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Graphic grid featuring 52 images from DC Comics “New 52” Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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‘I wish there was a plan’: The inside story of DC’s infamous New 52 reboot

What happened when DC Comics rebooted the universe

On Aug. 31, 2011, the comic book industry was supposed to change forever. The release of Justice League #1 wouldn’t just relaunch the premier superteam of DC Comics with a new origin story, but be the first of 52 new comic book series that would establish a fresh incarnation of the main DC universe. The initiative, launching throughout September 2011, was called “The New 52,” and it marked the company’s first attempt in more than two decades to hit the reset button on its sprawling continuity. Every superhero in the DC universe was in for a major update, with the hope of attracting a new generation of readers who could turn the publisher’s fortunes around.

Debuting to impressive sales, the New 52 temporarily made DC Comics the dominant force in the industry. The event redefined the company’s reputation among fans and creators — for good and ill, with as many upset about the wholesale rejection of decades of stories as excited about the new beginning it offered. Outside of comics, meanwhile, Hollywood’s coinciding superhero boom came along just in time for the New 52’s updated origin stories to inform Warner Bros.’ Justice League, Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, and Shazam! franchises, enshrining those changes in the minds of millions of moviegoers.

But the relaunch soon ran into trouble. Within months of its kickoff, sales of the New 52 fell on all but a handful of titles, leading to multiple cancellations and the creation of a number of replacement series that themselves would be brought to quick conclusions due to lack of sales. Behind the scenes, many creators were dealing with confusing and contradictory instructions given to them by editors and executives, or worrying about their job stability as the company tried to regain the momentum the New 52 had in its initial weeks. Of the many prominent participants Polygon contacted for this piece, many declined to speak on the subject, preferring to put a stressful period behind them.

In the end, the industry didn’t change forever as a result of the New 52 — and, in fact, neither did the DC universe. Within years, 2016’s DC Universe Rebirth, 2017’s Doomsday Clock, and 2019’s Dark Knights: Death Metal undid the continuity changes of the reboot, piece by piece. Nonetheless, the New 52 proved to be a seismic event in comics, demonstrating that one of the two largest publishers in the industry was willing to bet everything — even its own history — for the potential of a larger fan base, and what doing so actually meant in practice.

As the New 52 celebrates its 10-year anniversary, those responsible reconsider what the event, the line, and the reboot itself meant for them.

I. Secret Origins

Superman, eyes blazing slightly with laser vision, says “So... what can you do?” in Justice League #1 (2011).
Superman, in Justice League #1.
Image: Geoff Johns, Jim Lee/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

The origin [of the New 52] comes from a couple of places. First things first: We had a change in management. We had Diane Nelson coming in [as DC’s new president]. And she really wanted to challenge us and really to make an impression and a statement. So we needed to make a statement. That’s part one.

Part two was the market was extraordinarily soft. Our numbers were off by double digits — I want to say 30 to 40 percent, some big number from what it was from the previous year — and trade sales were slowing down, and periodical sales were slowing down. It wasn’t just DC; it was the whole marketplace.

I used to joke with Jim [Lee, at the time DiDio’s partner as co-publisher, and current publisher at DC Comics], which is not a joke. I used to say, “I don’t want us to be co-publishers and watch it run into the ground. That’s not why we took the job.”

Judd Winick Writer on the New 52 titles Catwoman, Batwing, Batman: The Dark Knight

The year prior to the New 52, we had a pretty big meeting at the DC offices in New York, where a bunch of us were discussing a whole mess of stuff, but the focus of it was coming up with stories that would stem from the Flashpoint crossover.

In that meeting, it was discussed that maybe it would be interesting/creative/cool if we utilize Flashpoint in the same way the original Crisis was utilized, or a number of crossovers: “Maybe we can use Flashpoint to have some substantial story carry over into the main continuity;” like, “Maybe we come out of Flashpoint and Lois and Clark are no longer married, and Lois Lane does not know he’s Superman,” something like that. And, within that, there was a lot of time bouncing around some ideas. Again, ideas of what would be the one or two or three things that will change coming out of Flashpoint. I think that was the creative spark.

Flashpoint was a summer 2011 crossover event in which the Flash traveled back in time and changed history, resulting in a drastically altered timeline, complete with altered versions of DC’s superheroes. When the event was conceived, it was with the understanding that the DC universe would return to normal afterward. As it turned out, DC editorial had other ideas.

Barry Allen/The Flash races forward, surrounded by images of DC’s three separate continuities on the left, and New 52 characters on the right, as Pandora, a hooded woman with glowing eyes and a painted face, looms above him in Flashpoint #5 (2011).
In the final moments of Flashpoint, a mysterious woman known as Pandora uses Barry Allen’s speed powers to merge the DC, Wildstorm, and Vertigo settings into the New 52 universe.
Image: Geoff Johns, Andy Kubert/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

From the moment I started at DC [...] I was always trying to get to that spot where we can sort of restart the wheel and really create this entry point for everybody to jump on, and contemporize our characters.

Marvel had such success with [Miles Morales and the Ultimate line], and I kept on pointing to that. I thought to myself, We needed that. I tried a couple of times — the All-Star line was supposed to be a shot at that, the Earth One books were supposed to be shot at that. They were good as stand-alone concepts, and we got some great work from that, but it didn’t drive a line. And ultimately, the only way it works is if you drive the cohesiveness of the line. We were doing it piecemeal, but to really make an impression, to really catch the attention of the marketplace, you had to do something dramatic. And ultimately, that’s what turned into the New 52.

Paul Cornell Writer on the New 52 titles Demon Knights, Stormwatch

I was already on an exclusive [contract] at DC, and first heard rumblings when it became clear it would impact my Action Comics run. My wonderful editor, Matt Idelson, asked if I’d like to stop at the end of my Lex Luthor run, but I wanted to write Superman, and I liked the idea of writing the final issue of the first volume!

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

I thought I was doing [Batman] with [the mononymous artist] Jock, and possibly Francesco [Francavilla]. Then Dan took me out to breakfast at C2E2. He sat me down, he was crazy nervous, and it was, like, a breakfast at a booth. And he kept looking around, and I’m like, “What is it? What, what is this? Is this where I’m getting fired?” I remember him saying, “I’m going to tell you something crazy, but we’re going to try and reinvent the wheel a bit here. We’re going to do something called the New 52. And nobody knows about it. But what we’re going to do, and you can’t tell anyone, but we’re going to start everything over at #1. So you’re going to be on Batman #1,” You know, the first new Batman #1 there had been in 70-plus years.

So if you think that I had anxiety before that, I had a literal panic attack at that booth. I could feel like I was having a heart attack. I was sweating. I was like, “But I’m not writing Batman #1,” and he’s like, “Yeah, and we’re going to get a new artist for it. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a big blockbuster. You can still do the same story.” I don’t remember the rest of the con, because I was so terrified. I was just like, “I have no idea how to do this.”

