We’re five issues into Justice League Dark, Peter Milligan and Mikel Janin’s attempt to bring the spirit of Vertigo into the mainstream DC Universe. And by all accounts, it’s doing a fantastic job of achieving that goal. It helps to have a cast which includes Madame Xanadu, John Constantine and Shade the Changing Man, of course, all of whom have had Vertigo titles in the past, but Milligan is able to go beyond the cast and bring the tone and style of a Vertigo story into the book. With one more issue to go before the first arc is rounded up, allow us to give you an overview of the cast and story of Justice League Dark, and tell you why we think it’s DC’s best title of the New 52.
The first arc has centred around Enchantress, a relatively obscure magic-user within the DC Universe whose powers were in turmoil after part of her soul went missing. And by turmoil, we mean she made a storm of rotten teeth attack Superman, turned politicians mad, and gave a nuclear power plant sentience. Milligan took increasing glee in upping the levels of madness on an issue-by-issue basis, while by the end The Sphinx was coming to life and fighting Animal Man and Frankenstein was thrown into the middle of a civil war between fans of reality TV and soap operas. You can always tell when Milligan’s eyes are twinkling with malevolent delight, and JLD has been a master showcase in ridiculousness.
What makes this even more enjoyable is that only a handful of the characters actually seem to realise how mad their surroundings are. John Constantine’s voice is essentially the same as it is in the current Hellblazer series, and his deadpan reactions to this magical silliness are a constant delight. He’s joined by a slightly-sidelined Zatanna, who gets a great scene with Batman early on but then shrinks to the background. She may have a new costume, but she’s recognisably the same Zatanna who appeared in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Her voice is less distinctive at the moment, but stands besides Constantine’s as a disinterested voice of rationality amongst unreality. Deadman, surprisingly, also seems interesting.
There’s then a gap between these three and the other characters, who are more serious and dramatic. Madame Xanadu is the heart of the series at the moment, and her role in bringing the cast together is also interesting for being a complete failure. By the end of issue #5, she has not only failed to get the team to work together but has also been called a fraud by Constantine and turned everybody against her. The enigmatic Xanadu here is more in line with Matt Wagner’s version, and doesn’t sync up whatsoever with the saucy Xanadu in Paul Cornell’s Demon Knights. Which is pretty good news really, because the talkative Madame is one of the few low points of that particular series. Shade has had a fair bit of coverage, mostly because he’s involved in the best twist of the book so far. Milligan is struggling to resist the urge to put Shade in charge of the team, which is rather good news.
But then there’s the last member of the team. Do we want Milligan to do the Time Warp again? The character turns up halfway through this story, doesn’t do much of note or interest, and then reappears at the end to do further things of notelessness. The character’s only purpose at this point seems to be to give colourist Ulises Arreola a chance to flex. Arreola’s work on the book is an absolute sensation, with shocks of electricity racing across the pages, and some great uses of white space to emphasise certain panels. Arreola truly adds an extra dimension to Justice League Dark, with letterer Rob Leigh having an absolute ball with the different characters.
Mikel Janin! Good lord, but Janin’s work is incredible on this series. Five issues in a row with no drop in quality is impressive enough, but Janin’s art actually improves as the book goes on. Milligan asks a lot of his artists, and here Janin has to draw swarms of teeth, hoardes of demons, and a spectacular sequence with a series of clones wandering innocently across a busy motorway. He pulls all off with immaculate style and control, setting the tone for Milligan to then write as much weirdness as he wants. Perhaps the one problem he has at the moment is in distinguishing Xanadu’s face from Zatanna’s as both characters have similar hair and features right now. Enchantress, Constantine and Shade are all especially well-conveyed, though – Janin seems to enjoy drawing these guys in particular.
So hey, the first story arc is also really well-written. The threat and scope of Enchantress; the plotting of Xanadu; and the reckless “heroics” of Deadman, Shade and Constantine are the three main elements at work. Milligan really packs in the character moments here, ignoring splash pages in favour of conversation and magic. Also, one issue is called “Shibboleths and Alcohol”. Which is totally wonderful, and more of that please. This is our absolute favourite DC title right now, and we’re hoping that the creative team stay onboard for a very long time to come. Buy! Buy!