Drew: What is religion for? Having not grown up with religion, I’ve never really understood. I can appreciate the origins of religion as a kind of pre-scientific way of explaining the world, but what’s the appeal nowadays, when most reasonable people accept that these stories aren’t literally true? I honestly have no idea, and religious friends can only give vague answers about community and faith. I suspect different people will have different answers, but for me, it seems that religion scratches an itch I just don’t have. That sentiment is sometimes met with pity from those who genuinely believe that a religious life is more fulfilling. I’d never be willing to dig through the stories and traditions that define any one faith, but what if faith wasn’t part of the equation at all? Miracleman 4 asks exactly that, looking into the life of a woman who has no doubt about the validity of her religion.
The woman in question is Rachel, the mother of Miracleman’s daughter, Mist. The opening of this issue reminds us of Miracleman’s status as religious figure, recounting all of the various celebrations that have sprung up in honor of him and his family. Old religious holidays are apparently still observed, but Rachel describes them as times of remembrance for “dead gods” and “lost mythologies” — there is only one religion in this world, and his existence and deeds are matters of historical fact. Even the storybooks where Winter’s off-world exploits are catalogued are gospel — religious texts dressed up as bedtime stories.
There’s no crisis of faith here — Rachel never expresses doubt about Miracleman, and the fact that she has a demigod for a daughter is simply a fact of her life — yet Rachel is profoundly unhappy. She struggles with her work, her “forgiveness” of her husband’s transgressions amount to little more than lip-service, and she’s profoundly lonely. She desperately misses her daughter, who is too busy attending continent-hopping parties to ever visit for longer than a night at a time. She has a happy enough relationship with her stepson, Glen, but when Mist casually mentions that Jack is planning on leaving her with Glen in tow, even that bit of happiness falls away.
Rachel’s story ends with the depressing notion that fantasies, religious or secular, are just fantasies. Certainty in God’s existence doesn’t make those prayers any more likely to be answered. Miracleman can father a baby who can fly and never age, but even he can’t make that baby need its mother.
It’s downright crushing. All she ever wanted was a daughter, but all she’s left with is a book full of experiences she can only dream of relating to.
That’s as alienating as stories get, which is why Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham put their names on that book. Or, rather it’s alienating because they put their names on the book. As Mist explains:
They’re not just hanging a lantern on the metafiction for fun, they’re hoping to elicit exactly the response Mist describes. That may sound like it leaves Rachel’s emotional arc ringing hollow, but I actually found that distance to be incredibly effective. I don’t ever feel particularly connected to her, but that makes her loneliness all the more profound — she can’t even connect to people when she’s the protagonist in a story they’re reading.
And, of course, it’s impossible to ignore the implication that this issue might also be an in-universe book created by in-universe Gaiman and Buckingham to tell the story of Mist’s visit home. It wouldn’t be in the same storybook style as Winters Tale, but who’s to say in-universe Neil Gaiman isn’t as versatile as the real-world version? I’d read this issue if I was a fictional character.
Alright, enough nonsense. Patrick, I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of this thing, including the backup, which gives us some more concrete clues about what is being retrieved, but not quite enough for me to venture any guesses. I suppose that would be different if I was more familiar with Miracleman’s history (or if I had read this storyline when it came out, obvi), but I’m still digging the mystery. Do you have any guesses?
Patrick: Oh, none whatsoever. Gaiman and Buckingham are operating on a level that defies any expectation of solving mysteries on the reader end. At this point in the series, I’d suspect that our desire to make something out of the two-page clues we get every month are more the point of those backups than any information actually presented within them. Every single issue has been about the average Joe’s relationship to the mythical figures of Miracleman’s world, and if the theme of issue four’s main story is “struggling to empathize,” the on-going theme of the back-up is “struggling to understand.”
Or maybe there is more meat there for fans of Miracleman’s history: who the fuck knows? Both Gaiman, with his Sandman legacy, and Buckingham, with his Fables legacy, know a thing or two about snowballing mythologies and inimitable appeal of a mythology painstakingly crafted over the course of years, even if the reader isn’t first-hand familiar with all of it. I catch a glimpse of a Miracle Dog poster in Glen’s room, and even without knowing what the hell that is, I’m aware that the world of the story is richer for its inclusion.
But damn it all if that doesn’t make me feel like poor, dumb Glen. I know he’s a kid, so his bumbling earnestness is meant to be charming, but Rachel makes a point of correcting the little dullard every time he says something wrong. And yet, he’s the one that’s most genuinely excited about reading Winter’s Tale — Rachel ties too much emotional baggage to it, and Mist allows herself the ironic detachment necessary to make that metafiction comment. Glen, making the same dopey face he always makes (and drawn always in dopey, full-on perspective by Buckingham) dutifully recites the story’s catch-phrases when they appear in the text.
Glen isn’t worried about… well, anything, I guess. He just wants to participate in the narrative in whatever paltry way he can. In this instance, it means saying the lines along with the character – y’know like when you’re watching Mother Simpson for the 700th time, and you recite Burn’s request to send his letter to the Prussian consulate in Siam by 4:30 Autogyro along with him. Or, to Drew’s point, when you recite the Nicene Creed during church. Glen doesn’t fully understand the deeper meaning behind the material he’s engaging with, but he is, nonetheless engaging with it. If we want to broaden back to Drew’s question about the purpose of religion in a modern world, I would argue that it is to develop a better relationship with the unknowable. Of course, that’s a concept too dense and abstract for a child — especially one like Glen for whom even the most simple things seem unknowable — to grasp all at once. But in having this entré into the mythology, Glen is ready to have a place in his heart for these concepts.
Is that enough though? Man, I just don’t know. Glen asks some follow up questions about Winter’s snowman, claiming that if he had a snowman, he would love it forever, so it would exist forever. That is true about his idea of the snowman – for as long as he can hold this mythological idea in his head, it’s as real to him as it ever was. It’s not until you’re let down by reality, as Rachel has, that the world can even be a disappointing place. Fantasy, fiction and religion are all nice things, and maybe we should all allow ourselves to stay lost in them.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?