Since the launch of DC Comics’ New 52 reboot, readers have dealt with a lot of changes, and while I don’t want to make this post about the quality of the reboot as a whole, it’s probably going to come off that way. No, I want to bring some attention to comparisons and the publishing approach that distinguishes the New 52 in both tone and style. Although DC has tried the whole reboot deal several times in the past, the first 30 or so months of the publisher’s latest reboot show a degree of premeditation, appreciation, and dedication not seen in other reboot attempts, while the future promises more of the same.
Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, Hypertime, Infinite Crisis, Flashpoint the list goes on. Yes, DC Comics has rebooted their entire universe to some extent or another time after time with, more often than not, less than stellar results. While there were plenty of problems with all of these reboots – Donna Troy and Hawkman; a messed up Superman, and a de-aged JSA come to mind – most of the problems stemmed from one very important detail missing from the plan: An actual plan! There may have been a narrow guide or a rudimentary outline at some point during the brainstorming sessions that ultimately lead to these reboots, but it’s safe to say that the follow-through succeeding the event itself ultimately lead to just another reboot, and that qualifies it as an out-and-out fail in my book. So, what makes The New 52 so different? Having a plan and unabashedly sticking to it.
DC originally marketed the New 52 as a “soft reboot” and not a full on reboot and revamp of the entire universe. Some things from the past, like the War of the Green Lanterns and Batman: A Death in the Family, would stick and some things wouldn’t, but DC never really made the extent of that adherence to continuity completely known. This allowed them to pick and choose story elements from the past without allowing other, less “important”, elements to become obstacles. DC promised to make their storied history be a help to their creators not a hindrance to creativity as it’s been in the past. That’s not to say that they threw everything out the window; these characters are still recognizable as the ones we’ve all known and loved for years; but having opportunities to tell early tales of Superman as seen in Action Comics and retelling Batman’s origin in Zero Year, as well as revisiting Wonder Woman’s origin and changing the entire status quo of the Green Lanterns, have been amazingly entertaining comics that just would not have been possible prior to DC adhering to their New 52 continuity policy. That liberal policy in regards to continuity, however, as flexible it’s been with its use of DC’s storied and convoluted history, hasn’t impacted the self-contained continuity the New 52 itself has created, and it’s all part of DC’s push to appreciate their fans.
It’s logical to assume that DC had a problem reaching fans prior to the New 52 reboot. There’s obviously no reason to reboot the line if fans are buying books that make up that line. So, DC decided to listen to fans, and while they kept the continuity fans liked the most, they understood that, despite the quality of any comic book, fans still want continuity. There’s a certain appeal to having the characters all exist in the same world, and, of course, DC wants to take advantage of this aspect of superhero comics, but there has to be some “stickiness” to the whole thing. Although readers handle differing degrees of continuity very differently, DC has done an amazing job of keeping New 52 continuity faithful across all of their books. The adherence to this aspect of continuity has been stringent, with Hal Jordan stuck in space when he’d be better as a marquee character in Forever Evil, and Superman having to overcome at least a few obstacles setup in early issues of Action Comics, but it’s also lead to some rewards, with Simon Baz getting a brighter spotlight, and Superman/Wonder Woman even being a thing. They couldn’t just come up with new, exciting things, they had to find new and exciting things within their current continuity, something solidly missing from DC’s line pre-New 52. And that seems to be continuing as the very popular Nightwing see its last issue drop in the wake of the character’s upcoming death in Forever Evil. But continuity isn’t the only thing DC has changed to appeal to fans. The publisher listened, found what’s resonating with fans, and acted.
An Aquaman event last year, a Superman/Wonder Woman title, and Constantine even being a character in the DCU proper are all evidence that DC not only listened to their fans but acted on what was heard. That isn’t the only way they have acted either, and DC has ended many fan-favorite comics over the past two plus years, including Static Shock, Blue Beetle and two Legion titles, simply because they didn’t resonate with enough fans. While this is no real change to what publishers do all the time, they have replaced titles just as quickly, looking to gives fans something great. A recent example of DC’s faithfulness to keeping their content fresh and relevant is the publisher ending 6 books in April – Justice League of America, Nightwing, Suicide Squad, Superman Unchained, Stormwatch, and Teen Titans – and replacing them with titles fans have specifically shown an interest in – Aquaman and the Others, Justice League United, Secret Origins, and Sinestro. DC’s appreciation to their fans in giving them exactly what they ask for is only eclipsed by the publisher’s dedication to keeping that ideal an active part of their entire publishing approach, and the key to that approach is portion control.
