Review: Justice League Dark Vol. 3: The Death of Magic trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

There was a team book I used to like. The characters didn't "go together" necessarily but were thematically tied, such that it was always interesting to see who'd walk in the door. The team had many adventures in the book, but somehow the series always seemed to avoid those adventures turning into over-hyped "events." Instead, storylines began and ended, usually fantastically, and then maybe there would be a quieter issue or two before the next big adventure would start. It was a book that just did its thing, and did it better than many others I've read.

That book was Geoff Johns's JSA. And some might think it blasphemy, but when I was reading Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes's Justice League Dark Vol. 3: The Death of Magic, there were times I couldn't help but be reminded of JSA.

[Review contains spoilers]

The titular "Death of Magic" story collected here takes place on a big canvas. Lemire and Fawkes shunt the Justice League Dark to an alternate dimension (not unlike JSA: Stealing Thunder) where science rules and magic has gone underground; part of the team leads the magic-wielding rebels in battle while the other members must fight their way out of the government's captivity. Still a third set of events take place on Earth as Steve Trevor and Johnny Peril have to deal with the backlash of magic energy coming from the portal to the other dimension, Epoch, and as a fourth we get the perspective from a noble-hearted soldier on the government side. The writers flip between the various storylines rapidly, sometimes back and forth on the same page; even as the team only has six members, the audience gets the sense of a whole lot going on.

Lemire and Fawkes make a curious choice in positing the four-part "Death of Magic" as more of a sci-fi than supernatural story, at least at the outset. I have often felt that the supernatural works best in the DC Universe in small, easy to digest doses, and the writers accomplish this by following the more ardently magic-based Justice League Dark Vol. 2: Books of Magic with "Death"'s futuristic landscape and then a superhero story, the three-part "Horror City." The next volume gets into Trinity War and such, but I feel the writers have cleaned our palates, as it were, for supernatural stories to come. It's only a shame Lemire and Fawkes aren't sticking around on the book for longer, leaving after this volume, because it's with Death that they duly hit their stride.

Staying on the title, fortunately, is artist Mikel Janin, whose long run on this title evokes similar by JSA's Leonard Kirk and Don Kramer. Janin has offered a style so far with elements of comic book animation and fluidity, but some more photo-realistic aspects and backgrounds that help ground this supernatural book in a more "true horror" base. With "Death," however, it seems as though Janin has begun to ink himself, and his lines get an attractive boost of roundness and warmth (not unlike Kirk and Kramer). Janin especially shines in the "widescreen" pages of war or when computer-generated elements help convey the impending apocalypse on Epoch. The first one-off chapter is drawn by Victor Drujiniu with layouts by Graham Nolan and "Horror City" is drawn by Vicente Cifuentes from layouts by Janin, and both guests' styles match Janin's well (Cifuentes especially evokes Scott Kolins when he draws the guest-star Flash).

Despite that Dark Vol. 2 ended on a cliffhanger that leads right into Vol. 3, Lemire (sans Fawkes) slips in a "quieter" initial chapter (a la JSA) that follows Black Orchid, Amethyst, and Frankenstein exploring the House of Mystery. Amethyst leaves off-panel before "Death," so it's nice that Lemire gives her one more issue in this book, especially with Sword of Sorcery cancelled; of course, Lemire writing Frankenstein is always a treat. But the winning moment this issue is when Orchid discovers the Batman-esque secret files that Constantine is keeping not just on some of his own teammates, but also the Justice League, Stormwatch, Shazam, and others. From these early pages (and especially once the Phantom Stranger makes his cameo), the coming of the "Trinity War" crossover can be felt pretty heavily in this volume.

Character-wise, I continue to think that Lemire and Fawkes write a good DC-light John Constantine, especially as compared to Peter Milligan's Justice League Dark Vol. 1. At the same time I didn't much like that in the alternate dimension, Constantine's "opposite" attribute was that he couldn't lie, and expressed his care and admiration for his teammates. My "ideal" Constantine is one who does what he thinks is right, damn the consequences, and whose teammates are for the most part a means to an end (like Vril Dox, for example, but with better taste in trench coats). Revealing that Constantine does truly care, so to speak, cheapens the character for me; I'd rather see Constantine remain unique by virtue of his lack of conscience than see him portrayed as a more traditional hero.

