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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The New 52: Two Years Later

It was the Summer of 2011 and I was just about done with comics. I was a long-time reader of the form, since I had been a little guy (like 6 or 7). I have fond memories of my mother or my uncle taking me to the local comics store in either Virginia Beach, VA or in Augusta, GA. I remember collecting crossovers like Zero Hour, and the big summer of the Eclipso annuals and the hologram X-Men books. To say much of my youth was buried in comics is an understatement. I gave up on the hobby in high school as music and theater started to take more precedence, dip back in somewhat heavily in college, and slowly flittered away again as I began my working career. By the time the Summer of 2011 rolled around, the other series I was still reading were Geoff Johns run on Green Lantern, Grant Morrison's Batman, and whatever the heck Paul Levitz was doing with the Legion of Superheroes. Even those former two titles were suffering a bit as Batman Inc. was a step-down from the high point of Morrison's work on Batman and Robin/The Return of Bruce Wayne and Johns title had become aimless post-Blackest Night. Titles from the other companies weren't even on my radar. It was all I could do to not just walk into my local store and say "alright, it's been a good run, but I think I'm calling it a day".

That year, Hannah and I decided to go to San Diego Comic Con to see the amusement park that is the biggest pop culture event in the country. It was there that I got a chance to soak in the huge DC and other comics booths and catch wind of DC's plans to relauch their entire lineup in what they were calling "The New 52". Their previous foray into using that terminology created one of my favorite weekly comic experiences in "52", so perhaps it was that good will, the energy of a new starting point, and/or just a last gasp to see if I still loved this form that prompted me to jump all in and give it one last shot.

And here we are two years later, and I'm still reading DC Comics, so there's the good news. My list has grown significantly shorter since "The New 52" began, and in this article/diatribe, I'm going to detail what I started picking up in each of their differing "lines", my impressions of the direction of what I picked up, and why I dropped/hung onto what I did.

This is not a historical rendering of the entire New 52 beat by beat, it's just my own personal narrative, all us comic boys and girls have one.

Justice League 
If there was a starting place that DC intended for every reader to jump into it was the origin arc of Justice League. Pair up Geoff Johns, still fairly hot on DC's biggest title Green Lantern with Jim Lee, the one artist that remains a go-to #1 seller no matter how dated you might think his approach and you should have a winner, at least sales wise. I generally enjoyed it. Johns in his first arc set the stage for the ongoing Darkseid conflict that's just now finally starting to take shape in some ancillary titles, and in the arcs to follow, after Lee left, began to set up the Justice League vs. ARGUS/Trinity War/Forever Evil storyline. It hasn't been a perfect run of stories, marred mostly by some rough fill-in art and the kind of clumsiness in storytelling that Johns occasionally falls into, but it's been fun and has yet to actually take its eye off the bigger storyline. In a way, Johns' storyline feels a bit like a minor-version of the Cadmus arc that appeared in the Justice League Unlimited animated series, even with a big villain twist that has led to the current "Forever Evil" event. It's the first time Justice League has been exciting since the Grant Morrison days, and having Ivan Reis on board as his permanent artist has helped solidify the book.

The side titles have been even more successful, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's work on Wonder Woman has been maybe the best title put out by the company, with a wonderfully strong revamp of the central character, her cast, and a repurposing of her position amongst DC's "trinity". While it has had little connection to the current on-going events of the greater narrative that Johns is producing in Justice League, it is tangentially contributing to the new Fourth World/Darkseid mythos through its development of Orion and Highfather. It took a little convincing from some prominent comic bloggers to give this book a shot, as I had never loved Azzarello's take on Superman, though his Batman work with Eduardo Risso held some interest (and is beautifully collected in the black and white "Batman: Noir" collection); and Wonder Woman had been in such a creative rut over the past 20 years that I had been burned enough by "new" takes on the character. I was wrong, dead wrong. This is THE book at DC, and was the start (as it came out first) of the first time that I can remember that each of the "trinity" had at least one good book in their respective lines (more on that later).

I never even bothered with Justice League International, because frankly, weren't we done with Dan Jurgens Justice League in the 90's? Justice League of America was more miss than hit, but it served its purpose as a plot setter for Trinity War. It's fill-in arc by Matt Kindt (featuring Martian Manhunter) and its title change to Justice League of Canada and being handed over to Jeff Lemire for writing duties is a promising development.

