In 2016, DC’s Rebirth relaunch promised a return to the spirit of the pre-Flashpoint DC Universe while keeping the New 52 universe. Rebirth has proven to be an unmitigated success, both critically and financially, and has clearly reinvigorated the company. But while it promised to keep the New 52 canon, this didn’t turn out to be the case, with series like Wonder Woman and Superman almost entirely doing away with New 52 canon. Although the New 52 branding itself was removed with the DC YOU initiative, DC Rebirth can be considered a much truer shunting of the ideas and themes of the New 52 era. Gone is the unnecessary darkening of characters, government paranoia and notion of continuity and history being obstacles and not tools so prevalent at DC for so long.
While there were some good elements here and there, the overall New 52 reboot fell flat on its face. And with DC Rebirth now a year old, incorporating many elements of Pre-Flashpoint elements that fans have been missing, I think it’s a good time to look back on the New 52. As it’s said, “I come here to bury Caesar, not honour him.” This will be a broad look at the problems with the New 52, and why it never quite worked for (the majority) of readers. So join me as I take a look back on the New 52, one year after its official death.
How it all began
Before I get into the nitty gritty, I’d like to have a look at what kicked all this off: Flashpoint.
Now, a Flash is always at the center of a Crisis. That is the rule DC have done with, and it’s not entirely unfounded. Crisis on Infinite Earths featured the death of Barry Allen and Wally West becoming the Flash. Infinite Crisis featured the disappearance of Wally West and Bart Allen becoming the Flash. Final Crisis featured the return of Barry Allen and Bart Allen as the Flash and Kid Flash, respectively. It’s something I’m okay with, and a nice callback to Crisis, sort of like how Infinite Crisis makes Superman the core of the DC Universe (because he was their first superhero). But what about Flashpoint, the event that started the New 52?
Well, it all began when Barry Allen was revived in Final Crisis, and the in-universe retconning of his history by Eobard Thawne (the first Reverse-Flash) in The Flash: Rebirth. Originally, Barry Allen had grown up with both his parents and was a generic Silver Age hero. Then Geoff Johns retconned it so that his mother was murdered, and his father sent to prison for her murder, with the unsolved nature of the case (to Barry) leading to Barry becoming a police CSI. Because… angst. What makes this retcon different is that is’s an in-universe retcon — Eobard Thawne travelled back in time and killed Nora Allen, and everyone knows this! Because he outright bragged about it!
Flashpoint features a world gone to shit because Barry Allen went back in time and saved his mother from Thawne. Yes, really. Barry Allen fixing what we all knew was broken somehow turned the world into a shithole. In this new universe, Barry was never the Flash, and the world is on the brink of war and everyone is dark and edgy. Batman is a murderous Thomas Wayne who uses guns, Superman was kept prisoner by the world government for his entire life, Wonder Woman is a raging, man-hating berserker, Aquaman is equally angry and sinks continents, and so on. Oh, and somehow, Eobard Thawne is still the Reverse-Flash, the excuse being that he was running through the time stream when Barry stopped his past self, and thus was protected from the changes to the timeline… this makes no sense. It’s always been key to Thawne’s character that he needs Barry to become the Flash, as Thawne himself was inspired by Barry in all his incarnations. It’s why Thawne can’t just kill Barry as a child. Thawne says Barry sucked the entire Speed Force into himself and this somehow shattered the lives of his friends, but how this even works, I don’t know, because even the Justice Society seems to have never existed despite coming before Barry. And this also ignores that thing up top that you can’t change the past via time-travel in the DC Universe.
Oh, and of course we barely get any insight or turmoil from Barry throughout this story (unlike the TV show) or any reflection on the Flash family being his new family or anything — because that would make his post-Flashpoint self seem like kind of an asshole for rebooting everyone out of existence — so it’s all just… stuff happening! The only scenes that really mean anything emotionally are his farewell to Thomas Wayne and his farewell to his mother. Both of which are in the last issue.
Anyway, by the end of the story, Barry is forced to travel back in time again, this time stopping his past self from stopping past-Eobard from killing his mother. While running back into the time stream, a mysterious woman (later revealed to be Pandora) somehow makes him unite three different timelines (something he’s never been able to do): the post-Crisis DCU, the WildStorm universe and the Vertigo universe. In the process, we see some things changing, like costumes, Barbara Gordon being Batgirl again, etc. And thus the New 52 universe is born!
