I have the first thirty issues of JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK sitting here waiting to be read, but rather than catch up before starting this review, I decided to just jump right into issue 31, written by J.M. DeMatteis with pencils by Andres Guinaldo and inks by Mark Irwin, Walden Wong & Allen Martinez.
My theory going into reading the comic was: I’m not going to understand a lot of what’s going on in issue 31. If I finish the book eager to catch up on the preceding thirty issues so that I can better understand the events of issue 31, then it’s going to get a more positive review than if I wind up not really caring. I’m just trying to make my job easier, here.
Because JLD’s corner of the D.C. Universe involves more magic and more shapeless, abstract ideas than just about any other, there’s a lot not to get when jumping in cold. I’m not sure how Alice Winter has apparently been trapped inside her own paranoid subconscious. I don’t know why Alice’s perception of Nightmare Nurse would be so menacing, because I don’t know their history. I’m not sure where the lines are drawn between delusion, illusion, and physical reality here. All of that has made my reading of issue 31 much more dreamlike, which I can only imagine works in the book’s favor.
The scene involving Asa’s transformation is effectively creepy and nightmarishly confusing. Even in the best horror comics, few writers and artists know how to effectively build tension. Here, DeMatteis and the art team need only a single page to build that creeping “something’s wrong here” feeling before delivering some beautifully gruesome closeups throughout the action scene that comprises the next couple of pages. Shades of The Exorcist Part III, here, with the kindly old granny springing suddenly into violent action.
The book’s playful relationship with existential themes provides some intriguing scenes. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, one of the most memorable chapters involves Holland transforming an alien planet into a self-made paradise. He animates what we can only call “vegetable-puppets” of friends and loved ones from the planet’s vegetation until he is visited by John Constantine, or a subconscious projection of John Constantine in the form of walking, talking vegetation. Through the voice of Constantine, Holland talks some sense into himself and finally abandons what he has come to realize is more prison than paradise.
In JLD 31, when the House of Mystery seduces Holland into staying on the team by transforming the room into a lush jungle setting with fruit so delicious he declares “I can actually taste its sweetness in my soul!”, he seems quite eager to be seduced without any further questioning as to the reality of his surroundings. What this scene suggests to me, and I may prove myself wrong after catching up on the backlog, is that Justice League Dark is less interested in wrestling with the line between real and unreal, and more concerned with telling stories that can seamlessly hop back and forth across the line as needed. Nothing needs to be “real” in JLD as long as it’s “real enough.” This seems like a refreshing take on an area of storytelling that can be a little too brooding and serious at times, and I can’t wait to catch up on the preceding thirty issues.
The book has a refreshingly playful approach to heavy themes, along with well-defined characters, great pacing and some beautiful art.
The characters and settings featured in Justice League Dark are comprised of all those dark fringe elements of the D.C. Universe. When you’re reading Swamp Thing and Superman abruptly shows up, it’s a bit of a surprise, a reminder that, “Oh yeah, this is a D.C. comic.”
As fun as that experience can be, like snapping out of a dream that seems to have gone on forever, it’s nice to simply see these characters in their own element without a ton of cameos and crossovers to carry them along.
I don’t want to just sit here and bash the trend towards a more cinematic approach to coloring comics, but given the presence of magic in these stories, every page seems to be obscured by digital special effects covering up the sharp linework of the drawing team.
I don’t want to be too harsh on this aspect of the comic as it’s really a matter of personal preference. I have an attachment to the confident, crisp look of old school hand-drawn effects like the Kirby Crackle, and I’m probably never going to be swayed by any Photoshop equivalent. I get that that’s just how comics are illustrated these days, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never get used to it.
Justice League Dark teams some of my favorite D.C. characters together in some of my favorite D.C. locations, it explores dark themes in a manner that can be surprisingly light and fairly entertaining, and it sidesteps the pitfall of magic-oriented stories devoting page after page to explaining the technical details of its world.
Overall, JLD is a refreshing, unique take on both superhero and horror content. Ultimately, issue 31 has me wanting to read more, and I’ll probably be up all night catching up on the backlog.