So, on the subject of how big changes to iconic characters always get rolled back --
There are two weird exceptions: Dick Grayson and Superman. Having gone on a long explanation of why replacing cultural icons never works (movies and TV will use the most popular default) -- the world at large knows Dick Grayson to be Robin, yet he's been Nightwing for decades and we've cycled through Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne.
Why is that? I suspect that, very simply, BATMAN comics have generally sold really well. With comics like GREEN LANTERN, THE FLASH and SPIDER-MAN, sales initially jumped when Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Oliver Queen and Peter Parker were replaced, but sales eventually hit a catastrophically low point where drastic action was needed and the course of action chosen was to hit the reset button HARD.
I guess BATMAN comics have never been in that sort of sales crisis. Even people who don't like superhero comics tend to find something in BATMAN to enjoy.
Kyle Rayner and Wally West actually sold quite well, Kyle for a decade and Wally for two -- but they were hit by the gradual softening of the comics market over time and the need to make an event of Hal and Barry return and give sales a jolt. I don't remember where Oliver Queen's sales were when he was killed off and replaced with Connor Hawke, but anecdotally, GREEN ARROW was barely on anyone's radar until Kevin Smith resurrected Oliver and turned GREEN ARROW into a big hit again. (Take the last one with a grain of salt.)
For Batman, there's never been a desperate need to go back to basics because none of the changes to Batman's mythos prevented writers from having Batman solve murders in Gotham City. Also, any writers who wanted to write Bruce and Dick stories could do so because he was still around.
It's weird because Dick Grayson himself is not the most interesting character, and I say that as someone who reads NIGHTWING religiously. Dick's been written by brilliant writers and drawn by superb artists who created hyperkinetic experiences of John Woo-esque ballet using Dick's acrobatic skills to showcase his circus background.
He's been put in interesting situations like when he became Batman and had to mentor a homicidal 10-year-old as the new Robin and found himself struggling to impersonate his mentor. But the character is so well-adjusted, so stable, so confident that he needs to be written by a writer with a vivid and distinct style to make up for Dick's lack of vivid distinctiveness.
With Superman -- I have no idea why the rollback was rolled back where the late-thirties, married Superman, post-reboot, become a mid-twenties bachelor.
ACTION COMICS retells the origin of Superman in 18 issues -- but with a ridiculous EIGHT different artists, all with completely opposing styles within the same individual issues -- so the art shifts from loose cartoonism to crisp photo-realism to motion-oriented exaggeration and back and forth and back and forth, often within the same scenes.
There's a decent script underneath the visual confusion of an urban vigilante Superman and a slum-dwelling Clark Kent growing in power and responsibility, but it's unreadable.
SUPERMAN, set five years after the origin story, has five different writers over the course of its first 31 issues and is a mess of directions that start and then abruptly disappear in the confusion of a rotating door of writers each of whom start stories they can't seem to finish. Clark becomes disenchanted with journalism, quits the Daily Planet, becomes a blogger -- but that plot gets sidetracked with alien invasions and crossovers with SUPERGIRL and SUPERBOY.
The crossovers themselves are halfway intriguing -- a Kryptonian seeks to destroy the Earth to create fuel for a time machine to undo the destruction of Krypton. Superman is infected by a virus that transforms him into the Doomsday monster. But with five or six writers writing each crossover, the stories become an exercise in each writer writing some variant on almost indistinguishible action sequences over and over again until it's around 25 - 30 issues of motionless stalling.
It's quite clear that SUPERMAN editorial could not get their act together: hiring creators to make bold choices, second-guessing those choices, creators quitting, eventually resorting to clumsy crossovers to boost sales. There is no sense of what Superman represents or any noteworthy style, voice, perspective, insight or deeper meaning -- any writer who brought any to the table got frustrated and took it away with them.
The best that can be said of the later crossovers is that the SUPERMAN editorial office worked out how to get multi-artist books to look good. They hired artists within the same range -- mostly loose-lined, motion-oriented exaggeration -- and made sure that the colourists could keep the pages consistent enough that it wasn't jarring. Why this skillful planning was missing from ACTION COMICS is beyond me.
That said, JUSTICE LEAGUE, after an incoherent opening arc, seemed to find its feet with the distinct personalities of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg bouncing off each other. Superman was a strong presence and his romance with Wonder Woman -- a sheltered farmboy falling for an Amazonian goddess -- was rather sweet.
JUSTICE LEAGUE also had a delightful and still ongoing arc where Luthor decides that the best way to win the acclaim and fame and wealth and regard and power he wants is to renounce Evil, become a superhero and join the League.
The SUPERMAN/WONDER WOMAN title was also excellent, featuring strong writing that explored a very complex relationship of two people who will always feel like outsiders. There was the nine-issue SUPERMAN UNCHAINED where Superman was forced to struggle with his unwillingness to interfere in global conflicts outside of relief work.
It was baffling how the people writing the outlier SUPERMAN titles without full control over the character were the ones doing their best work while the core SUPERMAN office seemed incapable of releasing a single coherent storyline without an exasperated writer quitting without finishing.
Outside of the Superman/Wonder Woman romance, the SUPERMAN office was unwilling to take any chances in committing to any creative vision whatsoever.
And then suddenly it was. Writer Greg Pak came aboard ACTION COMICS and plunged Superman into fantasy sci-fi with Superman discovering an underground population of monsters, creating civil rights allegories while keeping the book full of absurd visuals and showcasing Superman's empathy for all. DC seemed to step back and let a great team do great stories.
Then there was Geoff Johns taking over SUPERMAN for a brief arc of widescreen action matched with Superman battling an alien invasion that sought to use Superman's public persona against him. This led into Superman developing a new superpower: emitting a burst of solar energy that was highly destructive and would leave him powerless for 24 hours.
