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One Year Later: Justice League Dark

A comic review article by: Danny Djeljosevic

One year in, and "The New 52" has now shifted to "The 52." How's it been? Steve Morris investigates in a series we're calling "One Year Later." Except, um, Danny Djeljosevic fills in for this one.

 

One year ago, DC's New 52 relaunch debuted three Justice League books in one month, each with a unifying theme: superheroes don't get along. In Justice League, we had a comic where the world doesn't trust superheroes, and the caustic, unheroic personalities of the superheroes depicted made it clear why nobody trusts them. In Justice League International, we had a comic where bland, government-employed superheroes blandly bicker as they blandly save the day. Then there's the lazily titled Justice League Dark, a comic where dysfunctional supernatural characters barely team up, manage to kinda-sorta save the day, and then break up every other issue.

While that sounds glib, Justice League Dark actually (and maybe unsurprisingly) turned out the most creatively successful of the three.

 

 

Basically a '90s Vertigo-inspired take on DC's own Shadowpact, Justice League Dark has mystic Madame Xanadu assemble a team of supernatural not-villains -- the grifter magician John Constantine, the Justice League castoff Zatanna, the ever-unhinging Shade the Changing Man, the existentialist assassin Mindwarp (eventually, briefly) and, uh, Deadman, who's the only guy keeping it together -- to deal with some otherworldly crisis that threatens to wreak ultimate destruction upon the earth. Which is a terrible time for these people to not-function as a team, but here we are.

Writer Peter Milligan and artist Mikel Janin open their debut story arc, "In the Dark," with a very strong first issue with lots of attention-grabbing moments. The opening splash features multiple iterations of June Moone (a.k.a. The Enchantress) causing traffic accidents on a highway, before zooming out to show the weird global turmoil as only Milligan could imagine -- cattle giving birth to mechanical meat slicers, a power plant developing consciousness -- and then cutting to the proper Justice League being devoured in a swarm of witches' teeth. All that is refreshingly reminiscent of the average Grant Morrison superhero comic, where we see the immediate result of the threat on regular folk and an initial hapless superhero team getting quickly dispatched by the big bad. This first issue actually signals a cape comic that's far more superheroic than most superhero comics, where the conflicts between heroes and villains are as insular as the average WWE match.

 

 

The characters don't fully unite until late in the story arc, which gives Milligan time to develop the characters individually, showing readers just how peculiar, dysfunctional or fucked up each character is on his or her own before showing how they can't properly work as a team. So we get a lot of existential relationship issues with Deadman and his girlfriend Dove and some existential stuff with madman Shade (Milligan loves to wax existential) and some Zatanna/Constantine hatefucking while Xanadu tries to gather the team.

Madame Xanadu -- possibly a fictionsuit for Milligan himself -- makes it clear to the audience that she's put her group together not just to deal with some spooky threats, but also because they can't be trusted on their own not to cause trouble, fully aware of each member's issues. It actually echoes Milligan's short-lived, Vertigo-esque 2007 series Infinity Inc., which had a similar "superhero team as support group" take on caped conglomerations. 

 

 

Spanish artist Mikel Janin has drawn ten of the first twelve issues of Justice League Dark, and thus far seems to be an unappreciated commodity. A relative newcomer to mainstream comics, Janin's work is remarkably consistent and clear, capable of rendering gross monsters, palpable moods and a deliciously smarmy John Constantine --  though his women tend to have almost inhumanly full, luscious lips. But in that respect, he's improved over the past year, as has the rest of his art, which felt a bit stiff in the early issues but by now has managed to outshine some of the more tenured artists working at DC these days.

 

 

 

And then comes the crossover. The four-part "Rise of the Vampires" (#7-8) includes Issues #7-8 of I Vampire, a vaguely Twilight-appealing horror comic whose sales DC seemed to be hoping to boost by having it cross over with DC's highest-selling horror book -- which is kind of weird to realize, but that Justice League moniker certainly helps. The crossover helps neither book really; fans of I Vampire get some more superheroes (in addition to the Batman family) showing up because a bunch of vampires taking over Gotham City is within the wheelhouse of these spooky protagonists, while Justice League Dark readers get to watch their characters disappear in four-panel, two-page spreads consisting almost exclusively of the color brown.

