The Old 52.

§ March 13th, 2021 § Filed under dc comics, old § 24 Comments

I realize it’s a bit early to be commemorating the 10th anniversary of the launching of DC’s “The New 52” publishing strategy (which began with Justice League #1 in August 2011). However, with today being my 52nd birthday, it seemed, at least to me, like an opportune time to briefly gaze back upon this event and its eventual ignoble end.

Aside from the online news sources and whatever we were getting in Comic Shop News, I think the main source of into on this particular initiative to which our customers were exposed was that little preview comic DC released listing all the new first issues planned for release in late 2011. It was quite the tantalizing assortment, actually, with the old standbys relaunching with #1s (shockingly including Action Comics and Detective Comics, DC’s two longest-running, highest-numbered books, as well as Batman, also way up there in consecutive numbering) and a variety of other titles attempting to expand the line outside the Supes/Bats/Wondy-related franchises (like O.M.A.C. and Blackhawks).

As I recall, there was some grumbling about knocking Action etc. back to 1, but otherwise people seemed pretty excited about all this. I mean, it was fairly unprecedented (though reminiscent of what Marv Wolfman wanted to do after the conclusion of Crisis on Infinite Earths)…taking an entire existing superhero universe and starting it all from scratch with all-new series.

Not that we had a lot of extant or well-established/defined superhero universes with which to do this. Realistically, the only alternative one is Marvel, which followed suit seemingly with relaunching their titles with new #1s at the drop of a hat, after seeing how well DC with with this whole New 52 hoohar.

And well DC I reported shortly after the launch of Justice League, the premiere New 52 release, response from our customers was very enthusiastic, and we sold out of that comic in short order. A restock of first printings for that #1, which we placed but didn’t expect to be filled, was indeed filled and we blew through those as well.

Now whether it was hot because fans were excited about how DC was going to rebuild their universe, or whether they thought it “would be worth something someday” — well, speculation wasn’t quite as rampant then as now, but it wasn’t nonexistent and I’m certain more than a few folks were intrigued by the idea of getting their hands on something in relatively short supply and high demand.

So yes, sales were strong at first, but quickly settled down once the novelty of what DC was doing began to fade. I think of all the titles that passed through this New 52 gauntlet, it was Batman that may have benefited the most, maintaining good numbers throughout the New 52’s run and continuing on through Rebirth and beyond, mostly due to a mix of excellent creative work on the stories combined with the occasional misleading promotion and reasons to get the investors salivating. And plus just the fact that it’s Batman.

So anyway, the New 52 promised a fresh start, kinda sorta, with their entire line. Some books essentially restarted from the beginning (like the Superman books), others just kinda kept on keeping on (like Green Lantern) barely acknowledging that there even was a reboot. DC’s shared universe, which had hit a 20-year timespan for its “modern age” of superheroes, as of around Identity Crisis, had now been knocked back down to about five years. Older veteran heroes were now younger rookies, or at least closer to their beginnings than they had been.

And it quickly became apparent that the New 52 had been rushed into existence. I expressed some reservations early on about how the conclusion of Brightest Day (the event just before the New 52-introcuing Flashpoint) offered up some epilogues setting up future events…which were all mostly discarded once the DCU was rebooted. Combined with George Perez’s comments about how no one was quite sure was Superman’s deal was in the New 52 (something he needed to know since he was writing the book), and that edits had to be made to Teen Titans stories because their exact history hadn’t been nailed down either. It all smelled of a top-down instruction to DC from the parent company of Warner Bros. to “hurry up and make these funnybooks sell” — reinforced by Perez’s mention that he had to meet demands of folks higher up the food chain than DC’s editor-in-chief Dan DiDio.

While I was certain at the time this was DC’s “last chance” at making the comics thing work before it all got handed over to the toy companies or whatever, once the bloom faded off the New 52 sales, and bumps from various gimmicks and events became less effective, and there was once again a linewide refurbishing of all DC’s titles in 2016. Which put lie to my “last chance for DC” thought from earlier.

