Oliver Sava: It’s a strange sensation to be writing about a line-wide DC relaunch for the second time in less than five years, but here I am, discussing DC Rebirth when the memories of The New 52 are still fresh in my mind. To catch up any readers who may not know the specifics of DC’s history: The publisher has a habit of adjusting its continuity after major events, streamlining the increasingly convoluted mythology of its characters to provide a fresh entry point for new readers by either taking the heroes back to basics or moving them in different directions. The New 52 was the most recent example, with DC resetting its timeline after the Flashpoint miniseries so that superheroes had only been around for five years, resulting in major changes to most characters, but not all.
One of the most confusing things about The New 52 was that the Green Lantern and Batman franchises continued stories from before Flashpoint, which were now being condensed into a five-year period that didn’t make much sense, especially for Batman and his multiple sidekicks. Which brings us to DC Rebirth and the reveal that 10 years of these characters’ lives were stolen from them by an outside force after Flashpoint, a force that is heavily implied to be Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. Rebirth isn’t a reboot like The New 52; the new mythology of the last four years is still intact, but elements from the old continuity are making their way back in, beginning with the return of Wally West in the DC Rebirth one-shot written by Geoff Johns, the new president of DC Entertainment. The married Superman from before Flashpoint is back and raising a son with Lois Lane; Green Arrow and Black Canary’s romance has been rekindled; and the Justice Society is slated to make a return in the near future. (Then there are smaller changes like Amanda Waller returning to her classic appearance after being dramatically slimmed down in The New 52.)
One of the most refreshing things about DC Rebirth is that the publisher is taking a different approach for the rollout of its relaunched titles. Rather than dropping most of the books in one month, which it did with The New 52 and last year’s DC You initiative, DC is debuting about eight new series a month, which makes the ordering process easier for retailers while giving readers less to worry about if they want to try a number of Rebirth titles. Many of these new titles are shipping twice a month, so there are still a lot of new DC books coming out during these months, but in terms of first issues, it’s a far less heavy load than The New 52. It’s another case of superhero publishers copying each other, and DC is taking its Rebirth launch cues from the Marvel Now! relaunches that have become an annual occurrence at its competitor while also employing the double-shipping schedule that Marvel has used for especially popular titles in the past.
Because DC likes to make things needlessly complicated, some books have Rebirth one-shots that precede the proper first issues of the series, but most of these have been pretty disappointing and I’d recommend skipping them. (We’re at the halfway point of DC Rebirth, and thus far the Rebirth one-shots worth checking out are Batman, Green Arrow, The Hellblazer, Nightwing, and Supergirl.) Tim, how do you feel about the Rebirth rollout compared to how the start of the New 52 was handled? I also know you have some strong feelings about Johns’ DC Rebirth one-shot; how did that book influence your opinion on the entire Rebirth endeavor?
Tim O’Neil: I will admit from the outset that I completely misread the temperature of the room on this question. When it was announced Rebirth sounded like it was going to be an overflowing bucket of flop sweat. It looked chintzy, even—the kind of milquetoast non-event thought up in the dead of night three days into a creative retreat composed primarily of creators under great stress yelling at one another. It lacks the clear impact of Marvel Now!, which is great branding even if the company is shameless for simply repeating the campaign verbatim. I did not think, especially after the Convergence fiasco, that retailers and readers had any interest in trusting DC again. I’ll admit I was wrong there. The older readers never really went away, but many of them weren’t spending their money on DC. The company was in the position of basically apologizing to readers for five years of really shaky product, while still holding onto what worked from the recent past.
DC has spent the last five years either actively or passively antagonizing its core demographic with a succession of endlessly baffling and short-sided creative moves. That’s not even counting the years immediately before Flashpoint and the beginning of the New 52 when the company was falling apart before our eyes. People maybe don’t remember just how dire the years leading up to the reboot were for the company: It was still capable of producing hits like Blackest Night, but its mid-list had completely collapsed. The New 52 is far enough in the rearview mirror that it’s possible to admit that for all the problems the relaunch had, the company needed to do something, or it wouldn’t have been long for this world. But the New 52 did the trick, at least for a while. It helped staunch the bleeding.
Where the New 52 worked was in its ability to try out a number of story ideas that needed a relatively clean slate to work; the Superman/Wonder Woman romance was something that could never have happened at any previous period in the company’s history. It was also an awful idea whose awfulness should have been obvious to every person at the company. But at least they were trying. The subsequent arc with Superman outed as Clark Kent and forced on the run with reduced powers was actually a lot better than people recognized: It was the kind of story that DC could only have done with this specific Superman at this specific time, and it did a good job of marking out the ways in which the New 52 Superman was a slightly different animal than the one that preceded him. So even though not everything stuck, there was still a fair amount of experimentation. Heading into the New 52, DC was in a situation where it had to take risks, because the status quo wasn’t working.
