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The New 52 is a complete re-launch of DC’s comic books with the ultimate goal being to get more readers, and more money. After one year, how has the New 52 measured up? Is it nothing more than a cheap stunt to boost profits? Was it truly necessary? Find out in this year one retrospective of the New 52.
Now, I’m not made of money (no matter how much I wish I was). I have not read every issue of the New 52 at the time of this retrospective, but have read and heard enough to warrant what at least I believe the series has accomplished and failed to do.
This is not going to be an in-depth review of any series. Me and the rest of the writers on Player Affinity have already covered a lot of them, which you can find by clicking on the links below. Instead, I’m going to talk about the creative teams decisions during the New 52 and how they affect the comic book world at large in multiple segments that each have a theme.
The theme for this second part of the New 52 Retrospective may not be as… provocative as the first part of this retrospective, Sex and Clown Cars. But after writing about sex and it’s portrayal in the New 52, can I top that? Probably not – unless I talk about the goddamn Batman!*
Originally, this feature was going to be a complete look at anything Batman-related. But after realizing that my analysis of Mr. Freeze took almost 500 words to complete, I realized that Batman is so convoluted I needed to divide this segment into two parts. So, we’ll be looking at the heroes in the “Batman” universe in the next part of Bats in the Belfry. In this part, however, we’re going to be looking at the villains. Be wary of spoilers.
Bats in the Belfry – The Villains
Batman has a strong repertoire of villains, so why mess with success? Not only does the New 52 reinstate an ld villain or two of the Bats, but it also makes big changes to several well-known characters, creates a few news ones, and, in a final ballsy move, “kills off” Batman’s most well-known villain.
Batman: The Dark Knight served as a patchwork for Batman’s villains, showcasing several of them high on a new and powerful drug commandeered by a new addition to Batman’s rogues gallery, the White Rabbit, who seems like nothing more than a sexy addition who would be more than fit as a crony of the Mad Hatter’s. The Dark Knight was a great way to showcase some of the villain fans can expect to see in Batman.
One unexpected villain was the previously deceased Arnold Wesker, a.k.a. the Ventriloquist, who was previously killed. Not only am I happy to see Wesker, but I’m happy to not see the other Ventriloquist who took his place in comics after he died: a very annoying psychopathic woman, and we have enough of those in the Batman universe who also happen to be legitimately charming.
Unfortuantely, the only version of Wesker we get to see is a hulking figure high on the artificial drug swimming through most of the villains bloodstreams, making Wesker so big and crazy that he had to use a dead cop as his puppet. Now, the insane puppet man has come back to bring a touch of sympathy back into our hearts for his plight – that is, if he isn’t wielding a dead body, and if they ever get around to using him or any of the other villains in Batman: The Dark Knight. First they need to stop focusing on boring stock villains like Mr. Toxic, a generic Batman villain who looks like the Red Hood on steroids and bland-costume design.
But all of these villains cameoing in both the Arkham breakout of Batman #1 and in Batman: The Dark Knight #1 and #2 are rarely if ever seen again. Riddler had a short cameo in Batman #1 so he is no longer M.I.A., but now he is reduced to being a common criminal again. I preferred him as an arrogant P.I., helping people while still being his villainous self. Now, a year after his cameo and I still haven’t gotten to see the King of Conundrums in any capacity, villainous or otherwise, just like Arnold Wesker and Zsasz and Killer Croc… who is now a six-eyed stegosaurus monster, by the way. He belongs in movie like Sharktopus vs. Dinoshark and not a Batman comic. Another step-backward.
And here’s another one: Black Mask. He hasn’t been turned into a 6-eyed stegosaurus monster, but instead the man under the mask has reverted back to the first Black Mask, Roman Sionis. It seems the New 52 loves to mess with the more recent Batman mythos. Before the New 52, it was revealed that Jeremiah Arkham was Black Mask. Now, the New 52 has reverted Black Mask back to his original wearer, simple mob boss Sionis, and Jeremiah Arkham continues to run Arkham Asylum but thankfully still appears to have a darker side. It’s just not as sadistic as I’d like it to be. Unfortunately, it also looks like this means the New 52 is completely retconning the events of one of my favorite mini-series, Arkham Reborn, which featured an in-depth look at Jeremiah’s Arkham’s disturbed mind and the plans of the insane Alice Sinner.