Dubbed “Rebirth,” it seemed to learn from The New 52’s mistakes, in that it all felt a little more…planned, this time around, that it wasn’t just DC immediately asking “how high?” when Warner Bros. told it to jump back in 2011. There seemed to be an effort at fixing what didn’t work with various properties during New 52. In particular, with the Superman books, which went through an extensive, and a little complicated, retooling to discard the New 52 version of Superman, bring back the post-Crisis/pre-Flashpoint. Superman.

And through all of “Rebirth” was a thread, introduced in the final pages of that DC Universe Rebirth one-shot that kicked it all off, that somehow the previously-verboten-from-playing-with-others Watchmen was somehow tied to whatever continuity shenanigans were occurring.

Were fans excited? Oh, sure. Sales on “Rebirth” titles never really reached the overall highs of the New 52, but it certainly got people interested and involved. They were certainly curious about the Watchmen involvement, as DC was finally desperate enough to acknowledge that Alan Moore hated their collective guts and that it wasn’t like they were going to piss him off more, so why not use Watchmen in this fashion?

And as it turns out (SPOILERS) we find out in Doomsday Clock that, basically, the New 52 relaunch was due to Dr. Manhattan’s meddling. In essence, that five years of the DC Universe sorta flailing about trying to see what sticks? It was the result of an attack on said DCU by a “bad guy” from outside it. I’ve said in the past that it’s a somewhat clever (and meta) way to deal with the ramifications of a more-or-less defunct publishing initiative, while still being a curious, if not potentially-if-inadvertently insulting, way of recontextualizing the hard work of many creators and editorial staff put in what was almost surely a difficult position.

The New 52, ultimately, was yet another iteration of DC’s attempts at fixing what the decades-old Crisis on Infinite Earths had wrought, where supposedly simplifying and codifying the DC Universe only resulted in more complications and problems. Much of DC’s output and events, like Generations and the Dark Nights: Metal and Death Metal, and the earlier Zero Hour and The Kingdom (with its introduction of “Hypertime”), are tries at reexpanding a fictional world that had been forcibly contracted to meet a demand for consistency that didn’t really need to be met.

DC’s “Infinite Frontier” is the ultimate refutation of Crisis, in which, spinning off from Death Metal, the DC Universe is now again part of an endless multiverse. How long this will last, and whether this solves whatever DC’s been trying to solve for all these years, remains to be seen. I definitely hope I live long enough to see the company find the balance it’s been seeking, as the other possibility, that I outlive DC Comics, is not one I’d want to experience.

As always, a happy shared birthday to my blogging brother Andrew.

24 Responses to “The Old 52.”

  • Daniel says:

    Not sure if I’m in the minority or not, but I loved Crisis and (more importantly) the post-Crisis rebooted universe. I generally really liked a lot of the early New 52 reboot (until it became clear about six to eight months in that there really wasn’t much of a central plan to the reboot and that they hadn’t really learned anything from the mistakes of the post-Crisis universe). I like new beginnings. I like when things start over from ground zero.

    Rebirth and Infinite Frontier interest me not at all. I have zero interest in any attempt to stitch together an unending and unbroken 80-year continuity.

    I like hard reboots. I like Elseworlds. I like the Burton-verse and the Nolan-verse and the Snyder-verse. I like getting into stories from the very beginning. I like variations on retelling the beginnings of these characters and seeing those retellings play out differently each time.

    The lesson of Crisis and the post-Crisis reboot is that these characters have finite potential. To my mind, attempting to perpetuate an ongoing, unending mega-continuity is doomed to fail. You can only have Joker escape from Arkham so many times before it becomes banal and loses narrative credibility.

    The strength of these characters, on the other hand, is the elasticity of their foundational concepts. The fact that the Max Fleischer, Mort Weisinger, Chris Reeve, John Byrne, and Zack Snyder versions of Superman have nothing in common with one another yet all work equally well in their own unique and different ways tells me that DC should focus not on trying to stitch everything together, but rather on giving creators the freedom to tell as many variations on the basic mythology of each character as possible.

