Jack Kirby’s Fourth World – simultaneously a cosmic, multi-series, comic book epic that was ahead of its time and was a huge influence upon a multitude of subsequent stories across a wide range of media forms…and a massive exercise in unfulfilled expectations thanks to the concept’s inability to catch on with enough of an audience to continue to justify its existence in the 1970’s comic book market.
The longest lasting of the four features that made up this saga was Mister Miracle, which ran for 18 issues rather than the 11 that the other original titles (of course Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen ran far longer than that, but it’s Fourth World connection was limited to about 15 issues). Whilst New Gods was certainly the brains of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World multi-series epic, Mister Miracle was the heart of it. The storyline was key to the celestial battle between good and evil (as represented by the sister worlds New Genesis and Apokolips), but the focus was on the plight and character of Scott Free – for my money the greatest “real name” for a comic book superhero ever. It was with Scott – the world’s greatest escape artist – that the readers were able to make their strongest emotional connection to the whole Fourth World.
On the whole, the main characters of the Fourth World epic – like Orion or the Forever People – were not the sort of characters to draw you in emotionally. But Mister Miracle was different. He was a bit of an everyman, in spite of his fantastic pedigree as the son of the leader of New Genesis, while still being a hero. Scott also has the perfect backstory for a character who calls himself the World’s Greatest Escape Artist: he had grown up in the most miserable and oppressive situation that Jack Kirby could imagine, and yet managed to escape – from his physical capture and its psychological aftermath. The story of this escape, as it emerges over the series, is a highlight of the entire Fourth World.
I enjoy the way that the series begins without revealing any of the details of Scott’s background. Instead, it begins with Mister Miracle, aka Thaddeus Brown, an aging, brilliant, but otherwise ordinary human, escape artist who has run afoul of Intergang, the organized crime front for Apokolips on earth. (Hmm, Apokolips and its leader Darkseid are so evil that they use organized crime as a front for their activities on earth!) When Thaddeus is murdered in the middle of an escape, Scott uses his at-this-point-unexplained advanced technology to take his place and take down the bad guys. From there, Scott adopts the persona of Mister Miracle, and divides his time between keeping up the showman’s reputation on earth, while dealing with the reminders of his dark past who continually show up. This quickly builds up to a multi-part story in which it becomes necessary for Scott to return to Apokolips to sort things out permanently.
Kirby creates a fun and varied supporting cast around Scott Free, which helps to create that sense of “normality” that is unique to Mister Miracle amongst the other Fourth World stories. Present from the beginning is Oberon, the original Mr. Miracle’s loyal friend and assistant whom Scott more or less inherits. Later, we are introduced to Shilo Norman, a new young protege that Scott starts training, before the idea of legacy heroes was the in thing in the DC Universe (kind of like nowadays, again). Also joining them is Ted Brown, the son of the original Mr. Miracle, who serves as Scott’s promoter, and who has past troubles of his own. There’s even a group of all-female warriors from Apokolips (the Female Furies, in fact) who join Scott’s act for a few issues.
But of course, the most significant character aside from Mister Miracle himself is Big Barda, who is introduced a few issues in. The leader the Female Furies, this figure from Scott’s past quickly becomes the book’s co-lead. She’s the perfect counterpoint to Scott in both powers and approach. Where he is all about subtlety and escape, Barda is about about power and direct confrontation. She’s brutal and fierce, but also strangely tender. Her relationship with Scott – very much on equal footing – is key to what gives the series its “human” feeling. They’re relationship is so important that since she was introduced, you rarely see one character without the other.
Kirby tells a number of fun stories with this whole set-up – some integral to the Fourth World saga and some standalone (the latter becoming increasingly common as the series went along). One of the most memorable is issue #6, which tells about Mister Miracle’s encounter with Funky Flashman, an unscrupulous business manager who attempts to exploit Scott and his new Genesis technology. It’s popularly acknowledged that Flashman is inspired by Kirby’s former co-creator Stan Lee – which just goes to show how bad their falling out must have been.
Another significant issue is #9, which introduces Scott’s mentor Himon and fills in a lot of the gaps of his original meeting with Barda and his ultimate escape from Apokolips. It’s an effective tale which complements the famous New God’s story, The Pact (Issue #7) and effectively pulls the curtain back a bit on the background of the Fourth World. Man, we really could have used more of these tales, as they are a treat. Certainly, The Forever People would have benefited from something like that – Kirby probably had one in mind at some point. Shame.
The end of the run was a bit of a disappointment (but then, so was the end of everything regarding the Fourth World). Orion and Lightray and pretty much everyone from New Genesis shows up to announce that its time for Scott and Barda to get married. Scott and Barda confess their love for each other, which comes across as a little strange since I’d assumed their love was open and on the table and common knowledge with one another. But nonetheless, off they go, leaving Oberon, Shilo Norman and their act behind.
But in spite of that, it’s a great series, with a brilliant concept, and overall strong execution. In the end, Mister Miracle is only the second most important Fourth World entry in terms of plot, but it’s the deepest, and possibly the most fun.
More about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World:
• New Gods