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Rearranging the deck chairs: DC Rebirth titles, Week Three!

by  in Comic News Comment
Rearranging the deck chairs: DC Rebirth titles, Week Three!

One is the loneliest number this week, as one shalt be the number of DC Rebirth titles thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be one. It’s better than next week, I suppose, when there are none. Let’s get to it!

Titans: Rebirth by Dan Abnett (writer), Brett Booth (penciller), Norm Rapmund (inker), Andrew Dalhouse (colorist), Carlos M. Mangual (letterer), Brittany Holzherr (assistant editor), and Alex Antone (editor). $2.99, 20 pgs, FC. Wally West created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino. Dick Grayson created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson, but Nightwing created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. Donna Troy created by Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani. Roy Harper created by Mort Weisinger and George Papp. Garth created by Robert Bernstein and Ramona Fradon. Lilith Clay created by Robert Kanigher.

Let’s get in the Wayback Machine and return to a gentler time, a more innocent time, when great comics roamed the land and lived in harmony with each other and their fans, who were always sober, level-headed, and reasonable when their opinions differed from others. It was December of 2004, and a fresh-faced lawyer named Brian Cronin (which I’m still convinced is an alias, because it just sounds too super-villainy to be real) and some of his Illuminati brethren decided that it was time for a new comics blog. After explaining to several people what a “blog” was (it was 2004, people!), he launched “Comics Should Be Good,” a pretentious and even aggressive title, and he wrote a mission statement, which probably six people read. In part, it read:

I honestly don’t know where it came from…but a disturbing trend in comics criticism is a complacency towards whether a book is good or not.

One thing that I think certianly does not hurt this attitude being so prevalant is the argument “The fans don’t care about that.”

“The story makes no sense.”
Well, that’s okay, the story doesn’t have to make sense because “the fans don’t care about that.”

“The art is terrible.”
Well, that’s okay, the art doesn’t have to be good because “the fans don’t care about that.”

I think it is important to note that just because a series is economically successful does not mean it should not be open to criticism for its story, or lack thereof.

We should never resign ourselves to subpar stories.

And that is what I hope we do here on this site…not resign ourselves to subpar stories.

And if that comes off as nitpicking…then whatever…but I do not think it is ever cool to say “it’s close enough to being good” or…

“The fans don’t care about that.”

Oh, the huzzahs that greeted that mission statement! The six people who read it rejoiced and wept tears of joy! All would be well in the world of comics criticism, and nevermore would people dismiss haughty tastemakers because they sniffed at stupid comics!

Well … it didn’t quite work out that way. But it’s still a noble effort, and one that we’ve never quite gotten away from here, even as the original writers left and Brian recruited new writers (yours truly included) and we moved to CBR and we gained and then lost a bunch of writers and now we only have, what, four? who post with any regularity, with two others showing up every so often (God, I miss all the writers who don’t post here anymore – not just Kelly and Sonia, who are both awesome and have their own things going on, but Chad and Bill and Mark and Danielle and Melissa and Melinda and Brad and Megan – and anyone else I might have forgotten – and even Joe, who I’ll get to in a minute) and blogs have even become a bit passé even though I still love them. Brian’s mission statement has changed a tiny bit, but not much, and whenever I read other comics blogs, I’m still fairly impressed by the quality of writing here (I can’t ever judge myself, so I’m not talking about me). One of the nice things about the blog has always been the focus on comics – not nerd pop culture, which I think dilutes the quality of good blogs like Comics Alliance – and the fact that we have writers with different tastes. That means you never quite get a “party line” with regard to the comics you see here, even if we do share some similar likes and dislikes. This leads to some fun posts – I still love Joe Rice’s wonderful rant about art from over nine (9!!!!) years ago, a post specifically targeting me and my love for Moon Knight. Good times indeed.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, it’s good to be reminded about the blog’s mission statement every once in a while and the uphill battle that comics snobs face when it comes to their favorite medium for entertainment. Titans: Rebirth came out this week, and it is an objectively bad comic. I’ll get to why in a moment, but the point is: Does it matter? For far too long and for the foreseeable (meaning: until the sun goes nova) future, it does not. This is a comic starring Wally West, Dick Grayson, Poor Surname-Less Garth, Hats Off to (Roy) Harper, Donna Troy, and someone named Lilith. Five of those characters have fans who simply do not care if they’re in good comics or not, because they have emotional connections that DC will milk to the hilt by putting them in a comic that they know won’t be any good but will still sell. DC and Marvel do this relentlessly, and from anecdotal evidence (meaning: the people I talk to at the comic book store on Tuesday and Wednesday), the readers know the comic will be terrible or at least mediocre and don’t care. They want to know what happens. Plot drives all. They want to know how the Watchmen characters are involved. They want to know how Wonder Woman’s origins will be reconciled. They want to know what cosmic threat Hal Jordan will fight next. They want to know how DC plans to repair the universe.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach to popular entertainment. It’s not my way of consuming popular entertainment, but it’s not the wrong way to do it (I don’t really care too much about spoilers because of this – I don’t love spoilers, but if I find something out before I get to it, it’s not the end of the world; I knew about the three Jokers – which I still find painful to type – before I read DC Universe: Rebirth, and it didn’t affect my feelings about the book one way or another; in fact, if I had found out at the moment I read it, I might have liked the book less). A lot of people absolutely love plot-centric stories, and that’s partly why they’re going to buy Titans: Rebirth. They know Wally West is in it, they know Wally West is crucial to this whole Watchmen thing, so they want to read it so they can add another piece of the puzzle to the big mystery of current DC comics. This, combined with the fact that it stars characters they loved from their adolescence, makes Titans: Rebirth a powerful draw. Believe me, I know all about it. As someone who has extolled the virtues of Manimal for years, I know the lure of loving something from your childhood even if it’s, you know, crap. DC and Marvel are almost counting on your critical blindness in many, many cases, and this comic is only one of them.