Judd Winick Writer on the New 52 titles Catwoman, Batwing, Batman: The Dark Knight

I was very excited about the prospect of rebooting the whole line. I thought it would be interesting creatively. I thought it would be fun for readers as well as creators.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

As the pitches came in, the project evolved. We had a hit list of what types of books [the company wanted] to do — what titles we wanted to do, even if we were not sure what they were 100% yet. Then we thought about which talent might be best at executing [that] based on their own past history, and then we would marry the two and then see what evolves from there. Sometimes it stays 100% on track, and sometimes it’s wildly different, but that’s OK.

One thing that did stay on track was that the New 52 wasn’t intended to simply relaunch the existing DC slate, but expand it. That didn’t just mean including series for superhero characters who hadn’t been given the spotlight in some time — step on down, relaunches of Hawk & Dove and Static Shock — but also returning to DC’s history of non-superhero titles as well. Early plans for the line included throwbacks to DC’s Westerns, war stories, and even a romance title.

“Ah ain’t alone...” growls Jonah Hex in All-Star Western #1 (2011), “ah got two friends with me!” as he draws his pistols and fires on his attackers.
Jonah Hex, in All Star Western #1.
Image: Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Moritat/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

When I looked at the New 52, it wasn’t just about relaunching the books, but also diversifying the product and the characters. And everything was about diversification, before “diversification” became a buzzword.

We really wanted to make sure we were reaching out and trying different things and different types of stories. As much as people talk about Superman or Batman, or any one of the relaunches of the primary characters, I was more excited about the Men of Wars, or I, Vampires, and the other things that were part of that, because ultimately, that’s the part of comics that brings in the casual readers — people picking up books if they’re not superhero fans, but want to read the medium.

Paul Cornell Writer on the New 52 titles Demon Knights, Stormwatch

We were all excited for the non-superhero titles, hoping they’d bring other genres back into comics. We also thought sales would be through the roof, because these titles would break through to the mainstream audience.

The new 52 line was announced officially on May 31, 2011, with DC describing the reboot as “a historic renumbering of the entire DC Universe line of comic books with 52 first issues.” Not mentioned in that first announcement was the continuity reboot element of the line.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

Why 52 books? I mean, it’s interesting, because ultimately, the office was constructed to support somewhere between 60 to 80 books on a monthly basis. OK. So if you’re going to put out less product, you’re going to make a staffing change. So realistically, we’re working with the [in-house] staff that we have. We did not want to rearrange the staff; we didn’t want to do that. So the challenge was to create enough engaging material to support the structure, but also to be able to broaden it out.

And also, you wanted to create a large number of titles that were financially successful, so you can have more risk titles. You get a chance to take some really wild swings at projects, because you have other things on the top end financially supporting it. That was a lot of the motivation behind Vertigo — the DC universe was very successful, so it allowed Vertigo to be much more experimental and take more chances, because financially the company was meeting their numbers with the success of the superheroes.

How we got to 52 was an interesting thing, because originally it was 40. Realistically, the math was something like, it was like 10 books a week. There was consistency of what you were putting out there. It seemed like that was the [number] that people would be able to absorb in the course of a week. But ultimately, we needed a little more product, so we pushed it up to 48. I had it at 48, and Jim had it at 52. When I asked him, “why 52?” He goes, “You had a lot of success with that weekly series 52. It seems like a lucky number.” And I mean, when you have logic like that, how do you argue?

II. Doorway to Nightmare

“Release the demon...!” cries Jason Blood as he transforms into the monstrous yellow demon Etrigan in Demon Knights #1 (2011).
Jason Blood transforms into Etrigan the Demon, in Demon Knights #1.
Image: Paul Cornell, Diógenes Neves/DC Comics

Even before any of the New 52 books appeared in stores, there was some concern on behalf of creators behind the scenes about the lack of information concerning the new version of DC continuity.

Paul Cornell Writer on the New 52 titles Demon Knights, Stormwatch

Editorial was meant to have put together an enormous backstory on a wall chart, but I never got to see it. I was initially asked for Demon Knights to be a sort of medieval Justice League, so I initially pitched a bunch of characters who were reasonable representations of later heroes who could be represented at the time: A stranded Green Lantern, a Captain Marvel, a Hawkman and Hawkwoman, for example, and cheeky ideas like Matthew Wain, a cart-maker who became someone very like Batman. But just about every one of them was taken away by editors keen to protect their own franchises, until I was left with mostly mystical characters, so I went with that.

When the Demon clearly became the lead, I called it Demon Knights, which was meant to be something to do with “Daemonites” [an alien race that originated in the 1990s series WildCATS, mentioned often in early New 52 titles], but with everything changing all the time, I don’t know how much we ever landed that connection.

Judd Winick Writer on the New 52 titles Catwoman, Batwing, Batman: The Dark Knight

I can only tell you my own experiences, but everybody was working really hard and that can be kind of challenging. If an outline or story wasn’t working, creators were asked to rewrite. Sometimes it can be frustrating. Editors are human beings and sometimes they don’t know exactly what they want, but they might know that the story you’re doing isn’t working. There’s a Neil Gaiman quote I think about a lot: “Anybody can tell you what’s wrong with your book, but nobody can tell you how to fix it.”

So, sometimes editors have a very clear vision and could convey that to you, other times less so. And that’s harder. Keep in mind that all of this is a creative endeavor and sometimes that can be deeply, deeply, challenging.

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

There were a lot of people operating on good faith. A lot of editors working very hard to get great stories out there. Nobody edits comics who doesn’t love the characters, and love being a part of that world. There’s not a lot of glory in it. It was a strange environment, because there was so much excitement and enthusiasm from all of us, creators and editors; and from the top, from Dan and Jim. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They believed in all of it. And yet, because there wasn’t an underlying story, because there weren’t concretized rules, it kept changing all the time.

That sort of fluidity, that lack of rules, of blueprints, led to issues, because between different groups there were different ideas of what was DC history. So you’d do something and then you’d hear from a different group that one of the characters you mentioned [being] in the past wasn’t in the past anymore, because they had a new origin. Again, everyone was working out of love of story, trying to tell the best tales in their area. It was just difficult without more set rules.

The initial announcement of the New 52 was followed by subsequent announcements of the titles that would make up the line. While some titles were unfamiliar to fans, it soon became clear that the line would be made up entirely of pre-existing characters and concepts, leading some to wonder just how new the New 52 was actually going to be. And backstories weren’t the only things getting makeovers in the New 52. Publisher Jim Lee, art director Mark Chiarello, and artist Cully Hamner redesigned nearly every character in the DC universe, leading to mainstream coverage of Wonder Woman wearing pants (they were changed to shorts before the comics saw print). Clearly, it wasn’t just the hardcore fan base that cared about the changes, nor were the skeptical reactions limited to onlookers.

Dick Grayson/Nightwing swings across Gotham in a new red and black costume, instead of his traditional blue and black costume, in Nightwing #1 (2011).
Nightwing, in Nightwing #1.
Image: Kyle Higgins, Eddy Barrows/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

I can’t tell you how many discussions we had about how we can get Nightwing back in his blue costume, because the red seems so weird. And I’m like, if you’re focused on colors, you’re losing character. The color doesn’t matter. The story and the characters [are] what you should be focusing on. And if you’re worried about the character color, because in your mind that’s the only way you can see him, then you’re probably not getting where he should be.

