A little over two years ago, DC Comics rebooted their entire universe in a shift dubbed “The New 52” (named after the 52 comic book titles they relaunched with). Character personalities shifted, history was rewritten as storylines were erased or amended, and everyone was eligible for the chopping block.
I only started reading comic books about four years ago, and DC has been a core part of my weekly reading since then. I was nervous when DC announced their big reboot. Some people were screaming like Chicken Little, but here we are, two years later, and DC is still putting out some great comics.
These are some of my favorite moments, characters, stories, and adjustments made in the New 52 reboot.
Best Continuing Book — Batman: The Dark Knight
Batman has the best villains, and The Dark Knight title lets them truly revel in their insanity in a way that only a more mature-focused book can. The first 20+ issues have been dominated by a terrifying Scarecrow and a wanton Mad Hatter, but what truly makes these dark pages stand out among the rest of the Batman books is how well the villains are humanized.
They’re not just psychopaths with a one-track mind to kill. They have intricate upbringings that shaped their wants and needs into such peculiar and twisted places that pursuing their desires as adults inevitably brings them to horrible deeds. It’s subtle and powerful, making those rare moments where the villains are shown to need Batman for their own sense of purpose as much as he needs them to be incredibly believable, and almost sympathetic.
The art style has changed a few times, and my personal tastes bounce up and down with each adjustment, but the stories are brilliant. This is where Batman’s rogue’s gallery is truly allowed to flourish.
Best New Book — Demon Knights
There are a lot of superhero books in DC’s lineup, and I highly value the titles that break from that mold and bring in something new. Demon Knights was (it recently got canceled) an awesome book that had a similar impact and group dynamics as a Justice League book, but was set in an alluring medieval fantasy world.
Vandal Savage and Jason/Etrigan are perfect villain-hero combos that work in the group without abandoning their own exterior motives. The book tied in remarkably well with many of the other titles, due to some very convenient characteristics of the characters (which I won’t spoil). More importantly, it built a complex, ongoing narrative that explored the histories and relationships of the characters, who truly changed as issues went on. I think Demon Knights did that better than any other new book in the series.
It went from heaven to hell and everywhere in between in only 23 issues. It’s a shame it didn’t receive more.
Best Story Arc: Night of the Owls
I was pretty skeptical of the Court of Owls as a main villain when Scott Snyder introduced them in Batman #1 in this new relaunch. It sounded cheesy, with nobles wearing goofy owl masks and reciting nursery rhymes.
Scott Snyder and the rest of the writers on this project proved me completely wrong with the first major story arc told across an entire family of books in the New 52. The Court of Owls, and their Talon assassins are genuinely mysterious, controlling, and widespread—a refreshing change of pace from Batman’s usually individual villain foes.
This arc connected all of the Batman family books together, and managed to give each of the characters a story that was meaningful to their own development, while also developing the entire family’s story forward.
Batgirl #9, in this arc, is particularly brilliant. Its incredible story has so much going on, both action-y and emotionally, and plants the seeds for some major plot developments and characters that blossomed wonderfully over the next year across multiple books.
Best Banter — All-Star Western
I love Jonah Hex. He’s essentially Batman with even less manners and nothing to tie him down. His relationship with the uptight and educated Amadeus Arkham is brilliantly written, with plenty of clever moments and quips thrown between them.
Even the minor, throwaway characters in All-Star Western are built to give Hex dry one-liners to throw out as he rushes into the action, or drinks himself into oblivion. I had no expectations of reading this book beyond the first couple issues, but the entertaining personalities, and primarily Hex, quickly made this a must-read for me every month.
Best Surprise — Dial H
I never read Dial H for Hero back in the Silver Age, so I had no idea what to expect going into this. I was immediately enraptured by the zany and freaky heroes that the protagonist transforms between. Having a new set of powers—sometimes obviously awesome and sometimes dumbfoundingly dull—every time the hero has to tackle a new problem made for some incredibly creative solutions.
Like Demon Knights, this book was also recently canceled, which is a shame. It explored some interesting ideas, such as where the hero powers come from and what happens to the original possessor of those powers, and it’s sheer imagination remains unmatched in the New 52.
Best Art — Supergirl, by Mahmud Asrar
There are several very artistic books in the New 52 that host beautiful two-page spreads with intricate designs and shapes. But what I appreciate about Asrar’s work in Supergirl is that it maintains a purity without ever losing fidelity. It’s crisp, it’s clean, and it fits the tone and style of the story perfectly. It never feels like it’s trying to experiment so far that it distracts from the story being told.
Also, Supergirl has a weird history of being extremely sexualized. I really appreciate Asrar’s ability to present Kara as a strong, quirky, and still occasionally playful teenage girl without distorting her body or putting her in poses that are thinly veiled voyeur exhibitions. This is the depiction of a confident heroine that I want to my nieces to look up to when they’re old enough to read comics.
Best Epic Moment — Aquaman’s shark attack, Justice League #4
Too many people dismiss Aquaman as being useless on land, assuming that his only powers revolve around water. The Aquaman series in the New 52 does a really impressive job of making Aquaman look like the true badass king that he is.
Us true believers knew all along that Aquaman is a powerful warrior to be feared. But for everyone else, he summoned a tornado of sharks to devour an entire aerial army sent straight from Darkseid.
