They say the only three certain things in life are birth, death, and change. When it comes to comic books those things are also certain as they come in the form of retcons, reboots, and resurrections.
For our purposes retcons are elements that are retroactively added into a character’s history after the fact, reboots are either big full change revivals of a character/title or are extensive changes to their canon, and resurrections are characters making the return from death or character limbo.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
There have been jokes or ribbing about DC Comics’ propensity to use their “Reboot in case of emergencies” proverbial button over their eight decades of existence. While the button has gotten quite a bit of use, it’s almost always been more of a soft reboot sort of approach. Like with Crisis on Infinite Earths aftermath where things were combined and a few characters mostly got new origins/relaunched books and others carried on with some changes here or there.
In 2011 though that greatly changed. That was the year that they gave the button the biggest push ever and completely rebooted their universe. At least…they mostly did.
As we reach the ten-year anniversary, let us begin the trek into The New 52.
What Was It?
Let’s take a trip back to mid-2011. DC Comics was twenty-five years removed from the aforementioned Crisis on Infinite Earths changes, referred to as the Post-Crisis era.
The Bat titles were still working off a lot of changes Grant Morrison brought, Superman had dealt with New Krypton and was walking the nation, and Wonder Woman handled some altered reality issues. The Justice League was made up of a bunch of legacy heroes taking on their mentor’s roles. Secret Six, Birds of Prey, Legion, Titans, Teen Titans, Justice League Dark, and tons more had regular titles.
At the same time the publisher was running some Brightest Day titles, follow-ups to the Green Lantern: Blackest Night event, that 100% clearly were setting up where the line overall was going to go come the fall of that year. There were ads about some new Justice League stuff and most assumed a soft relaunch was coming for most of the books.
It was assumed that Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert’s Flash-centric universe-altering Flashpoint would lead the way to this relaunch. Barry Allen was racing through this altered universe in order to return things back to the way they had been.
And then…that changed.
It’s been heavily noted both during that time and now far after by many different creators involved that the reboot that we know of as The New 52 was a rather quickly put together idea that was not expected. There were even announcements that spoke of different post Flashpoint plans. Come the end of Flashpoint the day is saved but Barry’s actions actually are said to reset things instead of turning them back to where he knew them to be (there would be a million other contradictory reasons given over the next decade for who or what caused the reset).
With this reset, the publisher turned back the clock. Over the course of one month, September 2011, the publisher relaunched and launched 52 books, thus the 52 part of the initiative. In this world, heroes had only been operating for five years, with Superman and Batman being some of the first ones. The majority of characters had the entirety of their previous continuity chucked out the window as they were wholesale revised and had their new stories told, as some of the books were set in the past while most were in the present.
The exceptions were Batman and Green Lantern. Because of what Morrison and Johns and their collaborators had collectively been doing to those two lines (the best sellers at the time) the majority of what happened to those characters and their allies was kept but was shoved into the span of that five years. So for example, Batman basically had a Robin a year in this new world, rather than them being more spaced out in the old continuity.
Their stated goal was to shake things up and to bring in new readers. This was because for the longest time DC’s sales were always coming in just behind those of their publishing rivals Marvel Comics. The streamlining of continuity was also believed to be a way to make the comics far more appealing to those beyond the core audience that had been around for the long haul.
Was It Good?
There is no simple answer for this.
In many regards, the choice worked as it increased DC’s sales to the point that they were taking more of the market share and more of the top ten and other books. That only lasted for about two years though as Marvel eventually took back and has basically kept the lead ever since. There did seem to be some new entries into the comic book realm, DC heavily was advertising this initiative even on television, but that eventually dropped off leading to the company’s eventual turn to try and placate old fans again (more on that next week)
There were a great number of titles that found massive success such as Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, Swamp Thing by Scott Snyder/Charles Soule and Yanick Paquette/Kano/Jesus Saiz, Animal Man from Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman/Steve Pugh, Action Comics by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales. The run of Aquaman led by Geoff Johns and turned over to others made Aquaman a more popular character, Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang was liked a lot at the time, and many other titles caught reader’s attention and are at least remembered fondly.
