It’s been a year.
Well, honestly, it’s been a little over a year since DC Comics launched the New 52, the big revamp of the entire DC Universe. Looking back over this year, the first question that comes to mind is “Did it work”? Has DC effectively reprogrammed the world to embrace comic books on a larger scale simply by wiping out the 75 years that came before?" Truth be told, who knows? Sales are up, but then again Limp Bizkit used to sell a lot of records, so clearly sales don’t equal worth. Some people say it’s just the shot in the arm DC needed and others think the company has screwed up everything.
Looking back at all the hype and then the sloppy execution, myself and my esteemed editor Andy Hunsaker decided to pitch our two cents into the melting pot. It took a while to go back over everything and really think about what worked and what didn’t. Hopefully this little guide will prove worthwhile for those new to the New 52 and those still unsure how they feel about it.
Iann Robinson: This is a tough one for me because it all depends on how you look at it. For straight issue-to-issue quality, nothing on the newsstands, DC or Marvel, rivals what writer Scott Snyder is doing with Batman. The Court Of Owls arc has been one of the most compelling arcs in recent years and the revelation of a possible brother for Bruce Wayne, who is also a formidable opponent for the Batman, was one of the first examples of a writer using the “New Universe” to his advantage. The problem here is that most of what came before in Batman held over for the New 52, so I’m not sure if that makes it the best book.
If I couldn’t have Batman, then I’d have to go with either Justice League Dark or Frankenstein: Agent Of SHADE. Both of these books have really taken the New 52 idea and run with it. Writer Peter Milligan, followed by comic scribe Jeff Lemire, have taken oddball C-Level characters from the old DCU and given them new life with JLD. Constantine, Deadman, Zatanna, Andrew Bennett from the I, Vampire series and Black Orchid are pushed together into a team nobody wants to be on. The dynamics between the members and the over-the-top stories, which couple violence and the occult with solid superhero storytelling, make this an absolute must-read.
The other must read, also penned by Jeff Lemire, is Frankenstein Agent Of SHADE. Lemire takes a character, who first appeared in Detective Comics #135, and completely flips him on his head. Sure, some will say this is simply DC’s answer to Hellboy and the BPRD – which is a solid accusation – but who cares? The stories here are such fun and so bizarre that the comparison is moot. I love Lemire’s tortured monster, and his insane little cavalcade of characters has been non-stop entertaining since issue #1.
Andy Hunsaker: That would have to be Secret Six. Oh, wait, no. Damn.
Well, I do enjoy those three books Iann mentioned quite a bit. The Court of Owls is such a damn cool idea and it was executed with painstaking detail, so Batman is right up there. There's also the matter of Batwoman, which blasted out of the gate as amazing with its breathtaking artwork. It's still one of my favorites, but the second half of this long, still-ongoing arc got a little too twisted around itself for my tastes. However, it still has Mr. Motherscratchin' Bones as a major recurring character, and that keeps it at the top of the list as well. Other series that I've been enjoying include Batwing, Aquaman and The Shade.
But when I take a step back and look at all these DC books and think about which ones I enjoy the most, the ones that make me the most excited to read each month, I have to go with a pair of late arrivals to the party: Earth 2 and Dial H. The former, I really like because it gives the Justice Society of America what they deserve – a whole world to themselves. Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman are all dead, and Supergirl and Robin are shuttled off to the much-less-interesting Worlds' Finest as Power Girl and Huntress. Thus, in a whole reality completely separated from not only The Trinity but all of the frustrations of the slapdash New 52 continuity, we get to see these cool characters in their prime, rather than relegated to the old folks' home. Slick entrepreneur Alan Scott, directionless simple guy Jay Garrick, the mysterious new Hawkgirl and the hardassed Al Pratt are just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much good JSA stuff to mine here that each month, I'm eager to see what James Robinson and Nicola Scott bringing up next. Needless to say, Grundy was unexpected.
