Hello and welcome to Comic Island! My name is Arden, and this is my Top 11 list of New 52 comics.
Rebirth has firmly put an end to DC’s big New 52 run, and it’s left me looking back on the whole experience with mixed feelings. This reboot of the DC universe was met with a lot of criticism and fan backlash over the years, some of which I feel is deserved and some of which I feel is kind of unfair. With that in mind, I thought it would be nice to take a look at some of the better comics to come out of this reboot, both from the New 52 and the soft DC You launch that happened last year following Convergence.
Now these are just my opinions and should be viewed as such. These are simply the comic series or story arcs that I enjoyed the most, for reasons we’ll get into shortly. With that in mind, let’s get started with –
Gail Simone is one of the best current writers out there. Her work on Secret Six is among the best titles out of the previous decade, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that her work on Batgirl was particularly good, and by and large I enjoyed it from start to finish, even when she eventually left the series. Overall, the comic was enjoyable, fun, and well fleshed out.
However, beneath it all is a bigger story that we’re going to have to delve into, and honestly, the amount of baggage this comic carries with it is a bit insane. This part of the video was actually the most difficult to write because of how much stuff happened while this series was running within the company that’s worth mentioning, and reconciling all this… drama with the fact that on the whole, I really liked these comics. The first problem being the very premise itself. One of the biggest changes the New 52 made that irked the most fans has to have been the way DC retconned Barbara Gordon’s injury from the Killing Joke, allowing her to have recovered thanks to some convenient, overseas, experimental procedure of some unspecified nature. I myself don’t like how DC so callously stepped away from years of awesome work with Gordon operating as Oracle and I also feel it takes away something from the Killing Joke and it’s impact on Batman cannon.
Still, if you’re going to do something controversial, you better do it right. And sure enough, Gail Simone brought enough energy to this series, balanced with a nice cast of characters and some pretty cool villains to tie the whole thing together quite nicely in a comic run that I rather thoroughly enjoyed. At a time when every DC comic had to look and feel a certain way, Batgirl felt refreshingly out of step with the rest, related but distinctly separate from the world of Batman and eagerly seeking a tone and identity of it’s own.
In spite of this, you could always feel the editorial pull going on behind the scenes. Now, I don’t know exactly what happened, I can only go by a handful of news reports and Twitter comments, but it is clear to anyone who has looked into this that something was up. Based on the evidence I was able to find, it seems like Gail Simone had a lot of conflict in the early days of Batgirl with the editorial staff over at DC. At one point, things got so bad she left the series for two weeks, possibly by choice, although even that is unclear, only to be back on the series one issue later with no further word as to why any of this had happened. Rumors swirled around for a couple of weeks until it seems like everyone just sort of forgot the incident and moved on. My guess, as best as I can tell, is that Gail seemed to have a major conflict with DC over tone. In the early days of New 52, it seems like every comic had to be dark and edgy, while Batgirl was practically screaming for a more light-hearted and brighter tone.
Batgirl eventually did become this under Cameron Stewart & Brendan Fletcher. They did a great job in the back half of this series and I really liked their redesign for Barbara’s costume. It really fit her and felt appropriate for a modern take on Batgirl. Though Gail did seem to pave the way for this both in story and behind the scenes. I really feel like these three and their corresponding artists were a big part in rescuing DC from being so monolithic in tone, because Batgirl ultimately seemed to be the shining example of the fact that not every superhero story has to be dark, a simplistic lesson but one that DC seemed to forget in the first few years of the New 52. Sure enough, the success of Batgirl led to similar, brighter and more optimistic comics to be published, especially starting last year as part of the DC You soft relaunch. And while there will always be room for well crafted, darker stories, and we’ll talk about some excellent dark stories very soon, we’ll also see there were some really great, thematically more cheerful comics that probably owe their very existence to this series.
