Spotlight Sunday 9.3.17
Darkseid Oversize Special #1
Writer: Mark Evanier, Paul Levitz
Artist: Scott Kolins, Ande Parks, Phil Hester
Cover: Chris Burnham
What is the opposite of life?
Is it death? It might seem so, but ultimately death is a part of life. Death provides the shape and form of life, defining its boundaries, and directing its course, as life winds its way away from, around, and, inevitably, towards death.
Death may be an opposing force in life, but can something that is so essential and integral to life truly be considered its opposite?
Birth may be the Alpha, with death as the Omega, but while they exist on opposite ends, they are part of the same alphabet.
The bigger question, of course, is “What is life?”
We’re not going to swim too far out into philosophical waters as part of this recap and review of a comic book, but I will say that while much about life is defined and shaped by death, there are other essential components that add to that definition.
Freedom. Choice. Doubt. Love. Hate. Hope. Regret.
All the messy, joyous, horrible, wonderful experiences that result from being alive.
Take those things – both good and bad – away, and what do you have left? Do you still have Life, or do you have… Anti-Life?
As part of its ongoing celebration of the centennial anniversary of Jack Kirby’s birth, DC has published a series of one-shot specials featuring characters created by the King, combining new stories by current creators, and republished stories from Kirby himself.
One of the latest, and the comic in today’s Spotlight, features one of Kirby’s greatest creations, the villainous Darkseid, who is dedicated to discovering the Anti-Life Equation, a formula that will grant him total control of all sentient beings in the universe.
This is, of course, the reason for the remedial-level philosophical musings at the start of this post, as the concept of the Anti-Life Equation itself is one of the greatest aspects of Darkseid and the larger Fourth World saga, of which the stone-faced Lord of Apokolips is a major component.
All of those things I listed as being part of life? The Anti-Life Equation removes them. This is the key to its power; if you are not capable of making choices, or feeling regret, or love, or, well, anything, you aren’t really alive in any sense beyond the purely biological meaning of the word. You breathe, you walk, you eat, you do what you’re told, but you aren’t living.
If the Equation falls into Darkseid’s hands, you become nothing more than an extension of him, doing only that which he commands.
The Darkseid-like character Thanos over at Marvel, created by Jim Starlin, is a mad godling who is in love with Death, and seeks to offer untold billions and trillions of lives to his coy mistress as an act of courtship, which is terrifying enough, but somehow what Darkseid seeks is even worse.
I think that’s because, in some ways, what Darkseid seeks is appealing. There is the notion that, paradoxically, having all choice taken away from you sets you free. Your life, such as it is, has purpose, albeit not one of your choosing, with no room for doubt or guilt. Your every action is justified.
You can justify anything with Anti-Life!
Life will make you doubt! Anti-Life will make you RIGHT!
Certainly, people of an authoritarian mindset, who crave order above all other things, can understand the appeal, and it’s something of a twisted version of the expression “Let Go and Let God,” though typically that expression isn’t applied to the evil god of Apokolips…
It’s also very easy to draw parallels between the character and motivations of Darkseid and the politics of today, which is precisely what writer Mark Evanier does in the main story in this issue, in which we follow the desperate lives of three members of The Resistance living in hiding amongst the other Hunger Dogs who inhabit the Armaghetto.
For years, the three escapees from the orphanage of Granny Goodness have avoided capture by Darksied’s soldiers, attempting – largely in vain – to win others over to their way of thinking about the master of Apokolips, and engaging in simple acts of vandalism, such as writing “Tyrant” in blood and feces on a statue of Darkseid, which, in a world as tightly-controlled as Apokolips is a truly revolutionary act.
In due course, we lose one of our heroes along the way, after Darkseid deploys his Female Furies to do what his squadrons of Parademons could not, who betrays his comrades’ location to Darkseid before being destroyed by the deadly Omega Effect. (Which, in keeping with my earlier Alpha-Omega metaphor can restore any life it destroys, though that doesn’t come into play here.)
Eventually, the Furies find Makayla, the young leader of The Resistance, and bring her before Darkseid, leaving the remaining member, Lukas, who had followed Makayla out of love, free, or at least as free as anyone can be on Apokolips.
During her period of freedom, Makayla maintained a journal using a small Mother Box – a sentient computer – to record her observations, starting each entry with, “Entry: The last day of my life…”
She starts out that way because, in her words, “The high point of my day is just before sleep when I realize it wasn’t.”
As she faces what almost certainly is her last day, Makayla has a thought, and uses her not-yet-confiscated Mother Box to contact Lukas and tell him to stand in a specific spot.
Like any classic villain, Darkseid’s one weakness is his desire to monologue, and Makayla preys on that, expressing her belief that those who are obsessed with power and who rule through fear are themselves ruled by fear: the fear that those who cower before them will stop being afraid. Darkseid concedes that there is truth in this, which is all Makayla needed to hear. Or rather, all she needed to have her Mother Box record her hearing.
