I’m firmly of the opinion that Darkseid is one of the greatest fictional characters of the twentieth century and in all honesty possibly Jack Kirby’s greatest creation. However, he’s also one of the most misunderstood and misused characters created by The King. Everyone can get behind the basic premise of the dude in the flag who throws a shield, societal outsiders fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them and even the big red dinosaur and his caveman best friend, but Darkseid represents something more complex than a lot of Kirby’s more bombastic work.
Unfortunately, Darkseid’s true purpose and characterisation has been waylaid by a more simple and, to be quite frank, boring interpretation of the character. The Fourth World was Jack Kirby’s true magnum opus and while it told stories of futuristic gods living out cosmic mythologies, he used those stories for his ultimate treatise on the human condition. That’s been lost along the way, so I wanted to write a little bit about what makes Darkseid so great as a character and where certain creators go wrong in trying to write him.
I think the biggest problem with how Darkseid is perceived within the world of superhero comics is his size. Superheroes are inherently macho power fantasies at their core; I’m not saying that all superhero stories are macho power fantasies, but I think we can agree that a traditional superhero story is about a good guy wailing on a bad guy until the day is saved. Darkseid is a big, imposing dude who towers over everyone around him and has a body that looks like it was literally carved out of stone. There is an inherent appeal that when you see Darkseid, you might think “I want to see Superman punch him!” but that’s not what Darkseid is for.
Yes, Darkseid is a big dude but his size belies the area where he’s really a threat; Darkseid is a schemer and a plotter. In mainstream superhero comics terms, if a villain is bigger than the hero then they’re a physical threat while if they’re smaller than the hero, they’re an intellectual threat but Darkseid is neither. Darkseid is an existential threat. If you want to see Superman wail on a big alien dude, he can fight Mongul or Doomsday; hell, Darkseid has a son in Kalibak who serves that exact purpose.
That brings us on to another key aspect of Darkseid… delegation. Darkseid has the universe as his canvas so he just doesn’t have time to get his hands dirty, he has minions for that. Kalibak, Grayven, Granny Goodness, Grail, The Female Furies, Kanto, Virman Vundabar, Desaad, Glorious Godfrey; there are plenty of characters who work directly for Darkseid that you can put in the way of the hero before they even get close to Darkseid. Hell, he has an army of slave soldiers literally called Justifiers who carry out his will on his behalf.
Where creators go wrong with Darkseid is when they present him as a physical roadblock standing in the way of the heroes. The worst portrayals of Darkseid are ones that cast him in a role similar to Thanos when they couldn’t be more different as characters. Thanos works well as a final boss for the Marvel Universe but Darkseid is operating at a whole other level and the threat that he poses to the DC Universe is one that can’t punch into submission. There’s a lot of great stuff in The New 52 but I knew it was doomed when the first arc of the flagship title was a generic alien invasion storyline that featured Darkseid as its figurehead.
I don’t want to get too hung up on what Darkseid shouldn’t do when what really excites me is what Darkseid should be doing. What Darkseid should be doing is showing up in the hero’s house, chilling on their couch. I know, this has become a meme in and of itself because the image is so ridiculous but it’s right there in one of his earliest on-panel appearances; Orion opens a door and Darkseid is already in the room, just hanging out on the couch like he owns the place.
Because he does.
Darkseid is a god in a metaphysical sense, meaning he transcends the physical form we’re familiar with; he’s referred to as The God of All Evil and The Hole In Things for a reason. Darkseid’s influence is already strong within humanity and the couch thing represents exactly that… he is already in your home. Darkseid represents the evil that is already among us in our everyday lives; he’s the neighbour you don’t know is a racist or the cop who goes home and beats his wife. He’s the very worst of us and he can come and go as he pleases.
In my opinion, the only creators to really get Darkseid outside of Kirby are Walt Simonson, Grant Morrison and Tom King. Mister Miracle by Tom King, Mitch Gerads and Clayton Cowles is a great starting point to really get what Kirby was going for with the character and uses the omnipresent existential threat of Darkseid to represent Scott Free’s depression and anxiety. It uses the Morrisonian mantra of “Darkseid Is.” to get across the sense of all-encompassing doom that often comes with those illnesses, interspersing its story with stark black panels that remind you the reader, as well as Scott, that no matter what you do, Darkseid is.
That doesn’t mean you can’t ever have Darkseid throw down with someone, but you need to earn it. There’s a prophecy that Orion will one day kill Darkseid baked into mythology of The Fourth World and while Kirby told his own version of that story in The Hunger Dogs, I’d argue that Walt Simonson’s version of this fight in Orion #5 tops it in terms of spectacle and bombast. I’m also rather partial to the Superman v Darkseid fight in Justice League Unlimited’s final episode, which is the culmination of years of this version of Superman holding back in fights before finally cutting loose to just beat the absolute piss out of Darkseid.
In order to tell an effective Darkseid story, creators need to cut themselves loose from the constraints of typical superhero telling and aim a little bit higher with the threats that their characters face. If you want your big strong man to beat up another big strong man, there’s plenty of throwaway villains that can serve this purpose but if you want your big strong man to face the unstoppable onslaught of all hate and evil in the universe, then Darkseid is absolutely the right call.