Not Another Reboot! The Many Rebirths of Comic Book Universes

Valiant Comic Book Superheroes
Valiant Comics

We're on the cusp of DC's Rebirth, which has simultaneously freaked out fans of DC Comics (another reboot?!), and excited many, as DC promises to restore the legacy of their rich universe.

As comic fans know, this is far from the first time a comic book publisher has hit the reset button on their continuity or universe. 

Sure, shared universes and decades long collaborative story-telling are part of what makes comic books so amazing, but they can also create serious barriers to entry for new audiences.

And of course the Wu-Tang Clan's strongest rule of law (C.R.E.A.M.) may play a slight role in the sudden onslaught of new #1 issues from a Big 2 publisher.

I'll take a look at the tradition of comic book reboots, and the rationale and lessons that come along with each. Whether you want to call it a retcon, reboot, or rebirth, here's the grand comic book history of the universe-reset.

DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths

What was the point?

In 1985, DC Comics had reached a convoluted state of multiple Earths, multiple Supermen, and complex continuity. Or as the layman would call it, comics.

Crisis on Infinite Earths sought to compress the sprawling DC multiverse to ONE Earth, and simultaneously tell the biggest story in DC history.

Was Crisis on Infinite Earths a Good Reboot?

It's certainly interesting, and a tentpole event for DC Comics, with George Perez drawing the living heck out of just about every DC character to ever appear in a floppy.


That said, Crisis on Infinite Earths is as sprawling and untamed as the multiverse it's trying to corral. On one hand, the inclusion of the ENTIRE DC Universe is thrilling, but it also requires a DC Character Gallery on a second monitor in front of you. 

Over 30 years later, Crisis is generally more "essential" than "enjoyable," and I say that as a fan of both the Anti-Monitor and Barry Allen racing through time to warn people of danger.

The impact of Crisis on Infinite Earths is undeniable, and the Crisis led to the likes of John Byrne's Man of Steel and Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. All in all, I'd call that a success.

What Lessons Could Have Been Learned Here?

The trick to Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the thing that makes it so interesting, is telling a good DC Universe story while simultaneously executing a transparently publisher-focused goal. In hindsight it's quite clear, but reading Crisis for the first time, I was far more focused on the Anti-Monitor and the heroic performances of Supergirl and Barry Allen than the behind-the-curtain machinations of a bunch of editors trying to write out Golden Age Superman. 

Again, Crisis on Infinite Earths is almost by definition messy, but the one thing it got right: Tell a memorable story that has a real impact on the entire comic book universe!

Zero Hour: A Crisis in Time

What Was The Point?

Uh...*tugs at shirt collar*... to correct the colossal continuity complexity created by Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Was Zero Hour a Good Reboot?

There's a major lasting impact from Zero Hour, and the beginnings of a very interesting idea, with Hal Jordan becoming Parralax and threatening the entire DC Universe.

That said, Zero Hour is a very messy DC event, with a surprising dedication to course correcting the history of Hawkman in the DCU

If you haven't heard of Zero Hour, there's a pretty good reason, as this is DC's most forgettable 'Crisis.' To its credit, Zero Hour does make Crisis on Infinite Earths stand out even more as an achievement. 

What Lessons Could Have Been Learned Here?

Maybe structuring entire storylines around editorial consistency isn't good for storytelling? 

Heroes Reborn

What Was The Point?

DC has always had a bit of a head start on Marvel Comics, who impressively made it from 1961 (Fantastic Four #1) to 1996 without technically rebooting their universe. You could count 1995's Age of Apocalypse here, but regardless, that's a strong 30+ year run from Marvel.

Then Onslaught happened.

For the unfamiliar, Onslaught was an X-Men villain formed by the merging of Professor Xavier and Magneto's psyches. Extremely long story short, the only way the Marvel heroes could defeat him was by running into a portal together and (seemingly) ending their lives. 