So what we’re left with is a story that has tons of holes in it, a broken moral, that in no way celebrates the DC Universe before it was rebooted (that was left to individual creators, and they were given little notice), and the overriding feeling that Barry Allen is the reason the universe is screwed.
Among the many problems is that the Flashes, although key to the various Crisis, have never actually had personal stakes in them, at least not more than any other character. Flashpoint made the entire universe suddenly revolve around the Flash, and the result is a crossover that feels like a Flash story stretched out into an event. The story itself is filled with problems, and in no way properly justifies a reboot. Crisis on Infinite Earths was not only a grand, multiverse-shattering epic, but a celebration of the DC Universe. We had characters from multiple Earths and eras, all doing their part to fight the Anti-Monitor, a threat so huge that he threatened the entirety of existence. We had characters we’d grown up loving die to defeat the Anti-Monitor, and some characters even given happy endings. It used everything it could to make sure that it was a full sendoff for the pre-Crisis DCU!
With Flashpoint, there was no grand sendoff for the post-Crisis DC Universe or the Flash family, no great threat they all had to unite against, nothing that gave the characters any grand final scene. It was all about Barry Allen missing his mommy and learning to move past something he shouldn’t have to get over because it was all the machinations of a villain who became a parody of himself with how much of a complete asshat he was! That was what started the New 52.
Hello darkness, my old friend
The aforementioned feeling of darkness prevalent throughout Flashpoint apparently survived into the New 52. A key criticism of the New 52 is that the world was just too dark. Frankly, it’s not an entirely unfounded criticism.
DC’s world has always been more optimistic than, say, Marvel’s. But in 2011, the two seemed to switch, as Marvel had a universe where their heroes were suddenly more appreciated and loved — probably to highlight the end of the Civil War–Dark Reign–Siege story “arc” the universe had going — while DC’s characters existed in a universe that was suddenly distrustful of its superheroes and seemingly had about a million secretive organisations centered around using them for some nefarious reason or another. A criticism I’ve seen is that the New 52 was DC trying to be WildStorm, and while I’ve had limited exposure to that imprint, I am really enjoying Warren Ellis’ The Wild Storm, which does the New 52 a lot better than the New 52 evet did. Secretive organisations only work in limited doses, because they just seem less all-encompassing and omnipotent when there are a million of them. Distrust of heroes only works if they’re rare and new, something even Marvel seemed to realise (unless you’re the X-Men). But DC’s heroes, while apparently somewhat new (more on that below), were in plentiful supply.
Beyond that, there were also characters’ relationships. Superman how had dead parents again, his marriage to Lois Lane was not only removed, but they were never in a relationship to begin with. And it wasn’t just the Man of Steel either: Aquaman was now married in all but name to Mera, but they still weren’t allowed to be married. Catwoman no longer knew that Bruce Wayne was Batman, but they weren’t above having rooftop sex with his cowl on! Even if you were in a relationship, you went through hell for it, as seen in Jeff Lemire’s beloved Animal Man run. With all of this, DC made a statement, and that statement was “everyone in our universe is Daredevil”. This was actually pretty much the mindset of Dan DiDio, by the way; that heroes needed to be miserable to be interesting.
There was just the general feeling that DC felt that they needed to be dark in order to appeal to new readers. Things like Superman wearing armour and losing his trunks or the Flash’s tron lines wreaked of insecurity on DC’s part, insecurity that the stereotypical college jock would laugh at their previously colourful universe. See, they aren’t costumes or uniforms, they’re wearing armour! Superman’s a boyscout? No he’s not, he’s all angry and shit! Harley looks goofy? Nah, look at her, great tits! And then there were far larger reworkings of characters: Tim Drake is an obsessive mini-Batman in witness protection, Bart Allen is a rebel leader from the future who mercilessly killed people, Mr. Freeze is some sicko obsessed with cold and never even knew Nora Fries! These decisions just scream a fundamental misunderstanding of the characters, which can also sum up a decent amount of the New 52.
But more than misunderstanding their universe, the New 52 represented DC’s insecurity regarding what they did best: colourful characters with rich histories being heroes in an optimistic world. Not every DC story needs to be bright and filled with hope and sentiment, but those stories should be allowed to exist.
