By Taylor Pechter — It is often asked what would the DC Universe be like without Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman? With the year-long weekly series 52, launched in May of 2006, DC answered that question.
After the universe-shattering events of Infinite Crisis, which reinstated the multiverse after it was consolidated 20 years earlier in Crisis on Infinite Earth, DC’s continuity jumped to One Year Later. This was a way for DC to continue publishing while also keeping the events of the latest Crisis fresh in readers’ minds. Many fans, however, asked: What happened in the missing year? Enter 52.
52 was an editorial gamble for DC, a weekly series that spanned an entire year, following C and D-list characters dealing with the fallout of an event in real time. To keep the book on schedule, DC needed more than one writer. So, they turned to an all-star foursome of Geoff Johns (Infinite Crisis, former co-President and CCO of DC Comics), Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, seminal DC writer), Greg Rucka (critically-acclaimed writer of Wonder Woman), and Grant Morrison (multiverse nut, another seminal DC writer), along with breakdown artist Keith Giffen, to craft different intertwining stories that formed a 52-week epic.
Today we’re entering that missing year to take a look at how the DC Universe was and still is so much larger than just Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, as well as the various meanings beneath these epic stories.
Booster Gold and Supernova: Who is the Real Hero of Metropolis?
We start our journey into the missing year with the main through line of 52’s plot: Michael Jon Carter, a.k.a. Booster Gold, a time-traveling hero who came back to the 21st century because he wasn’t welcome in the 25th century, where he was originally from. We first meet him at the beginning of the story, when he is at his most selfish, a pin-cushion for sponsors who is trying to gain popularity among the people of Metropolis.
Due to information provided by his robotic companion Skeets, however, he knows something is amiss. It does not help that a new unnamed hero shows up in Metropolis to steal his spotlight, a hero dubbed Supernova by the press who is largely the opposite of Booster in every way, willing to risk himself for others, not just for fame. This selflessness is his undoing. When a giant tentacle monster attacks Metropolis, Supernova risks his life—and the Metropolis power grid—to defeat it. It is in this moment Booster’s values change. He is not seen throughout most 52, not until the end, when it is revealed Supernova was actually Booster all along.
Meaning: The final reveal hits home, completing Booster’s arc about how real heroism isn’t the sponsor on your chest, but rather the pureness of your heart. In the end, Booster accepts his place in the multiverse, comes to terms with his arrogance, and becomes a beacon to the superhero community.
Renee Montoya: Questions and Answers
We all know Renee Montoya, tough-as-nails detective in the Gotham City Police Department. However, she is a far more complex character than her depiction in Batman: The Animated Series. During the mid-2000s, writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka wrote a comic called Gotham Central, which followed members of the GCPD as they solved crimes in the shadow of the Bat. This story focused on many officers during its three-year stint, but none as important than Montoya and her partner, Crispus Allen.
In the series, Rucka deconstructs Montoya, revealing she is a lesbian, which was significant during the time of don’t ask, don’t tell. She is also disowned by her overly conservative Dominican parents. Near the end of the series, Crispus is shot and killed by corrupt police coroner Jim Corrigan, subsequently ascending to become the host of the cosmic being, The Spectre. As guilt rocks Renee, she decides to give up her badge. When we see her again in 52, she is wasting away in a bar. With no direction and no job, she gets drunk every night.
It’s at this low point she is confronted by a random passerby, a man later revealed to be Charlie Szasz, a.k.a. Vic Sage, The Question. After a few run-ins on the street, Montoya decides to join him and track down members of Intergang and the Religion of Crime. Intergang is an international crime organization run by Boss Bruno “Ugly” Manheim, who frequently collaborates with Darkseid. However, they have been following a new modus operandi: scriptures from the so-called Crime Bible, which prophesizes the fall of Gotham City, the death of the twice-named, and the rise of a new Question.
