Darkseid!! (Authority Post 1)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF

Darkseid! from Ambush Bug 2

Darkseid! from Ambush Bug 2

Nearly a month ago, now, pillock asked me to write a post about Darkseid. This has been more difficult than I at first thought it would.

Duncan, 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 about Jack Kirby’s Darkseid.

(This was partly in response to someone on Geoff Klock’s blog making the claim that the TV cartoon version of Darkseid is better than Kirby’s, and Klock reacting to this as if it were a defensible position in some way. I suspect the reason I was chosen to write this is that this made me start posting on Twitter with a #geoffklocksays hashtag, rather cruelly saying things like “Oasis are better than the Beatles” and “Steve Martin is the definitive Inspector Clouseau”)

And both those posts were about my idea of Darkseid, which actually comes from two sources – Kirby and Grant Morrison. And trying to do the Kirby-only post has led to what looks like being a second series of interlinked posts like the Hyperposts from a month or so ago…

Because the problem for me is that even though I love Kirby’s Darkseid, I came to the character in the late 1980s, This is post-Star Wars.

Star Wars was, of course, hugely influenced by Kirby – in fact everything in it that isn’t from Flash Gordon, Dune or the Lensmen books is from a Kirby comic. In particular, Darth Vader is a bad Darkseid rip-off dressed up as Doctor Doom.

Which meant that when Star Wars became The Biggest Thing In History and singlehandedly destroyed both the medium of cinema and the genre of science fiction forever, and DC Comics decided they wanted some of that – well, they had their very own Darth Vader, didn’t they?

Actually, they had two, because Jim Starlin created Mongul for that very purpose – even giving him his own Death Star, Warworld – but everyone knew that Starlin really wanted to be doing the real Darkseid, not his own copy of a copy.

So very soon we had a ton of bad space opera, by second-rate talents like Starlin or John Byrne, fitting Kirby’s characters – which had been conceived as a self-contained thing, with little connection to the DC Universe (other than the Superman tie-ins forced on Kirby by editorial), and were part of a personal artistic vision – into a massive ‘continuity’ (and we all know what I think about those).

These ‘respectful’ travesties – created by people who thought that it was actually paying tribute to possibly the greatest imaginative artist of all time to create weak, watered-down copies of his most personal work, rather than ever having a single original idea themselves – were, of course, hugely popular, for much the same reasons that the Rolling Stones were more popular than Howlin’ Wolf. Darkseid became absolutely ubiquitous for a time, to the point where his ‘surprise’ appearances were parodied by Keith Giffen, having the splash panel at the end of every issue of the first Ambush Bug miniseries being a ‘surprise reveal’ of Darkseid.

So my first exposure to the character of Darkseid came through London Editions’ UK newsstand Superman title (which reprinted the US comics, starting with Byrne’s run, at magazine size, and usually had either JLI or Green Lantern as backups). But Darkseid, even when being beaten by Byrne’s superyuppie, or being ridiculed in the Giffen/DeMatteis League, still had some of the power of the original creation – to the point where, years before I ever saw any of Jack Kirby’s actual work, I knew he was a comic creator I admired because he’d created Darkseid and Etrigan and Kamandi and a handful of other characters who still had power in inferior creators’ hands.

(The JLI creators weren’t ‘inferior’ in a pejorative sense – they’re better than 95% of mainstream comic people – but everyone’s inferior to Kirby when it comes to superhero comics).

So my view of Kirby’s work is – pretty much necessarily – through the lens of these later creators. I can’t judge HIS Darkseid – the only REAL Darkseid – except in the light of later bastardisations. I think that Morrison’s take on Darkseid is the only one since Kirby himself to actually bear any relation to the character Kirby created – that everything Morrison makes explicit was already implicitly there, and that he’s the only comic creator (with the possible exception of Rick Veitch) who really GETS Kirby’s work, but to go back to an earlier analogy, if Kirby is Howlin’ Wolf, and Byrne is the Rolling Stones, then Morrison is Captain Beefheart. I can see a clear line between Wolf and Beefheart – the roots of the latter clearly visible in the former – but does that make Beefheart covering ‘Evil’ any more ‘authentic’ than the Rolling Stones doing Little Red Rooster?

I’d argue yes, but I’d have great difficulty expressing why that should be.

More on Wednesday.

