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The Success & Failure of DC’s Rebirth… So Far

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The Success & Failure of DC’s Rebirth… So Far

DC Comics’ Rebirth relaunch is in full swing and, as I promised back in March, I’m giving a lot of these titles a shot. That previous article — which I’ll link to again — is as much a prequel to this as “Justice League” #50 apparently was to “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1. My take on Rebirth exists at the intersection of two different viewpoints; I know superhero comics and the tropes and tricks most often used in them, but newcomer feelings persist every time I open up a DC comic. I have a map of this city wired into my brain but I don’t recognize many of the landmarks. This time around, I’m trying to not let my lack of familiarity get in the way. I’m looking for entertaining stories with interesting characters told by talented artists, and it’s fine if I don’t develop a fanatical devotion to the Bat-family similar to the way I feel for the X-Men.

All that said, I can report that “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1 was a very… interesting read for me. The 64-page giant — written by Geoff Johns with art from Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis and Phil Jimenez — set about resetting (or revealing?) the New 52 universe via Wally West. Oh — not the New 52 Wally West, but the Post-“Crisis” Wally West that served as the Flash in the ’90s and early ’00s. But this Wally West is no longer a parent, and maybe younger? He might be going by Kid Flash again… or not? And also there was the return of Ryan Choi, the pre-New 52 Atom that I honestly did not know had yet to show up in the New 52. And also Ted Kord was there, alive and adorable, but the Blue Beetle mythology is now magic-y? A different Superman is now the Superman again. And it’s all because of Dr. Manhattan — because the Watchmen are part of the DCU or responsible for the DCU? Because the New 52 wasn’t a reboot, it was a massive reality-altering… thing by Dr. Manhattan. Also, Batman added a very iconic button to the Batcave’s tchotchke museum.

Yeah. I actually wasn’t going to read “Rebirth,” but the overwhelming adoration it received convinced me to try it out (also, it’s a lot of comic for $2.99). I think that adoration was well deserved. I can see why everyone that’s in the tank for DC would get a kick out of it. It re-validated 25-ish years of stories (or maybe more?) and restored a sense of legacy to the universe. That’s the kind of in-story course correcting that made me cry during every single issue of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s “Astonishing X-Men.” I feel that. It was also well-done; I may have not had a clue what was going on most of the time, but I somehow never felt lost while reading it. And yeah, there was a brightness to it that I definitely did not feel when I read a ton of New 52 #1 issues back in 2011. Basically, many of the best DC stories I’ve read involve me enjoying them while having zero clue what’s really going on. “DC Universe: Rebirth” did that.

Following the release of “DCU: Rebirth,” I began to do what I said I’d do in that article from March. I’m checking out these new “Rebirth” one-shots, mostly based on my familiarity with the creators. I’ve read the Rebirth issues of “Green Lanterns,” “Batman,” “Aquaman,” “Wonder Woman” and “Detective Comics” — and yes, I’m fully aware that I definitely did not pick up some books that you loved and want to recommend to me. My experience has followed closely with what I got out of the “Rebirth” one-shot. I’ve scratched my head, read retreads, recognized deference to things I have no nostalgia for, actually experienced nostalgia, met new characters and been mostly optimistic — but also consistently confused.

I scratched by head at “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman.” I’m more on board for the former series than the latter after those “Rebirth” issues, but they were so dense in different ways. Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark and Liam Sharp’s “Wonder Woman: Rebirth” might be the most meta comic I’ve read in a while. Rucka uses the current continuity shuffle to undo the character’s origin that the New 52 “Wonder Woman” series created, or does it? That’s a question the series is asking; which one of Wonder Woman’s origins is real, and why does she feel the pull of both right now, and who did this to her? This is a jumping-on point that places dueling continuities at the forefront, summing up decades of Wonder Woman mythology by comparing and contrasting them. The art is powerful and the symbolism of Wonder Woman shattering a mirror, shards of her history reflected in the flying glass, is striking. I got a spark of the Rucka Wonder Woman I wanted to see on the last page, when our hero declares that she will track down the truth.

While “Aquaman” was definitely a leaner jumping-on point than “Wonder Woman” when it comes to complex continuity, Dan Abnett’s script for the undersea hero’s “Rebirth” issue was packed with exposition. I left the issue without a real sense of who Abnett’s Aquaman is; I’d rather have read 20 pages of Arthur convincing Mera to try more of Sam’s Seafood’s menu, since that’s when the two of them started to click for me.

Both “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” retread stories I’ve read before. “Wonder Woman” is setting out to clarify and establish Diana’s origin — which even a casual DC reader like myself has read twice before. And “Aquaman” devoted more than a few pages to trying to convince readers once again that Aquaman isn’t lame; I get that pop culture reduced the guy to “hero that talks to fish,” but I wouldn’t mind reading an Aquaman story that assumed I didn’t need to be convinced that the character is cool. I paid $2.99 to read an “Aquaman” comic, I’m already a little bit on board for the guy.

