On Tuesday, August 31, 2011, “Justice League” #1 dropped, officially beginning the experiment known as the New 52. DC Comics was not just relaunching all of its titles, it was doing so in a new, clean(er) continuity, in an attempt to revitalize and enthuse the fan base. It was an unprecedented move that bore good, bad, and mediocre comics.
Over the next year, we’ll be discussing each of the New 52 titles with a member of its creative team. We’re not taking any clear path through these books, but hopping from title to title, line to line, in an effort to spotlight the breadth of the initiative.
Today, we’re talking with veteran editor Rachel Gluckstern. Rachel was an editor at DC for 11 years, before starting her own consulting and freelance editorial business. She is currently the group editor at InterPop comics. InterPop is a digital comics company built around a free-to-read model that features innovative ideas like fan voting to determine creative choices, as well as NFT downloads built on the Tezos blockchain.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How long were you at DC before the New 52 kicked off?
Rachel Gluckstern: Oh, that’s a good question. I was hired as an assistant editor in late 2004. I’m there for about six years at that point.
So, I’m speaking to a few editors for this, but you’re the first one. When did you first get the word that the New 52 was happening?
RG: I mean, it was in 2011. I just don’t remember if it was winter or early spring. Me and the writer of “Captain Atom,” JT Krul, were working together on “Teen Titans” at that time, and so we got special dispensation to double ship “Teen Titans” so that we can hit issue 100 of that volume before the New 52 launched and I really want everybody to take a minute to appreciate wrapping up six series, one of which is double shipping while launching six other series.
Wow, yes, that is quite the task to get sorted. What was the New 52 pitch as you first heard it?
RG: I think, in some form, it had been discussed. You know, we want to tell new stories with our legacy characters, and we want to be able to use the best parts about them that everybody knows, but be able to build on them for a whole new audience, a younger audience, a more diverse audience. The idea was, it’s got to be kind of all or nothing; you’ve got to just do this all across the line, and it has to hit, because we only get one shot. That’s not [actually] true – people reboot their universes every generation or every decade or whatever – but at the time, that felt like it.
So what was the what was the process like the figuring out which editors were going to which books? Were you pitching stuff, or were you assigned stuff?
RG: I was basically assigned stuff. The group editors, I think, were the ones discussing who would get assigned what. It was pretty common for me to be assigned titles. I certainly would advocate for things; I advocated for “Teen Titans” for a long time before I got to edit it. So you know, everybody makes their feelings known. And when I got “Catwoman,” for example, I was very excited about that because she’s always been one of my favorite characters. So it was taking into account I’m assuming, who I had worked with before, and you know, my particular strengths and or character affinity. and I certainly have worked with a lot of offbeat characters.
Internally, was the New 52 considered ambitious? Was it considered foolishly ambitious or did it seem like a cakewalk?
RG: Oh, my goodness. I don’t think anybody would describe this as a cakewalk. Definitely ambitious. I mean, it is a huge undertaking to relaunch your entire universe and slate of titles, you know, 52 titles, and we did not want anything to slip in the schedule. You know, we really wanted things to come out on time as much as humanly possible, which we assumed the retailers wanted as well. There’s always tension involved, and I’m not here to praise nor bury the leadership of DC; there’s been enough of both of those. It was ambitious. It was definitely a lot we had to get done in one year. I don’t know how long it’d been in development before the rest of us were told; it was probably percolating for a while. Because at DC, we would plan out things a year or year and a half in advance for some of our more major storylines.Continued below
There was tension, because I felt, at that time, DC was getting hit with a lot of negative press, fairly earned or not. I felt at times, and this is me personally, like people were hoping we would fail. And that’s tough, because you’re putting in all this effort, everybody’s busting their backs for it. And it feels like there’s not going to be a warm reception, despite all the work that you’re putting in there. So I was very glad that people bought it.
Now, would you say that the feeling of people hoping that you are going to fail came from people within the industry, or from fans/retailers/folks on the comics internet?
RG: Definitely the internet. The problem is, the internet is made up of both fans and pros and can’t always tease out who is who. I don’t think the pros actively root for us to fail, though, because they would like work at some point in the future. But there were many who had a bad experience, and I don’t want to invalidate that at all.
