Every so often, cataclysmic, reality-revising events shake the DC comic book universe to its very core. In 1985, it was Crisis on Infinite Earths. In 1994, it was Zero Hour. In 2005, it was Infinite Crisis. And, in 2011, it was Flashpoint. And now, that time has come again.
This Wednesday, DC Comics will release the DC Universe: Rebirth one-shot, re-writing and refining the history and continuity of the DC Universe, and officially ushering in the end of the New 52 era. Details about the one-shot’s contents have begun to leak out, and several months of solicitations are available, so we now have a better idea of what the reborn DCU will be (and whether the initiative is getting the important things right) and what lies ahead for fans.
The New 52 launched in September 2011 following the reality-altering Flashpoint event, and saw the history of the old universe shortened, altered and merged with aspects of the Wildstorm universe. The initial 52 series expanded with subsequent ongoings, miniseries and one-shots that filled a new vision of the classic DC characters.
The New 52 line has been polarizing amongst fans for its '90s-inspired aesthetic, simplified history, and alterations and removal of beloved characters. There is certainly a lot that can be improved about the New 52 — as evidenced by the fact that DC feels the need to re-write it not even 5 years later — but, despite its problems, the era did have its bright spots that shouldn’t be tossed out prematurely.
From Gotham to Earth 2 and from the icons of the Justice League to the most obscure corners of the DC Universe, there are quite a few aspects of DC’s New 52 that laid a foundation worth building upon. Hopefully DC capitalizes on these strengths going forward, and doesn’t double-down on the line’s weaknesses.
This is all just one man’s opinion, of course, so be sure to let me know in the comments what you think of what’s announced of Rebirth so far, what your favorite parts of the New 52 are, and what you hope they get rid of.
DARKNESS, NO PARENTS (BUT POSSIBLY THEIR GHOSTS)
One of the oft-repeated criticisms of the New 52 was its edgier, grimmer tone for DC's traditionally brighter and more optimistic characters, and while it may have been overused, it wasn’t always unearned. But when that tone was applied to characters and concepts that were natural fits, they really thrived.
The supernatural side of the DCU saw a bit of a quiet revival in the last few years, anchored by Justice League Dark, a team book featuring a lineup of DC’s denizens of the dark, such as Zatana, Constantine, and Deadman, which proved to be just as consistently entertaining as its brighter counterpart. The initial “The Dark” line included fan-favorites like Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Demon Knights, and I, Vampire, and later courted talent like novelist China Miéville and Jem creator Christy Marx to head up acclaimed, if short-lived revivals of obscure titles like Dial H and Sword of Sorcery. DC was also criticized for its decision to bring Swamp Thing back from Vertigo, but Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s run on Swamp Thing, and its sister title Animal Man by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman were huge hits with critics and fans.
DC’s Rebirth line doesn’t include much from the supernatural side outside of a new The Hellblazer series in August from Simon Oliver and Moritat that will feature Swamp Thing in its opening arc. Gerard Way’s Young Animal line will launch Doom Patrol, Shade the Changing Girl, Cave Carson has a Cybernetic Eye, and Mother Panic in subsequent months to scratch that Vertigo-hero itch, but there does seem to be a pull back on the supernatural titles by DC, at least for now. It’s a shame to see the most interesting niche of the line shrunk so drastically, but here’s hoping DC joins The Dark side with titles coming down the pipeline.
IT’S ALL GOOD IN GOTHAM
You have to be doing something really terrible to make Batman sell poorly, but you also have to do something pretty right to make it as successful as it has been during the New 52 era. With Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo at the helm of the flagship Bat-book, the entire family of titles was buoyed and was by far the part of the New 52 line with the most consistent sellers and crowd-pleasers. But pleasantly enough, the Bat-family wasn’t content with resting on its laurels.
At first, some of the ancillary titles struggled to get their footing and fans were irritated with changes to the pasts of the various Robins, but once the reboot-dust settled, Gotham became a place for some fairly ambitious and interesting storytelling experiments. Batgirl relocated to Burnside and got a hip new look and cast, Nightwing became a super-spy in Grayson, we were introduced to the city’s kids behind desks and in the streets in Gotham Academy and We are Robin, and the city's darkest alleyways were exposed in Gotham by Midnight, just to name a few. Oh, and there was also some breakout character you may have heard of named Harley Quinn who had her own smash-hit series come out of the New 52.
