Jack Kirby is among the greats in comic book culture, not for his creations really, but for his signature tone that set the stage for what would become modern comicbooking. His antiquated writing style, outlandish plots, and odd character ensembles drive home the message that comics are meant to be fun. Grant Morrison chases this theme in many of his comics, such as All-Star Superman, Seven Soldiers of Victory, and even in The Invisibles, despite its bleak conspiracy overtones. Kirby’s signature enthusiasm, his enthrallment in the works before him, speaks to the honesty exhibited towards the craft. At the same time, he, like Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel , were the sons of Jewish immigrants who sought new opportunities in America. They were hard workers, the blue-collar types. Kirby knew well the world he had entered. It was the land where good guys finished last. He understood the rules of nature, that the strong survive. The Comics Journal featured an interview with Kirby shortly before his death. I recommend it to anyone that is a fan of “the King” to get acquainted with his candid recounting of his youth.
Many characters were created by Jack, but also given new life through his signature style. Among them, one has endured: Lord Darkseid.
Characters like Darkseid are not common in comicbooking. Usually a villain is meant to function as a negative to the hero. Superman represents everything that Man can be. Lex Luthor represents everything that Man is, and how we corrupt the great gifts before us and use them for our personal gain. Batman and the Joker share a similar relationship, squaring off against one another as aspects of moral order. Batman epitomizes the social contract, wherein people must fall in line, or be punished. The Joker, on the contrary, flaunts the social contract and operates outside of socially accepted norms. This is more or less the story that comic book culture lays before us. Comic books are about the struggles between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness. Yet Darkseid transcends this motif, which is why he is, arguably, the greatest comic book villain of all-time.
I have this beef with Thanos, that cheap-ass imitation-Darkseid that Marvel created to counteract the popularity of Kirby’s New Gods universe. Leave it to a man, jaded by Marvel, to take his A-game back to his old competitor and give them some gold. Leave it to Marvel to come up with Thanos, who completely misses the mark, making Darkseid all the more unique.
Originally, Kirby had designed Darkseid to reflect the fascism and totalitarian hold Hitler had over Nazi Germany. Being Jewish, Kirby likely had a deeper, spiritual resonance with the Holocaust, especially when he was exposed to the aftermath of the Nazi program during the Nuremberg Trials. He likely saw many of the televised convicts saying, “but I was only following orders,” which inspired a handful of psychological studies on human obedience and role playing; namely, the Stanford Prison Experiment and the “Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures.” Darkseid’s hold over Apokolips was indeed a fascist-styled tyranny. He subjugated the masses, brainwashed them, and used them as fodder to build his empire. Hence, when we see Kirby demonstrating the severity of Darkseid’s work upon the vox populi, they cry, “Die for Darkseid.” Rebels like Himon are proof enough that not all of Darkseid’s unruly masses have been adequately swayed by his extensive reprogramming regimen. Still, what makes Darkseid such a groundbreaking character is that he’s actually not a villain.
Kirby’s universe, consisting of the planetary opposition between New Genesis and Apokolips, presents a generic dualistic framework; but what do morals represent in the DC Universe? Evolutionary biology posits the development of morality as a product of altruism, that within a population of creatures, those exhibiting a general awareness for their community’s wellbeing are more likely to survive. World religions, still operating under premodern schemas, suggest that moral imperatives are executed on behalf of the divine. Both of the warring planets strike at one another, motivated by past hurts and grievances, but it is New Genesis, helmed by the wise and honorable Izaya, known as Highfather, that aims to keep Darkseid in check and incapable of discovering the fabled “Anti-life Equation.” From the start, Kirby’s Fourth World creations have mimicked the latter of these two moral constructions.
I have previously argued for Darkseid’s amorality, so my opinions on the matter are already out. Since then, I have settled on the conclusion that Darkseid is not really a villain. He is a god, pursuing his ends and putting the created order on trial for crimes against his will. When I met Neil Gaiman after a college Q&A forum, I was able to ask him about Darkseid and his role in comic book morality. His response, from what I remember, was something along the lines of, “Darkseid is Hitler, but with nobility. He plays by the rules, but he makes them.” Darkseid operates on a moral compass beyond our understanding, which is confounding when you think about it. Everything that he does is wholly justified within his own moral schema. It’s hard to blame him, really. He’s only doing what he was made to do: remake the universe in his own image.
Darkseid constitutes the kind of men Kirby was acquainted with in his youth. The slum lords, made famous in Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, were men (perhaps women?) with agendas. They operated on morals dictated by their business mindset. The cost of rent, the living conditions, and the quality of life they allowed for their tenants was in line with their standards. To them, that standard was appropriate. To call them “evil” or “unethical” is an inaccurate assessment. They were gods within the worlds they created. So how could Darkseid be evil? How could he even qualify as a villain, as the unopposed, objective moral majority on Apokolips? As a sentient god, Darkseid holds absolute sway over his order and his standard is the standard that the masses follow. His law is unequivocally followed. Any dissent is squashed immediately, without incident, and the people live on. We could, as outside observers, marvel at the ongoing atrocity and spectacle, decry the truncation of freedom, and yearn for Superman to arrive in glory with fists of steel ready to break Darkseid’s mug like a casaba melon, but that would make us cultural imperialists. (Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come depicts an aging Orion as pessimistic and embittered that the people of Apokolips reject his freedom, still operating by the laws of his father, which truncate personal exhibitions of free will.) Darkseid alone is the only character in the DCU that can boast a 100% success rate. He was, and is, always the victor in every conflict because he, by existing, defines morality on Apokolips.
Without Kirby, we would not have Darkseid. Leave it to the definitive voice in comics’ history to create a monster that even transcends the moral framework of their own antagonists and rivals. Even Scott Free, Big Barda, and Himon rely on Darkseid as an anchor of sorts. Without him, they would have no purpose or definition within the DCU. Their existence and how they choose to interact with the worlds around them is tainted with the touch of Darkseid. In fact, a theme pursued by both Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman involves the extent by which Darkseid has harmed Scott Free, both intellectually and psychologically. The final panel of Seven Soldiers of Victory illustrates clearly with messianic overtones that Scott Free must be “born again” in order to escape the effect Darkseid has over him. In the somber autumn light, underneath the epitaph that reads “Here lies Mister Miracle, super escape artist: Free at last,” Scott Free sunders the shackles of Death. The moment only has power because of who Darkseid is, and from what clutches Scott Free has escaped. Batman also gains his notoriety in the Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne narrative arc because he is the only man alive to have ever escaped the Omega Sanction (at least within the DCAU). Not least of these is Superman who, among a handful of others in the DCU, is remarkable just for being able to stand toe-to-toe against the might of Darkseid for even a few minutes. Superman’s power and fortitude is clarified by his struggle to defeat Darkseid and the extent to which he must go to do it.
Since their arrival in the DCU, Kirby’s New Gods have become subject to fringe events. Final Crisis, one of the last great storylines before the New 52 reboot, served as the greatest epoch in recent years where Superman confronts Darkseid’s ultimate scheme to reform the universe. It’s strange to imagine that a character of such depth and sophistication was likely inspired by common men in Kirby’s youth and lifetime. It’s proof that anyone can be Darkseid. All it takes is influence and leverage. Despite what the Justice League can do, Darkseid has it in spades. He has the whole cosmos under his boot, and there is nothing we can do about it, all thanks to the brilliance of Jack Kirby.