Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Nature, Nurture, Darkseid

On the surface, Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga is a simple adaptation of Manichean philosophy: there's a world of Good, New Genesis, and a world of Evil, Apokolips, and all of human existence is in the narrow strip where they overlap and conflict.

But the crucial story of the New Gods, what, if this were a "real" mythology, would be the central myth, (and incidentally, one of Jack Kirby's favorite stories of his own,) is "The Pact." The Pact is a very un-Manichean story in which Highfather (Good) makes a deal with Darkseid (Evil) in the name of peace, and seals this deal with the extreme measure of trading sons (which is a step up from just spitting in your palm, I guess).

In any morality as black and white as Manicheanism, such a pact would be doomed to failure (Mr. A would not approve!) because Evil would not honor any such contract, placing Good in the weaker position that they could only get out of by breaking the contract themselves, erasing the difference between Good and Evil. And, indeed, Darkseid intends to subvert the pact from the beginning.

But instead of leading to the downfall of New Genesis, The Pact works out in Highfather's favor! Because, despite Darkseid's plotting, the actual result of the Pact is that the traded sons--Orion, who has the nature of Apokolips and the nurturing of New Genesis, and Scott Free, who has the nature of New Genesis and the... ah, "nurturing" of Apokolips--BOTH end up fighting for the side of Good!

There are a few lessons to be drawn from that. First is that Good is not something that resides solely in one's blood or one's environment, but in both. Secondly, Good is inherently more compelling than Evil. Evil is NOT a force equal and opposite to Good. Evil may, in fact, be the mere absence of Good, a void that can be filled through whichever medium, genes or education, that is available to Good. Third, there are therefore no truly evil people, even beings that supposedly embody Evil. Any being capable of choosing, any being capable of change, has the potential to be Good!

Consider Big Barda. Unlike Scott and Orion, she is Apokolips born and bred. It is therefore neither in her nature nor her nurture to be Good. As a pure creature of Apokolips, there should be no Good in her. And yet...

And yet, by meeting and getting to know Mr. Miracle, the character who perhaps best embodies Kirby's ideas about what Good is, she falls in love with him and the idea of freedom he represents. He inspires her to be better, to treat others with respect, to demand the freedom that he himself refused to ever relinquish, and fight for the freedom of others. (Also take note that their ideal of freedom, their escape from the high fantasy drama of the Fourth World saga, is a mundane suburban existence as husband and wife. Which just goes to show you don't need to be a punk to be a rebel.)

This is a much more nuanced, much more hopeful, meditation on the struggle between Good and Evil than most superhero stories; heck, there's more depth in this story than in a lot of mythology. The idea that even demons can be redeemed, that all that separates a Fury from a Goddess is a light to show the way, shows a more sophisticated system of thought than naming the villain "Dark Side" would imply.

And, perhaps, that is Darkseid's true villainy: that he disguises the world as one of sharp divides, Us and Them, black and white, Good and Evil, in eternal conflict, never-ending battle, where causes are defended not by their inherent value but by the force of arms. It takes a (Mr.) Miracle to show the folly in this ideology, that the New Gods of both sides have more in common with each other than differences, and that the Good can trust the rightness of their cause to appeal through dialogue and contracts.

It suggests that the best way to combat true evil in the world is negotiation, compromise, listening. Because compromising your goals does not compromise the good of your cause, and somehow, in some way, Good will out!


Anonymous said...

Wow. Deep. I've noticed that Darkseid got the short end of the stick here.

I've also noticed that though Orion sturggles to keep his emotions in check, which is exactly what Darkseid often does.

I can't wait until the New Gods Omnibus.

Jeffrey Hardy Quah said...

Holy shit. I never really cared for the New Gods mythology (other than the funky designs), but damn, I really need to start checking this out.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Yep, this is why I dig the Fourth World.

I'd read somewhere that Kirby's original plan for the big ragnarok of the Fourth World would end with Darkseid exposed as a petty, foolish god, rather than a stony satan. When it all came crumbling down, evil would be exposed as a pathetic weakling next to good.

The funny thing is, that's exactly true. In the real world, good is wide-ranging, fascinating, and attractive. Evil is small, boring, and repulsive. Nobody is more boring or less interesting in reality than a monster. Kirby knew this and wanted to make a point.

Then again, by all reports, Kirby changed his mind about stuff quite a bit, so maybe that's not how it would have played out had he the chance to finish it.

God bless that crazy bastard.

Richard said...

So exactly right and on target.

The only thing I would add is that the different reaction of the principals to the trade of sons is significant. For Highfather, it's huge. When we see him welcome Orion at the end, we see how crushed he is by the weight of what he's done. Darkseid never shows any equivalent reaction: in fact, he's gloating at how this will hurt Izaya, and looking ahead to the day when the pact will be broken. Highfather is the one who made a sacrifice here, and that may be the cost at which he purchases victory. (And if that sounds a bit Talmudic, it's not necessarily out of line with what Kirby may have had in mind...)

Andrew Hickey said...

I only just found your blog through your link to mine, and I've spent a few hours happily browsing through the archives. I have to say, this is one of the best posts I've read about the Fourth World stuff...