Checking In With DC’s “New 52” (Part 1)

Back in February, DC Comics’ “New 52” initiative reached its sixth month, and I reviewed all the series I was reading. Ten months later, it’s time to check in again.

From a branding standpoint, this continues to be a success. Almost all series have stuck to a reliable monthly schedule, and even though DC has cancelled several, they’ve added replacements to keep the focus on a consistent “52” rather than on the individual failures. This is much higher than the number of series that DC was publishing beforehand, and quite a few obscure characters have found success under this system.

From a creative point of view, the results are more mixed. Superhero comics are often hobbled by the attitude of “everything’s new, but don’t worry because we still have everything you used to love!” Once the newness of the first few issues faded away, it became obvious that few of the series actually had new ideas. I’m still reading more than I used to, since the monthly schedule and steady $3 price point (or $4 for extra-long titles) are much better than what Marvel is providing these days, but I doubt I would miss half of these if I stopped buying them.

September provided a perfect example of the challenges that come from mixing a corporate initiative with individual projects. The company put off the thirteenth issues of every series to provide a “zero month”, with stories from the past of each character. Some series had excellent issues that month, while others had an arbitrary interruption to their ongoing stories. It did attract attention (especially with the eye-catching covers that featured the heroes bursting through the image that was on their issue #1), but my interest still hasn’t returned since that bump in the momentum.

While I haven’t kept up on the worst of the series I reviewed back in February, I read at least the next few issues of most of them. I’m going to review all of those again over the next two days. Because there are so many, I plan on keeping these reviews especially brief, more like additions to the original reviews (which can be found by following the links in each heading). Later in the week, I’ll take closer looks at some of the series that have started since then.


cover to Justice League #12

Justice League

Justice League

(Based on issues #7-12 and #0)

Justice League’s first story arc delivered fun and big-stakes action, but Geoff Johns hasn’t figured out how to make that work as the cornerstone of the new DC Universe. Suddenly jumping five years forward to the present day, issue #7 finds the heroes still immature and unable to work with each other, despite the competence they show in their solo books. The difference between their public image and the internal strife is shown in liaison Steve Trevor’s dealings with a cynical US Congress, the one clever idea Johns had. Otherwise, this is an uninteresting story of a broken man torturing and killing people to take vengeance on the Justice League. Not a great symbol for the series or for the universe it represents.

There are some bright spots: Jim Lee managed to hit his deadlines and provide most of the art, giving this a consistent look. And instead of the pointless filler that had added to the page count in the first few issues (while increasing the comic’s price), this series now has an extra story following the origin of Captain Marvel. It’s pretty interesting, but as the main story shows, Johns often loses his way after the origin is over. I’m not sticking around to see where this goes next.

Grade: C


cover to Legion of Super-Heroes #9

Legion of Super-Heroes

Legion of Super-Heroes

(Based on issues #6-10)

At my initial review, I said I was enjoying the “fun, gonzo” storytelling even if it was bad. That didn’t last long, though. After the initial thrill of the series wore off, though, I lost interest quickly. The sprawling cast would be hard enough to keep track of even if new plot threads weren’t added faster than they were resolved, and most events have the logic of a thirteen-year-old’s action movie pitch. (A demand that the Legion not risk interstellar war, for example, is dismissed as “some small-minded bureaucrat’s stupidity”.)

It’s never outright horrible, but there’s no potential for it to ever rise above its current floundering mess. The only reason to buy this is lingering love for the Legion of Super-Heroes. I had enough to keep me reading for the better part of a year, so I can’t say this was too bad; your mileage may vary.

Grade: C-


cover to Demon Knights #13

Demon Knights

Demon Knights

(Based on issues #7-14 and #0)

Demon Knights has some of the same struggles with a large, varied cast that Legion of Super-Heroes does, though it avoids the problems by keeping the backstories contained entirely within the current series. It has another problem, though: Unlike Legion, the “heroes” of this series have vastly different motivations and in some cases hate each other outright. The story always seems about to spiral out of control, though when I re-read past issues they seem tightly plotted in retrospect. Still, it takes ever greater excuses to keep this varied band together.