Heroes Reborn (not to be confused with the surprisingly fun NBC TV show of the same name) was a way to tell new Iron Man, Avengers, and Fantastic Four stories in the wake of their (apparent) end at the hands of Onslaught. It also offered a testing ground for things like teenage Tony Stark.

Was Heroes Reborn a Good Idea?

Before the obligatory teenage Tony Stark insult, there's actually a kernel of a good idea here, which we'll see more fully realized by Marvel's Ultimate Universe. The problem with Heroes Reborn isn't necessarily the idea (rebooting Marvel's core heroes for a new audience, with uniquely talented creators), but the execution. These just aren't very good comics, and Heroes Reborn is generally derided as a result.

What Lessons Could Have Been Learned Here?

When reimagining characters, stay true to the spirit of the character. 

Ultimate Universe

What was the point?

You could point to Marvel Knights from a couple years earlier as well, but essentially the Ultimate Universe was an effort to course correct the mistakes of Heroes Reborn, while simultaneously reimagining the Marvel Universe for the 2000's.

Was the Marvel Ultimate Universe a Good Idea?

Absolutely, and for it's first five years or so, the Ultimate Universe was the best executed reboot in comic books.

It's actually kind of shocking that given the Ultimate Universe's initial success, DC didn't "Ultimate U" their New 52 (don't worry, that's coming).

In short, the Ultimate Universe is to this day one of the best entrance points for new Marvel readers, and a consistently great reading experience up until Ultimatum literally and figuratively ate the experiment from the inside out

What Lessons Could Have Been Learned Here?

Don't be afraid of new ideas. So much of the Ultimate Universe is big, bold, and weird in a way Marvel's Earth-616 wouldn't have embraced. It's why we see things like evil Reed Richards (The Maker), and The Death of Spider-Man and rise of Miles Morales. 

Unsurprisingly, these are also some of the best Marvel Comics developments of the 2000's.

Green Lantern: Rebirth

What Was the Point?

After Zero Hour, the original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, was essentially removed from the Green Lantern picture. Rebirth sought to bring him back.

Was Green Lantern: Rebirth a Good Idea?

In a lot of ways, I want to say no. I love the idea of DC's legacy characters, and passing the Green Lantern torch from Hal Jordan to John Stewart to Kyle Rayner is a big part of what makes Green Lantern interesting.

Nonetheless, this soft reboot won me and plenty of other readers over on the entire concept of the Green Lantern corps, as well as the heroism and will of Hal Jordan. I don't necessarily need my Green Lantern to be Hal, but Geoff John's time on the title gives the character value. 

Amazingly, Green Lantern's rebirth was so successful, DC was running it's universe-wide events (Blackest Night, Brightest Day) through GL by the end of the 2000's.

What Lessons Could Have Been Learned Here?

Quite appropriately, "Rebirth" solidifies the value of DC Comics legacy, while still maintaining the capacity to tell new stories and grow the shared universe.

The Valiant Universe (2011)

What was the point?

A (finally) non-Big 2 publisher! The reboot's purpose is pretty clear here: To restore Valiant Universe comics for a new era. It's a little easier to "reboot" a Universe when there otherwise isn't one, but still, we'll count it.

Was The Valiant Universe relaunch a Good Idea?

Oh yeah. The Valiant U is an extremely fun superpowered universe, and perhaps more importantly, highly accessible to new comic book readers. 

The initial books are also remarkably consistent, regardless of creative teams and style. You can't go wrong with the likes of Harbinger, X-O Manowar, or Archer & Armstrong. If you've never read a Valiant comic, I highly recommend picking up any of those #1 issues and diving in.

What Lessons Could Have Been Learned Here?

It's a lot of fun to dive into a new, high quality superhero universe, free of the burdens of decades-long continuity. This is not likely a lesson that would apply to the Big 2 publishers, but what about Image Comics and their long dormant 90's superhero titles? 

