The second Justice League Dark collection opens with Peter Milligan’s last issues as writer, parts One and Three of the “Rise of the Vampires” story done as a crossover with I, Vampire. The TPB tries to minimize the crossover by leaving the part numbers off. But it’s especially obvious that Part Three is setting up a conclusion that is not included. In isolation these two issues are unsatisfying at best, and skate close to incomprehensibility at worst. A good reminder of why I stopped reading DC comics (other than Vertigo) in the first place. They do feature Batgirl and Batman, and include the departure of Shade, The Changing Man from the team.
The collection gets back on track with “The Black Room” arc, which introduces new writer Jeff Lemire and signals the return of regular series artist Mikel Janin. Steve Trevor (who is now an agent of the secret U.S. military branch called A.R.G.U.S.) calls the team “Justice League Dark” for the first time. John Constantine’s response: “That is the stupidest name I have ever heard.” It adds Black Orchid to the team, finds vampire Andrew Bennett leaving, includes a visit to the House of Mystery, and–last but not least–features the apparent return of Tim Hunter. The last time Hunter was seen he had given up magic, and that still holds true when Madame Xanadu calls on him. She implores him to rejoin the magical community, and he informs her that he has given his magic away. Which leads directly into the “War for the Books of Magic” arc.
Despite my reservations about the series, I have to admit that I’m really enjoying the way it is weaving together all of the different aspects of the occult side of the DCU.
One thing I’ve noticed about these New 52 occult characters: they’re generally quite close to the older appearances in the DCU. That makes them quite user-friendly for longtime readers like me (in fact some of these characters even predate the Mature Readers & Vertigo appearances that I’m most familiar with). Presumably they’re reasonably approachable for new readers as well, because they get introduced and demonstrate their abilities in action pretty quickly.
The mysterious character behind the quest for the Books of Magic turns out to be the first big retcon so far. He’s Nick Necro, a mage who was mentor to both Constantine and Zatanna. This introduces both a new character and a history that surely would have played a part in earlier stories, especially in the series Hellblazer and The Books of Magic. It’s a very superhero story telling technique, introducing a human arch-enemy for Constantine, his Lex Luthor or Joker.
As the conflict ramps up, Lemire brings in more of DC’s occult history, including the House of Secrets, Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (in the form appearing in the New 52 series, based on Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series), and Amethyst (also previously brought back to the New 52 in the series Sword of Sorcery). After more big battle scenes–there’s far more of these than in any of the previous appearances of these mystical characters–Timothy Hunter gets his magic back, grabs the Books of Magic, then disappears through a gateway, with Zatanna tagging along. That’s quite a cliffhanger!
Another thing I meant to mention: Lemire really made a virtue of the 0 issue and Annual that were part of the DC publishing schedule November – December 2012. He used the 0 issue to introduce Nick Necro and his history with Constantine and Zatanna. We’d only seen him in shadows in the previous issue, which is a tease, since there’s no way anyone could have identified him. He’s a new character, as far as continuity is concerned. The Annual is essential to following the title, because it concludes the “War for the Books of Magic,” and follows directly from the action in Issue #13.
I agree with criticism that the series seems weaker than its potential, at least as far as the strength of the cast is concerned. OTOH, there’s the problem that they really aren’t characters that were created to work together as a team. They’re basically a bunch of loners and misfits, to varying degrees. Like many readers, I’m so fond of the characters that I’m willing to cut the storytelling a lot of slack. I mean, the very notion of a “Justice League Dark” is pretty silly in the face of it. I was fully prepared to hate it, but I’m enjoying it for what it is.
I don’t know that Tim Hunter is being wasted, at least not on the basis of this collection. It remains to be seen what he does next: that’s a pretty dramatic cliffhanger.
I also have mixed feelings about Nick Necro, the new character who is retconned as a magical mentor to both Constantine and Zatanna. I’m not sure how necessary he is, other than to give Constantine a human nemesis. But it’s kind of refreshing to see a new character introduced into the DCU. Creators have gotten out of the habit of creating characters they don’t own.
The latest creator-owned Jonathan Hickman series features story by Hickman and art by Nick Dragotta. It’s notable that the TPB collection doesn’t show the subtitle anywhere, nor does it contain the usual blurb summarizing what the story is about. So here’s the description from the Image website: “This is the world. It is not the one we wanted, but it is the one we deserved. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse roam the Earth, signaling the End Times for humanity, and our best hope for life, lies in DEATH. Collects EAST OF WEST #1 – #5.”
It’s clear from the first few pages that we’re in some kind of dystopian future, and it has a frontier tone reminiscent of the traditional Western. One of the first characters we meet is Death, a gunslinger dressed all in white, a deadly character who recalls the Saint of Killers in Preacher. But there’s also evidence of advanced technology, giving the story a steampunk atmosphere.
Three issues in, and it’s still unclear what drives Death, and how he came to be. He’s after the Chosen, a group that wields the real power in the world. And the other three Horsemen are after him: apparently he was supposed to be reborn with them, in the scene that opens the series. When Death discovers that his wife is still alive, he heads for New Shanghai (is this the East of the title?). Right as usual, Cap. I missed that bridge shot. It’s made more explicit in the following issue, where the whole history of the House of Mao is spelled out. So it’s culturally East, but geographically West.
