By chance, as I was rereading New Gods #7 for this post, some stills from the upcoming director’s cut of 2017’s Justice League by Zack Synder were released. Several of them featured the new version of the film’s take on Darkseid and his court:
All of which prompted me to post a brief Twitter thread,:
“If this is how the elite of Apokolips are going to be depicted, then I can’t help but feel the whole point of Kirby’s designs is being missed. In JK’s 4th World, Darkseid doesn’t set the visual tone for his underlings, who are absurd OTT representations of pride & power. Darkseid is, by contrast, the “obscure & humble” Stalin-like tyrant, who rose through “intrigue” & is made even more terrifying because he doesn’t draw attention to himself with extravagent, eye-catching costumes. He is the essence of power, not its display. He is the absence of colour, the absence of show, the absence of immediately evident pride. That works when he stands out against even his closest underlings in their absurd look-at-me get-ups. But when everyone seems to follow Darkseid’s design sense, the whole point is lost.”
(And just to underscore the point, here’s Granny Goodness, Virman Vundabar & Kanto, by Kirby and Royer, from 1972’s Mister Miracle #8.)
We might argue whether Kirby’s Fourth World was an unaccommodating sprawl or a thrillingly ambitious epic. (I stand squarely in the second camp.) But whichever side you line up on, 1972’s The Pact in New Gods #7 is the closest the series comes to a single tale that unifies the Fourth World as a whole in terms of backstory and theme. As a result, ideas inspired by Kirby’s early-70s work, such as those I was grappling with in the above-quoted Tweets, become easier to work with once The Pact has been read, enjoyed and, to one degree or another, proceessed. In that, New Gods #7 is a kind of comics Rosetta Stone, pulling together and clarifying events, motifs and arguments from 4 different series and allowing them to be used to make sense of each other. True, if read out of sequence, The Pact can appear, at first glance, to be a somewhat fragmented if typically impressive Kosmic Kirby tale. Planets are destroyed, SF warrior peoples battle and battle again, terribly evil monsters commit terribly evil deeds while their heroically brave betters sacrifice themselves for the sake of The Whole Of Everything. But read in the context of the Fourth World as a whole, The Pact reveals itself to be a subtle – and yes, I do mean subtle – meditation on the irradicable tendency of cultures – all cultures – to be perverted by power.
Within the grandest of grand gestures, Kirby rooted his tale of the war between New Genesis and Apokolips in the context of that eternal process of societal corruption. In any war between a supposedly morally superior and inferior power, or so Kirby appears to have been arguing, whether it be Athens and Sparta, the Allies and Fascism, or Western democracy and Communism, both sides inevitably suffer ethically as well as physically. In The Pact, for example, we’re shown Izaya’s horror as he realises what has become of the “noble” civilisation of New Genesis as the conflict with Apokolips intensifies to an absurd and terrifying degree;
“We are worse than the Old Gods. They destroyed themselves!! We destroy everything!!“
Kirby was no optimist when it came to human nature. Famously, he responded to the hopefulness of the ending of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, in which alien visitors embrace humanity with love and kindness, with his own Captain Victory, in which Out There is a horrifying battlefield in which intelligent creatures fight to the death without quarter. Having grown up in The Great Depression and fought his way through Europe in World War Two, Kirby was well aware that matters of Good and Evil were anything but straight-forward binary opposites in all but singular examples. (Fascism, as Kirby never ceased to underscore, is indeed an absolute evil, but the tendency towards fascism and its like, as he would argue, is an eternal and complex matter, as his Madbomb saga in 1976’s Captain America and The Falcon might testify.)) As The Pact illustrates, the Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips may have begun as wildly different cultures, but war has made them both monstrous. It’s a truth, an essential underpinning of the Fourth World, that many of Kirby’s successors on the properties have struggled to embrace: the war between Highfather and Darkseid isn’t one between good and evil, but rather an ongoing struggle between a culture sworn to reinvent itself for the greater good and another organised to fulfil one God’s dark and entirely selfish purpose.
New Genesis didn’t, as Kirby here shows, set out to be a more beneficent society because its Godly inhabitants possessed some inherent quality of “goodness”, as some would still have it. Instead, on the edge of destruction, it embraced a more rational and humane course because nothing else could possibly work. The meaning seems clear: a culture without a mission to evolve, without an accepted obligation to recognise problems old and new and embrace radical solutions, will inevitable fall prey to corruption. In The Pact, we’re shown that New Genesis is just as capable of horrific acts as Apokolips. Even after Izaya becomes Highfather and brings the war to a truce at the end of The Pact, Kirby is careful to show that New Genesis is, under its beautiful and welcoming surface, still prey to moral decay. When we’re introduced to the humanoid insect colonies that Forager belongs to in New Gods #9, we’re shown the willingness of the bigoted citizens of New Genesis to poison and slaughter fellow conscious beings on a mass scale. Even on a personal, one-to-one level, Highfather’s fellow Gods can be thoroughly pompous and unfriendly to outsiders, as Superman discovers in Jimmy Olsen #147.