So yes, to me, Batgirl deserves this spot. Some of you will disagree. You’re not wrong. Batgirl was rife with problems, not only including all the behind the scenes drama but also within the story. Sometimes the plot would meander or just be plain silly, but more often than not, it was fun, suspenseful, and a great exploration of Barbara Gordon as a hero. Still, I can understand not everyone being on board with Batgirl. The series seemed to be a constant lightning rod for controversy. Between essentially throwing away tons of continuity in the name of bringing back one iteration of Batgirl while throwing away two others and stuff like this cover business that is so silly I’m not even really going to get into it here, Batgirl was never short on riling up some segment of the fan base, so I understand if you don’t think this deserves a spot on the Top 10. But personally, I am glad I read it, and I appreciate it’s role in seemingly changing the approach the editorial staff were taking to their content, even if that change was minimal. You should check this series out if you haven’t yet. It just might surprise you. It certainly impressed me.
Speaking of comics that owe a lot to Batgirl, Gotham Academy seems like an early example of this. I’ve heard other critics describe this as a diamond in the rough among the Batman comics. I don’t know about that, as there were a lot of great Batman titles throughout the New 52. In my opinion, what stands out about Gotham Academy is that it is the sort of rare, super interesting series that dares to go beyond the safe choice of featuring the familiar faces of the Bat Family and instead marking new territory in the Batman universe.
For this reason, the series reminds me a lot of Gotham Central. Not in terms of tone or story, but in how it looks at the citizens of Gotham beyond Bruce and his family of crime fighters. Taking place in the same academy from which this series takes its namesake, Gotham Academy is a fun read with great characters and an excellent use of the Batman cannon. You never know who or what is going to turn up in this comic line, and it’s neat to see how all the characters are connected to the larger Batman world. I like this aspect of the comic – factoring in all the things that have happened throughout Gotham’s history, it makes sense that many characters would have connections with many different factions and groups throughout the city, and this idea is used quite effectively by the creative team.
Branden Fletcher shows up once again here as writer, unsurprising giving his consistently talented work, and with Becky Cloonan co-writing, and Karl Kerschl drawing, Gotham Academy has been relentlessly great and comes quite highly recommended. Meanwhile, the comic is a lot of fun with trying out new things and being all bold and experimental. Right now, they’re doing a crossover with Boom Studio’s award winning Lumberjanes. There’s a lot of fun comics to check out for yourself.
Geoff Johns’ had a pretty legendary run of Green Lantern, which at this point goes without saying. Not that everyone liked his work with this character, especially with his choice to develop what has come to be called the Skittles Corps, but I always enjoyed it myself from the energetic, early days of Green Lantern: Rebirth, all the way to the frantic fun of Blackest Night, and right into the New 52, where Johns brought his time with the Lanterns to an end with this story, Wrath of the First Lantern.
I don’t want to get into this too much. It’s best enjoyed if you actually go through and get into the build-up of this story and reach this point through all the Green Lantern comics, but in short, the story is about how Guardians of the Universe release the very first Lantern, a being called Volthoom, and he is none too happy. He proves a threat to all the existing Lantern Corps, and they all are forced to come together for a big, massive battle. It’s epic, entertaining, and though I don’t want to give away why, Wrath of the First Lantern affirms Sinestro as one of the biggest, baddest characters of the entire DC Universe.
It was great, and if you were on board with Johns’ interpretation of the Lanterns, this story pays off magnificently. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and do recommend it, but only if you’re willing to work your way through at least some of the Lanterns comics over the years – particularly Rebirth, the origins of the other Lantern Corps, and the comics that immediately precede the First Lantern business. I’m also only going to give the spot to this particular story instead of Green Lantern as a whole, because, in my opinion, the series really took a step downhill after Johns left. I was never a fan of using the Lanterns as a bland metaphor for environmentalism, and for a while, at least, that’s all Green Lantern seemed to be about following this story.
Still, it was fun while it lasted, and the way I see it, Wrath of the First Lantern was some of the best content to come out during the New 52.
We here at Comic Island love our Injustice. This was the series that helped put our mark on the Youtube world, but it’s also a great comic on its own that definitely deserves some recognition.