The Flash and Aquaman were both titles that I sort of dipped in and out of with wavering interest. I thought Francis Manapul's pencils on The Flash was some of the most inventive layout work on a panel by panel basis. The problem being that the storytelling just wasn't that exciting, that's not to say there weren't some interesting ideas: I was particularly engaged in their revamp of the speed force, but after trying the book out in small chunks, I just couldn't add it to my pull list with any regularity. The book was also not helped by any issues that Manapul himself did not draw, which unfortunately highlighted the more pedestrian nature of the storytelling. I've been reading it lately during this current "Reverse Flash" arc, and its as gorgeous as ever, but with the news that Manapul and co-writer and colorist Brian Buccellato are both leaving the book in November, the verdict will be out depending on who takes their place. There's promise in a Flash title, but more often than not, the more interesting storytelling elements get pushed to the background for "meat and potatoes" super-heroics. As for Aquaman, I tried it once or twice, it never held my interest. Johns take of "Aquaman as badder-ass superhero than you think" just never took with me. The only time I think it worked was during the "Throne of Atlantis" cross-over around the first year anniversary of the relaunch. It was around that point where both Justice League and Johns writing were clicking in sync, and Aquaman benefitted from it. With Jeff Parker on board in December taking over for Johns, the book may hold more allure for me in the coming months.

I've written at length about my thoughts on Green Arrow. In short, it was horrible when the New 52 started with JT Krul, got literally no better when Ann Nocenti took over, and now that Lemire/Sorrentino are running the show, it's one of DC's more exciting titles. Just gorgeously crafted stuff, and hopefully it'll start to dovetail with Lemire's JLC.

I've greatly enjoyed James Robinson's work on Earth 2, which had the fascinating conceit of what would happen on an Earth where Darkseid was more successful and able to take Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman off the table. Robinson, in partnership with Nicola Scott, was able to develop the "newest" take of just about any title in the New 52 with his revamp of the Justice Society. Every issue had a new take on characters like Alan Scott (who gets his powers from THE GREEN), Jay Garrick (whose powers come from the Roman God Mercury), Hawkgirl, The Atom, Sandman, Dr. Fate, etc...the book was also exciting to me as it no real comparison point at Marvel. Sure there are alternate earth comics out there, but Earth 2 is specifically an alternate Earth retelling of what's going on in Justice League: basically what would have happened had Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg not been around to help Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman stop Darkseid's invasion. It's a thoroughly engaging title, which makes it all the more unfortunate that Robinson walked off the book with Issue 17. Current Injustice: Gods Among Us writer, Tom Taylor, will be taking over the title in November. Of what I've read of his work, it's fun, a little bigger and dumber than Robinson's writing, but that's not a bad thing. I'd welcome Earth 2 being just a little less wordy at least, so long as the plot is compelling. I'll give it a few issues I'm sure.

What I started with at the beginning of the New 52:
Justice League
Wonder Woman

What I'm reading now:
Justice League
Justice League of America (soon to be Canada)
Wonder Woman
Green Arrow
Earth 2
The Flash (tentative, to be dropped post Manapul, most likely)

Now here's a tough luck case. I'm sure there are many writers out there that could tackle Superman well. When I think of the kind of stories say Jonathan Hickman or Mark Waid might be able to tell with the Big Blue Boyscout, the mind starts to boggle a bit. DC got themselves started well with Grant Morrison on Action Comics, telling the early days of this Superman's career. When you assign the guy that wrote probably the best Superman story of the past 30 years (and to some, ever) in All Star Superman, it's an easy cause for excitement. The other Superman title, the eponymous "Superman" book, never quite got the same boost with its constantly shifting creative teams. While a Grant Morrison title will constantly draw me, books written by George Perez, Dan Jurgens, and then Scott Lobdell just don't have that same appeal. I only ever tried a little bit of Jurgens and Lobdell to get a sample of what they were offering, and unfortunately beyond some nice art by Jurgens and Kenneth Rocafort, there just wasn't enough to get me to plop down 2.99-3.99 for the title on a regular basis.

Morrison's run, while nowhere near the class of storytelling of his previous foray into Kal-El, was still eminently readable and introduced all of the groundwork that the various Superman writers are still working with to this day. The problem with the run is that the artwork is all over the place. As it turns out, Rags Morales couldn't keep up with a monthly comics schedule, so Brad Walker, Andy Kubert and a few others had to fill in whenever Morales fell behind. This unfortunate artistic shifting began to gel towards the conclusion of the run, when it was decided that Walker could take on certain thematic areas in the book (like any shots of the Fifth Dimension), but it hampers alot of what comes before it, particularly in Morales more rushed pages. Morrison's writing itself is as mind-trippingly fun as ever, it doesn't have the majestic beauty of All Star or the long-form depth of his Batman run, but it's as strong a revamped starting point as I could imagine given the circumstances. I read it till his run concluded in an oversized Issue 18. This is also the run that likely prompted Morrison to give up on monthly superhero comics, a shame, it was what initially pulled me into the New 52 in the first place.

