Justice League Dark #19 came out today, and with it, a new arc has started. And I just want to say now that I love Justice League Dark. It is my favorite team book at DC, and it is a lot of fun. At its core, the series is a fantasy adventure, using B-list and C-list characters from the magical side of the DC Universe. And I think more people should be reading it. So, to help anybody on the fence, here’s a breakdown of the series, in terms of story arcs, characters, and quality. But before any of that…
What is the Justice League Dark?
The Justice League Dark is a magical team, a group of supernatural heroes who protect the world from the paranormal threats that the regular superheroes aren’t equipped to battle. The team has a constantly changing roster, with a handful of permanent members and a bunch of rotating fill-ins. We’ll discuss the members of the team in a bit, but first, there’s another team I’d like to talk about.
The Creative Team:
Writer (Issues #1-#8): Peter Milligan
Peter Milligan is a British writer, largely famous for the work he’s done in the past 20 years such as the Vertigo series Shade the Changing Man, Batman, and X-Men. In DC’s New 52, Milligan has also been the writer of Red Lanterns since its first issue, though he will be leaving the book after Red Lanterns #20, and wrote several issues of Stomrwatch.
Milligan’s run on Justice League Dark is, in short, probably why the comic isn’t very popular right now. People had lots of problems with his initial issues of the series, mainly that none of the main characters were all that likable. In retrospect, when you read volume 1 of the series, “In The Dark”, in full, it seems that Milligan may have had some kind of grand master plan that he never got to carry out. While I would have liked to have seen where his version of the book was going, I’m really not too broken up about the change in writers.
Writer (Issue #9-Present): Jeff Lemire
Jeff Lemire is a Canadian author known for books like Top Shelf’s Essex County Trilogy and Vertigo’s Sweet Tooth. He has also been all over the New 52, writing fan-favorite book Animal Man, the first nine issues of Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., and taking over Green Arrow as of issue #17. He took over Justice League Dark with issue #9, turning it into one of the best books at DC. Lemire is a fantastic writer, with a real penchant for writing diverse, likable characters, and great relationships between those characters, and his involvement with this comic has been a godsend.
Co-Writer (Issue #15-Present): Ray Fawkes
Ray Fawkes is a Canadian writer who’s worked on books such as Vertigo’s Mnemovore and Oni Press’s One Soul. A friend of Lemire’s, he came on board to help co-write the series starting with issue #15, when Lemire started piling up too many titles at once. He and Lemire also co-write the current Constantine series, and Fawkes has done excellent work on a fill-in issue of Batgirl (Batgirl #18), and will be writing the upcoming Pandora series later this year. Fawkes is a very good writer, every bit as good as Lemire, and there’s been no noticeable change in quality to the series since he joined it, either good or bad.
Arist: Mikel Janin
Mikel Janin is a Spanish artist who’s done very little work outside of DC comics. At DC, his art credits mostly include Justice League Dark, as well as his work on Flashpoint: Deadman and the Flying Graysons. Janin’s art is fantastic, and I’d go on about it now, but you’ll see plenty of examples of it later on. But he’s been doing the art for the book since issue #1 (although there are a couple of issues where they’ve had to get fill-in artists), and it’s great.
The series has just started its fifth story arc. Keep in mind that every one of these arcs is a jumping-on point in itself. They are…
Volume 1: In The Dark (Issues #1-#6):
The origin of the team. When a powerful witch known as the Enchantress goes mad, and her magic starts wreaking havoc throughout the world, not even the Justice League is able to stop her. The immortal fortune teller Madame Xanadu brings together a group of magical misfits to stop the witch’s reign of madness: John Constantine, Zatanna Zatara, Deadman, Shade, and Mindwarp. These individuals must not join together only to stop the Enchantress, but also to stop a great evil Madame Xanadu has forseen coming to destroy the world. These six issues make up the first trade paperback volume of the series.
