'Justice League Dark': The History (and Prehistory) of DC's Supernatural Spinoff

Isn't the Justice League the good guys?
Ryan Sook/DC Entertainment

The news that Doug Liman is directing a Justice League Dark movie may have some wondering, "What is that, exactly?" 

When originally announced in mid-2011, the comic book title Justice League Dark was met with confusion from fans. After all, wasn't the Justice League the good guys? What was the point of a "Dark" version of the team — and what did "Dark" really mean in this situation, anyway? The answer to these questions wasn't necessarily what it seemed, and pointed to an idea older than many had anticipated.

In comic books, the Justice League Dark was a loosely organized team of supernatural characters who dealt with threats to the world (and, occasionally, all of existence) that were of a more metaphysical nature than the regular League could handle. Featuring a rotating cast of ne'er-do-wells that included John Constantine, Swamp Thing, stage magician-turned-superhero Zatanna and the mysterious Black Orchid, the JLD didn't really consider themselves a team, never mind a Justice League franchise — although the branding surely helped DC market the title during its 42-issue run. (The comic book series ended in early 2015.)

However, Justice League Dark was merely a tweak on a concept that has existed in DC's comic book mythology for decades. Indeed, the idea of a group of supernatural characters safeguarding reality from threats that went beyond the supervillain norm can be traced back to Alan Moore's seminal 1980s Swamp Thing run, where a group of disparate DC horror and supernatural characters — among them, the Phantom Stranger, Deadman and Doctor Fate — came together to deal with a threat called the "Great Darkness" at the end of the critically acclaimed "American Gothic" storyline.

Surprisingly, despite the success of that 1986 story, it would be almost a decade before DC tried to formalize the concept into something that could support its own series. The first attempt was Primal Force, a group of magic users who anchored their own comic book for 15 issues in 1994-1995, followed by the barely used "Sentinels of Magic," a team of supernatural-themed superheroes created by Geoff Johns in his 1999 Day of Judgment series.

1999 also saw the release of Totems, a one-off comic from DC's Vertigo imprint that is noteworthy for featuring the combination of characters that would go on to form part of the latter Justice League Dark: Constantine, Shade the Changing Man, Black Orchid and Swamp Thing. But it wasn't until 2005's Day of Vengeance miniseries that DC finally found a variation of the idea that hooked audiences: the Shadowpact.

Featuring both the Enchantress pre-Suicide Squad movie and a hyper-intelligent ape who called himself "Detective Chimp," the Shadowpact made it through 25 issues of their own comic book between 2006 and 2008, showing that there could be reader interest in the concept of a supernatural superhero team if it could be fine-tuned appropriately … leading to the eventual appearance of the Justice League Dark just a handful of years later.

When Justice League Dark ended as a comic book series, a follow-up series was announced — Dark Universe, which bore the alternate name of Guillermo del Toro's Justice League Dark movie project. That title failed to appear, however, although some of the JLD characters would appear in the short-lived Secret Six comic book series from the same time.

With forward motion now happening once more on the Justice League Dark movie at a time when the Rebirth comic book promotion has given DC a market presence that it hasn't enjoyed in quite some time, it wouldn't be too surprising to see a new supernatural team comic book announced sooner rather than later. Even though Rebirth sees DC's superhero comic line move in an intentionally more optimistic direction, perhaps it's time to add a little Dark back into things nonetheless …

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