October 1st, 2011
I don’t usually deal in the sort of criticism that tries to find the spirit of our time in this or that piece of pop culture detritus, but for the past few years I’ve felt smothered by four little words – THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE! – and every time I see or hear a variation on that theme, there’s only one face I see.
No point in trying to keep the bastard stuck in a corner anymore. You can only fight him off for so long, you know?
It’s time to let Darkseid out of the box:
DARKSEID IS… FACISM!
This is the traditional interpretation of the character, one that’s powered as much by biography as it is by textual criticism.
Here’s Tim O’Neil, making the point in fine style:
The reason why the Fourth World remains such a ripe body of work is that, for every criticism that can be leveled against Kirby, it is impossible to fault either the depth of his convictions or the historical accuracy of his conception of human behavior. He fought fascists in the War – not fictional cartoon Hitlers, but real, live Nazis across occupied Europe. Darkseid isn’t a tragically flawed Doctor Doom or an abstract force of nature like Galactus: rather, he is a living embodiment of a very human tendency towards obedience and power. He can be polite, even jocular, but he is never anything but totally ruthless, committed to the conquest not so much of human territory but of human hearts and minds.
You won’t find me arguing with this interpretation, not just because I’ve read and love Kirby’s comic but also because my first encounter with Darkseid was in Grant Morrison’s JLA: Rock of Ages, which featured Darkseid as a triumphant fascist, and provided me with a pretty definitive introduction to the bastard in question:
Still, from where I’m sitting, there’s no argument that Kirby was the king of this shit. Reading his Fourth World stories today reveals that his Darkseid was much more of a character than anyone else’s – as Tim says, when he shouts at the Forever People for being a bunch of disrespectful hippy bastards, he’s funny, funny like your dad used to be when he went over the score in front of your friends. The thing is, even there, he’s absolutely in control, dictating terms to his enemy – kind of like another bastard we’ve met recently.
Getting back to THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE, well, what are dictators if they’re not choice thieves who operate on a massive scale? And let’s not pretend that this interpretation isn’t relevant right now, because despite the character’s 20th Century origins, we all know that’s not true.
Still, this isn’t quite why I just can’t keep Darkseid out of my head right now. To get at that, we need to to try to re-imagine this bastard as he drags us down into the forever pit with him.
To get at this, we need to imagine that–
DARKSEID IS… CAPITALIST REALISM!
Let’s not fuck around here: the most affecting thread in Final Crisis involved old fashioned tough-guy investigator Dan Turpin’s struggle against Darkseid, the god of all evil. This exactly the sort of conflict that superhero comics exist to externalise, to transform into crude entertainment via the copious use of lightning bolts, fourth dimensional sharks and cosmic wang-hammers. Final Crisis was a deliberately perverse example of the form though, so Grant Morrison and JG Jones decided to push this conflict back inside the human mind, forcing Turpin to fight for the fate of humanity by staring at his ruined face in a mirror:
The version of Darkseid we find here is an abstract concept that is trying to infect the consciousness of this poor bastard so that it can be born again. This Darkseid might be less of a character and more of a predatory, unnatural force than Kirby’s, but it’s still effective, still horribly existential, the horrible cracked canvas of Turpin’s face matched line for line by the despairing narration that accompanies it:
Tell yourself. There’s always hope. Never give up.
Sure, life is hard. I fought monsters, gangsters, super-creeps, but I never backed down. I never asked for help.
Lord, help me, now, someone help me. I can’t hold back the storm on my own anymore.
I tried to show them what humanity’s made of. But wrestling with Darkseid, well… it’s like trying to beat the ocean unconscious.
My choice. All mine. The choice is simple. Because, here, at the end, there’s no choice at all. Only Apokolips and Darkside. Forever.
Just look into these eyes, and tell me that’s not the perfect soundtrack to go with the sickly blueshift they’re observing:
Well, maybe this would work too…
…but you know what I mean!
Effective as this scene is, it might still seem a little narrow - well, it wouldn’t feel that way to you if you were in the grips of depression, but I can see the argument that Kirby’s strident fascist is a more resonant and terrifying entity, a better representative of the always-staggering scale of human bastardry.