Depicting the events in the alternate universe from the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game, this had all the trappings of being another lousy marketing ploy. It was a prequel, it was alternate universe fare, and it was a digital first comic. These are all the sort of thing that might lead a writer to just phone it individually, let alone having all three of these factors combined. Injustice, on its face, had no right or reason to be good. Which means the fact that it is awesome and one of the best things to come out of the New 52 all the more impressive. Tom Taylor and a small group of artists managed to create a balanced story with high stakes, epic action, and excellent character work.
We’ve talked a lot about this series at this point, though I will note that it is Years 1-3 that were the best content. However, though Year 4 was flawed in a few small but vitally important ways, while 5 is still wrapping up, both were enjoyable even if they weren’t perfect. It’s really cool seeing an unhinged Superman that the rest of the world has to permanently deal with. We’ve seen Clark go bad in many other comics, but those are usually in one-off stories. Here we get to see this disturbed Superman live on Earth for years and years, and the end result with its widespread effect on the entire superhero community is nothing short of excellent.
For all the epic greatness of Wrath of the First Lantern, in spite of having significantly less build-up, Taylor actually managed to top that battle with the Green Lanterns facing off against the heroes of Earth in Year 2. Throughout the series a lot of great action was executed quite nicely. There are also many moving moments with various characters throughout the years of this series. The arcs that Harley Quinn, Black Canary, and Constantine go through are all great examples of this. All told, Injustice was a surprising treat. I’ve heard some people say that technically this is not a New 52 title, though I don’t see how. To me, it was published during the New 52, so it counts. There’s really no need to get any more technical than that. This is a truly well told, carefully crafted epic that was able to strike a balance between being both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. as the entire DC Universe unravels around a Superman broken by the Joker. It’s simply among the best the New 52 has to offer, and if you haven’t read this yet, you’re missing out.
Working with Swamp Thing is always a tough prospect. After all, it’s hard to walk in the footsteps of giants, and nobody quite leaves shoes to fill as big as Alan Moore. And as much as I enjoyed his imaginative, thoughtful work on Swamp Thing, Scott Snyder and Charles Soule both proved they had a lot to bring with this series.
Starting off with Snyder and later taken over by Soule, both writers did a lot of great work with their comic. This series depicts Swamp Thing’s efforts to serve the Green, the embodiment of plant life, and maintain its precarious balance with other domains of nature. Swamp Thing does a great job balancing the imaginary, vivid world of the Green with a more touching, underlying love story and the despair of someone who can hardly even call himself human anymore. It’s a nice series with all sorts of very cool ideas and one I highly recommend. Len Wein, the original creator of Swamp Thing, is also doing some pretty fun stuff as the current writer of this series. It’s a high quality comic, overall, and you should totally check this one out for yourself.
What can most definitely be viewed as a companion series to Swamp Thing, heck, at one point these two series cross over so heavily you can’t enjoy one without the other, Animal Man features Buddy Baker, a man able to gain the powers of any animal that does or has existed. He is able to do this through his connection to the Red, a similar spiritual force to the Green, which powers Swamp Thing. But while the Green represents the flora of nature, the Red represents the fauna. The connection and apparent disparity between Animal Man and Swamp Thing led to some really creative work.
This angle was explored most thoroughly during a crossover where the two heroes are forced to deal with the Rot, the personification of death and decay that threatens to consume all life on Earth. It’s a fascinating story, and Animal Man writer Jeff Lemire worked with Scott Snyder to make some truly astounding content. Just… wow, do things get insane in this comic. In the end though, Animal Man edges out Swamp Thing on this list for two reasons.
First, the depiction of the Rot and several other supernatural characters is… terrifying? I never seen imagery like this before. It takes that classic Lovecraft look and adds all sorts of… gruesome details to make for some pretty excellent horror content overall. Yeah, this isn’t so much a superhero action piece as it is, outright, a very well made horror comic. Artist’s Travel Foreman’s work here, for the record, some of the best and most creative art in the entire New 52.