Dial H is also a completely separate thing, and it's batshit nuts. China Miéville has a portly protagonist, a weird bad guy named the Squid who just turned on a different bad guy to help said portly protagonist, and a payphone dial that turns that guy into all manner of crazy-ass super-folk. One of them was some guy named Pelican Army. He had an army of pelicans. People, this is the kinda crazy stuff that reminds us why we read comics in the first place. I would also include All-Star Western on this list if I didn't have such problems with the art, but it deserves to be mentioned as one of the more fun books going.
Iann Robinson: I don’t really read Superman or Action Comics and yet I know they are the worst thing about the New 52. How do I know this? Because the arrival of these two series has crippled Superman in a way that Kryptonite never could. First off, let’s remove my blistering and unending hatred for Grant Morrison. At one time, this guy was aces. I loved All Star Superman, and Arkham Asylum is one of my absolute favorite Batman stories of all time. These days, Morrison is way too involved in “shaking things up” to give a crap if what he writes helps the character at all.
Take Action Comics, where Morrison turned Superman into a teenager with a bad attitude dressed in jeans and a tight T-shirt. It displays Superman as largely unlikable and, while it’s only supposed to take place half a year before Justice League #1, Superman looks like he’s twelve. The comic has very little direction and Morrison seems way to mired in trying to reinvent how we see Superman as opposed to trying to build off what we love about the character.
At the same time, the drastic changes in Superman, have frustrated everyone, including writer George Perez, who opted to walk away from the whole mess after only a few issues. There’s no Daily Planet, Lois Lane has another lover, Superman ends up getting it on with Wonder Woman, the list of ridiculous changes goes on. What’s even more bizarre is that Superman got the biggest facelift of any of the major heroes, and that’s the problem. Everything here is focused on the changes and nothing on the original character. With Action Comics and Superman being such messes, interest in the last son of Krypton is waning.
Andy Hunsaker: I certainly don't hate Action Comics the way Iann does – I've actually liked a thing or two about it – but it is clear that the whole Superman arena is kind of a mess right now. With Morrison leaving Action soon and Scott Lobdell spreading his own little world into Superman, Justice League might be the only place to get a Supes fix – and there, he's swapping spit with Wonder Woman. There's no place to get good old-fashioned Superman anymore in current comics. That was kind of the point, one supposes, as they wanted to make Supes cooler, younger and singler (and they've spent some time applying the Spider-Man treatment to him as far as public acceptance), but undercutting the weight of his presence that he'd accumulated over 75 years doesn't feel like the best way to go.
However, you can complain about T-shirts all you want. You can decry the annoying 'ain't-we-edgy' schtick of Suicide Squad and the obnoxiousness of Red Hood & The Outlaws 'til the cows come home, but you're still not going to get a worse book than Rob Liefeld's Hawk and Dove.
Iann Robinson: For me, the most improved title and/or character has to be Aquaman. Writer Geoff Johns, who has been failing drastically with Green Lantern, has consistently knocked the Aquaman title out of the park. In the first few issues, Johns addressed the long line of jokes and punch lines directed at the character by having Aquaman deal with them head on. The character is also tougher. Instead of the open faced and smiling Arthur that dominated his history, the new Aquaman is closer to what was done in Kingdom Come. He’s got a tough skin, he’s a loner who, while remaining a superhero, has no real affinity for being the good guy or helping humanity.
Personal demons have also played a big part of the reinvigorated Aquaman. His former teammates, his past love affair, the darker side of his human life and his inability to fully trust anyone, including his wife Mera. All of this has added depth to a character usually written off as one-dimensional. If you’re not a fan of Aquaman, this series could turn you around. If you are, then you’re already celebrating how good it is.
Andy Hunsaker: I do quite enjoy Aquaman, but I did also like his bearded harpoon-hand pirate phase, so this doesn't feel necessarily like a needed improvement to the character, but rather a higher profile to get people to check in and rectify their Super-Friends based preconceptions of the guy. However, in my book, I have to go with I, Vampire, a series from Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino that improved from a book I read one issue of out of reluctant duty to a book I actively get each week to keep up with.
