DC Comics is finally admitting to what fans have known for the better part of four years: The New 52 simply didn't work.
Originally designed to clear out decades of messy continuity and usher the DC heroes into a more contemporary world, the New 52 reboot wound up removing most of the company's charm — replacing it with overly serious, dated storytelling with only scant glimpses of what the publisher was actually going for.
Now, less than five years after the New 52 debuted, we're on the eve of yet another DC reboot, appropriately titled DC Rebirth. However, before you roll your eyes, Rebirth looks to cure many of the ills introduced by its predecessor — at least on the surface.
Where the New 52 tried to make the DC heroes younger and less tied down to lengthy continuity, Rebirth promises a return to the company's legacy, including legendary factions like the JSA and a renewed focus on the expansive multiverse. Plus, the return of characters like Wally West and the re-introduction of the Watchmen universe will help to bring even more curious readers into the fold.
On the surface, things are looking good for the first time in a long time.
So, why do we even need another reboot? What did the New 52 get so wrong that DC needs to hit the reset button yet again? Well, now that we can start putting the New 52 into a historical perspective, we get a clearer picture of just what went wrong.
Out With The Old
One of the big selling points of the New 52 was that the DC Universe would only be about five years old by the time fans got their first glimpse of the new status quo. That means 70 years of DC continuity was going to be erased and replaced with a shorter timeline that was, in theory, easier for readers to digest. Suddenly the status of benchmark stories like Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One and countless others was up in the air, with many of them treated as if they never existed.
Oh, and I'm pretty sure Comet was wiped from existence.
Whereas the Post-Crisis DC Universe featured veteran versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, this younger take was like watching the whole world unfold for the first time. With it, the company's entire identity was stripped away over the course of the reboot's first month.
Legacy teams like the Losers, the JSA and the Challengers of the Unknown were either erased or completely reimagined as younger and "hipper" versions of their original selves. Meanwhile, Superman was established as the world's first public hero, with only a half-decade of experience to his credit.
The problem is that this move didn't necessarily make the material any easier to grasp for new fans; instead, it just blinked away decades of depth and charm from existence. It's just hard to buy a version of Superman that has been around for as long as the PlayStation 3. When you lose a character's legacy, you lose what makes that character special. Superman just didn't feel like Superman anymore — he simply became fan-fiction.
Going To The "X-Treme"
The New 52 promised a harder edge, and boy, did it ever deliver. Wonder Woman was now always scowling, with a sword and shield in hand, Cyborg looked like a walking aircraft carrier, Harley Quinn's arsenal could rival the Punisher's, and — in general — everything seemed like it was ripped from the notebook doodles of a teenager hopped up on Mountain Dew Code Red.
The issue is that the "edge" the New 52 introduced was nothing but leftovers from the loathed Image Comics style of the '90s. The women were all scantily clad (more on that later), the men oozed testosterone and overcompensated by brandishing phallic firearms and countless artists were trying to be Jim Lee lite.
The creators themselves were even a murderers' row of '90s talent — like Rob Liefeld on Hawkman and Hawk & Dove and Scott Lobdell on Superman and Red Hood and the Outlaws. Whether it was the writers' fault or not is only known to the talent themselves, but none of these books gained any traction with readers, and most of them felt about a decade too late by the time they hit stands. It's hard to strike a nerve with new readers when you're going after a look and style that the previous generation rejected 10 years earlier.
Thankfully, DC toned a lot of this down after the first year or so of the New 52, but the damage was done. Titles like Grifter, the first volume of Suicide Squad and Red Hood and the Outlaws all encapsulated what was wrong with this new direction — it was all needlessly violent and "gritty" but without enough depth or substance to make people actually want to read the book. About two-thirds of the first wave of New 52 titles seemed to be aimed directly at teenage males, and it showed with sophomoric storytelling and tasteless plots.
Sure, there were a few examples of "dark" comics done right, like Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman, Scott Snyder's Batman and Swamp Thing to even things out, but the overall stench of the New 52 couldn't be exorcised by a few readable titles.
