Nearly a month since DC co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee tweeted a simple image of the word “rebirth” superimposed over blue curtains, all the speculation and rumor-mongering was put to rest last week at the ComicsPRO retailer expo in Portland, OR. The meaning of this cryptic teaser was probably not much of a surprise to anyone: starting in June, the publisher is once again reorganizing their universe. Despite assertions that this isn’t a reboot, the distinction is pretty semantic: starting June, DC will begin to roll out new runs of their iconic superhero comics, each with a new issue #1, with the exception of Action Comics and Detective Comics, which will revert back to their pre-New 52 numbering (#957 and #934, respectively). This restoration of their flagship titles’ original numbering is most indicative of what this not-a-reboot will look like: it’s a return to the old DC Universe, restoring several decades of convoluted continuity which they jettisoned not even five years previously with the New 52.
A lot of longtime comics fans are pretty happy about this, and I will admit, my immediate reaction was excitement. After all, I’ve logged a lot of hours and a lot of pages in that pre-Flashpoint DCU. It’s that continuity which I trace every week in my Beer & Batman feature, and like many established fans, I couldn’t help but feel like my loyalty was being punished back in 2011 when the New 52 abandoned the universe in which I’d spent so much time. Even DC’s Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns says of the New 52 in the official press release for the Rebirth initiative: “I love this world . . . but there’s something missing.” Restoring the old continuity seems, then, to be DC hearing their longtime fans’ gripes and actually giving them what they want.
Geoff Johns strikes me as a man who likes to give people what they want, and Rebirth definitely has his fingerprints all over it. Even the title harkens back to his career-defining runs on Green Lantern and The Flash, both of which were also titled Rebirth, serving to return the most iconic versions of those two characters (Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, respectively) to the DCU. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Johns makes that comparison himself:
It’s in the same vein as “Green Lantern: Rebirth” and “The Flash: Rebirth.” Some things alter and change, but it’s more character-driven, and it’s also more about revealing secrets and mysteries within the DC Universe about “Flashpoint” and The New 52 that are part of a bigger tapestry.
The first Geoff Johns comic I ever read was Infinite Crisis. A pseudo-sequel to the previous universe-altering crossover Crisis On Infinite Earths, I read it due to its ramifications upon the Batman books I was reading at the time and found myself altogether puzzled and lost, my brow starting to ache from the constant furrow the book inspired. I thought I knew comics pretty well, definitely better than most, but I felt Infinite Crisis ought to come with a complimentary copy of The DC Comics Encyclopedia just to make sense of the damn thing. As one would expect of the CCO of DC Comics, Johns is undoubtedly a continuity geek, but it shows in his work to a fault. While folks who missed Hal Jordan and Barry Allen under their iconic masks definitely speak fondly of Johns’ Green Lantern and Flash arcs, even those stories hinge major plot points upon esoteric and at times minute details of past continuity.
This is why my excitement regarding Rebirth has tempered upon further consideration. While the New 52 disappointed longtime readers by dismissing decades of continuity, it succeeded in one important regard: it got brand new readers buying comics for the first time. See, I’m not one of those nerds that want to preserve my fandom as an exclusive club – I think comics are wonderful, and I want to share that wonder with everyone. Though the New 52 debuted with more misses than hits, it was accessible and easy to share. With Geoff Johns at the helm, I can’t anticipate the same accessibility with Rebirth, and he doesn’t even seem to pretend that it is designed for new readers:
If you have, like me, long boxes of DC Comics, you will be very happy. If you’ve never read a DC comic before, you won’t be too lost. This is definitely for comic book readers more than it is for casual readers, just like “Green Lantern: Rebirth,” but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive of them.
What this says to me is that DC Comics is learning the wrong lessons from its mistakes. In both the press release and the CBR interview, Geoff Johns emphasizes the legacy of DC Comics’ characters. Rebirth, he continuously reiterates, celebrates and restores these characters’ rich histories. In a remarkable coincidence of timing, my most recent Beer & Batman column (posted last Saturday but actually written two weeks previous) reflects on the very topic of legacies, and particularly upon the pitfalls of placing too much weight upon them. If I can quote myself here:
“[I]n practice, celebrating one’s legacy is rarely a satisfactory look at what makes that individual worth remembering. It’s a greatest hits album instead of something new … A tribute to past greatness doesn’t amount to present greatness on its own.”
Expanding upon that point, I think it’s worth considering the role nostalgia plays in crafting a legacy, constructing a (frequently false) notion of “the good old days” which ignores any and all flaws. The old DCU, it’s worth remembering, was cluttered and convoluted enough that no one much disputed in 2011 that a reworking could have benefits (the complaints were more directed at how it was reworked, rather than the mere fact that it was). As well, that old universe was built upon a foundation of many decidedly old-fashioned stories that could at times reflect the problematic attitudes of their day: an overall lack of diversity in race and sexual orientation, as well as fairly antiquated gender roles.
The New 52 did not do this real well either, mind you, but without being tied to these supposedly important legacies, the characters were left available to update in more modern and inclusive ways. Though a little late to their own party, DC did acknowledge the demand for greater diversity in their characters, their creators, and even just the kind of stories being told, when they rolled out their DC YOU campaign just one year ago. Not a reboot either, DC YOU was just a change in the creative direction across the board, letting creators have a greater impact on the style and tone of their new books, yielding more creative and distinct titles like Bizarro, Black Canary, Midnighter, Omega Men and We Are Robin. Announcing the DC YOU campaign, co-publisher Dan DiDio proclaimed, “Whether you’ve been a DC fan your whole life, or whether you are new to comics – there will be a book for you beginning in June,” and went on to say, “In this new era of storytelling, story will trump continuity as we continue to empower creators to tell the best stories in the industry.” Geoff Johns’ comments regarding Rebirth, however, are almost all about continuity, and that’s unfortunate, because at least in my humble opinion, the creator-and-storytelling-first approach of DC YOU produced some outstanding books. My experience with DC YOU was much the same as what Jessica Plummer describes in her wonderful op-ed about Rebirth over at Panels:
Last year, when DC announced their DCYou initiative, I had honestly never felt prouder or more excited about a company that I have been faithfully following for over a decade. I walked out of a panel on the new comics feeling energized and included; I devoured all of the first issues and loved many of them. I saw books I could share with friends and family, comics I could put in the hands of people who’d never read one before and say, “Here. You’ll love this.”
These outstanding books, regrettably, didn’t sell very well, leaving DC to continue to learn the wrong lessons from its mistakes: it’s worrisome to note that, of the 32 ongoing post-Rebirth titles announced, only 7 are female-fronted. Moreover, this initiative sees DC cancel its only queer-fronted books (Midnighter and Catwoman) and reduces its books fronted by black characters down to one (Cyborg). With Rebirth, DC is playing it safe, trying to keep its longtime readers, and maybe win back a few who left, quietly burying their DC YOU slogan (“There’s a story for YOU”) behind rhetoric about preserving their characters’ legacies.
But consider the legacy of a character like Batgirl: her role in pre-Flashpoint continuity hung under the constant specter of her crippling at the hands of the Joker. As is true of many women characters in comics, her story was defined by her victimhood. Sure, she still filled an integral role in the Bat-family as Oracle, but it transformed her narrative into that of a survivor rather than that of a hero. In Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr’s decidedly lighthearted run on the character in the New 52, they restored her agency, letting her reclaim the hero role of her own narrative, rather than wallow in the victim role in Batman’s story. That is a legacy that I don’t think is really worth returning to, and if DC can’t preserve any of the positivity which has spun out from the New 52 and DCYou, I worry this June will see less a rebirth, and more a reversion.