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A look back at some surprises from DC's new 52

We're in month nine of DC's New 52 initiative. We've seen mega hits in Batman and Action Comics, severe flops in Static Shock and Hawk & Dove, and sleeper hits in Birds of Prey and I, Vampire. The "First Wave" ended last month, and six titles (Static Shock, Hawk and Dove, Mister Terrific, Omac, Blackhawks, and Men of War) were axed. With their end come six new titles in a "Second Wave."

With more new titles on the way, I'd like to recognize some of my favorite surprises from the past eight months. Each of these titles has shown enough promise to earn continuation, but their true quality is not so easily gleaned. For me, a comic's priority is story, and these titles have delivered on that ground with each installment since they began. These are those stories you wouldn't expect to be great - those that provide a nice surprise.


Deathstroke

Deathstroke

I know what you're thinking: ongoing series with villain protagonists rarely work. This one did. Writer Kyle Higgins crafted a brilliant tale about an aging Slade Wilson whose reputation as Deathstroke the Terminator is simply not enough anymore. Former clients aren't calling and the jobs he does get are well below his skill. In 8 issues, we've gotten glimpses of Slade's broken family, his ego pushing his body beyond physical limits, all with an underlying theme of personal legacy. Of course, it's bloody, violent and has more corpses than your average Tarantino flick, but the writing is crisp and the art by Joe Bennett is kinetic, bold, and gritty; it melds perfectly with the tale that Higgins crafted.

I've already pre-ordered the collected edition. From issue one, this had been a "top of the stack" book for me. It is certainly one of my favorites of the new 52. Unfortunately, Higgins and Bennett are leaving after #8 and -it's as good as canceled since- Rob Liefeld will take over both writing and art with Deathstroke #9. I will stop reading the series with #8, but you can definitely get the first trade and treat the self-contained story as a Deathstroke miniseries - you won't regret it.


Animal Man

Animal Man

When I was making my New 52 pull list, I passed over Animal Man because I'd never heard of Animal Man or artist Travel Foreman before, and my only exposure to writer Jeff Lemire was on his boring Superboy run. I've come to regret that decision a great deal. Jeff Lemire has crafted a legitimate horror story that just happens to star a superhero. I have rarely been frightened by comic art, but Travel Foreman's genuinely creepy character designs and thoroughly depressing environments have tempted me to sleep with a light on. The cross-comic story arc (shared with Swamp Thing) has our titular hero and his daughter fighting the embodiment of death and decay — The Rot — as representatives of The Red — all animal life on Earth. Their story continues as they search for the avatar of The Green — Swamp Thing (who, meanwhile has been having his own great adventures in his self-named serial).

The mythology is rich and complex, characterizations are consistent and compelling, and the story is a page-turner. It focuses on the burdens of unwanted responsibility, the strength of family, and pushes a hero's limits to protect them. Jeff Lemire has long-term plans for this book, having said:

...if I get my way, one day the title of the book will change to Animal Girl and then one day to Animal Woman, because this is Maxine's book as much as anyone's. It's her journey and Buddy (Animal Man) is with her.

This is going to be a long-form hit that makes waves and will get people who don't read comics to read comics. Even considering it against the biggest hits of the First Wave, I'd consider this one of the top new 52 comics. Read it!


Catwoman

Catwoman

If you snubbed Catwoman because of the Bat/Cat costumed sex scene in #1, you are missing out on a really fun character study and heist book. Let me be clear, this is not a high-concept title. This is a fun, over-the-top, Gotham-centric story following an anti-hero you don’t mind rooting for.

Selina Kyle doesn’t steal to enrich her life or to make a living. She lives in squalor with a catsuit, a whip, a few cats and her best friend. She’s a spendthrift without a care for herself or her well-being; she just cares about the thrill that stealing adds to her life and when the responsibility of her actions comes crashing down swiftly, Selina begins to realize who she has become and who she wants to be. Mixed in with all of this is a bunch of high-flaunting action, brilliant scheming and some just plain fun cops-and-robbers chases. It’s bloody. It’s sexy. It has an engaging protagonist. It’s a fun title and consistently entertaining “popcorn comic.” I look forward to it every month and every month it delivers.


Supergirl

Supergirl

I’m going to catch a lot of flak for this, but Supergirl is the best title in the Superman family. Action Comics has been fun, but lulled with issues #5-6 underwhelming origin retelling. Superboy has an interesting concept, but I don’t care for the writer and his style. Superman had been boring for six issues, but has gotten interesting in #7-8. Supergirl has been consistently good every issue.

Kara Zor-El is truly a stranger in a strange land. She speaks next to no English as she struggles to figure out the truth of her departure from Krypton. Mike Johnson and Michael Green are writing a really tight script that takes its time to really explore the ramifications of losing your home, your dreams, your family — save for a cousin who’s aged from infant to 25 overnight. She’s confused, scared, and angry as she's forced to deal with a truly unique situation — she’s not the only Kryptonian who survived, but she is the only Kryptonian survivor who remembers life on Krypton. She spends 7 issues grieving, lashing out and coping with her lost world, but is never once portrayed as weak, incapable, frail or emotionally shattered. Kara is strong, resolute, determined and confident. Series artist Mahmud Asrar has a great handle on portraying emotion, from facial expression to body language. Her costume is one of my favorites, too.

Wonder Woman is to women as Supergirl is to teenage girls - both are great representatives of their gender in comics. I would have no problem handing these past issues of Supergirl to any teenage girl looking for a positive, strong female role model. It was a complete surprise to me that two writers and an artist I had never heard of could follow Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle's great Supergirl run, but it happened…and it’s awesome.


Captain Atom

Captain Atom

What would you do if one day you gained the power to reshape the world? That’s what JT Krul and Freddie Williams II set out to explore with the relaunched Captain Atom. Despite arguments that its “too much like Dr. Manhattan,” I stand by my assessment that Captain Atom is a very underrated serial. Bear in mind, blue-man-god Dr. Manhattan is based off the Charlton Comics character *drumroll* Captain Atom, so that argument is rather irrelevant.

The art is gorgeous. Freddie Williams knocks it out of the park every issue. His layouts and character design are styled perfectly for this book. JT Krul scripts a character-driven story where you’re looking more at the internal monologue of Captain Atom rather than the surrounding events. If you’re looking for a high-octane, action-based story then CA isn’t for you. It’s a slow burn, focusing less on plot development and more upon meditations on time, space, power, love, and life. This reads more like a Vertigo superhero title and I put this on the top of my stack every month.

I’m a big fan of Emerson and Thoreau (Self-Reliance and Walden are favorites), and I’m not saying that CA is on their level, but the vein is the same: a focus on the internal journey of a man trying to find himself in a world where conventional rules may not necessarily apply. This may read better collected in trade for some, but I thoroughly enjoy it every month. Don’t buy it if you’re looking for another “capes and cloaks” superhero title to try out. Keep an open mind and be prepared to listen to Captain Atom think.


Which titles did you like? What might you recommend to others? What might you not? Let's hear it!

Stay nerdy, my friends.