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Round Table: What We Loved and Hated About DC Comics: Rebirth

The much-heralded DC Comics: Rebirth comes out today, marking the beginning of a yet another new era for the publisher. Can it fix the malaise that’s been plaguing the DC Universe for years? Or will it make things worse?

Those who’ve read it can read the discussion that io9’s Rob Bricken, James Whitbrook and myself had about the 80-page one-shot. Rebirth was written by Geoff Johns and drawn by a slew of all-star artists. It’s a beast of a book but, then again, it needs to be—DC Comics knows they’ve been fucking up, and Rebirth is their attempt to un-fuck their fictional universe. If you haven’t read the comic or our piece on the big changes wrought in its pages, turn away now.

Evan Narcisse: The DC Universe has been a mess for years now. Back in 2011, the House of Superman executed yet another reboot that wallpapered over its decades-long continuity to present updated takes on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other iconic characters. The New 52 started out strong but the vast majority of DC’s superhero line has lacked any sort of must-read energy. I’d lost hope they could get their mojo back but Rebirth has me cautiously optimistic that the powers-that-be actually understand what’s wrong with the DCU.

Rob Bricken: I’m not sure Rebirth exactly has me optimistic. I think it’s a lot of what DC needs, and I found a lot of it almost perfectly identifying the problems of the recent DCU and the solutions. But I can see a lot of problems stemming out of this, too. Honestly, by itself—if it was its own self-contained story, if it ended right here and had no future effect on the DCU—I’d pretty much love it.

James Whitbrook: There are things I’m excited to see play out of this Rebirth one-shot, but I agree with Evan that this new issue feels like a lot of diehard-pleasing acknowledgements about what went wrong with the New 52. It’s all couched in-universe terms but a lot of Rebirth #1 is basically “Look, we know you miss the legacy, you miss this character, you miss that relationship, we do too.” to the point that beyond the excitement of change right now that it represents, it just feels a little too much like a checklist to run down.

You like the old Superman? Look, he’s back! You missed the old Wally? So did we! Think our heroes have gotten too mopey? We’re gonna say the words “optimism” and “hope” a lot more! As much as I enjoyed some of the changes and the metatextual nature of it, it seems so weird to me to have a DC product that’s basically looking back at the past years and going “We know we messed up a lot of things.”

Rob: I can understand why you might be cynical, but I don’t think that doesn’t mean that Johns isn’t correctly identifying the biggest issues of the DCU: The general grimness that I’ve never thought suited DC’s heroes. The loss of identity that came with the New 52. The destruction of pretty much every meaningful relationship that the DC characters had.

I found it heartening that he identified these issues and promised changes. I don’t know that DC will actually be able to pull those changes off, though.

Evan: The fact that it’s coming from Johns is important. I wrote down some thoughts last night: I used to be a huge Geoff Johns fan. His Hawkman run detangled the character’s extremely knotty history in expert fashion and gave him a tragic cycle to struggle and triumph over. I think his Superman and the Legion of Superheroes is a great story that hits on the power of the Man of Steel as a symbol. However, it’s his time working on the JSA that won me over the most, because it tapped into the idea of a heroic legacy passed down to generations.

It used to be that DC was regarded as the square, boring superheroes and Marvel was seen as having more down-to-earth crimefighters. Aspects of those interpretations still hold true and much of fandom still views the two companies as philosophically different. But, creators have been going back and forth between the Big Two superhero houses for decades, cross-pollinating each publisher with ideas that used to be seen as the sole province of the rival company. The one big hallmark that continued to differentiate DC from Marvel was the idea of legacy.

Over the last 70 some-odd years, writers, artists, and editors stretched, stapled and stitched together DC’s circuitous creative decisions into a multiverse, filled with characters who met and/or were inspired by their previous iterations. The Superman of the 1960s met the Superman of the 1940s, a tacit acknowledgement that Clark Kent metamorphosed for the times. This meta-awareness became an essential flavor of DC Comics’ collective offering and it pissed legions of fans off when the publisher’s last reboot created a landscape with minimal references to the past.

I was one of those pissed-off fans and I’m excited that DC editorial might be trying to restore some of the fabric they shredded with the New 52. But this is going to be a Frankenstein Monster moving forward.

Rob: Again, I don’t trust DC’s other writers to pull this off what Johns wants/is promising.

Evan: Yeah, same. You don’t have talent like Mark Waid or Kurt Busiek or Gail Simone involved, people who saw the value of calling back to different interpretations of the characters. No shade on the creators who are on these individual titles.

Rob: I’ve always thought the strength of the DC characters is in their squareness, to a degree. Again, I don’t want my Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman to be morally compromised. I want them to be superheroes. Also, I love that DC is sort of built (or was) built on a lot of the insanity of the Silver Age.

James: I feel like I’m in a bit of a weird spot with it all. I like the legacy of DC’s universe, but at the same time in the last year or so, despite the apparently lackluster sales that came with it, on the whole I’ve loved how they’ve been experimenting with their characters, the small ones and the major ones, with DC You. That felt like an attempt at righting the New 52 ship in a new way, for better or worse, whereas what comes out of Rebirth #1 is going back an old, reliable well.

