Revels and Retrospectives: A Goodbye to the New 52

2016 marks the beginning of another line-wide adjustment to DC comics. Their last big shakeup happened in 2011 with the New 52 reboot, a reset in continuity promising to draw in thousands of new readers with a streamlined backstory and a diversity of titles. The results were… less than spectacular. While the early days of the New 52 initiative saw a major boost in sales, within six months they were back in second place behind Marvel, and DC hasn’t climbed to number one for more than a consecutive month since.

DC is in the process of another restart, canceling all of their titles and replacing them with newer, safer titles from exciting creative teams. This new initiative is called DC Rebirth, and returns the focus to superhero mainstays like Superman, Wonder Woman and the Teen Titans, with some room for more recently popular titles like Harley Quinn and Gotham Academy. Fewer books will be published, but most books will be published twice as often.

This is not a look at what the New 52 did wrong. There are a lot of good articles on a lot of good websites doing that already. Instead, this is going to be a look at what the New 52 got right, and the risks that paid off.
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Animal Man

Animal Man was one of the launch titles of the New 52. Originally an earnest animal themed superhero, he received a psychedelic makeover from the now legendary Grant Morrison. In the Morrison series, Animal Man battled his way through a crazy conspiracy, culminating in a confrontation with Morrison himself, who wrote himself as a cruel and capricious god.

At the beginning of the reboot, the series was written by Vertigo mainstay Jamie Delano, best known as the first writer ever to write Hellblazer. Delano’s take on Animal Man was much in the style of old Vertigo. The book was dark, disturbing and delightful. Buddy Baker, the titular Animal Man, is a struggling Hollywood actor, trying to turn his time as a superhero into a movie idea so that he might support his family. Buddy is married, which later would become controversial when the executives at DC declared a “no marriage” rule for all their superheroes. His relationship with his wife reads as real, even when every notion of reality starts to be challenged by visions of skinless chimera creatures.

This iteration of Animal Man did not fit in with the tone of the New 52, in art or writing style (and that’s a good thing!). If anything, the book would have been right at home in the late 1980s, right alongside Swamp Thing, Sandman and Delano’s own Hellblazer. It even creates a superhero-like continuity with those books, casting Buddy as an ‘Avatar of the Red’, a guardian of life on earth, similar to the take on Swamp Thing where the titular hero is an ‘Avatar of the Green’. Culminating in the ‘Rotworld’ crossover, Animal Man was plunged into the same monotonous darkness that consumed the rest of the New 52. But when it represented its own little corner of the universe, Animal Man was a unique, freaky horror book.
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Wonder Woman

The three biggest heroes of the DC universe are usually referred to as the “Trinity”, but one member never seems to be treated with the same respect as the other two. Superman and Batman have never been without at least one comic to their names, often more, and their histories are considered sacrosanct. Wonder Woman is not as fortunate. It seems every time DC reboots, Wonder Woman is given a series of retcons (that’s short for ‘retroactive continuity’).

Fortunately, in this case, we got a fresh, exciting take on the character. Brian Azzarello made the controversial choice to make Wonder Woman the daughter of Zeus thanks to a secret affair between her mother, Hippolyta and the King of Olympus. Other people have analyzed the feminist implications of giving Wonder Woman a male parent, but from a pure storytelling perspective, it gave the character a lot of new potential conflicts and relationships. The gods of Mount Olympus are after all, a family, and a pretty messed up one at that. Azzarello’s take on the character focuses on her new relationships with her half brothers and sisters.

While this was not my first experience reading about the Princess of Paradise Island, it was a formative read. The Wonder Woman who appeared in the New 52 often eschewed her traditional lasso of truth for the much more violent (and much more phallic) sword. Azzarello not only has Wonder Woman using her lasso, he has her use it on herself. While compelled by the lasso, she reveals to her uncle Hades that she loves him. Later, when she kicks his ass, he asks how she lied while compelled by the lasso. She didn’t lie. Wonder Woman loves everybody. That is the essence of the character and no amount of familial retconning can take that away from her. From the beginning until the end of his run, Azzarello proved himself to be someone who could capture the essential core of Wonder Woman.

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Sword of Sorcery: Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld

An odd book, Amethyst was my first experience with the character. Written by Christy Marx, Sword of Sorcery: Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld has that Saturday morning cartoon feeling that Marx codified with her creation Jem. The book manages to pull off a number of different tones, some of which may sound dissonant, but it never felt like anything other than itself: a unique teen-girl superhero book, a relative rarity in the New 52.

Amethyst follows Amy Winston, who discovers that her mother (and by extension, her) is the heir to a magical, medieval realm. Gemworld is made up of noble houses, much as in Game of Thrones, only these each correspond to different gemstones. Amy’s aunt for example, is the evil matriarch Mordiel who is cahoots with House Opal. Amy (who was born Princess Amaya of House Amethyst), needs to master the sword, as well as sorcery, to survive her jealous aunt.

