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.
With the previous column, we dove into the beginnings of DC Comics’ almost undeniably biggest use of the reboot button they have ever done, The New 52. There were a great many ups and downs just within the first months of this endeavor and those continued through the first couple of years. Books were ended swiftly, new books took their spot and ended, creators and editors butted heads continuously, a great many creators took their leave and never looked back, there was a massive lack of creative diversity, and the sales bump that the reboot brought eventually dwindled away.
This was only the beginning, as stated above, because arguably The New 52 era lasted the majority of the last decade, only coming truly to an end with the recent Dark Nights: Death Metal and Infinite Frontier total overhauls of the entirety of the DC Universe in regard to continuity.
With the ten-year anniversary happening as we speak, let us continue and finish our trek into The New 52 as we move into a Rebirth and beyond.
What Was It?
First a quick recap. Facing continued second-place sales behind their competitor at Marvel, the editorial staff at DC Comics quickly and unexpectedly shifted gears in the summer of 2011 and turned their alternate universe event series Flashpoint into something bigger. It became the focal point for a major change, the about 85%ish reboot of their entire line (Batman and Green Lantern books staying basically the same kept it from being 100%).
Over the first few years the sales of these reinvented books (besides the ones that cratered and were ended), as well as yearly “gimmicks” such as zero issues and villain-centric issues and the avoidance of events, helped DC regain a top sales spot. As this began to dwindle away, and the gimmicks increased and events returned with a vengeance, a lot of older fans made it clear that they were not quite happy with what was wiped away while others shared how happy they were with the changes.
So DC made two attempts to try and have their cake and eat it too.
First in 2015 came the ditching of the New 52 as a brand, while keeping all the continuity of that era, for the new character-focused DC You branding. Under this banner co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee emphasized that unlike much of New 52, this new era would focus on the specific characters and teams and their supporting casts and not so much on the overall continuity of the universe. It was also a move they said would focus more on diversity and would be about not only bringing in new readers but also appealing to groups that were already readers but had not felt represented.
This era saw a bunch of relaunches and storyline overhauls and characters that didn’t normally have books getting them. This is the era that brought the rock star Black Canary series, a book for (former Titan before the reboot) Justice League member Cyborg, a series for former Wildstorm character Midnighter who had been a hit in the Grayson spy book, a series for Starfire, Bizarro, and more. Also, this is when James Gordon was Batman, Gene Luen Yang took his first crack at a Superman run (an on the run powered down Superman), Batgirl got a revamp in Burnside, Harley Quinn got minis to go alongside her hit solo series, Hellblazer and Batman Beyond got revamped relaunches and DC tried to revamp the ’70s title Prez about a teenager that becomes president.
Unfortunately, this was only like a band-aid on the wound that already existed (as sales plummeted), because less than a year later, in January 2016, the co-publishers announced yet another major overhaul initiative. This was the time for DC Rebirth.
Unlike New 52 and DC You, DC Rebirth owed a lot of its focus and beginning on nostalgia. In order to try and keep the new readers they gained but also bring back the older crowd, the publisher decided to keep the continuity of New 52 while just pasting a lot of the missing continuity and characters from the past right on top of it. The nebulous “five years” surrounding the New 52 reboot were stretched even more as tons more former stories became part of continuity again and teams like the Titans and others who had their previous incarnations erased saw them returned but also changed and revamped.
Everyone got new costumes and new directions for their books, and new creative teams took over a great number of the books that survived. Another huge change was that Action Comics and Detective Comics, two of the longest-running comic series in the U.S. comics industry, had their large numbering revived after both getting rebooted during New 52.
Within the stories, they brought back a younger Wally West/Flash from the old continuity, who was aware of all the old stories and lives that were “stolen” from the characters. At the same time, thanks to the 2015 event Convergence (an event that was published during the months that DC was very busy moving coasts), the Superman and Lois from the old universe were also back, and before Rebirth began the rebooted Superman died so that now the old Superman could be the Superman of the universe. Eventually, both Superman and Lois were merged with their New 52 counterparts adding even more jumbled continuity to the universe that was bursting at the seams.
