This is a post about Jeff Lemire’s ongoing run on Justice League Dark, but it’s also a post about DC’s “New 52” initiative. More broadly, it’s about how superhero publishers approach continuity issues in ever-expanding fictional universes. I’m coming at this as someone who was primarily raised on Marvel Comics, so I’ll start by getting my superhero comic book biases out in the open in order to get at why the current state of DC seems a bit dull and empty to me.
One book is particularly responsible for my allegiance to Marvel (and I use that term loosely, given its poor track record with Kirby and other shady business: I’m more tracing the history of my emotional sympathies with The House That Jack Built. That being said, I still buy and enjoy many Marvel books). That book is Infinity Gauntlet #2, which was released in the summer of 1991. I never got the first issue (and I only read it for the first time this year). But over the course of a few pages, nine year-old Jim was hooked. Hell, let’s start with the cover, one of those only-in-comics computer terminals with a ridiculous number of screens. I had a vague sense of who most of these characters were from occasional trips to the candy store, and from the packs of Marvel Universe Trading Cards I picked up in 1990 (Series 2, whose aesthetic more readily embraced the pre-Image style of Marvel’s stable of talent than 1, also came out that magical summer). But there were serious gaps in that body of knowledge, in addition to a bunch of unfamiliar faces.
It’s one thing to match faces to power levels and plot summaries. It’s another thing to read a book in which Iron Man short-circuits and drops from the sky (and no, dude had zero energy drink sponsors), a guy’s mouth gets erased from his face, Thor flies over an empty body of water where the islands of Japan used to float, and the Silver Surfer hangs out with Doctor Doom in Doctor Strange’s living room. And then there’s the return of Adam Warlock, which was a big deal despite the fact that I HAD NO IDEA WHO ADAM WARLOCK WAS. Jim Starlin didn’t waste any time with pages of backstory and pacing around. He was too busy playing with the half of the Marvel Universe he didn’t wipe out. And he was pulling strands from different corners of the universe: cosmic stuff, street-level heroics, Avengers teams, (the X-folks aside from Cyclops and Wolverine are absent, as is the Fantastic Four). He gave whole pages to Quasar and Cloak, for Pete’s sake. We kept up. We wanted more.
Marvel’s continuity has gotten just as convoluted and dull as its Distinguished Competition’s multiverse (multiverses?). The sequel to Infinity Gauntlet was called Infinity War, but all I remember from the one issue I bought back then was lots of people standing around in warehouses. But when Marvel’s writers embrace the weirdness of its vast universe – and, more importantly, let those diverse corners and histories bump into each other, rather than neatly sync up – I’m reminded of why I got so jazzed up about Infinity Gauntlet #2. Rick Remender, who may be close to my age, is the current writer at Marvel who does this sort of thing best, and I will basically follow him to any book he writes after Uncanny X-Force, a book which basically answered the question “What if every storyline in a comic was The Infinity Gauntlet?” with amazing results. His Uncanny Avengers book is similarly off the chain.
Let’s get to DC. First some context: in 1991, as Marvel was making heads explode with The Infinity Gauntlet, DC was giving its fans War of The Gods, a book that was apparently marred by editorial oversight and last-minute story revisions (similar issues would also plague Armageddon 2001 and its infamous “Who is Monarch?” storyline). At first glance, War of The Gods looks like it’s following Starlin’s script for The Infinity Gauntlet: diverse range of heroes and villains puts aside differences to combat insane threat to known universe. But it’s lacking both Starlin’s gusto (dude wiped out Japan in a panel like he was cracking his knuckles) and his characterization. Even at nine, I was pretty sure the devastation on display in The Infinity Gauntlet was going to be undone. The memorable bits were the character moments (which, by the way, I’m rattling off the top of my head in 2012): Captain America’s refusal to kneel to Thanos, Spider-Man’s pep talk to Cloak, the Hulk’s initial refusal of Adam Warlock’s call to arms. I’m more interested in how these characters are acting than where they’re going. This is why I wouldn’t buy a comic book that was nothing but illustrations of two dudes playing chess.
When I started this blog, I knew I’d probably want to at least check in on the JC that’s been walking around the DC Universe proper in recent years. In 2010 DC Comics began publishing Brightest Day, a year-long “maxi-series” about a collection of resurrected superheroes who had been brought back to life to complete particular tasks. I’m taking that summary from Wikipedia, because I did not read Brightest Day. But apparently I should have, because according to Wikipedia one character was brought back to life just so he could catch a boomerang, and that dude was not able to complete said task. Don’t worry: someone else caught it (Seriously: this happened). What’s more important is that Brightest Day #24 (2011), the issue in which the “To Catch A Boomerang?” drama unfolded, also featured the appearance of a young, foul-mouthed magician named John Constantine. While the DC Universe experienced a pretty drastic, line-wide “reboot” shortly after Brightest Day’s conclusion, Constantine continued to appear in the era of the “New 52,” primarily in the pages of Justice League Dark.
