Justice League Dark Annual #2
US: Dec 2014
I live in a big old house. It was built in 1927, just before the boom went bust. It passed through a lot of hands over the years before it came into the custody of my family. It has been lived in and remodeled many times. A lot of hands have glided along the wooden banister rail, a lot of steps have been taken on the stairs. Except for the bathrooms and closets, every single room in the house has at least two doors. Some rooms have three; one room leads to another, around and around in a circle. There has been a lot of coming and going in this house, a lot of entrances and exits. This house surely holds some mysteries that it will never reveal, knows some secrets that it will never tell. Though I sometimes long for something newer, something less lived in, something more modern and exciting, I have to say that leaving it would be hard to do. There has been a lot of love in this house, a lot of joy and laughter, a lot of sacrifice and pain. And that, of course, is what makes it a home.
The Justice League Dark, that rag-tag team of DC’s supernatural heroes, live in such an old house; they live in the House of Mystery itself. And in Justice League Dark Annual #2 they come face-to-face with an entity that claims to be the soul of that house, that claims to know all of its mysteries. They also discover that the House of Mystery is not one of a kind, that there is another house, a House of Secrets. When they meet the entity at the heart of this second house, she tells them “I am every room. Every door. Every corridor. Every staircase. I’m the wind that rattles the shutters. The creak in the floorboards. The shadows on the walls.”
I understand this; this makes sense to me, this way of thinking of our houses as living, breathing beings, as people, as members of the family or as more than that, as matriarch or patriarch of the family, as protector from the storms that rage and the winds that howl and the evil that lurks, as provider of warmth and comfort and love.
There is room in this premise for storytelling, for art. So I am especially disappointed that in the Justice League Dark Annual #2 it just doesn’t seem to work. The potential is there for a great story, a story about the entrances and exits in our lives, about comings and goings, about love and loss, about family and shelter and comfort and joy and pain, but that great story is only hinted at and never fully developed.
For one thing, the personalities at the heart of these two houses are disposable characters. They are pale shadows of the house’s former familiars, Cain and Abel, those hosts from the pages of the original House of Mystery and House of Secrets magazines. And their conflict is nothing compared to the scenes that played out between these two houses way back in Swamp Thing #33. That tale, “Abandoned Houses” by Alan Moore, was dark and dirty, meaningful and real. One house against another. Brother against brother, as is so often the way. The houses in this tale can’t begin to compare.
For another thing, DeMatteis fills the pages of this annual with unnecessary characters. While Constantine and Zatanna have parts to play, most of the other heroes have nothing to do other than trade insults and a few mostly meaningless blows. Deadman, Swamp Thing, Nightmare Nurse, Frankenstein, Andrew Bennett, Black Orchid, Madame Xanadu… They fill the panels that fill the pages of this extra-long annual and are good for little else.
(This, by the way, is the curse of many an extended annual. It does not have to be so, however. Consider the stunningly good New Avengers Annual #1 for a case in point. In what is perhaps the best single comicbook of 2014, Frank Barbiere and Marco Rudy focus all of the attention on one member of the team, Doctor Strange, and produce a masterpiece.)
And finally, Klaus Janson’s renderings are ultimately disappointing. In a story rife with potential for metaphor and symbolism, he makes everything painfully literal. When John Constantine discovers the book containing all of his secrets, it is literally a giant book with his name scrawled on the cover. When the heroes collapse under the power of the combined houses, when the floor opens up and swallows them whole – the floor literally opens up underneath them. When the houses battle one another, they literally battle one another, like two shuttered and gabled starships floating in space. What could have been sublime is instead ridiculous.
Not to say that all is lost here. As a matter of fact, DeMatteis manages something pretty remarkable in the midst of all of this. He tells a little love story with a poignant and moving ending. Through all of the noise and overstuffed panels, through all the clatter and the clutter, he manages to tell a story worth telling. I wish he had taken more time with it. Instead of giving us a big cosmic battle between space faring Victorian houses chock full of every character that has ever graced the pages of this book, I wish that DeMatteis had told this simple story. It is a good one, about love and the choices that we all have to make that put that love in jeopardy.
For most of this book things simply don’t work, but for just a moment there, just at the very end, this house almost felt like a home.