Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Degrees Of Freedom – Mister Miracle, Darkseid, and Morrison Doing Kirby (or Why Kirby Matters) (Hyperpost 8)

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on September 9, 2009

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

Cover of Mr Miracle (volume 1) 3 - The Paranoid Pill

Cover of Mr Miracle (volume 1) 3 - The Paranoid Pill

Some of you might have noticed that I occasionally talk about a comic writer called Grant Morrison – I may have mentioned him once or twice on here.

The reason I talk about Morrison so much is that, more than any other writer I know of, he manages to deal with a whole ton of issues that I’m interested in (the nature of consciousness and creation, trying to live freely in an unfree world, levels of reality, and basically see every other post I’ve made on this blog…) and unlike someone like Robert Anton Wilson (a very similar writer in terms of themes) he makes these themes integral parts of his fiction, rather than just having characters state those views.

But Morrison definitely has antecedents in the comics world. Most obvious is Alan Moore – and entire books could be written on the complicated influence Moore has had over Morrison’s work even while Morrison tries to distance himself from that influence – but equally important is Jack Kirby,

If you’re not a comics person, you probably don’t know the name Jack Kirby, but you definitely know his work. He created or co-created The Fantastic Four, Etrigan the Demon, Captain America, Darkseid, Doctor Doom, The Challengers Of The Unknown, Iron Man, Kamandi, The Incredible Hulk, Devil Dinosaur, The X-Men, Thor, the Silver Surfer and hundreds of other characters. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kirby was one of the twenty or so most influential creative artists of the twentieth century (off the top of my head the others would be The Beatles, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, James Joyce, Siegel & Shuster, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Will Eisner, Stravinsky, Picasso, Borges… he’s up there with those in terms of all-pervading cultural influence).

Kirby was primarily a visual artist, who did his best-known work in collaboration with writers (early on with Joe Simon, later with Stan Lee), but while he often didn’t write the dialogue for his stories, he was a great *concept* creator (and for most of his work with Lee in particular, he did at least half the job that one would normally think of as writing). But his best work, and the one that influences Morrison most, is his early-1970s Fourth World group of series.

The Fourth World stories were four separate comic series – New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle and Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen, which between them told the (sadly never-finished due to cancellations) story of a Manichean conflict between two sets of gods – the good gods of New Genesis against the evil ones of Apokolips – and in particular the story of the conflict between Darkseid, evil ruler of Apokolips, and his two sons – his biological son Orion, brought up on New Genesis, and his adopted son Scott “Mister Miracle” Free, who was born on New Genesis. (George Lucas pinched much of the relationship between Orion and Darkseid for Star Wars – Darth Vader is Darkseid wearing Doctor Doom’s mask, but nowhere near as scary as either).

Trying to read stuff into Kirby’s work is a complicated proposition – Kirby was simultaneously almost primitivist in his work and deeply thoughtful about it. He often slaps the reader around the face with obvious metaphors and characters named things like Verman Vundabar (a militaristic man with a monocle) or Lashina (she likes whips…) as if subtext was something that he’d heard about, but decided was for other people.

On the other hand, he created these works at a fever pitch – three pages or more a day, many days, and put chunks of his own life into the stories (Mister Miracle’s wife, Big Barda, being based on Kirby’s own wife). And his works have a power and weight behind them that nothing else from that time does. And Kirby was far more aware of the potential to do multi-layered symbolic stories than one might thing – two of his other projects of around this time were a graphic novel adaptation of 2001 and an (unpublished) Prisoner comic series.

So often, when we look at Kirby’s best work, we find an obvious – metaphor is too kind a word – thing that’s obviously, blatantly, representative of another thing. But underneath that, we find seemingly simplistic goodies-vs-baddies stories carrying a ton of allegorical weight.

Take the conflict between Darkseid and Mister Miracle. Darkseid is a tyrant who is so scared of death – so scared of non-existence, that he has to take control over everything. He wants to remake the universe in his image. As I put it in an earlier post:

Darkseid has looked at the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thought “fuck that”. Or, more likely, “Bother not Darkseid with your ‘entropy’ and your ‘universal laws’ Obeisance to laws, made by man or nature, is the morality of the slave. The morality of Darkseid is conquest. Darkseid is all.”

That was inspired by a line from one of Grant Morrison’s better takes on the Fourth World characters, Rock Of Ages – “I will remake the entire universe in the image of my soul, Desaad… and when at last I turn to look upon the eternal desolation I have wrought… I will see Darkseid, as in a mirror… and know what fear is.”

Darkseid needs to control the universe, to reshape it, to remove choice from everyone else. Which means removing knowledge and options from everyone else. In various stories Morrison has Darkseid producing slaves with their faces covered by hands in echo of the three wise monkeys, or has characters burning books saying (in echo of the apocryphal quote attributed to Caliph Umar) “If it agrees with Darkseid it is redundant, if it disagrees with Darkseid it is heresy”.

Darkseid’s quest for the anti-life equation is all part of this – he’s after a way to get complete control, and control *is* the opposite of life – life grows and evolves by exploiting new niches, by changing, by being uncontrolled. What Darkseid really wants is to do what I described in my response to Millennium – to (HORRIBLE MIXED METAPHOR ALERT!!!) prune away all the branches of the web of time (END OF MIXED METAPHOR), making Darkseid the only one who can make decisions for the entire universe.