Andy Diggle was next to take over Action, and he did for all of one issue before whatever editorial hurdles he ran into proved to be too much. Tony Daniel finished off their fill in arc in Issues 19 and 20 based on Diggle's story notes. I'm no fan of Diggle's writing, and this story was no exception, to say I didn't shed a tear when he left would be an understatement.

While the "Superman" title continued to struggle creatively, DC tasked Scott Snyder and Jim Lee to give the character a shot in the arm with Superman Unchained, while Greg Pak and Jae Lee took on the team-up Batman/Superman title. Unchained is the weaker of the two thus far, Snyder's story about Superman's antagonism with the military establishment is decent but nothing that I can say I'm terribly excited about. Jim Lee doing some of the least interesting work of his career lately doesn't help. Batman/Superman is working quite well for me, conversely. Greg Pak is telling an exciting story of Batman and Superman's first meeting that is dipping and weaving through the continuity of a number of titles including Action Comics, Justice League, Earth 2, and Wonder Woman and its quickly becoming one of my first-reads in my comics pile. The news that he's taking over Action Comics in December is equally welcome, and I'm hopeful that he'll finally bring stability to a title that is currently suffering from Scott Lobdell fill-ins.

For what it's worth, I'll also be giving Charles Soule's Superman/Wonder Woman a shot next month.

What I started with at the beginning of the New 52:
Action Comics

What I'm reading now:
Superman Unchained (in hopes of improvement, but I'm on the fence)
Superman/Wonder Woman
I'm also waiting in anticipation of Greg Pak's Action run


Batman is one of two characters that got the least amount of relaunching in the New 52. As a matter of fact, very little of Batman's continuity remained unchanged, just condensed into the weird 5 year timeline that all titles in the relaunch were subject to. It was never a problem for me so much, other than it left some question as to how Batman had so many Robins (5 and counting) in such a short amount of time. There was also some question as to how much of Grant Morrison's "mega-Batman arc" still counted as Batman Inc is addressed in the very first issue of the relaunched Batman title.

Basically though, once you put these continuity concerns aside, you'll come to realize there is some great storytelling being done here in a few instances. For example, much like DC was wise enough to plant Grant Morrison on Action Comics after All Star Superman, they did the same with Batman by giving that job to Scott Snyder after his critically acclaimed "Black Mirror" arc in Detective Comics. It was one of the smartest moves they could have made, as much like the masterstroke of putting Azzarello on Wonder Woman led to a tremendous run of comics, the same can be easily said of the pairing of Snyder and Greg Capullo. Arc after arc from "The Court of Owls" to "Death of the Family" to the currently running "Zero Year", this team has consistently knocked that book out of the park. If DC has two essential reads right now in the New 52, Wonder Woman and Batman have to it.

As for the other titles, I've been following Batwoman since its inception, as its basically the last vestige of the Greg Rucka helmed Batman that began after No Man's Land in early 2000. JH Williams and W Haden Blackman basically picked back up where Rucka and Williams left off during the Elegy and Go arcs that occurred pre-relaunch. Much like Batman, Kate Kane's continuity remained relatively unchanged. Williams and Blackman through the first three major arcs told a pretty fascinating story about Kate taking on pseudo mythological monsters, while also balancing a level of espionage through the involvement of Bones and the DEO. The writing was a bit over-narrated, and anytime Williams wasn't on art duties, the book lost much of its appeal for me. But in all, it still stood as my second favorite title of the Batman line. Now that Williams and Blackman have been removed from the book, I'm hopeful I'll find enough there worth sticking around for. The addition of Marc Andreyko on writing duties is a big plus, but a little bit of the spirit of those Rucka-Rucka/Brubaker-Rucka/Williams days is lost in this new transition a bit.

I dipped my toes in with Detective Comics and Nightwing, the former only when John Layman came on board (I have zero interest in reading Tony Daniel's writing), but neither title really caught with me enough to stick around. I ended up dropping Detective around Issue 21 or so, and Nightwing never made it past the Zero issues. There just wasn't enough there to grab me. Tomasi's Batman and Robin gets alot of praise, but I just don't see it. He wrote some very nice scenes between Bruce and his son Damian, but the villains he created for the title were as bland as bland can get. Batgirl and Batwing I never really bothered with at all. I will admit, I've got some pangs to read All Star Western sometime soon. I gave it a shot when it first came out, and Moritat's art turned me off a bit; but you get enough of your friends telling you something is worth reading, you're willing to maybe try again. We'll see...