Vampires are so damn played out, with sparkly teen-throb versions being the ultimate pinnacle of that, but Fialkov has made a point of reverting them back to the nasty asshole beasts they originally were, with one prickly demigod named Andrew Bennett at the center of it all trying to walk back hundreds of years of vicious self-interest among his species. Sorrentino's perfectly moody art suits the tone of the series so singularly that when Bennett showed up in Justice League Dark, it was sort of awkward and painfully apparent he didn't belong there, being just a jerk in a t-shirt and shades and "cool" hair. But in his own book, he thrives, and he's already died and come back in just the first year. You're never really sure what will happen in I, Vampire, but it's a good bet that it won't harp on what sucks about suckheads.
Iann Robinson: As much ire as this may bring on my head, I have to say my biggest disappointment lays with Batgirl. I was on board from issue one. I love Gail Simone’s writing and was very excited to find out what she would do with Batgirl. The fact that this was Barbara Gordon and that she’d miraculously gotten the use of her legs back didn’t bother me simply because I had such faith in Simone’s writing.
Issue 1 through 4 lived up to all of my expectations. I was floored by the originality of what Simone was doing and how she managed all of the real life and superhero problems Barbara Gordon suffered with. Then, around issue five, the whole thing collapsed. The character stopped developing and Simone foisted on us one paper villain after the other. Each passing issue seemed like it was phoned in, or that Simone had no idea what she wanted to do with Batgirl. Involving the guy who stood next to the Joker when he shot Barbara was an interesting idea executed poorly. The inclusion of Barbara’s deranged brother seemed really forced, as did the subplot of her mother returning. By issue 10 I was all done with Batgirl, which still saddens me.
Andy Hunsaker: While I agree that Batgirl has been a little lackluster (although I blame my blistering love of Simone's Secret Six for ratcheting my hopes up perhaps too high for this, a book that was never going to be anywhere near that tone I enjoyed so much), I'm still on board and I've got faith it may yet pick up. It does seem a little bit like her heart might not be in it, although I hesitate to assume that sort of thing. Having to throw away so much of Barbara Gordon's history and awesome sauce that Simone herself created can't feel all that great.
However, as saddening as that is, or no matter how yawn-inducing Savage Hawkman became, there is no disappointment that can compare to the flagship book of the New 52. The whole first year of the new Justice League has been almost a complete wash, save for raising Steve Trevor's profile and, of course, Jim Lee's Fart of Darkness providing several yuks. The whole team is full of bickering tools – Hal Jordan's douchebaggery is so potent its got its own gravitational pull, and everybody else is a bitch in orbit. Geoff Johns has had to have Trevor tell us that the League is full of unquestionable integrity and professionalism because he's done nothing to show that at all. There's a fine line between portraying inexperience and making everybody look like a dumbass, and this series has fallen on the wrong side of it for most of its run so far – and let's not even talk about what happened to Billy Batson. Even the presence of Cyborg, which should've given some new blood to the book, at least, doesn't do anything but remind us that "oh yeah, Geoff Johns likes Cyborg." Very recently, the book has shown some small signs of clambering out of that morass, but given the disappointment it's been so far, hope seems foolish.
Iann Robinson: Though this might teeter awfully close to the whole “best new book” idea, I’m going to say that the Coolest Change in the New 52 is the inclusion of Earth 2. When it was first announced, I had serious reservations, because DC had originally stated the New 52 would do away with the multi-verse idea, which I applauded. The whole multi-verse thing had become way too convoluted, especially after Grant Morrison’s tedious and muddling Final Crisis series. Having another Earth seemed like two steps back for DC. Then it came to light that this would be a new and separate playground for characters in the JSA. That excited me, because I’m an old lover of the JSA and had grown tired of them playing second fiddle to the JLA.
