Stop me if you've heard this one before: the opening arc of a new superteam book features the rise of a huge threat that pulls together heroes of various abilities and personalities who've never previously worked together. Yeah, I'm pretty much talking about the way every comic in this particular subgenre begins, most specifically referencing the mirror image intros found recently in DC's new Justice League and Justice League Dark series (and Justice League International too, for all I know… if anyone out there is actually reading that one, they should pipe up in the comments below). Yet, the former is a nigh unreadable mess of formula and rote plotting, while the latter feels like a fresh take that gets better and better with every issue. How have Peter Milligan and Mikel Janin so distanced themselves from Geoff Johns and Jim Lee? Quite clearly, the answer can be found in their book's rich texture.
"In the Dark," the five-parter that serves to open Milligan and Janin's entry in the New 52, features a strong central conflict in which the Enchantress tries to forcefully reunite with one of her AWOL multiple personalities. However, it's the mood and details surrounding that plot that really kicks Justice League Dark into high gear. The aforementioned psychological schism being of the mystical variety, it unleashes all sorts of deadly supernatural havoc across the planet. Milligan gives us regular little look-ins to the pandemonium — much like Matt Fraction has been doing lately in The Defenders — through which the world he's crafting is fleshed out with danger. A legion of identical blondes walking into oncoming traffic here, a gaggle of deceased relatives faces showing up on computer monitors there, and you've got yourself a perfectly wacked-out and creepy setting.
While Milligan lets his disturbing imagination fly, Janin makes it all a convincing reality under the command of an expert pencil. The Enchantress in her withered avatar form is a truly frightening being, made even more so once a whirlwind of lifeless bodies swirl together to form her towering visage. Similar sights abound throughout the series, as Janin easily shifts from the realistic and pristine to rendering disintegrating and decomposing ghouls. Colorist Ulises Arreola is an indispensable ally in each of these efforts, knowing when to lean on eerie green glow effects and when to simply let his natural muted hues do the talking.
The other major strength of this arc is the way in which Milligan sets up the theme of these magic-based hero characters suffering extreme personal brokenness as a result of their abilities. John Constantine and Madame Xanadu require physical abuse of their own bodies to fully tap into their otherworldly skills, while Shade and Deadman's altered states of existence send them looking for love in some seriously twisted places. As the first issue establishes, this group may, in some respects, be more powerful than the regular Justice League, but these aren't the kind of costumed crusaders you'd ever want to be. Janin, too, contributes to this end, capturing the paradox of power and pain quite well. His women, especially, all come across as simultaneously beautiful and wounded.
If there's a downside to it all, it's that this story ends up in a place relatively the same as where it started. Sure, the pre-narrative fracture of the Enchantress's psyche is ultimately mended, but our characters all largely remain as the same non-conglomerated bunch of loners they originally were, and Xanadu's underhanded scheme to unite them (presumably for purposes of facilitating an ongoing comic series) goes unrealized. Perhaps that'll be an ongoing theme to the series, in which case the burden rests on subsequent issues to carry it on, but it still feels unsatisfying here in the short term. This being the grim book that it is, it's not like I'm expecting the entire cast to pose for a cheery pin-up at the end, though a firmer statement on the significance of the events that just transpired would have been nice.
Of course, the purpose of any comic series should be to tell smart and engaging stories, in which case Milligan and Janin ace the test. It would be disingenuous to call Justice League Dark one of the best series of the New 52, because there are around ten or so that have been just as good, but it's certainly in that group's company. This is exactly the kind of comic we should have hoped for when the DC relaunch was announced — a new concept that nonetheless revolves around some of the publisher's successful preexisting properties. High five to you if you picked it up back in September, but if you didn't, this would be the perfect replacement for something you've dropped since then.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found at @Chris_Kiser!