Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Frightlings Vs Flightrings

plok has put out a call for articles about Darkseid as portrayed by Jack Kirby. On the one hand, I can't say anything useful about Kirby's Darkseid because I've never read any of that stuff. On the other, I did happen to be musing recently about Paul Levitz's portrayal of Darkseid. Originally I was going to type that up into a post about the Great Darkness Saga, but now I think I'll cannibalize the parts of it that were about Darkseid and use it for this. (The other stuff in my original article didn't seem like it was going to be any good anyway.)

In Teenagers from the Future, the esteemed Tim Callahan said that the GDS was about the young versus the old and the future versus the past. I had never thought of it that way before, and I'm not sure I think of it that way now. It's definitely a theory that holds water; Darkseid is not only old but he draws his power from other old sources (ancient magical artifacts, draining the power from immortal villains like Mordru and the Time Trapper, his Servants are clones of heroes of long ago); the Legion are not only young but turn to other youthful sources for help throughout the story (note that Mon-El, the one Legionnaire who's old, is knocked out of the action partway through the story).

I once said that what the GDS was really about was fear. I don't think that anymore, but I do think I had a point. What I think now is that Darkseid and the Legion never really understood each other.

The Legion (as distinct from their mystical allies, the White Witch and Highfather) spend most of the story pursuing Darkseid and the Servants on a strictly tactical level. In each fight, the Legionnaires make a little more progress and learn a little more about how to battle the Servants, manage to anticipate the Servants' next moves a couple of times, and force several direct confrontations with Darkseid before defeating him in the final encounter. They never have more than a vague idea about who Darkseid really is or what he's trying to do; they just do what they always do and it works.

It's not that the Legion isn't cognizant of any more abstract* ways of approaching the problem. They do all the research they can about what might be going on and what they need to understand about it. But that's not what worked best for them. What worked best for them were things like Element Lad's tricks with lead and gold kryptonite, or the ability of Legionnaires like Wildfire and Sun Boy and Superboy to learn about their opponents and their capabilities.

Meanwhile, Darkseid and the Servants weren't learning. The Servants were just some stupid clones who, powerful as they were, still weren't good for much more than running errands. (I mean, come on; they’re scared of Shadow Lass because her superpower is somewhat similar to Darkseid’s even though they know damn well that it’s not the same thing.) And Darkseid doesn't think there is anything for him to learn. He had to have the existence of Daxam pointed out to him, he never really knew what he was dealing with in the Legion, and he didn't even have a good idea of what his own power limits were. (If you're scoring at home, this makes Darkseid a Bonehead.)

The Legion beats Darkseid by treating him as just another one of the many menaces they've fought before. They figured that he's out to conquer the galaxy or something, and it was their job to stop him. What the Legion didn't understand is that Darkseid wasn't interested in conquest, strictly speaking; he was interested in domination through fear. He says as much in his famous concluding speech: the instant you gaze at the darkness in fear, your time has come. Step one: Darkseid makes you, not just afraid, but fundamentally afraid. Step two: Darkseid pwns you. But he can't do step two without step one. And the Legionnaires simply don't understand this at all.

For corroboration, look at all the chances Darkseid had to kill a Legionnaire or two. If he wanted, he could have polished off at least a third of the team by hand. But he didn't take any of these opportunities. Instead, he tried to scare them. Every time.

See, when I said that I thought the story was about fear, I didn't realize that I was looking at it from Darkseid's point of view. But the Legionnaires are our viewpoint characters, and to them it's not about fear at all. It's about a problem to be solved. Sure, there are times when Darkseid does scare the Legion: Brainy, when he figures out who's behind all this; Supergirl, just before the Legion rescues her; Invisible Kid in the Boom Tube. But that's just the momentary fear you get when you're in danger; Darkseid never manages to make them deep down afraid. They're just regular afraid, because Darkseid's a dangerous guy. What the hey; Jacques gets scared so badly his hair turns white, but he’s back on the job in a matter of pages. Darkseid's act just doesn't play in the 30th century.

Which brings us to the ending. At one point I found the ending anticlimactic: the Legion shows up to fight Darkseid, and just before they do, he says stop! I just lost! You have shattered the dream of a god! And I said, but nothing happened! Now I get it, though: Darkseid lost because he couldn't make the Legion afraid. He tried for five issues, and they just wouldn't cave. He poured more and more of his divine attention into making them afraid, and got exactly nowhere (although Izaya's intervention was crucial), and then he had no power left for anything else.

If you look at it like that, it makes Darkseid look pretty pathetic. First of all, it takes the teeth out of that final warning. The instant they gaze at it in fear? They already passed that test. Furthermore, his curse, which I had been expecting at the time to be extensive and ruinous, turned out to be just Darkseid kidnapping Garridan, turning him into Validus, letting Saturn Girl find out about it, changing him back when she asks him to, and laughing when she drops by the temple to say thanks. What was that all about? Darkseid achieved nothing with all that, and it's hard to imagine what he thought he was going to achieve. Maybe it was supposed to be ineffable, but if that's the case, then, to borrow a joke from Douglas Adams, eff it.


* So to speak.

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