The other reason it beats Swamp Thing is that fundamentally, this is a story about Buddy and his family, and Lemire does some excellent work at that. Every member of the Baker flock has something to offer the story while it keeps the weird supernatural craziness firmly grounded in reality. This helps to not only explain things to the audience but also keep things feeling real. But the family does more than that. They are all appealing in their own right, which is great and really helps to breathe a sense of life into the comic. You know it is a good sign when I am confident Lemire could have written an issue entirely about Buddy’s step-mother and it still would have been awesome.
Animal Man is also a good example of DC making good on their plan to fully integrate the Wildstorm and Vertigo universes into the New 52. As Animal Man hailed from the Vertigo line, Lemire did a great job at making its integration into the larger DCU feel not only natural, but as if he had always been there. This series ran for a good 20 plus issues before Lemire and DC did something rare and agreed that the story was told and it was best to end things there. That’s admirable and I have to say I enjoyed the time we got with these characters. From start to finish, this was great, and as long as the whole idea of body dysmorphia doesn’t get to you too much, I urge you to check this series out on your own.
I love Justice League Origins. Let’s get even more specific. I think Origins is one of the best Justice League stories ever told. Depicting the founding days of the New 52 Justice League, this is a story of Darkseid’s invasion of Earth, and the heroes that came together to stop him. It is unambiguously my favorite origin of the League and, on balance, a great story overall. I like to think of this as DC’s current best equivalent to Marvel’s Avengers movie. It’s a simple story that features a nice balance of its characters, each who have their own introductions and get a bit of time to try out their powers against one another before the big battle against the oncoming alien threat. The two stories are, on a basic level, very similar but each original in their own rights.
What they have most in common is the simplicity behind these stories that makes them comic so effective. There isn’t some big, complicated plot, it’s just a villain, his army, and a team of heroes setting out to stop him. It’s perfect. Everything a good superhero team story should set out to do. There’s excellent use of everyone’s powers and abilities, a ton of characters have great moments and dialogue, and it sets the groundwork for everything to come without spending too much time on foreshadowing content. The focus is on the story at hand, and that story is primarily all about having fun. So I love Justice League Origins. Geoff Johns does some of his best writing here and Jim Lee as always does phenomenal work with the art.
Unfortunately, I do only feel like Origins deserves this spot, especially so high on the list. I remember being so excited after reading this comic and then so disappointed when the following issues jump ahead and everything gets super muddled. A ton of new characters are introduced but never really fleshed out. Then, when things got exciting again after Forever Evil, having Lex Luthor and Captain Cold joining the team, this didn’t feel like it made any long term impact on the story and instead we just got swept up in the Darkseid War, which, well, let’s just say I’m glad Joey was covering that particular story because I am totally lost at this point.
Justice League did have its moments during its run, but to me, it’s Origins that worked the best and deserves the most praise. It’s a great comic and an effective way to kick things off with the Justice League. It’s also the best sign for Warner Bros and their recent decision to put Geoff Johns in the co-creative seat for the cinematic universe, because Origins is the perfect blueprint for the Justice League movie DC basically needs to make to get back into mounting some actual competition with Marvel. Every beat and scene is exactly what would make for a solid introduction of the League, and I know this because they pretty much already made this into a movie with the animated feature Justice League: War, and that thing is great!
Anyhow, this is my fourth favorite of DC comic. Let’s move on to…
I feel a little bad about this one. Not because I don’t think this run of Wonder Woman deserves this, obviously I do, otherwise it wouldn’t be placed here. I just feel bad for ranking such a polarizing comic so high. Much like Batgirl, people kind of either totally love Wonder Woman, or completely hate it. It seems to depend on how much you can buy into the ideas being explored here. If you can buy into it, it’s great, but if you’re not into it, well, you could find yourself constantly questioning just what the hell you are reading. Calling Azzarello’s run on Wonder Woman daring feels like a bit of an understatement. The guy took this character’s decades old origins and tore them down completely, re-imagining the character from the Amazonian woman forged from clay as a gift to Diana’s mother to the outright God of War.
