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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Anonymous plok said...

Interesting, Matthew...rightly or wrongly, I remember GDS as the first occasion on which Darkseid was brought into the DCU proper as a truly interreacting and comprehended time-and-space-bound character, subordinate to the big Universe concept...and not as Byrne used him in Legends and Superman, as a discordant symbolic element in a big Universe story, if that makes any sense. Well, in neither case does Darkseid really look like Kirby's Darkseid, neither does he have the goals Kirby set for him (I mean, Darkseid arguing with the Phantom Stranger over humanity's inherent goodness, really!), and yet...

Your view of the GDS Darkseid as essentially impotent fascinates me, and I wonder if Levitz and Giffen intended it to recall the end of Crisis: "Superman...I Will Not Rest..." or whatever that all was...

(Uhm...GDS did come after Crisis, didn't it?)

...But more to the point, I wonder if it isn't somewhat in line with Kirby himself. Darkseid as the god of futility, at the end: all he can think of is to make a planet into his own gravestone. And that's his big trick.

I dunno; gonna need a consult from RAB on this one. You know he reads every single blog, right?

4:26 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

No, GDS comes before Crisis and before Byrne joined DC. I think it was the first time that Darkseid appeared in the mainstream DCU outside the context of the Fourth World stuff. There was a JLA/JSA crossover before that where a bunch of heroes teamed up with Orion, Oberon, Mr. Miracle and Barda, where somebody was trying to, I don't know, reenergize Darkseid or something, but that was like visiting Earth-3 or something. In the GDS, Darkseid came into the Legion's 30th century; don't think he had done that before.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

The Fourth World was revived in 1976-7, when Gerry Conway wrote "Return of the New Gods" and Steve Englehart wrote the revived "Mister Miracle." Funny thing is, the 4W had only been dormant since 1974, when the last title, "Mister Miracle," stopped.

That 76-77 revival flopped, and the 4W went dormant for a few more years, aside from the odd appearance of Mister Miracle in "DC Comics Presents" or something.

Darkseid himself was folded into the DCU proper for the first time around 1977 -- he was the mastermind of a plot in the "Secret Society of Super-Villains" title.

(The JLA/JSA crossover Matthew mentions, which was about 1980 or so, holds a special place in my heart. JLA #184, the middle issue of the arc, was probably my favorite single comic as a little boy, though I had no idea what the hell was happening in it.)

10:02 AM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

Also, the Great Darkness Saga was published in 1982; Crisis was 1985.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

Pedantry! It's my bag!

10:04 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. I hadn't known about that SSV story; does it add anything to our discussion here?

10:11 AM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

Not really. If I remember right, the SSSV cast Darkseid as an alien crimelord, just another "Big Bad Dude Who Hides in Shadows," a generic master-planner villain, rather than the "Tiger-Force at the Heart of All Creation" that Kirby imagined, or the God of Crushing Fear in GDS.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

I should amend that--the "tiger-force" line from Kirby was meant to show Darkseid's megalomania. The Kirby books imply strongly that Darkseid wasn't nearly the force of nature he thought he was or pretended to be.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Consistent with Levitz's portrayal, then.

The SSSV story still has to be better than how Darkseid came across in the last season of Super Friends, where he was doing stuff like (if I remember right) robbing banks and trying to marry Wonder Woman.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Oh, Harvey, I should mention: I think I had that same middle issue of the JLA/JSA thing when I was a kid. I didn't know what was going on either, but to me it was that appearance that made Mr. Miracle such a great character. (And I remember the thing you wrote about him on your blog way back when.) Batman and the Huntress are waiting for Mr. Miracle, who's late. Should they be worried? No, because, after all, he is Mr. Miracle.

Well, if they're impressed, then I'm impressed!

12:01 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I had been reading Legion (and DC) since around 1975, so I was familiar with the DC Universe. I had read a few of the Conway/Newton "New Gods" and Englehart/Rogers "Mr. Miracle" stories so I was roughly familiar with them too.

But when the Great Darkness started, I knew who Darkseid was but I never would have thought it was him as the Big Bad. I remember seeing the big reveal in the penultimate issue, I didn't recognize him until we saw the side view of his head, and then the full-face splash at the end. It was possibly the biggest "Holy shit!" moment of my comics-reading life to that point.

Matthew, I agree with your "The Legion beats Darkseid by treating him as just another one of the many menaces they've fought before" statement. Even on re-reading it, that's how it feels to me. Even with a planetful of Daxamites, he couldn't scare and dominate the Legion like he did to everyone else in the 4th World stories.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Which is why the Legion is great!

7:18 PM  
Blogger Marc Burkhardt said...

I viewed Kirby's Darkseid as cosmic Mussolini, an adherent of the "Third Position" who undermines individualism for the "purity" of a militaristic - and separatist - state.

Levitz's God Of Fear was an interesting take, however, and one that nicely contrasted with the Legion's sci-fi optimism. It's probably my favorite Darkseid outside of Kirby's ... with Morrison's and Simonson's take running a bit behind.

Everyone else though treats him as a generic Big Bad, and there's enough of those already.

1:39 AM  
Blogger Marc Burkhardt said...

And now that I think of it, Kirby's Darkseid would make a great opponent for Ditko's Mr. A!

Darkseid is vs. A is A!

1:47 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I wonder how such a comic book would work. I'm trying to work it out in my head and I can't get it to run.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Jim Drew said...

Of course, Levitz and Giffen did such an archetypal Darkseid -- different than Kirby's, but "valid" it is way -- that it is what presumably led to everyone and their brother wanting to stamp Darkseid in their own way, too.

Levitz' version was certainly more engaging than Byrne's used in Legends a few years later, but then we slide slipperily down into Giffen's comment about Darkseid being a bong and everyone at DC editorial passing him around.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Yeah, but that's true of just about any character. Look at all the different takes there have been on the Question over the years.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

How many different variations of the Vic Sage Question are you talking about? There's the series written by Denny O'Neil, and um, what else?

11:27 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

There's the original Ditko take. There's the Denny O'Neil take. There's the JLU take. And now the Renee Montoya character is a different approach to the same... character essence, I guess.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Darrell Lawrence said...

What's your take on the other Darksied story... the one from the reboot Legion?

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Magnus1964 said...

I didn't care for the Reboot GDS. It didn't work as a post-Crisis story, and trying to shoehorn the never-was-Superboy Clark Kent into the middle really rubbed me the wrong way. It reminded me of everything the Superman office removed from LSH by fiat, even after cooperating on the "pocket universe" story.

By the time "Darkness Rising" was published, Darkseid was a terribly overused villain (another thing I blame John Byrne for), and I hated the way he turned up with alarming regularity all over the DCU. Darkseid can never be allowed to win, since his goal is "anti-life," but if he just shows up to lose over and over again, then there's no reason for readers to take his lumpy @$$ seriously. Given this clear truth, writers simply should not go there. The way Levitz used Darkseid was as a God far past his prime, trying to regain the power he lost. Not only did that make sense to me, but GDS also was published before Darkseid became the over-exposed drag he'd be by the mid-90s.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

No, it wasn't Abnett and Lanning's finest hour. I wonder if they had some kind of mandate to redo old stories that way; you can match a lot of their stuff up to earlier storylines if you try. But this one didn't really work.

9:43 PM  

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