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DC Comics’ Rebirth – The Winners & Losers Thus Far

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
DC Comics’ Rebirth – The Winners & Losers Thus Far

Some of the stars of DC's "Rebirthed" titles, drawn by Jim Lee

DC Comics’ Rebirth relaunch is officially four months old; the “DC Universe: Rebirth” special came out on May 25, 2016, and the first round of character-specific specials followed a week later. By my count Rebirth spans about thirty titles (so far), with most getting one of those introductory specials. That’s slower and smaller than the New 52’s September 2011 fusillade, but clearly DC didn’t want to replicate the New 52.

Instead, “Rebirth” has been treated as more of a process than a line-wide jolt. It may take a while to play out completely, but now that we’re a third of a year into it, we can start to see what’s worked and what hasn’t.

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There are a few general ways to look at “winners and losers” in the Rebirth context. First, the usual suspects (i.e., “Batman” and “Harley Quinn”) have continued to do well regardless of publishing initiative. Similarly, while it might have been blindingly obvious, “Suicide Squad’s” August relaunch coincided nicely with the movie’s opening. That seems to have worked out well, although it only relates tangentially to “Rebirth.”

Second, if you are a fan of the pre-New 52 timeline, you’re probably pretty happy with “Rebirth’s” general direction. It’s combined old, familiar characters and situations with creators like Dan Jurgens, Phil Jimenez and Greg Rucka, who helped make them endearing. Similarly, just as some books can’t help but sell well, some titles have simply kept their pre-“Rebirth” mojo going. For example, writer Dan Abnett started on “Aquaman” prior to “Rebirth,” was well-received at the time, and continues to enjoy success under the new banner.

RELATED: DC Comics Rides Rebirth Wave, Remains Top Publisher in September 2016

Third, it’s very tempting to see a title which hasn’t been “Rebirthed” as one not long for the world. Specifically, “Doctor Fate” is apparently ending with issue #16, although the character will apparently continue in “Blue Beetle.” Likewise, while there’s no immediate end in sight for “Earth 2: Society,” one can’t help but notice that September’s issue #16 closed on blank panels and the notion that the world was being remade, while the cover of issue #17 now advertises “The Final Fate of Earth 2.” Couple that with “DCU: Rebirth’s” strong suggestion that the classic Justice Society is returning, and you have to think that “Earth 2” will become redundant before too long.

Speaking of the JSA, though, we don’t know how exactly they’ll figure into “Rebirth” because we’ve only gotten the broadest hint of their collective reappearance. After four months, a lot of characters have been Rebirthed, and there are still more to come. This includes Blue Beetle and Teen Titans, whose “Rebirth” specials were recently published; Hawkman and Adam Strange, who just began sharing a miniseries; and the Legion of Super-Heroes, who you have to believe will be along before it’s all over. Accordingly, there are a few different reasons why your favorite character might not appear in the rundowns below.

With that out of the way, let’s start with the losers. Actually, “loser” is probably too harsh a term. Let’s just say they have…

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

The Black Canary band, by Annie Wu

Black Canary and bandmates, from the cover of “Black Canary” #2 by Annie Wu

Much better.

At the top of my “room for improvement” list is Black Canary. She’s gone from her own solo series (part of the “DC You” soft relaunch) into co-starring in the Rebirthed “Green Arrow” and “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey.” While she’s a significant part of each book, both moves seem like course corrections designed to appease longtime fans.

Granted, you could say the same thing about “Rebirth” in general, but it’s always been kind of a struggle for Black Canary to establish any kind of solo success. Introduced in August 1947’s “Flash Comics” #86 as a supporting character for Johnny Thunder in the latter’s feature — this was when “Flash” was an anthology, albeit one starring the Flash — she started guest-starring with the Justice Society not long afterwards (beginning with December 1947/January 1948’s “All-Star Comics” #38) and became indelibly associated with that group.

Reintroduced in the early ’60s as part of the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups, she joined the League in 1969, and her relationship with Green Arrow began not long afterwards. When “Birds of Prey” kicked off in the ’90s as a series of one-shots and miniseries, her role as Oracle’s field operative helped re-establish her pretty much as a solo character, apart from both the JLA and Green Arrow. The DC You “Black Canary” was definitely an unconventional take, but at least it tried to build on all those years of working with others in order to get Dinah back on her own. With this in mind, her “Rebirth” roles seem like a step back.

