And at last, we reach the books that I actually want to talk about. The best part of a line-wide relaunch is always the successful books that come out of it, and these successful books usually indicate the strongest ideas behind the relaunch. But what’s interesting about the New 52 is how many of these really strong books exist almost to spite the reboot. Let’s dive in.
These are all titles that really worked. And for the most part, they all took great advantage of the reboot to deliver new ideas and not be bogged down by continuity. If you were to ask someone who read some of the books of this era what their favorites were, you’re liable to get at least one of these titles on the list.
- Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
- Green Lantern – The New Guardians
- Swamp Thing
- Animal Man
- Green Lantern Corps
- Resurrection Man
Three of these successes were, for my money, the strongest idea of the New 52 – bringing back older titles and concepts that haven’t been used for a while and refreshing them. Swamp Thing and Animal Man were both proto-Vertigo titles – Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing are still considered classics. Resurrection Man was a title that started in the 90s, by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning – it was a cult classic, and does legitimately hold up as one of the best examples of one of DC’s most original and imaginative eras. New Guardians was a 12-issue series from the late 80s by Steve Englehart that also maintained a cult classic status. All four of these titles were good choices to reboot – they would provide a depth to the line beyond standard superhero style titles.
Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette were brought on to helm Swamp Thing, bringing Alec Holland back as the titular character. This was a pretty significant change to the character – ever since the 80s, Alec Holland’s been dead and replaced by a plant simulacrum. And while technically this change was made in Brightest Day before the reboot, the choice to maintain it and not go back to the classic status quo was a clearly deliberate one. In fact, the entire run is about changing the nature of Swamp Thing as an entity – the Green is no longer the only primordial force controlling life, as the book introduces the Red and the Rot.
The Red was the biggest change to Animal Man as a title – no longer was Buddy Baker given his powers by aliens. Instead, the Red sent agents to look like aliens to give him his powers, because they figured that was an explanation that Buddy would understand. Lemire’s run deliberately altered the scope of the Animal Man book, focusing on the drama of Buddy’s family life as well as the new primordial entity of the Red, the embodiment of animal life.
What made both Animal Man and Swamp Thing work was a very specific direction that the creators and editors all had for both titles. At no point did either book feel directionless or slow, both had a clear purpose and drive all the way until their big crossover a year in. Neither book really interfered with the other; they complemented each other’s stories while telling their own. It also helps that Snyder’s prosaic, morose style meshed incredibly well with Swamp Thing as a character, while Lemire’s penchant for family stories suited Animal Man really well. Getting two very solid writers to revamp some underused properties wasn’t guaranteed success, but it certainly worked for these books.
So what would happen if you took two very solid writers to revamp one underused property? And what if that property was something those two writers had created over a decade ago? Well, it apparently turns out really well, if Resurrection Man is any indication. The character of Resurrection Man is legitimately one of the coolest ideas at the Big 2 – Mitch Shelley dies, but every time he comes back with new superpowers. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning created him in 1997 and were brought back to reboot the title in 2011. And it worked! There isn’t much more I can say but that – Abnett and Lanning had both grown as writers, so the New 52 series felt like a more refined take. The actual plot wasn’t as enjoyable as the original, but the structure and character writing definitely felt more polished. Resurrection Man was a true reboot of the title, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do.
Green Lantern: New Guardians basically had nothing to do with the original series beyond the title – it really only existed because they wanted to switch the creative teams of Green Lantern Corps and the third Green Lantern ongoing before the New 52, Emerald Warriors. Peter Tomasi and Fernando Pasarin moved from Emerald Warriors to the New 52’s Green Lantern Corps, while Tony Bedard and Tyler Kirkham shifted from Green Lantern Corps to New Guardians.
New Guardians was basically the realization of the endgame of Geoff Johns’ creation of the various rainbow Lantern Corps. It’s a team filled with one of each color Lantern having to team up, and is generally a delight. It’s the Lanterns as Power Rangers, and it ended up being a really fun time. Bedard put together this team of misfits and made each one of them an interesting and enjoyable character in their own right. He was significantly helped by Tyler Kirkham – something I never really expected to happen. Kirkham’s art is aesthetically reminiscent of Rob Liefeld, but he’s so imaginative in what he draws – Kyle Rayner as a character is centered around using his imagination to create his constructs, and Kirkham’s skillset is a perfect fit for it. While New Guardians was certainly a far cry from the original, the concept and execution of the rebooted title were so strong that it ended up working anyway.
