Several months into DC’s Rebirth era, how is the initiative faring?
So far, pretty well. Sales and market share have been up for DC’s line overall and Rebirth seems to be doing a better of job of holding fan interest than some of DC’s other recent directions. There haven’t been any real clunkers among the titles. Reviews have been generally positive, with a few books receiving strong praise. The line overall feels like it has decent energy and a motivating purpose.
Let’s take a closer look at some key facets of the Rebirth era.
The New 52 had its success stories and that era continues to provide the basis of DC’s current line. But many of the publisher’s franchises seemed to wander. Some started strongly but faded over time (Wonder Woman; Aquaman). Others seemed to struggle for a direction or identity, never quite landing on something that worked (the Superman family, Green Arrow, Teen Titans). In the quest for something new and fresh, creators often lost sight of key elements that endeared familiar characters to fans.
Rebirth has done a good job of giving purpose to DC’s top franchises. Nowhere is that more apparent than with flagship character Superman and his satellite books. The New 52 tried all kinds of things to make Superman “relatable” or “contemporary” but very little of it resonated with readers. It wasn’t terrible, for the most part, but it didn’t give anyone much of a reason to care.
That’s changed in the Rebirth era. Bringing back the post-Crisis Superman, along with wife Lois Lane and young son Jonathan, and making him the focus of the franchise has worked out really well. The Superman books have a vitality and distinct perspective that they’d been lacking for too long. The familiar supporting cast is being used effectively, while new characters have mixed in smoothly. The hook of the post-Crisis Superman “replacing” his apparently deceased New 52 correlate is a strong driver for action and drama.
Other books have also shown more consistency and dramatic potency. Wonder Woman was one of DC’s stronger books during Brian Azzarello’s run, but meandered thereafter. Green Arrow whiplashed from one concept to another, never quite sticking a landing. Teen Titans was a perpetual mess. And DC couldn’t figure out how to make a Blue Beetle series work, in spite of that character’s high profile in other media.
All of those books have had stronger showings during Rebirth. Creators have a firmer hook on what makes these concepts appealing and have brought back key elements that engage fans.
That’s a crucial aspect of the relative success of Rebirth: characters resembling themselves. Whether its title heroes, supporting players or villains, many characters meandered from their core concepts during the New 52 years. Bringing back familiar elements, whether costumes/styling, attitudes or settings, has gone a long way to making these characters feel familiar again without jettisoning some of the newer elements that were working.
So Green Arrow has his famous beard and Robin Hood styling back. Dick Grayson stopped being a super spy and is Nightwing once again. The wildly unpopular Lobo makeover is being scrapped and a misguided plot that de-aged Deathstroke has also been reversed. Supergirl acts like Supergirl and not some alien ice princess. The badly mishandled Donna Troy is recognizable again. Misused characters like Batwoman and Atom are finding new purpose. And one of DC’s most beloved characters, the original Wally West, off the board for the entirety of The New 52, made a crowd-pleasing comeback (without displacing the new Wally West who’d debuted recently).
Keeping a comic book line going for decades isn’t an easy task, there are bound to be bumps in the road. DC’s current approach of trying to present the most iconic versions of characters, using elements from its various eras, is paying off. The trick will be for DC to sustain this approach and stay the course. Early success has bolstered creators’ confidence, but the true test will be if they can stick with this concept through inevitable ups and downs in the marketplace.
Relationships of various types are crucial to comic book storytelling. Over the past few years, some classic bonds have been ignored or poorly used. Rebirth is trying to redress that failing of The New 52, which often detrimentally avoided fan favorite connections in the quest for something “different.”
In many ways, The New 52 was a relationship bloodbath. Clark “Superman” Kent and Lois Lane were not only no longer a married couple, they barely had any connection at all, as Lois suffered a significantly reduced presence in the franchise. Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor were exes who mixed uneasily, since he hadn’t let go, though she’d moved on (to an ill-advised romance with Superman that played out like a disquieting Aryan power fantasy).
