By Raymond Lam
Evil is at once profound and overused, haunting and trite. Thanks to its deep roots in Western theology and philosophy, it has been the “go-to” theme for so many for our entertainment mediums. Yet we are not always sure how we can tell a story about it in a way that gives the word its proper weight. A classic DC example of this confusion is the New God Darkseid, who traditionally functioned as galactic conqueror and the Justice League’s default big bad since his creation by Jack Kirby—a last resort when all other ideas for a villain are exhausted. Writers through the decades were surprisingly uncertain about how to treat this “ultimate supervillain.” The idea the character represents is, upon further scrutiny, vague and not very compelling, and for one main reason: Darkseid had to lose to the heroes every time because his victory, taken seriously, would mean the end of the DC Universe. He was lampooned as “Jobberseid” by the fandom for being stuck in this contradictory, absurd bind: the terrifying embodiment of evil who must simultaneously be the eternal loser.
Comics fans may know that DC’s godfather of mind-boggling, meta-storytelling, Grant Morrison, mounted a serious and largely successful attempt in 2008 to reverse this sorry reputation of “Jobberseid”–and by extension, force the readership to take more seriously the pantheon of the New Gods that Kirby had so lovingly built up. These were not just beings “of a higher species or form of evolution,” like Kryptonians or gods and demons. The New Gods were self-aware, Platonic ideas that functioned as advocates and stakeholders for what the DC Universe offered the market. They became expressions for the most powerful creators of all: the writers themselves, and the ideas they wanted to bring to their readers. This stage, akin to Homer’s squabbling gods puppeteering their favorite Trojan or Greek in The Iliad, was set by perhaps the most thoughtful and complex “crisis crossover” event of all: Final Crisis (FC). From 2008 to 2018, the canon repercussions of this theological upgrade would echo through a whole decade in three critically acclaimed series: FC, The Return of Bruce Wayne (RBW), and Dark Nights Metal (DNM).
It is through the prisms of these three comics that I wish to discuss DC’s theological confrontation with the God of Evil. Wonder Woman summed up the stakes best when she said, “Gods and new gods like Darkseid are self-aware ideas. They use concept-weapons, anti-life equations, hunter-killer metaphors.” (Morrison, p. 19) Traditionally, Darkseid has been Superman’s nemesis. Yet as the embodiment of hope, Superman has recently been matched with Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan in the amazing Rebirth relaunch (2016) and Doomsday Clock (2017) stories, since cynicism may be an even greater threat to hope than evil. Even if Darkseid might embody the annihilation of hope, evil hates one thing even more: free will, which Darkseid famously seeks to erase through solving the Anti-Life Equation. Furthermore, if hope is to have any moral force, it must be an active expression of human will in defiance of overwhelming odds against powers that we should have no chance against.
Perhaps more than any other superhero (since he has no powers), Batman is the antithesis to the avatar of hope; he’s the avatar of the human will. He is the mortal man who decides, using his own agency and not by some accident or birth to alien parents, to become a symbol, a force of nature, a transcendent power: “I shall become a bat.” [Miller, p.22] We shall later revisit this decision made by a brooding Bruce Wayne in the reading room of his manor. It is not a delusional statement made by a psychologically damaged man; it is one, from the perspective of shattered time, made in the deep past immediately after the death of Anthro, the First Man, and was based on a series of events set into motion by Darkseid in a distant future where the New Gods fought an apocalyptic final battle. Such is the ability of Morrison to weave together characters through non-linear time. Batman’s truly landmark involvement with Darkseid would begin with FC and come full circle over the span of a decade with the release of DNM in 2018.
While DNM has a more adventure-fantasy feel due to the style of its writer, Scott Snyder, DNM’s main villain, Barbatos, is unique to the archetypal, Jungian world of Batman set up by Morrison in RBW, which were themselves in turn a direct result of Darkseid’s actions in FC. Barbatos himself would play an indispensable role in the new DC canon creation myth post-Rebirth, meaning that the theological war between The Bat and the God of Evil is being fought in the pages of two publisher’s relaunches: pre-New 52 and Rebirth, post-New 52. Let’s take a breath for our own sake before returning to the theological war in FC, RBW, and DNM, one-by-one.
(Read Part Two here)
- Morrison, G., Jones, J., Mahnke, D. (2010). Final Crisis. DC Comics.
- Morrison, G. (2012). Batman:The Return of Bruce Wayne. DC Comics.
- Snyder, S., Capullo, G. (1962). Dark Nights: Metal. DC Comics.
- Miller, F., Mazzucchelli, D. (1987). Batman: Year One. DC Comics