This is it. Justice League Dark has been building to this essentially since the beginning. The final clash between order and chaos. Everything comes into focus as the purpose and the potential of the Justice League Dark is revealed and a final stand is made against Nabu. But why does it feel so perfunctory?
To get right to the point, Justice League Dark #12 is a strongly plotted, suitably grand climax to the Lords of Order’s hunt for magic. It does exactly what it needs to do, and yet it doesn’t leave you pumping your fists the way I think it wants to. The issue fails to imbue the Lords of Chaos with the same grandeur and awe that Mordru received last month and, as a result, the clash feels toothless. The Lords of Order don’t rally enough to put up a good fight and the Lords of Chaos don’t feel powerful enough to inspire with their brutality.
It’s more than that though. We like to pare superhero comics down to power levels, but that’s not what they’re about and JLD isn’t even entirely a superhero comic. This is a superhero mag and a fantasy story and a horror comic. And so the real issue is that issue #12 doesn’t sell the horror of what’s happening.
It’s obvious that James Tynion IV made a valiant attempt to do just that, with the concepts woven into the story in a number of subtle and unsubtle ways, but it might actually be his talent for storytelling that keeps this one from its potential. The train is chugging along so powerfully, with such clockwork force, that it never slows down to look in horror at what’s happening, instead reliably hitting all the necessary beats you learn in workshop but that don’t, alone, reach the heart.
Magic and reality are being unraveled by a Justice League imbued with power they don’t understand from a source they cannot trust. This idea is fascinating and terrifying, but not enough is done with it. Nabu’s response hints that we cannot be sure that the League has not been compromised, but the issue bounces back and forth between these kinds of hints and the desire for a big cathartic win, which gives a half measure of both rather than a serving of each. And that’s a shame, because, though it undercuts some of the pure bombast of the action, nothing can disguise how cool the metaphysics at play is.
For any criticism I have of this issue, there’s a tremendous amount to like and, when Tynion’s script focuses on the power of Chaos to completely undo the rules of the universe, it’s a wonder to behold. There are so many clever ways in which art and writing combine to demonstrate the level of magic we’re dealing with that it hurts all the more that it remains comparatively intellectual. Playing with panels, breaking the forth wall (fairly literally), it all delivers on what you want out of big DC Universe magic story like this. Perhaps my favorite trick up Tynion’s sleeve is Zatanna’s chaos spells, which use familiarity and simple brain science expertly to convey a real sense of unpredictability.
And, though there is too much else going on to linger, the issue reminds me of a simple and important fact: I have missed Khalid Nassour! Tynion wrings real pathos out of the one-time Doctor Fate and the source of his power’s interplay. The one crucial structural flaw of this issue is that it isn’t willing to admit that Khalid is the spine of this conflict. Zatanna and Wonder Woman have too much importance to the story to turn away from them now, but it’s Khalid that invests you and Khalid who succeeds in infusing the moment with hope and heroism. Kent Nelson also gets a good showing and shares the Doctor Fate spotlight exceedingly gracefully, but I come out of this issue reminded how fast I’d read a Khalid Nassour Doctor Fate title and Tynion has made a decent pitch for the writer slot right here.
Almost all of the highs of this issue operate in spite of its faults but also at a visibly lesser standard than they might have otherwise. There are many moments that really do work and entirely overcome the malaise that holds the issue back, but, by their exception, they can draw attention to what could have been. The bright side to all that is that we leave this issue in a wonderful place.
Readers get an appropriate sense of closure to the rebellion of Nabu, but its less explored effects and characters remain in play. The differing opinions of the assembled cast are put aside in favor of working together for the greater good, but there is a sense that their conflicts are not wholly forgotten. And the characters do not keep their new powers, preventing a radical and unwelcome change to status quo, but the consequences are left up in the air.
If you remember, last month I praised Tynion’s explanation of chaos magic as a theme for the issue but said that I worried about how it would serve as a guiding principle for magic going forward. It seems I worried in vain, because now that very chaos magic has undone itself, showing the beneficial nature of chaos to change with the times alongside its immense potential for selfishness. I deeply hope that Tynion will capitalize on this opportunity even as he recenters on the threat of the Otherkind. There’s something electric in the punk rock optimism of a new order of magic that bends towards justice and I can only pray that this series will plug in. Luckily, Tynion has certainly laid the groundwork if that is his goal.
Alvaro Martínez Bueno and Raul Fernandez remain a fantastic team for this series. Everything feels real even when it frequently takes advantage of a more representational style. In fact, some of the strongest but likely least appreciated panels of this issue are the smallest ones, which do dip in detail but don’t lose any of their force or potency.
The art settles into a quieter style for the JLA flashbacks, seemingly giving an impression of the lower light, but, for the most part, the issue focuses on consistency over flashiness, delivering sturdy visuals without fighting to wow readers with gorgeous compositions. No, instead the draw comes from the layouts, which utilize the striking, angular forms of issues past for much of the story before introducing intriguing blendings of past and present and some truly wild designs as magic falls apart. At times this can feel a little theoretical, something you notice more than you feel, but the fact is that it’s pretty incredible how seamless it all is. You’ll never have trouble reading this issue, despite its avant-garde panels, and every once in a while there will be a layout that demands your attention and praise. Plus the transitions in and out of this style are incredible.
There’s also a lot going on in most of these panels, so even if they’re not jaw-droppingly beautiful every time, I give Bueno serious credit for his clear dedication to keeping the book from becoming unclear or overbusy rather than going pedal to the mat for something visually stunning but detrimental to the book as a whole.
Despite the quality of the art, I hate to say that I find most of the Lords of Chaos designs…underwhelming. Too many of them add a dash of teenage rebellion without doing enough else. Wonder Woman’s design has something really cool about it and makes good use of her iconography, but it looks kind of silly in motion, particularly the hood. Of the new designs, Swamp Thing and Detective Chimp barely change anything besides looking angrier and Man-Bat fails to take advantage of the concept, though the many-arms of the form do get a good showing. Zatanna is the only real winner, not least of all for incorporating elements of her New 52 design alongside some JLA inspiration.
Brad Anderson also deserves some particular praise. He really gives the issue a sense of scope and craziness without throwing color at it. In fact, this is a notably subdued issue overall. This makes it all the clearer that Anderson knows what he’s doing because, even at its most monochromatic, there’s a sense of depth and distinction that a lesser colorist easily could have lost. Cracks of boldly colored magic contrast against the apocalyptic melancholy of the battlefield and it comes together in a lovely manner. This strength is even clearer in the flashbacks, where the literal darkness of the League’s magical archives plays against the louder iconography of their four color costumes, even when that’s just a shimmer against Wonder Woman’s tiara.
Justice League Dark ends its first year and its first mega arc in a solid and effective way, but one that falls a little short of its potential for awe and wonder. Instead we get a conclusion that does what it needs to more than what it dreams of, but, in doing so, it sets the series up for an even bigger and stronger second year with remarkable efficiency. The issue rarely sinks below the level of the competent, but, where it crests above the fog weighing on it, it both lays essential groundwork and has terrific fun with the ideas it brings to the table. The art is lovely and delivers wonderfully on the high concepts that Tynion has laid out, but the script doesn’t bring those ideas to life fully, leaving the issue feeling like it’s trapped in the head a bit. But, even with these regrettable flaws, Justice League Dark remains an absolute treat for fans of DC’s magical universe and the series only looks to grow further from here.
Justice League Dark #12 is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.