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Justice League Dark

Just over a year ago, DC Comics1 rebooted and relaunched their long list of comic book titles so they all began at Number 1 again. In addition to confusing bric-a-brac bargain hunters all over the world as they picked up a copy of the Superman number 1, DC also launched a range of new comic books, including Justice League Dark, which as silly names go, is up there with Green Lantern.

DC have a bunch of ‘supernatural’ heroes whom they’ve struggled to write about in the past. However, they announced that, during the reboot, they’d be moving some of the more obviously occult characters from their more grown-up range of comics back into their mainstream line, and this is why Justice League Dark features one of my favourite protagonists; the Liverpool-born, London-living, dirty-blonde bastard John Constantine2.

John Constantine cigarette pentagram

According to his creator, Alan Moore, Constatine’s look was inspired the musician Sting.

Unlike the usual sort of comic book hero, John isn’t a fireball flinging wizard; he’s cast more in the mould of a gritty occultist from an urban fantasy novel. Deceit and information are his weapons first and foremost, and his adventures tend to be very character focused dramas where the supernatural serves as a metaphor for more everyday horrors. So an odd choice for a leader of a what is essentially a version of The Avengers who fight vampires not aliens.

The weird thing is, it sort of works. Don’t get me wrong, the tales are rather silly and there’s nothing in Justice League Dark that hasn’t been done countless times in mainstream comic books. But there’s a charm to seeing a trench coat wearing cynic light up a cigarette whilst the world faces annihilation from this Vampire King or that ancient evil from beyond the stars. This is, perhaps, because we can believe wisecracking bravado from a bitter looking middle-aged man who’s still standing, despite clearly having been through hell.

It helps that the rest of the League are more brightly coloured; we get, for example Zatanna3, a top-hat wearing Las Vegas stage magician who can do almost anything with magic simply by focusing her will and saying what she wants doing backwards.

This has made her tricky to write for in the past, but because she’s in a book that focuses mostly on supernatural menaces, the writers get to limit her by making any threat worth her while resistant to her power. So she can deal with henchmen with a simple “skoom paz” spell, but can’t cut to the chase with a “dab gib tuo ekat” spell. This version of Zatanna is less light and more angry than previous incarnations, but balances out the team nicely.

We also get Deadman, a wise-cracking ghost in a silly costume, who’s been around for ages and is actually quite dull; character growth is limited if you’re a ghost, I suppose. The rest of the team changes, but these three seem to be our core team and they generate enough conflict and bickering between them to keep the book going.

I suspect the problem will be, that in the long run, Justice League Dark can only do a sanitised version of occult horror. These characters had been relegated to the more mature books for a reason, and actually making something scary without going for clichés like ancient evils and hordes of vampire requires tightly scripted, ongoing drama. They are hints that the book is attempting to go in this direction, but time has yet to tell if it can deliver the sort of chills needed to make this book stand out. I hope it does, but I suspect it will eventually yet another footnote in DC’s long list of abandoned ideas.

1: DC gave us Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Flash, and happen to be owned by Time Warner. DC’s premier superhero team is The Justice League, who have yet to have a good movie. Not to be confused with Marvel, who own Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Spider Man, who are owned by Disney these days. Marvel also gave us the The Avengers, and currently top dog, hero books wise.

2: John originally appeared in a 1985 issue of Swamp Thing, as part of a ‘mature minds’ range of comic books which eventually became known as the Vertigo line. The character eventually got his own book, Hellblazer and had some great writers during its long run, such as Warren Ellis and Mike Carey, and is currently in the hands of the under-rated Peter Milligan, all of which needs its own post. Hellblazer also inspired the movie Constantine, which also needs its own post and about half a bottle of whisky to write.

3: Zatanna, alas, doesn’t have her own book, as it keeps getting cancelled, and has been ‘reimagined’ many times. For my money, the best take on her so far has been Paul Dini’s run, who wrote her as stage magician first and a hero second. Though you could argue that Dini is at an unfair advantage as he’s married to professional illusionist, Misty Lee, who also looks good in a top-hat.

Categories: Comic Books
  1. October 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I will always remember Zatanna for The Brave and the Bold # 33. It is one of the best done-in-one issues I’ve ever read, along with “Seduction of the Gun” and “The Meaning of Life” (Shadow of the Bat # 72).
    If you like Lemire and unusual comic book heroes, you really should try Animal Man. It’s my favorite New 52 series (along with Team 7).
    What makes Animal Man so special is the way Lemire deconstructs the superhero mythology. For example:
    1) Superheroes tend to monopolize the attention of the reader, while Animal Man is constantly upstaged by the supporting characters of the series.
    2) Superhero comics usually don’t give much importance to the private life of their main character (they tend to focus only on the “costume on” part); in Animal Man, on the contrary, the private life of Buddy is the main theme of the series. In fact, it is rather infrequent to see Buddy with his costume on.
    3) Buddy is not perfect, and is not perceived as perfect by other people: in fact, in the 11th issue, when he tells his wife “It’s going to be okay”, she replies “Don’t give me anything of that superhero crap, Buddy.” That cut and thrust perfectly enlightens the philosophy of the series.

    • October 22, 2012 at 2:47 pm

      I plan to do a post on the Red, the Green and the Rot further down the line, though I’ll also need to talk through the Morrison run of Animal Man and the Moore take on Swamp Thing.

      • October 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm

        Great! Thank you for your reply! : )

  2. Emily
    October 24, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    Constantine does have Tilda Swinton being menacing as its one redeeming feature.

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