Other characters found themselves in spaces that either ranged from okay to rehashed storylines, some were rebooted in ways that wiped out next to everything interesting about them, and others were reinvented whole cloth to the point of being unrecognizable. Yet, some of the runs were able to draw in some new readers or fans who could find it easier to connect to these fresh takes.
When launching 52 titles there would be an expectation that some would not hit, but the amount of disconnect and failure of books probably surprised many. Titles like Hawk and Dove, Mister Terrific, Men of War, Blackhawks, Static Shock, and OMAC were all culled within eight issues. Some of their replacements like GI Combat, Ravagers, Dial H, and Batman Incorporated didn’t last much longer. Other books like Justice League International, Grifter, Legion Lost, Resurrection Man, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and Voodoo only made it to the twelve to sixteen issue range before they were cut.
At the same time, even the titles that made it long term had giant issues. Action Comics was set in the past and Superman set in the present but the collaboration was seemingly non-existent as Superman writer George Perez left after six issues and revealed that it was a mess behind the scenes. Essentially there were constant asks for rewrites to his book, that were inconsistent issue to issue and there was no plan down in place for what Morrison was doing in the origin, which somewhat handcuffed what the book in the present day could do or say.
This was not the only issue at hand. As Gail Simone shared through Twitter in July, the goals of this reboot were admirable and made sense but the execution unfortunately was messy. Editorial and creative teams didn’t fully work together, which is visible in conflicting depictions and bits of continuity dropped across titles about the same characters or characters from the same editorial space. Editorial gave creators very short conflicting pitches for the books when they were trying to piece the initiative together, and some very particular notes about what could and could not be done with revamping characters.
This disconnect and issues were also on display at the point where Simone was briefly fired, by email, from Batgirl before she was reinstated. Later though she chose to leave the book, over creative differences, before the book was revamped.
Simone and Perez were not the only ones that faced these issues.
Andy Diggle was brought on to follow Morrison on Action Comics but left before his first issue even debuted for “professional” reasons, and Joshua Hale Fialkov also departed his Green Lantern Corps and Red Lanterns before any issues arrived for “creative differences”. JH Williams III and W. Haden Blackman departed Batwoman for creative interference, notably DC’s refusal to show Kate Kane/Batwoman and her girlfriend Maggie Sawyer getting married as DC was very anti-marriage at that period for characters. Jim Zub was set to take over the Birds of Prey series after the original writer’s departure but was fired before any issues ever happened because of some editorial in-fighting.
Those are just some of the stories that have come out over the last ten years.
The overall tone of the reboot was decidedly very off and at times felt very gross and exploitive, right away there were controversies over depictions of characters like Starfire and Catwoman. It should come as no surprise then that one of the biggest issues with the New 52 was the major lack of women involved in the creative process. It was noted that the percentage of women working on books dropped from 12% to a deplorable 1% with the reboot.
Rather than fix the issue, Co-Publisher Dan Didio made it worse by being flippant when confronted about this during San Diego Comic-Con in 2011. His response was: “What do those numbers mean to you? What do they mean to you? Who should we be hiring? Tell me right now. Who should we be hiring right now? Tell me.” A subsequent fan petition and backlash caused Didio to change that tone, and release a statement with Co-Publisher Jim Lee to claim they would do better.
Overall the New 52 beginning was an admirable risky endeavor to try and bring excitement and attention back to the long-running DC Universe. Old Boys club mentalities, poor communication, lack of forward-thinking, the refusal to go all-in (causing confusing continuity messes), and constant changes even as the books were being written weighed the endeavor down.
If the editors and publishers had come together with their creators and stayed the course rather than constantly changing directions, it’s possible that here on the tenth anniversary we might have a very different feeling for this reboot endeavor.
This isn’t the end of the story though, as DC Comics’ attempts to right their ship continued up till very very recently.
Next Week: A reshuffling and a rebirth of The New 52