But Black Mask is not as established as other Batman characters, so his change is not as huge an issue with Batman fans. But what happens when a more prolific Batman villain is handled this way?
Mr. Freeze was originally nothing more than a gunman. Then, Batman: The Animated Series gave him such a great origin story that comics embraced Freeze’s recreation. So, instead of being a simple gunman, Mr. Freeze became a man desperately trying to save his wife who was cryogenically frozen. While working to save her, his funding was pulled and at the prospect of losing his wife Mr. Freeze (at the time a scientist named Victor Fries – still pronounced Freeze despite looking like it belongs on a McDonald’s menu), Mr. Freeze fights to keep her alive… and unfortunately, that’s quite literal, leading to an accident that made it impossible for Freeze to live outside a suit putting him in sub-zero temperatures.
With an origin story only about two decades old, the New 52 has slightly tweaked the origin of Mr. Freeze and has added to Freeze’s history. Now, a lot of readers may not even realize the New 52 has even changed since this entire retrospective on Freeze is based on one issue: Batman Annual #1. And one issue is more than enough to spawn a couple of paragraphs when it changes a high profile Batman villain, which will undoubtedly lead to several Batman fanboys yelling at DC no matter how good the changes are. The point is, DC has changed Mr. Freeze. How?
Nora, the cytogenetically frozen woman who Mr. Freeze is still caring for in this series, is not Freeze’s wife.
He’s never even met her outside the cryogenic chamber since he wasn’t even born when she was frozen.
And did I mention as a child Freeze killed his mother?
All of these statements were shocking twists in the annual. Nothing before or after that truly shocked me to the core as Mr. Freeze’s origin. Now, while I loved the shocked feeling, my initial interpretation of the new Mr. Freeze was mixed. I liked this new version, but it echoed a trend in Batman that Mr. Freeze had previously avoided: most Batman villains are nutso.
Now, this isn’t true with all Batman villains. Catwoman is relatively sane – though if you’ve been reading her New 52 series you may argue about that. But Mr. Freeze was previously a sympathetic husband trying to save his wife. Now, he’s an obsessed single guy who convinced himself he has a wife and killed his wheelchair ridden mother when he was young. Now, this later action could be seen as a mercy killing, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was a child. Most children don’t have a murderous bone in their body. But Freeze did, and that may be the reason behind his insanity now.
So, Freeze has lost some of his uniqueness. But that doesn’t mean this new origin story can’t yield some interesting and introspective stories. However, the Mr. Freeze most of you knew is gone thanks to the New 52.
One villain who hasn’t changed much is Penguin. He had a mini-series that gave a disturbing look into his past with a father who could care less and a loving mother taken well before her time with a handful of other Cobblepots. But this dark mini-series, entitled Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, was not considered part of the New 52. No, instead Penguin is presented in the New 52 as the ass you are familiar with, pretending to be an upstanding businessman with his New 52 iceberg lounge, which is admirably a much more wondrous icicle on the sea that I would love to visit myself. So, despite a touching mini-series, Penguin is fun to think of as a jerk with the New 52, which is enjoyable, but I’d urge fans to read both to see two very different facets of the Penguin, which the New 52 should be focusing on – not just the “it’s fun to hate him” version, but the sympathetic version too. But, again, Batman’s older villains have not taken on as much of a major focus as anyone would like in the New 52, serving as only plot devices to see Batman in action and not as further explorations of the characters. Two Face follows a similar structure, with no changes. He hasn’t had much of an active role in the New 52, with the exception of his own mini-story buried in the back of one of Batman’s numerous books. He appeared to be spiritually enlightened and we’re told he still has a lot of good in him. Not a huge surprise considering he used to be one of Gotham’s greatest and straighest lawyers, and like the rest of his villains, I want to see Batman’s former ally more.
But now, on to the “biggest” news (at the time) of the New 52: the Joker is dead.
The Joker supposedly met his end in Detective Comics #1. It was later announced that the Joker would, of course, be returning, but this was going to be after a full year of New 52 comics. It almost seems like a mistake. There are so many Batman titles, and readers would be deprived of seeing their favorite Jokster? Normally, killing off a character as prominent as the Joker seems unthinkable, not because of the death itself, but because every reader everywhere knows the character won’t stay dead. However, the circumstances surrounding the Joker were different.