Another couple of these successful series were completely new titles that had never been published before. Both Frankenstein and Batwoman had some stories before the reboot – Batwoman notably in 52 and later Detective Comics, and Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s classic novel as well as a variety of DC titles including Seven Soldiers of Victory. But neither one of them had a proper solo ongoing until the New 52 found a place for both of them.
Greg Rucka created Batwoman in 52 before giving her a proper origin story in the pages of Detective Comics in “Batwoman: Elegy” with J.H. Williams III. “Elegy” was a really strong story that cemented Kate Kane both as a subversion of the original Kathy Kane Batwoman in the the 1950s as well as a strong original character. While Rucka had left DC before the New 52 over problems with editorial and management, Williams did not, and was brought on to co-write and draw her first solo series alongside W. Haden Blackman.
Batwoman was a run that, similar to The Flash, was worth reading just for the artwork alone – Williams is absolutely incredible at his craft. But what puts this series in the upper echelon of the New 52 launch is that it’s really well-written, too. Williams and Blackman create a niche for Kate within Gotham that makes her distinct from the rest of the bat family – Batwoman deals with monsters. The run veers into the supernatural right away, a style that Kate’s aesthetic matches perfectly, while also digging more into the Kanes’ family drama. The book has a clear drive and purpose for the entire time Williams and Blackman are writing it and benefits significantly from it.
Frankenstein, though, got maybe the more interesting deal from the reboot. Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is one of the strangest concepts for a title that DC has had, even outside of a reboot geared towards accessibility. And maybe this strangeness is what lends Frankenstein to being accessible, as it is is equally unique to new and old readers alike. The premise is very digestible – Frankenstein leads a team of monsters called the Creature Commandos and does missions at the behest of an organization called S.H.A.D.E. There’s basically no way for me to describe this book without it sounding really cool, right? It just oozes a sense of freshness that most of the line couldn’t come near and maintains a style that keeps every issue engaging. What made this book work so well was that it was aggressively new. It wasn’t a rehash of an old storyline or a continuation of an existing plotline, it brought in a character that didn’t get much use and crafted an entire world around him. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Then there’s the books that soldiered on through the reboot, renumbering as new volumes. Green Lantern Corps basically continued without a hitch, maintaining its writer and ongoing plot threads. Batgirl, on the other hand, changed drastically, as the weird adjustment of Batman’s timeline included removing the existence of Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown – so neither of them could be Batgirl. It was a weird time.
Green Lantern Corps focused on Guy Gardner and John Stewart as members of the Green Lantern Corps dealing with the space politics that the main Green Lantern book didn’t have the space to touch. Peter Tomasi and Fernando Pasarin were both good creators before the New 52 while they were working on Emerald Warriors, and continued to display this level of quality through the reboot. Green Lantern Corps is a really strong character piece on both the focal Green Lanterns, and also does a great job showcasing the conflict between the individual corps members and the Guardians who manage them. There’s some frustrating portrayals of police and policing in the book that read very poorly in 2021, but as a story( and as a way to get into this corner of DC comics) the book’s quite strong. And it helps that Pasarin’s a fantastic artist.
It’s unfortunate that a lot of people at DC Comics seem to think that The Killing Joke is some kind of definitive Barbara Gordon story, because its influence has stained the character for a long, long time. Even when DC completely rebooted, they couldn’t get rid of this story. Simone’s Batgirl picks up some time after The Killing Joke and starts after Barbara’s gotten a spinal implant that lets her walk again. We don’t get to see a Barbara Gordon without that trauma. Honestly, from an editorial standpoint, it’s a really frustrating choice.
But Simone makes it work. Purely through the strength of her own character writing, she makes it work. The book frequently feels like Simone would rather be writing about someone else, and in all honesty I’d rather be reading about someone else, but it’s competently written and provides Babs with enough characterization to make her, if still my least favorite Batgirl, a likeable character. She has a place in the family, a distinct relationship with both Batman and Gotham, and a supporting cast that’s genuinely compelling.
