Still Standing: Mister Miracle Escaping the Stigma of Mental Illness
As someone with depression and a love for comics, I often find myself looking to superheroes for escapism. A hero can always push forward no matter the difficulty, even if it takes a toll on them. More often than not, the trials and tribulations our favorite heroes are put through are those in the physical world. Villains, traps, weapons, and a myriad of other terrifying obstacles block our heroes’ paths, but in addition to all those things we also see the inner struggle, the part of superheroes that makes them most relatable and human to their fans. Even then, most heroes find a way to combat it or use it to their advantage, be it an outside force making them push on, compartmentalizing their personal struggle for the greater good, or their own powers keeping them together. What we haven’t seen is the main character, the big hero, who is willing to give up against their own villain: themselves. This is what makes Tom King’s Mister Miracle so exceptional.
Mental illness is not uncommon in any comics universe. There have been hundreds of threads on social media dedicated to deciphering exactly which mental illness could be associated with various big-name heroes, but even with those discussions, the readers rarely get a realistic view of how these possible mental illnesses would impact the lives and duties of the hero. There is always a way to make it work or a reason to push on.
For example, Batman’s Bruce Wayne is speculated most often to have PTSD and depression. This comes as no surprise given how the character’s story has played out and how he has been molded over the years. However, even when you see the Bruce Wayne struggling and obviously fighting with his inner demons and better judgement, his heroism overrides it. Throughout his career, Batman has been notorious for shutting himself away from others, using his “brooding” image to shield himself from dealing with his pain, and most importantly, using that pain as the driving force to make things better. This is a common tactic for many including Daredevil, The Punisher, Watchmen’s Rorschach, and several others, all of whom share the commonality of compartmentalizing their personal strife in one way or another to make sure their duty is done.
While excellent examples of how it can feel to come from that sort of inner struggle, one thing that often comes out of these narratives is that the heroes’ mental illnesses are what makes them a better hero—that, because they are trying to reclaim the fight in their head, they have the drive to fight harder in physical reality.
The difference between other heroes and the way that Mister Miracle is presented in his new series is that it begins with Scott choosing to respond to his past trauma in a way big heroes traditionally don’t or can’t. The first three pages alone show him in costume slumped on his bathroom floor with blood pooling around him from his wrists. It’s clearly not the traditional way you would start a book, let alone one about Mister Miracle the master of escapes, but it’s raw and it immediately makes the book feel more harrowing.
The title page includes a close shot of the blood on the floor next to the Mister Miracle mask that has been tossed aside, noting that the Mister Miracle mask contains a self-contained life support unit. This imagery alone was a massive representation of how giving in to depression feels like “taking off the mask.”
The book quickly delves into the aftermath of Barda finding Scott bleeding out and rushing him to hospital to be saved. To anyone who has been through this or knows someone who has, the images hit very close to home. Bandages on Scott’s arms, and Barda, in full regalia, in the waiting room of a hospital with her head in her hands, the comic shows our heroes, people who aren’t even from earth and have seen things that no one can imagine, at their most vulnerable and confused.
Now, this isn’t to say that there haven’t been several attempts by superheroes to end their own life. Mister Immortal discovered his powers by attempting suicide. Judge Corey from the 2000 AD series Judge Dredd shoots herself in the head when she feels she is too empathetic to live in the world anymore. Even Element Girl from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman asks Death to aid her successfully. All of these are certainly examples of characters who struggled with their mental illnesses, but although they are tragic endings to a given story, they were never the focus. Each of these characters were secondary characters. What does that mean for readers who may share feelings with those characters, and what does it show when the character who is willing and ready to give up is a secondary story?
When asked about this pattern, Dr. Richard Harrison, a licensed doctor and comic fan, laid it out very clearly to me in an interview, saying, “[…] only recently has mental health been a more prominent issue in the media. Most cultures have long had the culture of a ‘stiff upper lip’–you don’t show emotion, it’s weakness. Such repression has long term effects on a patient and those around them. An inability to talk about and therefore deal with feelings can be paralyzing, which creates loneliness.”
The stigma of mental health is not one that escapes us even within the pages of a comic book. It is acceptable for a secondary character to show these emotions because they are allowed to display their vulnerability; they are seen as more disposable even if they are beloved. What is still not seen as acceptable is the character seemingly without a flaw, who can withstand any enemy, suffering from mental illness.
With that in mind, issue one also covers the aftermath of Scott’s attempt. There are a number of disturbing panels depicting Mister Miracle in mask and costume on a daytime talk show. The host proceeds to ask Scott–in a very roundabout and passive way–about his suicide attempt, to which Scott responds as if it had all been an act like in one of his shows.
“It was a trick.”
“My escapes were getting boring for me and the audience…”
“[…] no one escapes from death. So I killed myself.”
And is met this laughter and applause.
For a reader who has been through this situation, these pages are staggering. Oftentimes, people with depression—especially ones who have attempted or thought of self-harm—will joke and make light of their mental health as a coping mechanism to further distance people from discovering the turmoil that they are facing in their own head. Depression, even on the best days, is something ever-present, which makes the inclusion of the black, ominous “Darkseid is.” panels scattered throughout the entire issue even more haunting.