Not only did Joker “die” in comics, but his life counterpart Heath Ledger was dead and in another popular medium, you end a very long adventure of Batman with the Joker’s demise. All this “death” going around, and no revival in any medium. Joker’s death itself was awe-inspiringly grotesque, using Scot Snyder’s Newly 52 created Dollmaker (and we’ll get to know him a little bit better in a moment) to seemingly cut-off his entire face at the Joker’s request. The face was kept at the police department, with droves of Joker lovers desperate for it. But Harley Quinn couldn’t be convinced of Joker’s demise.
No, Joker’s face simply provoked Harley into the most fascinating and disturbing scenes of Suicide Squad, which has not been made up of puppies and rainbows to start with, and all the New 52, matched only by Batman traversing the labyrinth of the Court of Owls: Harley steals Joker’s face and goes Texas Chainsaw Massacre, putting the “Joker’s” delirious grin on her then “love-interest” (more like sex-buddy) Deadshot. I almost want to say this entire sequence, in Suicide Squad #7, made Joker’s “death” worth it. The sequence was dark, you really thought Harley went off the final rocker, and you really think that at the end of the issue Harley is dead when Deadshot shoots her because, again, the circumstances are so severe: Suicide Squad, one of the best books of the New 52, has killed off regular characters, a practice I have both loved and chastised in past reviews of the series for taking away a chance to enjoy the characters, but also doing exactly this: making any character appear to be fair game.
The New 52 did succeed in creating several severe situations that could trick readers at the time into believing this could be the end of some of their favorite villains. But, as time goes on, these moments are going to be flashbacks that only people reading the New 52 at the time can truly appreciate and feel the tension. So now that the oldest of Batman’s villains is out of the way, let’s look at the newest. Or to sound clever – out with the old, in with the new!
Dollmaker was a hit as a Batman villain of the New 52, and I can see a lot of great stories featuring him and his slew of helpers in the future. But his popularity is clearly taking a nose-dive. It was propelled right away by him appearing to have “killed” the Joker, and of course, Batman inevitably beats him forcing the Dollmaker into hiding. Hopefully this will not also lead to obscurity. Dollmaker’s character also mirrors how graphically violent comics can get. The man takes people’s limbs and creates “dolls” with them. But, then again, Batman and Robin got pretty sick too…
But the biggest new addition to the Batman Rogue’s Gallery was not an insane puppet master, but a group of Gotham’s elite with an army of regenerators: the Court of Owls.
The Court of Owls runs so deep that it even personally effects Batman, who has been glorified so much as a badass that anything that effects him on an emotional level is a huge phenomenon. It’s more than just suggested that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered by the Owls, as well as Alfred’s own father, and one Owl is manipulated into believing he is Bruce Wayne’s brother – which is at first a possibility when it is revealed that Bruce did have a brother, but he died. Even now, there is a little suspicion as to whether the Owl really is Bruce’s brother, but the Court runs deeper still when it is revealed that Dick Grayson was originally going to be trained as an Owl before he became Robin. All of these revelations struck readers to the core, and lead to the New 52’s first ever event “Night of the Owls,” where several owls go after Gotham’s elite not affiliated with them, including the likes of Jeremiah Arkham. Everyone related with Batman, from Nightwing to Catwoman, have to deal with the owls. Even Jonah Hex back in the 19th century had to deal with an Owl, showing just how old the society is.
Really, the changes to the established cast of characters in the Batman universe range from bad to unnecessary. The new characters added are a mixture of hit and miss, but are rarely terrible misses, just generic ones (I’m looking at you Mr. Toxic). The changes to established characters have gotten a lot of previous fans upset (Harley’s hairdo for one), while new readers are none the wiser. So, really, new readers are being catered to more than the fans of the Batman Universe, despite the Batman Universe not being rebooted too much with the exception of character changes. But the overall plot remains something that everyone can enjoy: Batman fights the bad guys. Bad guys who are now New 52-ified.
Next time, we’ll talk about the heroes of our little story in New 52 Year One Retrospective Part 2: Bats in the Belfry – The Heroes (I know, a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?).
*This is a joke relating to the weirdness that was All-Star Batman. For those offended, go yell at the writers of that.