Despite my love of Constantine, I kept away from Justice League Dark for a while. The new John’s first full foray into the DC Universe occurred in Brightest Day Aftermath: The Search For Swamp Thing. I wasn’t too impressed with the preview pages that circulated on the web and in the back of various DC Comics, mainly because John’s “cockney” was almost at Claremontian levels of ridiculousness. Check out the panel down there. Mind the bollocks.
My main reason for picking up JLD was its writer, Jeff Lemire. I’ve enjoyed Sweet Tooth, and in the search for more Constantine content for this site I figured I’d give the start of his run a try. That being said, my interest in the New 52 line has waned a bit, for a few reasons. For example, one of the few New 52 books I grabbed off the bat was Animal Man, due to my enjoyment of Lemire’s work and my attachment to Grant Morrison’s run. The first major storyline of Animal Man is a study in How You Do It, up until its conclusion. Buddy Baker is reconsidering a return to the superhero life after some time spent re-visiting his old escapades as an actor playing the role of “Animal Man.” Strange things start happening. Travel Foreman’s artwork makes them stranger. The Baker family (and its pets) fend off the strangeness. But then the strangeness gets explained, as part of some mystical, color-coded war between Green and Red forces, and Buddy and his daughter are just doing what they’re supposed to be doing in the grand scheme of things, and so is Swamp Thing, who we should really go visit.
The whole DC Universe seems to be driven by plotlines that amount to whether or not a character will catch a boomerang at just the right moment in time, fulfilling his or her destiny, or not, which is somehow also all part of the plan, or it’s at least the impetus to another big moment in which someone catches a boomerang (this time with his eyes closed!). I’m teasing. As I mentioned, Lemire and Foreman were doing fun, scary work on Animal Man. But once the overarching plot became clear and domineering, I lost interest. For all I know, Animal Man might be doing some really interesting stuff over in Rotworld: please let me know if I should start picking it up again (and whether Swamp Thing is worth my time!).
Justice League Dark has been a mixed bag so far, but I’m cautiously optimistic about where it’s going. Lemire’s first issue is JLD #9, and it is a knockout as far as superhero team books go. The high concept here seems to be “What if John Constantine was Indiana Jones?” It’s a great hook, and it’s one that gives the DC Constantine character ties to his Vertigo counterpart (in the sense that both seem to acquire their share of artifacts and archives of occult knowledge) while ramping things up a bit for the necessary superhero operatics. JLD #9 begins in Raiders of The Lost Ark territory, with Constantine in over his head in the Amazon.
The connections to Indiana Jones (and Raiders in particular) are all over the place. In fact, Lemire knows that he has the space to tell some of the stories Spielberg and Co. couldn’t with Indy. Didn’t you want to know what was in that top secret government storage facility? Constantine’s working his way into its DC counterpart, a warehouse of seized magical items (that’s protected by Wonder Woman’s ex-boyfriend, Steve Trevor!). Want to know more about Abner Ravenwood, the mysterious archaeologist who trained Indy? Justice League Dark has…well, it has someone named Nick Necro in the role of Constantine’s magical instructor. We’ll come back to him in a bit.
JLD #9 has momentum and potential. Constantine’s is hired by Trevor to track down a rogue magician, and he manipulates his team of oddballs so that he can get what he wants with their help. Said team includes his old flame Zatanna (who is looking for more information about her allegedly dead father, Zatara, and who Constantine, in trademark bastard fashion, is stringing along), Deadman (who doesn’t seem to have much of anything else to do), Madame Xanadu (who stays on the margins in this issue), Black Orchid (a government agent, hired muscle attached to the group by Trevor). The team quickly loses one member (a vampire who is also a werewolf, I guess?) and picks up another (Doctor Mist).
The book is really Constantine’s show, first and foremost, for now at least. But while Lemire’s version of John walks, talks, and acts like the Constantine many of us are familiar with, he’s also a bit too much of a blank slate at this stage. He’s driven by curiosity and by power – most of Lemire’s run has found the team searching for The Books of Magic – but he’s playing his cards a little too close to the chest. There are prophecies and high stakes, but we’re not quite out of “Find the Cheerleader: Save The World” territory yet. The hunt for The Books of Magic already seems like it’s been going on for too long, and Felix Faust – the aging magician Constantine’s team takes out in its first issue – seems more like a Villain of the Week than a character worth keeping around for this long. Constantine and company gather items, crack jokes, gather more items, and so it goes. Eventually, everyone seems to be spinning their wheels a bit, which is a bummer because JLD #9 does almost the opposite.
Part of the problem seems to be that Lemire relies a bit too much on previous associations some readers might have with these characters. Constantine looks and sounds like Constantine, but we’re still don’t have much of his personal history here yet, his reasons for getting in (or wanting out of) the magic game. He and Zatanna flirt, but the relationship hasn’t developed much beyond the realm of slash fiction yet. The Books of Magic, The House of Mystery, and Timothy Hunter have all shown up, but they’re little more than Ramones t-shirts, cultural references masquerading as history.
