There’s a page in Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle #7 that might just be my single favorite moment in comic book history. Scott Free and Big Barda, two refugees from Apokolips who fell in love on that hellish world of evil gods, are preparing to return to the planet that they both spent their lives attempting to escape. They’ve been lured back by their former torturer, Granny Goodness, with the promise of finally achieving the freedom they were denied for so long, assuming they can survive whatever trap she’s cooked up for them. There’s a moment where Scott tells Barda that she doesn’t have to come with him. He’s the one that Granny actually wants, and there’s no reason for her to risk her life for his.
“No deal, Mister Miracle,” she replies. “We’ll go down that old shark’s mouth together — then I’ll beat her to death from the inside!”
Of all the moments Kirby created, in a career that spanned six decades of defining the superhero genre and the medium of comic books, that’s the one that resonates with me the most. And it’s a perfect example of why his work has resonated so widely and for so long.
As much of a joke as it is to define true love as the willingness to beat a shark to death, I genuinely believe that it’s the most romantic moment in superhero comics. When my wife and I got married, that’s the panel that we had stitched onto the cover of our guestbook, and drawn in chalk on the wall of the venue, because it means so much to us as a couple. It’s a beautiful, cosmically operatic literalization of the idea at the core of Barda and Scott’s romance, the thing that makes them one of comics’ most enduring couples. It’s this idea of loving someone so much that you’re willing to face down any obstacle that’s trying to keep you apart, through the darkest depths, and still fight your way out of it to be together, presented in a way that’s ridiculously over-the-top and, somehow, incredibly easy for any reader to relate to.
That ride-or-die togetherness can apply to anything that’s affecting the person you love. For Scott and Barda, the shark they’re facing is a supervillain who runs a torture orphanage on a distant alien world covered with fire pits, but for you, maybe it’s student loan payments or a bad relationship with your parents.
And at the end of the day, that’s Kirby’s trademark. It’s the thing that makes Mister Miracle — and the larger Fourth World saga, made up of stories spread over titles like Mister Miracle, New Gods, The Forever People, and, of course, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen — work so well. As much as the focus on the page might fall on the cosmic thunder of alien gods and over-the-top battles, the themes that Kirby weaves through his stories are always inescapably, undeniably human.
To say that the Fourth World saga feels like a religious text is understating things quite a bit. It’s told in the language of superhero comics — partly because that’s the language that Kirby helped to create, and partly because, you know, Superman shows up pretty frequently and there’s an issue of Jimmy Olsen that takes place entirely on a miniature planet populated with tiny little vampires and werewolves — but the further Kirby goes into the cosmology of his universe, the more it feels like a set of parables dealing with morality and the nature of good and evil.
No one character embodies that more than Scott Free. In “The Pact,” from New Gods #7, it’s revealed that he’s the son of Highfather, leader of New Genesis, traded to Apokolips for Orion, the son of Darkseid, leader of the evil gods of Apokolips, “where holocaust is a household word,” in an effort to end the war between the two planets. And if the metaphor behind those names sounds obvious, it’s because it is. Kirby wasn’t a creator who seemed to put much stock in subtlety. But while there are good reasons to look at Scott as a Christ figure, that only covers about half of what Kirby does with him.
Told mostly in flashback, “The Pact” focuses on Highfather’s rejection of war as a concept, and on how he taught Orion that there was a better way than the hatred that defined the planet of his birth. Mister Miracle’s story, as played out in the pages of his own comic, gets more interesting. Rather than raising Highfather’s child as his own, Darkseid consigns him to Granny’s orphanage in an effort to break his spirit.
The thing is, Mister Miracle turns out to be a hero, and so does Orion. That’s the trick of the Fourth World, that good and evil aren’t presented as equal opposites. Orion, the child of evil, is raised by good people and turns out good. Scott Free — the derisive name that Granny gives him, and that ends up being fulfilled when he escapes Apokolips for Earth — is raised by people who hate him, on a planet that exists for the sole purpose of crushing the goodness within him, and he still manages to escape. Good can always persist, and Evil can always be shown a better way. It’s the choice that matters, not the circumstance.
But while their origins are tied so closely together in “The Pact,” Mister Miracle and Orion are rarely put together outside of it. That makes sense considering that they were both headlining their own books, with Orion as the de facto main character of New Gods. While Orion was mostly contrasted with the generically heroic Lightray, Mister Miracle’s story was tied to a character who was infinitely better: Big Barda, his superheroic partner and wife.
Unlike Scott, Barda doesn’t have a connection to New Genesis. She’s a product of Apokolips, of the same indoctrination that’s meant to stamp out the goodness in Scott Free and turn the son of Highfather into another mindless drone in Darkseid’s army. It’s even arguable that Barda is further along the track than he is. While Scott’s in desperate need of someone to remind him that there’s still good in a world as dark as Apokolips, Barda seems more like she’s never even had the chance to consider it in the first place — when they meet as teenagers, she’s in training to be the leader of Darkseid’s elite Female Furies.
That’s how they first encounter each other, and it’s the start of a relationship that Mitch Gerads, artist of DC’s current Mister Miracle comic alongside writer Tom King, calls “wonderfully pure.”
“Through impossible odds these two people found each other, fell in love, got married, and really come at everything as a true team. That can barely be said about any other relationship in comics. It’s so refreshing, as a married man myself, to do a story about a successful marriage of support and not the usual comics fare of two people brooding over their inability to date.”
On a personal scale, that love story is what completes those two characters. Scott’s desire for freedom is something that readers can relate to, but with Barda, Kirby shows that the way to find it is by embracing love. Without Barda’s help, he doesn’t escape from Apokolips, and without his example and the love that binds them together, Barda never follows, trading her role as an indestructible soldier for a suburban home life that’s only occasionally punctuated by joining up with the Justice League of America.
On the cosmic scale, though, they embody the message of the entire saga. In Kirby’s world, the enemies arrayed against humanity are incredibly seductive. It’s why they have names like “Granny Goodness,” a sadist who takes pleasure in abusing her charges while reminding them that it’s all out of love, or “Glorious Godfrey,” a charismatic cult leader who assures you that the hatred you feel for others around you can always be justified. It’s why Darkseid is named Darkseid — not just because he has the craggy countenance of the dark side of the moon, but because he exploits the dark side that’s within us, the impulses towards hatred and violence that we all need to be made aware of and keep in check.
It’s possible, in Kirby’s cosmology, to stand against that, to resist and keep a piece of yourself free even when the world around you is doing everything it can to grind you down. The only way to defeat it, however, is through weaponizing love against the worst parts of ourselves. That’s what makes it possible to truly defeat Darkseid, and the dark side in ourselves, but it’s also what gives the people around you the strength to do the same.
That’s the ultimate message of Kirby’s Fourth World. The darkness is within us, but the solution to it is in there too, and we can find it together. That’s what makes Mister Miracle and Big Barda resonant and relevant forty years after they were first created. The sharks are still out there, and sometimes we’re going to be eaten, but as long as we stick together, we can beat them to death from the inside.
Chris Sims is the former senior writer of the Eisner Award-Winning ComicsAlliance. He has written comics for Marvel Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, and Oni Press.