This month’s JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK by J.M. DeMatteis, Andres Guinaldo and Walden Wong is a good example of what happens when all of your characters are magicians: you can do anything. You can bring a character back to life a page after you’ve killed them, and you can devise a magic spell to accomplish anything you need to happen in order to move the story forward.
This can result in really weak storytelling, and I won’t say that JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK never abuses magic as a plot device, but I feel that this is a rare comic that is actually strengthened by the fact that there’s always a magical solution to every possible problem. There’s always some forgotten spell that they can throw in there to save the day, or a magic trick a badguy can pull to get the story in gear.
JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK shines brightest in how it builds a scene, and how the characters interact with one another. The “anything goes” approach to magic in the series prevents the stakes from ever feeling very high, which lends the comic a lighter nature than most superhero monthlies even as it explores darker-than-usual environments.
Because you know that they’re gonna save the day with magic by the end of every scene, more focus is put on how the characters perceive their world and one another. We know that when Nightmare Nurse makes a heroic sacrifice, that she’s probably gonna be just fine, but she doesn’t know that and John Constantine and Swamp Thing don’t know that, so the faith Deadman puts into her really counts for something.
In other words, the series is kind of low-stakes for the reader, but not for the characters.
The character writing is very strong. Even as they go through some fairly routine arcs, learning to trust one another, bickering about who’s on whose side and so on, the personalities of Constantine, Zatanna, Asa, Deadman and Holland all come through, and looking forward to a new issue is a little like looking forward to the next episode of a favorite sitcom.
You watch Game of Thrones to find out what happens next, you watch Community to hang out with your favorite make-believe pals. JLD is like that: I’m not always deeply concerned with what happens next, but I always enjoy the time I spend with the cast.
Is it great drama? It doesn’t have to be. There’s room in the DCU for the Cheers of supernatural hero comics. There’s even a bit of Sam Malone in John Constantine.
In terms of presentation, JLD is one of the most consistently visually appealing series running right now. Shots of The Between, the House of Mystery flying through the sky in alternate dimensions, it’s one of the coolest books to look at. Guinaldo’s pencils find some surprising camera angles and poses, while Wong’s bold inking is reminiscent of Steve Gibbons at times without being a total clone of the WATCHMEN artist, creating very three-dimensional images. Closeups of Deadman are especially strong. It looks like it must have been a lot of fun to sculpt all the heavy wrinkles on Boston’s face.
I could ask for more compelling drama, for the magic to be toned down to create a little more suspense in these books, but I have no problem with what JLD is: a free-flowing, imaginative, character-driven take on supernatural hero tales. I could read a series about these guys playing poker and arguing over whose turn it is to buy the pizza.
Strong art and good character writing carry the series. Every issue is another twenty odd pages in which to hang out with some favorite fictional friends.
Swamp Thing and Deadman are clearly among the artists’ favorite characters to draw. Every panel with these two in them features some knockout inks and great, expressive faces.
Character development is a strong point for the series. After one issue you’ll feel like you really get the different characters and how they relate to each other, which isn’t always easy given the fast pace and broad action scenes that tend to dominate superhero comics.
As much as I enjoy the lighter weight of the stories in JLD, I do wonder what the series would look like if magic wasn’t such an easy solution to most of the problems the characters face. However, the series’ strong suit really is the character interaction and I wouldn’t dream of wishing for any changes that would compromise that.
Although magic can be a little too easy of an out for any danger the characters face, strong character writing, beautiful art and just the right amount of humor make JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK one of the best monthlies from the eerier side of the DC Universe.