Johns was succeeded by new writer Gene Luen Yang who began having Superman deal with the delight and fragility of being human (got drunk for the first time) and the psychological mayhem of going back and forth between godlike powers and being normal. With SUPERMAN in excellent state, ACTION COMICS doing well and SUPERMAN/WONDER WOMAN a monthly delight, one wondered what had taken so long and why the writers could suddenly take chances.
The next storyline was TRUTH -- a strange story in that it was told out of order. But looking at it chronologically, it's an amazing storyline: Superman going from powered up to only human means he gets injured more often and while he heals, he begins to get sloppy in concealing his secret identity.
In BEFORE TRUTH, a villain finds out he's Clark Kent and begins blackmailing Superman into giving them bursts of his charged solar energy -- and Lois, having found out the secret as well, decides to put a stop to it by revealing Clark's secret to the world.
Villains start attacking Superman's friends. Clark Kent is wanted by the police, the Daily Planet wants to sue him for fraud, and Perry White feels betrayed by Superman masquerading as a normal person and knocks the glasses off his face.
And problematically, Clark discovers that the villains draining him via his solar flare power have somehow damaged his ability to store solar energy: his strength is reduced to lifting a truck; he can no longer fly; his supersenses are diminished and he's down to a few thousand in cash.
In SUPERMAN/WONDER WOMAN, Clark discovers that the power imbalance between himself and Wonder Woman has left him feeling crippled and inadequate. Watching her fly off to cosmic threats is heartrending. Worse, she interferes when Clark attempts to pilot a shuttle into the sun in a failed attempt to repower himself and steps into Clark's dealings with the CIA and the DHS when Clark asked her to stay out of it. Feeling betrayed by both Lois and Wonder Woman, Clark severs ties with both of them and sets off on his motorcycle.
Returning to Metropolis, Clark finds that his former neighbours declared his district to be Superman's town and began public protests demanding Superman be acquitted of all charges, resulting in brutal police officers storming on the protests and a weakened Superman chaining himself up with his neighbours.
This whole thing is a terrific storyline. Superman loses all the things that make him Superman -- and then keeps going anyway. He gives himself a buzz-cut, buys a Superman T-shirt and a motorcycle and carries on trying to do his job -- defending the city, fighting alien invaders, tracking down who has stolen his powers, teaming up with the JLA, battling monsters -- all the while getting beaten to a bloody pulp and dragging himself back to his feet.
At one point, in a reference to George Reeves' career, Clark spends his last $20 on tacos and is reduced to fighting in boxing matches for money. At first ashamed and humiliated, Clark begins to enjoy the show and the friendships he develops with other boxers.
Throughout this arc, Superman is homeless, depowered, weak, outmatched -- but he doesn't stop trying to be Superman, partially out of ego, partially due to his inability to stop getting involved in any trouble he comes across whether it's criminal, supernatural or paranormal even when he is completely out of his league.
At times, he struggles to keep himself on the level of a fireman and paramedic while the Justice League is handling the big threats. It's a beautiful examination of what it means to be Superman -- and you wonder how DC can go to these lengths with this character, taking big chances where before, they seemed incapable of even small chances.
Even more curiously, a mini-series, SUPERMAN: LOIS & CLARK, reveals that the Superman we followed from 1985 - 2011 who married Lois -- is not the Superman whom we've been reading about since 2011. The assumption was that Clark was de-aged and his life altered by the Flashpoint reboot into the NEW 52 version -- except it turns out the 1985 - 2011 Superman has been living in the NEW 52 universe all along -- living with Lois Lane under the false identity of the Whites and raising their 10-year-old, Jon.
Furthermore, it's revealed that the 1985 Superman has been secretly interfering in all major NEW 52 events, but always hiding, always letting the Superman of this universe live his life.
And then comes THE FINAL DAYS OF SUPERMAN where Clark (NEW 52 version) uses Kryptonite to burn away the damaged cells preventing him from recharging his powers, learns that Vandal Savage is behind his depowering -- and that it's too late. The damage to his cells is irreversible; while his powers return, his body is failing. Clark is dying. Worse, the solar energy released by his body has come under the control of a madman who believes himself Superman. In a final battle, Clark just barely manages to stop the false Superman with the help of the 1985 Superman -- who brings Clark's dying body back to the JLA just in time for Wonder Woman to tell her lover good-bye.
So why did DC take such crazy chances with the NEW 52 Superman all of a sudden? Because they were going to kill him.
TRUTH is a magnificent storyline. Beautifully illustrated. Splendidly coordinated -- except for the fact that it was inexplicably released out of order. First, we get the comics with Superman depowered (why?) with his identity public (because?) and then after that, the storyline explaining how this came to pass was released. Utterly baffling. I stayed far, far away from TRUTH until it was all done and I could read it in order.
It was great. Brilliantly edited: one writer handled Superman being exposed; one writer handled a depowered Clark struggling with Wonder Woman; one writer handled Clark struggling to earn money and carry on being Superman even when diminished. And the finale -- he dies saving lives. Beautiful.
But I wondered: what now?
ACTION COMICS #952 has Luthor publicly mourning Superman's death and declaring that he will be the new Superman -- only to be confronted by the 1985 Superman flying in to reclaim his name and shield. Superman is dead. Superman has returned.
... I don't even know what to make of that last one, but I will say that the SUPERMAN titles really found their feet after two years of screwing around. It's kind of horrifying to me, however, that DC had to be willing to kill this incarnation of SUPERMAN before they could bring themselves to tell worthwhile stories with him.
I cannot fathom why they went to the trouble to make Clark in his mid-20s instead of his mid-30s only to go and bring the mid-30s version back and have him as a father. But still. This was an awkward run that suddenly became a brilliant run and leaves me eager to see what's next.