by Patrick Ehlers and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Patrick: I had a little bit of a rebellious streak in high school. No, no — not actually in school, but during my confirmation classes. See, I was a good kid, studied hard and had a lot of extracurricular activities, but I couldn’t help but be a smart-ass where it came to my religious education. It’s easy to recognize this as some pretty impotent angst in retrospect: I was only resisting a belief structure which relinquished control over me as soon as I decided there was no God. One of my shit-eatingest points of rebellion was my constant assertion that Jesus didn’t really pay the price of death the way we understand it. Even granting the reality wherein he was crucified and suffered horribly for a couple days, he got to come back afterward. It’s not the act of dying, but the cold state of “not living” that should be the sacrifice. I don’t want to speak for Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ respective rebellious streaks, but it seems like Mister Miracle 6 agrees with at least part of 16-year old Patrick. Risking or sacrificing one’s life is only valuable is the the life itself is something you have to do without.
For Scott Free, that means an awful lot of mundane couple-y stuff. Scott and Barda spend the entire issue brawling their way through New Genesis, but they never stop talking about how to improve their condo. The condo is an obvious extension of their domestic life together, and through their squabbling about the tiny details of discarded magazines, and the size of the kitchen, we get to see the infinitesimally small details that matter to them. All the while, some kind of PA system keeps announcing: “WARNING: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED HERE.” The space that Barda and Scott won’t stop talking about is a place where they are allowed.
King and Gerads are playing a hyper aggressive game of “talk about something else,” wherein the dialogue and the action are never in step with each other. It’s a bold choice, and it makes for a chatty issue, and I love that we get clued into the game on page one.
The narrator — who may be Glorious Godfrey, or could very well just represent some kind of omniscient superhero hype — gets the reader psyched up for some kind of action spectacular, but our heroes stubbornly refuse to participate. Instead, Barda starts what’s sure to be a long, involved conversation that’s ultimately going to result in taking measurements, meetings with contractors, and more than one trip to IKEA. She is engaging in the conversation that matters, even as they’re slicing and flipping their way through every manner of New Genesisian defense.
Gerads sticks with Mister Miracle’s standard nine-panel grid throughout, alternately using the space between the panels to represent time and space (and sometimes both at once). It’s breathless action storytelling, introducing a brand new threat every couple pages, wordlessly communicating both why it’s a problem and how our heroes plan to address it.
Which sorta just leaves the action itself for us to analyze. I have a couple favorites, including the two-page Tidedragon battle, but I think the tightest experience is the battle against the guards who were just discussing the nomenclature of “fourth world.” The page is presented like it’s a nine panel grid, but the reality is that those vertical panel-dividers are superfluous — we’re really only looking at three wide panels here.
The insistence on the same camera angle for all three of these panels, coupled with the artificial vertical divides, all do a great job of establishing a sort of visual geography for the scene. The center of the action is clearly set off by this narrow jam between the windows, and on either side there appears to be some kind of shade (complete with planets and space junk in the background). On the next page, the individual panels keep this same distance from the action, but the left-to-right orientation of these panels slides around more freely, exploring a space that’s clearly established above.
Frequently, this means that Scott and Barda are pretty small on the page. Gerads doesn’t give himself any shortcuts, almost always drawing the whole of his characters’ bodies in each panel. I’m trying to make sense of that decision and I’m not sure I’ve totally got my head wrapped around it. Is he drawing our attention to the consistency of their size or the smallness of it? For me, either reading plays into the hum-drummery of their cute little life together.
And that cute little life is exactly the thing we don’t want to see them lose. That’s what makes King’s take on Mister Miracle so much more compelling to me that the usual Kirby fare: there’s something here I get nervous about losing. They’s so loving, so patient, so normal. I mean, they’re normal while walking a thread of Tidedragon intestine like it’s a tightrope, but they’re normal.
Drew, there are a lot of ways that this action recalls some of the showier bits of Mister Miracle’s identity. We see him do some acrobatics throughout, there’s the aforementioned tightrope walk, and of course, there’s a fancy escape. But maybe the biggest trick of the issue comes at the end, when what’s happening on the page finally trumps a condo in need of renovation. Orion is dead and Darkseid is. Man, it’s such a mindfuck to have our heroes actually talking about what they’re seeing, right?
Drew: I’d actually say the biggest mindfuck for me comes earlier in the issue, when our heroes are talking about what we’re seeing — and what we have been seeing since the start of this series. Specifically, Scott and Barda talk about Scott’s fixation on boxes (and escaping from them), which Barda argues stems from the fact that Scott was kept in a “three-by-three box” when he was a child. The notion that Scott’s entire escape artist personae is built from this simple fact of his upbringing is an insightful one — he’s just trying to escape the horrific conditions of his childhood.
But that notion of a “three-by-three box,” mentioned without any unit of measurement, can’t help but evoke the very nine-panel grid that defines the visual grammar of this series. He may halfheartedly try to deny it, but this is very much still the way that Scott sees the world — just a series of three-by-three boxes he wants to escape from. In this way, the four pages that kicked off this series take on a whole new significance. They don’t adhere to the nine-panel grid, though at the time, we didn’t have any context to understand that as a remarkable choice for the series. We had no expectation that every page should be a nine-panel grid, let alone an explanation for why that would be the case. Now, though, we have the perspective to see that moment as the escape Scott apparently intended for it to be. Viewed in hindsight through six issues of unrelenting nine-panel pages, that fully bled (no pun intended) double page spread feels downright freeing.
But, while the visual grammar of this series is decidedly influenced by Scott’s perspective, it’s important to note that it doesn’t necessarily agree with his assessment of this moment. This may not be the moment of rebellious freedom that Scott thinks it is, as Barda so bluntly puts it:
That is, Scott only thinks he’s still oppressed by the three-by-three box of his childhood. It makes sense, in a law of the instrument kind of way — when you’re an escape artist, everything is a box.
That’s is a truth that Scott needs to hear — and I think he genuinely does hear it before the conversation pivots back to the condo — though it may come across as harsh. Barda’s point may boil down to “your suicidal thoughts/depression are delusional/in your head,” but her role here decidedly isn’t that of the ideal mental health counselor. She’s just a person trying to navigate life with a depressed spouse, but needing more from him in this moment. Part of what makes it seem so harsh is “in this moment” feels like they’re just talking about renovations to their condo, so evoking Scott’s deepest psychological scars seems out-of-place, but by the end of the conversation, we understand what these renovations are for (and potentially why Barda was willing to renege on her refusal to rescue Scott in issue 5): she’s pregnant.
After Barda drops that bomb, Gerads keeps Scott frozen in shock for three panels as Barda runs off to knock out Lightray. Indeed, it’s not until six panels later that Scott catches up with Barda, hugging her, and telling her he loves her. That’s a moment that our characters are fully in together — they’re not talking about a condo on a distant planet or what Scott needs to do when confronting Orion. For those few panels, these characters are saying and doing exactly what they’re feeling in that moment.
And the news does seem to give Scott a lift. Now that he understands the stakes, he’s ready and willing, not just to get rid of the junk cluttering their house, but to face down his adoptive brother. He’s not just resigned to keep on living — he’s going to actively fight for it. Though all of that is maybe immediately undone when Scott enters the royal chambers and finds Orion beaten and bloodied. There, the tape distortion (both VHS and scotch varieties) Gerads has used throughout the series returns, separating us from the immediacy of what we’re seeing, as though the just-lifted veil has been redrawn across Scott’s life. It’s not entirely clear what that means for the series going forward, but it’s one hell of a cliffhanger to end the “mid-season finale” on.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?