Shortly before the release of his debut issue on Batman last summer, Tom King awoke in the emergency room. The former CIA officer and comic writer behind such modern classics as The Sheriff of Babylon, The Vision and The Omega Men anticipated a heart attack that would send him to an early grave. Fortunately, the diagnosis revealed a severe panic attack. Though King didn’t pass into the great beyond, he returned to a reality that didn’t quite feel the same. “I’d flirted with the edge of death and came back from it, and I woke up and the whole world seemed different. I don’t mean this in a political way, but the world as it is today—what’s happening every single day—doesn’t seem to make any sense. And that can be as simple as the Super Bowl didn’t make sense. Or it can be as crazy as people are breaking laws in our country that shouldn’t ever be broken,” King explains on the phone.
His illustrating partner on Sheriff, Mitch Gerads, chimes in: “The Cubs won the World Series.”
The pair is discussing their upcoming series, Mister Miracle, about a cosmic Jesus Christ analogue who’s also an escape artist, and how in this moment, it’s very, very hard not to feel trapped in a never-ending loop of the bizarre, anxious and absurd. But if their previous collaboration is any indication, the project won’t offer any escapism. King and Gerads excel at creating incredibly likable characters who attempt to untangle doomed causes—a legacy perfect for this new book.
Mister Miracle was created by comic trailblazer Jack Kirby in the early ‘70s after his fallout with Marvel over creator rights. The yellow, red and green superhero fronted a line of comics loosely identified as The Fourth World, a kaleidoscope-colored remix of the Bible with Wagnerian battles and sci-fi bombast. In the mythos, Miracle (born Scott Free) was imprisoned on an industrial hellscape planet called Apokolips before escaping to his family on the paradise of New Genesis. King describes the saga—which ran through comics including the New Gods and The Forever People—like “dipping your head into madness.”
And though Mister Miracle could escape any terror orphanage, death trap or elaborate constraint, Free perpetually felt trapped in his childhood nightmare. The character fits perfectly in King’s oeuvre of tragic irony, including the tortured space radicals of The Omega Men and the imploding dreams of The Vision—all portraits of gods with destructive vulnerabilities. It’s also a new, bright canvas for Gerads, whose work has mostly addressed military and street-level intrigue, further adding empathy to the almighty. The artist channels an intoxicating array of visuals for the project, mimicking distortion lines on antique tube TVs and tactile watercolor backdrops.
Lettered with dire detail by Clayton Cowles and edited by Jamie Rich, the first chapter of this 12-issue series launches in August. (Spoiler Alert: it’s excellent.) Publisher DC offered Paste a first look at the comic as well as chance to discuss this ambitious new series with King and Gerads.
Paste: The first time I heard about this project, I thought, you guys are going to humanize the divine. Kirby specialized in these grand, spectacular space operas that don’t have the subtlety or vulnerability I associate with The Sheriff of Babylon. Is that the challenge, to unite the cosmic with the intimate?
Tom King: I don’t think that’s the challenge, I think that’s the theme. In going back and reading all of Kirby, you’re dipping your head in genius. No one can out-Kirby Kirby. You can’t make an epic as great as he did. It’s like trying to make Star Wars again, or like trying to rewrite the Iliad. You can take those grand cosmic space opera themes and internalize them and use them to tell a very personal story. That’s what appealed to me about it. We were going to take the bigness of Kirby and turn that into the intimacy of Mister Miracle’s life. Kirby used a metaphor for his time, written in the late ‘60s early ‘70s when the world was going utterly insane. We’re going to use it as a metaphor for our time, the late 2010s, when once again the world is going insane. It’s almost like we’re holding up a mirror to that work, or internalizing it. We’re going step-in-step with him.
Mister Miracle #1 Cover by Nick Derington
Paste: Tom, your Best Intentions trilogy of The Sheriff of Babylon, The Omega Men and The Vision personally referenced your experience resolving conflict in the middle east as a CIA agent. Do you feel a kinship with Kirby, whose time in World War II served a similar purpose inspiring his comics?