From the opening panel in Earth 2 issue #1, I was hooked. Imagine killing off Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Robin and Supergirl, and then trying to build a book from the ground floor up. James Robinson managed it by reinventing everything we knew and really having fun with the new universe. Jay Garrick (original Flash) is a teenager given the gift of speed from a God, Green Lantern gains power from the energy of the Earth, Darkseid had attacked the Earth earlier and left residue of his assault, the original ideas keep flowing. Robinson also helped reinvent Solomon Grundy, one of my favorite villains of the DCU. With all the changes, the true power behind Earth 2 is that the series keeps you guessing. There's no idea from issue to issue what will happen next. That kind of storytelling is largely absent from most comic book stories.
Andy Hunsaker: Obviously, since it's one of my favorite books, I'll have to choose Earth 2 as well for reasons we've discussed already, although it's perhaps telling that one of the reasons I like it so is due to its complete separation from the bulk of the New 52. There are just so many troublesome things with it that it's good to have something that doesn't have to tie into anything else and remind me of them – things we'll discuss in the next category. I'm not someone that's too broken up over Clark Kent and Lois Lane not being married anymore, and I'm generally fine with the 'made of clay' origin for Wonder Woman being revised to give her a father in Zeus. But I'm honestly having a hard time coming up with any specific changes that have been actively cool. I suppose I'll just have to say that shedding some unfortunate continuity baggage has been something generally helpful to create some story leeway. DItching all the Crises from the last decade was a good call, but getting rid of Identity Crisis was supposed to restore our beloved Super Buddies. Instead, most of them scarcely even exist. Yet.
Iann Robinson: My leaning for lamest change comes more from an editorial standpoint across all 52 books than with one series. I loathe the idea that superheroes have only been around, or in the public eye, for five years. It completely wipes away the motivations for these characters, and thus the emotional power of these icons loses something. I don’t want to watch Superman fumble for his identity or try to relive what it was like before superheroes. There’s been too much water under the bridge and, whether they believe it or not, all of us still attach the history we know and love to the books.
There are also huge holes in the way this 5 Year Rule was executed. For example, the entire Green Lantern story carries over from the old DCU to the new. How does that work? How does a storyline built on a history that doesn’t exist continue on? I’m also curious how the Green Lantern series and the adjoining titles coincide with the new Justice League of America, which features a Green Lantern nobody knows about. Even Batman doesn’t change too much about the hero, and yet we’re supposed to buy that everything happening to him happens within five years. Really? In most of his books in the New 52, he’s battling his age-old group of rogues. In five years, he’s established that many super villain problems? The five-year rule doesn’t help the New 52 and in a few cases it completely exposes how sloppy the execution has been.
Andy Hunsaker: Oh, jeez, where to begin? Here is a partial list of changes I don't like about the New 52. One-Face, Riddler mohawk, Etrigan doesn't rhyme, no Oracle, no Stephanie Brown, no Cassandra Cain, no Wally West, the loss of everything cool in Ed Brubaker's Catwoman run, no Ted Kord, no Ralph & Sue Dibny, no Plastic Man, no Donna Troy, Ollie Queen doesn't have a funky beard, Zatanna looks "cool" instead of snazzy and full o' panache with the ol' tux and tails, Starfire and the elimination of just about all of Teen Titans history, skinny show-us-your-bra Amanda Waller who is no longer "The Wall," no bitchin' 'stache for Deadshot (although he might be growing that now?), Harley Quinn the Tim Burton-themed stripper…
But I'd have to say my two least favorite developments have been "Billy Bathole" and the Amazon Sex Pirate Spartans. The latter is what turned me off of Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman, which until that point was doing a tough but fair job of revamping the origins of Diana of Themyscira. The book has a twisted imagination to it, set firmly in the weird-ass pantheon of messed up Greek divinity, including a massive rainbow-colored manatee version of Poseidon and a melted-candle-headed Hades, and a lot of people still like it. But turning the proud warrior race of Amazons into a culture of black widows who foist themselves on random boatmen before killing them and trading any male infants to the foundries of Hephaestus just completely deflated my interest in anything in that corner of the world. There are cool dark twists and then there are the ones which torpedo everything.