The New 52 was an explosive clean break with what came before. In the space of a single week Barry Allen wiped the last 25 years of DC continuity off the board. Rebirth needed to be far less violent, and far less alienating, for those readers who had stuck with the company through the peaks and valleys. The event is rolling out at a far more reasonable pace. DC was wise to undersell it as an event: It’s obviously all leading somewhere (which leads into your next question) but for now the focus is simply on making individual titles look as interesting as it can for curious readers.
As for the elephant in the room—well. Incorporating Watchmen into the DCU proper is a terrible idea on a number of levels, the most important one obviously being ethical. DC is of course 100 percent within its legal rights to exploit those properties. That’s not in dispute. Tom Brevoort got some criticism for saying online that he was surprised DC had held out on crossing over the characters for so long, and that Marvel would probably have done it sooner. I failed to see what was so terrible about a simple statement of fact: It’s a great book but more importantly it’s a rich vault of highly underused IP. I think it’s possible that some of these creators might well understand the practice is highly dubious, but find themselves in a position of knowing that if they didn’t do it someone else would. It was a business decision. It was one of the very few Hail Mary passes left in the playbook: Hey, let’s do Batman vs. Rorschach, they’ll eat it up! Sure enough, people got excited.
I’m sad they got excited. But people who feel strongly about Alan Moore’s moral rights in this instance already parted company with the publisher—or at least some individual creators—around the time of Before Watchmen. It’s an awful thing happening but ultimately there was no chance that there could ever be enough principled fans to successfully argue against a company like DC exploiting some of its most underexploited and valuable IP. So anyone interested in Rebirth has to reckon with the fact that it is likely that there is, down the road, going to be a significant crossover event based around the Watchmen characters. For some fans—not a majority, clearly, but a significant minority—that’s going to prevent them from going bullish on the company for some time.
Oliver Sava: Any readers DC loses as a result of its ongoing strip-mining of Watchmen are going to be far outnumbered by the people it gains from having these worlds cross-over, and I can’t lie, the right creative team could get me excited for a Batman vs. Rorschach book. Thinking about Rebirth creative teams, I would read a Batman/Rorschach book by the All-Star Batman team of Scott Snyder and John Romita Jr. If Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott wanted to do a Wonder Woman/Silk Spectre miniseries, I would check it out. You just know Tom King is itching to do something Watchmen-related given its clear influence on a lot of his work (specifically The Omega Men), and I don’t hate that idea. I hope that’s not where DC is heading, but accepting these kinds of stunts is a fairly essential part of being a superhero comics reader.
We’re about halfway through Rebirth, and it’s safe to say that it’s a successful endeavor for the publisher, both critically and commercially. Getting Greg Rucka back for Wonder Woman was a major win for DC editorial, and he’s effectively course corrected the character after a disastrous run from Meredith Finch and David Finch. Rucka is being very smart in structuring his story to accommodate the double shipping schedule, using his two issues a month to progress two separate stories by two different artists. While it’s taken a few issues for the present-day story with Liam Sharp to grab me, I’m completely enchanted by the “Year One” segments, largely because Nicola Scott’s art and Romulo Fajardo Jr.’s coloring are so in tune with Rucka’s script. Scott leveled up significantly with her work on Black Magick with Rucka, and the attention to detail in her environments, costumes, and characterizations are a big reason why I’m compelled by yet another Wonder Woman origin after reading both Wonder Woman: Earth One and The Legend Of Wonder Woman earlier this year.
Going into Rebirth, a lot of DC’s most prominent characters were stuck in lackluster comics. Aquaman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Superman, and Wonder Woman were all floundering, which is most of the Justice League. (I wish I could call Cyborg a prominent character at DC, but he still feels like a supporting player despite attempts to put him in the spotlight in the New 52. Cyborg’s last series was a mess, so I have no idea what to expect from the Rebirth title.) I would consider Wonder Woman, Superman, and Green Arrow as the biggest improvements, with The Flash and Hal Jordan And The Green Lantern Corps in the middle and Action Comics, Aquaman, and Green Lanterns as the weakest of this bunch. Those last three have been plagued by very inconsistent art; Actions Comics has a rotating art team that isn’t cohesive, Aquaman has multiple artists working in a similarly bland style (although Brad Walker did strong work in his one issue), and Green Lanterns has a deep roster of fill-in artists working to get issues out on time and suffering under the time crunch.