What has actually happened?
Speaking of history and misunderstanding their universe, something that made the New 52 world make even less sense was that its history was so inconsistent! It took forever for people to figure out what was and was not canon, especially given the “five year” timespan. When constructing a timeline, it seems like Barry Allen and Pandora did a really crap job.
That paranoia and hatred of superheroes I mentioned would make perfect sense if every story took place in a world where superheroes first appeared. But that’s not what happened. After the initial Justice League story by Geoff Johns, where superheroes are generally new to the world but the Leaguers have operated individually for a while (later said to be less than a year each), we jump five years ahead to the present day. Meaning Bruce Wayne has had four Robins in a five year career! It was later said that he had been active for six years, as if that makes a difference. Readers derided the idea as Robin being a “Bat-internship”. Barbara Gordon was Batgirl again, and for years it was never clear if Cassandra Cain or Stephanie Brown had ever been Batgirl! But yeah, it seemed that most of everything in Batman’s post-Crisis history was still somehow canon in a five year timeline! Except, oh wait, just pretend it is until we say otherwise. But Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and Grant Morrison’s Batman runs are still canon… mostly. Broadly speaking. Most of the time.
What made things worse is that those runs relied on events that could no longer be canon. Green Lantern: Rebirth relies on Hal Jordan going crazy after Cyborg Superman and Mongul destroy Coast City… except in the New 52, Cyborg Superman is a completely different person with different motivations who’s only just shown up in the present day stories! Grant Morrison’s Batman relies on Bruce being sent through time by Darkseid, but Justice League states that Darkseid never returned to Earth after his first attack! Then Peter J. Tomasi’s Batman and Robin run says the DC heroes never encountered Darkseid again, but also that he did send Batman through time? Did he Omega-snipe Batman from Apokalips?! What is even happening?!
I think DC were trying to get new readers interested in their universe’s backstory while also allowing acclaimed creators to finish their stories, but if that were the case, the reboot wasn’t necessary. Their pre-New 52 universe already had enticing backstory; in fact, that’s the backstory those interested in the New 52 stuff with backstory, the Batman and Green Lantern stuff, would be reading! It’s just a very confused philosophy.
This lack of cohesion really hurt the New 52, and it never truly felt like a shared universe. More than anything, it felt like the different editorial offices were entirely separate. While editorial interference was prevalent throughout the New 52, it never felt like the editors were actually talking to each other. The Superman books stood on their own, the Batman books didn’t care if they contradicted Justice League, which basically ignored anything not written by Geoff Johns in the New 52. It was a mess of miscommunication, and the universe suffered for it.
Legacy is the enemy
Speaking of editorial interference, there’s also the absurd amount of favouritism shown. Not in terms of writers, but characters. While the universe seemed to wallow in the Dark Age, the characters themselves were mostly from the Silver Age, or characters that were prominent in the 2000s. If you weren’t a fan of those characters, then sucks to be you, because DC rebooted everyone else out of existence unless they were too important. Because, as has been endlessly mocked, they were more “iconic”.
Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns are huge Silver Age fanboys, and it shows. The Justice League being composed of the Bruce Wayne Batman, Clark Kent Superman, Diana of Themyscira Wonder Woman and Arthur Curry Aquaman made sense. Those were the big hitters and they have pop culture status or are the only actually popular version of that character, in the case of Aquaman. The Green Lantern was Hal Jordan, who had a movie so that was fine. And Cyborg was now a founding member… despite being much better known as a Teen Titan. And the Flash was our old pal Barry Allen, because… generational consistency? But not just that, he’s the only Flash to have ever existed in the New 52! If you like Jay Garrick or Wally West, too bad! The higher-ups want the Silver Age at the forefront, and so it is!
Well, not really. You see, the above mindset applies to the characters that debuted as adults, but sidekicks? The sidekick characters were the modern ones, because hey, the higher-ups created those ones or had long runs on them. So if you’re a Wally West fan, again, sucks to be you, because Bart Allen is now the first Kid Flash. You like Donna Troy? Sorry, Cassie Sandsmark is the first Wonder Girl. Because apparently “iconic” only means something when it works in your favour. But hey, if you’re a Robin fan, you’re covered, because the Batman mythos is pretty reliant on multiple Robins… God forbid you’re a Batgirl fan who doesn’t like Barbara Gordon as Batgirl though, because Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown don’t exist and in a really boneheaded move, Barbara Gordon was never Oracle.
