DC Comics’ “Rebirth” is both a publishing initiative and a (somewhat subtle) crossover event. On the publishing side, “Rebirth” relaunched almost all of DC’s main-line superhero titles. On the story side, May 2016’s “DC Universe: Rebirth” special brought back the classic version of Wally West — thought to be lost to the New 52 reboot — and explained that characters from “Watchmen” had given the DCU a case of the blahs.
However, that wasn’t the first time writer Geoff Johns and an all-star artistic roster (including Phil Jiminez and Ivan Reis) had crafted a sequel to a seminal Reagan-era miniseries. In 2005’s “Infinite Crisis,” Johns and Jiminez (with help from Reis, George Pérez and Jerry Ordway) revealed that a trio of survivors from 1985’s “Crisis On Infinite Earths” — most thought lost to “COIE’s” reboot — had a plan to bring back the infinite Multiverse. Oh, and all their behind-the-scenes manipulations and plotting were designed to cure the DC Universe’s then-current case of the blahs.
“Infinite Crisis” enjoyed a substantial buildup and left a significant footprint. It was at the heart of the “Crisis Cycle” of the 2000s — when DC’s superhero line was either preparing for, in the middle of, and/or recovering from some world-shattering calamity. Since “Rebirth” seems to be using some of “Infinite Crisis'” playbook, today we’ll compare and contrast the two to see how the current event might benefit.
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS: 1982-2004
We begin in 1982 because that’s when DC started stealth-promoting “Crisis On Infinite Earths.” The Monitor and his signature satellite first appeared in July 1982’s “The New Teen Titans” vol. 1 #21; while his assistant Lyla made her debut over a year later, in 1983’s “New Teen Titans Annual” vol. 1 #2. (Naturally, 1985’s “Crisis” came from the “Titans” team of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez.) Apparently if you want to convince readers that a pair of new characters have been watching a shared superhero universe for a long time, it helps to show them watching that universe for a decent amount of time — even if the Monitor was never fully seen until “Crisis” issue #1, when Harbinger’s powers were also revealed.
By 1986 “Crisis” was over and DC could start building on its effects; but eventually that too led to conflicts. In the summer of 1994 writer/penciller Dan Jurgens and inker Jerry Ordway produced “Zero Hour: Crisis In Time,” which attacked those problems with a different set of cosmic tools; and ten years after that, writer Brad Meltzer and artists Rags Morales and Michael Bair inserted some nasty elements into the history of the Justice League of America. Through it all, DC was careful to use the “Crisis” name sparingly.
On the surface, 2004’s “Identity Crisis” was a mystery about the murder of Sue Dibny, the Elongated Man’s wife and a fixture of the superhero community. Her death brought out a pattern of memory-altering and other Orwellian tactics used by a handful of Leaguers to protect their secret identities. Seems that years ago, Doctor Light had snuck aboard the JLA Satellite and attacked Sue when the team was away. In the wake of that incident, and another body-switching episode involving the Secret Society of Super-Villains (from 1979’s “Justice League of America” issues #166-68), Zatanna made a habit of erasing any compromising information from the bad guys’ brains. Zatanna also put the zap on a disapproving Batman when he found out.
After seven issues of anguished conversations, a few super-fights, andmore death, Sue’s murderer turned out not to be a supervillain at all. The
Atom’s ex-wife Jean Loring did it to get his attention. Jean went to Arkham Asylum, the League started to look at itself a little more carefully, and that was it, right?
THE CRISIS CYCLE: 2005-2011
Not quite. Here’s the “Crisis cycle” in bullet points:
- The murder mystery in “Identity Crisis” (2004) had repercussions for the Justice League, the supervillain community, and Batman specifically.
- The “Countdown to Infinite Crisis” oversized one-shot (2005) continued the Batman subplot. Turns out he’d built a killer spy satellite and thought he’d put it away safely. Sadly, no — ex-good guy Max Lord repurposed “Brother Eye” and killed off Blue Beetle because Beetle had learned too much about Max’s anti-superhero plans.