Let’s go over to “Captain Atom.” So this was one of the 52 launch books, it was a character that had been around DC for, I guess, about 25 or 30 years by this time, after being acquired along with the other Charlton characters. It is also a character that has sort of a very well known doppelganger in Dr. Manhattan. So from an editorial standpoint, what did you see as the mission of this book? What did you want the Captain Atom book to be?
RG: As you mentioned, he has a pretty well known doppelganger. And so I think there was the idea that we would lean kind of more into that and explore a little less sure of himself, all powerful hero. Dr. Manhattan radiates confidence in what he does, it’s not just that he’s got a big ego, he just knows what to do, because he sees it all. One of the big, big moments in “Watchmen” is that he gets excited about feeling uncertainty again. So, with Captain Atom, we saw the opportunity to kind of explore more of the struggle of a nascent being who’s gone through a powerful transformation and who can, you know, see time and space in a way different from humanity. He really has to struggle, it was very philosophical, actually. He’s really struggling with himself, you know, how much of me is still me? If I am now this cosmic being, what does it mean to be human? “I am somebody who can do things that could really aid humanity, but at what point you know, do I overstep the line?” Will he lose his humanity if he exercises his powers too much?
Now when the book was coming out, there was a lot of discussion about the Dr. Manhattan-nes of it all, and some folks thought that was a cool approach to the character, whereas others felt like you were losing a little bit of what made Captain Atom special by trying to make him more into Dr. Manhattan. Was there a discussion editorially about where the line was between those two characters and where you felt you wouldn’t cross?
RG: I think that’s about as far as what I just described, you know, he doesn’t have the same confidence of Dr. Manhattan, he’s not sure that you want to, you know, become that cold and detached. It’s not like we weren’t conscious of the comparison. We were taking the opportunity to tell stories about humanity that Dr. Manhattan lacked.
You mentioned before that you had worked with JT Krul before. Was he always the choice editorially, for that book or were there other creators you were talking about writing that book?
RG: He was always the choice as far as I understood it. JT was one of those guys that as an editor, I love to work with, because he takes feedback. Well, he really wants to just get in there and break the characters open. Whatever the concept is, he wants to figure it out and make it awesome. We were excited that we got to work together on this and do things that we could have never done “Teen Titans.”Continued below
What did JT bring to the book? What were some of his ideas, his takes that you feel the book wouldn’t have been the same without his pen behind it?
RG: Oh, gosh, he brought so much to it. You know, there’s the timestamps that we have that randomly are leading somewhere. Those were all his. He was trying to really get into playing with time, and what this character would do. And what is counting down for Captain Atom, what is that crisis clock for him? He came up with the first adversary, which was a lab rat type of creature.
Freddie Williams was the artist on either the entirety of the series, or at least the bulk of the series. And Freddie is somebody who has a very unique style, but this seemed to somewhat step outside of what I think is his normal wheelhouse in a really interesting way. How much of the Captain Atom redesign, with the sort of flaming mohawk for lack of better term, how much of that came from Freddie or how much of that was DC’s general revamping of their character looks?
RG: That was 100% Freddie, if I recall. I’m sure you’ve heard that Jim Lee was involved in a lot of characters. So he might have been a part of this. But I mean, it’s been 10 years so I’m not entirely sure.
But I really feel that Freddie took the lead in designing it. And so the mohawk’s sort of like wispy energy, and then he, you know, it was always hard for us to describe what was going on in his body, but it was almost like his body was supposed to be transparent or translucent, and that’s why you can see that glowing energy. Yeah, and only Freddie could draw that because he was the only one who really fully understood that it was created.
While we were emailing about setting this up, you had mentioned regret that the audience never connected to this book the way that you and the creative team hoped that they would. Do you have any theories as to why this book didn’t find an audience?
RG: It was an esoteric philosophical type of thing that’s going to be a hard sell. And JT had definitely taken some heat for, you know, this work prior to this but, you know, he sold well on “Teen Titans.” Captain Atom is a character that has not always supported his own book as is. And there were always going to be books that would be lower on the sales charts, and not for lack of effort. It’s a niche character, and it’s a niche take on a niche character. And I’m sure there are people who would have done it differently.
One of the great things about the New 52 looking back on it, and I think I even felt this way, 10 years ago, is that while there were certainly books in the line that were not for me, there was an attempt to have a book for lots of different types of readers. And unfortunately, the way that the churn worked out a lot of those less mainstream titles got weeded out pretty quickly. Looking back, is there a way you think DC could have better supported the more esoteric, or non traditional superhero titles?
