As with all major line-wide relaunches, the New 52 had plenty of books that filled out some gaps without really feeling innovative or must-read. Not everything can be a classic, and these kinds of stories serve as a baseline for the publisher. What’s fascinating about a lot of these books, though, is that they’re not just forgettable or unremarkable. No, a lot of these books took risks in their own way, even if they didn’t pay off as successfully as the creators or readers would have liked. Oftentimes these books are the ones most emblematic of a relaunch – which can’t be defined by its worst or its best offerings; it needs to be defined by the average of what it puts out.
All that being said, it’s time to dig into the books that I wouldn’t necessarily call bad, but were still missing something to make them worth recommending. Some of these books had really interesting premises and ideas, but ultimately all of them came off feeling uninspired – with one major exception that I’ll get into.
- Savage Hawkman
- Batman – The Dark Knight
- Detective Comics
- Green Arrow
- The Fury of Firestorm – The Nuclear Men
- Wonder Woman
I don’t think it came as a surprise that Supergirl, Catwoman, Detective Comics, Green Arrow, or Wonder Woman were titles at the launch of the New 52. Hell, 3 of them are solicited in March for DC’s Infinite Frontier. But these suffer from the same issue as a bunch of titles I mentioned in the last piece – creators don’t need to have specific visions or directions for the characters to get a run, which results in a lot of chaff. And that’s what most of these are, just okay stories that don’t do much to stand out… aside from Wonder Woman.
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But let’s focus on the others first. Supergirl was written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson, and drawn by Mahmud Asrar, and when Asrar very early in his career is the most recognizable creator on the book, it doesn’t bode well. The book is a poor introduction to Supergirl as a character, right from the gate. Supergirl spends an entire volume being angry, punching people before talking to them, and not giving readers any idea of why the character earned any sort of a fanbase. Even Supergirl fans hated it, seeing it as a horrid regression to an unenjoyable status quo without any of the promise of the actually good character development she’d received before the reboot. There was competence in the writing and art, but it did not translate to an enjoyable reading experience.
Catwoman was an interesting beast, because it was strangely enjoyable despite it not being really good. Judd Winick and Guillem March dove headfirst into something stylish, even if it was the style of action-packed B-movies. The dialogue feels trashy but in a fun way, the plot is mostly forgettable, and there’s some really gnarly scenes with Selina that March makes really memorable. I can’t really call it a successful comic, because my enjoyment of it feels similar to my enjoyment of a Michael Bay film, but it’s certainly not a failure. More than anything else, Catwoman feels like a comic that did not need the reboot to exist, something that we’ll be seeing a pattern of as we approach better comics.
Detective Comics is one of DC’s oldest titles and literally the comic that the company is named after. Of course it was going to be there at the launch of the reboot. But at a point where DC would have best been served by a bold creative team making an immediate statement on the title, they instead gave it to artist-turning-writer Tony Daniel. The Batman line was one of the ones treated the strangest by the reboot – the main continuity was not changed in any significant capacity, but was instead retrofitted into a 10 year time frame. Some characters no longer existed, but most major Batman stories were considered “in canon.” This was a mistake. Functionally, Detective Comics just continued with little to no acknowledgement of anything being new, which was not a good idea for a line designed to be “new reader friendly.” While Daniel’s writing was boring and his art suffered because he was taking on both duties, what really gets in this book’s way is that it doesn’t take any advantage of the New 52, and in fact works against the reboot’s goals.
Green Arrow is a weird one. This series grabbed the opportunity given by the reboot and completely reset everything about the character, making him basically unrecognizable to anyone who’d consumed Green Arrow content before 2011. This new guy’s basically a billionaire archer bankrolled by his own tech company with no real distinctive character traits. He’s not liberal (or political in any visible way), doesn’t have a goatee, and his supporting cast is a bunch of original characters whose names I can’t remember anymore. Even Arrow, which debuted a year later and was based on this reboot, had more personality and memorable characterization than the comic reboot of the character.
As a launch for the series, Krul’s three issues were solid, as Green Arrow fighting a bunch of supervillain livestreamers is honestly a conflict that would work with the actual Green Arrow people care about. But they could never come up with a direction for the character, as Krul left and no one else could figure anything out for over a year. I mentioned earlier that all of these books being part of the reboot was basically an expectation, but that was really the problem for Green Arrow – everyone expected there to be a series but nobody actually knew what to do with it.
And lastly, there’s Wonder Woman. The title that DC has never been able to agree on the direction for. The character whose origin and direction changes every time a new run starts. Of course this was going to end up here. Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman reads like a creator owned comic about the Greek Gods that occasionally features DC characters. Someone called Wonder Woman is the focus of it all, but she’s basically unrecognizable when compared with the iconic Justice League member. In all honesty, I have very little to say positively about the writing here. Azzarello’s always been notoriously bad at writing women in his comics, and giving him the keys to DC’s most iconic female character was never a good idea. He writes her as an angry warrior, which really goes against her best characterization, but somehow is also better than how she was written in Justice League. The first time we see Diana in her solo series, she’s threatening a girl who came to ask her for help. It’s bizarre.