- Four six-issue 2005 miniseries then got the readership ready for “Infinite Crisis.” First, “The OMAC Project” had Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman investigate Max, who was so powerful he could only be stopped by Wonder Woman snapping his neck. (“OMAC” also included “Sacrifice,” its own 4-issue sub-crossover about the neck-snapping) Next, “Rann-Thanagar War” and “Day of Vengeance” depicted a couple of time-sucking widescreen-style events to keep DC’s space-based and magic-based superheroes busy. Meanwhile, “Villains United” and the “JLA” arc “Crisis Of Conscience” (issues #115-19) dealt with fallout from “Identity Crisis” in the supervillain community and within the Justice League.
- “Infinite Crisis” (2005-06) addressed all the miniseries’ business, revealing the comprehensive plan orchestrated by Alex Luthor (of the old Earth-Three) and Superboy (of the old Earth-Prime) to restore the old Multiverse and make DC-Earth a happier place. In the end, the Joker killed Alex, the Green Lanterns imprisoned Superboy-Prime, and things were back to normal, except just a little different in some areas. For example, now DC had a fun-sized Multiverse.
- The regular superhero books jumped ahead one year in March 2006, taking advantage of “Infinite Crisis'” shakeups to make tweaks and other adjustments. However, “One Year Later” wasn’t received as fondly as “52” (2006-07), the year-long weekly miniseries which actually chronicled the missing year.
- Even after all that, DC still wasn’t done with big events. It followed “52” with another year-long weekly miniseries, 2007-08’s “Countdown to Final Crisis,” which was supposed to gin up excitement for the next event by tying into a) just about every superhero title and b) several affiliated miniseries (like “Countdown Presents: The Search For Ray Palmer” and “Death of the New Gods”).
- Thus, despite the title, 2008-09’s “Final Crisis” wasn’t the last blockbuster miniseries, because 2009-10’s “Blackest Night” dealt with (among other things) all the deaths from the various events and the biweekly year-long “Brightest Day” (2010-11) tried to set the superhero books back on a more congenial path.
- Accordingly, the “Crisis Cycle” lasted upwards of seven years before the carnage from its events was resolved. DC then went and rendered all that effort moot with 2011’s line-wide New 52 reboot.
THE ROAD TO REBIRTH
Just as “Infinite Crisis” was preceded by an apparently-standalone event miniseries, a one-shot and a handful of lead-in miniseries, “Rebirth” has built on an apparently-standalone event miniseries (“Convergence”), the miniseries which followed it (“Titans Hunt” and “Lois & Clark”) and a one-shot (“DC Universe: Rebirth”).
2015’s “Convergence” was billed as the product of DC’s real-world cross-country move, which forced the publisher to create two months’ worth of (for lack of a better term) fill-in comics for the spring of 2015. The 9-issue weekly “Convergence” miniseries explained that the mother of all Brainiacs had been collecting Multiversal remnants and was pitting them against one another; and the several affiliated two-issue miniseries showed the effects of those battles. “Convergence” had some confusing consequences for DC’s cosmic mechanics, but for the most part it was a nostalgia-fest which marked time until the summer’s “DC You” initiative.
Nevertheless, three miniseries came out of “Convergence.” Nobody read the 6-issue “Telos,” about Brainiac’s Silver Surfer-esque assistant; but the 8-issue “Titans Hunt” established the secret history of the original Teen Titans (Dick Grayson, Roy Harper, et al.) and “Lois & Clark’s” 8 issues revealed that the pre-“Flashpoint” Superman and Lois Lane had been living on the New 52’s DC-Earth since the start of its superhero era.
The rest of the superhero line got a “DC You” makeover, with quirky new series like “Black Canary,” “Prez” and “Omega Men” joining radically-changed versions of Batman, Superman and Green Lantern. When “DC You” didn’t bring in the sales, the publisher responded with the “DC Universe: Rebirth” special; and with a series of one-shots which served effectively as “zero issues” for the newest round of relaunches. Among those relaunches were “Titans” and the Superman titles, which continued what “Titans Hunt” and “Lois & Clark” had begun.
