Why Glorious Godfrey is Comics' Scariest, Most Realistic Supervillain
Fear. Hatred. Justification. These are buzz words that seem to get more relevant every time the news comes on. However, they are also hallmarks of one of DC Comics' most fascinating, and frightfully believable villains: Glorious Godfrey of Jack Kirby's Fourth World Saga. Perhaps a lesser known villain in the grand scheme of things, Godfrey is no less dangerous an enemy and is a strong candidate for the villain who best represents the dangers of our current social climate. So let's take a look at who Godfrey is, where he comes from, what he stands for, and what he says about us.
The Fourth World
Never underestimate Jack Kirby. In the 1970's, Kirby envisioned for Marvel Comics the Thor story to end all Thor stories: Ragnarok, the great war of the Norse Gods that would result in the annihilation of the entire pantheon, and the rise of a new one in its place. Marvel did not like this idea very much. Combining this disagreement with growing unrest regarding creator rights issues, Kirby left Marvel and tried his hand at rival publisher DC Comics. Kirby, a multigenerational titan within the comics industry, was immediately given one of DC's top tier titles: Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. This was followed by three original titles, The New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People. These four books would comprise a single intermingling story referred to collectively as The Fourth World Saga. The idea was simple: the Old Gods were dead, all of them destroyed in a great war, and from the ashes of the previous battles two planets had formed, one bright and happy and peaceful, New Genesis, and one dark and fiery and brutal, Apokolips. These planets were ruled over by beings whose power was high enough that they could be considered deities: the New Gods.
Kirby had been planning this at Marvel for some time. He was fascinated by the idea of pantheons, of gods or godlike beings worshiped by man, each one a simplified expression of some concept or idea. However, the gods people were used to were all centuries old. You had gods of war or love, but they represented war and love from hundreds of years ago. What could be the modern equivalent of such powerful, simplified, personifications of human life? Kirby's answer was superheroes. In this case, a new pantheon of superhero, and supervillain, alien gods, ruling over their planets in an epic arc for the ages. To this end, the characters he created for the Fourth World Saga have humanized personifications of modern aspects of life. Heroes like Mister Miracle represented freedom, Lightray, and the Forever People represent aspects of youth, and Orion represented righteous warfare. The villains were led by Darkseid, who represented the worst and darkest inclinations of humankind, the dark side in all people, and his minions all continued that trend; Granny Goodness was a manipulative parental figure, leading children down a particular, dark path; Kanto was the love of violence personified; Desaad was sadism and torture; and then there was Darkseid's propaganda master, Glorious Godfrey.
“You Can Justify Anything With Anti-Life!”
Darkseid's ultimate goal was to find and harness the power of “the Anti-Life Equation,” a legendary mathematical formula that proved the meaninglessness of life, thereby granting its wielder the power over the minds of every living thing. Kirby's representation of the evil within desired unbridled control over everything. Godfrey was a single entity whose power was a more limited version of that same concept: Godfrey, through his voice and other tools, could exert some level of control over all who listened. By appealing to certain emotions and personality traits within his listeners, he could inspire them to certain actions, typically in the employ of Darkseid. His followers were given helmets and went by the name Justifiers, as once they succumbed to Godfrey's message they felt justified to commit whatever violent, a horrific action they wanted.
In Godfrey's initial appearance in The Forever People #3, he took an impressive form: his appearance and design were based on a tent revival preacher, with a massive traveling tent housing an audience of interested parties, and a colossal organ whose sonic chords stimulated the brute instincts that drive men into Godfrey's service'. Godfrey himself was a passionate speaker clad in white robes, his perfectly coiffed hair and almost kindly face belying his message of supervillainous hate from beyond the stars.
Tent revival evangelicism was a relatively common sight, especially in the South, from the 1800's through the 1960's. Godfrey, first appearing in 1971, was, therefore, playing a very familiar role. The tent revivals by this point were built around the idea of spectacle; a circus-like atmosphere, filled with fire and brimstone speakers and dramatic faith healing designed to stir up the faithful into a frenzy. Godfrey was the supervillain equivalent of this; he screams into the microphones, hands planted firmly on the pulpit as he leans towards his audience, promising power from Darkseid, “the right to point the finger or the gun”, and the “Happiness Package”, all through the power of belief in “Anti-Life”. He even shared another fascinating trait with the charlatans and scam artists among the preachers: he was not a believer himself. He expresses incredulity that his master Darkseid legitimately believes in the existence of the Anti-Life Equation; he understands well in the power of stirring others to action through carefully written speeches. He does not believe in the Equation itself, in the uninhibited power to control with a mere word. He is not buying what he is selling, but he sells it because he knows how much can be gained from others' belief.
