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Synopsis "The Black Room" (20-pages)
A man is led through the Amazon jungle by hooded cultists with machine guns. His head is covered by a bag and his arms are tied behind his back. The cultists bring the man before their leader, Felix Faust, and pull the bag off to reveal that their captive is John Constantine. After a spirited exchange Faust orders Constantine’s execution. That’s the cue for Constantine’s allies – Deadman, Zatanna, Andrew Bennett, and Black Orchid – to drop their disguises and attack Faust’s minions.
A week ago in London, a hung over John Constantine wakes to discover that A.R.G.U.S.’s Colonel Steve Trevor has broken into his flat. Trevor explains that he needs Constantine’s assistance and will compensate him for it. Trevor gets Constantine’s interest by confirming the existence of A.R.G.U.S.’s Black Room – the world’s foremost repository of seized mystical artefacts – and showing him Dr Destiny’s Dreamstone. Doctor Mist, the caretaker of the Black Room, has vanished while on a mission to South America to investigate a cult led by Faust. The sorcerer is known to both men, but his new cult implies that Faust has found a powerful new source of magic.
A.R.G.U.S. are aware of Constantine and Xanadu’s group and they wants him to use the team to find Doctor Mist and to stop Felix Faust. In exchange Constantine will be allowed 10 minutes to have a look around the Black Room on his own. Constantine justÂ has to reassemble the group. The first recruit is easy as A.R.G.U.S. is insisting that their operative Black Orchid comes along as a babysitter. John calls them together in the theatre where Zatanna is currently preforming. Xanadu knows him too well to agree, but Andrew Bennett is bound by a promise he’d made to assist Constantine. Zatanna is persuaded when Constantine tells her that the Black Room has her late father’s stage outfit and that he’d get it back for her.
Back in the jungle, the mystics cut a path through the Cultists and force Faust back into the template that he was using as a base. Faust conjurers giant spiders to attack them and he is definitely more powerful than they remember. Black Orchid uses her shape-shifting to get close to Faust while disguised as Constantine. She then K.O.s him and they free Doctor Mist from the spider’s web. Its only then that the magicians find that artefact that Faust was channelling power from is called the Eight-Dimensional Map — the map that shows the location of the Books of Magic.
- The Black Room is considered a myth event among magicians like John Constantine and Zatanna.
- A.R.G.U.S. are in possession of Doctor Destiny’s Dreamstone. They nicknamed Constantine’s group the “Justice League Dark”.
- The Eight-Dimensional Map (variously the Lost Cube, the first tesseract) is a map to the four Books of Magic.
The first eight issue of Justice League Dark were written by Peter Milligan and really focused on the damaged aspect of its cast. All of the feature characters were emotionally damaged by their involvement with magic. They’d paid a price for being who they were and that cost was transmitted into the stories as an underlying darkness – almost as if Milligan was literally aiming for the title of the book. The arrival of Jeff Lemire as Milligan’s successor doesn’t erase that pathos, but he does inject a greater sense ofÂ fun into the title. John Constantine is a good example of this, Peter Milligan’s Constantine (at least the one in this book) was under constant pressure and was seriously peeved by the entire affair. Jeff Lemire’s Constantine we see here is still the same man, but this time he’s in control and we get to see his wit focused on the badguys rather than his allies.
The script really hits the ground running with a fabulous Indiana Jones likeÂ moment as John Constantine is revealed as Faust’s hooded captive. The rest of the story thereafter bounces back and forth between a dynamic fight in the jungle and Constantine getting the band back together. He and Deadman are definitely building an amusingly antagonistic relationship. They don’t like each other, but are fairly evenly matched in put-downs and bluster. We also see Constantine as the spider at the centre of a web. He is recruited by Steve Trevor and then has to manipulate his former allies into helping him again. You just know its going to end in pain for somebody.
