What Happened to the DC Universe?

In this think piece, Alex breaks down the critical decisions that led to the downgrade in quality DC suffered for half a decade.

The DC Universe is a complex place.  The Rebirth event has brought back many pre-Crisis events and heroes, and the universe is stronger than ever.  Before this, though, the publisher found themselves in a bit of hot water.  Way back in 2004, DC released a 7 issue limited series titled Identity Crisis.  The story, written by Brad Meltzer, a sort of deconstruction in the style of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, was about the Justice League coming together to solve the mystery of who killed The Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibney. Long story short, The story contained many unneeded plot points featuring death and questions of morality, and also served to lead into the later stories of Countdown  and Infinite Crisis.  In general, these stories were an unfortunate darkening of the usually brighter DC Universe.

Comparisons can be drawn to the Marvel Universe, a trend that DC would double down with later on. Heroes became less “inspiring figures to look up to” and evolved into more grounded, regular like people; just as paranoid, untrusting, and likely to have problems.  This stayed and mixed with decently quality books coming out at the time, but would ultimately serve to help guide us to one of the most controversial decisions regarding the DC Universe.  The reboot in question?  2011’s Flashpoint.  By the end of this alternate history tale, Barry Allen ran through time and appeared to fuse the DC, Wildstorm, and Vertigo comic imprints.  This caused a line-wide reboot and created a bold new universe, known simply as “The New 52.”

The DC Universe appeared to start over and reset, bringing it’s most well known heroes back to their primes and beginnings of their careers, like a “year zero” type origin story, but for the entire DC Universe.  The books had their  brand new #1 issues and following continuity establish that there was no longer a legacy behind these names.  Things like the previous stories I mentioned seemed never to have happened, and the new status quo became familiar but strangely different heroes.  The color in the art became muted and darker, and there seemed to be a more serious, darker hue to the characters, and the art itself became needlessly overly complex – even comic book legend Jim Lee had a hard time maintaining the detail on a weekly basis.

“The New 52” was a mixed bag, boasting terrific (if unsustainable) artwork and terrifically written narratives, amid duds and wasted reboots. It gave us great stories like Scott Snyder’s Batman, Grant Morrison and Greg Pak’s Superman and Geoff Johns’ Justice League run, but it also gave us cringe inducing and insulting titles like the New 52 versions of Red Hood and the OutlawsTeen Titans, and The Green Team: Teen Trillionaires.  The whole reboot was met with deservedly mixed reception; some liked the changes, others did not appreciate them.

Corrina Lawson of Wired gave her opinion on the New 52 at one point, calling it a “big, fat failure” from a reader standpoint, but did note that it succeeded in increasing DC’s market share.

The biggest thing to note there is that the loss of legacy for long time teams and characters (sans a few stories like Killing Joke) made long time reader feel the company was taking away the things they had come to care about.  In particular though, there were four big problems The New 52 created:

  • Lack of Female Creators
  • Portrayal of Female Characters
  • Restoration of Barbara Gordon’s mobility and Aftermath
  • Editorial Controversies

Getting into the first of those 4 problems, lack of female creators.  One of the more controversial things in the New 52 was the creative team choices.  The percentage of female creators at DC was dropping slowly, with only Gail Simone and Amy Reeder being notable female writers or artists.  A fan asked then Co-publisher Dan DiDio about this drop in female artists/writers, and Didio’s response was a snide, ” What do those numbers mean to you? What do they mean to you? Who should we be hiring? Tell me right now. Who should we be hiring right now? Tell me.”  DC seemed to be marketing to one specific group – boys and men, and DiDio’s comments seemed to double down on that.

The lack of female presence didn’t seem to disturb them as much as it did readers, and Gail Simone was actually once fired over e-mail and then rehired.  DC did later release a letter stating that they were working to resolve the issue and were planning on debuting more female created books.  The second problem was their portrayal of female characters in their books.  This one was the perennial problem of the reboot and one that plagued so many of it’s books.  the biggest example to cite here is former Teen Titan Starfire:

(Pictured: Starfire.  really?!)

