R.I.P. The New 52: a look back at Justice League Dark

Almost exactly four years ago, DC Comics cancelled all their monthly comic book series, just to relaunch most of them again as ‘The New 52’. I hesitate to call this a proper reboot, for reasons I have discussed here before. Anyway, now (in May/June) they have done the same thing once again, at last dropping the ‘New 52’ label: approximately half of the monthly series was cancelled, while the other half was renumbered to #1.

Several other weblogs have taken a look back at the 3 1/2 years of The New 52, among which I particularly recommend Steve Foxe’s “In Loving Memory: All 68 DC Comics That Have Come and Gone Within the New 52” at Paste. The general consensus seems to be that The New 52 was a bold marketing decision that may have made sense commercially, but in terms of the quality of the actual comics, not much really stood out.

If I get Foxe right, 93 ongoing series had been launched at some point during The New 52. Out of these, 25 have been relaunched and continued to the present day, while approximately 47 were cancelled already before this latest relaunch (i.e. after the ‘Convergence’ crossover event). The former consist of mainstays such as Batman and Action Comics, while among the latter we find mainly obscure oddities that were probably doomed from their very beginning, e.g. G.I. Combat or All-Star Western.

This leaves us with ~21 titles that sit in the middle, having made it to their 40th issue, but not being continued in this new iteration of the DC comics line. From a commercial perspective, these comic books seem to have ultimately failed too. But wasn’t there something in them that might be worth remembering? Didn’t all the effort that creators put into them amount to more than a mere footnote in the history of American superhero comics?

With this question in mind I re-read all 40 issues (plus Annuals and the like) of Justice League Dark, the only New 52 series I happened to have collected from start to finish. (More precisely, I started from #9, then got the first trade paperback and #7-8 later.) Instead of summarising the story, I picked the following 20 most memorable moments in Justice League Dark, in chronological order of publishing, to show that this series (and probably others with mediocre sales performances) might deserve a second look.

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1. JLD #1 The very first issue (by Peter Milligan (w) / Mikel Janin (a) / Ulises Arreola (c)) is already full of brilliant ideas. Take the opening page, for instance: Madame Xanadu sits there and seems to look at the reader, while her tarot cards float around the room, some of them face-up towards the picture surface for the reader to see. (This is a composition that refers to earlier ones, two of them pictured in the Madame Xanadu Wikipedia Article.) The tarot cards show who be the protagonists of this first story will be: Deadman, Enchantress, Mindwarp (who actually turns out to not play much of a role), Constantine, June Moone, and Zatanna. The cards are labeled with the traditional tarot card names – ‘The Magician’, ‘The Fool’, ‘Death’, etc. What better way to start a story? You could even argue that the cards are on a different diegetic level and only there for the reader – after all, why and how would Madame Xanadu make such a tarot deck? Then again, the cards are shown several more times in the story and seen by other characters too.

panel from Justice League Dark #1

2. JLD #1 Peter Milligan lend a dark sense of humour to his stories that neither Jeff Lemire nor J. M. DeMatteis, Milligan’s successors as writer of the book, ever accomplished. In this issue, supernatural phenomena suddenly occur, most of them only briefly told in one panel. My favourite one has the following caption text: “In a neighboring town, a shower of books in a dead language kill six people.” Get it? “Dead”? “Kill”?

3. JLD #1 Generally, Peter Milligan’s version of the Justice League Dark was much darker than that of the writers that followed. Almost all of our ‘heroes’ are shown to have a dark side. Madame Xanadu, for instance – otherwise a rather bland character – is shown to be addicted to some kind of drug. “How much of this stuff are you doing?”, she is asked by Shade, holding a phial in his hand.

4. JLD #2 In the first few issues, Milligan needs to introduce a lot of characters, and he does a brilliant job of it when it comes to Deadman. Deadman is a ghost, and the only way he can touch and be touched is to possess a living person. Things get awkward when he wants to do that to sleep with his girlfriend, who is not so keen (“You’re asking me to sleep with another man”).

5. JLD #5 What all JLD writers emphasise is that the JLD is quite a fragile superhero team. Consequently, the first break-up of the JLD already happens in the fifth issue (and it’s not going to be the last). “I’m going, and I don’t ever want to see any of you again”, says Constantine.