One of the criticisms of the New 52, especially in its earliest days, was the lack of appealing protagonists for female readers. Amethyst ended up being a complex political drama, and a fairy tale, and a superhero book all at once. It had some of the most cliched trappings of the respective genres, but combined them to great effect. The book was a marketing nightmare. The regular DC readership was turned off by the aggressively “girly” covers, and the teenage girls who the book was written for had already been warned off of DC. That’s unfortunate, because Amethyst was a fun book that was canceled far too soon.

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Demon Knights

Another New 52 launch title, Demon Knights was my favorite idea for a book, and for the most part I was pretty happy with the execution. Written by Paul Cornell, Demon Knights was sort of the secret history of the New 52. It followed a group of loosely affiliated adventurers in the medieval world that existed hundreds of years before any superheroes flew their spandex covered abs through a city sky.

The ostensible main character of Demon Knights is Etrigan the Demon, a powerful, rhyming demon who occasionally ventures out of hell to dabble in the affairs of mortals, usually on the side of good. Etrigan was created by Jack “the King” Kirby, making him a classic character. Together with other popular and period-appropriate DC characters including Madame Xanadu, Vandal Savage and the Shining Knight, the Demon Knights pulled a Seven Samurai (or a Magnificent Seven if you are feeling vulgar) and has the team preparing a small town to face an invading army.

Joined by a couple of original characters, including the genius fighter and scientist Al Jabr and the paraplegic Amazon, the Horsewoman, the DC universe of this century sometimes seemed more diverse than the one taking place in present day. I am by no means an expert of the minutia of DC history, but the book seemed to respect existing continuity, establish its own, and play in a massive sandbox as it was being built. The book was exciting, fresh and different. I hope to see others take inspiration and do other, historical superhero books like Demon Knights.

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Batman

Batman is really good you guys! I know that opinion sounds boring, but the epic 52 issue story by Scott Snyder and drawn by Greg Capullo is considered to be one of the best in the history of the character. I don’t know if I have the authority to declare that, but Batman was the most consistently high quality title of the New 52. It was the only book to last from the beginning of the reboot until the end, without a single dud issue.

Snyder’s take on the Dark Knight was nothing revolutionary. He was consistent with characterizing Bruce Wayne as a driven genius, someone who wants to be a loner but gravitates towards family. In that the series was serviceable. The character who most benefited from this book was Gotham City itself. Snyder gets cities, being a New Yorker himself. Gotham is not just a backdrop, notable for red skies and copious gargoyles. This Gotham has a history, has architecture, has neighborhoods, has infrastructure. Original character Harper Row is a resident of Gotham who has learned how to use the city’s cameras and electrical grid to her advantage. Every camera she hacks, be it in an ATM or a traffic light, feels real, at a real intersection, in a real place.

This run on Batman was full of elegant retcons. Most famously, the Court of Owls, a shadowy cabal, pulling strings in Gotham for generations. The group connected characters as desperate as Nightwing, the Penguin and Jonah Hex. Other changes, like the Joker, implied here to be an elemental spirit of chaos, were stranger. But the book was never boring. Most people already know whether or not they like Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight, the Caper Crusader, the only mortal man on the Justice League. To either group, I would recommend Scott Snyder’s Batman.

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Batman + Robin Eternal

Something DC could learn from the competition (in this case Marvel) is to diversify their titles. Not just in terms of which sorts of characters get comics, but also in terms of tone. Superhero stories cover a wide array of genres. So far in this retrospective alone, we have looked at a dark fantasy, a mythological family drama, a young adult portal fantasy, a straight-up medieval story, and a Gothic detective story. The rest of the New 52 was a bit of a throwback to more profitable times for DC, the late 90s and early 00s. Which is why it is so refreshing to have a comic that puts its money where its mouth is.

Batman and Robin Eternal was a weekly series from DC. Focusing on the extended Bat-family (including multiple iterations of Robin and Batgirl, plus a ton of other supporting characters) this series wore its 90s throwback tone with pride. Batman and Robin Eternal almost feels like a follow up to some of the most excessive storylines of Batman’s past. Featuring characters such as Bane, Azrael, Cassandra Cain and the Red Hood, Batman and Robin Eternal took the heroes from the streets of Gotham City to spots across the world.

The 1990s are not always fondly remembered by comics fans. Art was valued above story, and then only a very narrow definition of the word art. Instead of mimicking that criticism, Batman and Robin Eternal manages to irreverently create an over-the-top throwback action feel. This isn’t a new Star Trek movie, trying to recapture past glories. This is Galaxy Quest- perhaps a parody, perhaps a love letter, and doubtlessly a good time in and of itself.

