Saturday, September 15, 2012

SurVILEvor Island: Darkseid

Some might have considered it bad form to involve Firestorm Fans in the exile of Brimstone from SurVILEvor Island by 64% of 25 votes. A counterargument would be that Idol-Head readers could get a poll up to that many votes on their own, so if they wanted to save Brimstone, the opportunity was there. Either way, the defeat of a minion of Apokolips drew the attention of its lord and master, Darkseid.

Darkseid was Jack Kirby's first major creation for DC since his departure from the company, ushering in of the Marvel age of comics, and return to the fold. Arguably, it was also his greatest contribution to DC Comics. The Fourth World Saga was Kirby's stab at creating a new pantheon of gods representing modern times, and while it was not the commercial success everyone involved had hoped for, it was still hugely influential within comics and beyond. It has long been believed that George Lucas took more than a little from the franchise to create his own Star Wars. Darkseid certainly appeared to be a template for Darth Vader-- an ebon deity committed to universal fascism under his rule. Vader was the lieutenant of an emperor though, whereas Darkseid was a chief and less hands-on with regard to actual conflict. The Lord of Apokolips had a whole host of underlings to do his bidding, and saved his strength for occasional clashes with his own son, Orion.

People will point to characters like Thanos and Mongul as knock-offs of Darkseid, lacking the historical perspective to recognize that Darkseid was not himself the villain as we know him today at the time of their creation. Despite being introduced in an issue of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, Jack Kirby intended his New Gods to exist in their own continuum. While he was the main threat in books like Mr. Miracle and Forever People, it was in a role akin to Adolph Hitler in World War II. There was no shortage of evil Nazi masterminds for heroes to struggle against without Hitler being directly involved with a given adventure. If Thanos wanted a Cosmic Cube, he had to go punch his way through a bunch of Avengers. For Mongul to get Warworld, he had to extort the services of Superman by threatening his friends' lives. Darkseid already had Apokolips from the beginning, and guys like Kalibak, Baron Bedlam, the Deep Six, Mantis, Virman Vundabar and Granny Goodness did all the dirty work. Darkseid and the Fourth World didn't really take part in the greater DC Universe until Apokolips hosted one of the annual JLA/JSA team-ups in 1980, followed a couple of years later by the Legion of Super-Heroes' use of Darkseid for the classic story arc "The Great Darkness Saga."

The major turning point came in 1984, when Jack Kirby was brought in to produce a tie-in comic for Kenner's The Super Powers Collection toy line. Kirby used his own Darkseid as the mini-series' overarching villain, which led to the creation of a Darkseid action figure in 1985, and Apokolips figuring heavily into the final years of the long-running Super Friends cartoon show. All this exposure saw Darkseid take center stage in DC's follow-up to the Crisis on Infinite Earths mega-event, Legends. At this point, nearly two decades after his creation, Darkseid became the cosmic comic threat familiar today.

As it happened, the Martian Manhunter was reintroduced to comic book fans after a lengthy absence in 1984, taking part in most of the same mini-series as Darkseid, and being rendered in action figure form as part of the same "wave" assortment. I bought both as a kid, and played out matches between the two before they tangled in comics like Legends and Cosmic Odyssey. The truth is though, Martian Manhunter appeared in such books as a member of the Justice League, Darkseid was there as a villain or uneasy ally, but the two characters rarely had any direct interaction.

It came as some surprise then when Darkseid turned up in 1998's Martian Manhunter #1,000,000, and the book testified that it would be the Alien Atlas who finally defeated the Lord of Apokolips once and for all. Probably not what Jack Kirby had in mind, any more than Samachson and Certa ever intended J'Onzz to become the living planet of Mars. Later, Darkseid served as a catalyst for a Manhunter/JSA team-up. Further yet, Darkseid was meant to inspire J'Onzz's brother Ma'alefa'ak to nearly eradicate the Martian people through plague, while torture by Darkseid's minion DeSaad more directly caused the death of their father.

The Sleuth from Outer Space stopped appearing regularly in comics a couple of years before Darkseid's debut, but even if you start the clock at 1984, how likely would it be to take a decade and a half before J'Onn J'Onzz acknowledged to someone-- anyone-- that Darkseid was his longest standing and most implacable nemesis, the mastermind of all his greatest tragedies? "Say Mr. Miracle, did I ever mention the months I spent with your mentor Himon acting as the instigator of an insurgency in the Armagetto? Never? Gee, I guess that's why we're just passing acquaintances. Enjoy your latest short-lived solo series. Toodles."