It was especially bitter for fans of Barry “Flash” Allen and Iris West that their marriage was undone, since Barry’s resurrection, and the couple’s reunion, were fairly recent when The New 52 hit; fans had had little time to enjoy the couple. Instead, Barry and Iris were antagonistic toward each other and Barry was stranded in a romance with a dull co-worker. Green Arrow and Black Canary didn’t even know each other, their complex romantic history wiped entirely from the books. Aquaman and Mera were at least still a couple, though downgraded from marriage to “in a relationship.” Batman and Catwoman’s complicated bond was a factor, but often used poorly.
Rebirth is addressing a lot of those issues. Restoring the post-Crisis Clark and Lois, and adding their son to the mix, provides the beating heart of the current Superman family of books. Wonder Woman and Steve have been in the spotlight in the dual-timeline narrative of the Amazon’s series, giving their neglected bond some much needed attention. Barry and Iris are finally dating, as are Green Arrow and Black Canary. Aquaman proposed to Mera and DC insists that a wedding is forthcoming. And the Batman/Catwoman bond was used quite powerfully in recent Batman installments.
These relationships are emotional tethers for fans. They give them something to hook into, a reason to care about what happens to the heroes. The fights and action spectacles get the blood flowing, but the characters’ relationships are what get fans invested.
And not just the romantic relationships. The New 52 did a decent job with some crucial friendships and partnerships (the Batman family especially). But there were elements that were absent which fans really missed. Titans has been a showcase for the friendships of the one-time “sidekicks” that were MIA for far too long. The complex dynamics of the “Trinity” (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) were out of whack for much of The New 52 (due to the ill-conceived Superman/Wonder Woman romance), but are getting back on track in Rebirth. In addition to his Titans friends, Wally West has reconnected with his mentor Barry Allen and started to bond with the young cousin with whom he shares both a name and a power set. The central Green Lanterns (Hal, Guy, John and Kyle) are all in a book together. Green Arrow and Arsenal’s past is about to get the spotlight. The group dynamics of Team Batman in Detective Comics are crucial to that reborn book’s stunning success.
It’s all part of the fabric of what makes these characters important to readers. Their complex relationship dynamics drive drama and invest emotion in stories that could otherwise be by-the-numbers action spectacles. While introducing new characters and developing fresh relationships are crucial to the long-term health of the DCU, it’s not an “either/or” scenario. Quite the opposite, really. Making thoughtful use of these bedrock ties gives the books freedom to explore new territory, too.
A Shared Universe
Managing a large shared universe of characters isn’t an easy undertaking. At times, many New 52 series really felt like they took place in their own worlds, with little reference to what was happening in other books. Significant events and developments from other series might not show up elsewhere in the line for months, if they were acknowledged at all (as far as Justice League was concerned, Jim Gordon never stepped into the Batman role).
One of the goals of Rebirth is to make the books feel like they take place in the same universe. With only a few months passed, there haven’t been many world-shaking events, so it can be difficult to judge how reflection of significant plot points in other series is being managed.
The more useful perspective is the consistency of treatment of characters that appear in multiple books. Thus far, most characters tend to be portrayed true to their core series when they appear elsewhere. Their looks and personalities seem to travel intact, which is a victory in and of itself. What occurrences of import have transpired in the broader DCU seem to at least be noted in the books where it’s most likely for those issues to matter.
DC is actually being quite careful about balancing its shared universe. The publisher wants fans to feel like all the books are connected, at least in as much as they take place in the same world. But it’s been careful not to weigh down fans by requiring extensive knowledge of events in other books in order to enjoy the comic in front of you. While many characters have made guest appearances in other titles, the actual number of cross-overs has been limited. A Batman family event and the current Justice League vs. Suicide Squad are both fairly self-contained sagas that make sense.
DC has been especially careful not to let the Watchmen-related umbrella mystery set up in the Rebirth launch special grow too big, too fast. There’s a massive, universe-spanning story that will eventually take center stage and draw in most of the line. But in the early months, DC has downplayed that plot. It’s factored into stories in the Batman and Superman families of titles, as well as Flash and Titans, but hasn’t overtaken the main stories of those books. Various creators continue to tease out information at a judicious pace.
