A little background: both series come from DC Comics, out of the 2011 company-wide reboot dubbed “The New52”. For the unfamiliar, the New52 was meant to bring in new readers by erasing or compressing DC’s decades-long continuity, and relaunching a bunch of new series that you would ostensibly be able to enjoy with little-to-no prior knowledge of the characters and/or universe.
As a part of the acclaimed DC Comics – The New 52 event of September 2011, a new type of super-team must come together when supernatural forces threaten the DCU – Justice League Dark!The witch known as The Enchantress has gone mad, unleashing a wave of chaos that not even the combined powers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg can stop. Shade the Changing Man, Madame Xanadu, Deadman, Zatanna, Mindwarp and John Constantine may be our only hope – but how can we put our trust in beings whose very presence makes ordinary people break out in a cold sweat? Critically acclaimed writer Peter Milligan brings together an unorthodox team for the most unnatural threats. With stunning art by up and coming star Mikel Janin, Justice League Dark Vol. 1 visits the unexplored corners of the DCU!Justice League Dark was a team-up book for some of DC and Vertigo’s more popular magic characters – and Shade the Changing Man – that ran from 2011 until March of this year. The first arc collected here was written by Peter Milligan, drawn by Mikel Janin.
In the Dark more or less covers the formation of the initial team – Madame Xanadu, Shade, Zatanna, Constantine, and Deadman, ft. Mindwarp – as they deal with a bizarre worldwide crisis caused by the reality-warping Enchantress, and for something that was supposed to be an easy jumping-on point for new readers, this was almost totally inaccessible for me back then. Even now it makes me scratch my head a bit.
Now granted, I haven’t developed much more familiarity with the magic branch of the DCU, but that might be part of the problem: I think this book assumes a familiarity that a lot of new readers might not have, especially with more obscure characters. While the main plot is supposed to be about the team members dealing with Enchantress’ powers, there’s a lot of panel-hogging character and domestic stuff, especially with Shade and Deadman, that feels random and out of nowhere for what is supposed to be a brand-new continuity. I shouldn’t feel like I’m jumping in in the middle of the show when this is issue #1, for god’s sake!
The other problem? A disjointed-as-fuck narrative.
The book flip-flops between different characters’ plotlines – Shade is summoned by Xanadu to help assemble the team, whose creation she’s foreseen as a necessity. Zatanna sets off to deal with Enchantress herself, after watching the Justice League fail. Deadman and Dove – completely wasted here – deal with June Moone, a young woman somehow involved in what’s going on. Constantine is literally sucked into the investigation by a magical portal.
While plotlines occasionally, briefly intersect, they mostly seem to run circles around each other, going in directions that feel unexplained and often arbitrary. It doesn’t help that the book has to cover the same relative period of time for 4-5 different people per issue, which limits plot progression and artificially expands the timeline. The combination of the two makes it feel as though there’s no real urgency for the characters to deal with this crisis, even when hundreds, maybe thousands of people all around the world are dying mad, violent deaths!
The other thing I noticed on this latest read-through? This book is crap with women. Despite the ratio for this first arc being slightly tipped in the ladies’ favor (5:4), the ladies are allowed to do absolutely jack. Let’s go through the list, shall we?
Despite being a grown fucking woman/supernatural entity/whatever, Enchantress spends the arc behaving like a scared child. She lashes out with her power, attacking those who get near and royally fucking up the world, but there’s no real agency to it. She just literally cannot mentally cope or control herself without June Moone. It’s a Scarlet Witch-esque breakdown that is resolved entirely without her involvement. By the time the story is over, we know absolutely nothing about the Enchantress except that June is her host, and when they’re together everything is fine and dandy.