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Gotham Academy

Among a certain part of DC’s demographic, Gotham Academy is easily the most beloved series of the New 52. After reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne contributes a great deal of money to the prestigious Gotham Academy, mysterious things begin to happen. The story follows a student, Olive Silverlock, whose mother was recently incarcerated in Arkham Asylum. What happens next is one of those boarding school stories, about young people learning who they are and going on spooky and thrilling adventures. You already know if this is a subgenre you like, and if so, this is a great representative.

Gotham Academy has two major things going for it. The first is writer Becky Cloonan, a rare woman at the helm of a DC book. Even setting that aside for a moment, Cloonan writes nothing like your average DC writer, and we all benefit from her creativity. She walks the thin line that separates a family-friendly adventure from a spooky thriller, where kids face real danger. In other words, she’s writing a Hollywood blockbuster of another era, a story that could be placed right next to The Goonies, Stand By Me, or E.T.

The book’s greatest asset however is its art. Mostly done by Karl Kerschl, you have never seen a comic that looks quite like this. Somehow blending the thick line-work of classic Disney, the expressive faces of modern manga, and a distinct color palate unlike anything else, Kerschl’s art is perfect. There are some writer and artist teams that work well together- and there are some that hit a transcendent harmony of art and words, working together to tell a story. Gotham Academy is what happens when you put together the right creative team with the right idea and just let them go to work. That, and I’ll bet you a dollar that you’ll come out of it as a BIG fan of C-list Batman villain Killer Croc. Don’t you want to try and prove me wrong?

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Martian Manhunter

The Manhunter from Mars, J’onn J’onz, the most powerful character in DC’s roster, has never been my favorite. Are you one of those people who think Superman is too strong? The Martian Manhunter is just as strong- plus he can fly, shape-shift, phase into a ghost-like form, turn invisible, read minds and move objects with telekinesis. Oh, and he’s also got the eye lasers. Couple that with a complex and convoluted (shifting and changing) origin story, and you’ve basically guaranteed that this classic character will never star in a hit comic. So how do you fix that?

Enter Rob Williams. Immediately, he sets the book up as a “forget everything you know” story. This certainly helps; there’s no need to come in with a knowledge of which color Martians are oppressing which other color. He also sets the book up as an alien horror story. The book opens with a situation that Superman overcomes every week: a plane is going down. Superman would just fly under it and carry the thing to safety with his super strength. Not true for J’onn J’onz, who morphs into a freaky dragon creature and carries the plane to safety in his talons.

This book is freaky. This book is a thriller. This book asks you to forget what you know and to take the plunge into a world of dangerous shape shifters. I wouldn’t recommend this book as a first step into DC, but for someone who likes weird sci-fi, you could do a lot worse.

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Grayson

Oh, how I love Grayson. Let’s start by taking a look at one of its bad guys. After losing his family and his sight in a bombing, he gets an experimental procedure done to him. He wires a pair of pistols to his ocular nerves, allowing him to see, but only through the barrels of his guns. This makes him one of the best shots in the world, but at a terrible cost. What does it mean when the only way you can see is by pointing a gun? What happens when you discover that your family may not be as dead as you thought? How will you look at them?

Grayson is the story of Dick Grayson, the original Robin. Dick struck out on his own as a teenager, becoming the hero Nightwing. He even served as Batman for a while, when Bruce was… indisposed. Then a bunch of heavy stuff went down, Dick’s secret identity was outed and his life upended. In the end, he became a secret agent for the clandestine organization Spyral. That’s the whole book, Batman’s closest ally protecting a world that thinks he’s dead.

The book is great. With an expansive creative team lending their voices, Grayson never feels dissonant, but always a great team effort. Dick flips through the air, guns blazing like a video game character with an extremely meticulously realized butt. The spy shenanigans are of the 1960s Steed and Peel Avengers school. There is a scene where a shirtless Dick Grayson needs to avoid an enthusiastic group of coeds who want to snap pics. I wish all my superhero comics were half as fun.

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Constantine: The Hellblazer

Confession time (and how much would Constantine love that!?): I love John Constantine, unrepentantly. I love his good comics, I love his bad comics, he’s just one of my favorite characters. That being said, Constantine: The Hellblazer isn’t one of John’s bad comics. In fact, it’s probably his best showing since his main series ended.

As some background, John Constantine is the original occult detective. Sure he’s also a wizard, or petty dabbler in the dark arts if you prefer, but his real superpower is his swagger. John’s done way more damage with a well placed lie then with any spell. First introduced in Swamp Thing by Alan Moore in 1985, Constantine spun-off into his own series Hellblazer which lasted from 1988 until its 300th issue in 2013. When it ended, Hellblazer was one of the highest numbered books left in comics. Since cancellation, DC has struggled to find a place for John. He appeared as a guest in a bunch of other books, and starred in his own mostly forgettable series.