I’ll admit that James Tynion IV and Eddy Barrows’ “Detective Comics” #934 used weaponized Bat-nostalgia on me, and a few of the attacks actually got through my defenses. There were a few that bounced off my ignorance-armor; I know who Tim Drake, Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown are, and I know they’re big deals to basically every Bat-family fan, but I have no real connection to any of them. Tim Drake is ostensibly my Robin (I started reading comics in 1992), but everything I know about him is what I’ve heard from other fans (appropriately, mostly from Tynion himself at convention panels). Mainly I felt glad about their inclusion because I knew it would make a ton of readers giddy.

Here’s the Bat-nostalgia that broke my defenses: Batwoman, the yellow in Batman’s suit, that number, and the welcoming “Batman: The Animated Series” vibe I got. If I’d had a column in 2011 when I first read “Batwoman: Elegy,” I’d no doubt have a tear-filled appreciation post to link to. I’ll just say that Batwoman’s a character I love, and I try to love as many stories as she gets — and that, sadly, doesn’t always work out. “Detective” #934 captures the Kate Kane I remember, and I’m excited to have her back. This is also the issue that I really started to appreciate Batman’s new costume, one that incorporates yellow and purple. As a guy that’s loved “Batman ’66” for as long as I can remember, I always like it when a Batsuit has some color. And then there’s the number; numbering is a thing I have always-evolving thoughts about. But DC’s about legacy and history, and as a kid I always thought of it as the publisher with crazy-high issue numbers. I’m glad to see a comic back in the 900s for those very specific reasons. And then there’s the page with Clayface, which features beautiful, watercolor-esque coloring from Adriano Lucas.

It hit me right there, looking at that image: this feels like “Batman: The Animated Series,” a cartoon I loved as a kid. That series would insert stylistic painted art into each episode, particularly the title cards of each installment. Having that there, under a sympathetic monologue about Clayface’s origin, really felt like the return of a Batman I loved as a kid — and that’s a powerful tool when it comes to superheroes.

Sam Humphries and Geoff Johns’ new “Green Lanterns” book got me to buy my first new Green Lantern comic. Old dog, new comics. I know a bit about the Green Lantern mythos, just through Wikipedia and scattered solo stories and team comics I’ve read. I knew that Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz existed, but that’s about it. And while “Green Lanterns” wasn’t a mind-blowing issue, it did set up a dynamic between Cruz and Baz that I latched onto. It felt similar to when I discovered Jaime Reyes’ first “Blue Beetle” series; these legacy heroes aren’t hitched to an 18-wheeler of continuity, but they do get to play with and interact the larger mythology. You get introduced to larger DC concepts (like the Red Lanterns, a new thing for me) through characters that are also unsure of all this stuff. I’m now eager to see if Simon and Jessica can become my Lanterns.

But here’s where I get confused: none of the stories I read reference the ticking continuity time bomb that was placed in “DC Universe: Rebirth.” According to that retcon, “Watchmen’s” Dr. Manhattan seized an opportunity to remake the DC Universe, pulling out a decade of continuity and memories from the minds of every DC hero and thus establishing the New 52. And here’s my big question: why? I know we’re going to learn why eventually (that’s how stories work!), but right now it feels like a move that undermines not only every story from the past five years, but specifically every story happening right now.

As I’m interpreting that retcon, all of the characters I just met aren’t the whole versions of those characters. These are all mind-altered versions of the heroes, and at some point they’ll all get their memories back of DC’s Post-“Crisis” status quo. But those will exist on top of their New 52 memories. And that will, in theory, go for every single living thing in the entire DC universe — even non-powered civilians? Or are we to accept that all of these characters are the heroes we read from the ’80s to the ’00s, but oh well, their brains are re-wired forever? And comic book aging is already weird, so thinking to hard about how that missing decade affects teens like Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown risks me checking into Arkham Asylum. “DC Universe: Rebirth” established that everything going on in the current DC Universe isn’t the way things actually are, and set a literal clock counting down to when everything will presumably get restructured… again. Right? Or not? The fact that I’m not sure after reading all these comics ostensibly designed for new readers is a problem.

The simplest thing for me to do, I think, is to ignore “DC Universe: Rebirth’s” reality-changing mission statement. It’s too destructive and distracting to my investment in these new stories. I’ve said that I want to focus on the stories themselves, and maybe that means drilling down to the smaller, individual stories being told in these series — which, for the most part, have grabbed my attention. And if more of these stories can do what “Detective Comics” #934 did for me, then I’ll call Rebirth a success.

Just… I can’t think about Dr. Manhattan. I already have enough gray hair.

Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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