A year ago this month, DC Comics took a big risk – they ended their comics, and for the last week of May released just one book: REBIRTH. The book acted as a soft reboot for the DC universe which, for the last few years, was seen as a struggling concept after the last reboot (DC does a lot of reboots).
The problem, at least according to writer Geoff Johns, was that DC had lost its way. The comics used to be about the hopefulness of the characters, but over the last thirty years, that hope was chipped away and replaced with angst, gritty “realism” and brutal violence. Johns, who was surely responsible for some of that chipping, wanted to bring back the things that he saw lacking in the iconic characters, and with the help of an army of writers, artists, inkers, colorists, letterers, and editors, DC would work to re-establish their stories as ones where, even in the darkest of times, there would be hope.
The question is, has it worked?
I’m not going to lie to you, I haven’t read every book DC has put out in the last year. As much as I would like to, time and money just doesn’t allow it. I have done my best to at least sample each series – in the least I have read the first four issues of each title post-REBIRTH. There were series I didn’t take to, and others that I can’t believe I’ve become a regular reader of. There are books that have made me happier than a comic has in ages, and others that left me nearly in tears. What I’m going to do here is focus not on the things I haven’t liked, or even the things I did like, but on the things that, for me, have stood out…
The Mystery Isn’t The Focus
At the heart of REBIRTH is a mystery – someone has altered reality, stealing memories from the characters of the DC universe and leaving them in a place that lacked hope. With the return of the original Wally West (the first Kid Flash who also became the third Flash), the heroes of DC have learned about the changes, but they still don’t know who is behind it. We readers have a better idea, mostly because of a clue that was found in the Batcave.
It appears that Doctor Manhattan from the classic series WATCHMEN is the one responsible for the changes in the DC Universe – but we can’t really be sure of that yet. This November, in a series titled DOOMSDAY CLOCK, it looks like we’ll get all the answers.
I’m not interested in breaking down theories of who or what is really responsible for the mystery that REBIRTH created, mainly because that mystery, so far, hasn’t been all that important. While it sure has created a lot of talk online and given us writers a bunch of chances to write new articles, in the comics themselves, the mystery has mainly been background, with most books never even mentioning it.
SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS have been the biggest focus for the mystery, as it appears to connect mostly to Superman (which, considering that Johns’ entire premise is that DC went off the rails when things got gritty, it makes sense that the least gritty character is the guy who would be the answer to this problem) but even there you could read the books and pay little attention to the WATCHMEN stuff. The recently completed FLASH and BATMAN crossover titled “The Button” was more about building a new wrinkle to the story of Bruce Wayne than it was about figuring out where that pesky pin came from (spoilers – they don’t figure it out, but damn it is a great story).
The mystery of who messed with the DC Universe, at this point, feels like something that could never be answered and it wouldn’t matter all that much. To me, it feels like a macguffin – something used to just explain away changes to the universe without having to get too deep into it. Of course, this being comics, I’m sure they’ll get real deep.
But if the mystery isn’t the focus of the Rebirth concept, what is?
It’s The Characters, Stupid
If you’ll forgive the paraphrasing of James Carville, that really is what Rebirth is about. The whole thing was a chance to get these characters back on track. For some, like Green Arrow and Black Canary, it meant putting them back into a relationship. For others, like Batman, it opened up the door to a lighter tone even within the grittiness of the character (most of BATMAN #16, for example, takes place inside a fast food restaurant with a Batman theme while Bruce Wayne and all the Robins sit and talk. It is, in my opinion, one of the best comics of the last decade).
It is this focus on the characters that has made Rebirth such a hit with readers. DC’s willingness to have an issue of SUPERMAN where Clark, Lois, and their son Jon got to a carnival – and there is maybe half a page of Superman action – shows that these books aren’t just about punching. From the start of this soft reset, with REBIRTH, the focus has been on connection – the climax of REBIRTH isn’t a fight, it is a hug. That isn’t something Geoff Johns did by accident – that hug isn’t just between Barry Allen and Wally West, it is between the reader and the comics, a reminder that we are together in this.
Each character, from Aquaman to Wonder Woman, is being handled by teams focused on them. That may sound weird, but for years, the focus in comics has been events and “moments”, leaving the characters behind. To see them front and center, their personalities and histories being used to tell stories that have heart, is something that so many of us have missed.
