SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for "Action Comics" #976 by Dan Jurgens, Doug Mahnke, Jaime Mendoza, and Wil Quintana
The conclusion of the Superman-centric crossover story arc “Superman Reborn” has arrived in “Action Comics” #976, bringing with it some massive changes to the Man of Steel’s status quo in the past, present and future, as well as some shocking clues for the what to expect from the post-“Rebirth” DC Universe.
Picking right up from last week’s “Superman” #19, we learn that Clark’s efforts to rescue his son from Mr. Mxyzptlk’s trap have transformed both he and Lois back into their “New 52” incarnations, and unsurprisingly, those changes weren’t just cosmetic in nature. The Clark and Lois on the page, meeting Jon, are literally the resurrected versions of Clark and Lois from the main continuity of the New 52 -- meaning they have no recollection of ever having been in a relationship, much less being married and having a son.
In case you need a refresher, this Clark (which is to say, the New 52 Clark) was killed just before the start of Rebirth in an event called, appropriately, “The Final Days of Superman.” Similarly, New 52 Lois was killed immediately after the start of Rebirth, in “Superwoman” #1, leaving the only active Superman and Lois Lane in the Rebirth line the married pair who were shifted to the Rebirth universe with their son, Jon, from the formerly alternate pre-Flashpoint universe. Since Rebirth began, this version of Clark and Lois have slotted into the vacancies left by their dead counterparts with only a few minor hiccups, including gaining the trust Batman, figuring out how to fit in at the new Daily Planet, etc.
If you think that sounds a little morbid and a little, well, tricky to keep track of, you wouldn’t be wrong. The dissonance found in knowing Clark and Lois have been existing in Rebirth, literally replacing people’s dead friends and coworkers, has been a pretty common off-and-on thematic undercurrent in nearly all the main Super-family titles. But now, it would seem, the coin has been flipped and the replace-ers have become the replace-ees -- that is, at least, until Jon gets to have his say in the matter.
New 52 Superman is understandably confused and enraged to have been dragged back into being by an imp from the 5th Dimension that he's never met, with a coworker he only barely associates with, and a child claiming to be his and said coworker’s son. Clark rounds on Mxy, only to be met with typical Mxyzptlk rejoinders, questioning the nature of his reality and identity, claiming that any real answers he provides Clark will be met with trouble.
More specifically, trouble from “him.” Mxy claims that if he explains any of what’s going on beyond the confines of his own little extra-dimensional game, he’s going to attract some unwelcome attention from the person responsible for this whole universe-twisting debacle in the first place.
He doesn’t offer any more hints about this mysterious entity's identity, so it’s unclear if he’s talking about Mr. Oz or another party, but whoever it is, Mxy is clearly desperately afraid of him -- a fact that’s as concerning as it is interesting, given Mxy’s continuous meta-commentary on the very nature of the DC Universe from a perspective that feels almost editorial in nature.
As it happens, Mxyzptlk's pseudo-editorial jabs were only the tip of the meta-ice burg.
The Children Are The Future
In his desperation, Jon is able to make contact with a set of strange blue lights, similar to the red lights he interacted with upon his teleportation into Mxy’s game. As he tries to speak with them, they slowly take more humanoid shapes and reveal themselves to be none other than the “echoes” of his parents, apparently reaching out from beyond whatever extra-dimensional limbo they’ve been caught in.
The light “remnants” of Jon's Clark and Lois are able to bestow power in their son to help them “become whole again.” These powers allow Jon to not only genuinely hurt Mxyzptlk, but also fuse their remnants with their New 52 counterparts.
Which, of course, is exactly what he does. After forcing Mxy into a hasty retreat, Jon turns his attention back to his parents to, well, “fix” them.
The two sets of Clark and Lois are merged into one, a shockingly literal move to apparently begin to “delete” all vestiges of New 52 from continuity. The merging prompts a complete reconstruction of their history, apparently overwriting nearly everything that happened between 2011 and 2016, or at least somehow combining that with the experiences of Jon's parents.
In Mr. Oz’s words, Jon has “realigned (...) the memories and experiences of all (...) so it all fits,” but the specifics are still a bit vague. A double-page spread hits the highlights of the new status quo in a sort of timeline -- everything from Clark’s origin story, to Ma and Pa Kent, to “The Death of Superman” and Jon’s own birth -- but doesn’t explicitly explain how this new history affects the rest of the DCU. The idea is, clearly, that at some point, everyone will suddenly have their memories altered right along with the Kents and their friends ("everything solidified, locked into place"), but that poses more than a few complications for characters who have yet to have their own New 52 stories modified in ways that fit into the new (old?) past.
With the imminent arrival of April’s “Batman” and ”Flash” crossover “The Button,” it seems all the more probable that we are going to see similar efforts to delete and re-write the New 52 history for the rest of DC’s major characters in the coming months. After all, DC is certainly no stranger to the merging and re-aligning of multiple continuities, even if taking it on a character-by-character basis is a different approach to the endeavor.
Regardless of how it transpires, the message is clear: the New 52 as we know it is done for.
The Manhattan Project
As the dust settles, the newly restored Clark proclaims “I’m back. We’re back, and everything is going to be fine,” a statement which begs the question: Will it?
Mr. Oz doesn’t seem to think so.
The very last page of the issue is focused entirely on Oz as he watches from a distance (in his mysterious, decidedly Ozymandias-esque viewing room) and wonders if Superman actually gets the final say here, or if “he” (meaning the mastermind behind everything) does.
This narration takes place over a slow zoom to Mars, yet another piece of evidence to add to the growing pile in support of the “Dr. Manhattan caused the New 52” theories that have been swirling around since “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1. Perhaps more troubling, if it is indeed Manhattan who has been pulling the strings, these panels seem to imply that he’s located within the main universe of “Rebirth” rather than somewhere beyond it; camping out in the solar system, just a hop-skip-and-jump away from Earth.
If “he” -- Dr. Manhattan or otherwise -- really is that close to home, it would seem a counter offensive is bound to happen sooner rather than later. And with Jon’s new ability to “heal” the fractured universe unlikely to just fade away, it’s all the more likely that Superboy will find himself a major target in days to come.