Unfortunately, DC did not do a 100% "clean" reboot. Some of the characters in the universe remembered the previous timeline, even though they shouldn't have. The Spectre, who in a way lives "outside" of time, remembered the old continuity, even though under the new continuity the old one was supposed to have never existed. The character Harbinger, who was invented for the Crisis series, continued to exist (even though, since the heroes had changed the past, in the new continuity the Crisis had never happened). And many past events from before the Crisis still supposedly "happened" in some form. For example, in the post-Crisis limited series Hawk and Dove, Hawk explicitly remembers his brother Don (the first Dove) dying "when the skies turned red" (the Crisis events). Thus, as the years progressed, DC's writers kept making references to pre-Crisis events. These references confused everyone, as people were left to wonder, "What stories that I read before 1985 are still canon, and what stories aren't?"
To make matters worse, over the years, DC's writers and editors repeatedly made decisions that confused and screwed up the new continuity. They could not resist eventually adding alternate versions of Earth (not surprising because this is a very common comic-book trope, and I can't imagine any company with as many titles per month as DC going very long without the need for alternate realities). And the fans kept clamoring for pre-Crisis characters to return -- most notably Supergirl and the original Flash (Barry Allen). DC tried to appease folks with substitute versions of these characters, such as the shape-shifting artificial being "Matrix" which could take the form of a female character that people called "Supergirl." But the fans were not satisfied.
Over the years, DC has screwed their universe up enough times that they have had to have more "Crises" to try and correct the continuity -- such as Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis. I wasn't reading comics as these course corrections were attempted, so I don't really know exactly how they proceeded, but I do know that they must not have done the job, because in later summer 2011, DC Comics once again decided that their universe was such a complete and utter mess, and so incomprehensible to new fans (or returning folks like me), that they needed to completely restart their universe over again, with new, fresh stories. Because there were (originally) 52 titles being put out per month, they called these titles "The New 52."
When I decided to get back into comic-books, after learning about this, it seemed to me that the #1 issues of The New 52 were the logical place to start. I had no idea what I would like, or dislike, so I began with a few of them. It became immediately apparent to me that DC comics had again made a mess of its reboot. Once again some events from before the reboot are still remembered by some characters (for example, Barbara Gordon still remembers being shot by the Joker back in the 1980s). But they've made it even worse by having the comic-books take place at different points in the timeline relative to each other. For example, the two main books about Superman, Action Comics and Superman, take place 5 years apart, even though they are being published concurrently. And Justice League #1 takes place some time after the events of Action Comics but before the events of Superman.
What DC is left with in the mish-mash that is The New 52, are three types of comic-book titles: true reboots, reboots with backstory, and a third category I can only call complete messes. Below, I will outline each of these categories.
True RebootsWhat I call "true reboots" are comic-books like Justice League, Action Comics, and Supergirl, where absolutely no stories we've ever read about the characters have ever happened, and everything is completely new. Supergirl #1 has Kara Zor-El arriving on earth for the first time in her life. Justice League #1 has Batman meeting Green Lantern for the first time ever. Action Comics #1 has Superman wearing street clothes and a cape, and still not quite able to fly yet. These comics all start completely from square one, and move forward only. There are no real flash-backs (nor any need for them): it is the clear start of a totally new set of characters. In my opinion, quite apart from how good the individual plots are in these comics (Supergirl's is excellent; Action Comics' is a disaster), this is the category into which DC should have placed all 52 titles. Unfortunately, it seems to be occupied by the vast minority of books.
Reboots with BackstoryWhat I call "reboots with backstory" are comic-books where the character has been rebooted, but some elements of the backstory from as far back as the 1986 era right after Crisis, still "happened," or perhaps there is a longer backstory that is not part of the past continuity, but still happened for some years before the publication of issue #1. Examples in this category are Batgirl #1 (in which the title character remembers being shot by the Joker and paralyzed, but not all the many events of her life as Oracle after that), or Wonder Woman #1, where the title character seems to have been around in the world for a while (people in issue #1 already know to call her "Wonder Woman"), but none of the previous stories people read about in her earlier comics seem to have happened. Another example is Superman #1, which takes place five years after the events depicted in Action Comics #1 (although they were published the same month -- see how confusing it is?), and repeatedly references events that are in the comic-book's past, but have never been printed by DC comics before (they're not referencing past issues of Superman or any other title).
Complete MessesFinally, there are the comics I can only call (from a reboot/continuity perspective) "complete messes." These are comics that are an utter Gordian knot of confusion, mixing old printed stories from the past continuity, with "backstory" that is fictional (never printed but still in the "past" of the current storyline), and total reboot material (new stuff that assumes no prior story). Examples of this include Green Lantern #1, which clearly references a whole variety of events that took place in earlier published comics, Batman #1, Detective Comics #1, and Hawk and Dove #1. For instance, in the Hawk and Dove series (which only lasted 8 issues), Dove repeatedly makes reference to her relationship with a character named Deadman, with whom she got involved during a story-line that existed in the previous published (pre-New 52) continuity. But ask yourself -- how is that possible? Some of the characters who were completely rebooted, such as Superman, were involved in that previously published storyline. So how can Dove remember something that involved Superman, but Superman be rebooted and not remember it? You can get migraines trying to unravel these messes.