No, not that kind of portion control; I’m talking about “title portion control”. There are currently 9 DC comic books in the Justice League portion, 13 in the Bat-family of titles, 7 in Superman’s section, 5 in Green Lantern, and 6 or so in what DC has labeled “The Dark”, but this hasn’t always been the case. Looking over the various cancellations and new additions to these “families” of books over the years DC not only takes care in ending books that don’t work and consistently replacing them, but also assures that each of these families of titles remains strong and uniquely distinct. Even failed segments like what DC calls “The Edge” and the all but defunct “Young Justice” segment of books were given a solid chance at success with a combined 15 titles launched and cancelled since the New 52 began, and two more cancellations due in April. This only underscores DC’s overall no holds barred approach when it comes to spinning their ever-revolving lineup. DC takes their whole portioning method a step further when it comes to how the publisher handles events. Forever Evil, while it had its share of limited series tie-ins, has been limited to the Justice League family of titles, with the Forever Evil: Blight crossover event occurring only within the pages of The Dark family of books, with never the two meeting. This trend has been fairly constant throughout the New 52: Night of the Owls, Death of the Family, Zero Year, and the upcoming Gothopia are all in the Batman-family; Rise of the Third Army, Wrath of the First Lantern, and Lights Out all played out in GL books; He’l on Earth, Throne of Atlantis, and Rotworld all happened within their own specific category of titles. This has done a great deal to help DC reach new levels of success by avoiding the problems they ran into with other reboots, namely, missing the mark on continuity, ignoring fan requests, and not actively and effectively supporting their numerous and varied brands. This, of course, leads me to one simple worry: They’ll never be able to keep it up.
There’s trouble on the horizon for DC’s current success under this methodology bought about with the New 52. Although they’ve done an incredible job so far, it’s only been 30 months, and there’s some literal and figurative cleaning up to do. Forever Evil will surely end with the good guys winning by the end, but the Earth is in ruins, and, as the rules DC themselves have suggested with their entire approach to the New 52 reboot, things will certainly have to change equally as much as they have been impacted, and that’s a whole lot. That means an arc of Batman with Bruce coping with yet another death and dealing with Bane in the aftermath of Arkham War, no more self-contained mega-events or new origin stories to get readers’ attention. That means dealing with things in books like Justice League and Superman/Wonder Woman in meaningful ways. That means putting Lex Luthor on a pedestal, and exploring everyone’s new favorite Kryptonian clone. Those are big shoes to fill, but DC cobbled those slippers all on their own, and probably just because fans devour events. If the big moments and major impacts that made Forever Evil compelling don’t stick, it takes away from everything DC has built with the New 52. I’m not saying it’s impossible, and “big changes” have been promised, but seeing is believing, and DC has not made it easy on themselves. Another problem I see in DC’s future is doing too much crossing over between their individual categories, and the upcoming Supergirl/Red Lanterns crossover, while intriguing a story as it is, may start a trend that could quickly become as unwieldy as anything pre-reboot. And what about DC’s next rumored event, Five Years Later? As difficult as it must be adhering to their current approach, adding a future facet to the whole endeavor won’t make anything easier.
Yeah, I remember, I said this wasn’t going to be a post about the quality of the New 52 reboot, but that promise turned out to be a lie; a joke, really. The very thought of a brief about the publishing approach of DC Comics latest reboot simply cannot be made without a critique of the quality of the books that make up that reboot. But DC is doing something completely different with the New 52, and, as long as it lasts, it’s an amazing ride. Twists, turns, surprises, disappointments. It’s like Disney World, with all it’s unique and different, yet singularly alike, Lands, but in this amusement park they swap out the crappy rides every few months. Now, no one knows if the company can continue to respect the same method that lead them to their current level of success in the wake of such dramatic, universe-wide changes, but that takes nothing away from the ground-breaking success DC has already had in their latest reboot, and it’s been a very long time coming.