Nightwing was one of the best launches! That’s why I was like, “stop talking about the colors. You’re doing a great job!”

I think we got a little cold feet on [all-new concepts]. We had some old concepts that we were freshening up, and we wanted to have confidence in recreating that material, and then bring new “new” material and new characters into the mix. Along the way, some new characters were created, but the truth be told is, sometimes it’s hard to get people to commit tnew characters into the series and storylines.

Another common complaint concerned the lack of diversity in the freelance creative teams behind the launch line-up. The New 52 promised a modern update of the DC universe, with the goal of pulling in a larger, younger, and more diverse readership, but straight, white men overwhelmingly made up the writers and artists behind the reboot. The gender diversity was much commented upon in particular — at launch, only two women were employed on DC’s 52 new books, writer Gail Simone and artist Amy Reeder — driving DC to respond to the controversy months before the line debuted. “We want these adventures to resonate in the real world, reflecting the experiences of our diverse readership,” DiDio and Lee said in a statement released in July 2011. “Can we improve on that? We always can — and aim to.” One of the female creators brought in later was Christy Marx, an animation and video game writer, who worked on two series as part of the line.

Batgirl/Barbara Gordon swings through Gotham in her black and gold outfit with a purple-lined cape in Batgirl #1 (2011).
Batgirl in Batgirl #1.
Image: Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

We probably could have used a lot more diverse talent on some of the stranger titles. I’m trying to think back on where we were at that moment. The talent pool was a lot tighter and you know, today would be a completely different thing, but that’s good, because it shows the industry’s made massive progress in those 10 years.

Christy Marx Writer on the New 52 titles Sword of Sorcery, Birds of Prey

One day, Dan called me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in creating a reboot of Amethyst [in the Sword of Sorcery title, launched September 2012]. I’d read the original comics series and was delighted to have the opportunity. As you know, it didn’t get a long run. After Amethyst was canceled, I was offered the on-going Birds of Prey series.

Both were offered to me because Dan knew me and knew my work on my own female-warriors comics series, The Sisterhood of Steel. That’s what made him think of coming to me with female-oriented books.

As the launch date approached, tensions continued to rise behind the scenes over the scope of the New 52.

Vicki Vale introduces Bruce Wayne to Lincoln March as they shake hands. March looks like a larger version of Bruce but with slicked-back hair (this was foreshadowing), in Batman #1 (2011).
Bruce Wayne meets Lincoln March in Batman #1.
Image: Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

Oh, it was madly intense. I mean, this was an all-in bet. This wasn’t just selling as a publishing venture. This was a cross company expression. You know, we always were honest. There was a major investment in marketing and promotion larger than we’ve ever done on a single project. So the pressure was on. We were also new to the positions. Jim and I, we’re out there walking the walk. We’ve got to deliver. Diane Nelson has showed a lot of faith in us. She put a new executive team in place and there was that pressure to deliver to show that she made the right choices bringing us in.

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

We’d finished [the first Batman storyline] “Court of Owls.” It was at the printer, and word came down from above that they weren’t sure that they wanted Batman not to be able to solve the mystery of the Owls; whether Lincoln March was his brother. They wanted us to change it, to make it so that he’d definitively solved it. For me, that would have changed the entire story, because the point of the story was just the opposite. I remember standing in Target, pushing a cart of paper towels, screaming into the phone, “You go down the hallway and you tear up my contract!”

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

On a personal level, it was a lot of pressure on me because I honestly truly believed the line had to be relaunched at some point. A lot of people disagreed, and I could have wound up with a lot of egg on my face.

That wasn’t what happened, however; the launch month of the New 52 saw DC take first position in terms of comic book market share for the first time in years, publishing eight of the top 10 best-selling comics of the month. Eight of the launches received more than 100,000 orders in the North American market alone, an almost unheard-of feat in that era.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

It was a super relief. It created a sense of urgency to keep it up, because again, it’s the periodical business. I’ve seen successful windows, but I also know they close quickly. “How do you keep the game alive?” so to speak.

III. Strange Adventures

Harley Quinn, Diablo, Deadshot, King Shark and other supervillains march through the snow in Suicide Squad #1 (2011).
Harley Quinn, Deadshot, King Shark, Diablo and others in Suicide Squad #1.
Image: Adam Glass, Federico Dallocchio, Ransom Getty, Scott Hanna/DC Comics

As soon as the public was able to see the New 52 for itself, it became clear that the continuity problems creators had been dealing with hadn’t been entirely resolved by press time. Even beyond that, there were questions about how the different series interacted with each other. Both Action Comics (starring Superman), by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales, and Justice League (featuring Superman) by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, opened with storylines set in the past, despite other series — including George Perez and Jesus Merino’s Superman — featuring characters in a contemporary setting.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

We were trying to have our cake and eat it too, as the old expression goes. You’re trying to have that early point relaunch [and also] you’re trying to not to screw the pooch on your most popular franchises, because in order for Geoff and Jim’s book to work — a significant centerpiece of the line at that moment in time — all the other characters have to be established by that time to get on the team. [Also] we didn’t want to just have everybody’s origin told at the same time, because that gets tedious as well.

We loved Grant’s new ideas and takes on Superman, because there’s something really original and fresh going on there. I love that Superman so much. But the other side of the coin is, you want to have a Superman that plays alongside the Justice League book. The George and the Grant stories never really lined up and, in the end, for the fans that really follow the tight continuity, they had a hard time grasping how these two characters were the same one, or how that timeline worked.

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

Honestly, if you want to know what I think the big problem with it was, from a structural standpoint, the biggest problem I had with it architecturally as an initiative was that it didn’t really have rules about the way continuity was going to work. Ultimately, we didn’t have an uber-story fully worked out. There were sort of hints of one with Pandora and Flashpoint, there were good ideas there, but there wasn’t a big narrative.

Introduced in the final issue of Flashpoint, Pandora made cameo appearances in the first issue of every New 52 launch title. It was rumored that she would have a significant role to play in DC’s mythology moving forward but, outside of playing a role in a Justice League crossover in 2013, that never happened.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

There was probably going to be a greater role for the Pandora character early on. She was going to be a little bit of a mechanical character behind the scenes who was working some of the differences out on how the world moved forward from what happened prior to Flashpoint.

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

We didn’t really have time. We were starting over! Making the characters younger, their histories malleable, and because it was all so raw and unformed, so new and exciting to everyone, there wasn’t really a chance to build an uber-story yet — we were making it up every day and then tearing it apart and then making it up all over again. So we were all just working on the fly — it was innovative and fun, but as exciting as unpredictability can be, it can wear on everyone a bit.

