Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I can always escape."
- Scott Free, Mister Miracle
"Comics will break your heart."
- Jack 'King' Kirby, creator of Mister Miracle
Before we begin, I promise you this:
This is no more a superhero comic that Fraction and Aja's run on HAWKEYE. Indeed separating this eminently approachable book from its publishing past - of which you need know nothing - plays an integral part in its mischief and in its multilayered narrative.
It is instead a Real Mainstream book, accessible to all, with exceptionally nuanced, neo-classical yet expressionistic art owing much to Bill Sienkiewicz, bursting with wit, insight and passion, about discerning one's true priorities and appreciating your bounties; embracing and so not running from them, but celebrating them instead in all their often irksome but iridescent best.
Sure, it's also about torture, death-traps, war, paternal betrayal, screwed up ideas about what constitutes a wholesome upbringing, and unleashing a weapon of prevalently held fears and anxieties upon mankind in an eons-old feud between two warring Kingdoms of Gods.
But really it's about the indispensable upgrade, to any occasion, of a fresh veggie tray and dips.
It's about creation, illusion, reality and fiction; survival, escape and escapism.
On so very many levels, it's about escaping your past.
This goes equally, whether you're a comicbook creator like Jack 'King' Kirby, or one of his creations, Scott Free.
Above all it's a slick comedy, merrily juxtaposing the crazy and the quotidian, the dire and the daft.
Like Scott's beautiful wife's less than becoming bed-face, drawn to observational perfection by line and colour artist Mitch Gerads.
And the strange but not unexpected truth that even a stinking dungeon-kingdom of hellish fire-pits called Apokolips must have a restroom somewhere.
First we'll talk plot, then we'll talk craft.
Celebrated escape artist Scott Free (Mister Miracle) has an enviable life in sunny Los Angeles, with an ever so understanding, preternaturally tall wife, an equally adoring public and - he will soon learn at the least appropriate juncture - a beautiful baby boy on the way. Oh, there are such play times ahead! So why has Scott Free attempted to pull off the ultimate escape trick? For there he lies sprawled on the bathroom floor, wrists slit, blood swimming round the toilet bowl, staining his colourful costume and mask.
Why does his wife Barda catch him, upon convalescing, talking to an old colleague about new manacles, reputedly impossible to escape from, and a kid who once drew the unknowable: the very face of God? Oberon passed away last month, from throat cancer brought on by his cherished cigars.
Has someone - or something - got to Scott?
"Everything's wrong. Everything.
"I can't... There's something wrong with me.
"I see things... I do things... Things that aren't...
"I don't know how to escape this."
And why is our vision constantly fritzing in and out, like a broadcast losing its tuning?
I'll tell you why.
Scott Free was a God of the Fourth World, born of the Highfather, ruler of New Genesis. The Highfather was engaged in a relentless, ruthless bloody war with Darkseid, ruler of Apocolips, hell-bent on unleashing the Anti-Life Equation. After untold eons, they eventually called a ceasefire. To cement this fragile truce they agreed to swap their own baby sons: Darkseid's spawn Orion would live on New Genesis, while Scott Free was abandoned to Darkseid and tortured by Granny Goodness (mythological sarcasm) in the stygian X-Pit of Apokolips. It was there that he met his future wife, Big Barda, herself a resilient product of those pits. Unsurprisingly, Scott spent his entire youth determined to escape, and eventually he did so, moving to planet Earth and becoming a celebrated escape artist with an enviable life in -
I'm sorry, but you're breaking up again...
Scott Free AKA Mister Miracle never actually existed except in the DC Comics universe. He was and remains a fictional character from the Fourth World created at DC by Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) after he escaped from Marvel Comics. At Marvel Comics he co-created Captain America, then later the Fantastic Four, X-Men, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer and so many more characters with the infamously alliterative Stan Lee who stole as much of the credit for those fictitious children as possible while the company declined to pay Kirby royalties and managed to "lose" almost all of his original art.
