The hive mind that controls classic rock stations around these parts has an inexplicable love for Aerosmith’s cover of Come Together.
Nothing against Boston’s finest, mind you. Like any child of the ’70s, I blew out a good portion of my eardrums rawking to such cocaine-laced classics as Uncle Salty, Last Child and Draw The Line.
But Come Together? Sure, Aerosmith’s version was technically precise and Steven Tyler’s voice mimed the proper tone of menace in all the correct spots. Compared to The Beatles’ original version, however, the Toxic Twins sound positively timid.
(No way in heck could Tyler compete with John Lennon’s audible hard-on for Yoko, perhaps one of the most erotic vocals ever committed to tape.)
Now what does Come Together have to do with Darkseid? More than you might think. Ever since DC pulled the plug on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics, the company has resurrected the King’s characters and concepts time and time again … particularly Darkseid, one of the more intriguing “big bads” in comics history.
In nearly every instance, though, the revamps, ret-cons and reboots have been little more than pale reflections of Kirby’s original brilliance. Just like Aerosmith’s version of Come Together.
A few weeks (months? years??) ago, our good Internet friend plok challenged bloggers to identify the unique characteristics of Kirby’s Darkseid. This good-natured call to arms emanated from a review of Forever People #8 that stated the Darkseid of the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Superman cartoon was “a distillation and modernization of the character which improves upon the original source.”
I’m a big fan of the Batman:TAS/Superman/JLU universe myself, but generally found the episodes that featured Darkseid rather disappointing. Rather than a “distillation and modernization,” I considered Timm and Dini’s interpretation off-target and over-simplified.
I’ll even go as far to argue that neither creator “got” Darkseid.
As evidence, let’s look back at an interview published in The Jack Kirby Collector back in 1998. Discussing his use of the Kirbyverse, Timm stated:
… What does Darkseid want? It’s not just enough for him to conquer the Earth; why does he want to conquer the Earth? We (Timm and Dini) went back to the comics to figure out: what is Darkseid’s motivation and what is the Anti-Life Equation? We decided we couldn’t figure it out ourselves. We got the idea that maybe even Jack didn’t know what he was doing! He had this really cool idea and even if he had something that he meant to do with it in the comics, the series was cancelled before he had a chance to.
To fulfill their story-telling purposes, Timm and Dini settled upon a Darkseid who gained strength from others’ despair. The villain sought to utterly destroy Superman so he could feed off the grieving populace of Earth and increase his power a thousandfold.
Not a bad concept in and of itself, but that character is not so much a distillation as a complete reinterpretation of the figure who originally appeared in the Fourth World comics.
To be honest, I’m not sure I fully “get” Kirby’s Darkseid. The King’s solo comics of the ’70s and early ’80s are “messy,” a phrase I’m not pulling out of the ether to imply that Kirby suffered from unfocused story-telling abilities or sloppy craftsmanship.
Just the opposite, in fact. I think the King knew exactly what he was doing with The Fourth World et al.
But his comics are messy because they don’t look or read the way we’ve been conditioned to accept.
A cosmic despot seeking to smash Earth and its heroes makes sense. We’ve seen that story played out millions of times. But there’s so much more to the Fourth World than that hoary chestnut.
There’s Orion, a character straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy; the conflicted prince heading toward a fatal confrontation decreed by destiny. The Forever People, space hippies who represent the unlimited possibilities of youth. Scott Free, the embodiment of individuality triumphing over the forces of oppression.
And then there’s Darkseid, the self-described “Tiger-Force At The Core Of All Things.”
Which means … what exactly?
The key to that question can be found in Darkseid’s quest to possess the Anti-Life Equation, a concept Timm claimed Kirby never clearly defined.
Perhaps I’ve read the comics incorrectly but it seems the King left a pretty big hint in Forever People #3, which contained a story helpfully entitled “Life Vs. Anti-Life.”
Here are the first two pages …
Clearly it involves the abandonment of free thought and individuality, a notion furthered in this exchange between Darkseid and Desaad taken from Forever People #4, “Kingdom Of The Damned.”