-Quality: In The Dark gets a lot of flak, and not all of it is ill-deserved. The characters are all whiny and unlikable. Zatanna’s magic is totally ineffectual, Xanadu’s a heroin addict, Deadman is a womanizing asshole, Shade is obsessing over his dead girlfriend, and Mindwarp’s inclusion is totally pointless. Constantine’s the only one who seems capable of actually getting anything done. That said, the story and central conflict is interesting, Deadman and Constantine have interesting character arcs, and as I mentioned earlier, it seems like Milligan had some grand master plan, and if he were allowed to continue the story, we’d probably look back on this first story arc and talk about how genius of a foundation it was.
Rise of the Vampires (Issues #7 and #8):
Rise of the Vampires is a crossover story arc that takes place in both I, Vampire and Justice League Dark. The reading order is JLD #7, I, Vampire #7, JLD #8, I, Vampire #8. As a part of Justice League Dark, it’s not a crucial storyline, though it is the story where Shade leaves the team. It’s really more important to the I, Vampire story arc, as it’s where some monumentally important events occur for that comic. If you want to read it, you can hunt down the individual issues, or you can pick up Volume 2 of I, Vampire. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t grab Volume 2 of I, Vampire unless you’ve also read Volume 1, because the whole comic is one continuous story.
-Quality: This is basically an I, Vampire story guest-starring the JLD. But since I, Vampire is really good, this story is really good. That said, this is an easily skippable JLD story.
Volume 2: The Books of Magic (Issues #9-#12, Issue #0, Issue #13, Annual #1):
Steve Trevor, the leader of the US Government agency A.R.G.U.S. (Advanced Research Group Uniting Super-Humans) approaches John Constantine with an offer. Get the Justice League Dark together again and help him retrieve his magical operative Dr. Mist, who’s been captured by Felix Faust in Peru, and recover the magical artifact Mist was looking for. If Constantine does this, he’ll get access to the Black Room, A.R.G.U.S.’s treasury of magical weaponry and artifacts. However, the JLD soon discovers that they now hold the key to finding the Books of Magic, the fabled source of all the world’s magic, artifacts too dangerous to let fall into the wrong hands. What ensues is a race between the Justice League Dark and a group of evil magic users for the most powerful magical objects in all of creation, and the stakes are the fate of the world.
-Quality: Jeff Lemire becomes the new writer in this arc, and he knocks it out of the park. It’s a much more fun, lighthearted story than Milligan’s was, but at the same time, the stakes seem higher, and the danger more real. There’s a lot of fun and action here, and the characters go from being a group of useless whiners to an actual team of heroes, working together, using their abilities properly, and just being likable. Deadman and Constantine are constantly taking shots at each other, Zatanna is tough and confident, Madame Xanadu is much more active and less worried about everything, and special guest Black Orchid is a lot of fun. The story is just great, playing with a lot of magical aspects of the DC Universe, and really just redefines the book as a fantasy adventure, rather than the grimdark neurotic tragedy Milligan was writing. And that’s the great thing about this. The book didn’t just undergo a creative team change, it basically turned into an entirely new comic. And I couldn’t be happier with the change.
The Death of Magic (Issues #14-18):
Technically, the Death of Magic starts with issue #15, but issue #14 is a fun filler that takes place between the Books of Magic and the Death of Magic, allowing the readers to catch their breath before jumping into the next big story. After the events of the Books of Magic, a couple members of the team get sent to another universe, and the other members have to follow them and retrieve them. Upon arriving in this other world, called Epoch, the team finds themselves being radically changed. Deadman is alive again. Madame Xanadu’s immortality disappears and she starts rapidly aging. Constantine can no longer lie. In addition to this, Epoch is a world of magic-hating scientists, who have outlawed magic and hunt down and destroy anything remotely magical, which does not bode well for the team. While some members of the JLD are captured by the science police, other members join an underground resistance of fairies, trolls, dragons, and other magical beings, trying to take their world back from the humans.
-Quality: The Death of Magic is not quite as good as the Books of Magic, but it’s still a good story. Half of it is this great story where the team members’ very natures have been turned against them, and they’re fighting against an enemy that’s basically designed to destroy them. The problem is that the other half of a story is a generic, somewhat boring “Chosen One” storyline, and the whole thing has a really boring Deus Ex Machina ending. Nothing really feels accomplished. There are still good moments, and the whole thing is entertaining overall, and I’d say it’s on par with pretty much any good comic book story. I wouldn’t blame Ray Fawkes either, which may be people’s first reaction seeing as this is the story arc where he joins as co-writer. I know that Fawkes is an excellent writer, and I think he and Lemire both just were working with a flawed premise. But like I said, it’s still good. It’s just a weak follow up to its phenomenal predecessor.