6. JLD #8 John Constantine and his irreverent attitude has been the biggest draw of this book for me. Madame Xanadu: “My ‘project’ didn’t last as long as I’d hoped, but… but I truly believe… that is has been worthwhile.” – Constantine: “Worthwhile my jacksey. We might as well all have stayed home and got pissed.” (Jeff Lemire came up with some good Constantine one-liners too when he took over in #9 – Steve Trevor: “Around ARGUS we’ve even taken to nicknaming you the ‘Justice League Dark.'” – Constantine: “That is the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.”)

three panels from Justice League Dark #9

7. JLD #9 Jeff Lemire’s first JLD issue is generally another apex of the series. There’s an ingenious example of medium specificity in the scene in which Constantine wakes up with a “truly epic hangover”. A voice says to him, “We need to talk.”, and Constantine answers,  “You didn’t spend the night, did you, sunshine? I mean, I was drunk, but I don’t think I was that drunk…” Perhaps it needs to be mentioned that in this series, Constantine is not written as bisexual, so the reader might expect he is talking to a woman. On the next page, the person turns out to be Agent Steve Trevor, who visits Constantine strictly on JLD business. If this was a film, it wouldn’t be half as unexpected, because Trevor’s voice would be recognisable as a male one.

double page from Justice League Dark #9

8. JLD #9 Another brilliant display of medium specificity are the gutters between the panels in the same issue: when the JLD enter an ancient Peruvian temple, the gutters are shaped like spiderwebs. This is a kind of foreshadowing, because not until the next page, spiders (well, human/spider monsters) actually appear.

9. JLD #10 A trio of villains, the “Demons Three”, are introduced on a splash page. The way in which they are presented is charmingly old-school: facing the reader, delivering a short monologue, speaking in custom lettering. Throughout the series, beautifully designed villains are depicted in this way, most notably “Black Boris” and “Blackbriar Thorn” in #12, “Blight” in #27, and “The Between” in #32. This ‘Monster of the Week’ pattern, however, becomes tiresome at some point and brings us such underwhelming villains as “Pantheon”, “Pralayah”, and “The Beyond Beyond”.

two panels from Justice League Dark #12

10. JLD #12 Some more medium specificity: when Doctor Mist says to Zatanna, “I will deflect your backwards magic right back at you”, he turns her speech bubble with backwards speech into a sound effect (in which the letters appear in normal order) which he throws at her.

11. JLD #0 Each New 52 series got a ‘Zero Issue’ in which the origin story was told (similar to the later Secret Origins series, but tied to comic books rather than individual characters). A charming detail of this one (still written by Jeff Lemire, but pencilled by Lee Garbett) is that we get to see how Constantine got his iconic trench coat.

12. JLD Annual #1 Lemire’s story is hopelessly convoluted, but it’s a nice twist when the villain, Nick Necro, tells Zatanna that it was him who formed the JLD in the first place, in order to get the Books of Magic. “You weren’t so hard to get on the team, Zee, but can you imagine how difficult it was to convince anyone to put John Constantine onto a super hero team? I tell you, getting out of hell was easier.” Maybe a(nother) metatextual stab at the concept of the whole series?

panel from Justice League Dark #14

13. JLD #14 When Black Orchid explores the House of Mystery (Constantine’s home), she stumbles upon a room in which Constantine keeps files on many superheroes, including Orchid herself. This is a much-needed recap of some of the things going on in the DC universe (in other books mostly). At the same time, it’s fun to see how close Constantine is to revealing the secret identities of Superman and Batman (which the reader is only able to tell through extra-textual information).

14. JLD #15 The JLD is teleported to some kind of magical counter-world in which the JLD members turn into their opposites: the immortal, ageless Madame Xanadu turns into an old woman, Deadman becomes alive again, and Constantine can’t tell lies anymore. The latter aspect becomes relevant for the overall story arc when we learn that Constantine’s feelings for Zatanna are apparently true.

15. JLD #24 J. M. DeMatteis takes over as the new JLD writer, and he takes Constantine on a “Magical Misery Tour” on which he confronts his inner (?) demons. A well-written exploration of Constantine’s character – although one could argue it’s a little out of place in a team book.

panel detail from Justice League Dark #26

16. JLD #26 Swamp Thing has recently joined the JLD, and what I like best about him is when he transforms himself, e.g. grows wings. In this issue, he briefly turns into some sort of whale.

17. JLD #27 In order to defeat the villain Blight, who is the embodiment of evil, Constantine and Nightmare Nurse decide to fight fire with fire and invoke the “Blackmare Curse”. This spell “drills down into the deepest pits of the soul… unleashing all the darkness there”, which turns the two into fierce monsters. Naturally, the Curse works better the more corrupted and depraved its evocators are. Thus we are given another little piece of the puzzle that is the true nature of John Constantine’s character.

