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Monday, April 1, 2013

Magic, Comics, and the Justice League Dark

Don't call it a comeback! I know I've been away, working on medical school and my own projects, and this certainly does not signal a return to regular blogging; I'd love to be able to keep up the 3-times daily posts I was aiming for earlier, but I've come to the realization that it's just not reasonable. Still, I have opinions, and occasionally I think they're worthy of expression. I'll try to update the blog at least once or twice a week.

Anyway, to the subject; Magic in comics, how it works and how it doesn't. Check it out, after the cut.

The failure of “magic” to gain traction in mainstream superhero comics is as well documented as it is perplexing. It wasn’t always thus; Dr. Strange had a long running series, the Spectre too, and of course Vertigo was built upon pillars of Dream-Dust and magic bean sprouts.

That the superhero universe is predominantly a science fiction reality is indisputable. As such, a certain approach and aesthetic predominates, and this is one of rules and logic; this character beats this character because they have this power and this is the way things operate, more or less. There are certain logical outgrowths that make sense to people, and arbitrary actions are eschewed as childish and plot device.

Magicians do not fare well in comics
Magic, historically, is not without rules, but what differentiates it from science fiction is that the rules of magic are wholly invented; they change from author to author, work of fiction to work of fiction. The world of “The Wheel of Time” operates with a very defined set of rules for magic; but they have nothing in common with how magic works in, say, The “Lord of the Rings”. Tension and drama are created because we know what these characters are and are not capable of, and when they get out of a situation it has to be through some clever manipulation of those rules.

Comics, though, are by nature a collaborative medium. Hundreds of writers come together to tell their stories, and that hurts consistency. The impact is somewhat mitigated by the simplicity of what they have to deal with, of course; writers will write a Superman of varying levels of power, sometimes moving a planet, other times struggling with earth-built giant robots, but the foundations of what Superman can or cannot do are reasonably set. Yes, he might prove to be strong enough to get out of a situation that he wouldn’t have been able to get out of under a different writer, but he won’t suddenly utter a few words and gain the power to manipulate matter.

Magic is a more amorphous thing; spellcasters, at least, can do whatever they NEED to. And while various writers have worked to establish rules over the years, they’re unique to the work of those writers; other writers choose other rules, as is their purview. So no consistency can be developed. Without that kind of internal consistency, no tension can be effected; a writer need only decide a character can magically alter the universe to suit their needs, and they can.

Truly, Moore, Bisette and Totleben understand what makes magic magical

The lack of rules need not be a hinderence, but instead a form of freedom; rather than trying to fit magic into the constraints of the superheroic sci-fi universe, why not change the nature of the STORIES to suit the characters?

Vertigo built it’s success not on straightforward adventure plots  but on deeply psychological tales riddled with allegory; resolutions were satisfying not because there was great punchup or momentism, but because they were all deeply embedded in character, all born out of character development and progression.

There is absolutely NO reason a book like Justice League Dark can’t adopt the same dogma, when appropriate. There is no reason that this book need be as generic as it has become.

When Jeff Lemire took over the book from Peter Milligan, I predicted that we’d get a shift in character composition almost immediately. Milligan’s JLD was a team comprised of characters with ill defined abilities, almost infinite in their range and depth. The Enchantress, Zatanna, and Shade the Changing Man were regularly altering the nature of reality itself. This worked, to a point, because the threats they were facing were not external but rather INTERNAL. The Shade struggled with his own grief and madness, Zatanna with her insecurity, the Enchantress with a fractured psyche. It didn’t matter what they could or couldn’t do, because their stories were only ever going to end with some realization about themselves, not with lightning and thunder and hellfire blasts.

Gillen's Journey Into Mystery is one of the more recent titles to effectively use magic in ways palatable to the mainstream

As the series changed hands and changed tones, we immediately removed Shade and the Enchantress; and Zatanna has since been folded out, too. How was this so predictable? Simple; it was obvious that they were going in a more superheroic direction, and the approach I mention above is very rarely used in superhero comics.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t, or SHOULDN’T, be. And that, I suppose, is the overarching point I’m trying to make here.

People come back to these books not for plot but for character, and for imagination. Rather than trying to turn these characters into something they aren’t, to fit paradigms they were never designed for, lets adopt elements from books that were successfully able to engage a readership in these kinds of characters and insert them – when possible – into this superhero universe.