Please see MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY.
See also: "Comics will break your heart."
Jack meant the US/UK comics industry. He's not wrong, and all of this is relevant.
As this book opens, 'The Secret Origin of Mister Miracle' is being retold as if on a TV screen in a very specific typeface with a certain degree of moralistic simplicity, a huge heap of Stan Lee hyperbole and a thunderous foray of exclamation points!!!! The art by Mike Norton emulates that of Jack Kirby.
Abruptly we're then thrown on that cold bathroom floor with Mitch Gerads' comparatively photo-realistic art and Scott Free's slit wrists.
"I can always escape" is both Scott's boast and his fall-back plan.
But can he? Should he? Did he?
What is he really running from, and what's coming next?
Well, I know it doesn't sound like it at this point, but the answer is an enormous amount of laughter as every aforementioned element comes into play including Stan Lee returning to the fore as Scott and Barda's baby son's nanny. Their son is tellingly called Jacob. Scott Free has a penchant for wearing DC superhero comics t-shirts (the icon range), swapping them between chapters (this escalates), so he isn't averse to buying his son cuddly superhero toys to play with. This leads to the one line that I never thought I'd read in a DC Comic:
"Batman kills babies."
Former DC censor-in-chief and professional worrywart Paul Levitz would never have allowed a single sentence of this iconoclastic book to exist. He'd have put it all in the microwave, along with creator Kyle Baker.
Tom King wrote my favourite ever Batman story in BATMAN: RULES OF ENGAGEMENT in which Lois Lane, Selina Kyle, Clarke Kent and Bruce Wayne bond during a night off at a theme park. Tom King thinks outside the box and brings things back down to Earth.
Throughout, Scott and Barda - who'd prefer to do lunch, bask on beaches or survey the starry night sky from the hills above LA's city lights - are called away to Awful Events, Terrible Treaties and Outrageous Ultimatums from far-off quarters of the Mind-Blowing Multiverse linked (via a teleportation-like conduit called a Boom Tube) to their condominium's front door.
"Have you fed the cat?"
You'll be treated to an exquisite short story about a painter and his apprentice which echoes beautifully with the comic's concepts of illusion and verisimilitude, and if you thought hospital child birth was traumatising enough under ordinary circumstances, it's infinitely worse when there are harridans outside the ward waiting patiently to disembowel your husband.
Artist Mitch Gerads plays it all to perfection, accentuating the contrast between luridly coloured off-world evisceration and a quiet, pale blue palette with sand, cream and flesh for what you and I are more used to, and his crisp, clean, nine-panel grid ensures that no one will feel alienated, however new they be to comics.
It's also integral to the comedic timing, a final beat so often falling on the finale.
His forms are both sturdy and svelte, and his incorporation of Kirby's original rendition of craggy-faced Granny Goodness (Denis Healey runaway eyebrows and all!) into his own Bill Sienkiewicz / Sean Murphy style is seamless, plus his light, deft, balletic choreography of the life-or-death fight, flight or infiltration scenes emphasises the ease of their execution while Scott and Barda concentrate instead on their far more pressing issues, like how to best rearrange their condo cupboards and living room in order to incorporate the arrival or their soon-to-be newborn child.
Almost lastly, this: I don't know about you, but whenever I'm visiting my friends, getting to grips with the idiosyncrasies of their showers is of paramount importance and often completely baffling.
So it is that we return at last to escape and escapism, the struggle to survive, and the will to live through it: to move on, create and to thrive!
"And the son asked, "What is the Fourth World?"
"And the father said,
"The First World is the Old World, the world of my parents from which they fled.
"The Second World is the New World which they sought, which they found, where I came to be.
"The Third World is our world as it is now, in the making, the future being born.
"And the Fourth World, my child, that is my world. The world I see when I close my eyes..."
Young Jack Kirby - born of Austrian Jewish immigrants - looks out at us directly from the page...
"And try to escape."