That’s why Constantine: The Hellblazer feels so right. Cancellation could have been it for the character, his golden years behind him. Instead, Ming Doyle manages to make John work in a much more superheroic world. Planting him firmly in a world of colorful demons and cape-wearing do-gooders, Constantine: The Hellblazer is about John the swindler, John the crook, and maybe John the Lothario. Flirting with men, women, humans, demons and meta-humans, this is a sexy and debonair Constantine, who will say or do anything to get his way, and maybe save the world while he’s at it. The world’s not such a bad place, everyone he knows seems to live there.

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Midnighter

At the beginning of the New 52, DC integrated in characters from a few other comics publishers. This was not the first time such a thing has happened. Characters going as far back as Shazam (or Captain Marvel if you prefer), DC has no problems integrating other people’s characters into their world. They did it with Blue Beetle and the Question, they did it with Static Shock, and they did it with all the characters from the Wildstorm Universe. Midnighter was their most successful newly acquired character.

Midnighter- he’s gay Batman. There’s more to him than that, but his ex Apollo (a gay take on Superman) weighs heavily in his mind as he tries to move forward. Midnighter has a couple of tricks up his sleeve though. He can see into the future- but only a little bit. Still, it sure comes in handy when you know where and when a guy is going to punch you. This also is the impetus for Midnighter’s braggadocious boasts. He can after all, see the outcome of a fight before it starts.

The New 52 Midnighter book is a perfect slice of superhero life. After all, you got into superheroes to see them kick ass, and this book has ass kicking in spades. What it also has is a good feel for when to bring in personal character drama. The result is stakes that actually effect the characters you’ve grown to care about. It’s cool when Green Lantern saves the entire universe for the second time this week, but it is much more interesting for Midnighter to realize he’d rather spend a night getting blood on his knuckles then finish his date with a boring dude he met online. Midnighter is truly the gritty street-level hero the 21st century needed.

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Starfire

As a fun thought experiment, a good way to see how much DC Comics cares about good storytelling is to look at how they treat the character Starfire. Princess Koriand’r is a character who can go very wrong in the hands of the wrong writer. She’s an alien princess on the run from her own people. She has very different cultural understandings of sex, nudity, love, and relationships. In the right hands, she can be used to provide great commentary on contemporary culture. In the wrong hands however…

The beginning of the New 52 was not kind to Starfire. Instead of being the upbeat alien cheerleader who was the heart and soul of the Teen Titans, she was recast as a nihilistic sexpot, desperate to get naked just to have something to do. It was a move that offended most decent people, and Koriand’r’s presence was enough to tank the sales of a book. It’s true, go look at the monthly sales numbers. (For a much better take on this, by a 7-year-old girl no less, I implore you to read this).

So when DC realized they needed to do some triage, they grabbed the legendary creative team of Amanda Conner and her husband Jimmy Palmiotti, who had just created a genuine hit with their Harley Quinn series. Starfire isn’t the overnight success that Harley Quinn was, but it does a lot for the character. With a more sensible outfit (that still doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination) and a big smile on her face, Starfire now goes on fun adventures with her friends. That’s not to call the book tame- I wouldn’t buy it for my little cousins- but what’s restored is a sense of fun. I’ve been led to understand that there are a vocal few who like the monotony and lifelessness that followed the character for the last few years. If you are one of them, steer clear of this book, which is trying to make you smile as much as the titular character. If however, you are a fan of the Supergirl TV show, then have I got a comic for you.

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Bombshells

Very peripherally connected to the New 52, Bombshells is still very much worth mentioning. The premise sounded like it had zero potential. The result is a book that just feels effortless in its high quality. So much so, that I feel foolish for ever doubting it. Based on a line of cheesecakey statues of sexy DC ladies, the comic Bombshells is about a world in which the famous ladies of the DC universe act as superheroes on the homefront of World War II. It’s a period piece, with aesthetics and cultural norms and values of the 1940s.

A huge shout out is deserved to Marguerite Bennett. Destined to be a superstar, Bennett took an easy job the most of us would have just phoned in, and turned it into the kind of book she would want to read. Despite a marketing push to heavily gender this book, the true demographic is people who like good superhero books. It features a team of kickass ladies, with complicated team dynamics, using their powers and abilities to save the day. That’s what good superhero comics should be.

The book’s appeal lies on a couple of fronts. The first is the surprise that such an obvious cash grab could turn out to be such a high quality story. The second is the writing, breezy and fun, this is the perfect book to enjoy when you are unwinding at the end of a stressful day. The third is the anesthetic. Different types of familiar are blended in ways you wish you’d thought of. Batwoman for example, is given a League of Their Own style makeover, when her costume is turned into an eminently cosplayable baseball uniform. Bennett is a comics fan first and foremost, and she’s writing the kind of book that she would want to enjoy. Do her and yourself a favor, and go enjoy it too.

 

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