My big regret, architecturally, is that in all the exuberance we didn’t get a chance to build something equally exciting when it came to an overarching story, something to play out in a year or two, something that spoke to the spirit of the whole initiative. Something risky and bold but that also eventually looked back at legacy, like, “OK, the story is, Darkseid removed five years from everyone’s lives, and the only character that knows this is Pandora, and she’s going to go through this and this and this, but it’ll play out over a couple years, and so hint at that and that and that, and in the end, what the heroes will realize is, new is good, change is good, but you have to respect the past too and that’s what the final fight with Darkseid will be about.”

Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, cries out as a parademon strikes him from behind, and Batman raises an arm to shield himself in Justice League #1 (2011).
Batman and Green Lantern battle the minions of Darkseid in Justice League #1.
Image: Geoff Johns, Jim Lee/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

When you’re creating 52 series simultaneously, you have to give everybody a certain amount of latitude to be able to tell their stories, without the stories impacting each other, because ultimately, it slows the process down, and it also impedes the creativity of it. So, while there was a goal not to contradict each other, people did push stories out in directions that made it hard for them to reconcile with each other. You found pockets where people work together, you know — Frankenstein and Swamp Thing work together; I did a brief crossover with Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE on OMAC — but the reality was, things were moving in the wrong directions.

Paul Cornell Writer on the New 52 titles Demon Knights, Stormwatch

Demon Knights kicking away from the continuity became a blessing in disguise, though at the time I thought I’d been left without much to play with. But it meant we were left relatively alone as the landscape changed every week. We could and couldn’t have the Martian Manhunter in Stormwatch [about a team of superheroes acting as a “secret police force” in the DC universe] because he was and wasn’t going to be in Justice League. What the Stormwatch mythology meant to the wider universe kept changing.

Christy Marx Writer on the New 52 titles Sword of Sorcery, Birds of Prey

I worked with editor Rachel Gluckstern, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with her. She’s a sharp, perceptive, and supportive editor. There were times when she had to come to me with last-minute, pain-in-the-ass requirements from the higher-ups, like having to suddenly insert an issue in Amethyst where she comes back to the DC universe world, even though this is right in the middle of a storyline I had going on in the [alternate dimension of] Gemworld. Or at the end, where I suddenly had to introduce [Justice League foe] Eclipso because they wanted more crossover with the larger DC universe.

Rachel did her best to come up with suggestions and helpful ideas to soften the impact of those requests. It made it tough to create a cohesive storyline, though, with sudden interruptions like that.

Judd Winick Writer on the New 52 titles Catwoman, Batwing, Batman: The Dark Knight

There’s always been a give-and-take. You come up with an idea, maybe presented as a story arc and outline, etc. It goes to your editor, goes up the food chain a little bit to your group editor as well as, at the time, up to [executive editor] Mike Carlin and Dan DiDio and a few others, and we talk about it. If there’s a major stumbling block, they let you know. Sometimes things sail through, sometimes things get shut down, sometimes a little bit between. That’s the process.

I would say this wasn’t much different, except that it was across the board for everybody, and ideas were getting kicked back a lot harder and faster because editorial really wanted this to feel like a true reboot. They really wanted everyone to sort of look at the characters and come up with, not necessarily a completely new take, but something that felt a little more present, or something that hadn’t been seen in a while. More importantly, something that didn’t feel like it was just picking up where we left off before. So in that, it was challenging, and frustrating for a lot of people. It was hard work.

“You can’t get the fish and chips,” protests a restaurant patron in the booth next to Aquaman, “because you talk to fish.” “I don’t talk to fish,” Aquaman replies icily in Aquaman #1 (2011).
Aquaman in Aquaman #1.
Image: Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

You want to make sure everybody has the ability to feel that they have some latitude, but it’s when you try to pull it all together, that’s when it’s a struggle. That’s why we went away from doing crossovers for quite a while, because we wanted to let every book get its grounding. The thought was, you want to see what works and what doesn’t work. You don’t want to put stories in canon that people have no interest in, because ultimately, the worst thing you could do is tell a story to undo a bad story, which happens a lot. It just makes [everything] more convoluted and messy. So instead, we pushed it out and if it worked, we built around it. If it didn’t work, then we sort of just discounted it and put it on the side and moved forward.

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

I think everyone was figuring it out as we went along, and part of that is what made it feel energized and exciting and weird. And when it worked, there was a real dynamism to it: Animal Man? I, Vampire? Resurrection Man? There were so many gems in the line. And big bold things happening like Grant and Rags on Action, Brian and Cliff on Wonder Woman, Gail on Batgirl.

I think what led to more and more and more problematic aspects as we went was that it became a victim of its own success. It was doing so well initially that there wasn’t a desire to rein it in and put rules on how things worked. Books were doing things differently, and so some books had different histories than others, and different rules on how things worked, so I think it became about those things existing next to each other, and that just created a mounting sense of frustration and confusion. Eventually, we needed something like Rebirth to come in and set rules, rebuild an uber-story.

One writer, who asked not to be named in this article, described their experience with editorial on one title as “a complete nightmare,” adding that their direct editor was “the worst editor I’ve ever worked with; he literally rearranged the page order after the art had been finished, not to tell the same story in a different way, but to complete a completely different story, which I then had to write dialogue for and follow up with something that made even slight sense in an already-prepared second issue! He was one of those guys who felt he was a genius and that his every idea had enormous merit, and he was completely wrong about that.” Editorial for the New 52 was under the leadership of then-editor-in-chief Bob Harras, who in turn took his lead from co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

This could probably get me in trouble. When you talk to me about talent, I used to say this to people, and they used to get somewhat offended. I said, “I don’t see people when the stories are being written or drawn sometimes, because I’m looking at what’s engaging to me.” Do I notice your name? No, I’m looking at the characters.

I used to be forceful in some conversations, because I was so focused on what needed to be said and done with the character’s story. I didn’t even realize who was in a room, or who I was talking to. I was just addressing the idea rather than the people.

After a strong launch, sales quickly fell for a number of titles, leading to a number of cancellations. Within the first two years of the New 52, 27 series were canceled, many within their first year of publication. That included the majority of the non-superhero titles, including Blackhawks, Men at War, G.I. Combat, Team 7, and Sword of Sorcery.

A fighter jet rips across the sky while gun-weilding Blackhawks operatives (with their black on yellow hawk insignias) tear through enemy forces in Blackhawks #1 (2011).
The high-flying Blackhawk super-pilots in Blackhawks #1.
Image: Mike Costa, Graham Nolan/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

The downside of success is a level of, I don’t want to use the word arrogance, because that’s wrong. But the sense of bravado — now I got it, now I can prove anything. One of our staples at the beginning was we wouldn’t let any book go under 20,000 in sales. OK. So that’s why you saw cancellations at eight months, because [while] the books were making money, they were profitable, they just didn’t hit this artificial number that was created.

What we didn’t realize at that time is, we created the churn, as I called it. There are going to be eight books or so that are just going to [come in below our target number], so what you should do is find the best eight and stick with them. But [if you cancel and replace them], you find out that you were getting even more diminishing returns. Then all of a sudden, the eight [books below our target number] become 10, and then you’re filling more holes than you have ways to fill them. You get so focused on the churn of the bottom, you’re not focused on maintaining the success at the top.