18. JLD Annual #2 Another interesting spell is the “K’Am’Deva Curse” with which Zatanna rips Constantine’s heart out of his chest so that he loses all feelings for her, and all memories of ever having loved her. The explanation why they do this is that the bond between them acts as a “magical battery” for some supervillains. At the end of the issue the two get separated when Zatanna is sucked into a “whirling hole in space and time” (#35). Things get awkward when they meet again in the final issue.

19. JLD #35 Zatanna emerges in another parallel world in which she meets her father, Zatara the magician, who was supposed to be long dead. Zatara tells her he had found a “doorway through time” through which he took his wife and little daughter with him and settled in a world were “thought itself would instantly become manifest reality” and “no one grows older”. Wait – his daughter? Zatanna realises there’s something not quite right about Zatara’s story… I won’t spoil the ending, but ultimately this story turns out to be a nice version of the old ‘dream within a dream’ theme. On the flipside, this is once again not much of a ‘team book’ story, and it’s too bad the book is no longer drawn by Mikel Janin at this point.

cover of Justice League Dark #36

20. JLD #36 Towards the end of the series, an old villain returns: Felix Faust, the ancient sorcerer. Except he is in the shape of a monstrous caterpillar now. I like him best in the cover image (by Guillem March and Tomeu Morey), in which I only saw the caterpillar monster gripping the herous with its tentacles at first, and only later did I spot Faust’s tiny head at the end of the monster. This is probably one of the best JLD covers after Ryan Sook had stopped doing them (#14 was Sook’s last one, I think).

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DC’s The New 52 – cool or not cool? Part 2/2

Earlier this week I looked at three comic book series from The New 52, and found that the first issue of each wasn’t very newbie-friendly, contrary to what DC had advertised. Let’s analyse three more titles today and assess their jumping-on adequacy.

Batwoman #1

Batwoman #1

Language: English
Authors: J. H. Williams III (writer/artist), W. Haden Blackman (writer), Dave Stewart (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Released: 2011-09-14
Pages: 22
Price: $2.99
Website: still no series information at DC.

A lot of people seem to like this series, or more precisely, J. H. Williams’s art. I for one found it too sexploitative even by mainstream superhero comics standards, and consequently didn’t bother to read Batwoman past this first issue. The story starts with a supernatural crime case which both Batwoman and the Gotham City Police Department try to solve. Intercut are some scenes of Batwoman training her sidekick, and of a mysterious organisation that is probably more prominently featured in later issues. This setup is straightforward enough to grasp the basics of this setting, but then again there are many references to previous events, such as the double page on which Batwoman talks to her father about the past, with a background filled with scenes that are inscrutable for the new reader.

Jumping-on point rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Swamp Thing #1

Swamp Thing #1

Language: English
Authors: Scott Snyder (writer), Yanick Paquette (artist), Nathan Fairbairn (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Released: 2011-09-07
Pages: 22
Price: $2.99

As I’ve written in my previous reviews of this series, Scott Snyder doesn’t make it clear right away whether or not protagonist Alec Holland really is the Swamp Thing. In his dialogue with Superman, Holland says that he once was Swamp Thing but has renounced this superhero identity. At the end of this issue, Holland and the Swamp Thing (or ‘a’ Swamp Thing) are in fact shown as two distinct figures talking to each other.

Again, past events are referenced heavily in this book, but this time, it feels more like a deliberate, clever element of ambiguity, rather than as if you’re missing out on something if you haven’t read all previous Swamp Thing comics. For those readers already familiar with Swamp Thing, there are several easter eggs to be discovered in the drawings in the form of fictitious company names on labels which pay tribute to the original Swamp Thing creators.

Jumping-on point rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Justice League Dark #1

Justice League Dark #1

Language: English
Authors: Peter Milligan (writer), Mikel Janin (artist), Ulises Arreola (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Released: 2011-09-28
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99

I’ve already written about the art of this series in a previous post, but let’s focus on the story here: as in some of the other comics, mysterious supernatural things happen, and superheroes investigate. The Justice League fails, though, and the clairvoyant Madame Xanadu assembles a team that is more apt to deal with mystical threats – the eponymous Justice League Dark (although that name isn’t used here). Thus, this first issue is a typical team origin story. Each member is introduced briefly and we learn about their respective powers, except for Deadman, who is only featured on two panels for the time being. This book requires some basic knowledge of the Justice League, e.g. Zatanna’s affiliation. More importantly, the Justice League members refer to the villain, the Enchantress, as a familiar figure, although new readers probably won’t have heard of her.