RG: You always want more marketing spend on your books. I mean, I worked on “Batman and Robin,” and I still want more for marketing. That’s just me being greedy. it’s hard to tell.
One of the knocks on the New 52 is there is this perception that editorial was getting their fingers into everything; there was more editorial oversight, or or someone say meddling, then we’ve seen in prior incarnations, or subsequent incarnations? Did you feel from the editorial department that there were more editorial fingerprints all over the books, and there were for previous lines?
RG: Again, it’s hard for me to comment on that fully. Because I was in the Batman group and the Batman books were largely left to their own devices, outside of making some adjustments. So again, I’m not I’m not trying to downplay anybody’s struggles. Tthere were not a lot of extra hands on my books, and I don’t know why. I was happy to run with that.Continued below
It’s a weird question for me, because I always wonder what people mean by editorial oversight. Does that mean we were being more clear about the parameters of a story? And again, I’m not here to contradict or invalidate a lot of things for people being cut out of conversations, or whatever. And I will not argue that I felt in a weird bubble in that I did not have a lot of that.
Looking back on the New 52 when it was launching, is there one thing you could identify as if it had gone differently, there would’ve been a smoother or a more successful transition?
RG: At some point, it is out of our hands, in terms of the perception of what’s going on and how it’s going to be received. We were just trying to execute and there were some headaches, but, as you say, we tried to do books for different types of readers. I understand the impulse behind wanting to give creators more of a blank slate, so that they do not have to feel restricted by outdated continuity, or fan expectations, so they could really, like explore these characters. This is not the book that you asked me to talk about. But like in “Deathstroke,” the way it started out was his son was still going to be alive, and he’s going to be an adversary. And I thought that was fantastic; that was taking the old continuity, and playing with those expectations in a new way. It would have opened the door for a lot of dramatic stuff down the line. And then that got retconned by the next creative team. So, you know, we tried. I honestly think the online influence is not something that gets factored into these conversations, and I think it made some creative talent just very paranoid, of receiving flak from the online people to the point that they didn’t always feel comfortable making big dramatic changes.
<RG: And I think the online flak DC received made the working environment kind of tense because, again, we’re doing all this and you’re still yelling at us.
I mean, you can’t can’t please everybody. As a reader, what was hard for me with the New 52 was that, while I did like the idea of the fresh slate and the jumping on points for everybody, I felt that so much of my comics experience was not just rooted in, but also encouraged by people like DC and Marvel to care about continuity. That was part of the baked in comic reader experience; you were supposed to care when what counts and what doesn’t count. And then to throw that all away, felt like a really big move, right? And then, that big move wasn’t even stuck with. I think it was month two, we were starting to see hints of things that were forgotten, and it just felt wishy washy. I felt that either it should have gone further than it did, or it shouldn’t have been so extreme, but it was kind of in this brackish stuff that wasn’t quite water, wasn’t quite mud.
RG: Sure, I can fully understand that. I feel continuity is a wonderful tool, but you have to make it work for you. Overalll, I would say consistency is actually the most important thing, and I can certainly see there were inconsistencies that, you know, people would find, even if they weren’t looking for them. And I feel some people were actively looking for them.
Now looking back on it a decade removed now. What do you see as the legacy of “Capton Atom” is? Is there something from that book that you think has been adopted elsewhere? Is there a moment that sort of stands out to you is like the definitive moment of that run?
RG: Oh, that’s a great question. I think it stands out in the memory of the creative team. I think, you know, we all really appreciate it. I don’t know if it’s had any lasting impact beyond its brief run, I’ll be honest. But for me, personally, you know, I like knowing that we really tried to build the sci-fi/philosophical book that was not on the shelves from superheroes at the time. I love how much each creator invested themselves and like really trying to take ownership of the book. You know, every single person was so involved in this book. I hate to say that I don’t think it has a lasting impact on the DC Universe, but we swung for the fences.Continued below
A post script from Rachel, sent after we spoke:
You mentioned that you went back and read “Captain Atom” again, and you had a different experience than you did at the time of its release. I’d totally encourage readers to go back to some series and give them another read and see how they experience them without the whole urgency and context of what was happening right then. They might have a new appreciation. Or not! But I know the conversation can impact enjoyment, so it seems worth trying.