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Ask Chris #149: Darkseid Is

Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why, each and every week, we turn to you to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: How awesome is Darkseid as a fixture in a supehero universe? — @TheGonzales

A: So awesome. Largely because he’s the Space Devil who wears a miniskirt and thigh-high boots and does not give a dang.The more I think about Darkseid — which is often — the more I’m convinced that he’s inextricably tied into Superman and how he works, and that’s actually not something I was initially too keen on. I prefer to think of Darkseid first and foremost as a villain for the entire DC Universe, then as the ultimate evil of the Fourth World Saga, and only then, as a distant third, as one of Superman’s enemies. But really, that’s a view of things that’s on some pretty shaky ground right from the start.

For one thing, it’s pretty hard to argue that he’s not a “Superman villain” when his first appearance is in an issue of Jimmy Olsen and he hasn’t really done much for the past 25 years other than show up and throw down with the Last Son of Krypton. Even if he’s an opponent for the entire DC Universe, the entire DC Universe orbits around Superman. He’s the foundation upon which everything else is built, but it’s more than that. It has to do with how they’re constructed, and how they’re set up in direct opposition to each other, even when they’ve got their own stuff going on. When you look at it that way, what it really comes down to is freedom.

I’ve been over this part before, so bear with me while I hit the Cliff Notes version: Superman’s greatest power isn’t that he can throw cars around or fly or shoot lasers out of his eyes, even though that’s pretty awesome. It’s that he always, always uses those abilities to help others because that’s the right thing to do, and in doing so, he inspires us to use our abilities to do the same thing. He’s an inspirational figure, but the key factor there is that it’s a choice, both for him and for us. Superman could very easily make himself king of the world and impose his morality on everyone and just straight up stop us from killing each other — because again, that dude has laser eyes — but he doesn’t. He protects people from harm and stops the things that would hurt them, but at the end of the day, he’s just there to keep us safe. What we do with that safety is up to us, and he trusts that more often than not, we’ll make the right choices.

I go to this one a lot, but there’s no better summary of that idea than the final message he leaves to Earth when he thinks he’s dying in “The Last Days of Superman.” You know, the one he writes on the moon with his eyes?

Darkseid, on the other hand, represents the exact opposite of that idea.

I’ve written before about why I tend to reject the idea that Superman’s a particularly religious figure, even though there are pretty obvious influences from Moses and Jesus mixed up in his story. Even if his role is largely built around inspiring others, he’s still an adventure character first. He’s not built for religion.

The New Gods, on the other hand, are entirely built around religion, which you can tell because their book has the word GODS written on the cover in giant red letters. The thing is, they’re a set of gods created for a universe that already had its defining figure, so while the stories of the New Gods say that Darkseid is opposed by Highfather, the reality is that he’s set up in opposition to the force of good that’s already at the center of everything.

What’s interesting about the New Gods is that they’re very clearly these cosmic beings that are rooted in these big, allegorical battles between Good and Evil, but like a lot of Jack Kirby’s creations, they’re still very human. It’s not really a surprise — that is, after all, what Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and the rest of the Marvel crew brought to the table when they redefined what superhero comics were in the ’60s — but it plays up to how they work. Mr. Miracle, arguably the hero of the Fourth World saga, is entirely driven by the very human, very personal desires for freedom and love. Orion is a pacifist who struggles with his temper, whose only real defeats come from himself. And Darkseid, the embodiment of pure, cosmic evil, expresses that evil in a very human way.

To start with, he’s motivated entirely by greed. There’s a great panel that sums that one up, too, from Superman Adventures #41, the comic where Mark Millar wrote an entire story on every page of a 22-page comic:

By itself, that’s not much — with the exception of the handful that just want to f**k with Batman, almost all villains are motivated by greed in one form or another. It does, however, lead to the more important aspect of his character: That he wants control. And the way he wants to get it is Anti-Life.

The Anti-Life Equation is one of my favorite things that Kirby ever created, because it says so much about the philosophy that forms the foundation of the Fourth World Saga. For Kirby, the opposite of life wasn’t death, it was a lack of choice. It was slavery. it was being controlled. That’s what Scott Free and Big Barda are escaping from, and why Orion’s greatest struggle is to master his own nature — they’re making the choices that Darkseid would take away from them. And just like the ability to be Superman, the secret to the Anti-Life Equation is inside all of us.

In the absence of Anti-Life though, Darkseid still conquers, only in a more subtle way. Just like the way that I’m often bored by stories where Superman just lifts up heavy stuff and punches out robots, stories where Darkseid is played as a big physical threat are usually completely uninteresting — with the notable exception of the huge knock-down, drag-out fight in Walter Simonson’s Orion #6. Instead, I’m fond of the stories where Darkseid manipulates the characters around him, preying on and exploiting their distrust for each other, their fear, their selfishness. He’s not a guy who walks out of a Boom Tube, shouts his own name and starts punching people — except when he is, which is terrible — he’s a guy who pushes people to embrace the dark side of their own personalities. For all of Kirby’s craftsmanship, he never did have much time for subtlety.

That’s why my favorite Darkseid stories are the ones where he shows up, sets something in motion and then leaves people to tear themselves apart, breeding the mistrust and isolation and hate that turn otherwise good people into willing servants of evil. My favorite example, aside from the time he straight up chilled out in Scott Free’s house sipping brandy and casually waiting for him to get home so that he could ruin Scott’s life with a sex tape, is the issue of Forever People where Darkseid builds an amusement park.

The Forever People is easily my least favorite of the Fourth World books, but this one, one of Darkseid’s earliest appearances, hits perfectly. It takes a pretty standard comic book cliché, the amusement park rigged up with deathtraps — which, admittedly, I love every single time it shows up — and twists it a step further into something that’s genuinely creepy. For Darkseid, his park isn’t abandoned or hidden, it’s a thriving business that’s full of customers who stream in to watch the people suffering. Darkseid masks their screams of terror and pain behind the flimsiest illusions of happiness, but in one of the most important and terrifying segments in superhero comics, he lets the children see exactly what’s happening.

Why? Because he knows that the adults (and their “cock and bull” stories) will teach the children to ignore the suffering around them, filtering out the needs of others to focus on themselves. They’ll grow up isolated and alone, not even realizing that they can choose a better way, secure in the knowledge that they can walk right past the horrors of the world and never stop to help — the exact opposite of the inspiration that they’re meant to draw from Superman.

It’s a war of ideals that’s played out on this grand stage of superhero action, with two champions at opposite ends who never even have to raise a hand against each other to be locked in this struggle for the fate of the world. Darkseid is the perfect counter for the idea of a good man who essentially has the powers of an alien god by being an alien god who knows exactly how to prey on the evils of man. He’s out there, somewhere beyond reach, he wants to enslave us all, and the only thing keeping him from doing so isn’t Superman, it’s us. Superman just shows us how to do it.

That’s what makes Darkseid so awesome. That and the miniskirt.

That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to chris@comicsalliance.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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