 

 

There's a total absence of harmony in the crossover. In Dark we have Milligan, guest artist Daniel Sempere and colorist Admira Wijaya deliver some bright, striking imagery (Xanadu visiting a crystal blue Buddha for some help is a highlight) with the characters hustling to take part in the plot before an I Vampire issue comes in with a very telling "Everyone who's either human, dressed like a hooker or wearing a really stupid outfit get behind me." That's a good slam, but in a crossover readers tend to enjoy two properties actually crossing over. The end result of "Rise of the Vampires" is something like that time Metallica and Lou Reed teamed up -- two separate acts, performing together without much concern for what the other is doing.

 

 

This ended up being Milligan's last arc on the title amidst some creative team reshuffling that moved the writer over to Stormwatch, so he's forced to tie up any loose ends from his run to make room for incoming writer Jeff Lemire while simultaneously feigning interest in what appears to be an editorially mandated crossover. This means almost unceremoniously getting rid of Shade the Changing Man, who -- and this happens in the middle of fighting vampires, basically -- realizes that the creative team is changing and walks off into psychedelic, metaphysical mist. Which is a shame, but either Milligan wanted to protect the character he worked to redefine in the '90s or Lemire had no interest in using him.

 

 

Either way, Jeff Lemire takes over as writer starting with Justice League Dark #9, giving the series a pulpier, Indiana Jones flavor with Felix Faust fronting a death cult in the Amazon and John Constantine being compelled to reunite the team with the promise of access to a room containing an untold wealth of supernatural artifacts thanks to A.R.G.U.S. agent Steve Trevor. It's a fun twist on the loose confederation of characters that makes up this team, with the loner Constantine forced to unite people who decidedly don't like him  -- and, we soon find out, Madame Xanadu has to stop him from dooming everybody.

Lemire, the current writer of DC's Animal Man, continues his fascination for '90s Vertigo in this book, incorporating Black Orchid, the Books of Magic and even Tim Hunter into the proceedings, not to mention throwing in older properties Dr. Occult, the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets to make Justice League Dark into DC Comics' premiere hub for supernatural characters who couldn't support their own book in this current market. In that respect, I suppose, it's a bit like DC's answer to The Defenders as envisioned by Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson -- characters who not only don't get along, but couldn't get a book on their own that would last past issue six.

 

 

 

As of Issue #12, Lemire has finished one arc, "The Black Room" (#9-11) and started a new story, "War for the Books of Magic" -- though the former seems to be a prelude to the latter. Lemire has held his own with the team, though there's less of a focus on their personal dysfunctions unless they immediately drive the pot; it seems that the team's managed to unite under their unanimous dislike of John Constantine. 

This first year of Justice League Dark -- and this is the bit I love about the book -- is so rife with fluctuation that it feels like instability may be the natural state of the title, and Lemire seems to own that inherent turmoil, getting rid of I Vampire's Andrew Bennett and throwing in a betrayal to shake up the team, and even future issues promise Frankenstein* and Amethyst taking part in the fun.

Justice League Dark, while an inherently cool idea, just shouldn't work as cohesively as it does the way it has amidst a creative team change, an editorially mandated crossover and a working title they just plumb forgot to change when it finally came time to announce the book. Like the characters contained within, Justice League Dark has managed to thus far embrace its turmoil to make for an entertaining read. Though it's entirely possible that Year Two may bring either unearned contentment or a creative team change that the book just might not be able to withstand.

 

*Speaking of Frankenstein, why does the DC Universe have two supernaturally themed military agencies in the form of A.R.G.U.S. and S.H.A.D.E.? Not only did Lemire write Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. for a few months, but that organization is way more fun and weird for a comic like Dark, since A.R.G.U.S. is all boring metal corridors and military guys and S.H.A.D.E. is run by a Japanese schoolgirl and employs monsters as agents. Plus, the name S.H.A.D.E. kind of works thematically for a title called Justice League Dark.

 


 

For more not-so-new-52 coverage, check out Steve's other One Year Later essays:

 


 

Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.

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