It has now been a little over a year since DC Comics changed up their line with what they call the “New 52”. Claiming that the new stories were not a full but rather a “soft” reboot, every single comic published by DC reverted to #1. Characters who long had trouble finding their footing like Aquaman or the Flash started at #1 but so did Batman, Superman and Green Lantern. DC has claimed that the New 52 has been a huge sales success. From the data they have shared, this seems to be true. A better question though is if it has been a creative success.
Comic publishers don’t need to court existing readers. Superhero fans are fanatic for their favorite characters and have to be pushed pretty hard to stop buying their favorite book. To be commercially successful, the publishers need to attract new readers who normally don’t obsessively pick up their comics. In the first week of it’s release, The Dark Knight sold approximately 6,844,000 DVDs. In one week. That doesn’t even include Blu-rays or digital copies sold. To compare, the issue of Batman that came out that month sold about 93,500 copies. That’s in a month. Clearly people enjoy quality Batman products, and in 2008 the comic was critically renowned. DC wanted to figure out how to capture even a small fraction of the movie market.
Enter their soft reboot. The Dark Knight was a movie sequel that required the viewer to have watched one other movie in the series. Not even really that, as The Dark Knight really stood alone as its own movie. The Batman comic that came out alongside the DVD on the other hand was number #682 and had been published since 1940. That’s a lot more intimidating for someone to pick up the story. Read the same comic book for a year and the story will take you through a labyrinth of weird. Seventy years? That’s a lot of confusing.
The New 52 was DC’s attempt to fix that. A reboot of everything. Anyone could pick up Superman or Wonder Woman or Teen Titans and not be expected to have any familiarity. What made it a soft reboot? DC kept what worked and threw out what didn’t. The story of all their comics picked up five years after the first superhero made himself known. In those five years Batman may have fought the Joker but Wonder Woman had not done anything of note. This allows DC to tell Batman stories that borrow from famous elements of their popular characters and completely reinvent other characters. Superman is famous but generally tanks in comic sales. In the New 52, Superman is young and a little full of himself and still figuring out the extent of his powers. It makes him a lot more relatable and less of the perfect, invincible character that so many had gotten sick of.
From a marketing standpoint this is kind of a strange idea. Picture picking up a book of a character you have heard of but who’s comic you’ve never read. The Flash comic of the New 52 isn’t an origin story or an introduction to his supporting cast. It is just a new story about a really fast superhero. A new reader won’t understand how the character has been simplified, the supporting characters that have been removed, the love interests who the Flash has to meet all over again, the deaths that haven’t yet happened. The difference is only going to be noticed by the people who were already reading the comic.
So evaluating its success falls to the quality of writing. These are supposed to be sort-of new takes on old characters. Fine. Are they any good? As with most things in comic books, the answer is one of two extremes.
Wonder Woman, a character I was never interested in reading before the reboot, has been re-thought in terms of tone and even genre. The Wonder Woman comic is half horror and half modern Greek Mythology at one point featuring the titular hero teaming up with Apollo and Hephaestus to retrieve the pistols of Cupid from Hades. Aquaman is another character that held little interest for me. The Aquaman comic of the New 52 is indefinably great. It manages to be tongue-and-cheek about it’s lead but also constantly inventing awesome sea monsters and lost cities for Aquaman to find. Batman is a character I’ve always enjoyed but the reboot manages to tell unique stories of the Dark Knight. Batman is defending Gotham City from an ancient owl-themed conspiracy that has controlled his family for generations. It manages to gracefully insert the familiar story of the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents within a new context of mystery and conspiracy.
Not all books managed to hold my attention. Batgirl is a book written by Gail Simone, a writer I find brilliant, but I didn’t even notice that I had stopped reading it every month. The Superman of Action Comics is a much more interesting character but I find Grant Morison’s writing to be simultaneously dense and unfocused. Some series that I couldn’t care less about before like Legion of Superheroes or Green Lantern Corps remain that way. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a couple of books, specifically Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws are borderline offensive. They manage to off the double threat of being hyper-sexualized and really really stupid at the same time. In the very least they could have picked one. That’s a rant for another time.
A pleasant surprise has been on the darker side of DC’s universe. Swamp Thing and Animal Man, two titles that formerly had little connection to superhero comics have been rebooted by Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire respectively and to great success. Justice League Dark took a little while to find its voice but now tells a story about the strange magicians of the DC universe keeping everyone safe from things that go bump in the night. Stranger still is Demon Knights, a story about pseudo-medieval heroes who team up to form what reads as very imaginative Dungeons and Dragons party.
So ultimately, is the reboot successful? Yes and no. Yes in that some of the new comics are excellent. No in that ultimately, I don’t think they needed to reboot. The #1 on the cover looks inviting and the idea of less continuity seems like a good thing but the changes are superficial. The stories aren’t starting from square zero, and they change some things while keeping others.
The first issue of Green Lantern is a perfect example of a reboot done wrong. It is mostly a confrontation between Green Lantern and his nemesis Sinestro. The first issue ends Sinestro becoming a Green Lantern. This is unarguably the beginning of a new story but the significance isn’t felt by a new reader. Who is this Sinestro and why is it a big deal that he gets a green ring like so many other characters? Why do he and Green Lantern hate each other? Why do they seem to respect each other? The two characters obviously share a rich history together even after the reboot. The writing and the art are decent but it fails as an alleged reboot. Changes have been made but no new reader would ever notice them.
The first month of the New 52 had reviewers scrambling to declare certain series successes and other ones to be failures. A year later, we get a better look as to which new comics are both approachable and well made. My list of recommendations to people wanting to try out DC are as follows: Justice League, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Action Comics, Batman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man and Demon Knights. These aren’t the only well written titles or the only titles that benefited from the rebooted. These are the few titles that manage to do both. As of July 2012 about 12 issues of each of these titles exist and most have been collected into paperback volumes. If you ever wanted to give DC a try, this is it.