It’s October 3, 1997. Top songs are still unchanged. The top movie is something called Kiss the Girls; Soul Food, L.A. Confidential, and The Full Monty are also in the top 10. In the news, British scientists demonstrate that Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans is caused by the same prion as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. Mad Cow Disease.
And Superman: The Animated Series continues the DCAU tradition of airing holiday episodes nowhere near the holiday in question–in this case, an episode about fathers, set on Father’s Day, and called “Father’s Day,” broadcast in early October.
When I came out to my brother, he said, in effect, “All that matters to me is that you live in a way that makes you happy and share your gifts with the world. And, even though dad and I never talked about this kind of thing, I know that’s how he felt, too. He’d be proud of you.” I immediately began to sob. I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how much I needed to hear that. Dad died when I was 13 and my brother was 27; I have no idea how dad would relate to me as an adult, but my brother did get to experience that, so I believe him. But it’s something I’ve never gotten to have, and some part of me has always wondered. Would Dad be proud I am living my life under my terms? Or upset that I didn’t go into STEM, didn’t marry, won’t be having kids, all of which I know were part of his dreams for me when I was younger?
It shouldn’t matter what a dead man thinks of me. But it does, enough so that being told he would be proud, that he would support me in the massive changes I am starting to make, reduced me to tears.
So I get it. It doesn’t matter that Kalibak’s father is a vicious, tyrannical monster, the foundational evil of the DCAU (as the Batman Superman Adventures opening shows); Kalibak needs his approval, and tries desperately to earn it. Admittedly, Kalibak himself isn’t exactly a nice guy, so his father’s evil is unlikely to bother him; but Darkseid is also dismissive and demeaning toward Kalibak, a clear-cut example of emotional abuse. Darkseid’s motivation is not made clear, other than general contempt for Kalibak; however, looking at Kalibak’s two-toed, clawlike feet, squat, broad build, and head the same size as his torso, it is fairly obvious that he is a reference to Caliban, the half-human character in The Tempest. Caliban, an attempted rapist and murderer, is very often depicted as deformed; this is straightforward ableism in the play, but here at least Kalibak’s appearance is readable as not having a direct connection to his behavior. Instead, his behavior is a combination of the general villainy endemic to Apokoliptian culture, and his father’s disregard, which in turn results from his Darkseid’s judgment of Kalibak’s appearance.
In contrast, of course, we have Superman, who is traditionally attractive in a very masculine sort of way, a hero, and clearly doted on by his parents. (That the episode depicts Lois as not immediately catching on that he is their son amounts to slander–there is no conceivable way to reconcile it with her being so tenacious and dedicated a reporter that her response to an alien machine attacking her jogging path is to hide behind a tree, call the Daily Planet, and start dictating notes.)
Superman is the favored son of the kind father, handsome, proud, and strong; Kalibak the despised son of the cruel tyrant, ugly, sniveling, and, while immensely strong by human standards, no match for Superman. One of Kalibak’s first acts upon arrival in Metropolis is to (intentionally but not deliberately) seriously injure and trap Jonathan Kent. Similarly, Superman will hand defeat after defeat to Darkseid. Each son attacks the father of the other; in essence, they can be seen as agents of their fathers, who are at war.
And in that sense, we can see clearly how the DCAU is already positioning Darkseid. Jonathan Kent is typically portrayed as the source of Superman’s values, and hence as an exemplar of “human” (which is to say white Western middle-class* liberal) values. Darkseid is here presented as Kent’s opposite: tyrannical, controlling, malicious, cruel, violent, and ambitious.
And Darkseid is, indeed, all these things. But he is more than that, as well. We have already discussed the three pillars of our approach: near-apocalypse, the protector fantasy, and heroic trauma. Near-apocalypse, as we’ve discussed, is rooted in the simultaneous desire for revolutionary change as an escape from an intolerable status quo, and fear of revolutionary change as the destruction of the familiar. Darkseid is the lord of Apokolips, bent on destroying everything familiar and good and replacing it with a hellish, unending nightmare; he is, in short, the worst case scenario, the avatar of the fears that transform revolutionary fantasies into near-apocalypses. He is, in other words, everything we conjure the protector fantasy to shield us from. And in his relationship to Kalibak, we see that he is an abusive parent, which is to say a creator of trauma.
There’s a reason the opening to The Batman Superman Adventuresequates Darkseid to the destruction of Krypton, and hence to the birth of the DCAU: he is the birth of the DCAU. He is that which creates superheroes. He signifies something unitary, something which links all three pillars.
And, as we will soon see, we have already named that something.
*Yes, middle class. Kent owns property, namely his farm, though it’s almost certainly mortgaged and hence really owned by a bank. That’s what “middle-class” means: working-class, but permitted to roleplay owning private property, creating the illusion that one’s interests align with the ruling class more than the working class.
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