As much as I can’t believe it, 2021 marks the ten year anniversary of the DC Comics publishing initiative known as The New 52. For a variety of reasons, DC made a clean break from the previous continuity by blowing it up and starting it all over from scratch — except when they didn’t. Over the course of a year, I’m going to go back and re-read every single debut issue from The New 52 line-up to see how much it changes things from the way they were before, how much of this new status quo stuck around and just how well the comic holds up ten years later.
We’ve already talked about one Justice League #1 and where it succeeded and failed (mostly failed) in setting up its team, but this week we’re onto Justice League Dark which is one of my least favourite titles for a comic in the past ten years. I won’t hold it against it, but it feels like someone wrote “Justice League/Dark” on a whiteboard before everyone broke for lunch and then when they came back everyone was like “eh, good enough.” DC even has a couple supernatural teams that could have cribbed the name from, like Shadowpact or Night Force, but I guess “Justice League” brings in better numbers.
Justice League Dark brings together a number of DC’s supernatural characters together but perhaps more importantly, it brings together a number of DC characters who were more associated with Vertigo than the mainstream DC Universe. Madame Xanadu, Rac Shade and John Constantine were — and probably still are — better known for their critically acclaimed Vertigo runs but Flashpoint made a point of folding those characters back into the DC Universe and in many ways, Justice League Dark is equally Justice League Vertigo.
Justice League Dark’s writer Peter Milligan was a great choice to helm this integration of Vertigo characters into the mainstream DC Universe. Milligan was one of the British creators brought into DC Comics in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s as part of the “British Invasion” which preceded the founding of Vertigo as an imprint, with many of the titles helmed by British writers folded into Vertigo retroactively including Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Peter Milligan’s own Shade, The Changing Man. Additionally, Milligan closed out the final five years of the original volume of Hellblazer, so he really was the perfect pick to incorporate those characters into the DC Universe alongside the likes of Zatanna, Deadman and Enchantress.
Compared to Justice League #1, Justice League Dark does a much better job at using the space of a twenty-two page debut issue to set up all of the pieces and introduce all the characters. Not only does every member of the team get a moment to shine in the issue, but Milligan does a great job of reflecting the theme of June Moon’s story across the other vignettes. The title of the issue is “Imaginary Women” which ostensibly refers to the multiple Junes Moon scattered around the country but it also applies to Shade’s use of the M-Vest to create a partner using the power of the M-Vest and the ways Zatanna and Madame Xanadu’s powers and callings leave them isolated.
One of the most impressive things Justice League Dark does is how well it integrates its characters and world into the DC Universe and there’s an extended segment starring the actual Justice League that feels more like an actual Justice League comic than Justice League #1. Superman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg make an appearance to try and stop the increasing madness being caused by Enchantress, but Milligan and Janín do a great job of showing how this isn’t a job for the regular Justice League and reinforces the need for a specialised supernatural Justice League team.
The series also picks up on a number of plot threads from Brightest Day, which you’d be forgiven if you had forgotten. Not only did the biweekly series reintroduce John Constantine to the DC Universe in the first place, it established the romantic relationship between Deadman and Dove, and while we only see them for one page in this first issue, Justice League Dark does a great job of balancing The New 52 problem. It gives us something completely new while also picking up on specific plot points from previous stories; it doesn’t act like these characters are coming from nowhere with no history but it also doesn’t act like absolutely nothing changed has changed in the wake of Flashpoint.
As well as Milligan handles the plotting and pacing of this debut issue, the real standout of Justice League Dark is Mikel Janín who has gone on to be one of DC Comics’ biggest name artists in the last ten years. Now known for his work on Grayson, Batman and Wonder Woman, this series was a perfect place for Janín to cut his teeth in the DC Universe. He’s not quite as refined as he’d go on to be on those titles but there’s a grittiness and a lack of polish that really suits Justice League Dark’s aesthetic.
A lot of credit for that should go to colourist Ulises Arreola who uses a more muted palette than Janín’s most recent collaborator June Chung applies to Janín’s more mainstream superhero work. Janín and Arreola’s collaboration melds the superhero and supernatural incredibly well; not many teams could show Superman and Wonder Woman being ripped apart by a tornado of teeth and make both worlds feel visually consistent, but Justice League Dark carves out its own niche in the landscape of The New 52.
Peter Milligan is a really hit and miss creator for me, but I definitely enjoyed Justice League Dark #1 more than I thought I was going to. It might be that I’m more familiar with titles like Action Comics and Batman more than any of the titles I’ve read so far for this feature, it makes me want to pick up the second issue to see how these disparate threads and vignettes are going to pull together to form something resembling a superhero team. In terms of holding up ten years later, I think Justice League Dark #1 succeeds at that far better than its flagship counterpart and it wouldn’t seem out of place on the stands today.