I love comics. I love them because, and often despite, of the fact that I worked as a comic retailer for seven years and still work as a comics journalist. In that time I’ve seen every side of the industry, from the boundless enthusiasm and talent of the small press to the very best and worst of comics journalism and the innumerable times politics and personality clashes have destroyed good books at the highest level. I’ve also, like all comic fans, got used to being disappointed.
Sometimes a book has a great idea and is killed by the creative team not speaking (The Scott Lobdell run on Wild C.A.T.S.), sometimes a book has a great premise which falls apart when editorial realize just what it is they’re publishing (Jack Cross) and sometimes a book has the right concept, the right creative team, is genuinely brilliant and…no one but you cares (S.W.O.R.D.). You get used to disappointment and, if you’re a certain kind of comic fan, you live in the ever decreasing circles of the books you liked and still buy out of habit, still nursing grudges older than the decade. Ask the right people about whether it was a good thing Hal Jordan was replaced by Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern for example and you’ll still get snarled at. It’s like the Mods and the Rockers, just more bookish. You like what you like, and anything else can get stuffed.
I always tried not to approach things that way, and over the course of my time at the store I tried to read as wide a range as possible. I enjoyed a lot of manga, especially titles like >Parasyte and anything by Masamune Shirow, went through my thin people vogueing around the supernatural phase with Top Cow, read Grant Morrison’s Justice League and waded my way through the jungles of the never ending crossover DC seemed to run for ten straight years in the 1990s. You do the job, you read the books and if you read the books, you learn about different ways to tell stories and if you learn about different ways to tell stories then you can learn how to tell stories better yourself.
That last one isn’t so vital for me these days, as I continue to gambol (Or perhaps, gamble) merrily in the fields of Nonficitonia, but the rest remains good advice. Stay open, stay enthusiastic. You find great things if you do.
And sometimes, you’re disappointed, which brings me to Justice League Dark volume 1: In The Dark.
Let’s get the positive out of the way first, the central idea here is nothing short of brilliant. The book is designed to take a group of characters that have existed off to one side for years, in the adult/horror/crime/whatever we’re pointing at when we say Vertigo imprint Vertigo, and drag them kicking and screaming into the central DC universe. These are all supernatural characters in a superhero’s world and it’s a dead heat as to which is more uncomfortable about that. Madame Xanadu is a fortune teller, Shade the Changing Man is an alien capable of warping reality, Zatanna is a world famous stage magician who is actually a magician and John Constantine is a chancer, a mage with very few morals, a very dark past and precious little inclination to play well with others. They’re joined by Boston Brand, aka Deadman, a ghostly superhero who can possess the living and are called together to try and find out why murderous copies of the same woman are appearing all over the US. The Justice League have already tried and failed, Xanadu is tormented by visions of the dreadful future that will occur if they don’t pull together and so, reluctantly, they do. It’s an interesting central idea, and one which repositions these characters as neatly filling a niche that the DCU previously left open. Their heroes are vulnerable to magic, magic is what these characters do so by the end of this book they’re not only firmly ensconced in the universe but they have status and a reason to be there.
The other good news is Mikel Janin, who’s art is a nice combination of anatomically solid, some fantastic page layouts that mirror the chaos being unleashed and moments of flat out queasy horror. This is a book that doesn’t pull any punches, more on that in a moment, and the moments where it cuts loose really work. The swarm of poisoned teeth is a memorably horrific sequence as are the various scenes of the June Moones causing havoc as they wander across the planet. His composition’s good, his people look like people and that grounds the book in a way which is very much needed.
Unfortunately, that’s where the rot sets in. The costume design is a near-textbook example of the sexism encoded into a lot of contemporary comics. The men, with the notable exception of the cadaverous Brand, are incredibly fully clothed throughout. The female characters, with the exception of June herself, are an unending parade of basques and boob windows. This isn’t Jim Lee 1990s era bad, after all some of these women actually appear to have pelvises and many of them look like they could walk unaided, but it’s still a massive, glaring oversight in the design of the book, and one which bleeds over into the characters.
To be clear, this is a series starring a fortune teller, a magician, a dead man, a demented metaphysical alien, an occult chancer and an unbalanced assassin who kills people with his soul. This is not a cuddly group. This is not a group that can even see cuddly from where they are and almost all of them have enough back story to be folded neatly into the book. Constantine in particular has a decades long tradition of gathering a circle of friends around him and ensuring they’re all brutally sacrificed for the greater good. Putting these people together requires the minimum possible effort.