King: It’s hard to ever compare yourself to the generation that fought Hitler and saved the world. I do feel a kinship with and draw inspiration from artists who did go through that experience, and came out to the other side with their eyes a little too open to the world. Kirby served, and I served in my way, but that guy was in gunfire and I was just trying to get terrorists to spy on each other. Both of us want to punch Nazis in the face, so we have that.
Paste: Mitch, there’s so much going on in Mister Miracle #1. I’m seeing Ben-Day dots, selective blurring, watercolor textures, tube TV distortion. It’s heavily atmospheric. How is this challenging you as an artist? What are your main goals?
Mitch Gerads: The book has been a crazy experience. It’s very challenging and it’s also exactly the opposite of that. Because of the theme of how Tom and I are approaching the story, it allows me to play with reality. When I do my art, I tend to be very inspired by what I’m consuming at that time, and I remember doing issue one of Mister Miracle and being very inspired by ‘60s magazine illustrators: Austin Briggs, Al Parker. I think a lot of that came through, but one of the nice things is, because of the nature of the book, as we go forward I can still be influenced by what I’m consuming at that time and just evolve with it. I get to use the reality-bending nature of the book as an excuse to do that.
Mister Miracle #1 Interior Art by Mitch Gerads
Paste: Mister Miracle seems more cinematic and visual than your previous collaboration.
Sheriff is completely grounded in reality. For all intents and purposes, it definitely could have happened. Mister Miracle is super fun because I get to play with fantasy, but at the same time, I think I play with fantasy differently than most comic book artists. I still play with it in the real world. One of the fun things for me is taking all of these Kirby designs and taking the crazy world of New Genesis and the crazy world of Apokolips and boiling it down to more Game of Thrones. All that stuff is still there and the motifs can still be there. But I’m bringing it down to a base level that everyone can understand, and feels a bit more tactile and real.
Paste: Why do you think Kirby’s neo-Christian mythos is still relevant today?
King: I think it’s a few things. If you actually read the New Gods tetralogy, this epic without an ending, it’s like dipping your head into madness. You feel a little bit like the Joker for a little while. And I mean that in the best way possible. It’s that feeling you get when you see a piece of art you can’t comprehend. I’ve been at this long enough and I know a lot of the creators, and I can see behind comics. I see what you’re trying to do, I see how they did this. I read Kirby’s stuff and I don’t see how they did this. He touched the id of America and let it flow through his fingers. There are a thousand ideas on one page and they don’t add up and then they do add up and they come apart and they come back together. Half of them are an easy metaphor to see and then the metaphor falls apart. It’s just utter insanity.
Yet somehow, that utter insanity became the modern myth of America. You read New Gods, and you say that’s where Star Wars came from. It’s 100%. You can just see it on the page. This is why my kids wear Fantastic Four pajamas. This is why when I walk out in the street every day, I see half of the people wearing superhero t-shirts. This is the spine of our modern American myth, and it came from this outpouring of insanity from a man who, for all accounts and purposes, should have been past his prime. He should have done his best work, but instead, he channeled the energy of this new generation that was rebelling against this new perceived fascism into a child art form. How can you not try to catch that in your hands and do something with it?
Mister Miracle #1 Interior Art by Mitch Gerads
Paste: Reading the first issue, I couldn’t help but think of Mister Miracle as an evolution of The Last Temptation of Christ, a son of a god attempting to escape his identity.
King: When I first started doing this project, I started talking with creators like Mark Waid and one of the things I came across was people saying, you didn’t know Mister Miracle was Jack Kirby’s Jesus? He’s Jesus as an escape artist. That’s utterly ridiculous, but the writer in you is like I get to play with Jesus as an escape artist. On the other side of that you have Darkseid, who’s the horrible evil that walks. There are religious themes in this, but it’s all inspired by Kirby. He was drawing on Old Testament and the New Testament to make a kids adventure. That’s why it worked—he’s telling old stories in new ways. So now we’re going to try the old Jack Kirby stories in new ways. We’re going to go as deep as we can.
