In 2011, DC rebooted their universe spinning out of Flashpoint, and called the initiative the New 52. 52 as a number has had a level of significance at DC since their standout weekly series 52, which was fantastic and ran for a whole year (52 weeks). The New 52 is pretty much unrelated to this series, but since DC loves the number they made sure it had its own significance – namely, the reboot started with 52 monthly ongoing series at launch, 13 per week.
If there’s one thing that can be learned immediately from this initiative, it’s that 52 monthly series all starting in the same month is just too much. For a comparison, DC Rebirth ran with a much lower 22 launch titles, with a few of them running twice a month. The upcoming DC Infinite Frontier line is starting with 2 anthology books and 17 monthly titles in March. But if there’s one good thing about launching way more titles than anyone can reasonably read in a month, it’s that there’s an incredible variety of stories, and there’s all but guaranteed to be at least some good books in there. This assumption led me to embark on a quest that some might call foolish, as I decided to read every single New 52 launch book. And now for you, dear reader, I will be revealing the results of my research. What didn’t work here?
Let’s start at the bottom. A lot of comics are bad, it’s just the way things go. But these comics were worse than bad. These were books that would have actively repulsed me from DC Comics had I tried to get into their weekly comics with them.
What’s fascinating here is that all of these, with one major exception, share a major flaw – they’re boring and incoherent. They’re difficult to follow, and don’t reward the effort put in to understand what’s going on. For the most part, they’re a symptom of just putting out too many books – editors can’t reasonably ensure that everything coming out is quality so a lot of stuff that really should have been scrapped or changed significantly gets published because of this desire to have 52 books per month.
- Hawk and Dove
- Mister Terrific
- Static Shock
- Legion of Super-Heroes
- Justice League
- Red Hood and the Outlaws
Hawk and Dove, Mister Terrific, O.M.A.C., and Static Shock are all series that did not need to be published at all in this new initiative, and their failings are more a symptom of DC desperately trying to fill out their line than anything else. Hawk and Dove was written by Sterling Gates, who’s not a bad writer by any means, but drawn by the infamous Rob Liefeld. There was really never any hope for it. Eric Wallace, who wrote the awful storyline about the murder of Ryan Choi before the New 52, helmed Mister Terrific, which suffered just as badly. O.M.A.C. felt more like a vanity project from Keith Giffen and Dan Didio than anything else – both of them just threw all their weirdest ideas at the wall, and since Didio was Publisher by that point he was seemingly not under nearly as much editorial scrutiny as a result. Scott McDaniel, normally an artist, was the writer of Static Shock and unfortunately he seemingly received little to no notes from editorial, because the book just isn’t plotted or scripted well. None of these books were really primed for success – proven by the fact that they were all cancelled after 8 issues, in the first culling of the line.
Grifter and Voodoo were both parts of DC’s attempt to reboot WildStorm and integrate it into the main universe, and while I personally don’t think it was a good idea, the failure is different – these books needed to exist for DC’s plans, not just to fill the line out to a number of imaginary importance. These books failed due to the creators DC gave them to – Nathan Edmondson’s Black Widow run was carried by its art, and Ron Marz isn’t exactly a draw in the 2010s. While they were definitely intended to be more successful than they ended up being, the failure of these books was fairly predictable in hindsight.
Failure to capitalize
Legion of Super-Heroes and Red Hood and the Outlaws were both series that didn’t necessarily need to exist, but whose existence was at least understandable at the time. The Legion’s a cult favorite franchise and has almost always had a story running, even if that waned in the modern era. Red Hood had recently been brought back to life and had an incredibly popular animated movie adaptation of his resurrection – having a book with Jason as the lead made a lot of sense. The problem is, both series were helmed by writers far past their primes, and both of whom are coincidentally pretty notable examples of terrible people working in comics.
Paul Levitz (documented racist) wrote the most acclaimed run on the Legion of all time, so his return to the franchise should have been cause for excitement. Instead, he was handed the book in one of the most confusing continuity messes they’ve had. They were in the middle of their “Retroboot” where their continuity was some kind of nebulous “The original continuity happened, but only the parts we like”, and even more importantly, they didn’t reboot with the New 52. That’s right, this book, billed as a jumping on point for new readers, was actually in the most convoluted part of the team’s history. It’s basically unparseable.