Horror City (Issues #19-#21):
This arc has only just started. Seriously. As I write this paragraph, it is almost 1:00 AM on Thursday, April 25th, 2013. Justice League Dark #19 has been available to the public for less than 24 hours. As such, I can’t really give a proper premise to this story yet, because it’d be a real dick move to give spoilers in the first day of the comic’s release, and also I’m still not 100% clear on what the premise is. However…
-The Quality: The first issue of this story was fantastic. Unlike issue #15, the first real issue of the Death of Magic, which I read with some trepidation, I was hooked on this from page 1. This is shaping up to be a great story arc, and I can’t wait to see where it goes. If you’re interested in the comic, but don’t want to spend money on a ton of back issues, this is your jumping-on point. Head to your local comic book store and buy a copy of Justice League Dark #19.
So, I’ve talked about the creative team, and the story arcs, and the overall quality of the book. But what about the characters? As I mentioned before, Justice League Dark has a constantly changing roster. That said, there are five permanent members. A core group that always sticks around to give the series a sense of familiarity and consistency. And they are…
John Constantine is a British conman, a chain-smoker, a sorcerer, and an all-around bastard. He’s untrustworthy, puts himself above everybody else, and unfortunately, is almost always right. He’s the team’s leader, due to his magical knowledge, his experience in dealing with the occult, and his ability to make the tough decisions.
Constantine is a great character. While he’s got tons of magical ability, his real strength is his sharp wit and silver tongue. He’s always in some kind of amusing exchange with another character, always cool and collected, and always gets results. At least, in Justice League Dark he does.
Constantine is most most famous for being the star of the highly-acclaimed Vertigo comic Hellblazer, which recently ended with issue #300. Hellblazer has always painted him as a more tragic figure, and while there are similarities between the old version of Constantine and this new one, the differences are pretty noticeable. He’s now the star of his own book in the New 52, Constantine, which started in March 2013, and has two issues out so far. This version of the character is more true to his Hellblazer roots, but also stays in line with the character as he’s portrayed in Justice League Dark. This is probably because Constantine is also written by Ray Fawkes and Jeff Lemire, and it has been fantastic so far. Constantine has also made cameos in a lot of books in DC’s dark line, including Sword of Sorcery, Animal Man, and The Phantom Stranger.
Madame Xanadu is an immortal fortune teller and sorceress. Originally Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, she has traveled the planet for hundreds of years. She can see the future, though her visions aren’t always clear, and she tends to have a better understanding of the ancient magics that any of the other members of the team. She’s the one responsible for bringing the team together in the first place, and along with Constantine, shares the leadership role.
Xanadu is interesting, because while she is a capable combatant, she tends to spend a lot of time away from the team, handling related affairs to their current dilemma while the rest of the JLD fights the actual villain. Her main focus seems to be on her clairvoyant abilities, with the sorcery being a lesser aspect of the character, and I find it really impressive that Lemire’s found things to do with a character like that at all. Since Fawkes has come on, Xanadu’s gotten a slightly bigger role, as she’s his favorite character on the team, and she’s starting to become more active with the others.
Madame Xanadu’s younger self can be seen traipsing around medieval Europe along with the demon Etrigan, Vandal Savage, and a group of other immortals in the fantasy team book Demon Knights. The first two volumes of the series, written by Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell, are excellent, and issues 16 and beyond, written by Robert Vendetti, have managed to keep the book’s quality going even with a slight change in direction.
The daughter of one of the most powerful magicians in history, Zatanna Zatara is the mistress of backwards magic. By speaking words backwards, her will becomes manifest. Aside from Constantine, she is by far the most well-known character in this book, and is probably the main draw for a lot of people curious about the series.