And, at last, we’ve gotten to the best of them all. The cream of the crop. By and large, though, these books would have been good regardless of the reboot. With one notable exception, all of the best New 52 books could easily have been written before the New 52, and some were intended to be.
Now, I’m not a Geoff Johns fanatic by any means. In fact, I think that, between Doomsday Clock and Three Jokers, I’ve spent more time criticizing his work than anyone else’s in the last few years. I’m especially critical of what’s on public record about his professional conduct, such as enabling workplace abuse as alleged by Ray Fisher. But I do my best to not let the fault of the creator (of which there are many) and the faults of the creator’s later work factor into how I view any of their art on it’s own. And because of that, I have to say both Green Lantern and Aquaman were absolutely fantastic at the start of the New 52.
Johns had been writing Green Lantern for around 6 years before the reboot, and considering the popularity of the run, it would definitely have been a controversial decision to end it right there and completely reboot the franchise like they’d done for, say, the Justice League. So they didn’t. Green Lantern #1 picks up immediately after Green Lantern #67, with Hal Jordan stuck on Earth without a Green Lantern ring and his sometimes nemesis Sinestro back in the Green Lantern Corps. And honestly, it’s really good. Hal’s immediately distinctive as a character – he may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for my tastes he’s a great lead character, especially when Sinestro comes in. Doug Mahnke continues art duties as if the book hadn’t relaunched, because honestly it might as well have not have.
Because of this, though, the book shines. Johns doesn’t feel the need to exposit too much, but he gives the basic explanation of characters’ relationships, what recent events happened to affect those relationships, and lets their interactions tell the rest of the story. It might not be as aggressively “new reader-friendly” as something that starts with an origin story, but it’s honestly better off for not including one. The book focuses on Hal Jordan, Carol Ferris, and Sinestro – the triangle that had always been the strongest part of Johns’ Green Lantern – and it proves exactly why Johns had that top position he’d gotten.
Aquaman acknowledged the reboot a little bit more – it takes place well after the events of Justice League: Origin, and it is intended to be an introductory story to the character, but the actual plot was based on Johns’ plans for Aquaman during “Brightest Day”. It’s done incredibly well for the most part – I only really have one complaint, which is that Johns seems so embarrassed of Aquaman that he has characters in the text make fun of him for being lame so that Aquaman can prove them wrong. It may have been a really strong statement in 2011, but in 2021 after Aquaman’s had a mostly stellar decade of comics, it just feels whiny.
Again, though, that’s my only complaint about the book. It’s otherwise really good, with Arthur and Mera having both strong characterizations and a really fun dynamic with the people of Amnesty Bay. The Trench are a very good opening antagonist, letting Aquaman’s character shine through without having to set up a proper enemy’s motivation. And Ivan Reis’s art is incredible. Reis is maybe the biggest reason why this book lands so well at launch – it’s absolutely gorgeous, with Joe Prado and Rod Reis creating this distinct style for the character and world of Aquaman that remained unmatched until well into DC’s Rebirth.
Johns’ Aquaman isn’t even the best Aquaman run in the New 52, but it’s a legitimately fantastic introduction to the character and his corner of DC. But I think what makes it so strong is that Johns already had this plan in the works before the reboot was planned. Just like Green Lantern barely deviated from its initial plan at all, Aquaman got the benefit of being a functional story without the reboot. It’s pretty telling when a writer’s best books in a reboot are the ones that don’t acknowledge the reboot at all, while the one that has an actual new origin story is one of the worst of the line.
I’d mentioned earlier that the Batman line had a weird situation with the reboot – ultimately most of the stories were acknowledged as having happened, except for the ones that didn’t. So Damian Wayne existed through some artificial aging shenanigans, while Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown never did. It’s a bit of a mess, but functionally it left the Batman launch titles in a position primed for success, because ultimately they didn’t have to drastically alter their course. Scott Snyder, who was writing Detective Comics pre-Flashpoint, took over Batman alongside now-longtime collaborator Greg Capullo, while Peter Tomasi continued on Batman and Robin with Patrick Gleason on art.