Helena Bertinelli, by Mikel Janin

Helena “Matron” Bertinelli by Mikel Janin, from the cover of “Grayson Annual” #1

Speaking of “Batgirl and the Birds of Prey,” the “Rebirth” relaunch shoehorned “Grayson’s” Helena Bertinelli into what’s become a traditional Huntress role. However, where “Grayson” recast Helena as a capable super-spy and played down comparisons to past iterations, “BATBOP” wants instead to re-establish the familiar Babs-Canary-Huntress dynamic, and so far it isn’t working. “Grayson’s” Helena was subtle and sly, but “BATBOPs'” Huntress is blunt and loud. In fact, although “Green Arrow” and “BATBOP” both build on Black Canary’s solo series, the latter doesn’t feel like it’s picked up from where “Grayson” ended.

Next is Kyle Rayner, last seen in DC You’s famously-uncanceled “Omega Men.” The past few years haven’t been very kind to the Green Lanterns, what with Relic and the New Gods challenging their use of the emotional spectrum, Hal sort-of going rogue and the rest of the Corps getting lost in space and time. Now, “Rebirth” has two GL titles: the Earth-based buddy-cop book “Green Lanterns” and the big-picture “Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps.” But Kyle’s not a part of either. Personally, after what Kyle went through with the Omega Men, I’m not sure coming back to a big superhero adventure is that good of a fit for the character, but at some point, it would be fascinating to see how he responds to the GL Corps once they’re fully reconstituted.

Kyle Rayner with the Omega Men

Kyle Rayner, from the cover of “Omega Men” #12 by Trevor Hutchison

For that matter, “Rebirth” is very superhero-oriented. Only “Hellblazer,” “Deathstroke” and (arguably) “Suicide Squad” even come close to pushing the boundaries of the superhero genre, and “Hellblazer” is still tied pretty strongly to the shared superhero universe. The spirit of radical reinvention which characterized 2015-16’s “DC You” — not just the short-lived ongoing series, but the Jim Gordon Batman and the “Truth”-style Superman — may not be absent from “Rebirth,” but it sure isn’t emphasized.

Clearly this is a reaction to the more experimental DC You titles — not just “Black Canary” and “Omega Men,” but “Prez” and “Doomed” — as well as to the New 52’s longshots like “G.I. Zombie” and “Threshold.” If it weren’t for the embryonic Young Animal imprint, I’d be urging the publisher not to abandon those kinds of experiments. That said, though, just because it’s a superhero-dominated line doesn’t mean it can’t have the occasional “Demon,” “Jonah Hex” or “Sgt. Rock.” Maybe once the timeline’s details are locked down.

To be sure, “Prez” is coming back, even if it’s for 12 pages in the back of November 2’s “Catwoman: Election Night” special — which brings me to the next subject, the Feline Fatale herself. DC has published a “Catwoman” title off and on for over 20 years now, with the character’s anti-hero status making her even more popular. It makes her absence from “Rebirth” even more striking. Batgirl has two titles, Batwoman is pretty much starring in “Detective” once again, Harley Quinn is basically an excuse to print money, and there’s even a “Superwoman” book. Surely, DC can’t think that Catwoman is played out.

Indeed, as a bisexual character (her status was revealed, or at least confirmed, relatively recently), Catwoman’s full-time return would help the superhero line’s continuing efforts at diversity. “Hellblazer” and “Wonder Woman” (and by extension “Trinity”) also have bisexual leads, while “Detective” and “Earth 2: Society” have prominent gay characters, and there’s a new Midnighter/Apollo miniseries. Currently the superhero line has two books with Muslim headliners (“Green Lanterns” and, for the next little while, “Doctor Fate”); and five more with nonwhite stars (“New Super-Man,” “BATBOP,” “Suicide Squad,” “Blue Beetle” and “Cyborg”). While there are nine with female leads, two of those are “Batgirl” and “BATBOP,” and two more are “Wonder Woman” and “Trinity.” The others are “Green Lanterns,” “Detective,” “Harley Quinn,” “Supergirl” and “Superwoman.” That’s a total of 17 books tasked with different — and in some cases, multiple — areas of representation. It’s over half of the Rebirthed titles, and it doesn’t include books like “Justice League” (which features Green Lanterns Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz) or “Aquaman” (which has long given Mera a prominent role). Moreover, Batwoman is getting her own title back (although what that means for “Detective” isn’t clear) and the new “Justice League of America” looks to be more diverse than its predecessor. Even so, I’m putting this in the “needs improvement” category because it seems like the representation isn’t spread around equally.

