by Drew Baumgartner and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Drew: Critics of postmodern fiction often suggest that its self-reflexiveness is flashy, but devoid of meaning. According to the argument, postmodernism is a bit like racing stripes on a car — it might be superficially appealing, but doesn’t actually change what’s under the hood. I would argue that those critics are forgetting (or perhaps taking for granted) one of the most basic roles fiction plays in our lives, as an analogy for reality, augmented and enhanced to reveal something to us about the world we live in. In that way, postmodern self-reflexivity is simply part of that analogy — particularly apt for addressing our own existential crises. There’s no clearer exemplar of this argument than Mister Miracle 12, which twists all of the miniseries’ questions about Scott Free’s reality into a moving commentary on life with depression.
Er, “depression” might be an oversimplification of what Scott is going through in this issue. Specifically, Scott seems to be plagued by hallucinations, each of which offer an explanation for what might be going on. First up, Scott is visited by Granny Goodness, who suggests that this entire series has been a fantasy world Scott created to escape the horrors of life on Apokolips. Tellingly, it’s only Granny here that gets the glitchy treatment that made us question the nature of Scott’s reality throughout the series.
She’s insisting that the world around him is fake, while she’s the only piece of it that doesn’t quite seem real. It’s a pattern writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads stick to as Scott is visited by a number of deceased fourth world characters.
Up next is Forager, who tells Scott he’s in Hell. And Orion, who tells Scott he’s in heaven. And the evidence for either case is equally compelling, making for a balanced argument that ultimately nullifies either conclusion. And that’s a lesson Scott seems to take to heart. By the time he’s “haunted” by the specter of Darkseid, he barely even acknowledges its presence.
That’s a bit harder to do for Highfather, who forgives Scott for “failing” to make the “choice” to give up his own son. By now, the hallucinations are done tormenting Scott with explanations for their existence — they’re just manifestations of his emotional baggage. So Scott confronts that baggage, punching Highfather and continuing on with his errands.
But the real emotional healing comes when Scott visits Oberon. Scott seeing Oberon in issue 1 was our surest indication that something wasn’t quite right in his world, but now Oberon is a source of real stability. Scott is afraid that any of the doubts brought on by his other visions might be true, but Oberon suggests that none of it matters. Scott’s world is as real as it’s always been, and that he owes it to that reality to stay invested in it. And then he paraphrases that Jack Kirby quote I made such a big deal about way back in issue 5, cementing the parallels between Scott’s life in comics and King and Gerads’ lives in comics.
Whether we take that someone as collaborators, friends and family, or significant others is kind of up to us. For Scott, it almost certainly means Big Barda, who Scott is as in love with as ever as the issue closes. But their daily life is also just as banal and lived in as ever. That is, Oberon’s words aren’t a magic wand that gives Scott’s life meaning — he’s still going forget to replace the remote control his son inadvertently destroyed. Barda dismisses the bad luck with a perfunctory “Darkseid is,” which Scott counters with a “we are too.”
It’s a small answer to the big questions this series has been playing with, but I think appropriately so. But there are way more conclusions to draw from this issue. Heck, I barely mentioned Gerads’ artwork. Those hallucinations became increasingly glitch-y and transparent as the issue went on, but I’m most curious about that little tape distortion Gerads includes at the very end of the issue — an affect he withholds up until that point. Patrick, I’m honestly not sure what to make of that, so I’ll throw that hot potato over to you.
Patrick: That effect has always been difficult to decode. Is it just more visual noise, or does it serve a specific function? We’re only getting it at the end of this issue, and given its placement on the page and the fact that it’s the final drawing in the issue, it creates the illusion that the reader somehow paused the tape.
Clayton Cowles insists that this is “The End.” with a period and everything, even using a balloon shape that is more evocative of speech than of narration or a chyron. Someone is “saying” those words: “the end” at the exact same time the image freezes, slightly distorted by old VHS technology.
For me, this nudges Mister Miracle away from simple self-reflection and toward an omni-directional-reflection. The issue makes us consider the lives and values of the characters, but also the creators and the readers. But it’s also not quite done there either — this issue holds like a dozen cameos from legendary comics creators, including an aggressive homage to the recently departed Stan Lee in the form of Funky Flashman. While Scott abstractly sees a lineage down through his son to all the generations of Frees, Funky demonstrates the very real effect Stan Lee already has had (and will continue to have for a long time) on the next generation.
Check it out, Jake’s already trying to baby-talk his way through his first “Excelsior!” What Drew was exploring above sort of comes down to the idea that Scott’s family is something to be escaped from, or escaped to, but I’d argue that “family” is incomplete. Funky is a halfway point between family — a babysitter with literal physical contact with Jake — and creators that inspire us.
Stan’s not the only comic book creator we get a glimpse of in this issue: King and Gerads appear in the audience on the first page. They’re in a crowd made up of just about everyone who made this series possible, including co-pulishers Jim Lee and Dan Didio, letterer Clayton Cowles, cover artist Nick Derington, and editors Maggie Howell, Molly Mahan, and Jamie Rich. More than that though, Gerads stuck in some of his favorite Earwolf podcast hosts. Scott Auckerman, Adam Scott, Paul F. Tompkins, Lauren Lapkus, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael round out the cameos on this page.
It’s insanity. Gerads has expressed on twitter how much pushback he got from DC’s legal team when he started requesting likeness clearances, so these cameos are not a decision that he made lightly. They have to be there because it helps blur the line between the art a creator takes in, the creator himself, and the art the creator makes. Keep in mind, all these characters are in an audience. The art and the artists and the audience are all one thing, endlessly inspiring and enjoying itself.
I absolutely adore Scott and Barda’s explanation for why people say the love LA. Scott posits that no one loves LA, they “just come here because they think they have to […] then they don’t leave because they think they can’t.” There’s a recognizable truth to that, and it’s something I feel as an Angelino all the time. But Scott’s presenting Los Angeles as something that needs to be escaped, which draws quick parallels to his own family situation. Barda’s knowing response is “That’s all love is.”
And maybe that’s the thing that we can’t escape. For all the heroics and stunts and confusing continuity, we’re moved by the feeling that we belong to a long lineage of creators, artists and audiences, all intertwined together. These people, these artists, inform us, and we inform whoever comes next. It goes all the way forward in time and all the way back. We have to be here and we can’t leave — that’s love.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?