In the early Kirby days, Darkseid–and other elements of the Fourth World books–were clearly resonant of the Vietnam War. Darkseid himself was often used a symbol of not just overall evil but social conflict, fascism, futility of hope, and ever-present darkness. Transversely, Scott Free was presented as a moral being for whom the acts of war and unmitigated violence as a whole showed a failure of existence, not a tool to be used. Instead, Scott has always sought to escape from the maelstrom of Darkseid’s ambition, only to be pulled back in, and once again escape. Scott is an example of name as destiny.
With continuity confirmed in this new Mister Miracle, King seems to have taken Kirby’s feel and purpose for the characters and fit them perfectly into the era of social and political chaos that we are living in and the sense of helplessness and depression that much of the world is feeling. No matter what age we live in chaos, anger, depression—Darkseid—is. And what more can you ask a person, let alone a superhero, to do when they’ve run out of escapes? Scott, for all intents and purposes, is just another person. He is a master escape artist, a pacifist, and an inventor with the knowledge and technology of the Fourth World, but with his agelessness, he is a man stuck in time unable to escape the thing that represents all the hurt and loss that he has experienced in his life. Though, in reality, no one can relate to being ageless, many people feel the inescapability of the chaos and darkness in their own mind.
“What many people can identify with is that the fight of life is infinite,” says Dr. Harrison. “Resistance means loss and any victory attained is often left short lived. Struggles can be overcome and goals can be met, but for patients with depression the road feels wrought with speed bumps with no clear end in sight.”
Unlike many heroes within the comics medium, Scott’s life was not one paved with gold. Having been traded from his own family into a life of hardship and loneliness on Apokolips with no knowledge of his heritage, accumulating his own self-hatred for not being able to fit in among on his own planet, and being a primary reason for an intergalactic war after fleeing, Scott’s ability to dodge and escape his own hardships is a superpower all on its own. But also unlike many superheroes, Scott has had someone by his side to support him and protect: his wife, Big Barda.
Though Barda may seem to play a smaller role in the first issue, it is much larger than it looks. For the amount of pain that people with depression face when considering suicide, it can be equally as hard for the loved ones fighting alongside them. Barda is seen sitting in the waiting room of the hospital waiting for him, and sitting at home on the couch next to him and holding him. And most importantly, though, is the way she speaks to him: gentle and calming. Although Barda has canonically been very protective of Scott throughout Mister Miracle’s history, the way she as portrayed caring for him in this situation brings a new kind of softness to her character. (Though it is no surprise that she has no fear in standing up to defend Scott after his attempt when Orion shows up to teach Scott a lesson in tough love, even going so far as to tell Orion that he is a “stray puppy raised on the fluffed pillows of New Genesis.”)
At the end of the first issue it is revealed by Orion via Scott’s Mother Box that Darkseid has killed Highfather–who is both Scott’s father and the leader of New Genesis–and that there is a resistance aiming to take down Darkseid. A look of a terror and knowing in drawn on to Scott’s face, and–despite the reoccurring sentence “I can escape anything” that is seen throughout the issue–Scott reluctantly tells Barda that something is wrong. He feels his thoughts are not his own.
Barda begins to “teach” him the same way Orion attempted earlier in the issue by continually knocking him to the ground and demanding he stand, telling him that there is no time for this and that as the son of the Highfather, he may be the only one to save them. As he appears to regain his wits, there is a panel of Barda and Scott holding hands. “Everything is fine. Good,” says Barda.
According to Dr. Harrison these shifting details of the narrative are key. “The ongoing struggle felt very much like the real situations that many patients face,” he said. “Barda made attempts to be supportive, but her upbringing limited her emotional response. She is both a wife and a warrior, and in dire situations one has to ask themselves which is more important. There is a lot to be said for how someone else’s repression can affect the empathy of the patient as well.”
One of the final panels tells us, “And so the act goes on.” As a reader with depression, I–and I’m sure many others–cannot possibly relate more. Despite the hurt and the pain, Scott must pick himself up and do the duty that he has grown into doing. The worlds don’t stop turning just because of his pain. He puts on his mask, he holds the hand of his fierce and patient loved one, and he stands to face another battle.
We have only seen one issue of Tom King and Mitch Gerad’s Mister Miracle so far, but in that one issue there has been more light shed upon realistic and significant hardships that everyday people face than most comic books–even ones without superheroes–have managed in years. Not only is this important for expanding and diversifying comic characters in the future on regarding mental illness, but more importantly it lets readers know that no matter how hard things are and how low you are feeling, there is a superhero that feels just as human as you.
Mental health does not discriminate. It doesn’t care who you are or what you do. We are expected to put on a mask, and this book helps people know that taking it off before it’s too late is important. Mister Miracle has left many of us who struggle with depression or have considered suicidal thoughts feeling like we are not alone, even in our fantasies. We can’t escape everything, but we have to push forward. We have to remain standing.