That’s smart. Having that umbrella spine as a long-term plot goal gives creators a lot of story options. It lets DC build in that unity to its line that’s beneficial to the books and stories, but keeps it manageable. Making fans feel like they had to buy every book in the line from the jump in order to understand the “big” plot would have been self-defeating. Rebirth has provided good jump on points for various titles; not scaring away new or returning readers with an all-consuming saga is just good sense. There’s time to build to that big story. Taking a measured pace and not overwhelming fans en route to it will ensure a healthy shared world exists when that plot finally takes center stage.
One of the aspects of Rebirth that raised eyebrows was DC’s plan to publish many of its key titles twice a month. In a mercurial publishing environment, doubling down on key characters and books makes business sense, for sure. But many fans were concerned about DC’s ability to stick to that schedule and what it might mean for continuity of creative teams.
Thus far, DC’s done a good job of delivering its twice monthly books on time, with no significant delays. The writers seem to be handling the load pretty well, pacing stories and character beats fairly effectively. Wonder Woman has scored with its unique approach to the “twice a month” construct, telling two related plots set in different time periods, alternating issues with different art teams.
Other books have seen quite a bit of fluidity in the art team assignments. With enough lead time, some speedier artists have managed to illustrate all or most of an arc before handing off to another team. Other books have seen artists alternating issue-by-issue, even within arcs. Many books have had guest artists step in to help keep books on schedule. So far, fans seem to be rolling with these changes. With the first Rebirth collected editions starting to come out, we’ll see how well this art team roundelay plays with the bookshelf audience and if it’s more of a distraction in collected form.
There are signs that DC is putting some effort into managing this complicated schedule. Of the three new books debuting in early 2017, only one will be on the twice monthly plan (Justice League of America). The March 2017 advance solicits also put forth only one issue apiece for Aquaman and Cyborg, two of the lowest selling titles in the twice monthly stable. Whether those books are permanently downshifting to monthly status is unclear, but DC at least seems willing to evaluate what schedule makes the most sense for each of its series.
DC also remains committed to the mini-series format, using short-run books to highlight characters who haven’t demonstrated an ability to carry ongoing books but who have potential. Hawkman, Adam Strange, Deadman, Midnighter, Apollo and Captain Atom all are starring or co-starring in shorter run books that allow DC to develop them for possible expanded use in the future.
Still To Come
Rebirth has done a good job of spotlighting and strengthening many key franchises. But a publisher the size of DC needs to have a strong slate of second tier books, as well. That’s a work in progress for DC.
To some extent, DC has been smart in its rollout plans. It delayed the debuts of Justice League of America and Super Sons, both announced as part of the original Rebirth slate. Instead, DC held them until they could set them up effectively, using currently successful books to spotlight the concepts before launch. DC’s other upcoming new ongoing, Batwoman, wasn’t part of the publisher’s original plans, but is growing out of the strong reaction the character’s spotlight in Detective Comics has generated.
Fans are eager to see what DC has in store for some other venerable franchises that haven’t been as much in the spotlight. DC is wrapping up its alternate Earth book Earth 2: Society with an arc that sets it up for re-launch. But more importantly, fans want to see the older versions of those Justice Society of America characters incorporated back onto the main Earth, as was teased in the Rebirth kick-off. Only a couple of hints here and there have been forthcoming since, but hopefully fans won’t have to wait too much longer.
Likewise, the return of the oft-mishandled Legion of Super-Heroes was teed up in the Rebirth special, but additional details also have been sparse. JSA and LSH are perennial fan favorites that can go off the rails easily with poor decisionmaking. Their loyal core audiences are eager to see how DC handles these properties going forward.
While DC is giving several characters limited series spotlights, several other fan favorites have either been MIA or not prominent in the Rebirth era to date. Characters like Zatanna, Firestorm, Renee Montoya/Question, Animal Man and the classic Outsiders cast (save Katana, who’s been part of Suicide Squad) have a lot of history and appeal. What DC’s plans for them might be is unclear at this time.
DC’s put in a lot of effort and thought into bringing iconic versions of its characters to fans. So far, they’re enjoying a good amount of success with this direction. Hopefully sales and acclaim convince the publisher to stay the course and to remain thoughtful with expansions of its line going forward.