Three Cheers for DC’s Rebirth (so far)
Like death and taxes, comic book reboots are an inevitable part of life. How they’re handled, which characters they impact and what new storytelling possibilities they reveal generally determines their success.
So it is safe to say that after some recent disappointments for DC (“Batman vs Superman”, nearly 52 series cancellations in the “New 52” Era and still trailing Marvel in sales & market share), “Rebirth” offers a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered DC fan in a few different ways beyond just rewinding canons and swapping creative teams.
First, from what we’ve seen one month in, Rebirth works. Premised on a Speed-Force enabled Kid Flash trying to re-enter reality since Flashpoint (the previous reboot that launched the New 52), Rebirth revives major characters with some fairly straightforward yet cleverly-done exposition (i.e. Aquaman’s identity as the conflicted half-Atlantean, half-human monarch of the seas as told by his arch-nemesis, a vengeful Black Manta). It reintroduces the over-arching themes that originally defined the characters, such as Green Arrow as a goateed, Seattle-based self-declared Social Justice Warrior, but goes a step further with some truly boundary-pushing ideas: Superman as a father? Batman with a black Robin? Wonder Woman as the Olympian God of War? There’s plenty of newish material here to assuage even the most skeptical reader.
Secondly, it gives DC a chance to align all of its properties a little more seamlessly. When the New 52 started in 2011, the only television show about a DC character was Smallville on the then-unknown CW Network. Today, with Gotham, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and now Supergirl, there’s a DC superhero show for nearly every day of the week. Toss in the movies (both live-action & animated) and games such as Injustice, and there’s multiple teams of writers, artists and editors working on any major character at any given time. Rebirth allows them to pause and take a collective breath before introducing revamped characters across platforms simultaneously, such as the ‘other’ Kid Flash, played by Keiynan Lonsdale on the television series. However, this still begs the question as to why Rebirth Aquaman looks the same and nothing like his live-action self, the hirsute Jason Momoa, as revealed in Batman vs. Superman. Guess we’ll have to wait and see how head creative honcho Geoff Johns plans to reconcile the two.
Thirdly, by creating diverse comics for diverse readerships, as premised by the short-lived “DCYou” campaign, Rebirth is a response to some of the exclusionary cultural criticism leveled at the industry as a whole. Given the cancellation of titles like Batwing (centered around an African character) and stinging critiques such as the “women in refrigerators syndrome” from writer Gail Simone, this is worth applauding. While it is true the number of female creatives in the Rebirth era has lamentably declined, major titles have already been helmed by diverse creative teams for some time now: Gene Luen Yang & Greg Pak on Superman, Francis Manapul on Detective Comics & The Flash and Annie Wu on Black Canary just to name a few. So it is refreshing to see a crop of relatively new African-American (Duke Thomas as a new Robin), Latino (Jessica Cruz as a Green Lantern, Jaime Reyes as the Blue Beetle), Middle Eastern (Green Lantern Simon Baz) and Asian (Raymond Choi as the Atom) characters as part of major books, with their cultural identities as core parts of the stories. Though it predates Rebirth (and may soon be on the chopping block), Paul Levitz’s and Sonny Liew’s Dr. Fate exemplifies how these new characters should be handled. Gone is the bland-looking Aryan archaeologist Kent Nelson, replaced by his nephew, conflicted Egyptian-American medical student Khaled Nassour, who dons the magic helmet of Nabu and soon tangles with ancient gods, magic cats, military dictators and the ghost of Julius Ceasar, grounding the title in the febrile, complex and realistic Egypt of both past and present. Moves like this don’t necessarily immunize DC from criticism about diversity, but it does add what acclaimed author Grant Morrison calls ‘progress points’. Right on.
Bonus: the Watchmen! This is a definite gamble and a controversial one at that. Tying the conventional DC Universe to the self-contained, grimly realist world of what is considered the first truly adult comic book (along with The Dark Knight Returns) is a huge risk. No doubt, Allan Moore’s off somewhere in Great Britain fuming about what’s going to happen to the characters he and artist Dave Gibbons reinvented. Gibbons himself has said that such a crossover, i.e. Rorschach vs. Batman, would be “horrendous” (and no, they weren’t asked about it, since DC has the rights to the characters). If anything, the Watchmen is a rebuke to the very concept of costumed superheroes—a dénouement to the idea of flawless caped crusaders saving the day. So yes, cracking open this self-contained universe may be perilous and entirely unnecessary. However it isn’t without precedent—going back to the Golden Age of the 1940’s, DC has often revived expired and acquired characters and given them new twists (the Watchmen themselves were the leftovers from DC’s acquisition of Charlton Comics in 1985). The company’s creatives will have to tread mighty carefully to avoid infringing on one of the greatest novels of all time. But, admit it–the possibility of some mind-bending fun with these characters is tremendous and totally unexpected. A cautious thumbs up for now.
The launch of the New 52 5 years ago didn’t have the commercial or critical impact DC’s management envisioned. Rebirth, which appears to have been their fail-safe move all this time, appears poised to transcend the ‘yet-another-reboot’ fatigue from comic fans. Let’s give it a shot.