Best Changed Character — Phantom Stranger
I was admittedly weirded out when I first started to suspect that this New 52 Phantom Stranger is actually Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus in the Bible (and my wife still doesn’t like the idea). But while the theology in the book would make any preacher scream, the story told through it all is really quite compelling. The Phantom Stranger struggles with his desire to experience love and family again, despite being an insanely powerful being who receives direct orders and compassionate counseling from God.
He’s very deliberate and thoughtful in his actions, eager to prove that he is a better person now through self-sacrifice and obedience. But at the same time, he’s desperate to feel human again.
I love the twist on the classic Phantom Stranger costume, turning his gold-circles necklace into a noose-of-sorts made out of the 30 pieces of silver Judas was paid for betraying Jesus. Every time he betrays someone at the command of The Voice, one of the coins falls off and part of his debt is repaid. Very cool.
Best Unchanged character: Constantine
Some characters didn’t need to be changed, and Constantine is perfect just the way he is—horribly unperfect. He’s the most complex and interesting hero DC has in its stable, because he’s not really a hero. Sometimes he’s the good guy, sometimes he’s the bad guy—but he’s usually something in between.
This snarky, selfish, and surly bastard reminds me of the self-narrating detectives of old crime noir novels. He’s more altruistic than he lets on, often working to help save the entire universe from destruction, but tends to present himself as only looking out for his own interests.
Some of the best cross-overs with Constantine actually have him as the full-blown villain—and that’s something very few hero characters in any comic publishers’ stable could pull off. At different points, he tries to steal Shazam’s powers, almost destroys Swamp Thing, and betrays the entire world of Amethyst, dooming them to brutal assassinations and war.
He has incredible magical power, and seeks to expand it by constantly seeking out powerful artifacts, rituals, and tools. That goal often puts him at odds with the most evil wizards, who he disposes of with clever tricks, a cynical attitude, and a willingness to suffer.
Best New Costume: Cyborg
The new Cyborg (left) is more than just a man with some robot parts attached. The new Cyborg costume shows how he’s completely held together by the machine parts–the costume, in the new lore, was built around his destroyed body to keep it held together just so he could survive.
It’s more in tune with his body and mind, and can even reassemble itself on the fly to form different parts. He normally has two hands—instead of one hand and the cannon—but his hand can twist and distort into the cannon (pictured above) when needed. A lot of this is automated, which causes Cyborg to freak out when it first happens, which adds a fun element to his story as he discovers what this crazy high-tech body can do.
There are several interesting costume redesigns, but Cyborg’s is my favorite because it doesn’t just make the character look better, it adds a fun twist on his story.
Best Cancellation — G.I. Combat
I don’t mean to disrespect the team that made this book, but I couldn’t get into it at all. I don’t have much of a taste for military stories in general, but the even rampant dinosaur attacks couldn’t save this book from feeling cliché and simplistic.
The art style doesn’t appeal to me at all, and I went three issues deep without caring about any of the characters. After that, I stopped reading and wasn’t sad to see it replaced eight issues in.
The back-of-the-book story following the Unknown Soldier was really well done, though. I’m happy to see him cropping up in other books after this cancellation.
Best Death — Damian Wayne (Robin)
I didn’t want to like Damian Wayne. I didn’t really care when DC announced he would be killed off in the New 52. But Grant Morrison had other plans.
Morrison wrote the short campaign of Damian’s life in the New 52 ingeniously, bringing out subtle touches of his childishness that forces you to sympathize with someone who’s often been portrayed as an overly gruff and cynical adult in a small body. Morrison made us feel hope for Damian–we believed, like Bruce did, that he really could become someone incredible, with the power and willpower to stop evil without becoming it.
I’ll avoid spoilers beyond what PR put out, but Damian’s death was well-constructed and poignant. And, most importantly, it’s been 7 months and he hasn’t returned yet. I hope DC shows the patience to keep him dead for at least a year longer. Not because he doesn’t deserve to be in the books, but because his death deserves respect.
Best Backstory Choice: Bizarro
Bizarro has had a couple different backstories that all revolve around similar ideas. So while his story in the New 52 (told partially in Superman #23.1) isn’t completely unique, I’m glad they chose the origin they did.
In this version, Bizarro is the inadvertent creation of Lex Luthor, who is pursuing the creation of a genetic-superior of Superman, who he can control completely. He’s not trying to clone Superman; he’s trying to make his own, better version of him from scratch.
Of course, the experiment goes wrong and Luthor creates a Bizarro instead, with a mutated body and addled brain. It has no control and does nothing but fight. The ending of the book indicates that this may not be the final version of Bizarro created, but I like that it’s not an actual clone of Superman.
Hopefully it’s an indication that DC is looking to avoid the weird stories of previous Bizarros, like when Bizarro-Lois Lane and Bizzaro-Superman flew into space to have babies and populated an entire planet with Bizarro-clones of everyone from Supergirl to Jimmy Olsen. No thanks.
Best Relationship — Buddy and Ellen, Animal Man
There are very few stable relationships in the New 52, which makes the exceptional Animal Man book stand out even more. Buddy Baker, his wife Ellen, and their daughter Maxine struggle to find their places in the world as the responsibilities and dangers of superpowers threatens to tear their family, and their lives, apart.
They’re far from a perfect family, but their struggles are understandable–becoming a super hero tied to another, magical world is kind of insane. Their fights are believable and, in the end, they fight for each other desperately. Their family provides a refreshing and inspiring look into the personal turmoil heroes suffer to make a stand for good in the world.