But wait, maybe it goes further than that! After all, as Kirby’s Fourth World comics show time and time again, Darkseid is nothing if he’s not a multifaceted bastard. So what if Darkseid is not just a super-condensed fascist and a black hole from which no hope can escape, but also the very air we breath? What if his character has as much resonance with our current state of neo-liberal decay as he does with dictatorships old and new? What if he also works as an avatar of Capitalist Realism?
‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.
What if THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE to Darkseid, as whole economies lie in ruin and riots erupts on the streets? What if you were told that this is just the way it is, and that you were free to do as you please so long as you don’t question the primacy of this truth?
It might seem counter-intuitive to try and position a character who was made in the image of 20th Century fascism as a representative of hopelessness in modern society. After all, we have an abundance of choices available to us as citizens and consumers, and doesn’t that seem a little out of tune with the ethos of the man? Maybe, but maybe not. Here’s Jonathan Burns, doing yet more of my groundwork for me:
What’s more, Darkseid is the most liberal uberboss you could ask for. He doesn’t make you wear his uniform, doesn’t cramp your own aesthetic in the least. You aren’t obliged to deal with his concerns, origin or superpower technicalities. All he asks is his own small piece of turf, marked “Absolute Supremacy — Darkseidz — Keep Off”, and that you let him ramble on about his Anti-Life Equation. “Do your own thing” is his word, as long as you have a bit of murder, mass insanity etc in mind, and don’t we all.
While I might not be willing to publicly give the thumbs up to murder like our pal Jonathan here, he’s dead on in his description of Darkseid’s idiosyncratic style, and I think this fits just a little bit too nicely with the rhetoric of the moment, with the idea that freedom is your birthright but that “Attacking The Hand is like attacking your own immune system.”
Seen from this perspective, Turpin’s wrestling match with Darkseid looks like a slow slide into depressions, a response to the seeming hopelessness of politics, of life, both at home and abroad. I wouldn’t want this to usurp the traditional reading of Darkseid’s even if it could, but I do think it’s yet another reason why he can stand tall as Our Greatest Bastard!
Does this interpretation have any grounding in Kirby’s comics though? Thankfully the answer to that question can be found on page fourteen of issue #4 of Jack Kirby’s Forever People, in what just happens to be my favourite Darkseid moment of all time:
Just look at the guy, speechifying calmly in open daylight, as evil a motherfucker as you could ever hope to meet just wandering around, scaring the children at the funfair. I mean sure, there are plenty of sinister characters floating around at the Irn Bru Carnival, but Darkseid? He’s a special case:
You really need to click on that link to hear The Melodious Music of “Happyland!” And believe me, you wan’t to hear the music!
Turning this sinister funfare into a reflection of Western Society would be postmodern poetix 101, so for now we’ll simply note that resonance and move on. What we have here is an unrepentantly malevolent force who also has a sense of humour – maybe even a sense of fun – about his own unrepentant malevolence. All of this is still tied into his wretchedly self-centred ambition of course, but there are other characteristics right there on the page for all to see, signs that Darkseid can find some sort of fulfilment BEFORE rewriting the world in his own image.
Which makes me wonder if maybe he’s enjoying himself because he runs “Happyland”, and because he knows that the music will drown out his evil laughs, that the logic of the funfair will overpower any objections this man might have, and that for all the seeming opportunity available to the punters the game is rigged in his favour to the degree that he might as well be the game.
The version of Darkseid resembles nothing so much as a villain in a hypothetical Saturday-afternoon cartoon written and plotted by JG Ballard – and no, I wasn’t going to mention Seaguy, why do you ask? – and it’s this face that haunts me every time I switch on the news right now.
And still, the cosmic joke escapes him!! For how can he cope with me — by shunning me — his other face.
I’m fucked if I know, big man. Fuctifano.
This is what Turpin sees in the mirror, the “other face” lurking behind his, a sense of doomed acceptance, an admission that you’re subject to certain grand forces and that’s that, that death is inevitable, that the current state of politics is inevitable, that you will be broken and stay broken because that’s all you were ever meant to be:
Darkseid is the horrible laughter you hear in the music at the funfair, the hollow feeling you can’t cough out of your chest, the lines that ravage your face, the knowledge that you can’t win so it’s not worth trying.