The impact of the churn went beyond simply finding new concepts for new comic book series. The cancellation of each series meant that title’s creative team would suddenly be out of work, with each replacement series unlikely to pick up the creators from the cancelled book. In addition to comics being cancelled less than a year into their runs, creators found themselves subject to last-minute replacement on continuing series based on a number of strict criteria, like being able to meet near-impossibly tight deadlines. As a result, many creators reported fearing for their job security during this period, unless they were on a best-selling project.

Some more popular titles did succeed by making unexpected creative choices — including Superman and Wonder Woman becoming a romantic couple at the end of the first year of Justice League, leading to the eventual launch of Superman/Wonder Woman, a title focusing on their relationship — and built new fan bases for a generation of creators getting their first real exposure to the superhero audience. Amongst those creators were Batman writer Scott Snyder, and Jeff Lemire, whose Animal Man and Green Arrow runs were surprise critical successes.

Maxine holds a plush dog as the skeletal and rotting remains of several small urban animals — rats, rabbits, birds, a small dog — crowd around her. She strokes a cat skeleton as it rubs its head against her in Animal Man #1 (2011).
Maxine Baker in Animal Man #1.
Image: Jeff Lemire, Travel Foreman/DC Comics

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

A lot of what my involvement was at the early stage, [was] saying, “This is what we’d like to do,” and then it gets handed down. I can honestly tell you, what comes back is never really 100 percent, or even 75 percent, of what I expected it to be. There’s no better feeling in the job, honestly, than when you envision something storywise, and the story comes in better than you imagined it. You realize, “Oh, thank god I’m not the writer. This would have been boring compared to what they’ve handed in.” That’s the shit that gets me excited, because you really want to see people push themselves. And the shame of it all is that a lot of people don’t push themselves. I always tell people to stop self-editing. We’ll be the editors; you got to go, and you got to push the ideas and see. It’s easier to pull somebody back than to push them forward, when you’re standing behind. It’s exhausting. But pulling people back, you can find a much better ground between them.

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

I remember being right around issue #5 [of Batman] — I was writing way ahead, because I was so nervous, and it was right around when issue #2 or #1 was coming out — and it was the issue where Batman is trapped in this labyrinth beneath Gotham. I said to [Batman artist] Greg Capullo, “For this part, as an experiment, what if I just say, Batman needs to feel disoriented, but you just do whatever you think will make it feel really discombobulating for readers?” I wrote the dialogue and some of the key moments, but he came up with this brilliant idea to flip the whole book around as we were reading it, and he was, “What do you think of this?” And I’m, “I think it’s brilliant. Let’s send it in.” And they immediately rejected it, Bob [Harras, DC editor-in-chief] and Dan.

Greg was like, “Let’s try and get it through.” We really stuck together and really fought. They eventually came around, and they said, “People are gonna think it’s a misprint, but if you really want to do it, we’ll go for it.” And then I got the PDF, I remember, and it reads vertically. I was like, “See, it doesn’t read that crazy.” And then I got this [printed] book, and I realized suddenly, you had to flip it and read it in reverse order, and I was like, “Oh, god, it’s a misprint!” and then I realized it wasn’t, and I tweeted out, “Hey, everyone, everything in issue #5 is deliberate.”

Greg called me up and he’s like, “What are you doing? If they get it, they get it,” so I deleted the tweet. And then half an hour later, he got his books and he tweets out, “It’s a goddamn misprint on issue #5!” [laughs] He called me up, and he’s like, “This is even better than I thought; it’s even more discombobulating.” From that point forward we really became close creative partners.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

Those are always the best working relationships, where people are ready to go for it, and then we have to either rein them in or just let them loose. You know, it’s funny, because over the years, I’ve talked to guys like Frank Miller or Jim Starlin, and, you know, the same story you hear from those guys is “Daredevil is going to be canceled before Frank Miller gets on,” “Captain Marvel is going to be canceled.” And the books that follow those almost-cancellations are some of the most famous, favorite comics in my life. So when there’s nothing to lose, they can do whatever they want. And that’s a good thing. Sometimes, when you start to feel the pressure, sometimes you just gotta let go, and just let it happen. Some of my favorite books are some of our biggest failures.

Although DC continued to add non-superhero titles to the New 52 line through mid-2013 — including a short-lived revival of the 1970s series The Green Team: Teen Trillionaires, written by the fan-favorite Tiny Titans team of Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani — it was quickly becoming clear that what fans really wanted were the familiar faces of Batman, Green Lantern, and their Justice League buddies. With creators like Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison moving on from the high-profile titles they’d launched less than a couple of years earlier, that meant that a new generation of creators would get the chance to step up to the plate.

A chained Sinestro faces the stern Guardians of Oa in Green Lantern #1 (2011).
Sinestro in Green Lantern #1.
Image: Geoff Johns, Doug Manke/DC Comics

Robert Venditti Writer on the New 52 titles Demon Knights, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, The Flash

I started writing for DC in 2012. I’d been talking with editors for a while, but wasn’t being too assertive because I already had a full-time job working in publishing at Top Shelf Productions, plus I’d just relaunched X-O Manowar for the newly returned Valiant Entertainment.

When an opening came up on the New 52 title Demon Knights, DC asked me if I’d like to come on for four issues and see the series to a conclusion.

Happy with what I’d done on Demon Knights, DC invited me to pitch for the main Green Lantern title, taking over with issue #21 after the departure of Geoff Johns. Beyond saying that there’d be a villains-themed month across the line that September, they wanted a Green Lantern event within the group to connect the titles under all the new creative teams. That was where Relic and the “Lights Out” storyline came from. I think at that point in my career I’d written less than 12 superhero comic books, so it was definitely a trial by fire.

I made my fair share of mistakes and learned a lot along the way, leading to what I feel is much stronger work during the Rebirth era and beyond. You can’t get where you are without passing through where you’ve been, so it’s hard for me to look back on it negatively. I was getting to play with toys like Hal Jordan and the New Gods. Unfathomable when I started writing a few years earlier.

Not everyone had Venditti’s luck, however. In March 2013, both Andy Diggle and Joshua Hale Fialkov left their respective series before their first issues had seen print. Diggle had been announced as the new Action Comics writer following Grant Morrison, while Fialkov was due to take over both Green Lantern Corps and Red Lanterns. Diggle cited “professional reasons” for his departure on Twitter, but Fialkov revealed that he had left in response to editorial demands, including that longtime Green Lantern cast member — and one of DC’s most high-profile Black characters — John Stewart be killed off. (As it happened, Stewart was not killed after Fialkov left the title.)

The experience of Fialkov and Diggle echoed one of the stranger examples of creator struggles going public. In December 2012, Gail Simone announced that she had been fired as the writer of the Batgirl title. Less than two weeks later, Simone announced that she would be “the new Batgirl writer,” with her run continuing with only a two-issue interruption, thanking DC for the opportunity to continue. What happened behind the scenes during this period has never been made public. Polygon reached out to Fialkov and Simone for this oral history, but neither agreed to participate.

