The great MacGuffin of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World is the Anti-Life Equation, the nebulous object of Darkseid’s intense desire, the power that will give him control over every living being in the universe. But the secret of the Equation is locked inside of the mind of human or humans unknown and a great deal of the Master of the Holocaust’s energy in the first half of Jack Kirby’s magnum opus is devoted to the pursuit of this, the ultimate power.
Chronologically, we first encounter the concept when Superman meets The Infinity Man in The Forever People#1. After the allies beat back a pack of Gravi-Guards, The Infinity Man alludes to the ruler of Apokolips. “This great peril couldn’t be named — Darkseid — could it!” asks Superman. His new friend responds, “Holocaust and death is what he serves! That is why he abducted the girl — she is one of the few whose mind can fathom the Anti-Life Equation! The ultimate weapon!”
We quickly learn “the girl” is Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid makes an appearance before the heroes to confess, “The girl’s mind is unique! It will not interpret the Equation! … There are others who can solve the Equation! One of them shall yield to me! — And when the secret is mine, I shall test it here! — Snuff out all life on Earth — with a word!”
And Darkseid’s threat weighs on Superman’s mind, even as he travels the Boom Tube to be with people of similiar abilities as he in a place called Supertown. “Does the answer really lie ahead of me?” the Man of Steel asks himself, beginning to doubt his selfish action. “Darkseid and his hidden terrors — The Anti-Life Equation — The danger to mankind — Am I going the wrong way? Is Earth the battle ground for some strange Super-War? It could be as real as the Boom Tube! — And I may be deserting mankind when it needs me most!” Needless to say, Superman returns to Earth.
But in the revealed history of the News Gods mythology, we learn that that Darkseid’s desire for the Anti-Life Equation predates the breaking of the pact between New Genesis and Apokolips which had brought an era of peace between the rival worlds. When Scott Free finally escapes the hellish world of perpetual shadow, Himon and Metron share some words with Darkseid, who had urged (however disingenuously) Scott Free to remain on his planet. As the Boom Tube to Earth fades, Himon says, “He’s gone, Darkseid! You’ll have your war with New Genesis, now!” Metron adds, “If you win the Anti-Life Equation, you will rule our minds with all the others!” And, shaking the rafters with a booming voice, Darkseid responds, “…And in the end, I will ‘Shut down’ this universe to all life!! — Except the will of Darkseid!”
Back to the chronology, during our episode being covered presently, Metron has detained Kalibak from attacking Orion and he explains the stakes of this unfolding conflict to his New Genesis ally. For Darkseid has broken another sacred vow to Highfather. “He and his power elite are now on Earth — creating a tube network beneath its great cities!” Metron explains. “Soon they will be able to reach any spot on that globe! Darkseid’s minions are busily at work on a Mass-Director Unit that will monitor the mind of every human! One of those minds holds the secret of the Anti-Life Equation!”
“There is no force to stay Darkseid’s thirst for absolute power over all living things!” So tells us The Forever People, the title most devoted to this intriguing concept, but the Super-Kids sure try their darndest. We learn in “Super-War” that while Apokoliptian super-villain Mantis yearns to take over our world, Darkseid wants a bigger reward: “Fool! Take Earth! Enslave all of mankind!” berates Darkseid. “But do not challenge my power here! For I seek another prize — meant for myself alone!”
And Mantis, in his destructive attack on the city, is lauded by Darkseid, as Desaad evidently works his Fear Machine (which might be able to detect a possessor of the Anti-Life Equation), as Darkseid states, “Mantis is inspiring great results! He’ll shake every mind in that city to its very roots! Especially the mind we seek to contact — the one that must be made to yield its secret — the Anti-Life Equation!” But The Infinity Man defeats Mantis and the Forever People ponder, “Mantis wants only the ego power of the conqueror!” [Beautiful Dreamer]… “But it’s Darkseid the universe must truly fear!” [Big Bear]… “He wants the ultimate power! And it is here — on Earth — in the mind of someone nameless — the ability to solve — and put into action — the Anti-Life Equation!” [Mark Moonrider].
The dreaded Fear Machine, created by Apokolips chief torturer Desaad (made from “the blueprint of the weird,” according to a cover blurb), just might be able to ferret out the secret from Metropolis citizens in New Gods #2. “Emotional turmoil breaks the dikes of the mind,” Darkseid tells his old friend, “and releases the flood in which we must fish, Desaad! Perhaps in this very city is the mind which will yield the Anti-Life Equation! The ability to control all free will!” But the Fear Machine fails Darkseid and so he turns to another within his powerful elite.
