Ask Chris #239: Can Darkseid Really Be The Ultimate Bad Guy Of The DC Universe?
Q: Do you think Darkseid deserves to be considered the ultimate bad guy of the DC Universe? What are his achievements? -- @Lionel_Leal
A: I don't want to turn this into "Ask Chris About Jack Kirby's Fourth World" --- as opposed to my usual strategy of spending an entire week talking about the moral significance of Batman's utility belt or whatever --- but over the last few years, Darkseid has been a more prominent fixture of the DC Universe than any other time in his forty-year history. I think it probably started with how he was treated on Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League, but just in the past three years we've seen him as the villain that launched the New 52, and the villain who's probably going to show up in a movie about the Justice League at some point. So with all due respect, LL, it's not really a matter of "Darkseid deserves."
That said, I'll admit that Darkseid occasionally has a hard time fitting in with the rest of the universe, which is pretty weird when you consider that he's a Superman villain, at least in theory. Those two characters in particular have had more than a few knock-down, drag-out fights over the years, but it very rarely works as well as it seems like it should, and I think that has a lot to do with a fundamental disconnect between how he works as a character and how superhero stories are usually built.
The thing about the Fourth World stuff --- and a lot of Kirby comics, when you really get right down to it --- is that it's simultaneously extremely metaphorical and ridiculously literal, and nobody embodies that more than Darkseid. I mean, his name is Darkseid and he literally represents the dark side of humanity, all the selfishness and hatred and willful ignorance that we all have inside us to overcome. He can never really be defeated because dealing with that stuff is never something you finish. It's always in there, your own personal Darkseid, trying to get you to give in. There's not a lot of subtlety in that, Kirby says right in the name who he is and what he does, and that's before you get to the part where he's an eight foot-tall rock monster from space in a sleeveless mini dress. At that point, subtlety is out the window. Or at least, you'd think it would be.
In practice, Darkseid is all about subtlety, exactly because he's drawing on those impulses that we all wish we didn't have. Darkseid, for all his grand posturing, doesn't always arrive with the crashing thunder of a Boom Tube and an army of parademons to conquer the planet; he sometimes shows up in your house, sitting in your favorite chair, a calm and casual reminder that there's nowhere you can go to get away from the evil that he represents, because it's already inside you. Seriously, it's kind of his signature move.
And when he does send an army, it's not always a race of alien conquerors from the far-off planet of Apokolips showing up, toppling monuments and blowing things up. Sometimes it's the Justifiers, ordinary human beings who have allowed themselves to be taken over by their own base, petty hatreds and fears because they've found something that allows them to justify --- there's that lack of metaphor again --- what they're doing. Despite its name, the Anti-Life Equation, the McGuffin that he's been looking for since 1971, is not about killing anyone. It's about taking away their ability to choose anything other than to listen to that dark side that's within us all, a choice that, at one point or another, we've all made already.
That's how Darkseid works, and that's what makes him so compelling and genuinely frightening --- because it feels so real. Kirby was, after all, someone who had seen his share of evil in the real world, and with Darkseid, he figured out how to take those ideas and condense them into a single person. He's the "tiger force," the part of us that's horrifying because we know it's in there somewhere.
On paper, that makes him the perfect foil for Superman. Ask anybody who loves him, and they'll tell you that Superman's greatest power isn't flight or heat vision, it's the ability to inspire good in others through his example. It's why scenes like the message carved into the moon in "The Last Days of Superman" or the talk with Regan in its modern-age equivalent are so emotionally resonant. They're about how Superman, and by extension how superheroes as a whole, can inspire us to be better. We might not have the luxury of being fictional characters who can always get it right, but they're always there to lead by example. If Darkseid's the worst of us, then Superman's the best of us, and when you see them next to each other, it makes it easy to pick a side.
It doesn't have to stop with Superman, either. If Darkseid represents giving into your darker impulses, Batman is about channeling them into doing something good and not giving up. If Darkseid is about how easy it is to fool yourself into believing a lie, Wonder Woman's about fighting for the truth even when it's difficult. If Darkseid's about the evil that's within us all and how we always have to stay on guard against it, a constant struggle that in the end is only rewarded by itself, then Aquaman is... Well, he's still just Aquaman, I guess, but you get the idea.
It's all right there, a ready-made conflict that pits these two metaphorical ideals, the same metaphorical ideals that, in its purest form, is at the heart of not just these particular characters, but superheroes as a genre. The only problem is that just literally presenting two opposing ideologies together, even in the form of brightly colored representatives, is kind of boring.
