(CW: References to and depictions of violence, abuse, and suicide)
(Mild spoilers for Mister Miracle #1 – #9)
We as a culture consume a lot of violent media – something reflected by the way in which films including the content of a sexual nature are often given far higher age ratings than those which ‘just’ have violence. This centering of violence is especially relevant for cape comics, where the norm is two superhuman beings beating each-other senseless for our entertainment. So since we’re immersed in all this violence, we become easily desensitized to it, the creators of Mister Miracle (King, Gerads, and Cowles) know this and use it to their advantage to help connect us to the characters.
Mister Miracle is a violent book. This is apparent right from issue 1, with the shockingly brutal and raw opening double page spread of Scott Free (Mister Miracle) unconscious against a bathroom wall after having tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists, with blood pooling out before our eyes. Yet even here, the desensitization has begun, with Cowles’ classic and bold lettering conveying some narration which feels completely dissonant to the tragic scene happening before our eyes. Throughout the series, the violence doesn’t let up at all, with brutal violence happening in some capacity in every single issue – rendered in all its gory glory by Mitch Gerads’ art. Yet the more you see it – the less it affects you. Unless you actually stop and think about it, you end up just noting this violence as normal or even casual. In any other book this would be a massive failure on the part of the creators, but in this book, it’s strategically and effectively used.
This book centres around Scott Free and Big Barda, two characters raised in incredibly violent, traumatic and abusive conditions in the pits of Apokolips. Violence was part and parcel of their lives on Apokolips, so brutal physical violence is almost mundane to them by this point, so they treat violence in an almost casual way. An example of this is in issue #5, where they laugh as they play the harrowing screams of the damned of Apokolips being violently tortured or issue #6 where they’re killing guards and running from traps, but instead of the focus being on that – it lies on the rather mundane conversation they’re having about reorganising their home. The way in which this physical violence becomes routine and sidelined then allows for a focus on what affects these characters (and us the reader) more – the psychological trauma undergone by these characters.
The placing of psychological trauma above the physical in this book is perhaps best shown in issue #9, where both Barda and Free are on Apokolips for treaty negotiations. This is an issue which opens with burning bodies and everywhere that they turn, there’s an effigy or a still-living but heavily tortured prisoner of war (some serving as the legs for the very table which they negotiate on). All of this is accentuated by the way in which Gerads manages to make violence and its results look incredibly messy – pulling absolutely no punches. Yet by this point in the series, there’s been so much violence that it means almost nothing to us as readers as we continue, instead of paying attention to the almost dull treaty negotiations. At another point in the issue, Scott Free is looking into the ‘Mirror of Goodness’, a mirror used by Granny Goodness to present a warped and imperfect version of whoever looked into it. Whilst the gruesome scenes of the book are given a panel or two at best, Scott looking at himself in the mirror and crying, then Barda joining him is given a whole silent and incredibly moving 9-panel page. The pause in the already slow (though not in a bad way) issue to focus on this specific moment, brings to light how in the face of all the violence and pain, it’s the psychological trauma that hurts the most. This dichotomy is shown every time Barda and Free talk about their time under Granny Goodness, where the undermining of their confidence and the continuing echoes of the trauma are dwelled upon whereas the violent elements are laughed off. This dichotomy is epitomized later in the issue where Barda takes a swim in the Firelakes, which as their names suggest – burn like flames. Yet this physical pain is treated as a mild irritation and is instead sidelined to talk about how negotiations are going.
Ultimately, the way in which we as readers are continually and deliberately desensitized to physical pain and violence puts us into the mindset of these deeply troubled characters and makes the psychological trauma hit even harder.