Reboots are becoming a frequent occurrence in franchises. This year in the film industry we’ve seen the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and we have The Amazing Spiderman to look forward to next year. However, one of the biggest reboots of all time is actually beginning today with DC’s new 52, transitioning from the end of summer story arc Flashpoint #5 to the new Justice League #1. Every single DC character is getting rebooted, starting at issue #1. For a character as storied as Superman, whose comics number in the 700s, this is a pretty big deal.
DC’s decision to reboot functions on several levels. In addition to restarting the each series at #1, presumably to to allow new readers to get into the comics on the ground floor, DC will now begin releasing all issues digitally on the same day as well. But whatever business rationale made the DC brass come to this decision, it has some interesting implications for all of the characters in the DC Universe.
While I don’t read comics much anymore, a complete reboot of the DC Universe is pretty interesting because it more or less unshackles comic writers from nearly 70 years of continuity. As you can imagine, in a fictional place as large as the DC Universe, things can get a bit convoluted after all of the different story lines by different writers, as well as the continuity bending crossovers of different series as well as official retcons of plot points and story arcs.
Wiping the slate clean, or as DC has said, “soft reboot[ing]” the DC universe, will allow popular characters to get a makeover and gain new backstories. There are some caveats in doing this however. When you’re working with a franchise with so much history, you must be creatively cautious. A new spin on any character could have a lot of implications for fans of the franchise. Marvel avoided this issue with their reboot Marvel Ultimates by releasing it alongside their main series of Marvel comics. These rebooted characters live in a different universe than regular Marvel characters. DC has decided to hedge their bets on the fact that readers will accept the changes to their beloved characters.
From a creative perspective, I think this is a difficult move to achieve successfully. Let’s look at the example of Superman. Throughout the years we have known him as Kal-El from Krypton, Clark Kent, a member of the Justice League, and a rival of the evil Lex Luthor. It is certainly possible that Superman’s new backstory could completely do away with these ideas but retain the name Superman (we at least know he’s still in the Justice League). While I think it’s unlikely that his alter-ego is going away, my point here is that any significant change to his backstory provides a problem for readers. Who are they reading about it? Are they reading about Superman or are they reading about a different character? The cover of Justice League America #1 depicts Superman in a t-shirt and denim jeans. Does this person resemble the character we’ve grown to know and love over all of these years?
It begs the question of what exactly a reboot constitutes. If they’ve simply decided to tell the same story over, the only benefit is starting from the beginning of a familiar tale with a modern twist and new additions. If they’ve decided to completely change his origins, it’s a totally different issue and a different problem from a creative perspective. They have to retain enough of the original character so that a familiar fan will be both intrigued by the “newness” of the character but also be able to say to themselves that this is the Superman that they grew up with. The writers have to be careful to craft a story line that simultaneously differs and refers to its source material, and that’s no easy task.
As every single character is being rebooted, we’re going to see a lot of new titles being rolled out in the near future (52, to be exact!). Every single one of these will take place within the new DC Universe. That’s already a lot of continuity to keep up with. I’m going to pick up Justice League #1 today to take a look and see what they’ve been able to achieve and how the new Justice League feels. As DC publishes the stories of some of America’s most beloved characters, I’m hoping that these reboots are executed well and receive a good reception. Convoluted continuities or not, superheroes have grown to be an intrinsic part of American pop-culture and I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be familiar with the Man of Steel or the Dark Knight anymore.