The first issue of Mister Miracle, written, drawn, and edited by Jack Kirby, was the sixth book to be released in the creator’s new “Fourth World” project for DC Comics. (Or, if you prefer, the seventh, as both it and Jimmy Olsen #136 — which I’ll be blogging about next week — were published on the same date, January 14, 1971. So, take your pick.) The earliest chapters of Kirby’s epic, published in three consecutive issues of Jimmy Olsen (beginning with #133 in August, 1970), had introduced readers to Darkseid — a mysterious and sinister figure hailing from a world called Apokolips. Next, the premiere issues of two new titles, Forever People and New Gods (both published in December), had revealed that Darkseid was no ordinary alien, but a god — the supreme leader of the “new gods” of Apokolips, who stood in eternal opposition to the more benign divinities of New Genesis. Now, as the new year began, it was time for the fourth major piece of Kirby’s Fourth World to fall into place, and while my thirteen-year old self wasn’t sure what to expect from Mister Miracle, I was confident that we’d see a further expansion of the already compelling, cosmic-scale mythology Kirby had introduced in his first three titles.
I was therefore somewhat bemused, and even a bit disappointed, to find behind the Jack Kirby-Vince Colletta cover of Mister Miracle #1 a completely earthbound story, with nary an alien god in sight (so far as I could tell, anyway), and not even a single mention of Darkseid. What in the heck was going on?
Kirby confounds our expectations as readers from the very first page of “Murder Missile Trap!” The splash panel’s caption and title blurb invite us to “Meet Mister Miracle! Super Escape Artist” — and the colorful costumed figure at the center of the splash must be our man. Mustn’t he? He’s obviously about to perform some kind of escape trick, after all — not to mention the fact that, save for a small difference in coloring*, he looks just like the guy featured on the cover, whom we know by every convention of comic book publishing has to be the book’s titular hero.
But as we’ll soon see, that’s not the case at all. Rather, the true protagonist of the series will turn out to be the unassuming young man who appears (barely) at the bottom left-hand corner of the page — a young man we’ll come to know as Scott Free.
The horrified young man rips off his jacket, intending to attempt to beat out the raging flames, but…
According to Mark Evanier, the idea of escape-artist-as-superhero was inspired by Kirby’s fellow comics writer-artist, Jim Steranko, who’d briefly enjoyed an earlier career as an escapologist in his younger days.
Inter-Gang, a human criminal organization under the control of Darkseid, had first shown up in Jimmy Olsen #133, and was most recently seen in Forever People #1. Its appearance here not only represents the first overt connection made between Mister Miracle and Kirby’s other Fourth World books; as we’ll see, it’s virtually the only such overt connection that’s made over the course of the issue. In a way, the use of Inter-Gang could be said to be a bit of misdirection on Kirby’s part, as nothing the organization gets up to in “Murder Missile Trap!” seems particularly relevant to Darkseid’s larger aims; indeed, it could be replaced by some other criminal cartel (say, Robert Kanigher’s “The 100” from Lois Lane), and the plotline would play out pretty much the same way. Inter-Gang’s presence thus serves to distract us from the more subtle, and much more significant, Fourth World aspects of the story. (As misdirection is one of the main tools of the stage illusionist, its use as a narrative device in a tale about an escapologist would be quite appropriate, though we can’t know if this was actually Kirby’s intent.)
After a scuffle, Scott and Mister Miracle (aka Thaddeus Brown) manage to subdue the Inter-Gang operatives.
Steel Hand may be a fairly formidable fellow as far as DC Universe crime bosses go — but he nevertheless seems pretty mundane compared to most of the antagonists we’ve seen in the other Fourth World comics to date.
Meanwhile, a grateful Mister Miracle has invited Scott Free to stay with him and Oberon at their house, located in “a small, quiet suburb near the city”. Scott has agreed, mostly to help protect the aging escape artist from the threat posed by Inter-Gang (though he keeps this altruistic motivation to himself):
If Thaddeus Brown’s son Ted, whom we’re told “died in Korea” (presumably during the Korean War), truly was “a great fan of Superman“, then the implication is that the Man of Steel has been active since at least 1953. That’s the kind of minor detail likely to give a continuity-conscious fan fits — though it may ultimately be considered a moot point, as Kirby either forgot or changed his mind about Ted Brown being deceased, bringing him into the series as a very-much-alive supporting character with issue #10 (Oct., 1972).
As the conversation continues, Scott learns that Thaddeus and Oberon have been spending most of their time lately rehearsing for an event dubbed “The Big Trap” — and that Oberon’s extremely anxious about it. Thaddeus admits that there is a great deal of danger involved: “Even if I slip my chains in perfect time, I may not survive!”
Yeah, who’s to say? Scott Free is obviously not your ordinary, everyday orphan. But what he is, and where he comes from, are secrets Kirby will not be unlocking this issue.
The next day, Scott accompanies Thaddeus and Oberon to their practice site, where he watches them set up a stunt that involves binding Mister Miracle to a tree trunk with metal clamps, which he must escape before he and the tree are smashed to bits by a huge metal ball rolled down a chute. Unbeknownst to them, however, they’re being watched from a distance by both an Inter-Gang sniper and Steel Hand, himself…
Scott releases Thaddeus Brown from his bonds and gently lowers him to the ground, but the wound is mortal; Mister Miracle is dying.