The twice-named is a former flame of Renee’s and heiress to the Kane fortune, Kate Kane. As they get closer to tracking down Intergang, Renee also notices something off about Charlie—he has an uncontrollable cough, later revealed to be cancer. He slowly deteriorates and becomes delirious. Renee decides to go to Nanda Parbat to save him. As they get to the temple of Rama Kushna, the God of Nanda Parbat, Vic dies and passes his wisdom to her, It’s a trick question Renee…Not who you are…But who you are going to become?...Time to change…Like a butterfly. Renee decides to train under Richard Dragon, who also trained Charlie.
Meaning: Through her training, Renee learns that life is full of questions and it’s just a matter of how you answer them. Ultimately, she embraces her destiny as the new Question, taking over where Charlie left off.
The Rise and Fall of Black Adam
Black Adam is many things: the corrupted champion of the Wizard Shazam, the ruthless leader of Kahndaq, and a husband and a brother. As we join his story, the context of the previous tale helps. Renee and Charlie at one point visited Kahndaq, where we first saw Black Adam as he ripped a low-level villain named Terra-Man in half on live television. Later, he is confronted by two members on Intergang who offer him a slave, an Egyptian woman named Adrianna Tomaz, as a prize if he so chooses to join Intergang’s crusade.
He denies the request, however, and Adrianna is taken prisoner. Black Adam, along with Russia and other foreign powers, devise a treaty that bars American superheroes from their soil. As Adam grows closer to his prisoner, though, he soon falls in love. Gifting her a portion of his power, she becomes Isis. Trouble strikes again when Adrianna’s brother, Amon, is held by Intergang. As they inch closer to the wedding, Adam promises Adrianna that they will find her brother. Then comes the wedding.
Captain Marvel is the minister, Captain Marvel Jr. is the best man, and Mary Marvel is the maid of honor. When the couple locks lips, lightning crashes in the sky. However, Intergang puts a suicide bomber in the crowd. They know it won’t harm Adam, but their actual target is the crowd. The attack is diverted by Renee, who makes a difficult decision to shoot the kid, killing her. As the search for Amon continues, they happen upon a base belonging to Intergang. It is there they find Amon, whose legs are shattered. Like Adrianna, Adam gifts him his power, turning him into Osiris.
Now Adam has a family, one soon taken away from him. As time continues, Osiris befriends an anthropomorphic crocodile, which he names Sobek. Sobek is later revealed to be Yurrd the Unknown, one of the four horsemen of Apokalypse, and he tricks Osiris into turning back into his human form, killing him the process. Isis is later met with the horseman Death. She then dies in Adam’s arms, infected by disease. With his family dead, Adam is filled with rage and decides to decimate the entire country of Bilaya. It is then that he instigates World War III, where every superhero faces him. He is eventually defeated but at a cost.
Meaning: Black Adam is not a villain, but rather a man who just wants what’s best for his people. With Isis and Osiris, he finds the best within himself; with them gone, however, he is nothing.
Ralph Dibny: Resurrection and the Meaning of Life
Like Renee, Ralph Dibny, a.ka. Elongated Man had been through the wringer before 52. During Identity Crisis, his wife Sue was murdered by Jean Loring and revealed to have been raped by the villain Doctor Light. When we first see him here, he is about to commit suicide. But, he gets a call saying his wife’s gravestone was vandalized and goes to the cemetery to find a Superman S-shield sprayed on the gravestone, an S-shield that is upside down.
We all know the shield stands for hope, but when inverted it means something else—resurrection. During the first leg of his arc, Ralph tracks down the Cult of Conner, a band of zealots who believe the resurrection of Superboy (Conner Kent, killed at the end of Infinite Crisis) is at hand (later revealed to be a scam, of course). Ralph is called forward by the Shadowpact, a group of magic-based superheroes, to investigate the death of Timothy Trench. Trench is trying on the Helm of Fate, which subsequently melts him.
During his investigation, the helm clings to Dibny, and Ralph is taken on a journey retracing the steps of his life and coming to grips with his wife’s death. As the story nears its conclusion, Ralph figures out that the helm itself is possessed by the nefarious sorcerer Felix Faust. Faust underestimates Dibny though, and Ralph casts a binding spell to keep Faust with him always.
Meaning: In the end, Ralph is confronted by the demon Neron, who kills Ralph with his wedding band, ultimately giving him what he most desires—a reunion with his wife Sue.