I was hot and cold with Superman’s treatment in The New 52. I liked parts of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics, as well as Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s run on that title. Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr. on Superman was exquisite. I was initially into the storyline exposing Clark’s secret identity, but that started to drag as it continued and the creators weren’t making the most out of the new status quo. It’s been nice to see how strong the Super-line is in Rebirth, and while I’ve already fallen off Dan Jurgens’ Action Comics (the first issue intrigued me, but the next few quickly lost me), I’m very enthusiastic about Superman, Supergirl, Superwoman, and New Super-Man.
I was worried that DC would lose Gene Luen Yang after his Superman run failed to take off, but instead he was given freedom to create a new Super-Man character that greatly benefits from Yang’s personal connection to and deep understanding of Chinese culture. Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason have a very good track record, and I’m loving the attention given to the Kent family dynamic in the pages of Superman. Phil Jimenez’s Superwoman just debuted, but the first issue set a very strong foundation for the friendship of a superpowered Lois Lane and Lana Lang, and it’s always a pleasure to see more of Jimenez’s artwork, especially when he’s drawing strong women kicking ass. Supergirl has only had a Rebirth one-shot, but that issue does strong work bringing the comic closer to the TV show, and Orlando has a firm handle on Kara’s compassionate character.
What are the stand-outs of DC Rebirth for you thus far? I haven’t even mentioned the Batman line, which was easily the healthiest coming out of the New 52. Has its condition changed at all in Rebirth? (Watch what you say here or All-Star Batman might hit you with his giant Bat-tire iron.)
Tim O’Neil: The Batman books have a good line-up right now. I have surprised myself with how much I am enjoying Tom King and David Finch’s Batman, in all honesty—I’m That Guy who wasn’t too impressed with Omega Men, and I also need to give The Vision another shot. Although he’s obviously talented I questioned the wisdom of promoting King to the position of writing the company’s de facto flagship, simply because the two books on which he made his reputation are both—while wildly different from each other—far left-of-center in terms of mainstream superhero books. Omega Men seemed more informed by The Battle Of Algiers than Green Lantern Corps, and the Henry James epigraphs aren’t exactly boosting its commercial appeal. The Vision is a horror book masquerading as domestic comedy. Perhaps the takeaway here is that while these books were both quite different, they were also both very confident despite their difficult premises. And King’s Batman is a very confident book as well, albeit in a completely different way.
All the new Batman books seem to share a single focus, though, a theme running through Batman, Detective Comics and All-Star. Gone is the high-concept of the Morrison years, as well as the self-seriousness of the Scott Snyder run—they’ve been replaced by a commitment to doing Batman as a more-or-less straightforward superhero book. Which is something you think they’d do more often, but is actually something of a breath of fresh air. David Finch is also doing good action work here, a far cry from his pin-up heavy early run on New Avengers. The first few issues of Batman are really such a nice change of pace after seeing so many stories that were essentially about “the meaning of Batman” and the nature of Gotham City.
Snyder got some good stories out of those themes, and although his run was patchy at first I think the last couple years, especially “Superheavy,” were very strong. But King is leading the line in a different direction. Detective is an old-fashioned team book whose premise is that Batman actually needs more help than he lets on. Snyder is also following King’s lead here, as his All-Star also appears to be shaping up as a straight-forward action book. John Romita Jr. seems a lot more comfortable on All-Star than he has for much of his DC work—having a familiar hand like Danny Miki on inks helps, as do Dean White’s eccentric but compelling colors. It isn’t reinventing the wheel, but that’s not really the point of Rebirth anyway. It’s an old approach that seems interesting because, well, they haven’t really done a Batman book that looks like this in quite some time, even if it seems like they should have. It’s fresh.
The Superman books are in a similar position, albeit with entirely different effects. If Batman works best when you put superstar creators on the books and allow them to do different things, Superman as an ongoing character has traditionally worked best during period when the books focused less on marquee creators and more on teamwork between multiple titles and consistent characterization. That’s precisely the direction DC has gone, even going so far as to draft Dan Jurgens to write Action Comics. It’s interesting to hear you say that Action was the one book in the Superman line that didn’t really grab you, because it’s the one that grabbed me immediately.