We seeing the problem here?  This is NOT how you treat a storied, important character whether male or female.  Starfire had big ties with the Teen Titans or a group similar to them here (it’s hinted she was on a team in the first issue of New 52 Red Hood and the Outlaws that she was in some group with Dick Grayson, Beast Boy and others) but here, Speedy/Arsenal (Red Arrow) brings them up and she remembers none of them, and this is further cemented by Tim Drake in the Teen Titans book showing that his team was the only incarnation in this universe.

The writers decided her character should be basically oversexualization for boys, and she’s depicted in this run wearing very, very skimpy outfits and Jason Todd even says, ” Turns out Tamaraneans don’t see humans as much more than sights and smells.  And they have a terribly short attention span about all things Earth.  Seriously, when you get a chance, ask her about the gang you used to hang with.”  The implication is obviously that Starfire can’t remember people unless she’s had sex with them or some kind of physicality, which is a really misogynistic thing to imply.

Admittedly, sexualization is a pretty big portion of the comic book fantasy. Men and women look desirable for a purpose – to drawn in teenage buyers. Starfire has been a sexually promiscuous character for most of her career, but never to the extent that it was drawn upon here. Her purpose was never to be a sexual object.

Characters like Catwoman, Barbara Gordon, and Harley Quinn aren’t treated much better.  All of them ended up having cringe inducing things happen to them in the oversexualization department, notably in the way they’re drawn.  Here’s an example with Catwoman. I will grant you, Catwoman does use her sexuality a bit, she’s not shy about it, but this is not something she’d be needing to do.  The writer of the book at the time, Judd Winick, explained that DC wanted the tone that made the DCU less interesting and inclusive.

Speaking of that, that leads us to the next problem, which is that of Barbara Gordon’s restored mobility and the aftermath.  In June of 2011, DC announced that Barbara Gordon would be returning to action as Batgirl. This struck both fans and Gail Simone (writer of Birds of Prey and the incoming writer for this title) the wrong way certainly.  The idea that Barbara would just get over the spine injury that ended her Batgirl career and set the character on a new path as Oracle was met with resistance from long time readers, who felt DC was taking away an iconic character of the disabled community.  At the same time, former Batgirls Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown were stripped of the history that had been with them and removed from ever having been Batgirl.  Gail Simone herself had fought making Barbra Batgirl again for years but accepted writing this because she felt her main objection to the idea no longer applied.  Former writer of Bat-family comics Dennis O’Neil and Oracle co-creator John Ostrander were disappointed with this, however.  They expressed a sentiment that Barbara was stronger as Oracle than as Batgirl, having overcome a disability and still being just as good a hero without using violent means.  Ostrander did however state he had faith in Simone’s writing, as she was a friend of his.

And, in that vein, that bring us to the fourth and final problem of the New 52: Editorial Controversies.  If there’s one thing that is remembered about the New 52, it’s the numbers of firings, resignations, and cancelling titles that went on during it.  The first example here is George Perez, who left being writer/artist of the Superman book due to inconsistent reasons for rewrites of his material, editors’ inability to give answers on the new status quo for Superman, and not even being told that Grant Morrison’s Action Comics was set five years before the Superman book, because his book needed to be consistent with it (this was July 2012).  The month after that, Rob Liefeld (of Image Comics fame) announced he was quitting the company, which would end his run on GrifterDeathstroke, and The Savage Hawkman, and his final issues would be the #0 issues out that September.  Liefeld made no secret of his disdain for several editors and other writers, getting into heated exchanges with Brian Smith, Pete Woods, Marvel’s Tom Brevoort, Gail Simone, and Batman writer Scott Snyder as he left.  As mentioned above, in December 2012, Gail Simone was unceremoniously fired over email.  The backlash from fans and friends  alike forced DC to rehire her a few days later.

As one can see, the issues that plagued The New 52 were far from a creative standpoint – the entire initiative was met with obstacles from every level of DC Entertainment. We can sit and argue with the results, or pick apart the good intentions with some of the more awful decisions, but in the end it was poor management that fought back DC’s attempts to make things young and fresh. The New 52 reboot lasted five years and was finally laid to rest in 2016 in favor of the old continuity, the line wide reboot welcomed as a “Rebirth.”

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