Of course, we can’t read every book DC puts out. Like I said, time and money just doesn’t allow it. If you are one of the lucky ones who can read every title, know that I am jealous of you. If, like me, you can’t , I’d like to offer a few recommendations…
I can’t imagine writing Superman is an easy thing to do, at least if you want to do it right. Peter Tomasi makes it look easy. With art by Patrick Gleason, SUPERMAN is a consistantly solid series. The focus on the Kent family, with Superman training his son to use his powers, makes me wonder why it took so long to get here. For ages, comics have tried to keep their heroes single or, in the least, childless, but when you see how well the family dynamic can work, you’ll understand why that rule needs to be bent from time to time.
Tomasi fills every issue of SUPERMAN with fun and hope. Even the darker moments, of which there are some, never feel overly heavy. This is a book that constantly reminds me why we need Superman.
Where Tomasi is weaving a tale about hope in SUPERMAN, Tom King is using his time on BATMAN to show us the meaning of determination. King’s Batman, with art by David Finch, has been a series of smaller interconnecting stories that carefully play with what makes the character of Batman so loved.
From the first issue, King has been showing us a Batman who dreams of a day where he can put the cape and cowl away for good, but fears that he has disappointed his parents. Driven not just by the need to find closure, Batman works tirelessly to help anyone and everyone he can. King has used the last year to put Batman though a mental and physical beating that is, to be honest, unsettling. At the same time, King has brought back a sense of fun to the character. While you won’t see Batman making (many) jokes, you’ll find moments of levity and humor. I mentioned the issue with Bats and the Robins sharing a meal, and while that issue is the most “fun” almost every issue has a moment that made me laugh.
There’s also a moment that nearly broke me to my core that I won’t spoil here. It happened during “The Button” and it drives to the heart of everything Batman is in such a simple and honest way that I don’t know how anyone couldn’t feel something when they read it.
I may get some flak for this, but I think Tom King is writing the definitive Batman. I have never enjoyed the character as much as I am these days.
Wonder Woman may be the hardest character to crack in the DC Universe. She has continually suffered from writers trying to find an “in” to the character that will separate her from Superman and Batman, but for some reason that answer usually ends up being “Wonder Woman is a warrior”, which ignores her original purpose – to bring peace to the world of man.
Greg Rucka, maybe more than any writer before him, understands the levels of Wonder Woman. He gets that while the character’s origin is awash in the story of warrior women, the power of Diana comes from her heart. Rucka takes the “Wonder” part of the name seriously, mixing in Diana’s joy of life with the awe inspiring insanity of Greek mythology.
With art by Liam Sharp and Nicola Scott, WONDER WOMAN has been a constant joy to read. I do want to warn you that the book can be a tad confusing – for Rucka’s run (he is sadly leaving the book after 25 issues) he has been telling two stories – one set in the present and the other set in the past – that switches each issue (so issue 1 is in the present, issue 2 is the past).
I’m honestly shocked to be putting GREEN ARROW in this. I’ve never been a fan of Oliver Queen, but Benjamin Percy’s take on the character has won me over. With a refocus on Green Arrow as a social justice warrior (which Ollie proudly calls himself in at least one issue), the book is constantly fun, exciting, and fast paced. Percy made a smart choice by getting Green Arrow and Black Canary together as fast as possible, and he writes their relationship with such vigor that you can’t help but love them.
In the last year of DC comics, there has been one story that, as I read it, I couldn’t help but imagine it as a movie, and it was MURDER ON THE EMPIRE EXPRESS. Green Arrow, Black Canary, and their pal Diggle trying to solve a murder on a train traveling under the ocean is such a perfect setting it needs to be told in live action. Maybe ARROW season six can fit it in somewhere.
This comic is still early on, with just four issues out so far, but by Rao I love it. Written by Tomasi with art by Jorge Jimenez, the adventures Superman’s and Batman’s respective sons is a blast. Tomasi, here and in SUPERMAN, has done such a great job of showing just how different Superman and Batman are while also making it clear why they are friends and work so well together that, with each appearance of the two heroes and their kids, you love them all even more.
This book also plays off of something that I used to love about DC Comics, which was lost in recent years – the sense of legacy. Seeing the next generation of Superman and Batman working together as kids as they learn to use their abilities and get on each other’s nerves is endlessly entertaining.
These aren’t the only books DC is putting out that I would recommend – FLASH, BATGIRL, DETECTIVE COMICS, and TEEN TITANS are all super solid – but they are the ones I’m most enjoying. I also want to be clear that the other DC books aren’t bad, they just aren’t for me.
The main thing is that, a year after REBIRTH hit shelves, DC Comics feels like they’re on the right track, putting the attention on character and fun while playing with the decades-worth of toys at their disposal. Whatever happens, I hope they keep that concept front and center.
*All Photos: DC Comics