Justice League Dark #1 is a strange comic. Demonic creatures appear on the street. An amnesiac woman generates a mass of dopplegangers in the middle of the freeway. Characters are attacked by storms of rotten teeth. Women melt, cows give birth to machinery, power stations turn sentient. We get a sense that these events are linked, due to an immensely powerful witch known as Enchantress going mad and imposing the chaos of her mind onto the outside world, and we are thrown into this chaos in media res. It’s all a bit overwhelming, and we are left feeling like the members of the Justice League who make a cameo here: that we’re a bit out of our depth.
It’s definitely strange in a good way, though. Writer Peter Milligan gives this whole first issue a haunting, ethereal quality that feels like a much better showcase for his creativity than the underwhelming Red Lanterns #1. As the narrative progresses, we get a steadily escalating sense of dread and foreboding, a tangible feeling that there is something seriously wrong with the world, and though the specifics may not yet be clear to us, the stakes are terrifyingly high.
If I had a complaint to make about Justice League Dark #1, it would be that John Constantine and Deadman are only featured for one page each. For me, the team lineup gathered for this comic is more exciting than the roster for the relaunched Justice League, and the two components of this lineup I was most interested in seeing were Deadman and especially Constantine. As a result, it was a bit of a disappointment only getting the briefest taste of the roles they might play in issues to come. That said, this does give us a taste of how they’re going to slot into the larger narrative, and I must say I prefer this approach of giving us a glimpse of the disparate threads before they come together than the Justice League approach of not even seeing all the characters featured on the front cover.
But the minimal involvement of Constantine and Deadman is compensated for with some rich characterisation of some of the other players. Zatanna is originally introduced working alongside Batman, suggesting that her history of being a Justice League ally is intact. But it soon becomes clear that, for this particular threat, Zatanna is much better equipped to combat it than her superhero friends, and she demonstrates that in a battle with the likes of Enchantress, she is much more of a force to be reckoned with than they are. We also get a couple of effective scenes with Madame Xanadu bookending the issue. Continuing on from her strong portrayal in Demon Knights a couple of weeks back, here we see a Madame Xanadu that is more experienced, seemingly more powerful, but also suffering from the greater knowledge now afforded to her. But, haunted and plagued by her own personal demons as she is, it seems it is Xanadu who will act as the catalyst to eventually bring our team together.
I was surprised to find that perhaps the standout characterisation of the whole issue was that of Shade the Changing Man. Now, I don’t really know anything about this character. I know of Shade the Changing Man as part of DC’s British Invasion that would eventually become the starting lineup of Vertigo, and I’m aware that it is Milligan’s most acclaimed work, but I’ve never got round to reading any of it, or regarding it with the same admiration as some of its contemporaries. But in a comic full of memorable set-pieces, Shade’s introduction is arguably the best scene of the bunch. For a total newbie to the character such as me, we are given an introduction to his powers and what he’s capable of, and we get a shocking twist on the familiar “hero’s girlfriend threatens to leave him if he keeps on choosing work over her” set-up. The recurring theme of this issue seems to be the tenuous, shifting nature of reality, and so it’s perhaps appropriate that someone with reality-altering powers such as Shade would play such a memorable role here. I’m now definitely curious enough to go back and check out Milligan’s earlier work with the character.
Perhaps, then, it was a wise choice to not place so much focus on Constantine and Deadman in the early going. Perhaps a lot of other readers are like me, where those two were the main draw, and so featuring the rest of the ensemble early on helps us to build enough of an attachment to those characters so that when they meet our favorites later on it feels like more of a big deal.
On the art front, Justice League Dark is pretty much flawless. A lot of the titles from under the Dark banner have stood out for their distinctive art, and the stylish work of Mikel Janin continues that trend. The script calls upon him to bring some pretty crazy stuff to life, and Janin more than rises to the challenge. The standout sequence from a visual perspective must surely be the Justice League’s attempt to battle Enchantress, providing us with a suitably ghoulish image of the mad witch towering over Superman, and segueing into a tableau-style layout that evokes the inventive work of Yanick Paquette on Swamp Thing #1.
But it’s not just the big set-pieces that Janin excels at. It’s the small things, too, like the way he is able to look a derelict farmhouse look dark and menacing even in bright, cloudless sunlight, or the way Batman always manages to find himself in shadow. Perhaps my favorite touch is the detail of Deadman. A lot of artists just draw his mask as his face, but Janin draws the character with a sense of depth, where the black void around his eye sockets suggest another face lurking deeper underneath the circus mask visible to us, and the red, glowing eyes give him a quality that’s more menacing than the ghostly hero usually attains.
Of course, speaking of the glowing red eyes is a reasonable point of transition to note how effectively the colors of Ulises Arrerola enhance the aesthetic of the comic. Rather than coloring this like a regular comic, Arreola gives everything a waxen, pastel-style shading, with the characters skin having a textured, flesh-like quality. The “almost real but not quite” effect adds to that eerie feeling permeating the book, making the comic look as strange as the story.
Justice League Dark #1 is a comic based largely around foreshadowing. We see the threads of a plot, and the players are carefully laid out before us, but this is almost entirely set-up. But it’s written and drawn compellingly enough that I’m already invested, and eager to see that story fall into place.