Over the years fingers were pointed at various individuals, namely Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen as the culprit. That was never iron clad though as the event meant to address that ran extremely late (Doomsday Clock) to the point that the rest of the universe of books left it behind.
This branding also didn’t last long as it was ditched by 2017 for the simpler DC Universe moniker. For another few years the company just added onto this jumble of continuity, tweaking it more and more, till finally at the end of 2020 the Dark Nights: Death Metal event finally “fixed” everything. Essentially, long story short, after the multiverse is ended and reborn as an omniverse the continuity of the main DC Universe is fixed so that conceivable every story that ever happened with the characters could have happened at some point in their history.
This saw the return of familiar faces and relationships and teams and much more when DC moved into the new phase Infinite Frontier at the start of 2021.
Was It Good?
Just like with part one of this column entry, it’s complicated.
While a lot of the controversial issues of the first few New 52 years dwindled a bit as time went on, they didn’t go away fully as the company (like the rest of the industry) often would forego the diversity they spoke of in order to capture believed “sales bumps.” Like how the Wondercon announcement of the Rebirth books was heavily full of white cis-hetero males who were old friends of the publishers and had been on various DC books (some of them returning to books they did before) in the past. Not to mention all the harassers and abusers that kept getting to stick around in editorial and creative positions for far too long, while others who were the targets of these people found themselves pushed out more often than not.
Truly one of the biggest issues of this era comes down to one word: continuity.
Originally the idea of a reboot was to streamline things and make things flow better after almost three decades straight of the same continuity (following the last time they streamlined continuity after decades).
That was quickly lost as the New 52 era was at times hard to follow because things introduced in a book would quickly be contradicted in the same book or would be retroactively changed in the trade collection which made it stand apart from the single issues already in print. Trying to just stick the old continuity on top of the new with Rebirth just made things even harder.
Funny enough, DC You got a lot of flack from audiences at the time for its focus on character over continuity but arguably that is very much what Infinite Frontier is currently which is being received better. To be fair, Infinite Frontier comes at a time after the jumbled mess of continuity from the past decade reached a breaking point where even a lot of die-hard DC fans would have trouble truly explaining just what the heck the stories are of the big characters and what was or wasn’t actually still in continuity.
Just like the beginnings of The New 52, both the DC You and DC Rebirth eras were full of well-received titles. Such as the aforementioned Grayson and Midnighter, the James Tynion IV era on Detective Comics, Gene Luen Yang’s New Super-Man, Super Sons, Green Arrow, Supergirl, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, Deathstroke, Tom King’s Batman, Wonder Woman, and more received a lot of attention or saw good sales runs.
Just like with the previous initiative, there were many titles that didn’t make it as long and were let go to make room for new books. Overall though Rebirth seemed to bounce DC Comics back sales-wise after the plunge they began to see during DC You. Unfortunately a lot of that was because a portion of the old audience was demanding to see back the stuff they loved over new stuff, thus why Rebirth is far more nostalgic “get the gang back together” in style than the prior two initiatives.
And to be fair so is Infinite Frontier in many many ways since it has a huge goal of returning old teams and characters and concepts en masse alongside the full return of lost or forgotten continuity.
In the end, DC Comics had a very up and down decade that saw some really high highs and some really low lows. They took a giant gamble risk and when it began to no longer pay off they tried to hedge their bets and go even deeper till they had to swerve back to where they came from. A hyper-focus on always trying to “fix” continuity caused them and much of their audience grief because these changes were happening near constantly even in the same series across arcs to the point of it being hard to keep track of it all.
New 52, DC You, and DC Rebirth all come with their own issues and problems that will tarnish them to various degrees forever, but they brought a great many things that we now think of as distinctly modern DC Comics. Where will they be and how will folks look back on this in another ten or fifteen years? It will be quite interesting to see, maybe if this column makes it that long we’ll take another look back one day.
Next Week: A twisty bumpy tale of retcons, just in time for a big-screen debut.