This seemingly ambiguous notion, the Anti-Life Equation, begins to gel quite substantially in the Forever People “Happyland” story arc that includes a superb villain, one apparently based on televangelists who preach to persuade, get attention and gain reward. Glorious Godfrey, however, has an entirely new gospel to promote: “It’s Darkseid’s gift of Anti-Life,” crows the pulpitarian. “It’s the ‘happiness package!‘”
“Life vs. Anti-Life” opens with a quote by Adolf Hitler and a visual depicting a crowd of zombified folks singing the praises of their preacher, shredding any allusions whether the Anti-Life Equation has no precedent on Earth. Goebbels-inspired placards surround a double-page spread of the beautiful, white-clothed Glorious Godrey, which trumpet: “LIFE HAS PITFALLS! ANTI-LIFE IS PROTECTION”; “LIFE WILL MAKE YOU DOUBT! ANTI-LIFE WILL MAKE YOU RIGHT!”; “YOU CAN JUSTIFY ANYTHING WITH ANTI-LIFE”; and “JUDGE OTHERS! ENSLAVE OTHERS! KILL OTHERS! ANTI-LIFE WILL GIVE YOU THE RIGHT!”
And, of course, it is Godfrey’s sermon that brings it all home: “Though Life is ever filled with those who threaten us, it is Anti-Life which gives us the power to eliminate them! The holocaust is coming! The day of Apokolips on Earth! The day of Darkseid, who brings this power only for us to use! Yes, it is his gift to us, friends! The cosmic hunting license! The right to point the finger or the gun!”
Glorious Godfrey is seeking recruits to become Justifiers, zealot soldiers who are capable of mass kidnapping, singling out people for oppression, and even suicide bombing. (Mark Moonrider notes of the suicide bomber: “The Anti-Life principle is now part of him!”) As the head caption on the title page states, “Thus, Apokolips makes contact with Earth! Thus, the harbingers of holocaust link up with the human minds and hearts that wait to act in chaos! Like the ancient witchdoctors of old, Glorious Godfrey sounds the clarion call and begins the dance of death in modern times! The message of Anti-Life is powerful!”
As Justifiers commit acts similar to the Nazis atrocities against the Jews — rounding up entire neighborhoods to be held in concentration camps, targeting certain folks in a fashion not unlike “Kristalnacht” (the painting of the letter “S” for “scapegoat” on storefronts), and burning entire libraries because the books are “decadent” and mind-polluting — His lieutenant notes, “Anti-Life is a heady, exhilarating experience, Godfrey! They’re in ecstasy!” To which, Godfrey replies, “Yes, they no longer think! They revel in violent emotion! They will do anything I say — in order to feed their emotion! They are now no more than zombies in my control!”
It seems Godfrey’s mesmerizing power of persuasion is linked to the “demon’s organ” played at his revivals and, naturally, The Infinity Man arrives to destroy it (though at great cost as the amalgamated Forever People character is exiled by Darkseid for doing so until appearing again in the very last issue of the series).
Desaad is given another chance to help in the Apokolips ruler’s quest by setting up a special “camp,” where the possessor of the Anti-Life Equation just might show up. “I trust this camp of yours is serving the purpose that overrides all others, Desaad!” ponders Darkseid. “If the mind you seek to contact is among those at my camp,” replies Desaad, “it shall soon give up its secret, great Darkseid!”
A chagrined Godfrey audaciously chimes in: “But surely you can’t mean — Surely not even the great Darkseid believes in the existence of the Anti-Life Equation! Why, if one could master such an equation — he could control the minds of all living things with a mere word! I-I believe in Anti-Life, great Darkseid — but it can only be induced in others by the means of inventive selling!”
Kirby krackles crackling behind him, replies Darkseid: “The Anti-Life Equation exists! Locked in the mind of someone here on Earth! — And only I dare reach for it! I shall create chaos here! Shake up the planet — Shake up the mind!”
The camp of Desaad’s making? The outside world calls it Happyland and believes it a giant amusement park devoted to public entertainment. Those behind the scenes call it the Kingdom of the Damned and know it is a massive torture chamber dedicated to cruelty… and the discovery of the Anti-Life Equation. Desaad says, “Among them is hidden the mind which can solve the Anti-Life Equation! With an answer to that –” Darkseid interrupts, “I shall control every living creature in this universe with a mere word!”