So what sets New Genesis aside by the end of The Pact isn’t any supposed inherent virtue, but rather Highfather’s insistence that the people of New Genesis seek new solutions to eternal problems. Post-Kirby writers have, with few exceptions, almost completely missed this. Highfather’s victory in halting the conflict with Apokolips is a profoundly limited one. The truce he strikes with Darkseid doesn’t eradicate the menace from Apokolips. The peace will remain fragile. There will be no return to normality, because normality bred the war in the first place. Taking New Genesis’ culture of high-minded warriors, Highfather fuses it with a new spirituality in the form of The Source while displaying the most remarkable self-sacrifice in handing his son over to Darkseid’s care. The Gods of New Genesis, just like ourselves, can be arrogantly Manichean in thought and violent to a barely imaginable degree. Highfather seeks to replace that Godly society with one based on a constant adaption to new circumstances, a humble willingness to serve means and not ends, a recognition of the importance of individual freedom along with broader responsibilities, and an awed acceptance that the universe as the New God’s perceive it is but one glimpse of an unimaginably vast and all-embracing reality.
As Kirby insists, defeating an enemy is never the same as triumphing over evil. There is no end to the struggle, and most certainly not against our own worst selves. There is no certainty, only the testing of old truths, the questing after new ideas, and ever-more productive compromises, As such, the Fourth World books are full of New Genesis citizens seeking out their own way to live their best possible life during the Cold War with Apokolips, from Mr Miracle to Metron to the Forever People. Some turn their backs on war entirely, some on New Genesis itself, and some wander in search of new ways of seeing the universe while still embracing their homeland’s stated cause. And Highfather appears, to varying degrees, content that this is the way that things have to be. Monolithic cultures are illusions, and dangerous illusions too. Whether in art, travel, and even combat, or its lack, Highfather seems bent on encouraging his fellow Gods to find their own paths, before, presumably, bringing their experiences and conclusions back to enrich the community they hailed from. Some will inevitably be lost, in one way or another. But the cost of the absence of a free conscience and varied experiences will be far, far greater.
And Darkseid? Darkseid is the opposite of Highfather not because he’s “evil” on some genetic/mystical level, but because he serves only himself and his fear. He lives to establish himself as the only conscious, free individual in all of existence. Highfather embraces change and serves a duty greater than himself. He appears to insist that his fellows seek their own truth too, to prevent as best they can the ossification of New Genesis’ culture. By contrast, Darkseid seeks to stamp out change while destroying the freedom of anyone or anything that might challenge him. (But of course, change can’t be defeated, nor free will destroyed, as Darkseid will be forced to face in The Hunger Gods.)
It is odd is that while Darkseid has gone on to be regarded as an iconic character, Highfather has tended to be portrayed as a boring old patrician, and even been killed off for convenience and little else, by those who can’t work out what to do with him. That he’s surely a fascinating character in his own right has escaped so many creators. He remains, as he has for years, as perhaps DC Comic’s least understood and least well-used character.
The above is just a fraction of what Kirby deals up in The Pact. But rereading the tale, it is those moral underpinnings that leap out from the story. In a tale which can appear at first glance to be about “Nobility” pitched against “cunning and evil” on a vast scale, what emerges is that Kirby isn’t talking about inherent nature at all. One planet of Gods doesn’t behave abominably because it just happens to have inherited some essential base bestial quality. Another isn’t “noble” because it’s composed of morally superior matter. At the heart of The Fourth World is the same kind of realism about humanity – and by extension intelligent life everywhere that’s fought to the top of its respective food chain – that informed Kirby’s rejection of Close Encounter’s conclusion. To him, conflict and corruption will always be part of our nature on an individual and group level. As a consequence, social and political orders are fragile, and most so when ignoring changed circumstances while embracing defunct ideals and practises. In response, Kirby argues for collective bravery, for self-examination, for challenging entrenched interests, for experimenting with untried directions, for a loyalty to the commonwealth that doesn’t stifle individual expression. To what end? A definitive conclusion to the war with Apokolips in the Fourth World may or may not occur. But even if Darkseid were to be killed and Apokolips destroyed ,the enemy, as Walt Kelly so famously said, would remain ourselves. And always will be. Kirby clearly knew that. And so Highfather does too.
Could a Darkseid-like character, in nature if not appearance, emerge on New Genesis, a God under Highfather’s lead who would eventually undermine and transform what appears something like heaven into something that’s very clearly hell? Kirby’s tales surely insist that that’s a very real and fearsome prospect. After all, didn’t Highfather himself pick up his war staff and take a full and terrible part in the very war he was then to bring to a halt? The worst, for good reasons or ill, lies in us all.* For the ultimate danger, surely, isn’t that somebody from Apokolips might corrupt and conquer New Genesis, but rather, that one of the latter’s own citizens might. Kirby’s Fourth World is all about the politics of power and the corruptibility of human/Godly nature, and the questions his stories asks are every bit as relevant today as they were in the year of Nixon’s re-election. I very much doubt that Kirby would have been at all surprised by the rise of America and England’s reactionary right with its power-grabbing fellow-travellers. He knew Darkseid is always with us, on Apokolips, New Genesis, or, indeed, here on Earth.
- Of course, Darkseid’s son Orion is indeed transformed for the good, if not entirely, by his time on New Genesis, and it’s hard to imagine Orion lastingly becoming a version of his biological father, unless you want to ignore everything that Kirby was arguing. But I was thinking of a born-and-bred New Genesiser.