Zatanna, despite being the most gung-ho about stopping Enchantress, is completely ineffectual in everything she sets out to do. In her first appearance she’s attacked, retreats, and has to be snapped out of a magical coma by Constantine. An issue or two later, she makes it out to Enchantress’ farmhouse hideaway, is immediately overpowered, and retreats. When the entire team finally gets to the farmhouse at the end of issue 4, both Zatanna and Xanadu, two of the most magically powerful women in the goddamn DCU, are incapable of defending themselves against Enchantress’ magic. Instead they rely on Shade to shield them, and when he begins to succumb to the Enchantress’ mind-fuck spell, Zatanna fucking kisses him to snap him out of it, rather than, yunno, doing magic herself!
And then like one panel later they both succumb to the mind-fuck spell, and they’re out for the rest of the fight.
Xanadu has an important role narratively, being the one to kickstart getting the team together, but after that she’s basically just a framing device. She narrates ominous shit while observing each plotline psychically, and having a drug habit that goes nowhere. Also everyone hates her for some unexplained reason? I mean, towards the end they reveal that Xanadu was the one who separated June from Enchantress and caused all this, presumably to give the JLD a reason to come together, but the characters treat her poorly even before that so IDK I guess it’s just more shit I’m supposed to know about already.
Honestly I’m a bit pissed about the Xanadu shit. The ’08 Vertigo series by Wagner and Reeder made Madame Xanadu one of my faves, and I’m more than a little salty she’s been so shit on since the reboot. None of her roles have afforded her much respect or dignity or power, and as a fan, that’s difficult to read.
Dove is stuck in the thankless role of “Deadman’s Girlfriend”, and adds nothing to the plot. Honestly, the domestic stuff with her and Deadman is some of the most baffling shit in the book. I don’t understand why it’s there, especially when their relationship is such a recent development in the pre-reboot continuity that is supposed to, you know, not exist anymore. Plus, she disappears from the series entirely after issue four, and Deadman spent most of the arc wanting to bone June Moone anyway, so why was Dove EVEN HERE?
And June fucking Moone…Christ, even calling her a walking plot device is being too generous. I don’t think she even passes the sexy lamp test, that’s how utterly useless her character is.
Yeah, despite having some of the most powerful, badass female characters in the DCU, this book manages to sideline and undercut them all. It’s Constantine who ends up really saving the day, with some unexplained last-minute help from Mindwarp, a murderer and near-rapist(?) with some history that we’re apparently just supposed to know about, who will never be seen again after this issue. Whatever.
Putting the writing aside for a moment, I will say, the art is spectacular. Mikel Janin’s pencils + Ulises Arreola’s colors = goddamn beautiful. Like A+, this shit is just stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Shade or Dove or Constantine or Zatanna look better, I mean holy christ, check these people out: They’re fucking gorgeous. Also, I adore this look on Zatanna, even the costume, which I know a lot of people weren’t fond of. I think it’s a stylish, modern update. It’s just a crying shame about the sameface. Yep, Zatanna and Xanadu have it baaaaaaad. If you weren’t familiar with the characters, you would be forgiven for thinking that their striking similarity might be a plot point. But no, they just couldn’t be arsed to give Xanadu thinner lips, or Zatanna shorter hair, or either of them different fucking faces.
The book is pretty embarassingly keen on awkward, fanservicey poses, too. You wouldn’t expect it, because the art looks so classy otherwise, but uhhhhh… Such a shame.
Panel arrangement can be really neat, though. So yeah look this book is just a mess. I like some of the ideas: the unreality is weird and dark and cool, and I liked Constantine’s unabashedly dick-faced way of wrapping up the Moone thing, but the plot is just so poorly organized and executed. I wanted to love this series so much: the concept was strong, the art was nice, and these are characters that I was super excited to see together. But it’s a poor introduction to the world and those characters, and just not a fulfilling reading experience.
ONE AND A HALF STARS
Thank god for I, Vampire!