Because the Titans, Superman and the Wally West Flash have been most heavily involved in connecting the pre-“Flashpoint” DC Universe with its current version, a good bit of “Rebirth” clues have appeared in their respective series. This is true for other ongoing series like “Detective Comics” and the upcoming “Button” crossover in “Batman” and “Flash.” In this respect the current “Justice League Vs. Suicide Squad” miniseries — which also promises hints about “Rebirth’s” macro-plot — is an outlier. The strategy looks like an inversion of “Infinite Crisis,” because the “Rebirth”-fueled changes precede their explanation (or at least the detailed explanation) and the buildup isn’t allocated largely among tie-in miniseries.
One important “Rebirth” factor still needs discussing, namely Mr. Oz from Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr.’s run on “Superman” (issues #32-39, August 2014-May 2015). Thought currently to be a disguised “Watchmen” character, the fact that Mr. Oz predates “Convergence” suggests that he may have been intended to fulfill some other purpose, like an alternate route to restoring the New 52 Supeman’s powers. (He also reminds us of the Tangent Comics Green Lantern, but that’s probably just coincidental.) In any event, we’re not prepared to speculate that “Rebirth” might have been in the works for some two years — despite precedents going back to those Monitor and Lyla teases — and certainly not before the one-two efforts of “Convergence” and “DC You.” Nevertheless, Mr. Oz has certainly worked out well as the mysterious personification of “Rebirth.”
Again, “Rebirth” is using many of the same tools as the Crisis cycle, but in a slightly different order. Where “Identity Crisis” led to “Countdown to Infinite Crisis” and then into the four feeder miniseries, “Convergence” facilitated “Titans Hunt” and “Lois & Clark,” which then led into the “DCU: Rebirth” special. As noted above, the changes to “Rebirth’s” ongoing series are happening now, as opposed to the “One Year Later” books happening after “Infinite Crisis.” (Actually, “1YL” started just as “Infinite Crisis” was ending, but close enough.)
To be sure, it’s a different strategy for a different set of market conditions, but it has paid off. “One Year Later” didn’t do much for ongoing series’ sales, but “Rebirth’s” ongoing series are performing very well. The question now is whether DC can keep it up for the two years Dan DiDio has said “Rebirth” will take. Right now DC is maintaining a good balance between business-as-usual stories and “Rebirth” teases. While more “Rebirth”-specific arcs are on the way, many of DC’s superhero books have little (if anything) to disclose about the event. For example, “Wonder Woman” is explaining changes to Diana’s origins, but that’s not expressly part of “Rebirth”; and the cosmic adventures in the Green Lantern books likewise are mum on “Rebirth.” However, if the rebirthing won’t be over until the summer of 2018, that will probably change; and more of the superhero line will be connected directly to “Rebirth’s” macro-plot.
It’s also possible that DC will go back to the “Crisis cycle” well by stepping up its reliance on “Rebirth”-related miniseries. “Titans Hunt” and “Lois & Clark” arrived with little fanfare — certainly not as much as the four “Infinite Crisis” lead-ins — but they weren’t expected to play much of a role after “Convergence.” With the two-year clock ticking (a countdown, as it were) and “Justice League vs. Suicide Squad” an apparent hit, DC might feel confident enough to launch a couple more event miniseries before the main throwdown begins.
DC needs to tread carefully with those event miniseries, though. Where “52’s” source material made it necessarily self-contained, “Countdown to Final Crisis” went entirely the other way and paid the price. “Countdown” itself was uneven at best, bouncing haphazardly across subplots as its characters bounced around the new Multiverse. That left its tie-ins without much goodwill, which miniseries like “Countdown: Arena” and “Lord Havok and the Extremists” wouldn’t have enjoyed anyway. So far “Rebirth’s” focus on the ongoing series has been successful. It may not stay that way, but for now there’s no reason to change.