“It looks like a box — but it has a strange power in it –”
As I recall, your humble blogger didn’t recognize Scott’s device as a Mother Box upon first reading this sequence, fifty years ago. You might wonder at that, considering that I’d already seen one of these wondrous devices in action, in Forever People #1. Perhaps I should have made the connection, as other readers more perceptive than my thirteen-year-old self may probably did, at the time. In my defense, however, I’d like to point out that the Mother Box on view in that earlier comic looked considerably different than Scott Free’s model; not only bigger and redder, but also, well, boxier. To be honest, I’m not sure that most readers would in fact think of the square, flat piece of tech seen here as a “box”, if Scott’s dialogue didn’t prompt them to do so.
Considering who sits at the very tippy-top of the Inter-Gang hierarchy, could Steel Hand’s new arm-wrestling opponent, allegedly built by his underling Stuka, ultimately be of Apokoliptican design? Maybe, but then again, considering that Steel Hand demolishes the poor thing within the next six panels, maybe not. Though I suppose it could just be a problem with our inferior Earth-type materials…
Steel Hand promptly places a call to a “secret Inter-Gang missile site” (how handy!) and schedules an immediate rocket launch. You’ve already seen the cover, so you know where this is going:
Convinced that even Mister Miracle can only die twice, Steel Hand prepares to call it a day. But then…
Although Steel Hand is definitely shaken up by his enemy having seemingly cheated death a second time, he can’t be counted out quite yet. After all, Kirby hasn’t had a chance to show the guy’s actual steel hand in action against our hero until now:
“His conviction will wreck Inter-Gang’s eastern operation!” Gee, I bet Darkseid is going to be pretty ticked off about that. Or will he be? Based just on what we’ve been shown in the Fourth World books so far, it’s hard to say how involved (or even interested) the Lord of Apokolips is in the day-to-day running of Inter-Gang’s criminal enterprises. In any event, it seems clear that, although Darkseid is quite interested in Scott Free (as will become evident in the very next issue of Mister Miracle), Scott’s coming into conflict with Inter-Gang in this initial adventure can be chalked up to sheer coincidence. Nevertheless, Inter-Gang’s appearance here has made for some nice (Fourth) world-building — and as suggested earlier, might even have represented an intentional piece of misdirection on Kirby’s part. (It seems to have worked that way for yours truly, whether intentionally or not. At least, that’s what I’ve just decided is my best excuse for not initially having made the connection between Scott’s gadgets, including but not limited to his “box”, and the advanced technology employed by the denizens of New Genesis and Apokolips, fifty years ago.)
Anyway, that’s that for the first issue of Mister Miracle. As I said at the outset of this post, back in January, 1971 I found this comic to be rather puzzling, and even a little disappointing. Based on everything Kirby had delivered to date, I had fully expected to find him opening a new front in the New Genesis-Apokolips war with this comic; instead, I’d been given a story about a “super escape artist” in conflict with some jumped-up gangsters. Entertaining enough, but not really compelling, so far as my personal tastes were concerned.
Not that there was any chance of my dropping the book at this point, though; I was still all in on Jack Kirby’s “huge, continuing novel” (as Marv Wolfman described it in a single-page text piece, “A Visit with Jack Kirby”, that appeared in the back of Mister Miracle #1, as it also had in the premiere issues of Forever People and New Gods). And I wasn’t going to be put off of the most innovative approach to long-form comic-book storytelling I’d ever encountered (or even imagined), just because the King threw me a curve ball or two.
As things turned out, I didn’t have to wait any longer than the release of Mister Miracle #2 to discover I’d made the right call — because with that issue, Jack Kirby revealed that the advent of Scott Free in MM #1 had represented a new front opening in the war of the New Gods, all along; I just hadn’t realized it yet. But for more about all that, faithful readers, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to wait until March — and I do hope you’ll come back then, for, to paraphrase the words of Scott Free, back on page 17: The age of miracles is just beginning.
*If you happen to be already familiar with this story, but only from reprints and/or digital editions, you may be surprised to find the red parts of Mister Miracle’s costume were consistently colored purple, instead, throughout the first issue of his series.
As indicated by the mostly green-and-yellow color scheme of an early version of the hero created for a piece of presentation art in the late Sixties (see right), Kirby fixed on the combination of red, yellow, and green familiar to most of us at a relatively late stage in the character’s development. So late, in fact, that the creator’s ultimate color choices didn’t manage to make it onto the interior pages of Mister Miracle #1, though they were implemented on the cover.
According to comics writer and historian Mark Evanier, who was working as Kirby’s assistant at the time, DC had prevailed upon the creator to allow their Production Department to make the coloring decisions on Mister Miracle. Kirby acquiesced, but was unhappy with the final results, at least in relation to the hero’s costume. He requested the change from purple to red, and while it was too late to make alterations to the first issue’s interiors before the book went to press — or so Kirby was at least told, as per Evanier — the change did make it onto the cover; after which, of course, the red, yellow and green costume colors became standard, for the comic’s insides as well as its outsides.