The series starts off by introducing Diana to a woman pregnant with an illegitimate child of Zeus who earns the contempt of Hera, and from there, the adventure spreads wildly out of control into a massive epic that involves the entire Greek pantheon. And like I said, the comic really makes some robust changes to everything Wonder Woman. Controversy was bound to follow, as was the disdain of many fans, but like I said with Batgirl, if you’re going for controversial, you better do it right. And boy, was Wonder Woman done right.
I love this comic’s execution. Brian Azzarello makes pretty much every character well rounded and with their own understandable motivations and behaviors and carefully works with them to build an exciting fantasy epic that at its core felt at home with Wonder Woman thematically. That’s why I don’t mind making Diana into a God. It feels very fitting for her character and feels earned within the story. Meanwhile, Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins had some very cool designs for the Greek Gods and it was cool to see these new interpretations of the age-old mythological figures. It was a great, on the whole, and I recommend you check this series out, though yeah, it isn’t for everyone. A lot of people just aren’t fans of this series like I am, while plenty of people find it one of the most definitive runs in Wonder Woman history. How will you feel about this? Well, you’ll have to find that out for yourself. Now, let’s move on to number two… and it’s a big one…
TALON – Still some fight in you. Beating your wings. Gnashing your little fangs. Do you know what owls do to prey?
JOKER – This isn’t what you want! You know it, I know it, and now they know it, too! They’ll always know! In the end, the real end, the only ones left will be you and me.
RIDDLER – No feats of physical ferocity, no gizmos or gadgets, just a war of the mind. What is war, if not a battle between two strategies?
BLOOM – Join me, and we’ll make Gotham something amazing. Everyone out for him or herself, the way it should be. Savage, but fair. What do you say?
FREEZE – If my finger moves a millimeter, your skin will freeze solid. A single touch could shatter the membrane into a thousand pieces. And we’re not at that part of the game yet.
JOKER – No more games… no more jokes. I’m just here to close up shop! I used to think we could have fun, you and me, but no… you’ve become boring to me. I guess I just know you too well. But here’s the funny thing… me? You don’t actually know a thing about me, do you?
Well, at this point, I’ve talked a lot about Snyder and Cappullo’s run with Batman over the years. You can see my reviews here on Comic Island as I delved pretty thoroughly already into both Endgame and Superheavy, the final two arcs of the run, but I’ll do a brief summary of why I love this series. This was a great comic line with some fine Batman stories, and while I’d be reluctant to call it the very best of Batman, it certain ranks up there. From the way the Court of the Owls rather permanently changed Gotham forever, to the insane fun of Superheavy, on balance this was solid Batman from start to finish.
No, it wasn’t perfect. Far from it. Some stories dragged on too long and I think we can all agree Death of the Family was definitely the weak spot of this series but overall, this was quintessential Batman at his best. Every issue bursts with an energy and intensity entirely appropriate for the character and there were so many great moments along the way. It was fun to read, and really was a one of the best series overall to come out of the New 52. It’s nice to know that DC’s biggest, flagship title was able to maintain such a high level of quality, mixed with a real sense of authority in its direction and willingness to just go full tilt with every story. For a while, this was an easy choice for the number one spot. Or at least, that was the plan. Batman, in my opinion, deserved it, and it was totally going to happen, right up until the moment I read one little comic that changed everything…
So this series kind of came out of nowhere. I had not heard of it when I set out to make this list. In fact, the only reason I did know about it was during research for this list. Even then, I just found one passing reference to it in the corner of some blog. At least in the circles I follow, Prez wasn’t talked about much or earned a lot of attention, which is a shame because I think it’s the very best in all the New 52. Published last year as part of the DC You, Prez takes place in the future. Not really the future of the prime DC universe, but another future from another world. Here, corporations have taken over the United States government, overtly controlling and labeling politicians through legal sponsorship and bribery. America is at war with half the world and in debt to the other half. It’s people have no power or money but are distracted by endless holographic pop-up ads and uninspired entertainment. It’s a very different world from ours, but one very obviously meant to skew the shortcomings of our current culture.
