“Justice League Dark Annual” #1

“Justice League Dark Annual” #1 looks, at last, at the dearth left behind by the Parliament of Trees and is a keen meditation on grief, identity and power.

Justice League Dark Annual Cover
Cover by Riley Rossmo

Story: James Tynion IV & Ram V
Art: Guillem March
Colors: Arif Prianto
Letters: Rob Leigh
Publisher: DC Comics

This annual features a rudderless Swamp Thing, a grieving scientist, a villain from the past and a chilling look at the lengths we’ll go to avoid pain and suffering. Dr. Oleander Sorrel is a scientist researching plant resilience with the doomsday of an unreliable food supply hanging over his head – and the death of his child, to boot. As silence drives a wedge between himself and his wife and pushes him toward an inevitable and strange metamorphosis, Swamp Thing finds himself faced with an old foe and has to grapple with his failures as a guardian and a mentor.

Tynion and V achieve the desired effect in this one-shot: a soul-searching, odd and unsettling journey into the legacy of one of the DCU’s oddest heroes. All the set dressing is correct, too. John’s there, being his usual catalyst self, and the lingering effects of previous events provide excellent framing for this deep dive. As Oleander struggles to rebuild his previous life with the power he now has, Jason Woodrue reappears to egg him on. Swamp Thing’s warped counterpart has gained a bit of subtlety in his time away from the Green and the comic page, and by the end of this issue he acquires an alarming amount of power. V and Tynion play with the consumptive nature of power and grief (as well as literal consumption) to great effect, while a powerless Swamp Thing looks on and has to learn that not all battles can be won, much less influenced. Circe’s appearance at the end of the issue, as well as the Floronic Man’s unsettling seizure of Oleander’s power, doesn’t bode well for the Green or any living thing in the DCU.

Going introspective in comics is a mixed bag, especially in the Big 2. Success only comes with a fine balance of action and lyricism, and V and Tynion know how to play to that balance. In the midst of musings on Oleander’s origin and nature, the visceral scenes of the Floronic Man consuming him and the children fading away help ground the story and remind us that this is a tangible world of superheroes, nightmares and oddities just as much as it’s a reflection of the human experience. Too much navel-gazing can unmoor a comic, just as too much action can become repetitive or shallow. An annual is a perfect moment to dig into some of the deeper, esoteric questions about Swamp Thing and the Green, but V and Tynion never forget that we’re here to be entertained.

March’s art is successful for the type of story told, with intricate flower-bordered panels framing both art and narration. Aside from acting as pleasant visual stimuli, these early pages help situate text-heavy sections without obscuring the art and offer a bit of dissonance necessary to pull off this story. Grief renders us silent, powerless and almost immobile, but V and Tynion don’t go wordless in this book. Far from it. We’re treated to excerpts from Oleander’s journal alongside his stilted conversations with his wife and near-wordless panels of his work on the stubborn blooms. This kind of epistolary storytelling is hard to get right, and can easily overwhelm the visual storytelling in a book, but the level of overwhelm here is necessary to create a shared hollow feeling with Oleander. March’s level of detail is precise, fine and almost fixes each character in place on the page, like a pin in a butterfly, to create tension with the action later in the story. Life and time move on, even if we don’t, and this comic stutters forward with Oleander’s feverish purpose toward inevitable tragedy even as each moment stands out, crystal and paralyzing.

Prianto’s color palette eschews the acid trip quality of the cover for richer tones that’re a nice throwback to Tatjana Wood’s excellent, moody colors on Alan Moore’s seminal run. True to this issue’s title, the red blooms are an unsettling, meaty red, with gentler, picked-out tones that get at Oleander’s delicacy and beauty. Oleander’s chemical bath echoes in the wintry sunset tones of the sky later in the issue, and the Floronic Man’s brown is a sick echo of more natural hues. Swamp Thing’s a nice mix of green and blue, with the gentler tones getting to a possible lack of vitality, or at the very least confusion. Prianto makes good use of a varied palette without going high contrast or muting things too much.

Leigh’s lettering goes minimal in most places, with some nice jagged strokes for Swamp Thing and Oleander’s balloons and contrasting colors. The first part of this issue features a heavy load of narration, and Leigh makes everything readable and seamless within March’s stained glass-style work. Of special note is the final line in the POV panel featuring Oleander’s outstretched arm. Leigh places the line in the bottom right corner to give our eyes something to track to from Oleander’s fingers, and it’s an effective note of punctuation for his yearning and trauma. March also keeps the DC branding to a minimum – in a comic like this, slick titles are intrusive, and they quickly fade into the background. 

Overall, V, Tynion and the team put together a lovely book. It functions well as a one-shot, as an interlude and as a pulpy promise of more action to come in the title. It digs into Swamp Thing’s depowered state, reintroduces one hell of a villain, and dredges our souls for some earned heartbreak and yearning.

Exactly what a good comic should do.

The Verdict: 8.5/10 – “Justice League Dark Annual” #1 impresses with sophisticated storytelling, fine art, excellent colors and pro lettering.

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