The Darkseid Equation

Darkseid Is

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 …

Anti-LifeFrom Forever People #3

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.”

From Forever People #4

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.

From Forever People #5

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.

From Forever People #4

(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.

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.

The Trickster

(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.

5 thoughts on “The Darkseid Equation

  1. Or perhaps: to overthrow sapience, in favour of mere sentience?But no, that ain't quite right…Bloody beautiful stuff, Marc; and so exact on so many things. Kirby's "messiness" — yes, it was messy, it was beyond superheroic concepts though it used superheroic dress…or, ha, at least the distinctively Kirby version of superheroic dress, itself a pushing at traditional limitations since 1965 or so. I read that Bruce Timm quote, and as much as I like Timm I think that's a damn whitewash: "I don't think even Jack knew what he intended, so we just made Darkseid into Mongul with different colouration." NO. You knew damn well what he intended, but to put it in a cartoon would've been impossible, political, it would've been like giving kids a bunch of acid and then having people scream at them. The conflict between Superman and Darkseid isn't about force but about what conflicted and complex human beings are supposed to do with the harsh diamond-purity of modern concepts, modern realities. Darkseid is the true Zen Master of Fascism…every word out of his mouth is an awful fascist koan: he's a teacher, who gives a pop quiz every day to a broken and battered student body.Ooooh, this is the third time I've tried to write this comment, and the third time I've gone into Darkseid-speak while doing it!A triumph for you, Marc!I think I need to go, and then come back: I want a comment-thread at least twenty deep on this one, it's a darn good one, and it was worth the wait!

  2. This was a brilliant article. Perhaps "tiger-force" refers indirectly to the poem Tyger, Tyger. I mean, Darkseid does possess a "fearful symmetry" in that he, like a tiger is only fulfilling his role in the natural order. Which is what makes him so angry. Which is what he strains against. His own ego can't deal with the idea that he's just a player on the big stage of reality. Maybe his own feelings of being a fatalistic pawn in some cosmic game of good vs. evil has driven him to strive to be more than just that, but just like Milton's Satan, he never sees that EVERYTHING HE DOES WAS PART OF THE PLAN. Maybe?I would also like to say that the Timm version of Darkseid was not on a parr with Kirby's vision… but it was SO much better than the Darkseid we got on Superfriends.

  3. And here I thought Come Together was all about Tim Leary! ;-DWell done, sir. There isn't a word in the above post I would alter or amend. If I'd been able to write a post for plok's endeavor, the whole point of it would have been that Darkseid — the real Darkseid, Kirby's Darkseid, there is no other — is the ultimate coward. In some ways, think of Dick Cheney, promoting torture and intimidation and constant surveillance as the only way he personally can be safe in a world full of nothing but enemies. Kirby would have loathed Cheney; he came from the Nixon White House, after all. Nixon himself was a major source for Darkseid. Think of Nixon constantly refining his enemies list, mentally rehearsing all those old grudges and unsettled scores, knowing they're out get you if you don't get them first… you've got to shut them down completely, stop them from even thinking against you.Also, I agree with Aaron: I always thought of the Blake reference as well. And also also, I agree with plok: this is a triumph, Marc.

  4. Thanks for the kind words everyone. I spent about a week re-reading old Forever People comics and another week or two drafting the post … so I'm glad everyone enjoyed the content.Although, I still can't believe I spent so much time thinking about frickin' Darkseid! Oh well, considering the hours of the day I spend thinking about Batman …:)

  5. Great great post.I think Darkseid has been ovrexposed a bit lately so it was wonderful to take look back at his roots.I think Morrison has a good grasp of the character as evidenced in both Final Crisis and JLA 'Rock of Ages'.

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