Jumping-on point rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

 

To sum up, hardly any of the six New 52 number ones I’ve read are particularly good jumping-on points. This is mainly due to the editorial decision to maintain the status quo: if you have all these characters and their backstories and their established settings and back-up casts, why not continue to use them? Any major change would have angered the old readers, and DC didn’t want to risk that. That’s why their comics are still not attractive for new readers.

Apparently, DC’s business strategy is to hold on to the old readers and make them buy as many comics as possible, which is why they let “crossover mania” break out in each New 52 title. Before too long, the continuity of the DC universe will be so messed up again that the next half-hearted “reboot” will be necessary to unravel it. Eventually, the target audience won’t take note anymore.


Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion – in comics?

Heinrich Wölfflin once said, “not everything is possible in every period.” Ernst Gombrich takes this statement as a starting point in his book Art and Illusion (first published in 1960 but based on a lecture series from 1956) and asks: if artists always want to represent what they see as accurately as possible, why do their results look so different from period to period? In other words: why does art have a history?

Gombrich’s main explanation is the “tenacity of conventions”. There is an “enormous pull in man to repeat what he has learned”, and only “exceptional beings” are occasionally able to “break this spell and make a significant advance” (pp. 24-25). That’s why, according to Gombrich, art has slowly become to look more and more lifelike.

So where do comics fit into this model? Gombrich actually mentions them as part of the “victory and vulgarization of representational skills” (p. 8), which had become ubiquitous in the (i.e. Gombrich’s) present day. Is that really the end of the story? Do comics constitute the apex of artistic illusion? Probably not. I think comics retain some features which Gombrich assigns to earlier periods, or “primitive” art.

One of these features is the treatment of local colour. In earlier times, artists didn’t try to represent the colour of an object as they perceived it (not an easy task, as Gombrich explains), but instead chose colours that fit into a specific overall tonality, as was demanded by the taste of the public of that day (chapter I).

Another feature of primitive art is to show each object in its “characteristic shape” (p. 302) – a horse from the side, a coin from above, etc. -, rather than to employ a “purely visual mode” (p. 19) with foreshortenings and intersections. (In a way, this “visual mode” is similar to Svetlana Alpers’s “Albertian mode”.)

When I was reading the first Justice League Dark trade paperback the other day, I found traces of both of these “primitive” characteristics in it. Justice League Dark was (at that time, 2011) written by Peter Milligan, drawn by Mikel Janin, and coloured by Ulises Arreola. I’ll write more about this interesting series in a later post, but for today, let’s look at p. 9 of the third issue.

Justice League Dark #3, p. 9In this scene, the superhero Deadman tries to stop June Moone, who is possessed by an evil witch, to jump from a rooftop. In panels 1, 3 and 4, the colour of that rooftop is black. In the last panel, its colour has suddenly changed to a textured grey, even though the lighting remains unchanged. Which is the “right” colour of the roof surface? That’s hardly possible to say. If it’s made of concrete or a similar material, it could appear greyish in daylight, but the scene takes place at night, so it might just look black. The reason for the colour change is, I believe, a pragmatic one: in the last panel, the roof on which Deadman and June are standing (or falling from, respectively) has to be distinguishable from the other rooftops of the surrounding buildings, so one is grey (thus adding the benefit of allowing to show shadows) and the others are black. (Another instance of a colour change is the reddish background of the second panel, but then again, Justice League Dark is full of such eerie glows.)

As for the second feature, June Moone’s face (her “characteristic shape”) is always shown more or less frontally on this page, regardless of where her body is orientated towards. Often, the figures in this comic are reminiscent of amateur stage actors who are taught to always face the audience so that they can be heard better. Deadman is shown twice frontally and twice from behind, but his red-and-white shape is easily recognised from any point of view – unlike June Moone, the unexceptional supporting character. We need to see her face to instantly recognise her.

I’m not saying the art in Justice League Dark is bad. It’s just in accord with the current style in mainstream superhero comics, which values clarity higher than accurate representation of the artists’ perception. The readers need to be enabled to easily read the comic and identify the important elements on the pictures, in order to understand what’s going on in the story. The story, not the look, conveys the atmosphere. In such a paradigm, there is no place for ambiguity.

That being said, Art and Illusion is a rich and diverse book. For a different connection to comics, see Nicolas Labarre’s article “Art and Illusion in Blutch’s Mitchum” at The Comics Grid. Also of interest to the comics researcher might be chapter X of Art and Illusion, “The Experiment of Caricature”.