Because this is not a good comic, and I’m going to tell you why. My credentials may be suspect – perhaps not as suspect as they were nine years ago, when Joe thought I should be dipped in barbecue sauce and thrown to a pack of rabid badgers simply because I thought the then-current Moon Knight series was pretty good (and when I re-read it, I still thought it was pretty good!) – but I like to think I can write coherently about why a comic is not good beyond “I didn’t like this.” I didn’t expect to like Titans: Rebirth; Brett Booth, in my eyes, is not a good artist, and as comics are at least 60% art, I figured it would take a monumentally good story to overcome Booth’s art, and Dan Abnett isn’t really capable of that. But just the fact that I didn’t like and knew I wouldn’t like it going in isn’t enough. I must explain why this isn’t a good comic and why that’s important. Because it is. Honestly.

Let’s consider the writing. There are two main aspects of writing, I think we can agree: Plotting and Writing. By “plotting,” I of course mean what the book is about. By “writing” I mean the words the author uses in the book. Some comics writers are good at both, some at one, some at the other. The great ones are great at both, of course. We read Alan Moore’s work not only because his plots are amazing, but because the words on the page are amazing, too. It has long been obvious that Keith Giffen is very good at plotting and not so good at writing. Kieron Gillen is getting better at plots, but he’s always been better at the writing than the plotting of his comics. This is not a value judgment – both are important, but in some comics, plot is more important, and in others, the actual writing is. In major superhero comics, the plotting is often more important, because of their nature.

Dan Abnett has written many good comics, but he’s not what we would call a great writer. He’s been around forever, and early in his career, he worked a lot in England on Doctor Who stuff and for Marvel UK and 2000AD. It appears he and writing partner Andy Lanning made their American debut in 1992 on The Punisher, but it doesn’t really matter when he did, because the point is that he’s been around for a while. It feels like his “big break” in American comics was Resurrection Man, but I could be wrong. For me, his best work was on Marvel’s “cosmic” titles beginning in 2006, but that’s just an opinion. He knows what he’s doing. But he’s not known necessarily for his writing, because it’s just kind of solid. You’re not quoting very many Dan Abnett lines, in other words. He knows how to put together a superhero comic, and he’s probably better known for his plotting. So let’s look at the plot of Titans: Rebirth. Is it any good?

Well, obviously, it depends on what you want from a comic. The plot is fairly bland, as nothing much happens. Wally West visits Dick Grayson’s apartment, and through the magic of comic bookery, manages to “zap” Dick and the other Titans back into the knowledge that he exists. He then tells them things we, the readers, already know, or should know based on the fact that if you’re reading Titans: Rebirth, there’s a good chance you already read DC Universe: Rebirth. Abnett and DC are walking a fine line with regard to the revelations of DC Universe: Rebirth, because Abnett has to assume that readers of this book might not know what happened in that other book, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to rehash. So the final few pages are tough because Wally has to explain this yet again to a different group of people while not repeating himself because we’ve read it at the most two times before. The plot, therefore, is dictated by Editorial, not that Brittany Holzherr and Alex Antone told Abnett what to write, but because Wally is in this comic, Abnett knows he has to deal with what others have already dealt with in other comics. It’s not a good place to be, and Abnett doesn’t do a very good job with it. If, on the other hand, you simply want characters you know showing up and reminiscing about their friendships, you might find the plot pretty good. But that begins to get away from pure plotting and into the writing, and the fact is, “what happens” in this comic is pretty thin. Abnett repeats himself a lot, from Wally figuring out that if he touches his friends they’ll remember him (which we see over and over) to the flashbacks to their friendships when they touch. Then we get another repetition – the grand plot of “stolen time” that overhangs everything in DC right now. So the plot is stretched to the breaking point, and even if you like this comic, you can’t argue that the plot is thin.

