Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (also the title of a killer Barry Adamson tune) is a masterpiece of suspense and slow-building horror. Two boys born on either side of midnight are targeted by the wandering stranger Mr Dark. Bradbury’s story uses occult imagery to portray the darker side of human nature, with its repressed urges and desires.
As it happens, the dark side of human nature is where Peter Milligan lives. In almost every work produced by the British writer he has chosen to portray characters experiencing a profound sense of alienation. How they are is in direct conflict with what society expects of them. So the doomed romanticism of Rac Shade comes up short when faced with genuine passion or sexual desire. The fame of the team in X-Statix is poor reward for their expendable nature as killer mutants for hire. And then there’s Skin, a brutal – and famously banned at one time – piece by Milligan and collaborator Brendan McCarthy that condemns the fate of Thalidomide babies, whose bodies were deformed by the drug while still developing in the womb.
Alienation and disaffection is rife in Milligan’s writing. So the news that he would be helming a Justice League book of all things was surprising.
Of course this is not your usual Justice League, but a spin-off of sorts, featuring a number of characters familiar to fans of DC’s Vertigo line. Since the mysterious Lady in Red (any relation to this one?) merged all the different universes together in the climax to Flashpoint, Rac Shade the Changing Man and John Constantine (who thankfully still looks nothing like Keanu Reeves) now exist in the same world as Superman, Batman and that psychic caterpillar Mr. Mind, among others.
Justice League Dark therefore allows Milligan to set these characters apart from their more brightly colored peers. These ‘heroes’ typically use magic instead of superscience or natural abilities. In the first issue Superman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg were confronted by a magical threat from the evil Enchantress that was simply beyond their understanding, never mind immune to their typical method of frontal assault. When faced with mind-bending horror and insane peril, call on Zatanna, Constantine and Deadman to save the day.
Well that would be fine, but there’s a small problem. The team as such does not exist. Flashpoint: Secret Seven, also by Milligan, gave us a taste of what was in store with Justice League Dark. Two issues in and this book has already established a number of parallels. There is the aforementioned ‘non-team’ status of the characters – although they do appear to be slowly converging together. The villainous Enchantress is messing with everyone’s head again, but in Justice League Dark she seems genuinely unhinged and has somehow been separated from her host. Milligan has even retained his revamp of Zatanna as a biker chick and given her a more pro-active power set.
The most important point of comparison though is that these characters are each and every one of them damaged goods. In Secret Seven this led to their doom. The suggestion is that they will fare somewhat better as a team in the DCU proper. Still they remain poster children for superhero neurosis. Boston Brand is eaten up with frustration at his inability to express his feelings physically, so much so he threatens his relationship with Dawn Granger in a fit of pique. Shade is at such a remove from people he is abusing his own powers to create homunculi to have relationships with. As for Constantine, while he displays more adeptness with magic(k) than his Vertigo counterpart –a Machiavellian sort who just happened to know more about the nature of reality than the ordinary schlubs he encountered – in issue two Milligan has him purposely get into a bar fight in order to perform a masochistic ritual in order to track down Zatanna.
Also something very odd is going on with Madame Xanadu, who appears to be a linking character for Post-Vertigo titles such as Demon Knights, Resurrection Man and Justice League Dark. In each she has become progressively more sinister, bordering on downright malevolent in Milligan’s take.
These individuals are inherently broken and while it is tempting to assume that coming together as part of a League will provide them with the sense of identity and fellowship they so desperately need, given that this is Milligan we are talking about that possibility is likely to elude them. Although thanks to some lovely art from Mikel Janin, at least the characters will be beautiful failures.
In the end that is the real ‘Something Wicked’ at work here. This is a book about superheroes experiencing delayed gratification , never properly winning or losing, but instead risking madness and death at every turn. The contrast between their familiarity with the tricks of Enchantress and the confounding of Superman by a whirlwind of teeth(!) is in a way reminiscent of the encounter between the League and Grant Morrison’s Brotherhood of Dada. When faced with such a weird and unlikely threat, the only choice is to call in a team that is even stranger.
And that, ladies and gents, is the Justice League Dark.