Hickman clearly wants to just toss the reader into the dystopian deep end with this series. He does fill in background to this world, but he does it only occasionally, mostly via flashbacks. He and Dragotta have created a striking group of characters here, so they take the stage very well without any preparation. I got carried along most of the way without stopping to try to figure out what was going on.
But now that it’s been a few days since I finished reading the collection, I thought I’d set down a few facts from the first five issues. There was a Third Great Awakening that happened about the same times as the Civil War. In 1862 a Confederate soldier abandoned the war and became one of the architects of The Message. The war went on for twenty more years, until a comet strike ended the hostilities; armistice was signed in 1908. Territory was remarked, and the Seven Nations of America were formed. So the story is set in an alternate history.
The next time stamp is the ever-helpful “Now.” But a few pages later there is a divider page that says “2064. The Apocalypse: Year One.” This explains the more advanced technology. In many ways this is a world that is trying to die. Those who believe in The Message are actively trying to manufacture the end of the world.
This includes many of the people in power. Theoretically it includes all of the members of the Chosen, but there are some members who would rather see the world continue. Death should be working for the end as a member of the Four Horsemen, but he has cheated death himself to join the opposition. These are the good guys, but it sure is hard to tell by looking at them and what they do.
Death and Xiaolian (the heir to the House of Mao) had a child, who the believers think is the Beast of the Apocalypse. They are training him for the role by raising him in an isolated, virtual reality environment. At the close of the collection Death tells her their son is alive, and goes off to save him.
Matt Kindt’s current series revisits the espionage theme he has used before (most notably in the Super Spy books). But this time we are dealing with a secret organization that can actually rewrite reality, through various sophisticated, powerful mind control techniques. A young journalist named Meru stumbles across the Mind Management program while investigating the story of the mysterious Flight 815, a commercial flight where everyone aboard lost their memories. Everyone except a missing passenger named Henry Lyme: so Meru begins looking for him, following an enigmatic series of clues. She is convinced that he holds the key to the mystery.
I’m reading the hardcover collection, but I know that the individual issues follow the theme through in all of the details of the book design, including the cover and fake advertisements. Kindt chose not to reproduce the whole package in the collection. But there are still two unusual structural elements. The first is the MIND MGMT FIELD GUIDE that runs across the left margin of most of the pages in small blue type. Each page contains a short entry that usually bears some relation to the action on the page. I struggled with how to read these at first. If you read each one as you read the story it interrupts the flow, so I finally chose to read each chapter of the main story, then go back and read the Field Guide entries. They give insight into how the MIND MGMT organization functions, although in the beginning they seem to be largely independent from the action. That begins to change in the fourth chapter, where someone begins breaking through the formal text to attempt to communicate directly with the reader (who I think is supposed to be Meru, the heroine).
Each issue also ends with a “MIND MGMT Case File,” telling the story of various MIND MGMT operatives. These two-page stories provide a direct look into how the organization functions, as well as the special talents some of their agents possess.
Meru finally gets to Henry Lyme, having missed the Field Guide messages to leave with her CIA companion Bill. Lyme tells her his whole story. He possesses extremely powerful mental powers, perhaps the strongest ever found. Horrified by some of the things he has done for the MIND MGMT organization, and unable to feel sure of the reality of anything, he attempted to resign. The amnesia flight was an unforeseen side-effect of his mental command forcing anyone who saw him to forget him. He rescued Meru from an earlier disaster, and has used her as his confessor by leaving the mental clues she followed to find him.
As she leaves him she wonders why he is letting her go. She realizes she will forget everything, so she writes down Lyme’s story and mails it to herself, convinced she has beaten the mind control. When she returns home we see a repeat of the opening scenes of the series: an empty apartment, unpaid bills, and a bright idea for a new book. A neighbor intercepts the Mind Management case files she had mailed (which also reveal her last name to be Marlow), telling an unknown agent on the phone that he did it to protect her, not the organization. We have been seeing a recurring cycle; there is no telling how long Meru has been locked into this circle.
The collection also includes the #0 issue, which I believe was originally available only online. It contains three short stories (collectively labelled “Secret Files”) following Meru’s earlier attempts to learn about the MIND MGMT organization. Each one tells the story of a notable operative, making them slightly longer versions of the Case Files that conclude the other issues. One of them describes an attempt to assassinate Lyme (as did the Case File at the end of Issue #5): he appears to be an extremely hard man to kill, to say the least. I’m sure that will form a significant part of the ongoing narrative, along with Meru’s attempts to retain the results of her research somehow. It’s awfully difficult to prove the existence of an organization that is capable of erasing all traces of its existence, even memories. It will be interesting to see how Kindt solves that puzzle.
I like Kindt’s sly references to classic noir detective stories here, also. Henry Lyme must be intended to recall the character Harry Lime in Graham Greene’s “The Third Man.” And Meru Marlow is surely a nod to Raymond Chandler’s great private detective Philip Marlowe.