But what makes this book okay and not bad is Cliff Chiang. Chiang redesigned all the Greek Gods for this story about the pantheon, and his art is consistently gorgeous in every issue. He managed to take what was a frustratingly out-of-character take by Azzarello and turn it into something that would at least cater to people who weren’t fans of the character before. This reboot, more than many others, was very successful in garnering an audience of people who previously did not read Wonder Woman, and I really have to commend Chiang for how well he was able to do that.
A classic twist
Another benefit of putting out this monstrous number of titles is that sometimes we get to see some new takes on more classic ideas. Specifically in this case, Batman, Hawkman, and Firestorm. We got some new titles for all three of these characters: Batman: The Dark Knight, Savage Hawkman, Blackhawks, and The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men. All four of these series could easily have not come out in an era with fewer books, but moderation was not the goal of the New 52.
I feel uncomfortable talking about The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men, honestly. It’s written by Ethan Van Sciver (documented bigot of all kinds and Comicsgate ringleader), but co-written by Gail Simone, who’s gone on record to say that Van Sciver was a very different person when they were working together. It’s a weird book, featuring a white kid and a Black kid who are forced to get along because they’re both Firestorm now. It’s weirdly trying to touch on racism, which is a bizarre angle given Van Sciver’s current leanings. I can’t really say this book is bad, because Simone seemingly did a lot of legwork to make this a readable product. At the same time it’s both not a good book and very much not something I feel comfortable endorsing. Let’s move past it.
Batman is Batman. Batman will always have a title at DC, and at this point will always have two. But in 2011, as the universe rebooted, Batman got four. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo got put on Batman, Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason on Batman and Robin, Tony Daniel on Detective Comics, and David Finch and Paul Jenkins on this one – Batman: The Dark Knight. David Finch gets billed first here because he was the primary creator and selling factor on this book. Both of them are credited as “co-plotters” which of course implies that this book was done Marvel Method, which is always an interesting reading experience.
The book itself is the definition of fine. It’s not particularly good, especially because David Finch’s best days were behind him by this point, but it’s not egregiously bad. One of the best parts of artist-led books is that each page is engaging in its own way – there’s no problems of artists needing to navigate around a writer’s indulgent script, the pace is set by the person laying the story out visually. This also means that there’s a ton of women in titillating poses, because David Finch is from the school of comics that loves those. This isn’t a negative thing per se, it just feels like a book straight from the 90s. It’s ridiculous and bombastic, and is the result of having more Batman books than anyone needs.
Savage Hawkman is a weird one. Hawkman has generally had two major incarnations – Carter Hall, an archaeologist who’s also the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian, and Katar Hol, a cop from the planet of Thanagar. The continuity around and between these two iterations of Hawkman has always been confusing, so the reboot offered a perfect opportunity to clean it up. So of course, Tony Daniel and Philip Tan just created a third mess. Now, he’s an alien named Katar Hol, but is living on Earth under the name Carter Hall. He was Hawkman, but burned his wings because he no longer wanted the mantle. So instead of the classic wings as a suit or wings as a part of his body, this version of Hawkman is basically Venom. The new wings are a weird symbiotic entity. It’s bizarre, and not anything anyone particularly wanted from Hawkman, but it looks cool enough and isn’t written awfully.
The last of these weird twists on old ideas is Blackhawks, another revival of classic war comics that the publishers that would become DC were putting out. Now they’re a covert military strike force, doing covert military strike force things. Written by Mike Costa and drawn by Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley, this series is not particularly anything. It felt like DC just dug through their archives and found an old comic that they figured they could bring back for the reboot. It’s not bad at all, it was just eight issues that did not have anything to get attached to. It’s easily one of the best series culled in that first wave, although that’s not saying much.
The best part about this reboot was that it gave the publisher room to try things completely new and unheard of. While most of these new ideas didn’t pan out incredibly well, the ambition that went into them is something I really wish we could get more of from both of the Big Two. Trying to do something new and failing is a much better outcome than trying to do something safe and failing.
Enter Batwing. Judd Winick and Ben Oliver got to write a new solo series featuring David Zavimbe, the Batman Incorporated delegate of Africa. Right away the problem with this series is clear – both of its creators were white, making a book about a Black character. And not just a Black character, but an African one, one whose culture and origins would be impossible for them to authentically depict. The book isn’t even notably bad, it just is not able to be good because DC couldn’t be bothered to get the right talent for it. What’s even more frustrating now is that David’s been pretty much dropped in favor of Luke Fox, who’s basically just Black Iron Man. There’s a lot of potential in this character, and it would really be great if DC could get someone to revitalize him.