Seems pretty obvious to me but if any questions remain, Forever People #5 delivers the punch-line with the introduction of Sonny Sumo, a human who unknowingly possesses the secret of the Anti-Life Equation.
Anti-Life is the complete and utter destruction of free will, a state that is nothing less than the negation of creation itself.
Like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Darkseid wages war with existence because he refuses to accept himself as one small part of a grander scheme to the universe. His foe isn’t Superman, the Justice League or even the New Gods particularly.
The master of Apokolips is the enemy of all existence. He desires to overthrow sentience and truly become “The Tiger-Force At The Core Of All Things.”
“Darkseid Is,” indeed.
Except, Darkseid “Isn’t.” Not really.
As long as the Anti-Life Equation remains outside his grasp, Darkseid is nothing more than another in a long line of tyrants whose power is outstripped by insane ambitions. Just as Hitler mounted a long, arduous and ultimately unsuccessful war against Russia, the wielder of the “Omega Effect” has established a beachhead on Earth to find the secret he so covets.
(A task that even a megalomaniac like Darkseid admits is difficult.)
Continuing the WWII parallels – let’s remember that Jacob Kurtzberg was a decorated veteran of the “Big One” – Darkseid wages his war on several fronts: straightforward assaults led by Apokolips’ best and brightest (or should that be worst and darkest?) are witnessed in New Gods while stealth and espionage techniques are employed in Jimmy Olsen and, as we’ve already seen, Forever People.
Heck, parallels can even be drawn between New Gods #7’s justly famed “The Pact” and the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” of 1939 that forestalled war between Germany and Russia.
(Mister Miracle deals with the carnage of war and oppression on a more personal level, as Scott Free’s adventures represent the cry of an individual struggling to remain unique – kind of like Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner.)
Let’s also note that Darkseid is portrayed as a “Master Of The Holocaust” who installs torture camps disguised as amusement parks on Earth.
(The scenario also presents Kirby an intriguing opportunity to comment on the common man’s willful ignorance of evil. In a face-to-face confrontation with Darkseid himself, a “Happyland” customer insists the Dark Lord is nothing more than an elaborately costumed carney.)
Some have noted Darkseid’s propensity for deceit and trickery in the Forever People, wondering if it would be more in character for him to simply obliterate all opposition. While such an act may be appropriate for the Bruce Timm or *gak* Jeph Loeb iteration of the character, Kirby’s take was … well .. a cheat and a coward.
Reading over the Fourth World comics, I couldn’t help but notice that for all of Darkseid’s talk of bold action and the nobility of combat he usually resorts to cheating when backed against a wall.
As an example, here’s Darkseid’s confrontation with the powerful Infinity Man from Forever People #3.
The confrontation is over in less than a second because HE ATTACKS THE HERO FROM BEHIND.
The seemingly odd manner Darkseid uses to subdue the Forever People in the eighth issue (rattling the young heroes’ confidence by utilizing the intimidation tactics of a drill sergeant) is another instance where the villain prefers to utilize psychological tactics over one-on-one battle … seemingly out of fear of the New Gods’ powers.
(Although I have issues with Grant Morrison’s treatment of the Fourth World characters in Final Crisis, it was more than appropriate to show Darkseid escaping the pre-destined final showdown with Orion by having his son shot in the back. Who says cheaters never prosper … besides Jack Kirby that is.)
The bits and pieces revealed in the original Kirby comics paint a very different portrait of Darkseid than what we’ve seen the past few decades in far too many DC comics. Because The King was never able to finish the Fourth World saga as he sought fit, it’s unlikely that readers and creators alike will never truly agree how the “real” Darkseid or Orion should be portrayed.
Given the complexity of Kirby’s creations, however, maybe it’s fitting that The Fourth World series never achieved true closure. Like life itself, it’s just too messy to be wrapped up with a nice, pretty bow on top … even if that is the way fan boys and girls prefer their escapist fantasies be presented these days.