By using event miniseries sparingly, DC can also avoid the dreaded “event fatigue.” While there is the notion that event fatigue is really just another name for poor execution, the reception given “One Year Later” argues that enthusiasm for “Infinite Crisis” peaked with that miniseries and didn’t extend to “One Year Later.” Remember, DC spent the better part of a year hyping “Infinite Crisis” with the goal of getting its readers to stay with DC’s ongoing series. Instead, many of them chose to stay with “52,” the only series which described “Infinite Crisis'” immediate aftermath. By contrast, “Rebirth” is building a readership for the ongoing series first, presumably so that the inevitable event miniseries will be more meaningful to that readership.
If we can map “Rebirth’s” mileposts to those of “Infinite Crisis,” we’re past the point where the main miniseries should have occurred. We’ve already had the standalone miniseries, the prelude miniseries and the oversized one-shot. It might be another year before the main event starts. If that’s supposed to be the peak of activity, when the curtains are finally drawn back and all the questions are answered, then DC can’t get comfortable until then.
As much as we lump in “Identity Crisis” with the rest of DC’s big crossovers, we risk forgetting that it wasn’t billed as such. Instead, it was the publisher’s effort to reach out to the non-comics reader by using a well-known mystery novelist who would write to his strengths. “Identity Crisis” only crossed over with a handful of ongoing series, perhaps because DC hadn’t done a proper line-wide crossover for a few years. Therefore, the hype for “Infinite Crisis” hit a comics marketplace which hadn’t been oversaturated with such a thing.
The problem was, the successes of “Infinite Crisis” and “52” convinced DC that it could keep going in that vein; so over the next few years it did, to diminishing returns. Ironically, the corporate-driven excesses of “Countdown” were in support of writer Grant Morrison’s idiosyncratic “Final Crisis”; and the success of “Blackest Night” was more a reflection of writer Geoff Johns’ crowd-pleasing work on “Green Lantern.” The ecumenical, almost grass-roots appeal of “Rebirth” may be due similarly to the popularity of the individual series, and not so much the mysteries informing them. If that’s true, DC’s real task over the next year or so will be steering that collective appeal into anticipation for “Rebirth’s” endgame.
The Crisis cycle had a few big accomplishments. It revived DC’s Big Events, which had been dormant for a few years. It rebooted the Multiverse, albeit with just 52 parallel universes. It gave the entire superhero line a soft relaunch, led by the likes of writers Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek on the Superman titles and Grant Morrison and Paul Dini on the Bat-books. Through “52,” it showed that readers would embrace a quirky, detail-driven weekly miniseries (although “Countdown” would show that such a thing didn’t always work).
On the minus side, it fostered a climate of perpetual change — for example, Bart Allen’s brief Flash career and Wally West (and Mark Waid)’s similarly-brief return — coupled with the near-certainty of character death during each new event. “52” turned Ralph and Sue Dibny into ghost detectives; “Countdown” featured Earth-51’s apocalyptic end and the corruption of Mary Marvel; “Final Crisis” both “killed” Batman and planted the seeds of his return; and “Blackest Night” was all about death (although it featured a number of revivals, including Max Lord but not Blue Beetle). Even “Brightest Day,” which was supposed to focus on restoring happiness and cheer, started with the death of a cute baby bird. While the Crisis cycle wasn’t all bad, there was so much grimness and grit that it took a while to clean up.
We hope that proves to be the main difference between the Crisis cycle and “Rebirth’s” two years. It’s not just setting up a big event and watching the payoff, it’s also how much of the event’s negative effects are allowed to linger. “Rebirth” may be over by 2018, but DC must then get back to business as usual; because the Crisis cycle showed how too much of an event atmosphere can snowball out of control. Fortunately, unlike its en-fuego predecessor, “Rebirth” is doing a slow burn. That low-key approach has worked well so far, and DC should remember its effectiveness before getting too bombastic. It can’t afford to lose the readers it has gained.
How do you think “Rebirth” is doing? Let us know in the comments!
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