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12 Responses to Darkseid!! (Authority Post 1)

  1. The first Rick Veitch-penned Swamp Thing does have an, imo, excellent Darkseid and Metron – an interstitial in my own personal continuity of the New Gods (I’ve only read Kirby-Veitch-Morrison*, and in reverse order from ‘Rock of Ages’ on,) but still probably a favourite. I vastly prefer the chalkboard-wielding Italo-fascist posture as he pens up theorems of
    Anti-Life there to the actual, quite boring (although Anti-Life is, I suspect, quite boring) completed equation as seen in Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle and Final Crisis.

    I presume you neglect to hold up Thanos as evidence Starlin really, really wanted to do Darkseid because you hold it self-evident? I know I do, without being massively conversant in Starlin’s work.

    *JLU is a thoroughly enjoyable cartoon, but Darkseid there is – he’s just a, to use the by now very tiresome but accrate phrase, ‘Big Bad’.

  2. My complaint with the Fourth World reviews over at Remarkable is that many of the criticisms toward the story center around the wish that New Gods, et al were more like normal comics … i.e. Darkseid act like a typical Big Bad, Mass invasion of Metropolis like the cartoon, etc. etc.

    Kirby’s stuff was never like other comics. That’s why he’s remembered as an innovator.

  3. Prankster says:

    Hmmm…so let’s see, you managed to badmouth Star Wars, the Rolling Stones, Jim Starlin, the JLU cartoon, and the Giffen/DeMatteis JLI (sorta) in the same post? While calling Kirby the greatest imaginative artist of all time? Impressive. What exactly is your plan for not being eaten alive by trolls?

  4. pillock says:

    God but that post of mean reads so sloppy! So I’m extra-gratified it’s had the desired effect nonetheless.

    My old Phil. of Sci. teacher used to hand out hypercompressed essay questions all the time, and allot us 2,000 words with which to answer them. The genius of this was that it always looked like such an easy job at first, but then it swiftly became very demanding — because the questions were extremely straightforward, but the topics they addressed were extremely complex, and so there was nothing you could do but unpack them fully if you wanted to get to a place where you could cram some kind of legitimate answer into a mere 2,000 words. Which, I should add, always came back to you with about eight hundred words of his notes attached, so don’t think he was being a jerk: he was committed to answering his questions too.


    So Darkseid looks like an easy question, but he isn’t — and the other Fourth World characters aren’t easy questions either, but Darkseid’s the one that seems to offer the greatest phony simplicity, precisely because he’s the Big Bad. Comics fans love villains with illusory depth, villains with their “own twisted code of honour” and all that rot…the villain as a species of easy, comforting understanding both for the hero and for the reader. But of course there’s nothing worse in all the world than a villain with his own twisted code of honour…heck, there’s hardly anything as bad as a person with his own twisted code of honour!…and so we overlook a lot, we are cushioned from a lot, when we accept these villainous conventions.

    So basically…it was Andrew’s politics that made me ask him to write something on Darkseid, because to me it seems natural to suggest that the themes and characters of the Fourth World were deeply sourced in Kirby’s experience of WWII, and I believe the reason Kirby didn’t make Darkseid just to be a Big Bad, is because he didn’t want him to be very comforting at all. Doctor Doom is comforting, even the Red Skull is comforting — not that either of these characters were supposed to be temperate in their villainy, but Darkseid threatens the reader (or more accurately the reader’s reading), and not just the hero. I mean, you certainly could find comfort in Darkseid if you wished to! But I think you’d be saying something about yourself if you did, eh?

    That’s all pretty complicated, though!

    And of course Andrew’s surprised me by taking it all in a completely different — but 100% related — direction, so I think…

    Yeah. It’s going well. Woo-hoo!

  5. pillock says:

    “…That post of mine reads so sloppy” of course, SHEESH.

  6. pillock says:

    As to authenticity…heck, I’m reading the Darwyn Cooke Spirit right now, so I dunno if my opinion ought to count for much!

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  8. Chris Arndt says:

    If the Superman tie-ins were forced then what are you implying regarding Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen?

    It was the fourth New Gods cycle title and the series where Darkseid’s first appearance lay.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m not ‘implying’ anything – it’s common knowledge that Kirby didn’t want to do Jimmy Olsen at all…

      • Chris Arndt says:

        Common knowledge told me the contrary, that he wanted to write whatever was the lowest selling title, the title that was least likely to have writers being dismissed in his his stead, and to restore that to a degree of sales-viability.

        • Don Alsafi says:

          You’re both right:

          “Jack, being a Depression-era kid, hated the idea of anyone being fired. So he asked for a book that was currently without a regular writer and artist.”


          “So Jack, mustering as much enthusiasm as he could for a comic he didn’t especially want to do, took over Jimmy Olsen.”


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