Milligan provides the maximum and it fails spectacularly. It’s as though he’s taken every character and turned them dark to fit in with the book, even though they’re plenty dark already. Xanadu, a woman cursed with the ability to see the future is now addicted to the drugs that control her condition, Shade spends his days frantically building copies of his dead girlfriend and trying to reconcile with them before they realize they’re fakes, Constantine is a perennially grumpy sociopath who’s powers are boosted by physical pain and who solves the problem in the most dramatic, and at the same time flattest, way possible and Zatanna has been transformed from the authoritative, wry embodiment of magical power into a basque wearing, mentally unstable Trinity knock-off. Elegance and power traded for a cheap postmodern reference and a little more décolletage.
The most poorly served though is Deadman, who is transformed here from the amiable, sweet-natured character we’ve seen before into something closer to a libido in a bodystocking. His entire plot arc across the story is; possess man to try and get girlfriend to sleep with him, possess June to try and get girlfriend to sleep with her, get dumped, stick with June in a slightly sleazy manner, get June killed, mourn her and get angry. It’s a complete 180 degree turn from the character prior to this and the throwaway explanation for this, and all the other characters acting out; that Enchantress’ madness has infected them, feels tacked on, the frantic last minute hand of an editor, hand closing on the tiller. It’s a valiant attempt but all it does is shine a light on what appears to be a script dead set on taking naturally dark characters and turning them all the way up to 11.
Now, let’s talk about violence. I have no problem with violence in my fiction, provided it’s there to serve a purpose, just as I have no problem with violence in my reality, provided I’m either watching it take place in a ring or a cage or training in it myself. Comics are based on punch ups, they’re based on spectacle and action and that’s where some of the book’s strongest moments are. The Justice Leagues’ disastrous assault on the Enchantress is brutal and unsettling and Xanadu’s team’s own assault has an air of attrition and effort to it that more comic action scenes need. This isn’t the 1980s, these people are fighting for their lives and getting roughed up doing it.
But even here, the book overcooks. In six issues three main characters get roughed up to the point where their noses are bleeding, which is, on the one hand, a useful piece of visual shorthand and on the other, all three of them are female members of the cast and whatever the intentions, that sends a message that could be read one of two ways. The charitable way is that the female characters are at least the physical equals of the men, have no problem getting bloody and can more than hold their own in a fight. The uncharitable way of looking at is another layer of ‘darkness’, another pointless coat of matte black paint on something that was black to begin with. All of this piles on top of itself, stacking ludicrous posturing and emoting so high that the book feels like one of those six issue wonders that clogged the shelves in the early ‘90s, all edgy characters, snarls and tattered capes until it reaches a literal, and physical, crescendo. Characters argue for almost no reason, characters ignore other characters because otherwise the plot collapse and most egregiously, Constantine briefly forgets he isn’t a 1970s police officer and slaps Madame Xanadu. The moment would be deeply uncomfortable, especially after the nosebleedfest, if A)Xanadu didn’t immediately slap him back and B)It didn’t feel so forced. This is dark, mature storytelling in the same way the very worst episodes of Torchwood were, juvenile fiction wearing shoes two sizes too big for it. It’s clunky, predictable, over wrought and in places flat out bad. It even ends on a dark cliffhanger, as Xanadu collapses and proclaims a man called Andrew Bennett is dead and Cain, the sire of all the vampires is risen. Which is nice but for the fact we have no idea who that is and those events tie into >I, Vampire, another DC title that isn’t even referenced here. Which, to be fair, at least means editorial had as much trouble keeping the book under control as Milligan.
Justice League Dark: In The Dark is the prettiest bad comic book I’ve read this year. Janin’s art is beautiful, the structure of the central concept is beautiful and there are flashes of the old Milligan in the script, even in amongst the ridiculous cheap sensationalism. It’s almost the worst possible start for a book like this and I’d be fascinated to see what the arrival of Jeff Lemire on script duties, starting from issue 9, does for it. By all accounts there’s a massive increase in quality and frankly, it needs it because I can’t remember the last time I read a comic with ideas and creative talent this strong, that was this difficult to love.