Justice League Dark Volume 2: The Books of Magic
Collecting Justice League Dark #0, 7-12; Justice League Dark Annual #1
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Mikel Janin
DC Comics, $16.99, color, 224 pages
There's a lot to like about Justice League Dark, but there's a lot lacking as well.
At first blush, it makes a lot of sense: DC has a bunch of magic characters that have never cut it as headliners, so put 'em all in one book where their combined appeal will make it sell. John Constantine is the most popular -- 300 issues over at Vertigo -- so make him the leader. Make sure there's a lot of T&A (Zatanna, Madame Xanadu), add the almost-popular Deadman, keep the door open for characters that need a little exposure (Andrew Bennett, Black Orchid). Tie it all into the regular Justice League (Steve Trevor, the title), to borrow a little sales magic. Blend, and voila!
And in many ways, I'm on board with that. I like seeing most of these characters, in whatever way we can get them. And DC's magic universe is pretty well developed, with a deep bench -- this book throws in Felix Faust, Dr. Occult, Dr. Mist and the Demons Three (Abnegezar, Rath and Ghast, going back to Justice League of America #10 in 1960), with references to still more, like Zatara and Sargon.
The downside, though, is that these characters do not fit well together, almost by definition. And, unfortunately, it shows.
For example, the struggle writer Jeff Lemire has to make John Constantine work in a group setting is obvious, and painful. Even when he finds a plausible motivation, it not only comes off as stilted, but Constantine, by his nature, does not work and play well with others. Part of his appeal is that he's a bastard, but he's a bastard to people that deserve it (even though sometimes his friends pay the price). In a group setting, he's a bastard to people we like, and there's no reason they should put up with it, and no reason we should, either. It just doesn't work, no matter how you smooth it over. When he puts something over on Lucifer Morningstar and he rubs it in with some potty-mouth, he's kinda cool; when he does it to Zatanna he's a petty, smart-mouth jerk, and there's no reason she or anyone else would follow his orders.
Oh, and one way it's smoothed over is that somehow Constantine is the landlord of the House of Mystery (?!??), which is used as a really fast car to scoot around limbo. Wow, what a terrible, plebeian use of that concept. (And naturally, his enemy has the House of Secrets, and they both race around limbo like kids on Friday night. ZOOM! HONK HONK! WHEE!)
The same reduction of concept is true for the other characters, to a lesser degree. Boston Brand still has one of the coolest looks in comics, but one of the things that made him really cool -- the fact that no one could see him, or understand the whole possession thing -- is necessarily ditched so he can interact with the other characters. Madame Xanadu is a fascinating character, one who bewitched Merlin, was present at the fall of Camelot, experienced the Spanish Inquistion, has a mysterious origin as some sort of forest nymph, has faced down The Spectre and dated the Phantom Stranger, is bisexual in a non-sensationalistic way that comments on the human condition, and is the natural leader, being some 600 years old or so. But here, the more popular (with the readers) Constantine elbows her out of the way, and she is reduced to being a fringe character muttering Cassandra-like warnings. Andrew Bennett (I, Vampire) keeps threatening Constantine to never call him again, but Constantine keeps calling him and nothing happens. Frankenstein shows up, but it seems it's just because his own book got canceled, as he does nothing. And don't get me started on the infantilization of Zatanna and Black Orchid.
My point is that there's a conceptualization problem with this book, and I'm not sure if the problem is just too big for Lemire to fix, or if he just took an approach that doesn't work for me. Either way, I winced all the way through this book as people acted out of character (as established in the New 52) to keep together a team whose individual parts keep spinning away in different directions.
And then they drag in poor ol' Tim Hunter, who used to have a number of series in Vertigo, and once had Neil Gaiman write him in an annual, and is now ... just another Macguffin. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Tim deserves better than this story (and that haircut).
OK, so much for the bad news. I will say again that I have a soft spot for most of these characters, and it's good to see them again however neutered they are. And I love the art: Janin can't do scary to save his life, but he's got good storytelling chops and I can tell Zatanna and Xanadu (two big-breasted brunettes dressed in black) apart, so he's doing something right.
The upshot is that Justice League Dark isn't a book so bad that I can't read it. It's just a book that could be a lot better.
I'm very late to the party, but I just read this collection last week and thought I'd jump in. I agree that the series seems weaker than its potential, at least as far as the strength of the cast is concerned. OTOH, there's the problem that they really aren't characters that were created to work together as a team. They're basically a bunch of loners and misfits, to varying degrees. Like you, I'm so fond of the characters that I'm willing to cut the storytelling a lot of slack. I mean, the very notion of a "Justice League Dark" is pretty silly in the face of it. I was fully prepared to hate it, but I'm enjoying it for what it is.
I don't know that Tim Hunter is being wasted, at least not on the basis of this collection. It remains to be seen what he does next: that's a pretty dramatic cliffhanger.
I also have mixed feelings about Nick Necro, the new character who is retconed as a magical mentor to both Constantine and Zatanna. I'm not sure how necessary he is, other than to give Constantine a human nemesis. But it's kind of refreshing to see a new character introduced into the DCU. Creators have gotten out of the habit of creating characters they don't own.