But given that DC You has kind of fallen through so heavily, I can see why they’re turning back to bringing back a lot of the legacy stuff. Like you guys, I think if it was anyone other than Geoff Johns leading the charge I would be a lot more cynical about that than I am.

Evan: James, I’ve always felt that DC was at its strongest when it experimented. Books like The Question, Sandman Mystery Theatre and Animal Man came out of nowhere. I think that the experimentation becomes part of the historical legacy once other writers work it into the fabric. I, Vampire, Justice League Dark and, again, Animal Man were some of my favorite titles that launched with the New 52 but they fizzled sales-wise.

Rob: It sounds hokey, but that return of friendship and love is like a balm to everything I’ve disliked about the New 52 (and prior stuff). For me, my two favorite moments in Rebirth were the return of Wally West—a character I have never cared an iota about—and Aquaman’s proposal to Mera.

Evan: The big problem with the latter-day DCU has been how they envision heroism. It’s always incited by traumatic loss and/or a need for revenge. You need look no further than the changes to Barry Allen’s backstory—a quest to find out who killed his mom—to see evidence of that. (Johns made that change, btw.) You don’t get a sense that any of the characters are being superheroes because it’s just the right thing to do.

Rob: Yes. I knew DC had essentially killed every marriage—and most of the romantic relationships with the New 52—but I didn’t realize how fundamentally fucked up that was until I read Rebirth. DC killed love, guys.

James: Haha. That whole segment where Aquaman proposes actually ended up being my favorite chapter of the book. I really liked the idea of the power of love and these relationships being re-forged as being a major factor in what made these heroes so heroic in the first place—like you said, Evan, it’s a refreshing counter to the idea of them being driven by loss and revenge, to be finding strength in those old bonds rather than in the loss of those bonds.

Rob: That’s madness. Also, we have a Superman that is married to (and has a kid with!) Lois Lane! Love is returning to the DCU, in the form of the pre-Flashpoint DCU, epitomized by Wally West! I love that. I think that’s a great idea. And while I’m aware a lot of what has happened in the New 52 happened under Johns’ auspices, I don’t think that negates his attempt to fix them in Rebirth. (Again, the question is, can he do so?)

Evan: I’m of two minds with regard to what Rebirth means: 1) The more cynical read is Geoff Johns is performing here, saying and doing all the right things because the criticism is inescapable at this point. Bringing back “hope and legacy” is a way to win over fanboys as he transitions into his new role. 2) Johns is apologizing for his part in how dark and twisted shit has become and is trying to course-correct. Given the strengths of his past work, I want to believe there’s some sincerity here. But it’s gonna be tough to spread that as an ethos across a whole line.

Rob: Part of my original point is that not everything with the DC-Nu was awful; I could see Batgirl of Burnside, and the recent Black Canary and Midnighter being part of the old DCU.

Rob: And I think it’s because, like you said, Evan, that these guys are being heroes because they want to do the right thing and help people. Honestly, as cynical as I am, I can’t imagine Johns wrote Rebirth purely to please fanboys.

James: Another great moment in this one shot linked to that ideal of heroism - Wally being so overjoyed at Barry saving people with a smile (and apparently being an awesome kitchen renovator?). There was such triumph and excitement on those pages it was palpable, a celebration of what DC’s heroes stand for.

Rob: Would Didio write something just to please or piss off fanboys? For sure.

Rob: Didio couldn’t have written Rebirth, though (for a lot of reasons, but you know what I mean.) I really feel like Johns is trying to fix things, and I think in Rebirth, he’s being very honest about the problems with the New 52.

Evan: That’s all well and good...

James: Actually, speaking of Didio, for the cynicism I feel about Rebirth’s promises, I will say at least that this feels VERY different to what DC tried to do with Convergence last year. It had a similar premise of fan-pleasing returns, but was largely fleeting about it. Rebirth at least feels like it’s bringing back these elements for a reason beyond the checklist, or at least uses them with a passion and excitement that Convergence rarely displayed for me.

Evan: ...but using Watchmen as the mechanism by which this Rebirth happens is so fucking dumb.

Rob: I would like to say that everything I’ve remarked so far is wholly independent of the Watchmen reveal.

Evan: You could read it as a referendum on that series and how bad interpretations of Alan Moore’s influence led superhero genre work down into a dark alley where it got abused.

Rob: Exactly. I love the idea that the darkness and grittiness and superheroes-are-just-fucked-people-ness of what the DC Universe has become is represented by Watchmen, the ur-comic that really began put DC on this dark, twisted path. Personified by Dr. Manhattan, just as the pre-New 52 is personified by Wally West in Rebirth. I think that’s a genuinely clever idea, but I think the results of this are going to be mostly horrific.

James: Ha! Honestly, I’m kind of looking forward to what they do with the Watchmen stuff. Critically speaking, I’d agree with Evan in that it feels like a very weird interpretation of what Alan Moore wanted to say with the original book. But at the same time, I couldn’t help being slightly giddy when Batman picks apart the rocks in the Batcave and uncovers the Comedian’s badge. As wild and silly as the whole idea feels, in that one moment and the panels after it I was just like “I love it.”