Once you’ve started to let this version of Darkseid bother you, it’s hard not to see him laughing at you through several other famous faces that pop up on TV. I know that every time I see Tony Blair defending the war in Iraq and rambling on about Iran, I taste Anti-Life in my mouth and know that Glorious Godfrey wears many faces. As for Gordon Brown, well at this point he seems like more of a Terrible Turpin figure, more like you or me. He might have the look of someone who was broken into doing this sort of work, but he still did the work all the same.
As for the new wave Tories, well, when I see WebCameron and his cronies on TV they resemble nothing more than Mokkari and Simyan titting about in their lab, trying to make sure they stay in Darkseid’s favour:
DARKSEID IS… UNTIL HE ISN’T!
But before I go too far with this idea ( you might think that I already havem but to that I would say: “Uh… DARKSEID DOLLARS! IMAGINE!”), it might be worth asking whether or not part of the appeal of Darkseid, as both a character and a bastard, is that he can be defeated.
Think about it: stories about Darkseid Triumphant also tend to be stories about Darkseid Defeated. In Rock of Ages, there’s just enough of a gap in his authority for The Atom to slip through and take him down; in Final Crisis, his short victory is actually a suicide bid, an attempt to take all of reality down with him; most curiously of all, in The Hunger Dogs, Darkseid’s bored of victory before defeat even comes calling:
Trust Kirby to have the most interesting take on this, eh? Who else would have been capable of imagining a Darkseid who had become alienated from the means of bastardry?
My fellow Mindless Ones Andrew Hickey has written eloquently on this aspect of Darkseid’s character, positing it as a side-effect of his anti-entropic ambitions:
Darkseid has looked at the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thought “fuck that”. Or, more likely, “Bother not Darkseid with your ‘entropy’ and your ‘universal laws’ Obeisance to laws, made by man or nature, is the morality of the slave. The morality of Darkseid is conquest. Darkseid is all.”
Because Darkseid has taken that childish realisation and decided it doesn’t apply to him. He’s going to be everything. Because this, ultimately, is what an attempt to deny entropy means. It is entropy that prevents any tyranny from being absolute – Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety (one of the fundamental scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, but never as regarded as many others) states that control requires as many options open to the controller as there are degrees of freedom in the thing being controlled, so complete control is impossible. This is because entropy always increases – freedom and death are, ultimately the same thing. You can’t have one without the other…
There’s no need for me to do my own crude cover version of Andrew’s material, but it occurs to me that this all ties in very neatly with Matt Fraction’s contention that superhero comics are attempts at escape fiction, rather than escapist fiction. After all, why would you summon up a figure of such inescapable power, unless you wanted to do a little play-dance with death (and no, I’m still not going to mention Seaguy here!), to feel a little bit more alive, a little bit more free.
Because, of course, in the real world (“The real fucking world!”) it’s not always that simple. Looking at Darkseid as an embodiment of Capitalist Realism probably isn’t the best way to enact your Alan Parker style three part program to “smash the system, replace it with a better one, and smash that as well.” Noting the futility of Darkseid’s battle against entropy with won’t keep death or illness away from your door, and it probably won’t make you any better in bed either.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where Motherboxxx is there to save the day, or where just being Batman is enough. Coming up with better solutions is hard and often boring, and there’s never any guarantee of victory. Escaping from depression seems impossible unless you somehow manage to do it, in which case it still seems impossible, still seems like a feat worthy of Mister Miracle.
All the more important, then, to fight reflexive impotence, that we remember that we can still try to imagine a better world, that we can still work to make it happen, no matter how foolish an ideal that might seem. Of course, I don’t have a bulletproof plan for economic revolution tucked under my jacket any more than I have a magic fucking scroll that makes life seem more livable, but that just makes me want to square up to Our Greatest Bastard, Darkseid, even more. It makes me want to look right through myself in the mirror…
…and know that that fucker is laughing at me and to try to remember that not even The Forever Pit lasts forever.
THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE? Nah, there is, there’s got to be. Tell yourself. There’s always hope…
The Mindless Ones were tagged too, so hey – let’s count this as a two-for-one shot, in terms of delayed memefication.