Mikel Janin makes a welcome return as the regular artist after a two issue hiatus. The opening scenes in Peru really sell the atmosphere with Lemire and Janin carefully evoking all the right Pulp Tropes (snake on branch, bodies on poles, backhanded slap from villain, etc). This is a comic book that isn’t afraid to invoke genre conventions if they heighten the story. If this is just their first issue together I can’t wait to see what they’re like when they are settled as a team.
Surveying the Internets
Janin’s art continues to be very strong in almost all ways, though he still is a bit weak with his female faces looking the same. [...] There’s a prettiness to his style that’s enjoyable but doesn’t feel fussy and it’s only enhanced by Ulises Arreola’s very painterly colors. Janin’s really developed a great feel for these characters over the last year and it’s clear he’s fond of them in the detail he takes with these pages.
It’s a fast-paced story made more interesting by the frequent jump cuts between the present conflict and the earlier gathering of Constantine’s new group. If anything, the new team dynamic is stronger than the old. The addition of characters like Black Orchid creates more of an underdog feel, and unlike the previous eight issues, readers get to see these characters working as more of a functional group
Tying the story into the recent DC New 52 Free Comic Books Day special via the Black Room should give this title a readership boost, and hopefully people will like what they see. I know that while I enjoyed earlier issues, I like this a whole lot more – there’s the same enjoyment of great characters in a spooky story, but a more accessible narrative style and greater engagement with DC’s wider universe.
One of the strengths of this issue comes from how easy it is to pick up. While this issue has a â€œ#9â€³ on the cover, it is very much a first issue of sorts. The events from the previous eight issues are touched upon, but never more than in passing. In fact, the issue is mostly standalone and works much like one of Marvelâ€™s â€œPoint Ones,â€ which serves as the perfect entry point to the series and teases the future of Lemireâ€™s run.
While I was reading the issue I stopped for a second, turned to my girlfriend, and told her â€œJeff Lemire has delivered exactly what Iâ€™ve been wanting from this series since issue #1.â€ It doesnâ€™t mean too much to her given that she doesnâ€™t read JLD, but I think she got the idea that this meant it was a really great issue to me.
Lemire gathers an interesting set of heroes togetherâ€”or rather, a â€œband,â€ seeing thatâ€™s how Constantine views the teamâ€”and almost immediately lets them wail loose on a big mission which only grows bigger as the story goes on. We get no morose monologues or angst-ridden lines; instead, we get clear, distinct personalities which spark against each other.
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Page 1. Felix Faust is an old foe of the Justice League. He first appeared in Justice League of America (vol. 1) #10 (March 1962) which was written by Gardner Fox, illustrated by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, and edited by Julius Schwartz. Felix Faust is based on the figure of Faust from German literature. That Faust is the archetype of the sorcerer who sells his soul to the devil. He originates in a 16th century German folk-story about a sorcerer who makes a deal with a devil in return for divine knowledge. He may even have been based on a real figure, possibly the alchemist Johnn Georg Faust, but the myth has been adapted for numerous works and plays.
The original Justice League story is loosely based on the legendary sorcerer. Felix Faust seeks to regain or strengthen his existing abilities by releasing a trio of ancient demons called Abnegezar, Rath, and Ghast from their extra-dimensional prison. To do that Felix Faust needs to gather together the Green Bell of Uthool, the Silver Wheel of Nyorlath and the Red Jar of Calythos. The Justice League defeat him and Faust becomes locked into a cycle of trying to attain greater power before being damned in some manner for his attempts. He always manages to escape Hell or wherever heâ€™s ended up and just goes right back to try again.
Page 3. Black Orchid was a very minor DC superhero from the 1970s. She was created by Sheldon Mayer and Tony DeZuniga and first appeared in Adventure Comics #428 (July-Aug 1973). There was always a super-spy, mistress of disguise element to her stories. The version that most people remember is from a 1980s mini-series by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Their version was a humanoid plant/clone that was loosely aligned with the Green mythology of the DC (Swamp Thing, Poison Ivy, etc). Jeff Lemire has kept the mystery going around his version of the character, but her powers are described as superhuman rather than magical in origin.
