WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Action Comics #978 & The Flash #21
Ever since DC Comics relaunched their comic book catalogue as a re-imagined New 52, fans have noticed more and more of DC's previous history creeping back into this supposed "clean slate." And with the "Rebirth" relaunch having changed the shape of the DC Universe as a whole, it appears the publisher is finally wiping the premise of the New 52 clean. Starting with Superman, Batman, and the Justice League, the "fresh start" New 52 continuity is being replaced with beloved stories, decades-long friendships, and key DC events that shaped the previous universe.
We doubt that DC Comics itself will frame the decision as such, given that the New 52 did attract new fans and storylines with its younger, updated, and less familiar re-imaginings. They're not wrong, either, since plenty of New 52 stories are currently informing the DC movie universe. But fans who felt that too much was sacrificed in the creation of the New 52 have seen their prayers answered, with "Rebirth" working the publisher's decision into the fiction itself - claiming the love, legacy, and years lost were actually stolen by an unknown enemy.
That plan has apparently led to this week's revelations offered in Action Comics #978, The Flash #21, and even a tease of more returning pre-New 52 heroes elsewhere. Large portions of New 52 history have been tossed aside, so we're here to explain how the DC Universe now appears when compared to the New 52 reboot, as well as the continuity it replaced.
Superman's New (Old) Origin Story
The story of how it has happened begins back in DC Universe: Rebirth #1, but the real meat of the story twist was more recently seen in "Superman: Reborn." It was that story that finally explained the "death" of the New 52 Superman as anything but, seeing that younger Superman and his older counterpart (the Superman of yesterday who escaped the New 52 reboot) merge into a single body. New 52 Superman and Post-Crisis Superman became one, and a mysterious spectator of this whole "Rebirth" intrigue noted that doing so meant achieving the impossible.
The result wasn't just merging two versions of the same person together, but merging their history, lives, memories, and entire reality into a new origin story. The new Superman costume embracing the classic design over the New 52 'armor' hinted at which version would see most of their history kept intact, and it extends to most of the new canon origin of Superman. We've explained Superman's new Rebirth origin already, but this week's Action Comics #978 shows how pivotal the Man of Steel is in the fabric of the DC Universe.
Allowing the pre-New 52 version of Superman's life story to be "fit" into the New 52 continuity means large chunks of the universe must be rewritten. That includes Superman, Lois Lane, their son Jonathan, Doomsday... and why not Wonder Woman, Batman, and even the Justice League - who get glimpses of the pre-New 52 heroes they used to be, as well.
A New Justice League History
So, what old history of the Justice League has now been returned to the DC Universe? It may be easier to explain which ones haven't, since Action Comics follows Superman essentially double-checking his new memory of life so far with Kelex's own archives in the Fortress of Solitude. And after running through his own specific origin, Superman reaches the era of his career as a costumed crimefighter - where Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince come in as major players. And the simple fact that the three were longtime friends and allies by the time Clark and Lois had their son, Jonathan, it places their time together at well over a decade - largely breaking the premise of the New 52 in one detail.
Even before that decade began, Clark retraces his steps through the Post-Crisis continuity. He met Lois Lane as a Daily Planet reporter, and slowly but surely won her over in and out of his Clark Kent disguise, until he proposed, revealing he was both Clark and Superman. Before they could be married, as fans now know, Doomsday arrived to kill him - having already killed "the League" as Clark puts it, confirming that the Justice League predates every bit of that story. Not to mention the glimpses of Green Lantern witnessing Coast City's destruction in the fallout of DC's "Reign of the Supermen" - now having occurred ten years in the past, despite Eradicator and Doomsday returning in the New 52 Universe as part of "Rebirth."
Essentially, the version of history that Superman now remembers - and which is confirmed by Kelex's own observations - is the Post-Crisis version, leading right up to the present day. In other words, the New 52 version of the League's formation, and virtually all of the rebooted or re-imagined changes are no more. Meanwhile, as Batman and The Flash trip the Multiverse of time and space in The Flash #21, they catch a glimpse of the time that was previously "stolen" from their reality. They're moments taken straight from the classic version of the League's formation, including Barry Allen's death in the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. It goes without saying that the pair soon discover Flashpoint didn't erase or replace anything.
Still not enough of a dream come true for fans of the DC Universe that was? Then spend an hour or two investigating the new artifacts in the Justice League Watchtower's lost and found... confirming or teasing too many returned characters and villains to count.
Should The New 52 Simply Be Forgotten?
As we mentioned above, it would be jumping the gun to assume that the erasure of the New 52 continuity, and the return of classic DC continuity and timeline (thanks to Superman) is strictly an editorial decision. The world of "Rebirth" has been filled with mystery, deception, and looming, unseen threats from the start. So this twisting of reality could be the very thing that the shadowy, perhaps Watchmen-themed villain of the DCU was intending to prevent. Or, on the other hands, it's the moment they choose to strike, when what is real and what isn't is most confusing. That's not even considering the dreams Superman is having, in which he and his New 52 version battle it out for their right to exist... before endless variations of prior Supermen, Batmen, and Wonder Women burst back into existence.
The point is: DC Comics fans who wished the company would just return to the version of their universe that took decades to build have gotten their wish. Do you wish Superman had still worn his 'electric blue' suit in the past? Now he has, and remembers it vividly. Did you wish that Superman and Lois Lane could have raised Jonathan with help from their old friends Bruce and Diana? Well now they did.
It's as close as you can get to a resetting of the scales, and going back to 'the way things were' in a literal sense, after "Rebirth" did so in a narrative one. But just like Superman, we can't shake the feeling that this change to status quo is only beginning...
The Flash #21 and Action Comics #978 are available now.