Red Hood and the Outlaws, on the other hand, was written by Scott Lobdell (documented sexual harasser). Lobdell was best known for his work on the X-Men in the 90s, and this Red Hood series was his big return to the Big 2 after some time away. I’m not sure exactly what his intent was going into this book, but rather than give the character a solid foundation built upon the Batman mythos, Lobdell tried to create a whole new cadre of supporting characters around Jason, none of who had existed before, and all of whom the book acts as if the audience should be familiar with. Lobdell brings in Roy Harper and Starfire as the titular “Outlaws”, but writes both in a way that fans of the characters before the reboot would be appalled by, and new readers would not understand the appeal of. They’re deeply unlikeable and Starfire’s written in such a misogynistic way that it makes the entire comic feel gross.
So, yeah, both of these books could make a case for their publication even if DC wasn’t scrambling to put out 52 ongoings, but ultimately they were just colossal failures on part of the creators and editors involved. There was really not much that could be done to improve either title, as they were drawing from poisoned wells. But even these weren’t the worst missteps of the reboot.
The greatest mistake
Geoff Johns (documented workplace abuser) and Jim Lee’s Justice League: Origin could not have been worse if everyone at DC conspired to make it so. This wasn’t just an issue of things going wrong and the people not being able to handle events out of their control, this was a consistent series of missteps and mistakes over the course of 6 issues that ruined the central title of DC Comics for 5 years.
Johns has talked about Flashpoint not originally intended as a full universe reboot, and instead just meant to set up the new status quo for the Flash comic. Had the New 52 not happened, Johns would have continued to write The Flash and Green Lantern, and taken over Aquaman and Justice League spinning out of Brightest Day. In fact, most of Johns’ run on Justice League was based on his plans for the book before the reboot. The one arc that did not draw from that well at all was the first one – the origin. And this makes sense, because Johns clearly wouldn’t have tried to rewrite the origin of the team had there not been a reboot. But what the reboot led to was the opportunity to rewrite the origin of the Justice League – give the team a foundation that wasn’t based on mostly B-list characters like Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s JLA: Year One, and had the powerhouse combination of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee attached.
Now, I can only speculate here, based on what I’ve read of Geoff Johns’ comics (the majority) and what I’ve read of Jim Lee’s comics (A good portion). But this origin story reads like it was plotted and laid out by Jim Lee, and Geoff Johns just scripted on top of it. There isn’t a specific way to tell whether this was the case, but there’s so many cases where the dialogue clearly doesn’t really match the story being told by the art that it’s really the only explanation that makes sense. Because while Geoff Johns is not this amazing writer, Justice League: Origin is maybe the worst thing he’s written just from a technical standpoint. The entire book feels like the writing has no control over where the story goes, and the art is just trying to draw cool stuff with some bare connective tissue. If that’s not a key fixture of Jim Lee-era Marvel Method comics, I don’t know what is.
Now, just being a Jim Lee-driven joint isn’t what’s going to make a comic book terrible. X-Men in the 90s was really fun, this creative style isn’t inherently bad. But it feels like Jim Lee’s idea of the Justice League is at odds with what made the Justice League popular – and Geoff Johns’ idea of individual members of the Justice League is just as bad. The worst offense here is their treatment of Wonder Woman – she’s depicted as naive, bloodthirsty, and an object of desire, and mostly defined by the male characters’ opinions of her. The first time she meets the Justice League, Green Lantern says “Dibs.” I’m not the biggest Wonder Woman fan in the world, but this just felt insulting. The rest of the team isn’t written very well, either – Superman’s also pretty egregious, making his debut by attacking Batman and Green Lantern. Aquaman suffers so much from the creators trying to make him “cool” that he’s just unlikeable. Green Lantern tries to be quippy but comes across as gross, and both Flash and Batman are nondescript. Cyborg is the most baffling member of the team, as his presence alongside them never really makes sense.
By the end of this origin story, I was convinced that neither of the creators actually liked the characters they were writing. And I know that’s not true, just based on how they’ve portrayed the characters elsewhere, but if I was a new reader coming into this run of Justice League and I was older than 15, I would have thought that the Justice League sucked and weren’t worth reading. I don’t think it’s the worst book of the launch – that distinction goes to Red Hood and the Outlaws – but this is a flagship title, one of the main tentpoles of DC as a publisher. The failure here isn’t because it was an experimental book or a small title no one was watching, it was because no one seemed to be able to say no to Johns and Lee. This is a comic that would not have existed without a full line-wide reboot, and it really did not justify its own existence.
These ones just weren’t very good. I don’t have the strongest feelings about any of them, but at the very least they’re readable and didn’t make me want to quit reading an entire publisher.