This is a classic case of not fixing what isn’t broken. The Batman line has a lot of momentum coming out of the New 52, and it would be a shame if the Rebirth were to jeopardize that with needless changes to continuity. Luckily, there are no immediately apparent massive alterations from what we know so far, but we won’t know for sure until the books start rolling out. The survival of Gotham Academy and the renumbered Detective Comics poised to continue the plotlines of recently-returned characters Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown seems to indicate that the legacy of Batman’s New 52 success won’t be going anywhere soon.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
The Justice League has always held an esteemed position within the DCU, but with the New 52, the series was given a renewed sense of importance. With the A-est of A-list creative team of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee and a storyline that pitted the freshly-formed team against Darkseid and his invading forces, Justice League was clearly the tip of the New 52 spear. That momentum carried the book forward through Earth-shaking events like Throne of Atlantis, Trinity War, Forever Evil, and, most recently, the Darkseid War. Since the beginning of the new continuity, the title has served as the first stop for anyone wanting to know what the next big story in the DCU is, as is fitting.
Having a clear flagship book is important for new readers looking for an easy entry point, and equally important for readers who just want to make sure they’re tapped in to the most important narrative threads of the shared universe. Having big events grow naturally out of the book is a great way to give the universe as a whole a spine to center itself around. I don’t get quite as strong a sense of the book’s importance to Rebirth as I did with the New 52, but it’s still early, and there’s plenty of room for the title to grow into its own.
One thing can be improved is allowing the team’s lineup to be more fluid. While Cyborg was retconned to be a founding member and Shazam, Lex Luthor and Captain Cold made surprising additions to the team over the course of the run, there was still a lot of room to use the platform to spotlight characters who could have used the profile boost. While there should always be a few of the big guns hanging around, it would be nice to see the Justice League change it up a bit more. Hopefully, DC properly utilizes their flagship team going into Rebirth.
OUT OF THIS WORLD
One of the New 52’s most surprising success stories didn’t even take place on Earth — the main one, that is. DC launched Earth 2 — initially by James Robinson and Nicola Scott — as part of its second wave of ongoing titles back in 2012, spinning out of the events of the first arc of Justice League, as the first Earth that Darkseid’s army invaded. It revived the Silver Age concept of Justice Society dopplegangers living on a separate Earth, but with a twist. This version of Jay Garrick Flash, Alan Scott Green Lantern, Kendra Saunders Hawkgirl, Wesley Dodds Sandman and many more were given modernized costumes and portrayed as more youthful than they’d traditionally been shown.
The Earth 2 concept was a big enough hit with fans that it spawned several spinoff series, like World’s Finest, the weekly Earth 2: World’s End, and the current series Earth 2: Society, as well as playing a key role in the Future’s End and Convergence events. Over the course of a few years, Earth 2 developed its own identity as a viable and interesting setting and built up a decent fan-following that should continue to be capitalized on.
While Earth 2: Society has an issue and an annual scheduled for August, its fate beyond that remains to be seen, and with the original Justice Society poised to make a rebirth, the Earth 2 versions find themselves in a tenuous position. The world of Earth 2 seems like it still has stories left to tell, and DC would be wise not to write it off yet.
THE SAME AND THE OLD
While, over time, the New 52 became more and more dependent on its flagship franchises, at the outset — and throughout its run, to some extent — DC placed a lot of importance on revitalizing undervalued characters, creating new ones, and integrating the characters from the Wildstorm universe. For the sake of DC’s long-term viability, this focus shouldn’t be shuffled aside going into Rebirth.
Characters like Vibe, Mr. Terrific, and O.M.A.C. were given new shots at the big leagues early on, and Cyborg is still reaping the benefits of his New 52 push. Perennial team members like Martian Manhunter and Starfire were allowed to spread their wings in long-overdue solo series. Bunker has proven to be a worthy addition to the Teen Titans roster, and other new creations like Pandora, Talon, and the Red Lanterns were allowed the chance to test their staying power. Add to that the infusion of Wildstorm concepts like Grifter, Voodoo, and Stormwatch to the DCU, and it's clear that the New 52 did make an attempt to foster an atmosphere of experimentation. While there were certainly widely varying degrees of success for these characters, and some opportunities were missed (still waiting on that Shazam! series…), it would be a mistake for DC to think that this attitude is where they went wrong.
This is one aspect where DC’s current lineup is a bit worrying. There are new heroes debuting in Tom King and David Finch’s Batman, new Green Lanterns Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz are getting a push, and there are a number of new people sporting an S-shield, but there aren’t any books in the lineup that feel particularly surprising or out-of-left-field like a few of the titles at the beginning of the New 52 were. And the Wildstorm characters are nowhere to be found. Not everyone can have their own book, but sometimes DC has to sacrifice putting out another bat or super-book and take a risk on something different, or else they’ll never grow beyond the proven quantities.
In summation — and to butcher the title of a DC classic:
Be brave, DC. Be bold. That's all we ever want.