What Makes a House a Home: "Justice League Dark Annual #2"

Through all of the noise and overstuffed panels in this issue, through all the clatter and the clutter, DeMatteis manages to tell a story worth telling. I wish he had taken more time with it.

Justice League Dark Annual #2

Publisher: DC
Length: 48 pages
Writer: J.M. DeMatteis, Klaus Janson
Price: $4.99
Publication Date: 2014-12

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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