Except we know it doesn’t work like that, don’t we?

Scott Free – Mister Miracle – is an escapologist. When weighted against someone who wants to control the entire universe, that says a lot. Escapology is all about escaping from control – about taking a situation which someone else has tried to control utterly, where they’ve tried to restrict all your options, so you can’t move *at all*, and exploiting whatever tiny leeway they’ve given you to get yourself complete freedom. It’s about using the one option you have to get all your options back.

In this light, the fact that Mister Miracle is often *not* using conventional escapology, but is often cheating using technology, is not a downside to the character, it merely makes him a hacker (in this sense ), which is in many ways analogous to escapology – much of ‘hacker culture’ has been about turning tools of repression around to gain increased freedom (for example the GNU GPL, which uses copyright law to ensure that no-one can stop anyone copying GNU software). There is a mathematical connection I won’t go into here between the second law of thermodynamics (which says everything decays), Ashby’s Law (which says you can never completely control a system) and information theory (which is why information-processing devices often wrongly get referred to as cybernetic), so it’s appropriate that he’d use computers like Motherbox to help evade restrictions both literal and metaphorical.

No matter how tight Darkseid’s fist grows, Mister Miracle can slip through it. Anti-life can never beat the Human Factor.

8 Responses

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  1. Andrew Ducker said, on September 10, 2009 at 7:12 am

    No matter how tight Darkseid’s fist grows, Mister Miracle can slip through it. Anti-life can never beat the Human Factor.
    A point Morrison makes in The Invisibles (King Mob saying that having all the cameras in the world won’t help, because the security guards will use the monitors to play Doom), RAW makes in Illuminatus (the symbol of the closed fist, used when Hagbard gives up control of the submarine) and Lucas makes in Star Wars (“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”).

    • Andrew Hickey said, on September 10, 2009 at 2:28 pm

      Exactly.

  2. Prankster said, on September 10, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Very good! A lot of people who have attempted to write for him don’t seem to get why Darkseid is so compelling, but I’d say you nailed it. I tend to think of Darkseid as the ultimate solipsist, as the “mirror” quote above makes pretty explicit. He wants to be alone in a universe that serves his will and his alone. And even more interestingly, when he comes as close as he’ll ever get to achieving his goals–in The Hunger Dogs–he seems to find himself sorrowful, miserable, and haunted. Irrelevant in the world he built for himself.

    The other aspect of Darkseid I find interesting–or maybe it’s not Darkseid so much as the forces of Apokolips in general–is the theme of false individuality being used to subvert true freedom. The various Apokoliptians are assigned names, costumes, powers, and seemingly even personalities by Granny Goodness in her orphanage, and they cling to these identities no matter how ridiculous they are. Granny, unlike Darkseid, seems to have a sense of humour about this stuff, but she’s still serving his will by transforming people into puppets of Darkseid–but instead of simply making them into faceless, brainwashed footsoldiers (that’s Glorious Godfrey’s job) she’s doing something more interesting, and something that serves the needs of a comic book story better. She’s taking away their dignity and making a mockery of the concept of “individuality” by seemingly giving them vibrant, distinctive identities. But those identities ultimately are simply tools for Darkseid to use.

    Rather than identifying “individuality” with simplistic non-conformity, Kirby went the other way, to show how distinctiveness can be a trap in and of itself. This makes even someone as ridiculous as Virman Vundabar rather poignant and tragic–he’s an actor in a play whose author (or perhaps “financier”) has nothing but contempt for him. In fact, it gets rather chilling when you realize that even Scott Free had his identity assigned to him by Darkseid–and he was meant to escape. Even the great escape artist and avatar of freedom was serving Darkseid’s purposes. You can cling to the hope that Scott’s Mr. Miracle persona is at least his own, but still…

    In that regard, I always found it interesting that Apokolips, for all its barbed wire and flaming hell-pits, isn’t really a totalitarian regime; in fact, once you’re out of the orphanage, it seems to operate on a principle of near-total anarchy, with constant fighting between the supposed troops. Darkseid doesn’t care; he’s still got them under his control.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on September 10, 2009 at 7:10 pm

      Very, VERY good points…

  3. Andrew Ducker said, on September 10, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Oh – does anyone know how the Fourth World stuff was supposed to finish? I know it was cancelled, but that’s about all…

    • Andrew Hickey said, on September 10, 2009 at 7:12 pm

      There was no plan as such – Kirby was freewheeling with a lot of it, and while he planned that it would *have* an end, he didn’t plan what that would be.
      Years later he ‘finished’ the story with the graphic novel The Hunger Dogs (which was quickly ruled ‘out of continuity’) but very few people think that’s a fitting end, although it’s included in the Fourth World Omnibus volumes…

  4. [...] in the comments there, mentioned my earlier piece, Darkseid Is (and we could also add my post from last month on the Fourth World characters) but that doesn’t quite fit Pillock’s brief – he wanted us to talk specifically [...]

  5. [...] and he always comes down on the side of liberty. I’ve written more about that here, and here, and here, and in great chunks of a couple of my [...]


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