When it comes to tackling horror in mainstream comics, DC has always excelled in presenting dark narratives filled with intrigue, fascinating characters and bone-chilling terror. From Alan Moore’s iconic run on Swamp Thing to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and the myriad other titles in the Vertigo imprint, the publisher has never hesitated to walk down the darker back alleys of the comic landscape. Even top tier superhero books like Detective Comics have narrowed their scope from time to time in order to focus in on the evil that lives in the hearts of men, and the monsters lurking in a realm bleeding into our own.
The culmination of these horror-centric ideals has always been a team of characters who operate outside of the normal (if there is such a thing) spectrum of superhero books. Characters like the occult detective John Constantine, the magician Zatanna, and the elemental monster with the heart of gold, Swamp Thing, are not often considered “first-stringers” when it comes to heroes one might call when a city is in trouble. But what these outsider characters present is the answer to when things are beyond the realm of comprehension for the "normal heroes." They operate outside of reality to some degree, keeping a watchful eye on the cosmic nightmares that constantly threaten the fabric of our existence. So, you know, no pressure.
Justice League Dark #1 brings back a group of these guardians who are connected by happenstance more so than some sort of shared moral code. In fact, this first issue feels less like it has any interest in getting the team together than it does dumping the major dilemma that will most likely eat up the entire first arc, if not the series itself, into the heroes' collective lap. This is by no means a strike against the book; in fact, not really caring if the reader has familiarity with these characters and their relationships to one another and instead, throwing you right in the mix, actually works to its benefit. In short, Justice League Dark #1 is bonkers in the best sort of way.
Writer James Tynion IV (Detective Comics) does not shy away from the nasty bits of this world from page one as stage performance by Zatanna goes awry in a disgustingly impressive fashion, which includes nasty, toothy tendrils and one unfortunate bunny rabbit. The book doesn’t let up on the weirdness factor from there. Instead, it bores straight ahead, only stopping to reintroduce a few key characters and events from yesteryear for the sake of loose context, and then right into the truly horrific mess our heroes are getting into in the back half of the issue. Whether or not readers are on board with (or even understand) what the hell is going on, the pacing is tight and the exposition doesn’t come off as perfunctory even if it might read like complete gibberish to the uninitiated.
As for the artwork, penciler Alvaro Martinez Bueno (Convergence: Booster Gold), inker Raul Fernandez (Detective Comics), and colorist Brad Anderson (Action Comics) render the nightmarish imagery with gusto and a touch of restraint. The manner in which the terrible creatures are drawn and colored make them seem all too commonplace in the world they inhabit. The decision in making them seem like something out of the ordinary within the context of the issue is wise. It makes them less ghastly and gaudy and far more haunting. The action sequences are also stellar. Wonder Woman giving Zatanna an assist is presented in a flowing two page splash that is both kinetic and informative. And when Swamp Thing does finally show up in this issue, the elements of The Green are just plain gorgeous.
This creative team is definitely starting this book off strong. And while this might feel less like a debut issue and more of a continuation of previous crossover events (everything comes back to Metal, doesn't it?) and past iterations of the team, it’s a bloody good time. The only drawback we can really see is that it might deter new readers from picking up subsequent issues. While a lot of background information is given, it is somewhat out of context with regards to the history of long-standing occult figures. This, of course, is to be expected. This book isn’t about Batman or Superman or any other superhero who has enveloped the social consciousness beyond comic books. It’s about the guys and gals who lurk in the shadows. If a new reader were to pick up the book, hopefully they would be able to see the story is rich and even if this isn’t a great jumping on point, it will pique their interest to do some digging.