WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Action Comics #978
From the moment the New 52 Superman returned to life, it was clear the DC Universe was only big enough for one Man of Steel. The answer was to merge the classic and new versions of Superman into a new hero, and now that Clark Kent has started to explore his own history, fans are learning just how drastically he may have re-written the fabric of space and time. Make no mistake: it's all in the service of making sure Superman's greatest, most beloved, and heartwarming moments are once again canon.
Changing the continuity or history of a shared comic book universe isn't easy, and is typically so far-reaching only major events or crossovers even attempt it. But with the new Superman of DC Comics, it seems the universe itself wants to return to a happier time. To a time when Superman loved Lois Lane, endured decades of insane adventures, stunned the world with his death and return, and finally settled down to raise a family. So how is it possible that it should all work in a universe not old enough for it to make any sense?
First, allow us to fill you in on the new Superman origin story that "Rebirth" was building toward. Then we'll see how much the New 52 reboot even applies.
From Two Supermen, One
The fans had a hard time believing that the New 52 Superman was dead for good when he turned to ash just before "Rebirth" began - and more likely removed from the living to let the older, pre-New 52 Supes return to the spotlight. They turned out to be right, but few expected DC to deliver the twist they ultimately revealed. For reasons that have yet to be completely explained, it was no longer possible for both Supermen to exist at the same time. When Jonathan Kent, Superman's son helped bring the New 52 Clark Kent and Lois Lane back to life, it reduced his parents to metaphysical forms. Only when the two Clarks realized that they seemed to be two halves more than two wholes, and merged one's memories and being with the other was Superman truly resurrected. Not the New 52 Superman, and not the older version from DC past - but an amalgam of both - with a brand new suit to boot.
As the mysterious 'watcher' of all things DC, Mr. Oz, took in that transformation, he watched as the impossible happened. Not only had two people joined into one cohesive whole, but the fabric and history of the DC Universe was reshaped to make room. At the time, it seemed like a simple solution: the villains who had been defeated by the older Superman now counted - they happened in this universe, not the one the New 52 replaced. The New 52 costume of Kryptonian armor? Superman wore it... while he and his wife, Lois Lane, delivered their child (with help from Wonder Woman, who had been Lois's friend, and never a love of Clark's).
To some, it seemed like an excuse, or 'cheap' solution on DC's part. But in the "Aftermath" of the "Superman: Reborn" story, readers are seeing just how much Superman's origin story has changed... by not changing. Long story short? Superman's life is, and was the one older fans remember... which means that the entire New 52 may have just been erased. But first, let's see what Superman's canonical history now looks like.
Superman's New History - Goodbye, New 52
The new origin is delivered in the pages of Action Comics #977 and #978, with Superman's life being remade into one every fan would make for him. Happy family, loving friends, and in all ways returned to his 'classic' state of being. But there's a problem... something just doesn't feel right. As if it all seems a little too easy. With Clark experiencing recurring dreams of other versions of Superman fighting to exist the way he and the New 52 version had, he heads to - where else? - the Fortress of Solitude. No longer believing his own memory, he requests that his Kryptonian robot butler, Kelex, recount his entire life's story. It's a way for new or confused readers to see what the new canon for the Man of Steel has become, and it's largely free from surprises in the first issue. Kal-El of Krypton was sent to Earth, found by the Kents, grew up with Lana Lang and Pete Ross, etc., etc..
In the second issue though, things start to change. Once Kelex begins to tell Superman of his superhero career in Metropolis, it soon becomes clear: this is NOT the New 52 version of Superman. Meeting Lois while falling from a helicopter is just the beginning of Superman's old history becoming his new history - with Supes himself confirming that, following his merge with the New 52 Superman, that is also the series of events he believes took place. Superman's battles with Mongul, Zod, Bizarro, Brainiac, and Parasite happened as they originally did. And the parade of Superman's most memorable alternate costumes - including the infamous 'Electric Blue' Supersuit - it's shown that it all now took place in the New 52 Universe.
Obviously, that confirms the increasingly obvious fact that DC's writers no longer pretend famous storylines never took place (Batman is a young man, but still somehow raised Jason Todd and saw him killed, and his return as an adult). But one Superman story above all others has finally rejoined the canon story - including the colorful characters that followed in its wake.
That's right, the Superman of the New 52 Universe has already died at the hands of Doomsday, leading to the emergence of Eradicator, Steel, and Cyborg Superman. The panels that follow confirm Clark returned to life - long hair and all - and married Lois Lane. But as this story unfolds from Superman's perspective, an unseen enemy is busy recruiting these same key players - now made real, along with their grievances with the Man of Steel. Metallo, Blanque, and finally the Eradicator are all recruited to unite against Superman by yet another villain seemingly 'returned to reality' with Superman so broadly reshaping it.
From that point, readers get to see how Clark Kent would have learned that he and Lois Lane were going to be parents. And here's where things get particularly meaningful for those who read through the New 52, and the older Superman's own survival of Flashpoint with wife and child. Since the original version of the story ended here, with Convergence pulling Superman from the main DC Universe, some changes are needed... because now, Superman never went anywhere. He stayed to see his son born with help from Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince, and in a clever story twist from writer Dan Jurgens, it was for Lois and Jonathan's safety that the Kent family moved away to a remote farm (not to stay hidden from a world already filled with a younger Superman).
That keeps Superman's black suit and beard in canon, as well as Lois Lane's career as a secret investigative reporter under the pseudonym 'Author X.' In this new reality, it wasn't out of fear or secrecy that the Kents lived a simple life for Jonathan's first ten years, but a desire to raise him as humbly and simply as Clark had been raised.
It was only after the League was established in its original form that Superman stepped away - showing in stark relief that in DC's eyes, the pre-New 52 Superman is the version of the hero whose life is being made the canonical one. It's not without some logic issues, including the fact that the entire DC Universe apparently got another decade or so older... a curious twist, considering that stolen decade was the main evidence of the New 52's Watchmen mastermind.
And now that it's returned, and Mr. Oz continues to watch Superman's return to normalcy... what consequences will Superman's actions have for everyone involved?
The Questions Left To Answer
As hinted at, it seems obvious that Superman's re-imagining of the DCU reality is going to catch the attention of the mystery villain who first stole those years to weaken Earth's heroes. That figure is largely believed to be Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan, who is famous for letting little slip by his view. So it's only a matter of time until he rectifies the situation (assuming this wasn't his plan the entire time).
The most telling twist, though, is the same one mentioned above: Superman has every reason to believe he's attained his supremely happy ending... but something is tugging at his mind. In the latest issue of DC's Trinity, Superman informs Wonder Woman and Diana of a recurring dream he's having, in which he and the New 52 Superman fight to be the one left existing. Whether it's an internal struggle, a nightmare, or a glimpse of what's to come in the DC Universe, it's the final shock of the dream that may be most telling. Waves of Supermen, Batmen, and Wonder Women wearing costumes from through history - and possibly throughout the main DC reality, not alternate Earths - appear in pursuit of their own return and liberation.
So for those keeping track: Superman has won on a scale only he can, returning to the New 52 Universe with his entire history intact, weaving reality itself to make that history the only one that occurred. But it's an imperfect answer for obvious reasons, and according to the voice inside of Superman's head... other heroes are going to fight for that same chance.
Needless to say, it's interesting times to be a DC reader. And if anyone knows what the "New 52 Universe" even means anymore, we're all ears.
Action Comics #978 and Trinity #8 are available now.