Now, all of these books instilled the same overall feeling while I was reading them – they’re not horrendously bad, but I didn’t really want to be reading them. They were all readable and comprehensible in a way the previously discussed titles weren’t, but they were still draining to read. A few of them pleasantly surprised me – I was expecting them to be at the bottom of the barrel, but they ended up having some level of competence involved. But as a whole they’re all still really disappointing.
- Legion Lost
- Teen Titans
- Justice League Dark
- Suicide Squad
- Justice League International
- Men of War
- Birds of Prey
One of the biggest ways DC tried to drum up excitement for this reboot was by bringing back fan favorite titles from their heyday – the 80s through the early 2000s. While most of these revitalized titles were given completely different creative teams and styles, their return was emblematic of a promise the publisher was making to their readers – that of a return to form. Unfortunately very few of these appeals to nostalgia panned out, and the ones here were some of the worst of them.
I have very little experience with the Birds of Prey as a franchise (I haven’t even seen the movie yet), but I do know things about the original series. Namely that it was initially written by Chuck Dixon (documented homophobe and alt-right sympathizer) before being taken over by Gail Simone, and that it features Black Canary, Huntress, and Oracle. Simone’s run especially was popular for portraying strong women in a way that allowed them to be nuanced, properly interesting characters. So it wasn’t the best idea to give this relaunch to a man. I have nothing against Duane Swierczynski – his Cable run is one of my favorite comics, but he was not the right choice for a relaunch of a series focused on women striking out on their own. Jesus Saiz did a decent job on art, but he was much earlier in his career and hadn’t refined his style yet.
Superboy was an incredibly popular character ever since his debut during the Death of Superman era. And it makes sense, I mean, his jacket and his attitude and just everything about him was really stylish and cool to readers in the 90s. Conner Kent quickly became a fan favorite, and giving him a solo title to start the reboot promised his fans that he’d have a level of importance. But that promise was not delivered upon, because this version of Conner was so unlike everything that garnered a fanbase for him back when he was first created. R.B. Silva did a really good job on art, but also wasn’t the R.B. Silva of House of X/Powers of X, so he could only do so much on top of Scott Lobdell’s really trite and tiring storytelling. Not only was this book not what fans of Superboy wanted, it wasn’t what people who were getting into DC for the first time would be interested in.
Legion Lost was a 12-issue maxiseries in Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s run on the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 90s. The book had gotten stale after a few years of the reboot continuity, but when these two took over it felt fresh and like nothing we’d read before. The premise was that some members of the Legion were trapped in an unknown, unreachable space of existence, and the style they brought to the franchise kept the fandom alive into the next reboot. It was self-contained, new reader friendly, and absolutely gorgeous, drawn by the inimitable Olivier Coipel.
The New 52 iteration of the title, though, was nothing like this. I’d mentioned earlier that DC did not reboot their Legion continuity with the New 52 – this series focused on these un-rebooted Legionnaires being trapped in the new rebooted main reality. They interacted with the Teen Titans and Superboy, and generally were just another teen team. Oh, and the book was written by Fabian Nicieza, another of the main X-Men writers of the 90s. This series never really had a chance to be good – it was a mishmash of trying to appeal to the nostalgia of the readers without really understanding what made any of the things they were nostalgic about work. It was mired in crossovers, a bloated continuity mess, and artist Pete Woods just could not salvage the book.
Justice League International and Suicide Squad were both titles of similar pedigrees. Both started in 1987 to massive acclaim due to the creators’ unapologetic redefinition of what superhero comics could be. JLI was Keith Giffen, JM DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire’s response to Watchmen, in a sense – it made a lot of jokes and did a lot of riffs, generally being irreverent towards the book while also making its own way into the new landscape of the big 2. It was a workplace comedy, brought together in very strong fashion by three creators all at the top of their games. Suicide Squad was a really fresh take on superhero stories in general, bringing in character death as legitimate stakes and a dry, cynical sense of humor that made it feel really different from its predecessors. John Ostrander is a legendary creator even outside of his work on Suicide Squad, but this run is what makes him an all-timer. JLI ended in 1989, and was replaced by Justice League America which was replaced by JLA. It’s maintained its status as a cult classic ever since then. Suicide Squad ended in 1992, with a follow up 12-issue run in the early 2000s and another 8-issue run in 2007. The book was replaced by Secret Six in the mid-00s, but the original run remained a favorite as well.
