraham represents a rupture of ethics and for Derrida in particular, the implications of sacrificing ethics for obligation.
The dark hilarity of how this plays out in Mister Miracle is that Scott is made to understand by Barda that the fact that they survived being raised on Apokolips doesn’t justify the trauma it put them through, but also, Scott is able to achieve moral clarity on the issue far more easily than Derrida, Kierkegaard, or even Abraham himself because Scott isn’t dealing with a benevolent God who would stay his hand as Abraham’s was once he was judged to be willing to kill Isaac. Scott is dealing with Darkseid. A known asshole who could never be trusted to hold up his end of anything. So they kill Darkseid instead.
In some ways this answers Kierkegaard’s question of whether Abraham’s example is meant to be one to be followed in the negative, that it was an exceptional circumstance that is not to be followed blindly. But in the immediate context of Mister Miracle it’s meant to illustrate that Highfather was not unimpeachable and that established thought needs to open to reinterpretation. When Highfather returns to Scott as a ghost, telling Scott that he wasn’t strong enough to do the right thing, Scott stands firm and puts him on his ass.
It’s a fascinating resolution to the Hamlet motif in Mister Miracle because it reiterates how many people feel that they have a claim on Scott as a son or a brother, yet in King and Gerads view, it’s up to Scott to determine which of those claims he’s willing to validate, which, unsurprisingly, is Oberon, the one who demands nothing and in point of fact, makes no explicit claims of fatherhood or kinship on Scott. Their kinship is implicit, based on reciprocity rather than duty or expectation.
That depiction of kinship may point the way to a more substantive answer to Kierkegaard and Derrida’s interrogation than the seemingly glib response that giving a baby to Darkseid is ludicrous on its face, especially given that reciprocity as a virtue is not a factor in either’s analysis. Kierkegaard’s starting point in examining the Sacrifice of Isaac was to question the banality of its recounting by foregrounding the horror of the act itself and to consider its aftermath.
In Kierkegaard’s view, as a literal, historical event, the maintenance of Abraham’s relationship with God would come at the expense of that with his own son, whom he demonstrated the willingness to kill. In that sense, Scott lives with a similar kind of trauma to surviving a simulated execution at the hands of his father having been handed over to Darkseid for an upbringing of torture and misery. It destroyed Scott’s relationship with Highfather, whom he renounced. It also made a murderer of Darkseid, who followed through in killing his own son and the whole bloody loop was closed by Scott, who murdered Darkseid with a fragment of his own son’s body in a complete inversion of the Sacrifice of Isaac.
Scott’s own revelation, his solution to the riddle of seeing the face of god comes when he has the epiphany of seeing himself and his son Jake as part of an unbroken chain going backwards and forwards into infinity. It’s the moment that Scott achieves synthesis between seeing himself as a son and a father, the moment that “the boy of act one” becomes “the mature man of act five.” In that moment, Scott achieves the ability to look around at the present moment that Warren Ellis articulates, but he has also visualized and articulated the alternative to the cycle of trauma he was subjected to.
Highfather and Darkseid ruptured that chain when they sent their sons to each other, perpetuating a cycle of intergenerational trauma responsible for human misery on a planetary scale, robbing them all of that epiphany and the recuperative power it offers. But even Scott didn’t come by it easily, or as the simple product of having a son. He seriously contemplated following through with his own Sacrifice of Isaac up until the moment that he stabbed Darkseid in the eye.
He minimized and normalized the trauma that he and Barda suffered on Apokolips, and he did it because that is how cycles of violence and intergenerational trauma are perpetuated. As Kierkegaard observes of the conventional interpretation of the Sacrifice of Isaac, people are capable of surviving the worst atrocities in comparison, which lead the philosopher to question whether Abraham is a worthy example to live by.
For Scott, putting himself in the position allows him to question Highfather’s decision as a cold, rational calculation that he had full agency over and he can say the same when considering his own actions when placed in Abraham’s position. But when we look at how the bonds between father and son are typically ruptured in the real world and the circumstances under which intergenerational trauma is perpetuated, the formulations are rarely, if ever, that clear.
If we ask ourselves what most commonly interrupts the sublime, infinite chain of childhood and parenthood in the real world, the answer is poverty, war, addiction, and genocide. It’s one thing to view the offering up of Jake to Darkseid or Isaac to the Abrahamic god through the lens of mortgaging successive generations to the meat grinder of America’s forever war, but it’s quite another to attempt to appreciate the total degradation of agency at the heart of the intergenerational trauma imposed by familial bonds ruptured by the Holocaust, the genocide perpetrated against indigenous peoples, or the establishment and maintenance of chattel slavery.
As with Scott’s fundamentally feminized nature, his experience of intergenerational trauma is a fundamentally privileged one that does not and cannot stand in for more marginalized experiences the way that fantastical analogues for homophobia and racism are frequently mapped onto straight white heroes in comics and other mass media. His trauma and ennui carry with them the cascading burdens that his attempts to ignore them result in and his healing process very purposefully includes embracing the messiest of responsibilities: changing diapers.
The vision that Metron offers Scott, a dazzling utopia of nostalgia inflected heroism, is a mirage of the kind that Warren Ellis has dedicated the last twenty one years to killing with the same grim determination and workmanlike application of violence as Jason Voorhees. Scott’s embrace of his present circumstances and the epiphany that accompanies it is an idealized, ecstatic interpretation of Ellis’ exhortation to abandon reverence for the past and wonder at the future.
In that context, Scott didn’t survive his suicide attempt because Barda found him before he died. He survived because there was no where for him to “escape” to. No heaven above or hell below. Wherever it is that Scott is simply is. Of course Mister Miracle also tightly parallels The Filth, Grant Morrison’s gruesomely elucidated vision of the occult ritual of confronting one’s shadow that also revolves around a suicide attempt.
The Filth, for all its litany of atrocity and unsettling realism in the hands of Gary Erskine and Chris Weston, concludes with Greg Feely retrieving a paper crown from a trash heap, a tongue in cheek reference to Keter, or crown, the highest, most divine aspect of the Tree of Life in Kabbalistic thought and Malkuth, the lowest and most tied to physical emanation and materiality. The moment speaks to Morrison’s belief that the material world constitutes the aspect of the divine that we can touch, rather than the pessimistically Gnostic viewpoint of being a broken mess, but it also speaks to our ability to rescue meaning and purpose from the abyss.
It’s that impulse above all else that Mister Miracle offers up through its remarkable plasticity that allows it to be analyzed, pulled apart, and mined for meaning in ways that few comics have ever successfully achieved or have even been willing to make themselves as vulnerable to the overriding of authorial intent and authority. For all the ways that Mister Miracle lends itself to interpretation, the one thing that cannot be debated is its exhortation to live and make meaning of the present moment, that the only way out is through.