DC's New 52

What Was the Point?

Even though it's more recent, the New 52 is still moderately difficult to explain. There's the obvious sales appeal of relaunching the entire DC Universe from scratch with new #1 issues, and frankly, it's hard to get past that. If I were going to put on some rose-colored glasses and gulp a stiff drink, though, I'd say the New 52 reacts to a lot of the same concerns Crisis on Infinite Earths was assuaging in 1985. After all, is it easier for new readers to jump into Detective Comics #811, or Batman #1?

Was The New 52 A Good Idea?

No. No, it really was not, and thankfully DC appears ready to admit that and move on a mere five years later.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of really strong DC Comics to come out of the New 52, particularly at launch. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman is one of the all-time great runs on the Caped Crusader, and the likes of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chang's Wonder Woman produced one of my personal favorite (if controversially origin-changing) runs on Wonder Woman. There have also been terrifically interesting latter stage New 52 runs like Gotham Academy, or Grayson.

As a whole, though, the New 52 is deeply flawed, and simply never developed any long or even intermediate-term plans for what to do after the thrill of "new" wore off.

What Lesson Could Have Been Learned Here?

Don't erase comic book history that your current fans love. It seems like an easy one, but DC learned it the hard way.

Marvel Star Wars

What was the point? 

To restore the expanded Star Wars Universe to the original trilogy timeline. Well, that and to print money for Disney, but that's less fun.

Was the Marvel Star Wars Reboot a Good Idea?

It's a slightly depressing answer since Dark Horse really in no way wanted to give up the Star Wars comics license, and had spent over 20 years doing some great work with the Star Wars expanded universe. This actually isn't even the first Star Wars Comics rebirth, with Dark Horse Comics' launching Star Wars: Dark Empire in 1991 after Marvel owned the original title through the original trilogy years.It's hard not to look at Marvel's Star Wars and feel a pang of empathy for everything from Star Wars Tales to Star Wars: Legacy.

That said, the reboot is a great idea, and coincides perfectly with the enthusiasm for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As much as I enjoy Star Wars expanded universe, it had also grown unruly and challenging over the course of multiple timelines and canonical stories. 

A return to the core trilogy has proven to be exactly what Star Wars comics needed, especially in the wake of renewed Star Wars fandom following The Episode VII.

What Lesson Could Have Been Learned Here?

The prequels led to a lot of introspection for all of us.

Marvel Now / All-New All-Different

What was the point? 

Even though Marvel NOW! launched in late 2012 and All-New All-Different Marvel launched in late 2015, I lump the soft-reboots together. Marvel NOW! doesn't actually reboot much of anything in the Marvel Universe, and instead is a quite deliberate new-reader, old-collector friendly initiative chalk-full of #1 issues. If you've been invested in Marvel continuity since Marvel Knights in 1998, well, Marvel NOW! doesn't really change any of that. In fact, one of its flagship titles at launch, Uncanny Avengers, was a direct result of Avengers vs. X-Men, the pre-Marvel NOW! universe-wide event.

All-New All-Different Marvel is effectively the same thing, except in this case the preceding event, secret Wars, actually does transform universes. There are more significant changes to the Marvel U superspace, but again, if you've been invested in Marvel continuity since 1998, not much changes here.

Was The Marvel NOW and ANAD Reboot a Good Idea?

A lot of fans bristle at the repetitive #1 relaunches, and Marvel has unquestionably overdone the numerical relaunches, with some books lasting under 10 issues prior to a new #1.

At its best, the initiatives have encouraged Marvel to launch creator-focused series like Hawkeye, She-Hulk, and Rocket Raccoon, along with several other great series. 

What Lesson Could Have Been Learned Here?

A number one issue means something to comic book fans, and an overabundance is unappealing. Even for new readers, the idea of starting with issue #1 is clear, but it becomes increasingly diluted when there are multiple #1 issues to choose from.