And with that, we’ve crossed the threshold into comics that are interesting enough to be worth reading! Of course, the New 52 isn’t all bad. It’d be a really impressive feat for 52 series helmed mostly by writers who were already established at the company to all be bad. There’s something of value to be had in all of these comics, just from a readability and craft perspective at the very least. This is also where we can find some real inspiration from the creative teams – at last, the passion is tangible.
- DC Universe Presents
- Red Lanterns
- Demon Knights
- All-Star Western
- The Flash
- Blue Beetle
- Captain Atom
- I, Vampire
While Batwing wasn’t planned very well by anyone involved, it’s also the only really original concept for a book that didn’t really work. When creators had new ideas for series that had never been done before, the expansion of DC’s publishing line gave them the room to explore these ideas and find an audience. And by and large, it worked! There’s some really neat stuff in the New 52, titles that you’d never heard of before and haven’t heard from since.
The first of them is I, Vampire by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino. It’s really just a book about vampires. Like, nothing more than what it says on the cover. But what it really serves as is an introduction to Andrea Sorrentino, who made his big two debut on this series. The artwork is incredible for the entire run, and while Sorrentino’s definitely improved as an artist in the decade since this series started, you can see the quality of his artwork and his layouts right from the beginning. This book was a cult classic while it was coming out, and for good reason – vampires were pretty popular and the book was genuinely incredible to look at.
Demon Knights was a really fascinating one, because, by and large, this shouldn’t have worked. Not that Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves aren’t good creators, but the premise of a bunch of DC characters in the middle ages banding together is not something that seemed promising to me. And the series doesn’t start out promising either – there’s a really weird relationship between Madame Xanadu, Jason Blood, and the demon Etrigan that put a really sour taste in my mouth. But by the end of the first arc, the series has shed most of its weird ideas and just focuses on being a more stylistic genre piece. This is what the New 52 needed more of – it isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s fresh and something that really only would have been given the room to flourish in the environment the New 52 provided.
Geoff Johns’ most tangible addition to the Green Lantern franchise was the introduction of the various color Lantern Corps, an addition that’s been adapted to video games, and at this point is guaranteed to stick. These corps were added right before the New 52 happened, so giving the Red Lanterns their own solo series was a great way to expand that corner of the universe. None of the Green Lantern books really acknowledged the reboot, as Johns’ run basically picked up where the previous series left off, and the rest of the books continued from the same point. But Red Lanterns had to put in the work to ingratiate itself to new readers because none of its characters were really established entities before the reboot. Peter Milligan does a pretty decent job with it, following the journey of a human who gets added to the Red Lantern Corps and using his perspective as a reader insert. There’s some problems with the series, like the fact that everything around Bleez feels really stereotypically “she’s the girl of the team.” But even with this glaring problem, the book manages to be one of the stronger entries in the New 52.
Tried and true
Nightwing was a series that honestly was never as good as it should have been. Chuck Dixon (documented homophobe and alt-right sympathizer) wrote so much of the character’s original run as a knockoff Daredevil comic that for a very long time Nightwing was unable to establish its own identity. Then Grant Morrison made Dick Grayson Batman and the Nightwing title wasn’t used for a few years. But the reboot, despite not really affecting the Batman line in a significant capacity, forced Dick back into the role. Kyle Higgins does his best to tell a story that hasn’t been told with Dick before, but it still ends up feeling weirdly familiar. The book is perfectly adequate despite the bad redesign for Nightwing – its biggest problem is that it’s never able to develop any momentum because Nightwing keeps getting thrust into crossovers and tie-ins. Despite this, Nightwing feels like what should have been the baseline for the New 52 – a decent introduction to the world of the character with a story that doesn’t offend. It definitely could be better, though.
Blue Beetle got a big revamp in the 2000s – Ted Kord was killed in the Countdown to Infinite Crisis and a teenager named Jaime Reyes bonded with an alien robotic Scarab to become the new Blue Beetle. Jaime’s original run by John Rogers wasn’t amazing, but it was really fun and definitely served as a prototype for the more modern teen books in Nova, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. And Tony Bedard’s clearly channeling that run, he basically rewrites the whole thing during his run on Blue Beetle. Bedard’s a solid writer and Ig Guara is a decent artist, and while they’re not able to capture any of the magic or freshness of the actual original Jaime Reyes run, they serve up a decent substitute for people who hadn’t read the original series.