Godfrey's appearances in Kirby's Fourth World Saga were relatively brief, but he would appear again in 1986's Legends, by John Ostrander, Len Wein, and John Byrne. Here, he took a different form, a more modern form of a trusted authority going by the name of G. Gordon Godfrey, taking to television talk shows to stir up a moral panic against superheroes. He paraphrased theses from psychologist Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, a book from 1954 that used falsified information to accuse comics of being a negative influence on the youth, creating a parental backlash that nearly tanked the comics industry. This version of the character would be adapted into the animated series Young Justice, a political pundit with his talk show who used his screen time to rally audiences against the Justice League using angry, passionate speeches directed to his viewers, voiced with a beautiful sense of scorn and contempt by Tim Curry. This version was quite reminiscent of real life talk show hosts like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck; he belittles opposing viewpoints by name-calling and putting them on his “bonehead list” and frequently appeals to his audience as “decent” people and “friends”. He focuses his message on xenophobia and fear, capitalizing on the uncertainties of the world to assure his audience that hatred is the correct and reasonable response.
Part of what makes Godfrey such a fascinating character is that unlike many villains, his real power is not in his strength or ability. He wields the power of influence, and what makes him dangerous is the people who believe and follow his words with violent fervor. However, like he says in Kirby's original comics, he can only induce it in others using inventive spelling. Moreover, that is where he goes beyond little comic book bad guy and becomes a statement about us and our world.
“Anti-Life Will Give You The Right!”
The idea of villainizing a traveling preacher who takes advantage of people who believe in his message is a unique enough aspect to add to a supervillain. The tent revival preachers and the televangelists they turned into in more recent years are at the center of a billion dollar industry frequently based on lies and spectacle meant to appeal to a very particular demographic. However, Kirby's interpretation of Godfrey did not stop at a slam on a particular business practice; the trappings of tent revival preachers were used to illustrate a far more insidious threat.
The opening page of The Forever People #3 begins with a quote attributed to Adolf Hitler: “That is the great thing about our movement – that these members are uniform not only in ideas but, even, the facial expression is almost the same!” (Note, I cannot find anything confirming this is a real Hitler quote, this quote is only pulling up discussions of The Forever People); elsewhere in this issue, Godfrey's Justifiers burn books, and round up undesirables to relocate them to some unknown place; the direct nods to Hitler and the Nazi campaign give us a strong indication of the evil that Godfrey stands for. He is a propagandist, and his message is hate. His message is that his chosen audience is better than, more moral than, more deserving than the “others”, “others” being directly referenced within the dialogue throughout this issue. This sense of othering has been at the root of many of humanity's worst atrocities, the most obvious of which is the Nazi Holocaust. Hitler may have attempted to conquer Europe through force, but in his country, he had to rise to power through politics. He had to convince a nation struggling in the wake of WWI that he was the right leader for them and to do that he unified his country on a platform of hatred against a particular, easily targetable group: the Jews.
Moreover, the Nazi rise to power is not the only time this strategy has worked. The othering of some particular group is frequently utilized throughout history to rally the population behind a movement or government, and it always leads to the persecution of that targeted group; the Salem Witch trials, the Red Scare, the internment of Japanese-American citizens. Just recently, England voted to leave the European Union based in part on an ad campaign by pro-exit politicians that focused on anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiment. In America, Donald Trump is running for President (and doing quite well) on almost that same platform. Comics are filled with villains that have no apparent real-life counterparts, like murder clowns and mind controlling aliens, but Godfrey represents the kind of supervillain we have far too many of in our real world, and worse, they are frequently successful.
How do we stop this? The comics never gave any particular glaring weakness to Godfrey, but what it does acknowledge is that he is not the actual threat. He merely works for a higher power, Darkseid. In the Nazi equivalent, Godfrey is not Hitler; he is the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. He has no seat of power of his own; he merely twists the public's opinion for a chosen belief. His real power is influence, influence over us. If we refuse to give him that power, he has none. The key to defeating this kind of evil is to think rationally and think kindly. We must beware the Godfreys and the Justifiers of the world, or their next victim may be you!