Right around the first year of the New 52, DC did me a solid and brought back Batman Inc written by Grant Morrison. Confused continuity or not, the series was able to provide closure to the epic run Morrison had kicked off in 2006. I'll be going into further depth regarding this entire run soon, but needless to say it was a beautifully ambiguous ending that I'm glad DC allowed to happen regardless of the revamp. Unlike his run on Action, Morrison's run here was consistently backed by pseudo Quitely-like Chris Burnham, who brought a level of consistency that is greatly needed to allow Morrison's more wild ideas to gel.

What I started with at the beginning of the New 52:
(with an eventual dip into Batman Inc)

What I'm reading now:

Points for consistency I guess....

Green Lantern
Moreso than even Batman, Green Lantern remained almost wholly unchanged by the reboot. The only thing that seemingly was altered was his costume, as all the major plot points of Geoff Johns run still had an impact on the goings on within the relaunched title. I have some misgivings with this as Johns big trilogy of Rebirth, The Sinestro Corps War, and Blackest Night grew more and more into the center piece of the on-going mythos of the DC Universe pre-reboot. When Dan DiDio says "In the New 52, there was no Crisis of any kind" that makes one wonder how the Anti-Monitor could have ever been involved with any of the major action pieces, which in turn knocks out a massive portion of Sinestro Corps War, Blackest Night, and Brightest Day. Sadly, that's only the tip of the iceberg to the continuity issues (let's just not bring up Hal as The Spectre at all), and the challenge here, unlike with Batman: the same writer is continuing the title rather than someone not as associated with the past continuity. Johns continuing on Green Lantern, as well as Tomasi and Co. on the other title pretty much eliminated any opportunities for a clean break.

Luckily, what the relaunch did provide was a little bit of renewed energy for Johns, who was clearly waning a bit post-Blackest Night. His opening two arcs that focused on Sinestro as a Green Lantern and his re-recruitment of Hal into the Corps leading to rematch with Black Hand was very strong storytelling with some lovely artwork by Doug Mahnke. The book started to face-plant pretty terribly though when it returned to it's crossover ways, "Rise of the Third Army" was an especially egregious crossover that was little more than a preamble to "Wrath of the First Lantern", had either storylines been terribly satisfying, I may have had fewer complaints. It didn't help that Johns forced the dullest Green Lantern on us yet in Simon Baz. The idea of an Arabic Green Lantern is fascinating, and a more nuanced writer might have been able to do something worthwhile here, "big action, broad strokes" Geoff Johns just isn't that creator. I held on though, to the mostly worth-reading 8 DOLLAR!!! finale, filled with as much back-patting as I could stand. I could have dropped the book from there, but I was curious what Robert Venditti could bring to the title as its new writer.

Being only about 3 or 4 issues in, I've mostly enjoyed it so far. Venditti (and Van Jensen on Green Lantern Corps) have focused on more of the space cop side of the Corps, which is exactly what I was hoping the new writers would do with this line rather than getting bogged down into the "Lantern/Emotional Spectrum mythology". I'm not excited another crossover is coming in this "Lights Out" story, but I'm willing to give this new team, which was so desperately needed, the benefit of the doubt once. The concept behind Relic is pretty interesting.

What I started with at the beginning of the New 52:
Green Lantern

What I'm reading now:
Green Lantern
Green Lantern Corps


As for the rest...
What I started with at the beginning of the New 52:
Animal Man
Swamp Thing
Justice League Dark
Legion of Superheroes
Legion Lost
Dial H
Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE (RIP)

What I'm reading now:
None, after I drop JL Dark post Trinity War/Forever Evil...such a shame about that Frankenstein book.

The Essentials according to Kyle
Batman vol 1 - The Court of Owls
Batman vol 2 - The Night of the Owls
Batman vol 3 - Death of the Family
Wonder Woman vol 1 - Blood
Wonder Woman vol 2 - Guts
Wonder Woman vol 3 - Iron
Green Arrow vol 4 (no title as of yet, but this is the beginning of Lemire's run)

Also worth checking out
Action Comics vol 1 - Superman and the Men of Steel
Action Comics vol 2 - Bulletproof
Justice League vol 1 - Origin
Justice League vol 2 - The Villain's Journey
Justive League vol 3 - Throne of Atlantis
Batwoman vol 1 - Hydrology
Batwoman vol 2 - To Drown the World
Batwoman vol 3 - World's Finest
Earth 2 vol 1 - The Gathering
Earth 2 vol 2 - The Tower of Fate
The current run on Batman/Superman
Venditti and Jensen's work on Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps. respectively

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1 comment:

  1. Great article, man! Makes me really want to figure out what I started with and what I'm picking up now. I may have to dig into my box and figure it all out :)


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