Paste: In the first issue, Darkseid is only hinted at through these ominous, rhythmic black boxes with the sole text “Darkseid is” in varying fonts. How are you approaching the character both from a thematic and craft perspective?
King: “Darkseid is” is taken from Grant Morrison’s JLA run in the early ‘90s. He captured what Kirby had captured, which is that Darkseid isn’t just a big guy who wants to take over the world. He’s not Mongul. He’s not even Thanos, a guy obsessed with death. He’s the evil inside of us. He’s the darkness. He’s the thing inside of us that calls us to do the wrong thing or be warped the wrong way. That’s inescapable: Darkseid exists. That’s there.
Gerads: He’s the only comic book villain that I’m legitimately afraid of. When I was a kid, Darkseid scared the heck out of me. I don’t think it ever went away. My mom brought home a Burger King happy meal, and it had this little cup holder. Different DC characters have their arms outstretched, with cups that go in front. My mom brought home Darkseid and I just started crying. I wanted no part of it.
King: I want to credit a webcomic artist named Julian Lytle. He’s an old friend of mine, and we met at a con. I was telling him about Mister Miracle, and he said: “Darkseid is.” And I said, “What do you mean Darkseid is?” He’s that thing that you can’t deny is there, that’s pushing you toward darkness. And he kept saying “Darkseid is” over and over again, and as I was talking to him, I saw the black panels. It’s always there in the background. It comes from that conversation with Julian.
Mister Miracle #1 Interior Art by Mitch Gerads
Paste: Tom, you’ve described this as “an epic about a harrowing tale trying not to be told.” That’s an amazing contradiction. Why would an epic not want to be told?
King: I think because it’s your epic, or it’s like in an interview like this, or when you talk to someone—you don’t want to reveal the actual epic that’s inside of you. The core of you. That’s something that you always keep hidden from everyone. The actual struggles you have every day. You make up things, and you say things and biographers or autobiographers write about them. The real hidden secrets and the real hidden battles—that’s the story that you don’t want told. You don’t want that exposed. That’s what we’re doing for Mister Miracle. He’s confronting that part of him that doesn’t want to be told.
Paste: Looking at the entire concept of escape, what do you both try to escape in your own lives that’s going to trickle into the themes here?
King: I try to escape two things at once, and I think that’s the problem. If you’re a writer, you’re constantly doubting yourself. You’re constantly saying this isn’t right, this is shit, this is terrible. But then on the other side, overconfidence will kill any writing you do: you stop doubting yourself, you’re fucked. You escape this trap of doubt to this trap of confidence, you escape the trap of confidence to the trap of doubt. You’re stuck in a catch 22 of screaming anxiety. And that’s when you write, “Page One, Panel One.”
Gerads: I think Scott Free, in this book, really embodies what a lot of us, if not the vast majority of us, are feeling right now: being surrounded by a world that doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. I really sympathize with Scott, and as the book goes on you sympathize with him more. There’s so much in the book of just him giving weird looks to people. In a way, it’s Jim from The Office giving looks to people half the time. He’s just trying to process the absurd. I think that’s something I try to escape. It’s hard to do this interview and not get super political. There’s so much in this world right now that isn’t lining up. You assumed there were safeguards in place to make sure things always do line up. It’s escaping that kind of world and trying to find the real world again. Hopefully that real world is still a thing that exists.
King: I wanted to write about the Trump era, but I didn’t want to write, “Fascism sucks” or “Trump sucks.” That doesn’t get you anywhere. You’re taking your Twitter feed and putting it in panels. What I wanted to do is capture the emotion of the period, and the anxiety, the way Alan Moore captured the anxiety of the ‘80s or Kirby captured the anxiety of the ‘70s or even Lee captured the optimism of the ‘60s; to capture the feeling, more than the politics. That’s what interests me. That’s how you make something that’s just not a polemic. After page four, the whole thing goes into a 9-panel grid, and it’s to give you a sense of that claustrophobia. To give you a sense of what it is to be trapped, not only in the themes and the words, but in the actual panel structure. He’s trapped behind those bars we had in Omega Men, and how does he break out?