Evan: Ugh. I just dread the idea of a one-note Dr. Manhattan mwahahaha-ing his way through DC continuity.

Rob: Again, if Rebirth ended right there, with that last reveal, I’d be great. But the repercussions of adding Watchmen to the DCU... oh boy. I mentioned this to Evan yesterday but eventually Silk Spectre is going to team up with Harley Quinn and that’s going to be awful.

To say absolutely nothing of how it treats Watchmen and Alan Moore. Which is to say poorly.

James: I think if they play it right with Doctor Manhattan, they can do some interesting things around the whole “optimism vs. cynicism” sort of thing that he represents. But yes, if he grows a glowing blue moustache and just starts cackling every once in a while, then it’ll be a waste of the Rebirth reveal.

Evan: The Watchmen integration into the DCU sparks my other big concern after reading the book: They can’t let this “ooooOOOOoooOOohhh, mysssstery!!!!” shit drag on for years because they never stick the landing when they do. The best way to move beyond Watchmen’s influence (or The Dark Knight Returns, as seen in Batman v Superman) is to just fucking leave those works in their particular moment. It’s like saying you moved on from an old ex but you still keep looking at pictures of them on your phone.

James: Poor Alan Moore. I mean, they were never going to let the rights revert back to him, but pulling these characters into DC’s continuity feels like a real slap in the face to him.

Rob: A huge one, even more than the cynical cash-grab of Before Watchmen. Watchmen is an absolute classic—arguably the absolute classic— of superhero comics. I’m trying to think of another equivalent here.

Evan: **watches as Rob paints target on own back**

Rob: It’s what I do. One way of thinking about this Watchmen move would be to think of a generally loved and reasonably acclaimed TV series like Law & Order suddenly incorporated Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. People would lose their shit.

James: What happens when the heroes go up against Manhattan? If they “win”? What happens to the Watchmen in this universe after that? It’s a nice metatextual idea to kick off this sea change, but I’m worried about what will become of them after this story beat is done with.

Evan: What happens to the people who think Rorschach is a hero?

Rob: Oh god. That, right there, is terrifying enough to contemplate. Imagine Rorschach interacting with any DC superhero and tell me that doesn’t make you tired and sad.

James: Terrifying enough to contemplate, but I almost want Rorschach to show up in Gotham Academy for an arc now.

Evan: Putting cafeteria ketchup packets in his pockets for later…

Rob: Again, I think equivocating DC’s general grim-n’-grittiness with Watchmen is a clever idea. DC’s been trying to Watchmen-ify its comics universe for years, with the end result of the New 52; “blaming” Doctor Manhattan for what is essentially Flashpoint AND the New 52 is fantastic. But there’s so, so, so much that can go wrong with this combination

Evan: Over the years, I’d heard rumors that Johns wanted Flashpoint to be a self-contained event with things reverting back to the post-Crisis version of the DCU. So this seems to be the ass-backwards way of approaching that idea.

However, the most important thing won’t be the top-down continuity of the DCU. It’s going to be the energy of individual titles.

Rob: I wish Rebirth was its own graphic novel, that only Johns would write. An Elseworlds tale, or at least one contained piece so that the rest of DC couldn’t have access to Watchmen.

Evan: I could give a rat’s ass whether Tom King uses the Comedian in Batman. I just want his inspired take on Batman.

James: On that subject, we’ve spoken a lot about what we’re uneasy with coming out of Rebirth. What are we looking forward to most?

Rob: Rucka’s Wonder Woman. I also wonder if it’s telling that Rucka is returning to DC after DC basically told him “NO LOVE” in regard to Batwoman’s marriage. (Although there was plenty of other nonsense about that particular decision.)

Evan: In addition to Tom King on Batman, I’m looking forward to the Detective Comics title. I’ve always been a sucker for the very idea of a Batman Family. And I’m hyped for Priest on Deathstroke; that excites me because I feel like he’s a perennially under-rated voice in comics.

Rob: Honestly, I’m so concerned enough about how other writers will manage this new ethos that I’m reserving judgments on almost everything until I see them.

Evan: “What is love?/Don’t hurt me/Don’t hurt me/No more...”

James: You guys have mentioned Tom King’s Batman and Rucka’s Wonder Woman, which are my two highlights, but I’m also really excited to see what happens with Gene Luen Yang’s New Super-Man. I think exploring Kenan’s journey could be a really good avenue for championing the optimism and hope that Rebirth wants to see in the DC Universe, and all the legacy stuff through his link to Superman.

Rob: I love the idea of that, but I was a bit underwhelmed by his recent Superman. But that may just be because I was underwhelmed with New 52 Superman anyways.

I guess I am excited about the return of old-school Superman. Someone to tell all these New 52 whippersnappers, “HEY, STOP BEING ASSHOLES.”

Rob: Still, I can’t help but be a little hopeful when I see this Rebirth promo art (above). I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw promo art of DC superheroes smiling.

Evan: Well, Batman’s kind of smirking. “The Comedian, shhyeah, right...”

Rob: A smirk on Batman’s face is a beaming smile on anyone else.

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