And this is the real problem with DC’s “New 52” initiative, at least in so far as it affects a character like Constantine. John’s past can only be briefly alluded to, and right now he seems a bit dull as a result of these gaps. He hasn’t quite earned his swagger yet in this universe, and the pace of the book right now isn’t really affording him time to build up that history of bastardry. I called this post “Zero History” in part because these characters barely stand still in their present moment (and in part because I’m reading William Gibson’s “Bigend” Trilogy at the moment). Their discussions primarily concern a past we don’t have access to, and their actions are mainly motivated by the desire to prevent a future we’ll never see. There’s no real sense of place in this world yet: its magical universe is little more than lightsaber duels and prophetic visions.
The initial attempt to provide Constantine with a more concrete backstory took place in Justice League Dark #0, a book the Hellblazer forum did not seem all that crazy about. Here we learn the story of how the DC Universe’s John got his trademark trenchcoat. Lemire writes John as a young, superficial brat who’s about to learn his place in the world, courtesy of the aforementioned Nick Necro. Unfortunately, the life lessons don’t really play out in a very interesting manner here. Necro is a bit of a cipher here: his main beef with John is that John stole his girl, it seems. And the storytelling lacks the style that a story about magicians acting like biker brats should: the clubs John, Nick, and Zatanna (the aforementioned girl) frequent are network television goth hangouts, the cult that’s hunting Necro seems like little more than low-rent goons, and most of the character development seems to take place off the page. Of course, maybe Lemire is setting up this Constantine character for a really big fall: maybe he hasn’t learned anything, and Necro will easily knock him off his pedestal and take back what John hasn’t earned yet. John doesn’t have to learn anything, but the story of his lack of development still needs a bit of work at this stage.
There are signs of life in Justice League Dark beyond its solid opener, and I’m hoping that the book can ultimately break away from the chain of prophecies and Macguffins, or at least shift the focus more onto the new world these characters are inhabiting. While the pacing is fairly glacial at the moment, my hope is that Constantine and his companions get more to do once the world they inhabit become a bit more solidified. At the moment they’re cruising through a vacuum of retconned continuity in a flying house, but that’s not really their or Lemire’s fault, per se. A.R.G.U.S., the government agency Trevor works for, is an interesting concept: I’m always a sucker for stories where technology and magic run headfirst into each other, and the organization seems like a useful tool to help Lemire and Co. start mapping the contours of DC’s magical terrain. Said terrain seems to be getting weirder by the issue: while I’d grown a bit tired of Felix Faust and the shadowy manipulations of Necro, JLD #12 closes with an ancient priest made out of trees and the self-proclaimed Cannibal King of The Fire Trolls. Here too the art team of Mikel Janin and Ulises Arreola springs to life a bit. For most of the run the two have turned in solid if uneventful storytelling, art that calls to mind Mike Deodato’s contributions to various Marvel books during the “Dark Reign” / Norman Osborn era. They’re fine at drawing a group of people in bright costumes bickering with each other and completing relatively mundane tasks. But Lemire should throw more fire trolls their way.
If Lemire doesn’t limit himself to the typical set of magical spells and nondescript demons, he could be on to something. Descriptions of later issues promise new team members, trips to different planets, and no sign of Felix Faust. I’m obviously not privy to the editorial discussions and conversations that help form a book like Justice League Dark, but my suggestion is that they embrace the sort of pulp-y craziness present in Raiders and in their contemporaries over in the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. camps. And don’t be afraid to shake up the Constantine formula: if anything, this book could use some breaks with the original mold. When Lemire and company branch out a bit, the project’s potential reveals itself. I’m happy with a Constantine that shares air with tights-wearing super goofs. As many readers know, Vertigo’s flagship characters used to wander around the DC Universe in the days before a separate imprint was established in 1993. Prior to that you’d see Morpheus checking in on the Martian Manhunter from time to time, the Justice League scratching their heads at the Doom Patrol, and Swamp Thing occasionally clogging up the streets of Gotham with plants. It got weird. I’d be happier with a bit more messiness, more cracks and detours, a bit less continuity and a lot more gusto.
Justice League Dark is currently being published by DC Comics. Most of the art from this post is taken from issues 9-12 and #0. Written by Jeff Lemire, with art by Mikel Janin and colors by Ulises Arreola on 9-12; art by Lee Garbett (P), Cam Smith, Jack Purcell, Scott Hanna, Walden Wong (Inks), and Pete Pantazis (C) on #0. The Infinity Gauntlet #2 (1991) is written by Jim Starlin; art by George Perez (P), Joe Rubinstein (I), and Christie Scheele (C). Random Captain Boomerang panel nabbed on Google Image Search. War of The Gods cover art by George Perez.