As we enter this story, America is also on the verge of an unusually contested election between two lackluster candidates. But, through various electoral loopholes and the fact that voter turnout has gotten so low the government has been forced to accept votes through Twitter, a young girl named Beth Ross, who happened to be featured in a viral video that gave her a short burst of fame, finds herself inadvertently elected President of the United States. Based on a 1970s comic with a similar premise but very different tone and focus, Prez is a really smart, effective comic. It’s hard to describe why it works so well. The idea behind the story, at least the setting, isn’t really anything new. Between stuff like Idiocracy and Brave New World, Prez isn’t exactly breaking any new ground here.
Yet where Prez stands out is that under this apparently superficial world is a lot of heart. These people live in a very messed up society, but at the core, they’re still human. This is best explored in Beth’s character itself. Because while she is being elected President due to the sheer lunacy of the broken political system, Beth never actually campaigned or paid the whole thing much attention until she was actually elected. Why? Well, she was distracted and for good reaser. Her father is dying. So in the first couple issues she really doesn’t do much other than try and raise money to save her dad and visit him in the hospital. Her dad is a pretty cool character too, by the way. He is a neuroscientist who has a lot of personality and you can tell he tries to help his daughter get through her grief by joking around about how his final words are unlikely to be profound but rather a series of coughs and sputters before he eventually just dies.
I honestly have a lot of sympathy for DC over this series. Here is, in my opinion, the best comic they have made in the last five years, and I seriously doubt it had blockbuster sales. Running only six of the twelve planned issues before quietly being pulled, Prez was great but sadly did not last very long. Still, I don’t really blame DC for this. Like I said, it’s an impossible comic to sell. You just kind of need to see it to appreciate their value, and, at the very least, I have to applaud them for daring to make something so different and unusual compared to their mainstream work.
But if you will give me the chance, I think I can sell you on this comic where DC couldn’t. Because I want this comic to succeed. I want you to want to get the trade for yourself. I want to encourage creative content like this and the easiest way to do that is to get people to vote with their wallets. So, if you hear me out, I think I can convince you that this comic is worth your time.
So here’s the deal. At some point during issue two, Beth’s dad tries to reassure his daughter after she is having trouble accepting the idea that she could ever be President of anything. And with messages asking for money for an ad-free hospital experience swirling around them while a comforting robot named Carl persistently offers medical marijuana, this, beautiful, wonderful moment of true humanity and love suddenly shines through out of nowhere. Let me share what her father says.
“Beth… can I tell you something amazing about yourself? Every second, your brain absorbs twenty quadrillion bits of data. It uses them to make complex decisions about everything from morality to toothpaste. It can check itself for errors, and, when it finds them, rewrite its own programming. You have one of only eight billion of these brains in the known universe, which seems like a lot until you consider the universe holds a hundred billion galaxies. That means there’s only one human brain for every twelve galaxies. Beth, you are the rarest, most precious substance in the universe. If anyone makes you feel like that’s nothing… either they don’t know any better, or they’re afraid of what you might accomplish. My money’s on the latter. Carl, could you get me some banana pudding? If the sole purpose of human evolution was to create something as lovely as banana pudding, then I say it was worth it.”
Those were his last words on this Earth. I cried the first time I read them, and I teared up again again when I wrote them out in the script for this video. I just find this so beautiful and profound. And what happens on the next page? We cut to a politician who goes, “What’s up, skank?!” This is the kind of tonal jumping, insane fun of Prez and why I love this comic so. With Mark Russel writing and Ben Caldwell doing the art, these two created something truly unique and with the level of quality and creativity I’d expect from a top-level Image comic. It’s amazing this was published by DC. So I have to put this here. This comic moved me more emotionally than any other in the entire run of the New 52. That says something. That means something. Or at the very least, it does to me. Whether or not Prez will have the same effect on you, well, you can only find that out on your own. But to me, this was the very best. It didn’t last very long, it was never that popular, but I still love it the most.
And that’s it. Thanks for watching. What are your favorite New 52 titles? Share them in the comments section below. Oh… and next up… for everything I create, I must also destroy. Yes, we’ve covered the best the New 52 has to offer… now get ready for the worst. And while I go find some gasoline, don’t forget to like, subscribe, and keep reading comics!