Let me state up front that any attempt to analyze Jack Kirby’s New Gods is probably doomed to failure. The King was worked too instinctively to submit to a linear analysis. Grant Morrison probably comes closest, but he still falls flat with ideas like “weaponized metaphors” and whatnot. Everyone who follows Kirby sounds like they’re trying too hard.
This won’t stop me from trying, however.
I am referring to the original text, Kirby’s Fourth World saga and the Hunger Dogs, rather than the canon that has built up after it.
I’ve already established that Darkseid is Not So Big; also, he’s Not So Evil. In the original series, he’s the only citizen of Apokalips shown expressing any human emotion, as he openly pines for old friends he’s disintegrated. Although he enjoys messing with people’s heads, he doesn’t enjoy violence. Darkseid refers to war as “the cold game of the butcher.” When we see a younger Darkseid, Steppenwolf refers to him as being meek.
In the original Kirby Konception, he’s one of the more nuanced and sympathetic characters in the piece. He starts out as Space Hitler, moves through Space Nixon, and ends up as Space King Lear by the time of “The Hunger Dogs.” Why does Kirby depict him in such a soft light? It’s possible that, as Kirby spent more time with Darkseid, he became more sympathetic to his great villain. But let me search for a different interpretation.
First, let me zoom out: What is a god? From a late 20th-century perspective, we’re used to a god who is more-or-less a superhero. He is all-powerful, but He also takes a keen interest in people’s lives and their individual situations. He may be vengeful or He may be helpful; it’s His choice.
One premodern view holds that gods are more like forces of nature than rational beings. They fit predefined roles and fight pre-ordained battles. Apollo must drive his fiery chariot across the sky every day. Ishtar’s lover must die every year, and her tears bring the spring rains. Shiva must unmake the world. Jesus must die on the cross. Zeus must turn into a swan and get his freak on.
Humans in Jack Kirby’s New Gods have little ability to fight the gods, but on the other hand, they have free will. They may choose to fight or run away. They may choose sides and switch back. Most New Gods, by contrast, follow their nature. The only New Gods who struggle against their natures are Orion, who follows his warlike nature but channels it to “good” ends; and Darkseid, who at times seems downright conflicted.
In his later depictions as the “end boss” of the DCU, Darkseid is often depicted as the “god of evil.” I believe that gets him wrong. He’s rather the god of ambition. But as one of the less powerful New Gods, that leads him to a life of scheming. He must learn to suppress his hunger for power and take the long view. And the main skill he needs, as a manipulator, is the ability to read people.
Once he learns to see the world through other peoples’ points of view, he opens himself up to choice. More crucially, he opens himself up to self-doubt. I would argue he essentially abandons his godhood (and becomes more human) in his pursuit of ultimate power.
That’s dangerous for Darkseid. He is no longer a god, and he must create ever-elaborate monuments to himself to cover it. The incessant displays of power show a creature who is deeply insecure about his position.
My sense is that the other Apokaliptians would be happy to just make war forever, but Darkseid knows he can’t afford a protracted conflict. He doesn’t have the stomach for it. In seeking the Anti-Life Equation, he seeks a way to control the universe without bloodshed – before his subjects smell his weakness and tear him to pieces.