I've written about this before and I don't know if it's actually true, but I heard once that Kirby's original plan for Darkseid was that at the climactic moment of the Fourth World saga, he'd be in a battle against Superman or Orion where, instead of the all-powerful evil force that we knew him as, he'd be revealed to be weak, cowardly and, in the most literal sense of the word, pathetic. I love the idea, especially in how it expands on the idea that comes through in "The Pact," the foundation of the Fourth World, that capital-G Good is always stronger than Capital-E Evil, but I can also see why he ultimately opted against it.
Superhero comics are, after all, action-adventure stories, with heroes defined by challenges that they strive to overcome. When you finally get to that challenge and it turns out that it's not actually that challenging at all, well, that can be a little disappointing for the reader.
With all due respect to Plato, a dialogue about opposing philosophies is kind of a snooze. When the people involved can do stuff like shoot laser beams out of their eyes, you kind of want to see them do that instead of just talking out their ideas.
And all of that leaves Darkseid in a very dfficult place as a character. He's built to philosophically oppose the ideals of the heroes, and he has the power to stand against them in combat, but the more directly he interacts with them, the less effective he is as a metaphor. In other words, we want to see evil get punched, but Darkseid shouldn't be the kind of villain that just goes away if you punch him hard enough. He's more insidious than that --- the "cosmic" level that he operates on doesn't just mean that he's a conqueror from space, it means that he's in everything.
But that doesn't mean that he can't be treated as the ultimate villain of the DC Universe. Just that you have to go about it in a slightly different way.
When you have these extremely powerful villains, the trick is in working them into stories in ways that build them without requiring direct conflict. I remember someone writing about Superman --- I want to say it was Roger Stern, but it might have been Joe Kelly or Jeph Loeb talking about their run circa 1999 --- who said that everything that went wrong in Metropolis, every problem that Superman had to solve or fight or protect people from, should ultimately be traced back to Lex Luthor. Everything. That idea has fascinated me, largely because I've seen it done so well on a smaller scale in stories like Born Again, where Daredevil's life goes haywire and he doesn't know why until he realizes that it's all the Kingpin.
I don't necessarily think that's the way Darkseid has to work, and I don't think that it ever really has to go to that extreme, but I do think there's merit to the idea of having someone working behind the scenes, manipulating events to suit their own sinister goals, long before they ever take the stage themselves.
That's actually a role that Darkseid is uniquely well-suited for, because he's surrounded by henchmen and soldiers that can take those more traditional confrontations in his place. You want someone to manipulate people? Glorious Godfrey and Granny Goodness are there to shape impressionable minds. You want horrific violence inflicted in the innocent? Desaad. You want efficient deaths that further sinister aims? Kanto's right there in his goofy RenFaire hat. Heck, if you need somebody for Superman to punch while debating philosophy, I'm pretty sure Kalibak's not busy. And that's just the characters that are directly tied to Darkseid --- Paul Cornell's idea of linking Luthor and Darkseid together from very early in Luthor's career was a very interesting one, mainly because of how modular it was. It could be ignored or referenced to suit however you wanted to write Luthor.
You get all of those in place, and once Darkseid shows up, he seems like the Big Deal that he is. Then you just have to figure out how to have the final conflict without cheapening all of it.
That's the real trouble, I think. Obviously, Darkseid has to lose, but you can't just have Superman (or the rest of the Justice League) punch him until he goes away, because that's every bit as unsatisfying as the philosophical debate - maybe even moreso. You have to find a way to preserve the idea that, while Good can win, Darkseid and the evil he represents are never going to be gone forever.
Which is why his appearances on Superman: The Animated Series are so good.
"Apokolips... Now!" is maybe one of the best Darkseid stories ever, across all media, and the best thing about it is that Rich Fogel and Bruce Timm figured out how to write the perfect ending for Darkseid. When it all comes down to it, with Superman himself captured and powerless, the people of Metropolis rise up. Dan Turpin, leading the mob (and looking suspiciously like Jack Kirby himself), gets vaporized and when Superman flips out, he beats the living heck out of Darkseid. It's not even a challenge, he thrashes him and beats him down, and Darkseid's only reaction is to say, in that great rumbling Michael Ironside voice, that if he knew one death would've hurt Superman this much, "I would have killed a thousand."
In that moment, they give you the key to Darkseid: that's what he's after. Not conquest, not victory, but causing pain to those around him. That's his brand of Evil. That's how he wins, even in defeat, and when he's sent packing back to Apokolips, the things he did are still in place.
So yeah, I think that when it all clicks into place, Darkseid can be the perfect villain for the DC Universe. Even the fact that he sometimes doesn't fit in can work in his favor, because the heroes themselves are fragmented from being created at different times by different people and only brought together after the fact. Everything is a bit unsteady, which is a place for great drama.