Page 6. John Constantine likens himself to Malcolm McLaren. McLaren was an English manager of bands, one of those managers who is often more famous than the acts that he manages. He was probably most closely linked with the Punk movement of the late-1970s and early 1980s as the manager of bands such as the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls. Exactly the same type of ethos that inspired the character of John Constantine.
Page 7. Constantine’s flat is an absolute tip. Things to note – a copy of the Daily Planet, Jack Daniels bottles, a comic book long box, a newly started massive pack of toilet tissue (and he called Faust a wanker). The one item that is a little incongruous is the ceiling fan. They’re not unknown in the London, but they are rare — its not normally warm enough to bother installing them in the UK.
Page 8. Steve Trevor was shown to be the leader of A.R.G.U.S. in Justice League (vol. 2) #7 (May 2012), they are the agency tasked with supporting and mopping up after the Justice League. Trevor is kidnapped and takes quite a beating in Justice League #9-12 so this story arc must happen before that one. The Black Room was alluded to in Justice League, but was first shown properly in The New 52 Special Edition #1 (June 2012).
The gem Steve Trevor shows John Constantine is described on the next page as Doctor Destiny’s Dreamstone. Destiny is another old Justice League villain from Justice League of America (vol. 1) #5 (June 1961). He was originally a mad-scientist who developed the power to manipulate people’s dreams via this gemstone. However, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series it was revealed that Destiny’s gem was actually an artefact called the Materioptikon, part of the regalia of the Dream of the Endless. That brings up the question of do the Endless exist in the New 52. If they do this could be the Materioptikon and Dream hasn’t reclaimed it yet or it could just be a copy or fake. Nevertheless, John Constantine appears to believe it is what Steve Trevor claims it to be.
Page 9. Doctor Mist is one of those international characters like Fire and Ice who was created by E. Nelson Bridwell for the tie-in comic book for the Super Friends cartoon show. He was an immortal sorcerer called Nommo who went on to become the leader of the Global Guardians, a team of international superheroes who appeared sporadically in DC’s comics during the 1980s. The character has also appeared in the Primal Force mini-series. This version of Doctor Mist is called Nommo Balewa and appears to be an entirely new character.
I like the justification that Lemire comes up with for the name Justice League Dark as A.R.G.U.S.’s nickname for Constantine’s group.
Page 13. Andrew Bennett became the vampire messiah in Justice League Dark #8 (June 2012). John Constantine didn’t trust him so Bennet allayed his fears by promising to help the JLD upon request.
Page 15. Giovanni Zatara, Zatanna’s father, first appeared in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) alongside Superman. He was a copy/pastiche on the popular Mandrake the Magician archetype of a stage magician who actually had magical powers. All his spells were spoken backwards. He remained an obscure character until DC created Zatanna in the 1960s as their first second generation hero. She went on to become far more popular than her father. Zatara was killed off in Swamp Thing #50 when he gives up his life to save Zatanna during a seance. He was only there because of John Constantine so this’ll probably come up again later.
Page 20. The Eight-Dimensional Map sounds like the Worlogog, an obscure Jack Kirby artefact that appeared in Grant Morrison’s JLA comics. It was a map of reality which could alter reality is edited.
The Books of Magic was a mini-series written by Neil Gaiman. It featured a boy wizard with spectacles called Tim Hunter (sort of Harry Potter resemblance, but this was pre-Harry Potter). He is said to be the most powerful wizard of the modern era so four mystics — nicknamed the Trenchcoat Brigade — come together to show him the world of magic in the hope of guiding him towards the forces of light. The four figures were the Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Doctor Mist, and Mister E. Almost all DC magical characters appeared in one form or another. The name was later adopted for a subsequent series of comics under DC’s Vertigo imprint. The New 52 reformation sees a number of the Vertigo properties come back to the DC Universe and this looks like one of those.