That all the characters they removed also meant that their universe was exceedingly white also never seemed to pop into DC’s heads. While I don’t think there was any ill-intent, the implications are there. Cassandra Cain, the half-Asian Batgirl and first female Asian character to helm a solo ongoing? Gone, replaced with her white predecessor. Barbara Gordon as Oracle, one of the best cases of a disabled superhero? Gone, because Babs needed to be Batgirl again for… reasons. Renee Montoya, the lesbian Latina Question? Gone, because Dan DiDio needed to butcher the Question for his Trinity of Sin concept — because changing characters so that they only superficially resemble their their prior selves just screams of how “iconic” they were. Hell, there were even ageist implications, as the Justice Society of America were rebooted onto Earth 2 and made young and hip, and Batman and Superman were aged down. It’s especially problematic because DC actually had a pretty diverse universe that people had accepted. Whereas Marvel is currently receiving increasing backlash from vocal parts of their readership for “forcing” legacies and diversity, DC’s readership was used to legacies and diversity.
The New 52, even more than Infinite Crisis before it, seemed to serve as an excuse for writers to bring back elements they like and damn the rest. It speaks of this weird, truly deep misunderstanding of what their universe was best at, which can be summed up entirely by Wally West: “We run our race, then pass the baton to the next guy.” DC didn’t want that; they wanted one person to hold the baton forever, and they made sure of that by kneecapping everyone else.
The death of the New 52
At its core, the New 52 never seemed to understand the DC Universe and its appeal. It said that the darkness was the way to go, that continuity was an obstacle rather than a tool, and that beloved characters were less worthy than others. Love, optimism, history and legacy were frowned upon and removed, with the misguided notion that they weren’t needed. DC forgot what made people love their universe and characters, and the New 52 represented that.
The New 52 was just DC losing its way, determined to wallow in its past while simultaneously hating it. It was confusing for new readers, frustrating for old readers, and by the end of its life, it was just a mercy killing. And make no mistake, it was a killing. Sure, some stuff has stuck around, like the Aquaman series’ history, but the more we get into Rebirth the more it ignores or reimagines the New 52’s ideas. Amanda Waller isn’t supermodel skinny, the man-hating Amazons are now an illusion, Clark Kent is married to Lois Lane again, the original Teen Titans did exist, Ted Kord was Blue Beetle, the list goes on and on, and only seems to be getting longer, with hints that even more of the New 52 is being removed.
To me, what started the New 52’s end was, of all series, Convergence. Not the event itself, which existed to fill in a slot while DC moved offices, but what it spawned — Superman: Lois & Clark. This series went out of its way to prove that an older, married Superman was viable. That the anger and angst of the New 52 Superman wasn’t needed to make him interesting. Here was a Superman who had a long backstory, was married for most of his life, was old enough to even be a father. And people embraced him, because he was everything the New 52 wasn’t.
Rebirth marked an end to the New 52 era’s ideals of stagnation, darkness and anger, and the revival of history, optimism and love. Even the name suggests that the DC Universe was dead as a result of the New 52. Rebirth was billed as the return of what made DC great, and only one character could do that. It was teased, it was speculated, and it happened. The original Wally West returned.
More than any other character, Wally West represents what was missing from the New 52. He’s a character who’s always embodied the concept of legacy, who’s never allowed darkness to rule his life, who’s always been held together by his wife’s love, who’s always loved being a superhero. Wally West is everything the New 52 wasn’t, and DC embraced that. If Superman started it, Wally finished it: the New 52 was officially over.
Rebirth, although having its own issues, at its core is a celebration of what DC does best: embracing its rich history, telling diverse stories in a world of optimism, and letting the legacies of its heroes flourish. More and more, it seems that Rebirth is bringing back things that people loved from the old DCU. Both in terms of continuity and ideals, Rebirth is a return to form for DC. It’s a reaffirmation that optimism, love and history are central to the DC Universe, and that rich stories can come from embracing these things.
Why did DC forget these things? Who knows. Maybe a naked blue man did it. But I’m just glad they remembered.