    For me, the DC characters are strongest when they’re in a perpetual state of reboot and/or Elseworlds variations. Seeing a young Batman meet the Joker for the first time in stylistically and narratively different ways each time is infinitely more interesting to me than seeing 80-year-continuity Batman meet the Joker for the 368th time in their ongoing history.

    And I think that this is part of DC’s brand management problem. I believe that there are just as many people like me who love the excitement and variation of reboots as there are people who prefer (and want to perpetuate) the never-ending 80-year soap opera. And any attempt to go in one direction or the other will inevitably alienate the other audience.

  • Joe Sposto says:

    re: the re-numbering – I was at Baltimore Comic Con right before this launched and people at DC panels were IRATE about. Until Jimmy Palmiotti said if you are so concerned about the numbers on your book, you bring them to me and I’ll write any number on them you want. Loved it!
    Also, I had a friend working on one of the lower end New 52 launch titles who was told a week before his issue 1 shipped, the book was being cancelled with issue 6. What a wild time!

  • Casie says:

    Fab read!
    Happy birthday, Mike! I hope it’s a great day for ya! :)

  • Thom H. says:

    Happy happy birthday, Mike! I hope you’re having a fabulous bday weekend!

  • William Burns says:

    Happy Birthday! I hope this doesn’t mean you’ve been rebooted with a whole new continuity.

  • Matthew says:

    I’ve been reading a bunch of the old Nu52 series recently and I was reminded about how that was when the WildStorm universe was folded into the main DC universe (Voodoo, Grifter, and StormWatch were launch titles!). I never thought it fit that well, but I wonder about other people’s thoughts on this. What was the most successful way WildStorm characters or other things were added? The least successful? Is any of it still around, or has it all been forgotten?

  • Chuck V. says:

    Many happy returns of the day!

  • Voord 99 says:

    The New 52 makes one realize that while you would think that someone deciding what to do in a situation like this would think (completely selfishly and cynically) “OK, these include some of the most immediately recognizable characters and so valuable IP on the planet. We should think this through carefully and have a solid plan where we’ve dotted every i and crossed every t. This is not a time to half-ass things, because we’re going to grab a lot of attention out the gate, and what we need to do is make sure we get things right from the very start..”

    — what actually happens in the comics industry is that Bob Harras hires Scott Lobdell.

  • Allan Hoffman says:

    Happy Birthday, Mike!
    “No reboots since 1969”

  • G23 says:

    I’ve not been buying as many comics as I used to, so this was a nice read to get me back up to speed. I did pick up the 3 Jokers & some of the “Metal” stuff and definitely wondered about “are there infinite worlds in the DC universe again?” And “guess the whole Death in the Family thing is still canon…”

  • Mike Loughlin says:

    Happy birthday, Mike!

    I was sort of excited for the New52 until I saw the creative teams. Lobdell? Krul? Booth? Daniels? Perez writing but not drawing? Jurgens? Friggin Liefeld? Ugh.

    (I know Jurgens has his fans, but I’ve never been one of them. Yes, I acknowledge he’s a better writer than anyone else on the above list.)

    I bought a smattering of New 52 1st issues, but only stuck with Batman. I read the first story arcs of WW, Flash & Batwoman, but even great art couldn’t keep me interested. Too many fill-ins, anyway. I tried a few more DC titles from the era, and only Dial H and the revamped Batgirl kept my interest. Rebirth got me back into more DC books, mostly due to better creative teams and consistency.

  • Matthew: I always felt as if the new52 stumbled right away because no one wanted the WildStorm characters as much as DC expected or hoped. Put Martian Manhunter in Stormwatch. Put Black Canary on Team 7. I don’t know anybody who ever wanted a Voodoo comic.