While I've never had the same emotional connection to Darkseid that I do to Jim Starlin's take on archetypal villainy, and I really do think the character has been overly, poorly used, I do like and respect the villain. It's just that unlike many modern fans, I've actual read the Kirby original, and that guy wouldn't be getting into slugfests with the Martian Manhunter. If handled as Kirby intended, any given New God would be a struggle for Superman, rather than goons scattered like tenpins in the path of "Stalemate with Darkseid XXIV."

Even within the confines of DC's common usage of the Lord of Apokolips, Martian Manhunter is way out of his weight class and expecting the loan of a villain that will always be far more associated with the Man of Steel, the entirety of the Fourth World, and even the entire DC Universe as a whole. The insertion of Darkseid into the Martian Manhunter origin story at best weakens the integrity of J'Onn J'Onzz's entire life, and at worst diminishes the Fourth World by bringing it down to the level of a Martian being a credible threat on a world dotted by Flame Pits. Boiled down, that makes J'Onzz a secret agent in an extraterrestrial Berlin during a black and white war, doing his patriotic duty for the good of all. That is the exact opposite of noir, where men with ambiguous, regrettable backgrounds try to hold on to their souls in a compromised world. The green man is meant to negotiate shades of gray, not the absolute darkness of a rhetorical metaphor. The Martian Manhunter does not fit in the Fourth World, nor does Darkseid function properly on Mars. There's no spark here, no great clash of polar personalities. This is pure, ill-considered fan fiction that drew a paycheck somehow. Nobody wants to see the Martian Manhunter pitted against Mr. Freeze, either. It's oil and water, where both of these withdrawn, solemn figures need gasoline and a match to maintain audience interest.


mathematicscore said...

As usual, you make a strong argument, but I think you've overstepped here and there...

While Darkseid's power levels fluctuate greatly depending on the appearance, I strongly disagree that MM is in a different weight class, at least physically. My unified theory of Martian powers (tm) finds Martian Powers to be only limited by the needs and focus of the individual. Shape Shifting DNA and the ability to draw materiel from his surroundings allow J'onn to build as strong a body as necessary, with properties he can alter to match any necessity. (I hold that J'onn is every bit as strong as Superman, simply because he looked how the Kryptonian was put together, and added the best features into his own design.)

What's more, the energy manipulation he has shown, and the implication that he absorbs energy similar to how Kryptonians do, is on a high order, although I would keep him from really being Darkseid's equal in this, because Omega Effect and stuff.

As a lover of the Ostrander Martian Cosmology, Darkseid certainly gets my vote.

One last thing: Your commentary on Noir is well noted, but you can't tell me there were many shades of grey in those Silver Age stories. The Noir detective aspect didn't really come in until the eighties, if I'm not mistaken.

J'onn and Darkseid's evolution has been similar from fairly grounded post-war roots to modern day epics (and, to be fair, Michael-Bay-esque crap)

Diabolu Frank said...

M.C.-- Martian super-hero. New GOD. Not the tired old provincial deities nobody worships anymore who still kick Wonder Woman in the teeth, but the supreme being of a sphere that eclipses our cosmos. I can't help it if New 52 Darkseid was constructed out of papier-mâché, but we're looking at the broader scope of the characters as conceived and perceived across decades and audiences.

Darkseid is the being that brought Superman: The Animated Series to a close, while Martian Manhunter most recently was the only animated Justice Leaguer felled by a member of the Royal Flush Gang and shown up by Cyborg.

As a lover of the Ostrander Martian Cosmology, you're handing me fruits from a tree I've already roped off with police tape as tainted from soil to root to limb. If you go back to the Silver Age, Darkseid was trying to conquer all of existence while the Alien Atlas was still rounding up morally compromised gimmick inventors and eurotrash Vulture goons unqualified for the ranks of Hydra. The deeper you go, the greater the disparity.

mathematicscore said...

Good point.

I definitely drink the Morrison "Super-hero's are the new gods" kool-aid, which may cloud my judgement. :)