The Everyman Project: What Really Makes a Hero?
What really makes a hero? Is it the powers or the morals? These are the heavy questions answered in this story.
We start with Steel’s daughter, Natasha Irons, who is feeling like she is being neglected as a hero by her uncle. To prove to him she deserves respect, she decides to apply for the Everyman Project, an an idea hatched by Lex Luthor to give normal citizens of Metropolis superpowers. Natasha is first picked, given then alias of Starlight, and appointed leader of the new Luthor-sponsored superhero team, Infinity Inc. As time continues, Steel notices something is off.
His skin starts turning to steel, which he suspects is a sick joke put on by Luthor. One fateful night for Infinity Inc., one of their youngest members, Eliza Harmon (alias: Trajectory) is killed by Blockbuster during a battle. After the death, John Henry confronts Natasha, asking, How did a slug like Blockbuster kill someone going that fast? The answer is right in front of her. Yes, Luthor gave people powers, but he also has the power to turn them off.
As New Year’s Eve arrives, and the stroke of Midnight, Luthor pushes the button and his Everymen start falling from the skies, an event dubbed the Rain of the Supermen. Natasha and Steel finally confront Luthor.
Meaning: As Natasha’s arc ends, she accepts that she is wrong, that it is the man or woman behind the mask that makes the difference, and that no one should have absolute power because it corrupts absolutely.
Starfire, Adam Strange, and Animal Man: Lost in Space
Much like Black Adam’s arc, this one heavily emphasizes the importance of family. We start with Starfire, Adam Strange, and Animal Man stranded on a deserted planet. With their ship on the fritz, they have no way home and must work together to survive. On their journey, they encounter Lobo, who has sworn off violence and is harboring the Emerald Eye of Ekron.
Not only that, they are also being hunted by an omnipotent named Lady Styx. As the story continues, we see our threesome grow closer together. However, back home Buddy Baker’s wife wonders when he will return. Buddy ponders the same, and as the story winds to a close we see an unconscious Buddy left on the planet while Adam and Starfire return home.
Meaning: Buddy’s sacrifice is noted to his wife, Ellen, by Starfire. Buddy, as a spirit, then says one final goodbye to his wife, his family, and his planet, making for one of the sadder tales in 52.
The Science Squad and Oolong Island
How does obsession shape who you are? That is the driving theme for the story of Doctor Will Magnus. Will Magnus was the creator of the Metal Men, cybernetic superheroes brought to life by responsometer technology. However, after their deactivation, he took up anti-psychotic pills, which lessens his manic episodes but also makes him a hermit. His only solace comes in weekly visits to Belle Reve to meet with his mentor, Thomas Oscar “T.O.” Morrow.
Morrow is another infamous DC mad scientist who has tried to create sentient robots for years, both succeeding and failing, most notably with Justice League member Red Tornado. When Morrow goes missing, Magnus takes the case and is dragged into a plot to create superhero deterrents on the top-secret Oolong Island. Along with fellow mad scientists Doctor Thaddeus Sivana, Doctor Tyme, and more, led by Chag Tzu alias Egg Fu, they are out to show that science can trump superpowers. Their work pays off at the expense of Magnus’s sanity, leading to the creation of the Four Horsemen of Apokolips, two of which you’ll remember are responsible for the death of Isis and Osiris, wife and brother-in-law of Black Adam.
Meaning: This eventually leads to World War III, and it all speaks to the dichotomy of Will Magnus, who services his obsession at the expense of his own sanity and of another man’s family, too.
As you can see, many corners of the DC Universe are explored 52. Without the Trinity, different heroes rise up to fill the void. Through all of it, there is a main theme of self-discovery. Booster Gold figures out his role in the multiverse, Renee Montoya embraces her destiny as the new Question, Natasha Irons finds the meaning of a true hero, Black Adam sees that family can change even the coldest of hearts, and so on. This is what makes 52 one of DC’s most seminal stories.
Taylor Pechter is a passionate comic book fan and nerd. Find him on Twitter @TheInspecter.