That’s where the writing comes in. Plotless stories are perfectly fine, as long as the writing is exceptional. Most comics writers are not exceptional when it comes to the words they put on the page, however, which is why most of them concentrate on plotting. Abnett’s story doesn’t concern itself with plot too much, so his writing has to be up to snuff. This is where things get a bit dicier, because judging writing is more difficult than judging plot. You can say a plot doesn’t make any sense or that it’s boring, and while people can disagree with you, you can usually cite examples of it. I mean, nothing much happens in this comic, and that’s verifiable fact. But the writing might be more effective to you based on what you bring to the table in terms of history and in terms of expectations. I’m not a great writer, but I appreciate the writing in a story more than the plot, so I tend to focus on the lack of it quite a bit. Abnett, like so many other comics writers (and writers in general, don’t get me wrong) focuses on telling us stuff about the characters instead of revealing those things. It begins on Page 1, where Wally narrates “Once upon a time, we were the Teen Titans.” Any comic that begins with “Once upon a time,” I would argue, is getting itself into a world of trouble, as fairy tales tend to be simplistic on the surface while hinting at psychological depths underneath, but in superhero comics in general, the surface is all we get. Wally narrates a lot about how he and the Titans were besties, and Abnett layers on the clichés – there was a “special spark” the team had, something “you couldn’t make happen” because that would be inorganic, and now the friendships have been stolen and even the memory has faded. Wally stands in Dick’s apartment, and when Dick attacks him, their physical connection makes Dick remember. We see this and understand it through Booth’s art and Abnett’s dialogue, but he can’t resist having Wally narrate it as well. The rest of the Titans show up and attack Wally because they think he’s done something to Dick (which, of course, he has), and Abnett has Wally narrate about their qualities as people instead, again, allowing us to see them. In today’s comics culture, the “less is more” writing style – which I like quite a bit, because it allows the art to breathe a bit more – means that writers have to be more judicious with their words. I get that – it’s harder to have an impact with the words you use when you’re using fewer of them. Abnett’s dialogue, which is too expository and stilted, at least gives us information about the characters and some of their traits, but he also overexplains – Wally tells the characters that the speed force zapped them after we’ve seen it happen five times, and it’s just wasted space. Dialogue and narration is very hard to write, because writers need to get important information across while still keeping the “voice” of the character interesting, and the death of third-person narration in comics means that the exposition often comes from a character, and that’s difficult to do effectively. None of the dialogue in this comic really sparkles, as it’s generally just questions and answers and proclamations. Some of the things said – like Garth’s dull explanation about why he’s not staying in the “surface world” – are things that good friends don’t need to say to each other, so it comes off as talking directly to the readers, but that means it lessens the emotional connection between Wally and his friends even though that’s the point of the entire story. It’s a very hard line to walk, and it’s one reason people often get nostalgic for an omniscient and emotionless narrator. Like so many DC (and Marvel) writers, Abnett relies on us to make the emotional connections between the characters, and he does this because he only has 20 pages to get the story in. There’s always going to be some of that in serial fiction, but it’s still a tough sell.

So let’s consider the art. Once again, we can break it down into two sections: Style and Storytelling. We can argue about both of them, but style is where most of the arguments lie, because everyone has different tastes. I don’t like Brett Booth’s style, but you might. I don’t like his elongated, spindly characters, because it makes their muscles look bizarre – their thighs always look huge, partly because their waists are so tiny. I dislike the way he poses characters, because they don’t look natural at all. He bends characters in ways that people don’t bend, and all his characters look pretty much the same – even Donna Troy and Lilith Clay look like the men, which is a bit strange. To me, he’s all the dumb excesses of superhero artwork without any of the redeeming qualities – a sense of grandeur, for instance. But some people like his style, and that’s fine. A lot of people don’t like the artists I love, either. C’est la vie.