On to the winners — or, actually:

MOST IMPROVED

Wonder Woman, by Liam Sharp

Wonder Woman by Liam Sharp, from the cover of “Wonder Woman: Rebirth” #1

Kicking off this list has to be “Wonder Woman.” Under returning writer Greg Rucka, returning artist Nicola Scott and new-to-the-series artist Liam Sharp, the Amazing Amazon is on an ambitious two-track narrative tracing both her origins and a present-day adventure with the Cheetah. Like other Rebirthed titles, “Wonder Woman” seems to be distancing itself from Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s New 52 relaunch, and Meredith and David Finch’s attempts to build on it, in hopes of wooing back lapsed fans. Azzarello and Chiang’s “Wonder Woman” was generally very entertaining, if you could get past a couple of hugely ill-advised revisions to Amazon history and Diana’s origins. However, it was very much its own thing, leaving the rest of Wonder Woman’s involvement with the larger DC Universe up to various creative teams on books like “Justice League” and “Superman/Wonder Woman.” The result, especially after the Finches took over, was a hodgepodge of disparate efforts producing decidedly mixed results. Accordingly, Rucka, Sharp and Scott aren’t so much starting over (well, except for the origin part) as re-centering the character and re-establishing the particular combination of core values readers have come to expect. Once again the “Wonder Woman” title is in charge of its character’s destiny, and it’s being guided by some very confident hands.

RELATED: Artist Nicola Scott to Leave DC’s Wonder Woman With Issue 14

Close behind Wonder Woman is Superman, appearing in “Action Comics,” “Superman” and the just-launched “Trinity.” The Man of Steel might even have been number one with a speeding bullet (sorry) if the various New 52 series hadn’t finished well with “The Final Days Of Superman.” As with Wonder Woman, this is more than just re-hiring a well-liked writer from the old days (in this case, Dan Jurgens) and reinstalling a previous operating system. Swapping out the post-“Crisis,” pre-“Flashpoint” Supes for his New 52 successor hasn’t been a complete success — for one thing, the books have been all over the place on the timeline of his “coming out” and subsequent social acceptances — but both readers and creative teams seem to be more comfortable with Dad-Supes than they were with the New 52 version. The swap has also returned Lois Lane to the co-starring prominence the New 52 version never really enjoyed; and the couple’s struggles with raising their son have distinguished the Super-titles quickly and clearly from their immediate predecessors. For a process with so many moving parts, it was handled very well (apart from a rather clunky “Rebirth” special) and, as far as I can tell, little public outcry.

Superwoman Lana Lang, by Phil Jimenez

Lana Lang as Superwoman, from “Superwoman” #1 by Phil Jimenez

Still, as the Super-books remind us, the New 52 Supes may be gone but not forgotten. Ironically enough, his spirit lives on (perhaps literally?) in “Superwoman,” a book from a very pre-“Flashpoint” creator, Phil Jimenez (with issue #3 drawn by Emanuela Lupacchino). Thanks to its semi-complicated backstory, it shouldn’t be an easy comic to enjoy, and its visual and narrative density also risk intimidating readers. Nevertheless, Jimenez is just that good at having the reader focus on what matters, while loading up the pages with enough detail to make each issue feel overstuffed in a good way. “Superwoman” seems like a title with a built-in endpoint, but as long as it’s got Jimenez it’s definitely worth your time.

RELATED: Superwoman #3 Offers New Twists on Classic DC Villains

In other fallout from the New 52 Superman, writer Gene Luen Yang moved from the flagship title to his own creation, the ongoing “New Super-Man.” Set in China and featuring that country’s version of the Trinity, “NSM” is exactly the kind of high-concept risk DC needs to take with a reader-outreach initiative like “Rebirth.” It transplants classic characters into unfamiliar situations while putting new twists on them, and it’s just a fun comic generally.

For that matter, the Superman line generally has expanded and diversified, adding “Superwoman” and “New Super-Man,” relaunching “Supergirl” and replacing the two team-up books (“Batman/Superman” and “Superman/Wonder Woman”) with the all-inclusive “Trinity.” That makes six Super-titles (“Action,” “Superman,” “Supergirl,” “Superwoman,” “New Super-Man” and “Trinity”), plus the upcoming “Super-Sons.” There are a greater number of Bat-books — the two main titles, plus “All-Star Batman,” “Nightwing,” “Batgirl,” “BATBOP,” and “Red Hood” — but that number only really swells when you add more tangential series like the Harley Quinn books, “Gotham Academy” and “Batman Beyond.” The point is, the Batman line still commands the biggest single chunk of DC’s superhero real estate, but the Superman books are moving closer to it. (Again, as alluded to above, both fiefdoms need to keep diversity concerns in mind, since they’re headed up by white men.)