Batman and Robin is really good. Like, I can’t bury the lede here – it’s really, really good. Tomasi and Gleason take the character of Damian Wayne (who’s my favorite Robin) and reunite him with his father, who’s just returned from being presumed dead. Damian was used to being partners with Dick Grayson( a much more upbeat personality than Bruce Wayne) and more importantly, Bruce has never had to spend time with a kid who broods more than he does. Both of the characters are uncomfortable with each other, but they also love each other very much. Damian will do whatever he can to make his father proud, and Bruce would do anything to protect his son. Their dynamic is fantastic, as they bring the light out of each other.
The story’s also really good – it ties into Batman’s own origin, serving as an introduction to the titular character, and dives deep into the actual morals and values of the character. Tomasi and Gleason are a fantastic pair, having proven themselves time and time again, and Batman and Robin is the perfect synthesis of their skillsets. The book spends a lot of time really digging into Damian’s own personality, in a way that makes him compelling and endearing to people who’d never read the character before as well as many people who disliked the character under Morrison’s pen. While it really didn’t interact with the reboot in any significant capacity, the book feels like something that could be handed to newcomers and veterans alike – and that’s a triumph.
Then, of course, there’s the main Batman title. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo began their collaboration that’s continued to this day with a widely acclaimed arc called “Court of Owls”. And while a lot of stuff held in that regard doesn’t measure up to scrutiny, a revisit to this arc did nothing but improve its standing for me. Batman #1 is such a well-done introductory issue to the world of Gotham that it’s not just a way to introduce someone to DC comics – I’d argue that “Court of Owls” is a really good recommendation for someone who hasn’t read any comics before.
If the decade since this run began isn’t enough of an indication, Snyder and Capullo work incredibly well together. Their styles complement each other perfectly, and there’s legitimately no point where it feels like either one of them isn’t in step with the other. From a pure craft perspective this is an excellently written book.
But what really makes this arc work is the story and how Snyder and Capullo are able to take a brand new concept that ties into the origin of Batman and turn it into something iconic and unforgettable. The Court of Owls could easily have felt like one of those author’s pet concepts that end up being obnoxious every time they return, but Snyder and Capullo give them a presence that makes them feel like just as significant a threat as the Joker. It’s not often that a creative team introduces an idea that feels like it perfectly belongs in the first issue of the book they’ve just taken over. But this one did.
“Court of Owls” is one of those stories that definitely could have been told without the reboot. In fact, Snyder has alluded to having planned for the Court of Owls in his Detective Comics run before the reboot, with Dick Grayson as Batman. But it came out at exactly the right time, in exactly the right context, and is one of the best introductory points to the character and world of Batman maybe ever.
Last, but certainly not least, there’s Grant Morrison’s Action Comics. Morrison was already well known for their work on the likes of JLA, Batman, and Doom Patrol. A lot of people would put them in the upper echelon of comics creators. This book was very much expected to be the standout success of the reboot, given Morrison’s work on All-Star Superman. And yet, I don’t know that anyone expected it to be what it was.
Morrison’s Action Comics is the book that took advantage of the reboot to the greatest degree. It’s a completely new origin story for Superman, one that modernizes and refreshes the character, bringing back his more socialist roots in the 40s and bringing it into the 2010s. Rags Morales’s art isn’t the most refined or stylized, but its rough-around-the-edges aesthetic fits very well with the vibe of an origin story.
While it’s not the easiest book to follow after a certain point, the book feels unique and ambitious on every single page. It’s striking from literally the opening sequence, where Superman dangles a billionaire out the window. It escalates wildly from there, including grown-up versions of the Legion of Superheroes within the same arc, but it all feels relatively natural. Morrison’s got a gift for pacing stories in single issues to ensure that the last page of every issue is a splash that makes the reader need the next issue. Honestly, I don’t think I could reread this arc without wanting to just finish the entire run, it’s really that good.
This is really the only top tier book in the reboot that could only really exist in a rebooted DC Universe. Everything else could easily have been done with minimal changes in the pre-Flashpoint continuity, which I think is a critical indictment of the line as a whole. When the best books in a reboot are the ones that didn’t need a reboot to exist, it calls into question whether the reboot was actually worth it.
There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the New 52 – we’ll dig into those next time.