The strength of the story is in individual character moments. All seven of the “Knights” have interesting stories, and author Paul Cornell manages to slip fun moments for each in regularly. The plot seems like it’s getting a little bogged down, though. Maybe it’s only a year or two away from Legion-type problems. (Switching authors would definitely doom it.) Despite that, though, it gives me hope to see the issues I’ve re-read are consistently good. For over a year now, this series has been an ungainly mess kept going by the most deft writing imaginable. It’s a pretty cool trick.

Grade: B-


cover to Batwoman #10

Batwoman

Batwoman

(Based on issues #6-14 and #0)

The main draw of this series is J.H. Williams III’s art, but we knew from the start that he wouldn’t be able to maintain a monthly pace. It looks like the plan is for him to alternate story arcs, though he maintains a co-writing credit whether or not he’s the artist. The issues covered here mainly featured fill-in art, but I’m happy to say that these are all worth it just for the few spectacular ones Williams can do. It helps that the other artists have followed his style closely enough to provide continuity, even if they don’t have his panache: The story plays out over huge double-page spreads with intricate designs. It’s so integral to the story that DC actually puts most of their advertisements at the end of the comic, rather than diluting the experience by inserting ads between the story pages.

A single winding story has been going on since this series began. Though it has seemed aimless and hard to follow at times, it looks like it’s nearing a legitimate climax. It has also established Batwoman outside of the normal Batman family of characters, with her addressing more mystical threats. (She’s currently facing mythological creatures with Wonder Woman, a scenario that really lets Williams’ art shine.)

At its worst, this is a decent story with good, unusual artwork. At its best, it’s an absolutely spectacular art showcase. My grade may be slightly lower this time around, but that’s just because this period of time included a long break from Williams. If this is the weak point, imagine how great the high points are.

Grade: B+

 

cover to Wonder Woman #9

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

(Based on issues #7-14 and #0)

Cliff Chiang didn’t stick around on art for very long at all, and this series definitely suffers for it. Fortunately, Brian Azzarello is still writing one of the best Wonder Woman stories in history, and this is one of the few current DC series to live up to all the promise of its opening issues. A dark hybrid of Greek mythology and Wonder Woman’s continuity, it still acknowledges that one of Diana’s most important powers is her innate goodness as a human being. Despite the violence, this isn’t actually a cynical comic at heart.

The only exception to that is issue #7. In it, Diana learns a secret that reveals her Amazon sisters to be selfish and evil. The issue was widely disparaged, both for its unnecessary change to Wonder Woman’s backstory and for the idiocy of a princess not knowing an important tradition of her people. I agree that this was a poor choice, but it didn’t ruin the whole series for me: Wonder Woman remained true to her values, and Azzarello didn’t twist her character at all. Just as Superman’s Krypton has been portrayed alternately as a utopia and a cruel world, but he always remained a good person, Wonder Woman’s character can survive this change.

In the end, despite that misstep and the drop in art quality, Wonder Woman remains one of DC’s stronger series.

Grade: B


cover to The Shade #1

The Shade

The Shade

This isn’t a series that I reviewed back in February. Instead, The Shade is a twelve-issue miniseries that DC published alongside the 52 ongoing series. If that’s not confusing enough for their branding, this also wasn’t designed to fit in with the current continuity. The Shade was a supporting character from James Robinson’s classic Starman series. In this new series, Robinson fleshes out the backstory of this loquacious, amoral magical being.

The problem is that Shade works best as a supporting character. On his own, he’s an annoying narrator whose conflicts are resolved with sudden magic. The best parts are the ones that focus on friends of his, letting Shade’s own story remain in the background. It is a good story, and his character development feels well-earned. Stories exist in context, though, and this one would have been better coming out gradually in someone else’s series, and without the associations of DC’s rebooted universe.

I bought this mainly because of promotional material that showed a variety of talented artists contributing to this. Though they did show up, in reality the art was done mainly by Cully Hamner at the beginning and Frazer Irving at the end. They’re both fine artists, but their styles conflict with each other pretty badly.

Grade: C-

 
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