I touched on this a bit earlier, but for all of the progress the comic book industry has made toward putting the spotlight on captivating, interesting female characters, it's apparent no one at DC got the memo for the launch of New 52.
There was a time when DC was full of strong, unique women headlining its books — Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Batwoman, Supergirl, Zatanna and Black Canary, just to name a few — but for whatever reason, the New 52 decided to go backward with its heroines. The books put an emphasis on sex over substance, and stripped away decades of character development (and clothing) in the process.
Want the evidence? Just look at Starfire's new "costume" that was introduced during the reboot:
Why? Why would anyone ever wear this? I'm not sure who these types of designs were really marketed toward (maybe overly-hormonal high school boys?), but none of these trashy get-ups got more young readers to buy the books, and it painted DC as the far-less-progressive of the Big Two comic book companies.
Again, DC corrected this somewhat after the initial reactions were so negative, but it left a black cloud over the whole company until a complete reboot became necessary.
The Quick Hook
When the New 52 first launched, there was actually a surprising amount of diversity in its lineup. Titles like All-Star Western; I, Vampire; Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.; Demon Knights and Dial H were all genre-bending romps that really challenged the superhero norms. They were also cancelled well before their time because of low sales due to disinterest and (perhaps) an overall lack of awareness from readers.
So, what took the place of all these experimental titles? Probably just some more Batman and Superman comics. See, the New 52 was supposed to be a place where all sorts of different comic genres would collide, but unless a book was tied to the Bat-family or Justice League, it wouldn't last long. Little glimpses like Omega Men or Animal Man were few and far between — still, despite all of the attempts, the New 52 never quite made all of these diverse titles profitable.
Don't get it wrong, this is an issue over at Marvel, too. Unique titles come along, they gain critical praise, they get ignored commercially and soon, they turn into missed opportunities. It's just a shame some of these books weren't given a bit more time to reach an audience.
The Revolving Talent Door
There's not enough room on the Internet to talk about all of the gossip that goes down in the comic book industry, but even if you're one to shy away from the drama, it was nearly impossible to avoid during the New 52's first few years of existence.
I'm sticking with the theory that DC editors were under the gun to rush the whole New 52 thing, so, along the way, the relationship between management and the writers/artists became strained as a result. This led to mass exoduses from books nearly every month, with many creators openly venting about their issues to the press and/or social media.
Rob Liefeld had a very public meltdown, W. Haden Blackman and J.H. Williams III left Batwoman after editorial conflicts and Andy Diggle's Action Comics run ended before it even began. Even if there was no drama involved, there always seemed to be a game of musical chairs going on with creators at DC during the New 52.
Even when directions were working, they usually wouldn't last, sometimes killing the quality of the book, like with Wonder Woman, or getting it cancelled altogether, as seen with Animal Man. As a fan, this made it nearly impossible to follow a title, because you never knew how long your favorite writer/artist would stay on it.
But It Wasn't All Bad
This might seem like a hit piece on DC's New 52, but the truth is, there was still a lot to like about the whole thing. Mainstays like Batman, Justice League and Action Comics all hit their stride, along with quirky outliers like Prez, Dial H and Bizarro. Then, there was the manic lunacy of Grant Morrison's Multiversity, which will surely be seen as one of the great works of superhero comics this decade once it's properly digested.
Fans also got to see a new breed of writers and artists come into their own. Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, Becky Cloonan and countless others got some of their most high-profile gigs during the New 52 and are now moving on to even bigger projects in comics and film. DC also made strides with getting more gender and racial diversity from its creators and titles, especially books like Midnighter, which everyone should read multiple times because it's perfect. It's still not perfect, but the difference over the last half-decade has been encouraging.
DC's New 52 was an experiment — one that really didn't work like the company thought. However, it evolved as it went on, and the people behind the scenes are attempting to steer the ship back on course. Ironically, the right course is the one they should have never steered away from in the first place. DC wasn't broken before the New 52, and it seems like the people in charge finally realize that.