State of the Universe: the good and bad of DC's Rebirth

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Jun 21, 2017

As any parent will tell you, newborns can be trying. They prevent you from sleeping, poop when they shouldn't, and need constant attention.

Being the birth of an entire universe, you'd think that DC Comics' Rebirth publishing initiative would've been even more difficult to manage than an infant, but has been surprisingly well-behaved so far.

What has DC done to turn its trouble child around and make it into a golden boy? Is it still possible for the publishing line to crap the bed? Am I going to push this metaphor to its uncomfortable limits? Let's find out.

The 80-page bundle of joy that was DC Universe: Rebirth #1 arrived in comic shops on May 25 of last year (which makes this article more like 13 months in than a year in, but let's not worry too much about my personal failings for the purpose of this article), and the comic book world was immediately enamored. I will admit to only buying three other DC Comics that month: Future Quest, Superman: American Alien and The Legend of Wonder Woman. I had given the New 52 a fair shake at first, but had quickly come to detest the overall tone of the universe and the lack of history or character to drive it forward. It left me with little to read at the publisher aside from a small number of out-of-continuity miniseries, albeit high quality ones.

With the announcement of Rebirth, I was very skeptical, seeing the initiative as more aesthetic than substantive, and I had little faith that the same people who broke everything were the right ones to put it back together. But being the forgiving and incredibly cheap person I am, I decided to at least give the first one-shot a try — it was only $2.99, after all…

CONTINUITY

Well, the one-shot said the magic words "Wally West" and "inspiring Superman" and I was in. Geoff Johns and his crew knew exactly which characters needed returns, revisions and resets, and they pulled most of it off. Green Arrow got his beard and his relationship with Black Canary back, both Ray Palmer and Ryan Choi returned to prominence, the Flash remembered his oldest comrade and protégé, the Titans felt like a family again, and Superman suddenly felt like a symbol of hope again, all with some smart, efficient changes to continuity right out of the gate. DC knew what its fans wanted fixed and they fixed it.

Overall, the changes have definitely been for the better — I'm reading over five times more books from them than I was a year ago — as they've made way for some quality storytelling in a way that reminds readers of why the characters were popular in the first place. However, this focus on changes to continuity is something that needs to be done with a very careful touch going forward. While most of the changes to our heroes' world was done instantaneously the moment Wally came back in the Rebirth one-shot, some changes are revealing themselves as stories unfold. While it makes sense for Wally and Superman to deal with meta-changes to the continuity since they were so overtly effected by it, it's also something that doesn't feel like it needs to be dwelled. I'd much rather have had the changes and then not have the characters need to acknowledge afterward.

The current format of the "Watchmen altered the DCU" story playing out across arcs of Action Comics, Superman, Detective Comics, Titans and "The Button" and "Dark Days" crossovers is at risk of being too much about itself. Readers should be able to enjoy titles without concerning themselves with why the character exists in his current form and not the New 52 version or the pre-Crisis version or the post-Crisis version or whatever. Continuity changes shouldn't be a story. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying many of these titles, but I do worry that they are going to soon be a bit too distracted by the changes that they should instead just be using to tell good stories.

But like I said, they aren't doing that yet; it just feels like we're approaching critical continuity-mass. But hopefully my concerns will be dismissed later this year when Doomsday Clock explains what the heck has been going on.

CREATIVITY

When DC Rebirth was being teased, I wrote about how I was tired of DC retelling the same old story again. I didn't want another Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman origin or a rehash of old plotlines but rather new stories that would be regarded as classics by future generations. While we sadly did get yet another Wonder Woman origin in her series, we've seen some truly boundary-pushing but true-to-character stories for other franchises. Superman is the best it has been in at least a decade, with the "small-town dad" approach to the character paying off immensely, providing fun and nuanced material for him, Lois, Superboy, and Batman and Damian by contrast. Batman has been exploring new territory also, with Bruce asking himself whether he deserves — or is capable of — happiness, in an experiment that feels like an attempt to finally pull the character out of the murk of the post-Frank Miller era that he's wallowed in for so long. We got a new take on the "Judas Contract" storyline in a crossover between the Titans books, but even that was a distinctly different story than the original. Overall, Rebirth has been able to get back to basics while also telling stories that aren't rehashes or dumbed down.

However, this obviously not true across the board, because it's impossible to have a completely perfect publishing line. There are some titles that aren't creating much buzz or setting the sales charts on fire. DC still doesn't seem to know how to make a Cyborg solo series work, and while beautifully drawn, Trinity doesn't seem to have a reason for existing other than to have yet another book featuring the Big Three. Characters shouldn't be given series just because of the name. If there's an okay pitch for a tenth Bat-person book and a great pitch for a Mister Terrific series, roll the dice and take Mister Terrific! Now that the foundation is in place, it would be nice to see DC dig a bit deeper into their catalog and not depend so much on their A-listers.

Genre diversity, at least at first, was one of the things the New 52 did very well, with war, horror and humor titles alongside the standard superhero fare, and Rebirth shouldn't abandon that approach completely. Of course there's the wonderful Young Animal line if readers are craving something a bit weirder, though their connection to the rest of the universe is tenuous at best. But when you consider that Hellblazer is the only supernatural book in the Rebirth and there are nine Bat-books (and that's not counting Bat-adjacent ones like Super Sons or Harley Quinn), it’s easy to see how there could be room made for, say, a new Shadowpact, Doctor Fate or Swamp Thing book.

CONCLUSIONS

And I have to give credit where it's due: DC still hasn't cancelled a single Rebirth title. It's been an impressive show of faith by the company to give so many titles so much room to find their audiences. Even the under-selling titles like Deathstroke and Aquaman aren't getting canned immediately but slowed to a monthly schedule, and in Aquaman's case, given a buzzworthy new artist.

But make no mistake, the hammer is coming down -- it's just a matter of when. So which titles should go? Like I said, Trinity is nice to look at but isn't telling stories that couldn't be in a Justice League book, and one of the Justice League books need to go unless they can differentiate themselves better or be treated more like the flagship. I wouldn't be surprised to see Superwoman go due to its weird relationship with continuity, and the Red Hood and the Outlaws concept seems to have far outlived its uniqueness. These would create plenty of room for new books — possibly even ones set up by Dark Days, like the aforementioned Mister Terrific, Hawkman, Outsiders or Plastic Man. Also, hopefully the long-promised Justice Society book isn't far off.

Overall, Rebirth is chugging along just fine, and if DC can keep their eye on the ball, the momentum should be easy continue. They just have to continue letting their talented creators tell good stories and not hinder them with cosmic continuity mysteries. As long as Doomsday Clock stays a relatively self-contained thing, they should be okay there. They also shouldn't be afraid to use the foundation they've built to take risks on more off-beat titles, which they are beginning to do a bit with the Dark Matter books. Keep giving fans what they've told you they want but don't be afraid to surprise them now and again.

DC's main publishing line is in an exponentially better place than it was a year ago — or 13 months, whichever. I personally am reading and trying more DC titles every week and the numbers have shown that I'm not alone in that. Their sense of storytelling, return to classic themes and faith in their brand has yielded strong, healthy young universe of titles. DC Rebirth has found its steady walking legs; it just needs to be brave enough to leave its continuity worries behind and learn to run into a bold new future.

Keep up the good work DC, and please, please, please don't mess up this "Watchmen in the DC Universe" thing…