So obviously, the return of these two series was meant to invoke these series’ fandoms and garner excitement. I wasn’t around for them, so I don’t know if this marketing ploy worked, but I can say with a lot of certainty that the actual books did not live up to their namesakes. Dan Jurgens and Aaron Lopresti were on Justice League International, and while both creators have done some beloved work in the past, but this series was just a miss. It was dull and boring from beginning to (thankfully quick) end, with no character actually making any sort of impact. The original series’ tone was really helped by Maguire’s fantastic ability to draw facial expressions, but Lopresti really can’t bring the same style, and Jurgens does not have the biting wit of the Giffen/DeMatteis combo. Suicide Squad was just… bad. It featured Harley Quinn fresh out of her relationship with the Joker, and it was just really gross and misogynistic all the way through. There was some fun stuff here and there, but the designs for all the characters and the actual writing of the team was just deeply unenjoyable – eventually this series would get relaunched as New Suicide Squad because they needed to get rid of any associations to this story.
Superman and Teen Titans are both series with long histories at DC Comics, albeit one longer than the other. They’re series that are basically always going to exist, because why in the world would they not capitalize on the existence of a sizeable fanbase for both of these properties? Unfortunately, being constant fixtures in the publishing line does not bode well for run-to-run consistency, because there doesn’t need to be a clear vision of what to do with the series for a new issue to come out. Unfortunately, this was the case with both of these series to start the New 52.
Superman was written by George Perez, with art by a lot of people including Jesus Merino, Nicola Scott, and Dan Jurgens. Perez had written a pretty iconic Wonder Woman run back in the 80s so it made some sense that he was given one of DC’s flagship titles, and the artists are all pretty darn good. Unfortunately, this series was hurt the most by the reboot – Perez was not aware of what Superman’s new rebooted origin was, because the story was being told in ongoing format in Action Comics. This led to Perez having to scramble pretty constantly and never really know what characters he was able to use in his own story, which meant he had to scramble to create brand new Superman villains in his very first issue – something that didn’t end up going very well. Perez would leave soon after his first arc, because this book really wasn’t an enjoyable experience for anyone involved.
Teen Titans got the absolute nightmare team of Scott Lobdell and Brett Booth, notable recently for their horribly planned Flash Forward
. Surprisingly for me this series wasn’t terrible, but it did not understand what made any of its characters popular before the reboot. Tim Drake was a completely unlikable edgelord, Kid Flash was not the fun whimsical character everyone loved, and everyone else with a pre-existing fanbase was written horribly. I have a bit of a soft spot for the characters in this series because one of them is Indian and another is a gay original character, but I hesitate to credit Lobdell with anything given how he’s actually harmed people. The actual writing for these characters was pretty cliched and tropey, though, and the plot was incredibly forgettable. As a whole, this was just a mediocre team book with unrecognizable characters that happened to have the names of fan favorites, and that’s never a great way to retain a fanbase through a reboot.
A new twist
The best thing this glut of titles did for the reboot was force DC to innovate titles, to try and do something that hadn’t been seen for a while, and reshape existing iconography for a modern time. And that’s what both Justice League Dark and Men of War both did a really good job with this – JLD took the idea of the Shadowpact and a magical team book and slapped the Justice League branding on it – turning it into a really marketable franchise. Men of War took the war story style and tried to do something modern with it. Unfortunately, neither was super successful at what it’s trying to do.
Justice League Dark was written by Peter Milligan, one of the major voices in the second wave of the British Invasion, and drawn by Mikel Janin, who’s gone on to do some legitimately incredible work since then. Janin was great on this, and the sole reason why the book ended up being readable, but Milligan really did not put out his best work here. The characters weren’t likeable, the conflict was really contrived, and the team legitimately did not want to be a team in the text. There was nothing actually compelling within the book, and I don’t understand why no one saw that before publication.
Men of War was a different beast, because it was just dull. There was nothing in this series that felt original at all, or like something that DC Comics needed to publish. It was just a boring war comic. I appreciate that DC was actively trying to bring back a style of story that became unpublishable due to the Comics Code, but Ivan Brandon and Tom Derenick aren’t exactly the all-star talent that you’d want to put on a genre title like this one. I can’t say too much about this, because it’s such a strange addition to the line just in its premise.
Now, this is just 19 of the 52 launch titles of this reboot. All of them I would classify as mistakes, and series that either should not have been published or been completely retooled. But there’s plenty to learn from things that didn’t go so poorly, too. Next, we’ll take a look at the things that didn’t exactly succeed, but definitely hold some value. I promise I’m not always this negative.