To maintain interest in the line as a whole, on every anniversary of the New 52’s launch, the entire line would feature a month of stunt programming replacing the regular series with flashback material or a collection of villain-themed one-shots. In January 2013, DC announced April’s New 52 titles would be “WTF Certified,” with each issue featuring a shocking plot twist; the “WTF” branding didn’t survive by the time April rolled around, although the thematic plot twist month did.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

If you’re going to pull a gag, then how do we live off that gag for a while? If you’re gonna do it and undo it five minutes later, then why do it in the first place? It has no value, and readers can sense that it has no value. So the next time you do it, they’re not there. We used to see that all the time: If you did an event, and it was successful, the next event would have to be even more successful. If an event was a failure, and had no effect on the line, nobody would buy the next one. They would skip the next one, because they lost faith in your ability to deliver on their expectations.

In 2014, in order to maintain what was becoming waning interest in the New 52 — with sales dropping across the board on all but a handful of titles — DC returned to a publishing format that had been successful almost a decade earlier. The company leaned heavily into three weekly comics series that kept close connections to existing monthly titles, starting with April’s Batman Eternal, and continuing with May’s The New 52: Future’s End, and October’s Earth 2: World’s End. Each of the three series would cross over with DC’s monthly publishing books in different ways, whether it was a month of Future’s End stunt programming that replaced the regular line-up in September 2014, or Earth 2: World’s End running a storyline that crossed over with the regular Earth 2 monthly series.

While Future’s End featured a collective of four writers splitting duties evenly, both Batman Eternal and Earth 2: World’s End employed a single writer managing plot and overall direction of the series.

Daniel Wilson Writer on the New 52 titles Earth 2: World’s End, Earth 2: Society

They said, “Yeah, you’ll essentially be sort of ‘showrunning’ this weekly, because there’s a whole lot of stuff to get through,” and they kind of laid it out to me. Honestly, I was just sort of coming at it from a place where this is what they wanted. They wanted somebody from outside comics to come in and do something surprising, and do it in their own way.

Wilson, whose background was in prose — he wrote the popular Robopocalypse novel — and screenwriting, had been lured in by the promise of working for DC. His initial meetings had made it clear on the expectations of the project — including that, unbeknownst to the fan base, the series would lead into a separate project, titled Convergence. Although he’d expected to run the project his way, the reality didn’t exactly live up to the promise.

Daniel Wilson Writer on the New 52 titles Earth 2: World’s End, Earth 2: Society

I had a lot of characters to deal with, so I put together a big spreadsheet. I had basically the whole thing planned out — the major beats of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to separate everything. So I went to New York City, I met [former DC publisher] Paul Levitz, and I sort of just had this immediate reality check where Paul was like, “No, like, that’s not how you do comics, man.” I’m like, “Well, how else are we going to do it? Because there’s so much I need to just lay this out,” and he’s like, “No, no, we’ll just figure it out issue to issue.”

[I said] “I’m really not comfortable doing that, Paul, and I’m the showrunner. So I kind of want to do it this way. Also, I’ve been working on this for months to figure it out.” Paul was like, “‘That’s cool. I wish you luck. I’m out.” It wasn’t emotional or anything. He was just, “That’s really not what I signed up for,” and I totally got it. Later, I was like, “You know what? He was right.” It wasn’t what I expected. I managed to make it work, but definitely, Paul was totally right. Everything evolved on the fly, as you go, and I had to adapt to that.

Convergence, published in April and May of 2015, was an event that replaced the entire DC superhero line during its eight-week runtime. Headed up by editor Marie Javins — who would, five years later, become editor-in-chief of DC — the event also coincided with DC’s relocation from New York City, where it had been based since its 1930s origins, to Burbank, California, to be closer to its Warner Bros. parent. It also marked the official end of the New 52 as-was.

IV. The End

Harley Quinn, in a roller-derby inspired outfit, shoulders a giant mallet on the cover of Harley Quinn #1 (2013).
Harley Quinn on the cover of Harley Quinn #1.
Image: Amanda Conner, Paul Mounts/DC Comics

On February 6, 2015, DC announced that the New 52 branding was being retired from the covers of its comics as of June, the first month after the close of Convergeance. Only 25 of the company’s ongoing series would continue past that point, with 24 new series launched to accompany them as part of a new program titled DCYOU. (Not all of them ended up being released on schedule, with one — Dark Universe — shelved indefinitely.) Notably, the DCYOU titles employed younger creators than the New 52 titles, with the titles having a more contemporary feel.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

A lot of that had also to do with our interest in getting the young adult marketplace. That was DC testing the waters and wondering what a young adult book would be from DC Comics. We realized that ultimately, there was a strong, creative talent pool to tell those stories, but we decided we had to change the format in regards to how it appeared. That’s when the DC Ink and DC Zoom books wound up being created, where we knew, This is the right direction, we know there’s a market for this, but the periodical might not be the best way to deliver it. That audience might not find the periodical, but let’s create it in a book. They’re much more comfortable reading in that style.

Officially announced in 2018, the DC Ink and DC Zoom lines had been in the works for more than a year already, building not only off the creative success of the DCYOU titles, but also the financial success of the DC Super Hero Girls property, which launched in 2015 and featured a line of young reader graphic novels. The 2015 DCYOU line as a whole took its spiritual lead from three of the last breakout titles launched under the New 52 branding: Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, and Chad Hardin’s Harley Quinn, which arrived in December 2013; Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, and Babs Tarr’s Batgirl revamp, which had premiered to much acclaim in October 2014, and Gotham Academy, a teen drama set in a Gotham City prep school, by Fletcher, Becky Cloonan, and Karl Kerschl.

Brenden Fletcher Writer on the New 52 titles Batgirl, Gotham Academy, the DCYou title Black Canary

I had just wrapped an Assassin’s Creed comic with Cameron Stewart who asked me to join him on the Batgirl series he’d been offered. Around the same time, Becky Cloonan was given the chance to pitch an original series to the new editor of the “Batman Group” at DC Comics. I was sharing a studio with Becky at the time and she asked me to join her on the project that would later become Gotham Academy. This was around February/March of 2014. The books we were pitching were meant to launch in October of that year.

This all came about because Mark Doyle, who’d come from Vertigo, had taken over the Bat Group and was looking to shake things up in that nebulous time period before the company moved out west from New York to Burbank. It seemed like there was little consequence to any potential failure of these new/updated titles, as DC intended to do a big relaunch once they were settled. It would’ve been easy to simply yank our books from the schedule at that time if they turned out to be stinkers, so the risk of trying out a new style of Batgirl story or a fresh IP involving an original set of characters in a Gotham City boarding school was minimal.