But let’s look at Booth’s storytelling, which I also find lacking. On Page 1, he uses his full-page splash to show the Titans in action, which is much appreciated after some of the boring splashes we’ve seen over the past few weeks. Most people, I reckon, won’t pay much attention to this splash page, as they’ll just take in the “classic” characters and move on. But let’s take a look at it. The Titans are leaping off a rooftop in a city in various ways. Wally is running straight off the edge, while Dick swings by, Roy jumps off the roof, Lilith runs along the roof, Donna flies over it with a lasso, and Garth is behind everyone. I know it’s hard to pose your characters on a page so they can all show off their skills, but this is silly. I suppose I can forgive Dick’s weird pose where he’s barely holding onto the rope, because that’s become a clichéd way to show someone swinging by a rope, but Roy is both floating on nothing – he’s leaping, I guess, but it looks like he’s crouching on air – and Booth puts a baseball cap on him, because Roy is a douchebag, I guess. Garth, meanwhile, is flooding the roof with water. Where’d the water come from? We shouldn’t question where it came from, would be some people’s response, because this is just a cool pose, but it’s still very weird.

Booth also gives us a strange apartment in which Wally meets the Titans. It’s Dick’s apartment, but it looks trashed. Crap lies everywhere and there are cracks in the window. Does Dick actually live there? Is he moving in or moving out? Abnett and Booth don’t give us any reason for it, and it’s probably Abnett’s job, but why did Booth draw it this way? The Titans show up out of nowhere, too, and again, neither Abnett nor Booth explains how they managed to surround Wally without him realizing it. Roy’s hat is now backwards, because he decided being a douchebag isn’t enough and now he has to be a massive douchebag – Booth puts what appears to be a bikini-clad mannequin in his apartment at one point, just to drive home the point that he’s a massive douchebag (I sure hope it’s a mannequin, unless Roy paid a bikini-clad woman to stand in his apartment and hold his quiver). This appears to be close-quarters fighting, but like a lot of artists, Booth ignores spatial constraints when the fighting starts and it seems like Wally is racing around a giant arena avoiding the Titans. Booth does us interesting page layouts, fanning out panels in some places, stacking them at Dutch angles in others, so at least he does that, but it does feel a bit haphazard and flashy. In general, though, his storytelling, while not amazing, is functional.

None of this matters, though, which is too bad. Part of the reason comics take so quick to read these days is because that’s the way readers have been trained. We zip by artwork without “reading” it, so the fact that Garth is flooding a rooftop on Page 1 doesn’t register or, if it does, doesn’t bother us. Why not? Meanwhile, the death of third- or even second-person narration has meant that there are fewer words in comics, but I would wager that many people skip over a lot of those anyway. When you sit down and re-read your Claremont X-Men (you do, don’t you? of course you do), you can safely skip over a lot of the words because Claremont repeats the powers of his characters so often. I wonder if the same thing applies today – Wally repeats himself so much in this comic and the words are often so trite that you can safely skip them, and that makes this much quicker reading. But that means that readers are simply getting this to find out what happens, and they can get a general sense of that from the pictures. And it’s not much, as I noted above. But it’s a puzzle piece in the grand scheme of things, and comics readers love their puzzle pieces.

Titans: Rebirth isn’t the worst example of what superhero comics are like, but it’s not a bad example to use. It’s a mediocre comic book that just happened to come off the assembly line at this moment, so it fits in a longer line at this place and doesn’t do much else. It doesn’t tell us much about the Watchmen mystery, it doesn’t work to re-establish these “bonds” that Geoff Johns extolled in DC Universe: Rebirth, it just assumes them (much like Oliver and Dinah ending up banging in this week’s Green Arrow – why bother working on a courtship when we can just skip to the fact that they’re an item again?). I think the title of this series is pretty danged clever, if I do say so myself, and this is a really striking example of DC rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Will DC find a piece of driftwood before they get sucked under?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

One totally Airwolf panel:

**********

Sorry for the length of this post – I knew I only had one comic to write about this week, so I figured I’d go all tangential just to make sure you were getting your money’s worth! It looks like DC is not going to release too many of these each week from now on – as I noted, there are none next week, and the checklist in the back of this issue indicates that we have 1 the following week, 2 the next week, 2 the next week, and 1 in the final week of July. I know some are coming out in August, so we’ll see what’s what. I will keep getting them and writing about them, though, because why not? If you’re depressed because the only Rebirth title this week was drawn by Brett Booth, here’s a cubist photograph my daughter did in her summer program:

See? You feel better already!

Have a nice week, everyone!

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