As a part of the DC Comics – The New 52 event of September 2011, I, Vampire is reborn in this new ongoing series!For hundreds of years, vampire Andrew Stanton kept mankind safe from the horrors of the supernatural world, thanks to a truce he made with his ex-lover Mary, the Queen of the Damned. But now that truce has reached a bloody end and Andrew must do everything in his power to stop Mary and her dark forces from going on a killing spree – and she plans to start with the heroes of the DCU! Their past behind them, they find themselves ready to battle to the death…but only if those feelings really are all gone. Knowing the difficult battle before him, Andrew will have to work with John Constantine and Gotham’s Dark Knight, Batman! Writer Joshua Hale Fialkov and artist Andrea Sorrentino mix the world horror with super-heroes in one of DC Comics’ most exciting new series!So I, Vampire is the reboot of a lesser-known backup series that ran back in the ’80s, and it is wonderful. If we’re talking about the perfect jumping on point/crossover book for fans of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, this is it. Vicious, sexy vampires, not a lot of continuity to worry about, but still room for a Batman cameo – I, Vampire has it all.
I,V is the story of Andrew Bennett, self-hating vampire extraordinaire. He’s your standard angsty sulkpire – super-powerful, hunts other vampires, only drinks from animals, blah blah blah, you know the drill. What’s special about him is Mary – his progeny, lover, and arch-nemesis.
I love Mary so much you guys. Mary is a badass. Evil, but a stone-cold badass. She’s is the Lestat to Andrew’s Louie. She’s vicious and violent and believes vampires should rule over humans instead of hiding from them. So one day, she tells Andrew goodbye, raises a vampire army, and sets out to conquer the world. What I love most about Mary and I, Vampire is that the book takes her seriously as a villain and as a character. It doesn’t undermine her, and her villainy + others’ response to it isn’t gendered. There’s no bitch-this or whore-that, and Mary herself isn’t apologetic or sympathetic – obviously her vampires-are-oppressed-people shtick is bs. She’s not even overly sexualized which is like…astounding for comics.
I mean ok, she spends a lot of the series nude, but with Andrea Sorrentino’s sparse style and heavy inks, it’s a beautiful, feral, artistic sort of nudity. I wouldn’t exactly call that titillating. I mean, Mary’s wearing 100% less clothes and I’d still call that less fanservice-y than some of the stuff in JLD.
I’m also a big fan of her and Andrew’s relationship. They’re still in love, but that doesn’t keep them for genuinely trying to kill each other. Mary isn’t willing to give up her (bloody) aspirations for Andrew, and Andrew won’t go along with it for her sake. The first issue is mostly them laying out this impasse, and it’s an engaging way to start. Tainted Love, which collects issues 1-6, is mostly set-up. We learn about Andrew and Mary and their relationship, and watch Andrew collect his entourage as he sets out to end Mary’s bloody campaign. Because it’s the DCU, he crosses paths with Constantine and ends up fighting with Batman in Gotham, and it’s fun. The cameos are well-handled, reminding us of the shared universe without completely derailing the plot.
On the visual side, I’m a big fan of Andrea Sorrentino’s art + Marcelo Maiolo’s colors. They’re a formidable team, and the gritty, shadow-heavy style is perfectly suited for this book.
I will admit, there were times when I got a little frustrated, wanting to physically maneuver the book into better light so that I could see a character’s entire face for once, but eh, it’s not a dealbreaker.
Unfortunately, Sorrentino and Janin have a similar weakness: SAAAAAAAMEFAAAAAAAACE.
It’s not AS noticable in I, Vampire, because there aren’t as many characters, but if you’ve seen Sorrentino’s work anywhere else, especially in Green Arrow…prepare yourself. Andrew Bennett and Tig show up a LOT.
I, Vampire is a relatively short series, only three trades in total, but honestly I think that’s kind of a benefit. It’s a tight, solid book that manages to tell a complete story without overstaying its welcome. It’s not a groundbreaking concept or storyline, but the characters are interesting, the art is nice, and there’s a killer twist at the end of book one that makes the second and third volumes really fun to read. I would recommend just picking up all three at once, so that you’ve got the whole story available to you. This first volume is a bit of a tease.
THREE AND A HALF STARS
So there you have them! One solid Halloween read, and one trade to avoid completely!