In the series, Zatanna and John Constantine are in a sort-of relationship. I say “Sort of” because it’s very complicated, as the two have feelings for each other and have been with each other in the past, but Constantine also caused her father’s death. Still, she’s probably the person Constantine cares most about in the world, and he’d go to the ends of the Earth for her (and does). The driving force of her character is that she helps hold the team together during the start of Lemire’s run, because unlike Constantine, everybody trusts her. Honestly, I wish I could say more about her character, but Zatanna hasn’t really done much yet. In Milligan’s run she was just a combatant whose magic never worked, and in Lemire’s run, she’s been in a damsel in distress role a couple of times, and while she’s still a great character, there’s just a lot of untapped potential here.
Zatanna hasn’t really made many appearances in other parts of the New 52, aside from some cameos in the regular Justice League book. She’s also not currently with the team, for reasons detailed in Justice League #18 (John has kind of put her into a forced hiatus due to her tendency to get captured repeatedly), but she’ll be back after Horror City for the upcoming Trinity War.
Deadman is my single-most favorite fictional character of all time, and I can write whole essays about why this guy is so great, so while I’ll try to keep this objective, you’ll have to forgive me if I start doing a bit of fanboy gushing.
In life, Boston Brand was one of the greatest acrobats the world had ever seen. Performing under the stage name “Deadman”, he defied death several times a day, until a sniper’s bullet hit him during his act, killing him at his prime. Boston’s soul was intercepted by the goddess Rama Kushna, keeper of balance, and assigned to help the living so he may cleanse his own soul, because he was kind of a jerk in life. In death, Boston is the ghost hero Deadman, who can’t be seen or heard by the living (unless magic is involved) but can possess them and take control of their bodies, gaining access to their skills and knowledge.
Deadman is the most heroic member of the Justice League Dark. Having lost his own life, he views it as a very sacred thing, and is all about protecting and helping others. That said, he’s not 100% selfless, and will sometimes possess people simply to indulge in pleasures he can no longer enjoy as a ghost, usually food. He’s got a bit of an attitude, especially when it comes to dealing with Constantine, but he’s a genuinely kind and caring soul, and a great guy.
Because the universe doesn’t want me to be too happy, Deadman sadly lacks his own book. However, he was the star of the first five issues of DC Universe Presents, and that story, “Twenty Questions”, is my favorite story in the New 52. He also has been in a couple issues of Swamp Thing’s side of Rotworld, “Rotworld: The Green Kingdom”, as well as a couple issues of The Phantom Stranger along with other members of the JLD.
Frankenstein is an agent of S.H.A.D.E. (Super Human Advanced Defense Executive), a secret UN agency dedicated to protecting humanity from the things that go bump in the night. Frankenstein is incredibly strong, and is armed both with the holy sword of the Archangel Michael and a powerful sidearm called a Steam Pistol, both of which he’s proficient in the use of. Also, as an undead monster, he’s immortal and virtually indestructible, able to handle being crushed, dismembered, and even blasted with a nuke point blank and live though the whole ordeal. He is the only member of the core five not part of series from the get-go, joining it in Justice League Dark Annual #1, the end of the Books of Magic storyline.
Frankenstein is Jeff Lemire’s favorite character in Justice League Dark, and it’s not hard to see why. The guy serves as both the team’s muscle and its conscience. He’s a couple hundred years old, a warrior poet, whose bloodlust in combat is only matched by his eloquence, although he claims to not enjoy battle. Frankenstein is a natural born leader who never gives up, and while he does let Constantine call the shots, he doesn’t let anybody push him around.
Frankenstein had a book, Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., that was cancelled after issue #16. Jeff Lemire wrote the first nine issues, with the rest of the series being written by Matt Kindt, and while there’s a bit of a drop in quality once this change happens, it’s still a good comic the whole way through. He was also a surprise guest star in the recent Batman and Red Robin #19, and has been in the Rotworld finale in both Animal Man #17 and Swamp Thing #17, as well as appearing in The Phantom Stranger along with other members of the JLD.
Now, let’s get to the past members and guest stars.