I found "Horror City" not as strong indeed because it was a more generic superhero story as opposed to "Death"'s far-flung adventure. At the same time, I appreciated the point Lemire and Fawkes make by pitting the Justice League Dark against classic League baddie Dr. Destiny, that the Justice League Dark is truly a Justice League in their own right, a sentiment even made overt by Flash later in the story. And even despite a slower, more predictable story, Cifuentes offers a particularly chilling Dr. Destiny.

The writers' conceit that Flash Barry Allen might feel more at home with the "freaks" of Dark than with the Justice League felt forced to me and not in line with Barry's portrayals in other titles (also there were some "Impulse" moments that I didn't think rang true for Barry). Cyborg might not be as much a Justice League headliner as Flash, but possibly Cyborg would have worked better here, since Cyborg, like Frankenstein, can't hide his "difference" in the same way the Flash can simply take off his costume. I did apprciate the appearances by Flash, Swamp Thing, Phantom Stranger, and others as being somewhat JSA-esque as well, when you never knew which Golden Age hero might walk through the door next; the writers do the same with DC's magical characters.

After Justice League Dark Vol. 3: The Death of Magic, were Lemire and Fawkes staying on this book it would move to the top of my reading list; I consider volumes two and three together just about perfect. I haven't read much by upcoming J. M. DeMatteis so I'm a bit wary of how he might affect this title just as it's hitting its stride, though I remain quite glad Mikel Janin is staying on the title.

[Includes original covers, as well as "WTF" cover two-page spread; cover sketches; information on Face Off/Infernal Core contest winner]

Collected Editions 2016 Comic Book Gift Guide
Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!

5 comments:

  1. I didn't care much for Volume 1, but loved "The Books of Magic" and was looking forward to this trade. However, although both stories were solid, neither really blew me away, especially the end to "The Death of Magic." It just didn't pack the punch I was expecting.

    Furthermore, did I miss something between Constantine and Zatanna? JC says "...it's going to take me YEARS to work off the things I said to her. I can only hope she thought I was pulling her leg." Did Constantine confess some out-of-character, heartfelt feelings toward Zatanna while under the "Truth" spell? If so, you would think that would have been displayed in the story, or was this something related to the last volume, something I forgot?

    I also wanted Vikar to be fleshed out some, as I believe there is more substance to him than meets the eye. He has potential to become an interesting and complex character not only in the pages of JLD, but for the DCU in general.

    I did like the surprising portrayal of Madame Xanadu at the end of Horror City. I can get used to her displaying some of that attitude from time to time. The relationship between her and Doctor Destiny was quite interesting and needs to be further explored. Hopefully, we will see more of this in future volumes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Appreciate your thoughtful comments, Darren. You and I had different takes on this one -- I actually didn't much like the Xanadu story at the end, feeling that "mother attacked by her child" was a bit too stereotypical a storyline, and also I didn't quite buy a burgeoning relationship between Xanadu and Deadman. Your results may vary, of course.

      We're in agreement on Vikar -- he seems too interesting a character never to appear again. Lemire and Fawkes didn't kill him off, and indeed they left the Hunters in Epoch; except for the fact that those writers are off the title, I wouldn't be surprised if there's follow-up later in this series.

      Cheers again.

      Delete
  2. I think I've mentioned this in other comments, but part of the demise of the JSA Cooldown Method is the fact that many writers just aren't that secure on their titles. Even if a writer has a full year on a title, they're probably going to get pushed into two six-issue arcs for trade purposes. What would be good cooldown stories also get shuffled into side titles, like "Superior Team-Up" and "Avengers World" (I can't think of a DC equivalent of that... is there a Batman book that's sort of less serious and anthology-based than the others?).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And when I said, "some might think it blasphemy," I meant, "I wonder if Doug will think this is blasphemy ...?" :-)

      Indeed Johns did manage to do "cool down arcs" on JSA of the kind we haven't seen since. (Robinson did them on Starman, too, arguably.) And even Johns isn't doing them now -- Aquaman, for instance, was one big story followed by another.

      Delete
    2. I'll trust your judgment, especially since Lemire's involved and I like his stuff. Now if you had invoked the JSACD for Scott Lobdell, we might have to have a conversation.

      Delete