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Thursday, March 18, 2021

Six Comics That Capture the Horror of Darkseid, the Ultimate Evil of Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’

After much ado, the vaunted Snyder Cut of Justice League (read Noah Levine’s review) debuts on HBO Max today, March 18th. While superhero fans are divided on the movie’s potential, horror fans have reason to be interested in this new take on the DC Comics’ greatest heroes. Instead of Steppenwolf, Darkseid will be the primary villain of the film. 

Simply put, Darkseid is not only the greatest villain in comics history; he is the most terrifying monster in popular fiction. More than just an antagonist who does bad things, Darkseid is a corrupt god who seeks to destroy all free will in the universe. Initially developed as part of the Fourth World franchises, a collection of DC Comics miniseries telling psychedelic super-myths created by legendary artist Jack Kirby, Darkseid is the ruler of Apokolips, the war-torn sister planet to the Edenic New Genesis and its ruler Highfather.

While Darkseid does do normal villain-y things like try to destroy Superman or attempt a conquest of New Genesis, his true goal is the eradication of free-will. He searches tirelessly for the Anti-Life Equation, a mysterious force that would give him control over the thoughts and feelings of everyone in the universe. Darkseid’s aims make him more than just a bad guy. Instead, he is the personification of hopelessness and depression; the avatar of every nihilist thought you’ve ever had; the living confirmation that all is lost and nothing matters. Which supervillain, what movie monster could compare? 

These six stories will give you the best overview of the horror of Darkseid. 

The Forever People (1971) 

Darkseid first appears on the last page of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134 and he serves as the primary antagonist of all the Fourth World series. But the unlikely title The Forever People offers the best example of Darkseid’s evil. The comic’s title refers to a group of hippie teens from New Genesis who hang out on earth and oppose the forces of Apokolips by spreading peace and love, or by combining their essences to form the superhero Infinity Man. 

Yes, that does sound a little cheesy, lacking the grandeur of the clashes between Darkseid and his estranged son Orion that drive the main New Gods comic. But the Forever People refocuses Darkseid’s aims in a way that straightforward superhero books don’t quite capture. Darkseid isn’t just doing bad things that the Forever People want to stop. Rather, he wants to destroy the Forever People because they represent free will and free thinking, the two things that he wants to destroy. He’s not interested in merely doing crimes. Instead, he wants to rid the world of all vestiges of joy and love, even when they’re being celebrated by a group of hippies. 

“The Great Darkness Saga” (1982) 

Outside of the Fourth World comics, Darkseid first became a foe in the DC universe in the pages of The Legion of Super-heroes. Set 1000 years in the future, the Legion of Super-heroes is a team of costumed teenagers who model themselves after Superboy and other heroes of our time. A largely upbeat book, the Legion took a turn when they found themselves under attack by corrupted versions of Orion, a Guardian of the Universe, and Superman himself. The Legionnaires trace the attacks back to the remains of Apokolips, where Darkseid wants to once again manifest in our dimension. 

From Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, and Larry Mahlstedt, “The Great Darkness Saga” stands as the greatest epic in the Legion’s 60-year history, bringing together every member of the team’s expansive roster, along with nearly every other hero who has appeared in the series. The vast scale of the story reveals Darkseid to be much bigger than any mere bad guy. Even literal legions of heroes can’t defeat Darkseid, relying instead on Highfather and Orion to return and drive him back to Apokolips. 

Legends (1986 – 1987)

Where “The Great Darkness Saga” brought the Fourth World into the larger DC Universe, Legends brought them to the present and established Darkseid as the main antagonist to the publisher’s heroes.  A surprisingly small-scale story, Legends features Darkseid’s plan to turn Earth against its heroes by deploying propaganda from the manipulative Glorious Godfrey (operating under the name G. Gordon Godfrey, a reference to a certain conservative radio host and Watergate conspirator). 

Although the story feels more like a launching point for DC Comics’ late 80s titles, including Suicide Squad and Justice League International, it also imagined a different type of foe for the heroes of the universe. By decaying people’s faith in superheroes, Darkseid enacted a plan that couldn’t be defeated by Superman’s fists or Batman’s bat-a-rangs. Instead, it showed Darkseid attacking people’s hopes and beliefs, corrupting the very feelings heroes are supposed to inspire. 

“Rock of Ages” (1998)

Darkseid remained an important villain throughout the 90s, making appearances in all the major events, but mostly acting as a generic bad guy. That is until Scottish writer Grant Morrison took the reins of DC’s flagship book Justice League of America (now titled JLA). Morrison reimagined the Justice League as a pantheon of supergods who stopped reality-altering threats, including genies and sentient suns. With that type of scope, Darkseid had to make an appearance. 

Darkseid appears in only two of the six parts in the “Rock of Ages” storyline (JLA #10 -15), which largely focuses on Lex Luthor leading an Injustice Gang of archenemies against the JLA. But when Superman destroys the Philosopher’s Stone, he inadvertently sets into motion events that lead to Darkseid discovering the Anti-Life Equation and conquering the universe. Although the League eventually undoes their mistake and prevents this terrible future, those two issues give us a glimpse of humanity and its heroes under Darkseid’s thumb, reduced to mindless nothings, living in squalor with no reason to exist. 

Final Crisis (2008)

After stretching familiarizing himself with the Fourth World in the pages of JLA and during his ambitious Seven Soldiers crossover, Grant Morrison offered his definitive take on the New Gods with the epic Final Crisis. Final Crisis chronicles the end of the Fourth World and the death of the New Gods, and the beginning of the Fifth World, in which the gods manifest in the bodies of humans. Although gods both good and bad take the form of everything from Japanese superheroes to tv preachers, the book focuses largely on the coming of Darkseid in the body of no-nonsense Metropolis cop Dan Turpin. 

Told through Turpin’s perspective as Darkseid’s mind invades his, we see the full horror of Anti-Life. Turpin spends the first half of the series trying to remind himself of the good in the world, of his toughness, and of the possibility of justice. But by the time the minions of Apokolips bombard him with Anti-Life, Turpin has succumbed to hopelessness. “The choice is simple,” he states in an inner monologue: “Because here, at the end, there’s no choice at all. Only Apokolips and Darkseid, forever.” The transformation ends with a splash page showing Turpin as Darkseid looking at the reader with his thumb pointing down. The final thought caption reads, “Give in.” 

Mister Miracle (2018 – 2019)

Darkseid Is. Those two words perfectly express Darkseid’s ethos. With that short phrase, Darkseid declares to the world that no hope or fight can defeat him. No resistance will overtake his erosion of your will. There is no escape from the meaningless of life. In the end, you will succumb to the unavoidable fact, Darkseid is. 

That phrase has been around for decades, but it was never applied as effectively as in Tom King and Mitch Gerads’s Mister Miracle 12 issue maxi-series about super-escape artist Mister Miracle, the son of Highfather who fled the prisons of Apokolips with his wife Big Barda. With the Anti-Life Equation finally in his possession, Darkseid slowly strips away Mister Miracle’s will to live, a process illustrated by nine-panel pages interrupted by white text on a black background declaring, “Darkseid is.” In those 12 issues, King and Gerads perfectly capture the appeal of the New Gods and Darkseid in particular. 

And that’s good news for fans of comic book movies, as King has been working with director Ava DuVernay to write her upcoming New Gods movie (as the world’s biggest defender of A Wrinkle in Time, this makes me very happy). 

So even if Snyder’s Justice League fails to capture the full horror of Darkseid, there’s reason to hope that he’ll properly dominate movie screens in the future… if “hope” was a word we could apply to Darkseid. 


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