And of course, there’s the Flash. The character’s history is a mess, because the Flash was at his most popular when Wally West was wearing the suit, but because of certain writers and editors’ obsessions with the past, he was sidelined for his formerly deceased mentor, Barry Allen. Now, I like Barry as a concept, and even as a character to a degree – Mark Waid’s Life Story of the Flash is one of my most prized possessions. But I know that Barry Allen is not a character who should be headlining the main Flash title after the Bronze Age. He’s at his best when he’s an idea to aspire to rather than a character to tell stories with. So of course, a reboot means we have to deal with Barry Allen as the Flash.
That being said, Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato do a pretty good job making this book a decent time for their tenure. The real highlight of this series is the artwork, which singlehandedly justifies the oversized omnibus collection it got. Barry Allen’s not given any strong characterization, but he’s mild-mannered and likeable, which works well to make the book enjoyable. The story’s pretty forgettable, but the art – have I mentioned the art? – is to die for. I, Vampire has a similar selling point, but the artwork in The Flash is on another level. I’d honestly say Francis Manapul draws the best superhero artwork imaginable, from the way he lays out pages to just the way he depicts motion. It’s gorgeous and honestly each issue he draws is worth reading just on that merit alone.
Bringing back some classics
Of course, a few of the decent books of the reboot were throwbacks to series that haven’t run for decades. Not all of these could be good, as I’ve gone into, but a few of them ended up having the right direction at the right time and were able to be pretty good on their own.
Deathstroke, AKA Slade Wilson, got his first solo ongoing series in 1991, which ran for 60 issues into 1996. Evidently the series did well enough to run for 60 issues, but they didn’t put out another one for 15 years. So obviously it was a bit of a surprise that Kyle Higgins and Joe Bennett were announced to be helming the second volume of Deathstroke as a part of the New 52’s launch. The book was pretty fun, all things considered – Higgins makes it clear from the jump that Slade is a terrible person, but he also makes it very clear why people should be interested in his comic. It’s an entertaining and solidly made series that doesn’t have any lofty ambitions but hits its own targets well enough. It’s worth pointing out that this run utilized the reboot a little bit, without fully resetting the character’s continuity – Slade’s son Grant is already dead, and that’s something that drives the character from the beginning. Higgins and Bennett both do a solid job making this book compelling and different from the rest of the line, a tall enough task for a line as saturated as this.
Captain Atom was another interesting choice for the New 52 – the character is not nearly as famous as Doctor Manhattan, Alan Moore’s riff on him in Watchmen. The book doesn’t really give readers a reason to latch onto the character but honestly, it doesn’t need to. The series ended after 13 issues (2 collections) and served as a singular story about the character to showcase JT Krul’s attempt at replicating the Doctor Manhattan issue of Watchmen and Freddie Williams III’s art. I can’t say it’s the best book I’ve read, or even the best book with its own premise that I’ve read, but it’s a really great-looking book and is experimental enough to be enjoyable and distinct regardless. This type of stylized, creator-driven series would eventually be the mold for the DCYou relaunch a couple of years later because honestly, it works.
The last book to talk about in this installment is All-Star Western by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Moritat. The original series ran from 1951-1961, and was revived for a short stint in the 70s before being re-titled. So obviously, there wasn’t too much of a legacy to uphold. All they really needed to do was write something that felt like a classic Western, with a bit of a DC tinge. And that’s exactly what they did! Sure, it’s not exactly inspired and it pretty heavily ties into the ongoing story being told in Batman (the constant anchor that weighs down so many of DC’s best efforts), but it’s a fun time and Gray and Palmiotti do a strong job introducing readers to the character of Jonah Hex. While it’s not the great success of the New 52, in many ways All-Star Western is the prototype for what the New 52 should have been.
There’s a lot of mediocre stuff in the New 52, but that’s okay! 20 out of the 52 launch titles fall into this category, which is the same as 5 in a 13-book line. Honestly, that seems reasonable to me, especially with the absolute glut of content there was there.
For my money, Demon Knights was one of the best books in the New 52. It wasn’t really a book that would have ben gotten made without the opportunity the reboot and absurd number of books being put out, but I’m glad it did. It was a fun team book that played both with magic side of DC and Arthurian legends in interesting ways. At the best of times, the book felt like the best game of DnD, and it’s funny to consider how much more successful comics based on actual Dnd games, like Critical Role and Adventure Zone became in the decade that followed. Demon Knights missed it’s wave.
I enjoyed the character’s in the this book and while the comic had longer than a lot of the other more quickly culled books, I would loved more time with them. Paul Cornell was a little out of his depth with the genderqueer Yistin the Shining Knight, but his issues were more in discussing the characters outside the book rather than the portrayal on the page. I would read whole book of just the Demon Knight’s version of Vandal Savage. The book was never a huge seller but it was really done in by taking a 30 year time skip. Just a real jumping off point a few arcs in, and the book ended shortly after.