    I stopped reading all the titles by then, but if I recall it still being the new52, then once they introduced Midnighter, my LCS owner said he was making sales from that character at least.

    Mike Laughlin: DIAL H was one of the best things to come out of the last decade, even including DIAL E FOR EVIL.

  • ExistentialMan says:

    Happy Birthday Mr. Sterling! Hope you get a Swamp Thing birthday cake with a side of Sluggo ice cream.

  • MichaelWayne says:

    I was also going to mention Midnighter in response to Matthew’s comment about WildStorm characters/the new 52. I quite liked Steve Orlando’s Midnighter output.
    And I echo the comment about some of the talent on the new 52, esp Dan Jurgens… for me his writing feels generic/rote, nothing he writes resonates with me after I read it, and I am bewildered that he is continually assigned to projects. But I know other people love his work, and I’m glad that others derive joy from his comics.
    By contrast, whatever mess of comics DC is throwing at us now, I mostly appreciate the fact that there is so much new creator blood making them. I’m going to try Superman comics for the first time since Grant Morrison last wrote him because I loved Philip Kennedy Johnson’s The Last God a whole lot. I won’t love everything these new guys do, but I’m very eager to see what some fresh eyes can bring to DC characters.

  • MichaelWayne says:

    Oh, and happy birthday Mike! From one March 1969 birthday boy to another, I hope your 52 year is awesome. :)

  • will richards says:

    Happy birthday Mike! 52 is the…er…New 50

  • Voord 99 says:

    A question for our host, if he’s interested:

    What do you as a professional retailer think about the number 52? Was it too large a number for this? Too small?

    I’ve wondered from a reader perspective if a somewhat smaller launch might have allowed for more consistent quality. Also, a better signal-to-noise ratio in the marketing that might have helped DC better to build on all that initial interest and enthusiasm. From my perhaps naive reader point of view, there were an awful lot of the sort of minor titles that, without a big push to promote that particular comic, are heading for low sales and quick cancellation no matter how good they are.

    But I can appreciate that a retailer might say something like, “Yes, but we need a certain number of DC comics to put on shelves, or there won’t be a medium term, let alone a long one.”

    (I think one can probably take it as read that “There was a successful series and then it was the number of universes” was not enough to make 52 the right number in itself. But if 50ish was about right, sure, why not 52?)

  • Snark Shark says:



  • CalvinPitt says:

    I’ll agree with Mike Loughlin and Wayne about Dial H. That was far and away the highlight of the New 52 for me, and it felt like one of the few times DC actually tried something new. Rather than get some writer who’d been working on superhero comics for decades, they got an award-winning novelist that had never worked in comics that I know of, and just let him go (until Mieville and Alberto Ponticelli had to rush the ending because they canceled the book. Sigh.)

    Other than that, the only thing I enjoyed from the New 52 was we got some more comics written by Ann Nocenti. I think I’m the only one who liked her brief Green Arrow stint, but I was reading because of her, rather than any interest in Oliver Queen. And I thought her Katana book had something, if they’d given her a better artit than Alex Sanchez (some of his choices in page layouts were, questionable, to be nice. Being blunt, they were crap.)

  • Thom H. says:

    What bothers me most about DC’s endless continuity / universe rejiggerings (because I’m sure everyone here is interested) is that we honestly don’t need to know the details of how the multiverse works to tell good stories. In fact, allowing characters to discover new aspects of the multiverse would, in and of itself, make good stories.

    I’m thinking of that guide to the DC multiverse that described the heroes on each Earth. I can’t find it now, but it was conceived by Morrison. Each page was basically like “They’re all vampires on this one.” or “They’re all animals on this one.” That’s fun in the moment, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for creativity in the future. Now it’s “They’re 28 years old on this one.” and “They age really slowly on this one.” Can’t we just leave the possibilities open and let writers tell good stories?

    Whew. That feels better.

  • William Burns says:

    For me the highlights of the new 52 were Dial H and J. H. Williams’ art on Batwoman.

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