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Happy 95th Birthday, Jack Kirby

You hear it all the time: “Jack Kirby is the King of Comics.” “Jack ‘King’ Kirby.” “Marvel’s House of Ideas is The House That Jack Built.” Most people, comics critics and the like, usually leave it there. The idea that Jack Kirby is one of the most important people of the comics industry is taken for granted, most times. People, myself included, just know that he’s the real deal, a big deal, and we expect you to keep up. That’s unfair, to put it lightly, and doesn’t do anything to show you exactly why this guy was a trailblazer for so long. So, today, on the occasion of the King’s birthday, I want to take a minute and talk with you about Darkseid and morality. But, keep in mind that this is just a taste of Kirby. I’m scratching the surface. If it strikes your fancy, go deeper.

If you read DC Comics, the odds are good that you know who Darkseid is. (You might even say his name Dark-seed, depending on how old you are.) In his last major appearance, in Geoff Johns & Jim Lee’s Justice League #6, where he was essentially a basic supervillain bent on world domination. Prior to that, he was a mid-boss in Grant Morrison and company’s Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers. Darkseid was working to reincarnate in a new form, murder Superman, and completely ruin the Earth. Before that, he appeared in Countdown, a series that could be charitably described as “less than successful on basically every level.” And before all that, Darkseid was your generic Honorable Villain, meaning that he’d murder millions if the whim struck, but he’d also let our heroes go for sloppily designed reasons.

Darkseid is, these days, the prototypical Ultimate Evil villain, a symbol of the annihilation that awaits if caped figures do not do their job. But he wasn’t always. No, in the beginning, Darkseid was much, much simpler. He didn’t want to destroy the world. He wanted to bring order to it.

Back in 1971, when DC proclaimed “KIRBY IS HERE!” and gave him a small line of books to create, Darkseid wanted the Anti-Life Equation. It wasn’t a death ray or some type of time travel machine. It wasn’t even a weapon, if we’re being perfectly honest here. It is, at best, a tool, a way for Darkseid to get what he wants. Kirby’s heroes made sure that he didn’t get it.

The Anti-Life Equation is defined by Metron, one of Kirby’s characters and a wise man who wavers between good and evil, at least as we understand it, as “the outside control of all living thought.” It’s not just a mind control tool. It is the ultimate mind control tool. It is the knowledge necessary to destroy free will. It is forbidden knowledge.

If Darkseid gained control of the Anti-Life Equation, the results would be devastating. Free will would evaporate in the blink of an eye, and the beings who were left would have no will of their own. No will but Darkseid’s. The Anti-Life Equation is about blind, unquestioning obedience. It’s about following orders, and it’s about “your wish is my command” being the only truth. No individuality, no arguments, no personality. No sentient thought. Just a series of automatons whose will has been submerged and replaced by Darkseid’s.

The one thing that’s rarely addressed in the comics since Kirby left, as near as I can tell, is the Life Equation. The Life Equation is simple. Highfather, leader of the New Gods, says that “[t]he right of choice is ours! That is the Life Equation!”

Simple, ain’t it? But quite clever. Instead of doing a tired good vs evil story, a story that is as old as time, Kirby zig-zags. He sets up the dichotomy as freedom vs slavery. Freedom is depicted as messy and beautiful, while slavery is flat and empty, void of detail. While good vs evil conflicts tend to suffer the older you get and the more you realize that everyone’s the good guy in their own story, slavery vs freedom is a simple debate.

Later depictions of Darkseid always tend toward the mustache-twirling supervillain, especially in his interactions with Superman. They’ve got nothing on the original portrayal, which featured Darkseid making small children cry by simply being near them, and unseen and numerous plots to corrupt individual people, instead of the entire world. Kirby ran through various aspects of American life, from evangelists to hippie culture, and examined it through the lens of freedom vs slavery.

I think it’s pretty amazing, personally. There’s something about re-defining evil as blind obedience that’s tremendous. The specter of World War II, Adolf Hitler, and the Holocaust loom large over Kirby’s work with the New Gods. Richard Nixon, too, influenced Kirby’s new take on morality. It’s easy to draw a line from the themes in Kirby’s comics to the actions of Nazis during World War II. Darkseid’s actions would turn everyone into an extension of his will, paving over everything even remotely resembling culture.

But it’s the Life Equation that gets me the most. Kirby redefined good not as a moral issue, but one of freedom. The freedom to love, laugh, share, create, and more. There’s the potential for harm, and many of the New Gods struggle with that potential, but just having that potential is vital. It needs to be there. Being able to choose to do wrong is greater than being forced to do good. Free will is everything. The Life Equation is everything beautiful, warts and all.

This is one character, from one series, who was searching for one thing, but Kirby loaded his comics with such a depth of craft and character that you can dig for ages before hitting bottom. Kirby’s comics are deep, with plenty of fat to chew on. They weren’t always fit for a superheroic narrative, either. No one gets to punch Darkseid and run a victory lap. If you beat Darkseid, you didn’t do anything but delay him. He’s going to find that Equation, and then you are going to be wiped out of existence.

You must constantly be vigilant against what Darkseid implicitly represents, which is mental and emotional bondage. That’s good advice for life, too, isn’t it? Think about what it means that the greatest hero of Kirby’s New Gods era was Mister Miracle, an escape artist. Freedom over everything.

Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917. He died on February 6, 1994. He would have been 95 this year. He began drawing comics sometime in 1936, which means he spent nearly sixty years drawing comics. He created or co-created characters like Darkseid, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Mister Miracle, and he left an indelible stamp on dozens more. Considering how much DC and Marvel both owe to Kirby, whether from utilizing characters that he created or co-created in everything from comics to movies to underwear or from simply using the visual language of superheroes that he relentlessly pioneered, it’s more than fair to say that Kirby is one of the greatest and most influential artists out there. In fact, that’s an understatement.

To not know his work, to actively ignore what he brought to the medium, is a mistake. Study Kirby. He’s a legend for a reason. His storytelling, action scenes, plotting, and more are all more than worthy of your attention. Take a look around his catalog and I bet you’ll find something to love.

Jack Kirby’s granddaughter Jillian is spearheading the Kirby4Heroes initiative, and encouraging fans who have been touched by his work to donate to the Hero Initiative in Jack Kirby’s name. The Hero Initiative provides financial support to comics creators in need, helping them to do everything from get well when they’re sick and not covered by insurance or make sure that they have a home to go back to when times are tough. Comics is built on the shoulders of giants, but comics, as an industry, has not been great at supporting those heroes during their life. The Hero Initiative is an attempt to do better. It’s an important charity, and if you feel led to donate, make sure you put Kirby4Heroes in the special instructions field, so that the Hero Initiative knows exactly why you’re donating.

Thanks for your work on Captain America & The Falcon and the New Gods, Jack. Happy birthday.

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