Seven Soldiers was many things, but magic and myth were absolutely central to it
I’m not suggesting that we need go back to the Peter Milligan Justice League Dark era. A work that psychological, that disturbing, obviously alienated some mainstream readers. It’s understandable, and I think a change was warranted. Peter Milligan’s JLD was profoundly WEIRD, even a little experimental, and the purpose of the “Dark” line is to appeal to a wider, perhaps slightly more sophisticated audience, but not the intensely ‘niche’ group that support books like Shade the Changing Man or Rogan Gosh.

 But there is a happy balance, a medium to be struck. It is in this space that books like Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” and Neil Gaiman’s “Books of Magic” operated, or Grant Morrison’s “Seven Soldiers”. Surely there is room for something of that relative sophistication and creativity that was still engaging on the level of plot, of adventure, that contains characters that are genuinely sympathetic rather than pitiable or monstrous.  Even something like John Ostrander’s “Spectre” worked on this level, and was a (minor) financial success for such a low tier character (with 70 issues, and an ending that was voluntary rather than forced).  

That it is abstract makes it no less human, the battle for identity
Looking at Justice League Dark directly, I think a few things can be changed. One of the biggest missteps with this book is that John Constantine is the overt leader here. I’m not against the idea of Constantine playing a sincere role in the book, but this kind of leadership position is ill suited. We need a more naturally positive, commanding figure to lead the team. Constantine is the terror that goes bump in the night, with no discernible abilities or identifiable talents; underestimated by those who don’t know him, overestimated by those who know him by reputation, he’s always there, a sarcastic shadow lurking at the edges of any scene, a man with a plan. If we are looking at team books, he serves a function similar to that of “Batman” in Morrison’s JLA. He’s better than everyone, he KNOWS it, and he’s more or less around to make sure that these sentimental idiots don’t allow a situation to go tits up and destroy the world – or at least the portion of it in which he lives.

But if he’s our Batman, then who is our Superman? Boston Brand is the comedic relief, our ‘fish out of water’. Frankenstein our strong man, straight man, archaic force of nature. All business. Zatanna has been moved to Constantine’s book; fine. Traci13 is our burgeoning rookie, coming to terms with her powers. Perhaps our leader could be...Doctor Mist? Looking for redemption, but with a profoundly noble soul, he fits in as a character with sincere character flaws while having the necessary skills and temperament for a leader. He’s got some diversity to him, to balance out the blonde Constantine and the ethnically undefined Tracy 13. His powers are fairly easy to understand and extremely useful in their given mission statement.   

What next for Justice League Dark, a title sufferring an ID crisis?

Above all, this is a book about the weirdness and wonder of life. About the mystery and magic that lurks around every corner, the universes that lie pregnant in shadows, and in light. It’s about everyday life as myth, the quotidian veil parted to reveal the extraordinary guts. Ground the book in that every day feel – you don’t need magical machines to transport you to other worlds, you only need a surge of imagination, a bit of ritual, and a willingness to lose yourself, only for a moment.

Possible Storylines:

  •           The Justice League Dark must broker a treaty with the attacking hordes of faded pantheons, enraged from lack of belief.

  •           The Justice League Dark must face a prisoner escaped from the Dream-Time, a thing with teeth for eyes and murder on his breath.

  •           The Justice League Dark must stop a fallen of the Host from remembering his rage, and his ambition to destroy the world his Creator loved so much.

  •           The Justice League Dark must stop a boy of impossible power over reality  - a genetic quirk – who dreams of plagues and floods and the end of the world, as indoctrinated in him by the religion of his youth.

In the effort to make magic palatable to the sci-fi adventure crowd, we risk losing what makes magic…magical. What makes it feel REAL to us. It’s a tool, like any other, to explore the human condition, and it deserves to be treated as such, with that kind of thought. 


  1. Nice work, I thoroughly enjoyed Milligan's arc with JLD. The subsequent material has been solid but nearly completely devoid of any true magic or the like.

    ~Jake Fury

  2. Thanks, Jake!

    I think the book is doing what it is doing well enough, but I think it could be a far better, more daring, more unique book with a few tweaks in approach.

    As always, these posts are the result of a sincere desire to see DC succeed, and I hope they're taken as constructive criticism rather than empty griping!

  3. I haven't read JLD yet, but these are interesting thoughts all the same.

  4. Thanks muchly, Tony, kind of you to say! Glad you got something out of it.