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Oh, Justice Leauge Dark, why do you torture me so? You had your debut among the New 52 as the most interesting title to me by far. You brought all these dark and interesting characters together with a fantastic script by Peter Milligan and the absolutely gorgeous art of Mikel Janin. I thought we could go on like that forever. But then Janin left and Milligan started phoning in it for that dumb I, Vampire crossover. I won’t lie. It hurt. There was a sense of betrayal. Of course, I shouldn’t have doubted you. It was only a matter of time before you would turn things around once more and you knew just how to earn back my love. Not only did you switch authors to last year’s best writer, Jeff Lemire, but you brought back Janin, as well! We were back. Nothing could stop us. Nothing, except cancellation. Now, here we all are: A new issue, a new creative team, and only one more book after this before it all ends. I guess the only thing left to do is see if this ending comes bittersweet or if it just stays bitter.
One might notice very quickly that quite a few things have changed about this book, besides just the names on the cover. When last we saw our motley-assortment-of-magical-types-but-probably-best-not-to-call-them-heroes they were John Constantine, Madame Xanadu, Deadman, Zatanna, and Shade the Changing Man, fighting vampires in Gotham City. Well, that whole business is over and just what the team is has changed as a result. John Constantine is very much the de facto leader of the group now. Madame Xanadu finally got so tired of saying maybe she made a mistake every issue that she has decided to sit the whole thing out. That makes Constantine not only the focal point for this story, but the guy casually lighting his cigarette and giving orders while the rest of the team jumps into action. Besides that, Shade’s nervous breakdown, after finding out vampires are real, decided to take and he never came back from Imagination Land. So, he is effectively off the team, as well. Then we have newly revived and reinstated lord of vampires, Andrew Bennett, apparently owing Constantine a favor, and, last but not least, the shape-shifting Black Orchid.
All this comes about when, in an odd cameo that I suppose is supposed to link up continuity with the Justice League books, Steve Trevor approaches Constantine with a deal: If Constantine can get his team together to rescue the government-sponsored magician, Dr. Mist, and reclaim a powerful magic artifact from Felix Faust, then Constantine will have a few minutes to pilfer from the Black Room, the government’s naught-but-whispered stash of magic relics. This promise is enough to entice Constantine, who entices Zatanna with one artifact in particular, which entices Deadman, just because. Bennett has a debt to repay and the Orchid is agent Trevor sends to make sure Constantine stays honest. With all that sorted, the team finds themselves fighting Faust’s cult in the Amazon Jungle.
Now, in fairness, the book does not establish all this information so cluttered and poorly paced as I did, just now, for some reason. The story begins in media res, with the operation already under way. Context is spread liberally as the story hops back and forth from flashback to present. There is a lot to take in here, but it is all handled pretty well and the pacing holds up. Truthfully, this is the best story this series has seen since these characters decided to become something resembling a team. It even bears the first actual mention of “Justice League Dark” as a team name within the book. Of course, Constantine immediately says it is the stupidest name he has ever heard. Which it kind of is.
While the stakes are not initially anywhere close to being as high as they have been in previous issues, there is still an effective sense of adventure here. I don’t care what it is, set anything in the Amazon Jungle with a temple and I am going to think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It doesn’t hurt that these characters seem to finally be working as a team. Fighting some cultist thugs and random spider monsters, albeit extremely cool-looking random spider monsters, is not much when you think about what these people can do, but the fights are still handled very well. The final moments of the book, which set us up for a tale with far more potential than what can be explored in a single final issue, is legitimately surprising and fascinating.
My main problems with the book are minor nitpicks at best, so I will only go into the one that was the biggest sticking point for me. The scene in which Constantine convinces Zatanna to come is fine on its own, but seems incredibly odd within the context of the book. Constantine tells her that she is the lynch pin, in so many words. If she goes, the others will go, because they trust her and not John. Except this doesn’t make any sense. In this room we have Zatanna, Deadman, Bennett, and Xanadu. Black Orchid is coming regardless. Bennett is coming, because he owes Constantine. Xanadu doesn’t come in the end, so I am not even sure why she is here, except for her to explain why she is only in one panel. This means that Zatanna coming along convinced Deadman alone and that does not really make a ton of sense either. It makes even less sense when, despite how much no one trusts Constantine, everyone is following his orders. If Zatanna is the one everyone trusts, then why is she not the one giving out orders and acting as leader? It’s odd, because I like how this scene is written and I like how this scene is drawn, but it just does not work well in the story.
Speaking of liking how scenes are drawn, let me just say it is amazing to have Mikel Janin back on pencils. There is not as much ridiculous magic for Janin to play with here, but the details he adds to the characters are incredible. They are not stylized, but I can definitely recognize the art as Janin’s at this point. The backgrounds here are not especially impressive, although there is a standout or two, but the characters are the stars anyway. Black Orchid is hands down my favorite design. Her shape-shifting is easily the most visually appealing element to this book, but even just her costume is a pleasure to look at. In a lesser artist’s hands, I can imagine her purple bodysuit making her look just like a female Phantom. Instead, her body is crossed with veins and webs that would look entirely natural on the flower her look emulates.
When all is said and done, if Justice League Dark has to end, I am certainly glad it gets to end like this. There are definite problems in the writing and art both, but they are middling in comparison to what this book gets right. After the festival of bland that was the previous story arc, Lemire and Janin’s combined effort makes it even harder to say good bye to my personal favorite of the New 52. Of course, we still have one book to go before the end. If it manages to be even better than this one, then I think we’ll have something to truly remember.