She tosses the Mother Box out the window to Lukas, who waits below, knowing that even if today truly is the last day of her life it will have been worth it to have proof that mighty Darkseid is afraid.
Unfortunately, the Omega Effect makes short work of the Mother Box before Lukas can reach it, but the momentary distraction is enough to allow Makayla to escape.
And so, on what did not turn out to be the last day of Makayla’s life, The Resistance marches on…
As has been the case with most of the Kirby One-Shots, the main story is a bit thin, but ultimately serves its purpose as a showcase of the underlying brilliance of Kirby’s work and the affection that the creators producing these loving tributes feel for them and the man behind them. Those latter points are especially true in this case, as Mark Evanier worked for and with Kirby, and called him friend.
It’s also been the case with each of the one-shots that Evanier provides a bit of a mini-essay in the back, talking about Jack, and some aspect of the creation of the specific character featured.
(This time around, one of the best bits is an anecdote that involves the pronunciation of Darkseid’s name: Dark Side. Evanier tells of a boy who was certain that it’s pronounced “Dark Seed,” and provided a rationale for that pronunciation. The boy seeks confirmation from Kirby, who, not having the heart to break it to the kid, agrees that yes, this is in fact the case, and adjusts his own pronunciation for the remainder of the conversation. This is why we call him King.)
That the story is overtly political, and applicable to the current state of things, is not in the least distracting or inappropriate; Darkseid was, after all, created during, and in response to, the Nixon administration. As Evanier mentions in the mini-essay, Kirby detested Nixon. And as we see parallels between the Nixonian era and the modern day, it’s almost impossible to avoid incorporating some amount of commentary when telling a tale of a cruel, authoritarian tyrant.
Nixon aside, the parallels with today would be unavoidable simply because of Kirby’s prescience, which is one of the many aspects of his work that make them remain so vital and timeless. Yes, there will be some cornball elements – they’re inescapable as you look back on comics from the past – but the underlying content remains relevant, even forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years later.
Not all of this is the result of Kirby’s skills at prognostication, of course, as history has an often-unfortunate tendency to repeat itself, and in his 76 years, Kirby, a man who fought actual Nazis, experienced – and absorbed and used for his own purposes – a lot of it.
The forces of Anti-Life have always been with us, and are with us still, but through the language of comics, and in their personification in the form of the ultimate super-villain, Kirby – and those who followed in his footsteps – provided a perfect encapsulation of the concept, and in giving us an understanding of it provided us the means to counter it.
My one quibble, beyond the overall thin plot, is that there is a lot of expository dialogue, in the stilted, unnatural “Hey, do you remember that time we…?” style. Most of Evanier’s work these days is in other media, or in less serious fare, so it reads very much like something written for an earlier era, or, as is actually the case, by someone who doesn’t do a lot of contemporary comic book writing. Still, while it’s kind of jarring to modern sensibilities, it is rather fitting.
Scott Kolins provided the art for the main story. While he’s become something of a fan-favorite, I’ve never really found his work especially appealing, personally. The problem, I think, is one of over-rendering. That is, there is just too much detail, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that the basic forms aren’t particularly well-rendered. Further, while he tries to work in a lot of small details, the problem is that they aren’t small; often the lines are thick and blocky, and they bring to mind the words of Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould, as related in this comic by Jay Lynch.
To an extent, I can relate; I frequently resort to just dumping as much detail as I possibly can onto an image to make up for its other shortcomings and my inability to depict something with clean, simple lines. So perhaps my antipathy towards Kolins’s work is tied to my own self-doubt…
In any case, here, in a story set amidst the soot and ash of Apokolips, and featuring the cracked and craggy stony visage of Darkseid, it just…works. Some of the underlying issues with anatomy remain, but overall, this is some of the best work I’ve seen by Kolins. If I’d gone into it without knowing that it was Kolins, I might have thought it was drawn by a young John Romita Jr.
The storytelling is deftly-handled, and the inks and color work all contribute to an overall good-looking book.
The remainder of the Special contains a new, short story featuring OMAC, the One Man Army Corps, who is another personal favorite of mine. Paul Levitz, the former President of DC, handles the writing, and Phil Hester handles the art chores on this story which, much like the main story, focuses on resisting tyranny.
The Kirby reprints that round out the book are an old story from Tales of the Unexpected, which Kirby drew, but didn’t write, and two stories of the Young New Gods, that originally ran as back-up features in The Forever People, and don’t so much tell a story as they simply introduce characters and concepts and provide some background information. As Evanier points out in most of the mini-essays, it was frequently Kirby’s intention to simply launch a book, lay out the basic concepts, and let other creators take it from there. From the perspective of the DC management at the time, why get someone else to do it when Kirby can do it?
Still, that idea – that Kirby wanted to provide a springboard for others to dive from – is what makes these one-shots such a fitting tribute to the King.
That’s it for this Spotlight Sunday. As a programming note, this week’s Weigh In Wednesday may be a Weigh In Thursday, as the Labor Day holiday might introduce a delay in the arrival of new comics.