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How DC Comics’ Disposable Villains Made Darkseid Indispensable

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
How DC Comics’ Disposable Villains Made Darkseid Indispensable

It’s only appropriate that Jack Kirby’s Darkseid is one of DC Comics’ biggest and baddest villains, as he was created by the undisputed King of superhero comics. However, the lord of Apokolips didn’t achieve this lofty status overnight. It took years for Darkseid to separate himself from DC’s other villains.

In fact, DC’s attempts at creating extinction-level villains have only reinforced Darkseid’s status as the publisher’s quintessential cosmic foe. It’s not so much that Doomsday, Bane and the Anti-Monitor are bad characters; but they don’t quite have Darkseid’s mojo. Here we’ll look at the history of Darkseid and his various competitors to see what has helped Kirby’s creation endure.

Fourth World Fizzle

Darkseid laughs

Darkseid laughs at “his other face”

When Kirby introduced Darkseid in December 1970’s Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134, the villain was the mysterious manipulator behind the high-tech criminal cartel called Intergang. Shortly thereafter, though, February-March 1971’s New Gods issue #1 revealed Darkseid’s real creation-conquering ambition. He sought the Anti-Life Equation, which would give him ultimate control over any and all living beings. This quest stretched across both New Gods and its Fourth World sister titles Forever People and Mister Miracle, but was cut short by the books’ abrupt cancellations. New Gods and Forever People both ended after 11 issues (cover-dated October-November 1972), while Mister Miracle lasted until February-March 1974’s issue #18.

Although DC revived the Fourth World characters in the mid-1970s, curious readers might have been hard-pressed to find them. Darkseid and company bounced around the corners of DC’s shared superhero universe for just over two years, starting with a one-off appearance in April 1976’s 1st Issue Special #13. The Kirby-free story was written by Gerry Conway and Denny O’Neil, with art by Mike Vosburg; and considering it appeared in the final issue of an anthology series, it hedged its bets. By emphasizing the cold-war nature of Darkseid and Orion’s conflict, it allowed DC to leave the characters in limbo until it could find them a more stable home.

That didn’t happen right away. Darkseid and some of his minions appeared next in the Conway-written Secret Society of Super-Villains; but the titular team only fought the Fourth Worlders until January-February 1977’s issue #5. A few months later, though, DC restarted New Gods itself with July 1977’s issue #12. Written by Conway and pencilled by Don Newton, it only lasted eight issues (through August 1978’s issue #19), and still didn’t finish the story. Instead, readers had to jump over to Adventure Comics, where Conway and Newton wrapped things up in issues #459-460 (September-October and November-December 1978). Described as “the epic ending of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Trilogy,” issue #460 depicted Darkseid’s final fate, as he was turned into a massive Promethean Giant and then blasted into bits by a misguided Apokoliptian uni-cannon.

So, that was it for Darkseid, right? Cut down after eight years of malevolence, and destined to be characterized as a “what might have been” episode for both DC and Kirby?

Eighties Evil

Darkseid vs. everybody

Cover of Justice League of America #184, by George Perez and Dick Giordano

Not exactly. Darkseid was the main villain of the Justice League and Justice Society’s three-part Fourth World expedition, in October-December 1980’s Justice League of America issues #183-85. Written by Conway (JLA‘s regular writer, well into his multi-year run) and pencilled by Dick Dillin and George Pérez, the team-up used a group of Earth-Two villains to revive Darkseid. Even so, issue #185 ended with Darkseid apparently destroyed once again.

The dark lord appeared next as the lurking horror behind the “Great Darkness Saga” in August-December 1982’s Legion of Super-Heroes issues #290-94. Written by Paul Levitz and pencilled by Keith Giffen, it saw Darkseid revived in the 30th Century to wreak havoc across the universe. More importantly, though, it established Darkseid’s reputation as a truly terrifying presence. The JLA/JSA team-ups of the 1970s often visited odd corners of the DC multiverse to showcase seldom-seen characters like the Seven Soldiers of Victory or the Freedom Fighters. For example, while the JLA and JSA had teamed up with the Legion in 1977, but then battled a group of time-lost DC folk like Miss America and Jonah Hex (1978) before solving Mister Terrific’s murder (1979). Thus, while the 1980 Fourth World trip didn’t necessarily signal a Fourth World revival, having Darkseid take on the entire Legion of Super-Heroes was a big boost to his profile.

Indeed, a couple of years later (and some ten years after DC published Kirby’s last issue of New Gods), it began reprinting the series in six double-sized issues (June-November 1984), complete with a new “Chapter 12” from the King himself. The miniseries then led into Kirby’s own conclusion to the New Gods’ saga, the 1985 Hunger Dogs graphic novel. Intended as a pretty definite ending, the new Kirby material ignored all of Conway and company’s work from 1st Issue Special through Justice League. Regardless, DC realized it couldn’t quit Darkseid and company (not least because he was featured in the “Super Powers” toys, comics, and cartoon); and re-edited Hunger Dogs to allow the characters to continue.

The Hunger Dogs was published in February 1985, right when DC was starting the cosmic housecleaning of Crisis On Infinite Earths. Like “The Great Darkness Saga,” COIE also teased a mysterious bad guy seen only in shadow. This time, though, it was a new villain called the Anti-Monitor, created by Crisis overlords Marv Wolfman and George Pérez to be the evil counterpart to their other new character, the all-knowing Monitor. At the time Darkseid was off the table. Except for his brief appearances in COIE issues #8 and #12, and the Forever People’s cameo in issue #10, the Fourth Worlders were largely absent from Crisis. DC just wasn’t sure what it could do with them.

That all changed dramatically in 1986, when Darkseid became the lead baddie in DC’s first post-Crisis crossover. Because Legends came out not long after the John Byrne-led reboot of Superman, it allowed Byrne and company to reposition Darkseid as one of the Man of Steel’s main adversaries. Although Superman had fought Apokoliptian allies already (in Jimmy Olsen, Forever People and Justice League), this time he had Darkseid’s full attention.

Legends also brought Darkseid more fully into the DC Universe. Over the next few years he showed up in Firestorm, Swamp Thing, Suicide Squad and Justice League International. He challenged the Olympian pantheon (and Superman and Wonder Woman) in 1988’s Action Comics #600, and went on to star in 1988’s prestige-format Cosmic Odyssey miniseries. New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle all got revivals in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and by the mid-’90s Darkseid was fighting everyone from Wonder Woman to Anarky.

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