We had a lot of questions for Mark and then-Batgirl editor Katie Kubert about the status quo of Batgirl before we cracked into our pitch, chief among them was the canon age of the character in this New 52 continuity. When they told us she was meant to be 21, it informed just about every decision we made afterward: The series needed to reflect her actual age and the struggles young women encounter when they venture out into the larger world on their own for the very first time. I mean, Barbara was meant to have been a teenage Batgirl before her return to crimefighting in the first issue of the [New 52] series, but was always living at home with her dad, superheroing under the tutelage of Batman, etc. …

We wanted the book to appeal to new readers and particularly to young women. Aside from the tone of the stories having a little slice-of-life peppered in to ground them and give them broad appeal, we wanted this Batgirl to be recognizable in style and execution to the versions of the character that potential fans would’ve seen on screen in Batman ‘66 and Batman: The Animated Series. That meant injecting some fun onto the page as well as dealing with Barbara’s trauma as honestly as we could.

I think we felt really validated. Not just my teams, but so many of our friends who work in comics and illustration ... so many people who’d been trying to make books like this for DC and Marvel for years! We’d been pushing the notion — along with executives in other departments of DC, I would come to find out later — that there were wider audiences out there for these characters, if only the company would create books for them. It took an editor coming in from Vertigo into the superhero editorial offices to make that a long-awaited reality.

We all have Mark Doyle to thank for his vision of what a DC superhero book can be and the strength to push those titles through the system and eventually turn up on the shelf. For all we know, creators had been pitching Gotham Academy for decades but just not finding any internal support for the idea! I’m just lucky — along with Babs, Cameron, Becky and Karl — to have been the one pitching these stories when there was finally someone in the Captain’s chair to give them the green light.

There was ultimately very little pushback from editorial to the way we all envisioned the character. They loved our take on Batgirl and adored the costume redesign. Our only struggles came in the way we saw the use of our supporting cast and the overarching plot. Turns out “Oracle” was a dirty word back in 2014/2015, and a lot of what we had planned ultimately had to be tossed to hold to the mandate that Barbara’s previous alter ego never be used or even mentioned in any context, no matter our intentions with it.

Batgirl bursts through a window in her purple and yellow Burnside-era costume. “Speaking of asses, dirtbag, yours is about to be totally kicked,” she says in Batgirl #35 (2014).
Batgirl in Batgirl #35, Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr’s debut issue.
Image: Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr/DC Comics

Batgirl was a significant critical success for DC, described soon after its launch as “​​one of the pioneers of a new movement towards mainstream comics for a progressive young female audience” by Comics Alliance, an outlet that just a handful of years earlier had been leading the charge against DC for sexist creative choices.

The combination of critical and commercial success for Batgirl and Gotham Academy, along with the anarchic attitude of Harley Quinn — a title that offered DC its own Deadpool in spirit and sales power — allowed them to be the anchor of the year-long DCYOU brand. While the other series in the line didn’t attempt to reproduce the style of any of those three titles in a direct way, the three books had identified a new audience for DC properties that had been underserved by the New 52 as-was.

But there were still 25 pre-existing New 52 titles that continued into the DCYOU era, and some creators still encountered familiar editorial frustration — as Daniel Wilson discovered as he launched Earth 2: Society, a monthly continuation of his Earth 2: World’s End storyline.

Daniel Wilson Writer on the New 52 titles Earth 2: World’s End, Earth 2: Society

That first issue was really hard. It got all the way to inks before I had to do major modifications. We were having a great time, but sometimes things got tense, and you start going, “Come on, man!” There’s so many steps to getting a comic made, and there’s so many spots where you can get out of sync with other people. [My editors were] like, “No, we liked it, the next person liked it, maybe the next person up after that didn’t like it, but they can’t read the full output every day, right, so there’s a delay? Yeah, it sucks that we didn’t find out until now.” But that doesn’t change anything. You just have to figure it out.

It was one of those classic things where I kind of found out I wasn’t doing it because I saw a different person’s name on it [in the solicitations]. That’s comics for you. Yeah, I wasn’t thrilled about that.

On January 22, 2016, an image appeared on the Twitter feeds of both Dan DiDio and Jim Lee. It featured a pair of closed curtains, upon which was projected one word: “REBIRTH.” A month later, on February 18, DC revealed exactly what Rebirth would be: another relaunch of its entire superhero line, effectively bringing the New 52 to an end. Rebirth was slated to begin with a May 2016 special issue, before beginning in earnest the following month, bringing the New 52 titles that had been running since the launch of the line to an end with issue #52.

By the last month of the New 52, DC’s share of the comic book direct market had fallen to 26.34 percent — down from its 34.76 percent share the month before the New 52 had launched in 2011 — while the rest of the direct market had grown significantly in the interim.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

It worked for a while. Three years might not sound like a long period of success, but quite honestly, you got to remember where we started. Ultimately, where we finished, we’re still at a better point than where we started, you know?

All of our learnings by that time led to Rebirth. Rebirth was just a statement on what the market truly was, [opposed to] what we wanted it to be. The New 52 is what I would hope the market would be, with all these diverse comics: Here are my romance books, here are my war books, all that stuff out there. By the time we get to Rebirth, you realize there’s really just a focus and a real hunger for the primary characters. So we fed that two times over.

Truth be told, I think the New 52 ended because the cycle and windows had collapsed on people’s expectations, which is an interesting thing. I think Paul Levitz put that in my head when I first got into DC. He said to me that a lot of times what would happen is that you would launch a character, they would have a period of time to run, before ultimately wind up failing. And then it would be what we used to call toxic, meaning you couldn’t do anything with the character, and you had to put it on a shelf for five years, let the toxicity fade away, and then you bring it back out and you relaunch them.

But then what was happening was that we were closing those windows [at the start of the New 52]; we were canceling books and relaunching them within a month or two months, so we collapsed a lot of those windows. So the expectation started to collapse, so you have an expectation and delivery. And when you deliver to a number, then you have to exceed that number and exceed that number and you’re constantly having to challenge yourself to be bigger and better and bolder. And then when you start to fade, then you have to scramble to find ways to compensate for that.

V. Five Years Later

Wonder Woman smashes a pane of glass, each fragment showing a different incarnation of herself through continuity. “No wonder the story keeps changing, she says,” in Wonder Woman: Rebirth #1 (2016).
Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman: Rebirth #1.
Image: Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark/DC Comics

At this point in history, the New 52 is widely regarded as a creative failure due to the behind-the-scenes creative disputes that went public and shifting aesthetic tastes. Though it’s safe to say that every comic book fan reading at the time has their own “most underrated comic” bearing the “The New 52!” logo on the cover.

That said, it’s impossible to ignore the missteps. It’s one thing to make poor creative choices, but the dysfunction involved in making the comics is something that remains a difficult topic for many to fully address. For everyone who participated in this oral history, there were three key players who declined because the memories weren’t something they wanted to revisit. Some remain angry over their treatment, others upset at what happened to them and others. Five years after the New 52 was officially put to bed as a going concern in the publishing sense, it remains a hot button issue for many of the people involved in its creation.

DC’s publishing initiative proved that branded line-wide relaunches drove publicity and attention, and could gain significant buy-in from both retailers and readers, at least in the short term. 13 months after the launch of the New 52, Marvel embarked on its first branded line-wide relaunch — Marvel NOW! — to great success, beginning a cycle of similar relaunches on a near-annual basis to goose sales. The relaunch became a source of inspiration for animation, merchandise, and Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe, including new incarnations of Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel, the idea of Jane Foster as Thor, and Matt Fraction and David Aja’s critically acclaimed Hawkeye, which is the basis for the upcoming Disney Plus Hawkeye series.

