To be fair, comicbooks today have a vastly different purpose than they did in the 1990s, when creators like Rob Liefeld rose to popularity with over-the-top characters and designs, ultra-violent narrative themes, and attention-grabbing (yet often unbecoming) artwork that very much defined the industry during that era. Now, comicbook movies are what bring in the big bucks. The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are the two top grossing films of 2012, respectively, and they’re both based on a source material that still conjures judgmental thoughts. Today, comicbooks = movies = $, it’s the transmedia golden formula. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that.
With the CW’s upcoming Arrow, the success of Cartoon Network’s Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series, it’s becoming more commonplace for comics to resemble the episodic nature of television, while networks scramble to find the next superhero show that will garner the fans that attend all the superhero movies.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still one of the most popular fantasy television series ever. It created and nurtured an audience that has held up over time, bringing in new fans with each passing year. A lot of this is due to Joss Whedon’s storytelling style, one that merges an overarching character-driven theme supplemented by ‘villain of the week’ stories that helped build the world that these characters existed within. And more recently, the supernatural has been blowing up, from darker shows like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries and Grimm, to lighter fare like Once Upon a Time, and Alphas.
If I mention Buffy because the deep similarities between Justice League Dark (which is fast becoming one of my favorite ongoing titles) and the Scooby Gang’s quest to keep Sunnydale safe. Instead of sticking to traditional comicbook storyarc structure, Jeff Lemire is building up his characters through a series of events that all loosely tie together. In essence, the smaller arcs are building up to something greater, as evidenced by Justice League Dark #12.
Last month, the recently recruited Dr. Mist revealed himself to be a traitor, not only to the JLD, but also to Steve Trevor as an agent of A.R.G.U.S. The new storyarc, “War for the Books of Magic” picks up exactly here, right at the point where Dr. Mist is revealed as the traitor. After a quick, one-page Mist origin story to get the scoop on why he’s helping gross old Felix Faust, we get back to the present as Mist and Faust escape the Black Room. John Constantine and the rest of the gang are bewildered and left to speculate Faust and Mist’s whereabouts. Of course, a few magical tricks and Constantine’s wandering eyes give them two locations to investigate. The first is Slaughter Swamp, the location of the Books of Magic that Constantine saw before getting magically sucker-punched by Dr. Mist. The second is Peru, back at the temple where this all began, as divined by Zatanna. Steve Trevor sends Constantine and Black Orchid to the swamp, while Deadman and Zatanna take Peru. Just like Buffy, the gang has to split up to complete their mission.
Meanwhile, Madame Xanadu attempts to bring Timothy Hunter back into the fold. For those unfamiliar, Tim was a character created by Neil Gaiman when he wrote The Books of Magic, which this storyarc and the one prior of JLD take their cue from. Tim was destined to be the greatest mage of all time, but Xanadu comes to discover that Tim has since expunged himself of all magical energy, turning his own spell on himself to give his magic a physical form and set it free. Again, Lemire brings a TV melodrama to the story, throwing in a chance for salvation that isn’t what the heroes expected.
Since characterization is the name of Lemire’s game, we get a bit more history on the New 52 John Constantine, on his connection to Zatanna, and a mysterious new villain–one that even Faust answers to–who shares some of his key behaviors. In this retooled history, Constantine was accidentally (and really only partially) responsible for the death of Zatanna’s father, Zatara. But that’ll all be explained next month in Justice League Dark #0. The real meat of issue #12 comes from the new villain, an unnamed, obscure-faced smoker who wants nothing more than to personally kill Zatanna and Constantine. It’s a similar technique used in supernatural genre shows, slowly revealing little bits about the villain, using the mystery to make the bad guy that much more frightening.
Jeff Lemire really has turned Justice League Dark around from a book on the verge of losing itself after only six issues, to one of the best titles DC offers right now. The multiple-plotline nature of the book doesn’t feel overcrowded, and the paced character development gives meaning to these heroes and how they come to know each other instead of just assuming they’ll talk about themselves off-panel. JLD’s similarities in flow and structure to popular supernatural television shows is no coincidence, and in this case, it works. Bringing an episodic edge to an industry currently wrapped up in serial arcs is no small task, but each month Justice League Dark gets better. People will, I am very certain, start noticing.