Justice League Dark #1 kicks off a new magic and mystery focused team of Wonder Woman, Zatanna, Swamp Thing, Detective Chimp, and Man-Bat. Magic has been broken by the Tree of Wonder’s appearance in Salem, Massachusetts in No Justice and Wonder Woman means to enlist any help she can find in order to fix it. Does the series debut feel like a Justice League book after dark, or another superhero comic with the lights dimmed a bit?
My favorite aspect of writer James Tynion IV’s work has always been his characterization and the feeling is no different here. He pens the characters with distinct voices that immediately invoke cadence and emotion as I read them, making the characters read as grounded people rather than walking sets of tropes. There’s a fair amount of exposition to cover when setting up this series and Tynion does so without any unnatural sounding monologuing or over abuse of narration.
Because the characters sound like real people, they don’t sound like they’re switching their personalities off to talk about how “Magic is broken,” a concept that requires some definition, which Tynion provides in bulk. He spends a decent amount of the issue waxing on the beauty and wonder of magic without going into the specifics of what the word means in the context of the DC universe, but I never felt like I was missing something without a 101 course on the subject. The pacing of the issue was also well executed as Tynion explains how each team member on the cover ends up joining together to find out why magic is so broken.
A key moment of the issue features Diana talking to Detective Chimp about being rejected by every magic user she finds in her plea for their aid in fixing what has broken in magic. The conversation not only conveys exposition but ends up centering around Wonder Woman feeling like an outsider in the world of magic, even though she lists several reasons justifying her place there. On a more meta level, the discussion also serves to justify why Diana is on the cover of the issue and plays a central role in the team. Yes, she was on Team Wonder in No Justice, but before reading the issue, I had my own doubts of how well a fairly clean-cut character like Wonder Woman made sense on a Justice League Dark line-up. Tynion does a good job of listing Wonder Woman’s connections to the world of magic, but future issues that see the team working as a whole will determine how well she fits in with a line-up that includes Swamp Thing and Man-Bat.
The art team delivers solid work on all fronts. Alvaro Martínez Bueno’s pencils are clean and consistent with characters looking distinct and well rendered even in group shots where they are forced to appear in slightly less detail. He also delivers some truly killer pages with fiery effects and therianthropy that leaps off the page with dynamic aplomb. I’ll discuss Raul Fernandez and Brad Anderson’s excellent inking and coloring respectively in focusing on a couple of pages in which Zatanna approaches a gathering of magic users on a dark road at night. The way Zatanna’s carefully inked silhouette is bathed and backlit in a streetlight colored in whites and greys rather than warmer oranges in one panel plays with lighting in a way that immediately invokes Father Merrin’s arrival scene in The Exorcist, a fitting homage as Zatanna approaches a house before she’s begun to face the horrors of the series to come. Fernandez uses a lot of ink on all the pages of this scene, which conveys the mood in a way that wouldn’t feel as eerie in color rather than solid black.
Where there is color, Anderson does a good job of adding just enough of iit to keep the pages out of grey-scale, but still muting them enough so that they match the lighting of the scene well. Though these pages are moody and dark with all that ink, this is still a colorful book and better lit scenes feature much warmer hues from the fleshy pinks of exposed organs to the earthy browns and greens of Swamp Thing’s body. At times, the book does almost feel a little too brightly lit and colored for what I would expect from a horror title, but I don’t want to imply that every work of horror has to be all shadow and moonlight.
That being said, my biggest hope for the series moving forward is that Tynion really leans as hard into horror as he can. This issue has a good deal of body horror and the coming villain definitely feels creepy and may bring a helping of psychological horror along with them, but after this issue I’m not completely sold on how Dark this Justice League book is. My biggest fear is that the Justice League label and characters like Wonder Woman who are as shielded by editorial teams as they are magic bracers may hold the series back from really pushing the stakes and terrors as far as they could go. This is only the first issue, so I’m withholding any judgement until the actual threats of the series arrive, but I also feel that it isn’t a debut that immediately sent a chill down my spine or made me sure the book will be dark enough for my liking.