Shade the Changing Man:
One of the team’s founding members, Rac Shade has a magical alien item called the M Vest, which allows him to change the world around him, although it seems to have a mind of its own. Shade is a character Milligan’s done tons of work with in the past, but he just wasn’t enjoyable in this comic at all. He left the team during Rise of the Vampires, and hasn’t been seen anywhere since.
Jay Young is a man who just confuses me. It seems he can use astral projection to leave his body, but only for a short time, but what he can do when this happens isn’t really clear. He was a useless character who wasted everybody’s time and did absolutely nothing to advance the plot. He didn’t even really join the team. He’s a creation of Milligan’s, spinning out of Flashpoint, but he left the comic during its first arc, a move that upsets nobody.
Andrew Bennet is a vampire, over 500 years old. He’s learned to control the hunger that drives vampires to feed on humans, and is the world’s first line of defense against evil vampires who want to take over the world. He’s a very classic, Bram Stoker era vampire archetype: Incredibly strong, able to shapeshift into bat, wolf, or mist forms, and he doesn’t die in the sunlight, although he is strongest at night. Bennet joins up with the team in Rise of the Vampires, and then helps them out a couple times in the Books of Magic. His adventures can all be seen in his comic, I, Vampire, which has just ended with issue #19.
Black Orchid is an agent of A.R.G.U.S., with heightened strength and the ability to shapeshift. She’s sent by Steve Trevor to make sure Constantine doesn’t betray A.R.G.U.S. during the Books of Magic, and sticks around until the end of the Death of Magic storyline. She’s a tough gal who loves to fight, but still takes her job as a government agent very seriously. Outside of this book, she’s appeared in the Rotworld issues of Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man, “Rotworld: The Red Kingdom”, but hasn’t been seen since she left the team.
Dr. Mist is an African sorcerer with the ability to absorb and redirect magical attacks back at his aggressors. He’s also an agent of A.R.G.U.S., and the catalyst for the Books of Magic storyline. He’s very serious and obsessed with death, having lost all of his loved ones to a disease he couldn’t cure. He leaves the series after the beginning of the Death of Magic storyline.
A young British boy, Timothy Hunter is a magical wunderkind, gifted with the potential to be the greatest magical hero in the world, or the most deadly magical threat. Originally from Neil Gaiman’s “The Books of Magic”, Timothy shows up in the storyline of the same name, and is the driving force of both the Books of Magic and Death of Magic story arcs. He has not appeared anywhere in the New 52 after the Death of Magic.
Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld:
Amy Winston is a teenage girl, who, on her 17th birthday, discovers that she’s actually Amaya, Princess of the House Amethyst of Nilaa, a magical realm that exists parallel to Earth. She briefly joins the team for the conclusion of the Books of Magic, helping out in JLD Annual #1, and sticking around until the end of Justice League Dark #14. She’s a fun character, still getting a handle on her royal title and all the powers that go with it. Her further adventures, which heavily feature Constantine, can be seen in Sword of Sorcery, which is sadly ending soon.
Dr. Alec Holland was the world’s most ingenious botanist, until he was killed in an accident at his lab in the swamps of Louisiana. Now, as Swamp Thing, he is the avatar of the Green, the source of all plant life on Earth, able to communicate with and control plants. He is an incredibly powerful elemental, and has just joined the team for the Horror City arc. His own adventures can be seen in the fan favorite Swamp Thing comic, which has garnered tons of praise under Scott Snyder’s direction, and as of issue #19, is now being written by Charlie Soule.
Central City Police Scientist Barry Allen was experimenting in his lab one night until a freak accident gave him access to the Speed Force, making him the fastest man alive. The Flash has just joined the comic as part of the Horror City arc, and if I had to guess, I’d say he’s here to help bring it into Trinity War later this summer. Flash can, of course, be found in the pages of his own book, The Flash, as well as Justice League.
So, there you go. A guide to the series, its characters, and the people behind it. I hope this guide has gotten you interested in Justice League Dark, because it’s a great comic, and I think a lot of people are missing out on something wonderful by not reading it. I’ll also be updating this guide over time to highlight new arcs and characters.
-Version 1.0: Original Guide
-Version 1.01: Updated the original with some cameo appearances the characters have made.