The former is what Geoff Johns did with trying to reinvent Billy Batson, whining that he was "too perfect." Johns' answer to that was to make him a completely unlikable dickhead. Something about that is so wrong it's tragic. Yes, I know where Johns is going with this – he's built up a hard candy shell to hide the gooey, nougaty center inside that's been wounded too often by a life of hard knocks. Maybe he'll slowly warm up from that and become something like the kid we used to know and maybe this won't be so frustrating down the line.
But you know what? Just about every other damn teenage character in comics can be snarky or abrasive or bratty or too cool for everybody else around him – the thing that was so special about Billy Batson is that he wasn't that kid. He was the one kid with an enduring heart of gold in the face of such heavy despair. He didn't have to be that "perfect" little golly-gee-willickers boy full of funshine and lollypops all the time – he can have frustrations, he can make mistakes, he can take jokes too far, he can do all sorts of things that steer him away from that without turning him into a complete prick. That's just so anathema to what was inspiring and heart-melting about Billy. Screwing around with the nature of Shazam and whatever magic powers the former Captain Marvel would have is fine… but making Billy Batson an asshole is just awful. Johns excitedly telling us that he'll be joining the Justice League and giggling with Cyborg over explosions like Beavis and Butthead doesn't lend us a lot of hope, either.
WISEST HOLDOVER FROM THE OLD DCU
Iann Robinson: Nothing held over from the old DCU really jumps to mind. I’m glad that Batman stayed the way he is and didn’t suddenly become a rich orphan who, while searching for a way to gain superpowers, becomes a guinea pig for a mad scientist named Dr. Alfred who uses a serum to turn Bruce Wayne into a giant human bat when the sun goes down. His nemesis is a split personality Broadway actor who, when the sun sets, becomes a psychopathic clown in a nod to Jekyll and Hyde.
I’m glad Wonder Woman didn’t become a tranny cage fighter who descended from old Samoan Gods. Flash isn’t a cocaine freak that can power the drug into the ability to do things way too quickly. Green Lantern isn’t a 1930s explorer with a magic lantern that helps him find his way through mysterious caves. Aquaman isn’t a half fish, half man crime fighter who disguises himself as a short order cook. Looking at it that way, I’m happy DC kept a lot of their old stuff.
Andy Hunsaker: Well, Iann certainly put these changes into perspective, including all the ones I just pitched a fit about in the last section.
The two biggest holdovers seemed to happen in Batman and Green Lantern titles. The Batbooks – or at least Batman – got to keep all the stuff Scott Snyder had been building about the history of Gotham City, bringing his Court of Owls epic to fruition. Then, all of the stuff Geoff Johns had written recently in the GL universe – like the Skittle Corps and Blackest Night – all got to carry over as well (funny how that works). The former is great for Batman and the latter has made Green Lantern: New Guardians enjoyable, but I'll say that the best is being able to bring over all of Batwoman: Elegy – because you know Flamebird would've been written out of existence as quick as Jesse Quick if not for her connection to the new hotness of Batwoman.
LAMEST HOLDOVER FROM THE OLD DCU
Iann Robinson: Jason Todd. This waste of paper and ink died once because we all hated him so much we voted for it. Then he came back and we all still hated him. DC had the perfect chance to wipe this blight off the face of the new DCU but instead brought him over and gave him a really bad series of his own.
Andy Hunsaker: Well, Batman Incorporated is still a lame idea – at least the 'Bruce Wayne publicly finances Batman' thing. Also, I had hoped that maybe Hal Jordan would become less of a colossal douchebag, and maybe Barry Allen would somehow become interesting enough to make up for the lack of Wally West. However, both of their flaws have carried over, and Barry has the added burden of causing all of these changes because he missed his mommy. Thanks for nothin', Flashpoint.