And after 5 issues... in many cases I still don't know what is going onThe upshot of all this mish-mash with some characters being given a "clean" reboot and others a messy one, is that DC has made a complete hash of The New 52. One of the main goals of their company-wide "reboot" was supposed to be to make it easier for new readers to jump into DC's titles, to make it less intimidating to read Superman, who before 2011 had a multi-decade continuity. It presumably was supposed to make lapsed readers like myself have an easier time getting back into things. For some titles, like Supergirl and Batgirl, this has absolutely been true. For other titles, like Detective Comics and Green Lantern, I gave up after the first issue, being so utterly and completely confused that I could not follow them enough to bother with further installments.
And it's not just whether the series got a complete reboot or not that is confusing (although complete reboots, or near-reboots, did help a lot). It's that the comics are taking place all over the history of the DC universe. Some titles (Superman, Supergirl) take place today. Others (Justice League) take place five years ago. Still others (Action Comics) take place even earlier (perhaps 5.5 or 6 years ago... it's hard to tell). Even others (Wonder Woman) take place in an indeterminate time period. This was true in issue #1, but I figured it would be cleared up after a few months. So far I am on #5 of the titles I am currently collecting, and nope -- it has not been resolved. Worse, a friend of mine is current (on #15 or so) with these titles, and he's still not sure whether Justice League takes place before, after, or concurrently with Wonder Woman.
I think I understand what DC tried to do with the early issues of The New 52. They tried to make them exciting, maybe a little confusing to draw readers in, and complex. They wanted to slowly reveal the relationships between the titles and between the present and the past. And perhaps those goals were admirable. But the problem is, with 52 different titles, all with different levels of "reboot," all taking place at different time periods, while being published the same month (or even week), DC has just produced a massively confusing universe. I'm not at all certain that it would have been any harder for me to just jump into ongoing comics that had 13 years of continuity that I'd missed, than it has been to jump into series that claim to be "rebooted" but often have vestiges of stories I haven't read, and that have incredibly confusing connections to one another. And my confusion, which is high in many cases, is partially mitigated by the fact that I am buying these early New 52s as back-issues, so I have been able to read #1-#5 in a very short time (about 5 weeks, instead of 5 months). I can't imagine how confusing it must have been for people to read this stuff "live" -- and wait more than 5 months (in most cases) to figure out what the hell is going on in each series.
Comic-book collecting is a slow hobby, not for the impatient, and I know that. You can't expect, and in most cases don't want, a story to wrap up in one or two issues. But, it seems to me when a company is rebooting its whole universe specifically to make it more "user friendly," they shouldn't then turn around and make the interrelationships between the various rebooted characters so incomprehensible that even an old hand at it can't figure out how the titles connect to one another.
Now, that said, I am enjoying a few titles, and if you are new to comics, I can definitely recommend four that will not confuse you too much (other than not knowing whether they all take place at the same time or at different times). Supergirl and Justice League are true reboots, and one can easily read these titles without having ever read any stories about the characters before. Wonder Woman has been cleanly rebooted but has an indeterminate backstory that occurred "before" issue #1. Up to #5, we know the backstory is there, and see hints of it, but it isn't confusing at all, and the story moves forward in a comprehensible way. Finally, Batgirl has been rebooted with a somewhat involved backstory, but it's entirely possible to read the Batgirl series (up through at least #8) without knowing the past story -- or with knowing it, because there are references to what you might already know, but they are vague enough not to be continuity-twisting.
I'm afraid I can't really recommend any of the other series I am currently reading (or that I tried to read). Although Action Comics is a "clean reboot," the stories in it are a mess, and there is no sense of plot or continuity to them. The story hop-scotches around, with the story in #4 not being picked up again until #7, and with the Superman of the far future making a sudden appearance at the end of #5. Although, as an old-time reader, I understand the Legion of Super-heroes references and the appearance of Steel, a new reader would surely go "wtf" and probably give up the series by #5. I know I'm on the verge of it myself, but I will give it a few more issues. Similarly, although it pains me to say it because the series is written by a favorite of mine, George Perez, I can't recommend the Superman comic either. The story is not as much of a mess as Action Comics, but the references to the (so far unpublished) "five year backstory" of Superman are highly confusing, and the storyline in which Superman finds himself (basically having a mental breakdown) is not appropriate for the first few issues of a new series with a "new" Superman -- the character needs to be established first, George, before you "break" him!
I think DC could have had a great idea on their hands with a clean reboot. I believe that the Justice League, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman comics prove this. They are among the best-written comics of all the ones I've tried so far, and they work very well as truly restarted titles. If only DC had done this clean a reboot with everything, The New 52 would have been a great deal better off. Because they didn't, I hate to say it, but I would not be shocked at DC having to do yet another reboot some time in the next 5-10 years, to untangle the whole mess they have got on their hands already, 1.5 years into the current continuity.