For its part, DC has relaunched its line only twice in the past decade — with 2016’s DC Universe Rebirth, and this year’s Infinite Frontier — with each subsequent refresh undoing the narrative elements of the New 52’s reboot to a greater degree. To some degree, lessons have been learned from what came before … but are they the right lessons?

Image: Marvel Comics
A 2012 house advertisement for the first slate of Marvel Now! titles.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

There are a lot of really valid complaints, but not the ones you think.

I mean, everybody was so worried about [offering digital releases on the same sale date as physical for the first time] and it didn’t make any dent into the physical sales at all. It hit a certain plateau and never really changed in the five years of the New 52. I thought that was always intriguing, that everybody was saying “Come on, digital comics is going to be where it’s at.” It might be a reading spot for people. I’m not sure if it’s a buying spot for people.

There was a level of inconsistency in the storytelling — as I explained, we did a lot of planning up-front to get to the New 52 launch. So, when you look at the first six months, I’ll tell you, honestly, some of the best books DC put out during my time were there. Just really powerful, wonderful storytelling top to bottom.

Then what happened is, the schedule starts to get you, and we start to make some tweaks and changes along the way and your own success gets in your way. You don’t spend the same amount of time and energy getting it right to the rules of what [the] New 52 was, and the proper introduction, and how things work, and making the changes to the characters valuable.

Later, because people are rushing, you’re getting superficial changes that almost feel like somebody is dusting something off — it’s different, but it’s not really. And that’s what started to lead to the confusion. You started to get things that felt just slightly off from where you remember them. So why bother reinventing it in the first place? And I think that’s the most valid argument you’re going to get from everybody. The level of attention to the reinvention became less and less as they progressed.

Therefore, you just got a jumbled sense of past continuity, new continuity and a mix with half hearted reintroductions that really didn’t work for the story, and didn’t really satisfy the long term fans. That’s the dead zone, where once you fall into that mud, you’re trying to dig yourself out, but you’re just sinking quicker and quicker. It’s pulling you underground.

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

The thing that I do wish was different at the time is that I wish there was a plan. A lot of it came from, I think, the suddenness of the whole idea. I think there was an element of spontaneity to it that was exciting, there was this sense of possibility, this sense of purpose, we were going to make these characters fun and dynamic and show what we loved about them but in ways that pushed them forward! But in the long run, I think that it hurt us not to have a blueprint that people could follow group to group, because it created these silos of creators and editors that were protective of their version of what they were building.

Judd Winick Writer on the New 52 titles Catwoman, Batwing, Batman: The Dark Knight

Some of these characters are 70, 80 years old. All of them need major reboots every few years. It’s funny: Comics, which gave birth to these characters, are allowed to reinvent themselves when they change mediums, like a TV show or a motion picture. Everyone is a lot more forgiving about the changes that “have to be made“ when it’s in another medium, but you try to change it up in comic books, people get crazy.

I never thought any reboot wiped out my stories. My stories are still there. They are not going anywhere. They’re collected. You can buy them in ebooks. They’re right there. Forever. The fact that it might not be part of canon anymore doesn’t bother me. Folks sometimes should take a step back and really look at what this is as a medium, and realize that it has to evolve. And that’s the fun part in a lot of ways.

Brenden Fletcher Writer on the New 52 titles Batgirl, Gotham Academy, the DCYou title Black Canary

I thought the concept of marketing a “new start” was spot on and was happy to see it find success. But I was overall disappointed in the choices that were made [in the first three years of the line]. Not to diminish the great work that was done on the titles themselves!! Man, there are some strong series in that line of New 52 books. I just think the angle of the entire relaunch was askew.

To me, this was the chance to push their universe of characters forward, in the way Julius Schwartz and company had done in the ’50s, when “the Flash” evolved from helmeted Jay Garrick to super-science hero Barry Allen. That evolution continued in an organic way over the decades in each title — Wally West as the Flash, Dick Grayson as Batman! — but, to my mind, the New 52 was an opportunity to throw down a marker announcing the next new status quo of their popular heroes across the line of books. And to execute in a variety of styles, appealing to a wider audience.

To let a new potential readership know they were getting in on the ground floor of an all new Superman and Wonder Woman and Batman and that these characters would be the stars of those books for the foreseeable future. Not a gimmick, but the passing of the mantle in a new chapter of an ongoing saga.

[I’m] happy to see all of this happening in the current line of DC Comics.

“The Superman of this world is dead,” says a bearded Superman in a black and white costume, floating in the Fortress of Solitude, “and I can’t bring him back,” in Superman #1 (2016).
During Convergeance, an unchanged version of Superman from before the New 52 was able to travel to modern DC continuity to replace the New 52 version, eventually erasing virtually all the New 52 changes to Superman.
Image: Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Doug Mahnke/DC Comics

Scott Snyder Writer on the New 52 titles Batman, Swamp Thing, Superman Unchained

We were all trying to make this thing [that] we believed in work, and it would be dire if it didn’t work. A lot of people were saying that it wouldn’t work — retailers were yelling, if you took away the history, it would collapse, if you did day-and-date, it would collapse, on and on, that we would ruin comics. I think there was just this tension around the whole thing. There was this extremely high electric tension the entire time.

It was defiant, and combative, and fun, in terms of trying something that was supposed to feel new and exciting, and it was built with love, love [for] the characters of DC, but it was wild in that way, too, and in being wild, there was also frustration. I saw some creators build things that never came to pass; others suddenly get to build. That’s comics a lot of the time, honestly, but here, it was like comics on Red Bull.

Christy Marx Writer on the New 52 titles Sword of Sorcery, Birds of Prey

In all, it was a combination of having a wonderful time working with good people on cool books and suffering the usual run of frustrations and incomplete stories. I say “usual” because these are after all corporate IP and you have to be prepared for the slings and arrows that come with it. Bottom line, I love the comics medium and I love writing comics. That’s the fun part.

Dan DiDio DC vice president starting in 2002, DC co-publisher from 2010-2020

The outside world recognized [the] New 52 as a great jumping on point for them, and latched on to our interpretations for [the] New 52 to make it their interpretations in other media. Which was one of the goals — to align all these sensibilities and create one vision that people can really latch on to, and move into other mediums as well.

It really did focus [on] the idea of DC having multiple properties in multiple areas: Here are your supernatural characters, here are your teen characters. There was a small war/adventure line there, which is so weird to think about from a mainstream publisher these days in comics. You had multiple war books and a Western in there! That’s crazy.

I would say, we got about a good three and a half years of what I hoped would have been five years. But I think, just because of the sheer volume of material, the idea that you can do something and then leave it and let it run for a dozen years isn’t a reality anymore. We’ve created a different expectation in the marketplace of this constant sense of reinvention.

The goal was to see whether or not there was more [direct market] audience out there. And yeah, I think we know the answer.