Before we get away from the Bat-books, I do want to laud “Gotham Academy” for being spared the cancellations visited upon a number of DC You series, as well as some other unconventional titles. (I know “Gotham Academy” wasn’t technically a DC You book, but it helped lay the groundwork for that initiative.) “Gotham Academy” got a new first issue (but not a “Rebirth” branding) via its “Second Semester” relaunch; and while reasonable minds may differ, I choose to think that’s a vote of confidence in the title on its own merits. Unlike “Doctor Fate” and “Earth 2: Society,” the new No. 1 suggests that DC wants to draw attention to the series. (The “Lumberjanes” crossover doesn’t hurt either.) “Gotham Academy” is sufficiently distinct from the superhero line that it doesn’t need to be Rebirthed, but it’s not different enough to warrant a Young Animal-style branding. In short, it’s the kind of title the superhero line needs in order to keep seeming fresh. It’s about the same as it ever was, but that’s still good and quirky enough to get a mention here.

RELATED: Gotham Academy Annual Links School to DC’s Batman Beyond Future

Following up on the recent “Titans Hunt” miniseries, the Rebirthed “Titans” (featuring Classic Wally West) is involved pretty heavily with “Rebirth’s” in-universe mechanics. While Classic Wally is one of “Rebirth’s” clearest winners, I don’t think his resurgence has really hurt his counterpart, Current Wally West. After all, the latter has just started speeding across TV screens everywhere, and is one of the newest Teen Titans to boot. Classic Wally personifies not just the pre-“Flashpoint” DC Universe, but the collective goodwill of fans who came to DC after “Crisis On Infinite Earths.” Over 25 years, the shared superhero universe grew and developed into a multigenerational tapestry of handed-down costumes and codenames, bringing in all kinds of readers who came to demand the best from DC. Classic Wally’s return is the clearest possible signal that those old days are “Rebirth’s” touchstone, but Current Wally is a constant reminder that the New 52’s changes aren’t necessarily going away either.

RELATED: Kid Flash Debuts as [SPOILER]’s Fate Stands Revealed in Flash #8

Green Arrow and Black Canary, by Steve Skroce

Green Arrow and Black Canary, from the cover of “Green Arrow: Rebirth” #1 by Steve Skroce

Another example of the balance between old and new is the Rebirthed “Green Arrow,” written by Ben Percy and drawn by Otto Schmidt, Juan Ferreyra and Stephen Byrne. For a while there it seemed like three different versions of Green Arrow were competing for various sets of eyeballs. The New 52 Green Arrow started out as a billionaire adventurer with a TV-friendly support staff, basically updating a status quo from the Golden and Silver Ages. That changed somewhat as the “Arrow” TV series came along, with its portrayal of a tortured Oliver Queen who went from cold-blooded urban avenger to a more scowly, slightly better-adjusted, even quasi-inspirational figure. Lost in both of those iterations was Old Lefty Ollie, the outspoken activist made famous by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in the early 1970s. “Rebirth” has basically brought back Old Lefty Ollie, but filtered him through a set of New 52 and “Arrow” sensibilities. With all those competing interpretations you’d think the end product would be a mess, but Percy, Schmidt, Ferreyra and Byrne have pulled it off, making their “Green Arrow” familiar to a wide range of fans.

Finally, one character whose Rebirth doesn’t necessarily depend on repudiating or embracing any particular version is Deathstroke. Written by veteran Christopher Priest and drawn by Carlo Pagulayan and Joe Bennett, the Rebirthed “Deathstroke” is simply a well-executed series, with enough stylization to engage the reader without being distracting. Previous incarnations stumbled by trying too hard to convince the reader that their headliner was as hypercompetent as advertised. Priest and his artistic collaborators rely more on showing than telling, and it fits perfectly with the character’s no-nonsense approach.

IN CONCLUSION

The Rebirth relaunch is still very much a work in progress. Its logistics may force creative-team changes which in turn produce any number of unintended consequences. There are more books to come, from the just-begun “Death of Hawkman” and “Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love” miniseries to “Super-Sons” and the Kamandi Challenge project honoring Jack Kirby. Indeed, some of these may not bear the Rebirth branding, and that may affect how we look at future winners and losers.

However, overall it seems that Rebirth has rekindled interest in DC’s superhero line. It’s selling better than the New 52 did at the beginning, and it seems to have turned off fewer readers than the New 52 relaunch did. As described above, its main weakness is a tendency to cater too much to lapsed fans, while ignoring the need for new titles and new perspectives which could grow its overall readership. Yes, the Young Animal imprint (and the upcoming WildStorm relaunch) may end up addressing those concerns, but there’s still a value to having your main line of titles be as adventurous as the more experimental ones.

The bottom line, though, is that DC needs to build its line of titles on a foundation which sells reliably. For now, apparently the best way to do that is by looking to the successes of the past and seeing how effectively they can be updated. In that respect, “Rebirth” is off to a very good start. DC just has to remember it won’t be Rebirthing forever.

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