Review: Mister Miracle by Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber hardcover (DC Comics)

[A series on post-Jack Kirby New Gods titles by guest reviewer Zach King. Zach writes about movies at The Cinema King and about comics on Instagram at Dr. King’s Comics.]

"Marshall Rogers and I had some free time so they revived Mister Miracle for us […] I guess my only trepidation was, the Fourth World was very identified with [Kirby], and I would be showing him up. But as I say, I was assigned to it by DC.” — Steve Englehart

When the Fourth World went out with a whimper in 1972, it had something like a stay of execution in the Mister Miracle title, which Jack Kirby was allowed to continue for another seven bimonthly issues. Kirby tried to make the titular escape artist more casually superheroic (including the debut of kid sidekick Shilo Norman), but the King couldn’t resist his more cosmic impulses for long. In the final issue, readers were invited to the wedding of Scott Free and Big Barda, with all the forces of New Genesis and Apokolips in attendance. Even Darkseid crashed the wedding party, announcing dramatically, “I am the storm!”

Three years later, Mister Miracle was back, with Steve Englehart writing and Marshall Rogers on art (collected, along with the later Steve Gerber run, in Mister Miracle by Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber). For those keeping score, Englehart and Rogers were doing Mister Miracle at the same time as their fabled run on Detective Comics. (In fact, their last issue together on Mister Miracle, issue #22, was on the stands the same month as “The Laughing Fish” in Detective Comics #475.) This Mister Miracle revamp debuted in September 1977, a few months after Gerry Conway’s New Gods revival, and it was released in hardcover in March 2020. While I speculated last time that the Conway collection was spurred on by buzz surrounding a New Gods film, this Mister Miracle hardcover comes on the heels of the successful and masterful miniseries by Tom King and Mitch Gerads. It also bears some of the trade dress used to celebrate Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday in 2017 (which New Gods by Gerry Conway, published a month later, did not).

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

But to start with Englehart and Rogers, as I have done, might be putting the cart before the horse, because this hardcover collection of Mister Miracle starts with three issues of The Brave & the Bold by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo. In these stories, Batman teams up with Mister Miracle for yarns that fall somewhere between Indiana Jones and James Bond: espionage thrillers set in remote locales, with death traps, double-crosses, and high excitement at every turn of the page. Aparo’s choreography is dizzying yet precise, but these stories (which ran from 1974 to 1977) are brisk and almost indistinguishable, racing from set piece to set piece until the pages run out.

Still, these semi-annual appearances kept Mister Miracle alive for comics readers, and their inclusion here is a completionist’s dream. This collection also concludes with an issue of DC Comics Presents, in which Mister Miracle teams up with Superman for a change. This Superman tale, too, is mostly generic, relying on that old trope of team-up comics in which one hero cannot divulge a piece of critical information and so must stage a fight in order to lead the other hero to the truth. Given that the Englehart and Gerber issues ended on a cliffhanger, it’s a bit disappointing not to see Englehart take the opportunity to tie up any loose ends, but it’s at least gratifying to have this collection bookended by reprints that might not have appeared anywhere else. (The Brave and the Bold got its own omnibus hardcovers, but DC Comics Presents, to date, has not gotten the same treatment.)

But the main event here is the Englehart/Rogers revival, later picked up by Steve Gerber and Michael Golden. Englehart and Rogers slip deftly into the Kirby mode without resorting to a mere imitation of the King’s style. Rogers’ artwork is frenetic and charged with energy, at times appearing to anticipate Walt Simonson’s later work on Orion. Meanwhile, Englehart crams his first issue with nearly every major Kirby villain; Darkseid will appear before too long, but this first issue establishes a conspiracy among Granny Goodness, Kanto, Dr. Bedlam, and Virman Vundabar, who are all plotting to eliminate Mister Miracle and reprogram Big Barda into rejoining the Female Furies. It’s packed with action and death traps, and the plot practically gallops in the four short issues they have together (literally, short, as in 17 pages each).

Unfortunately, Englehart’s story has little room for Barda, who is first abducted before lying comatose. Very nearly the star of her own Kirby book, Big Barda was arguably a co-star in the original Mister Miracle series, and her dynamic with Scott Free is an indisputable high point in his adventures (to say nothing of how refreshing it is to see a healthy and uncomplicated romantic relationship in superhero comics). Had he stayed longer, Englehart might have found more for Barda to do, but it’s almost inspiring how far Mister Miracle goes to save her. It’s this quest that brings Mister Miracle into contact with Darkseid, and Englehart scripts the god of evil better than most. “Only Darkseid, of all the gods, sees this burlesque we play for what it is!” he monologues, in a note-perfect impression of Kirby’s florid prose; “Only Darkseid has seen beyond ‘good’ and ‘evil’ — to pure and simple ‘life’!”

As swiftly as Darkseid arrives, he vanishes, and so too do Englehart and Rogers. They’re replaced by Steve Gerber and Michael Golden, who take Mister Miracle into a bit more satirical direction. It’s a comfortable lane for Gerber, and Golden looks to be having more fun when Mister Miracle visits Las Vegas, compared to the staid and cosmic pages set in a limbo dimension. But Gerber and Golden have only three issues before the book was once more unceremoniously canceled, and it’s on a cruel cliffhanger.

You see, the plot of this Mister Miracle run also involves Scott Free embracing his godhood and deliberately aspiring to remold himself as a messiah figure, first to the lowlies of Apokolips and then to the people of Earth. What this all means, the book never quite has time to explore, but Scott begins to find ways to use his escape artistry as a sort of religious experience for his audience. Meanwhile, Granny Goodness threatens that she’s found the “Anti-Christ” to Scott’s newfound deification. While I’m not convinced that Scott Free needs to be treated as a god, it’s intriguing that no other writer has really run with this idea, so it’s a shame this plotline never resolved.

In fact, little if anything from these issues persisted into future Mister Miracle stories. After the stories in Mister Miracle by Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber, the character lay dormant until being drafted into the Justice League International circa 1987, with an accompanying special by Mark Evanier and Steve Rude, which restored so much of the character’s escapology trappings. Then a 1989 series scripted by J.M. DeMatteis and Doug Moench explored Scott and Barda’s attempts to retire in peace. These 28 issues (29, if you count the Evanier/Rude special) remain uncollected, though a concurrent New Gods series scripted by Mark Evanier - himself Kirby’s apprentice of sorts - was recently reprinted in two trade paperbacks. But those, my friends, are reviews for another time.


Post a Comment

To post a comment, you may need to temporarily allow "cross-site tracking" in your browser of choice.

Newer Post Home Older Post