As much as I can’t believe it, 2021 marks the ten year anniversary of the DC Comics publishing initiative known as The New 52. For a variety of reasons, DC made a clean break from the previous continuity by blowing it up and starting it all over from scratch — except when they didn’t. Over the course of a year, I’m going to go back and re-read every single debut issue from The New 52 line-up to see how much is changes things from the way the were before, how much of this new status quo stuck around and just how well the comic holds up ten years later.
The best way to follow up last week’s Action Comics #1 is with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman #1 which kicked off a fifty-issue run that would recontextualise and revitalise the Caped Crusader for a new decade. Heading into The New 52, Snyder was coming off an acclaimed run on Detective Comics with Jock and Francesco Francavilla but that story, “The Black Mirror” featured Dick Grayson in the cape and cowl. No disrespect to the first son of the Bat-Family, but Snyder taking over the titular title with Bruce Wayne in the lead presented an opportunity to steer the future of Gotham and it was an opportunity Snyder and Capullo seized upon.
(Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion, FCO Plascencia, Richard Starkings & Jim Betancourt)
Snyder has been an A-List writer in the comics industry for over a decade now so it’s easy to forget that he comes from a prose background, but when you hit upon the amount of narration in this first issue you’re quickly reminded. The opening sequence is an all-out brawl between Batman and the majority of his rogues’ gallery but the action of the sequence is tempered by the pensive narration about the different definitions that different people use to describe Gotham. In the same way that New York is the fifth character in Sex and the City, Gotham is very much a character in Snyder and Capullo’s Batman and Snyder’s goal with these first two arcs — “The Court of Owls” and “Night of the Owls” was to show that the city still had secrets it kept from Batman.
While we saw that Superman was one of the characters to get a radical reinvention with Action Comics #1, Batman pretty much carried the majority of his history with him into The New 52. It just got squashed down into a five year timeframe. This allowed Batman to keep all of the great additions to his larger canon but opened up questions like “How did Batman fit four Robins into five years?” However, you can see in the fight scene that Snyder and Capullo took the clean break of The New 52 to reinvent some of the villains’ designs; I’m always taken aback when I see The Riddler with his question mark mohawk and I think we can all agree that the decision to go with a more traditional Riddler when he shows up later in the run was best for everyone.
Capullo’s designs for some of the villains may have been a bit too ambitiously different but he really wowed readers at the time with how well he suited the title and how quickly he and Snyder gelled as a creative team. Prior to this, Capullo was known for being a nineties-style guy and a protege of Todd McFarlane but he brought a dynamism to Batman that was undeniable. The influence of ‘90s Marvel and Image was one of the worst parts of The New 52 which we’ll see with titles like Red Hood and the Outlaws and Hawk and Dove but Capullo brought a modern take to potentially disable sensibilities and crafted a unique look for Gotham that was essential for the kind of story being told in this run.
As with the odd redesign of some of the villains, I do think this issue suffers from a problem many titles in The New 52 do; the presentation that things are more different now than they actually are. Batman fighting alongside The Joker in Arkham comes across as a big “wow, how did that happen!” moment but it’s deflated a bit by the revelation of it actually being Nightwing in disguise. Similarly, the last page reveal of Nightwing’s DNA being present at a crime scene turns out to be less important to the overall story of this first arc than its presented in this issue. The New 52 wanted readers to feel like anything could happen and to question everything they thought they knew about these characters but that lead to twists for the sake of twists, which is something we’ll come back to again and again over the course of this series.
The strongest part of this issue isn’t the Batman action sequence but the Bruce Wayne stuff which sees him interacting with other members of the Bat-Family and presenting a new vision of the future for Gotham. Many writers aren’t particularly interested in writing Bruce Wayne and just see him as a means to an end for Batman’s mission, but Snyder has a great handle on who Bruce is and what drives him. It’s very much Bruce’s title as much as it is Batman’s and it gives readers something to connect to in a way that is rare for a Batman title, with the character often presented as too emotionally distant for readers to truly get a handle on.
I don’t know if Batman #1 is as timeless as Action Comics #1 feels, but that’s not always a bad thing. Things can feel like the year they came out and still be good and Batman #1 certainly feels like a comic which was released in 2011. Snyder and Capullo’s Batman often encompasses the best qualities and the worst flaws of The New 52 era and while it may not be the comic that most represents this era — more on that next week — I think it’s a great example of everything fun and exciting about the initiative.