It is during this adventure when we finally discover someone who, in conjunction with a Forever People ally, has the power of Anti-Life. When Mother Box is being “murdered” by Desaad and his minion, she escapes and materializes before professional sumo wrestler Sonny Sumo, who himself has a mystical power called “wound rejection,” which heals bruises received during his bouts. Together they save The Forever People and destroy Happyland. Mark Moonrider tells Sonny, “In union with your mind, Mother Box can create waves of titanic power!” Big Bear adds, “Mother Box sought out and found the man with the power!! This man knows the Anti-Life Equation! This man can control all living beings!”
But Sonny is baffled, “I don’t know what you’re talking about! What’s Anti-Life!?”
Serifan answers, “Why, the very opposite of living! If someone possesses absolute control over you — you’re not really alive!”
“Without independent will — you may just as well be a robot!” says Mark. “Yes, you know the Equation! But it’s hidden — deep with your mind! Mother Box helped bring it to the surface!”
Mark says, a few moments later, “Aw, where we come from the Anti-Life Equation is one of many others — almost as awesome!! But they merely exist!!”
Vykin chimes in, “Don’t you see? It’s we who live!! Why not just live, Sonny? Your way!!”
Big Bear declares, “That’s our only objective! To stop the forces that won’t let us do just that!”
Ironically, Sonny uses his power to oppose Desaad and company: “But Anti-Life can be used against its disciples!!! The combined force of a Mother Box and the wondrous mind of Sonny Sumo have miraculously brought into being the awesome, dreaded power known as the Anti-Life Equation!!” Mark Moonrider ominously says, “True Anti-Life!! Right now, as wielder of the power, Sonny Sumo is even greater than Darkseid himself!!”
But Desaad is aware Sonny is only one part of the equation: “Sumo, without mind stimulation from the Mother Box, can’t use the Anti-Life Equation!!” the torturer tells his master. Thus Darkseid, angered at The Forever People and doubtless fearful of Sonny, sends the team (except Serifan) and Sonny Sumo, into different historical eras via the “Total Wipeout” — The Omega Effect. While The Forever People are eventually reunited, Sonny Sumo and Mother Box are sent hundreds of years into Japan’s past, when Sonny becomes a “wise man, athlete, farmer,” and the Mother Box is returned to the Super-Kids, after centuries in the custody of Buddhist monks.
The last great Forever People adventure centered around the Anti-Life Equation is “The Power,” which features the “priceless brain” of the reprehensible Billion-Dollar Bates, which possesses the Equation and whose user had exploited the mysterious ability for monetary gain and power. “After years of generating the ‘power’ in secrecy,” Bates yells, “building it to its full and fearsome potency — I establish it, this night, as world regency!!!” But the “Sect,” allegedly a cult of Satan worshippers, has other plans. Upon crowning Bates with a “Stimulus Hat,” the ruthless capitalist is intentionally rendered comatose: “Perfect! He’s in shock! — But still alive! — And the Anti-Life Equation lies ready to be plucked from from that living brain!” And we learn the Sect is actually Darkseid, Desaad and their Apokolips agents. But, due to the trickery of The Forever People, Bates is killed, leaving Darkseid to ponder the latest possessor of his coveted prize: “Billion-Dollar Bates!! To think that destiny would store the ultimate power in a yapping jackal’s hide!! — While Darkseid — the spearhead of pure elemental force — must thirst for that knowledge!”
Unfortunately, except for brief mentions in “Even Gods Must Die” and The Hunger Dogs — mostly lamentations that the “New Age” of the Micro-Mark has supplanted Darkseid’s great “hunt” — this is basically the last we see of the Anti-Life Equation, but assuredly it was a fantastic concept while it was in play.
(Mister Miracle, which did not much involve the Anti-Life Equation, does have a notable comment in “The Apokolips Trap,” which deals with whether the formula exists on Darkseid’s world: “Beyond Grayborders — toward Night-Time, the real evil of Apokolips becomes evident!! Anti-Life is real here!! Living beings serve their guards!! The guards serve the war machines!! And their power serves — Darkseid!!! But this is Anti-Life manufactured by slogans, threats, despair and acceptance — it’s not the Equation itself — but proof to Darkseid that the Anti-Life Equation exists!!!” Darkseid’s failure to get the secret from Beautiful Dreamer’s cranium also seems to indicate his appetite cannot be sated on his home planet or on New Genesis.)
In the final analysis, the Anti-Life Equation just begs the question: If Darkseid had finally achieved his quarry, to finally subjugate an entire universe to his will, to gain dominion over every single life form in existence… what word would he have used?