I’m not particularly proud of the reason why, either, because it represents everything that should rightly be regarded as dubious in DC’s current editorial direction: It’s my Superman, from the period when I most enjoyed reading the Superman line in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Even though the new premise is kind of wonky—Superman has been replaced by his married doppelgänger from a universe that no longer exists, not particularly the most “new reader friendly” status quo—it succeeded with me because it hits precisely the right nostalgic notes to get me excited about the character in a way I haven’t been in years. The run even begins with a multi-issue slugfest with Doomsday, certainly not the most subtle way of informing the readership that everything they liked about Superman in the ’90s was back, but effective nonetheless. Even though the premise of the new series is seemingly insular and new reader-unfriendly, in practice the books are doing something interesting with a version of Superman we’ve never really seen before: Superman the husband and father, having to live up to the heroic example of a younger version of himself who died and never returned, while still raising a family. I am under no illusions that this status quo won’t eventually be resolved in favor of something more traditional, but for the time being I am on board.
Oddly, I have found that despite my initial skepticism, I’ve warmed to much of the Rebirth line. Partly it’s because, as I said, it’s strumming the nostalgia chord so clearly in the direction of my specific demographic that it would take a tremendous force of will not to respond positively to, say, seeing Lois and Clark back together. (Incidentally: I never thought a married Superman presented as existential a threat to the character as a married Spider-Man. Superman isn’t a character particularly concerned with questions of youth and maturity, and the inevitability of his relationship with Lois has been accepted as a given by every interpretation for decades.)
I’ve read enough Superman comics and enough Batman comics—and enough Wonder Woman and Aquaman comics too, for that matter—that when I pick up (or download) new stories I’m not expecting to be surprised. That doesn’t happen very often. But I would like to be entertained. So far much of Rebirth has been entertaining because it is doing something that DC used to do all the time but hasn’t really done in a while: embrace the company’s long history as a positive tool that can be used to create new stories, and not (as has been the case, sadly, for much of the last five years) an obstruction to novelty.
Even though in theory much of the new line is backwards-looking and even retrograde, in practice Rebirth has worked because it plays so well to the company’s strengths. DC was never the hot young upstart, and acting like that forced the company down a number of blind alleys and regrettable “new directions.” It works best when it remembers that Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and all the rest aren’t broke and don’t need fixing. You’re a few years younger than me, and I think that informs your response to some of these books as much as my having grown up with certain versions of these characters does mine. Although it can certainly be argued that focusing on older and lapsed readers isn’t a long-term growth strategy, in the short-term the company needed to staunch the bleeding and restore confidence in its line. It’s a difficult trick—staying current and accessible while also making an explicit play for more experienced readers who felt increasingly alienated by the last few years of DC’s output. How well do you think it’s succeeded?
Oliver Sava: I’m reading a whole lot of DC books right now, so I’d say it’s succeeded pretty well. Serialized superhero comics have extremely tricky territory to navigate when it comes to appealing to a wide range of fans that have various ideas on what constitutes the definitive version of any given character, and both Marvel and DC are continuously trying to land on the right interpretations that will appeal to the most people.
Suicide Squad is one of the most fascinating titles of Rebirth, but not because of the content of the actual book. While John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and Luke McDonnell’s original Suicide Squad run is beloved by many, DC isn’t interested in revisiting the tone or story elements of that series, and is logically aligning the new title with the Suicide Squad film that has performed very well despite its icy reception from critics. I know that Rob Williams and Jim Lee can tell a compelling Suicide Squad story because that’s what they did in the Harley Quinn And The Suicide Squad April Fool’s Special earlier this year, but the Suicide Squad: Rebirth one-shot and subsequent first issue lacked character and imagination. Both issues are generic introductions to the Squad with competent but uninspired artwork (Philip Tan draws the Rebirth special), and while I want to believe that Williams has more up his sleeve, I’m losing patience fast.
Right now it feels like DC is taking a simpler route with Suicide Squad to give it the broadest appeal, but I want to see more ambition in this series if it’s going to be a new flagship title. And with Jim Lee as one of the artists, Suicide Squad officially becomes a flagship book. Lee’s presence is how DC is reaching out to those older and lapsed readers with Suicide Squad, and I’m sure Suicide Squad #1 is going to sell huge numbers thanks to the one-two punch of Lee and the film. But how will it perform in the long run? Suicide Squad is shipping twice a month and Lee isn’t an artist known for his quickness. Even with Philip Tan and Jason Fabok providing support, I can’t see Lee lasting on Suicide Squad for more than six issues, and I don’t know if the movie momentum is going to be enough to keep readers invested if the story’s quality doesn’t improve before Lee’s inevitable departure.
The biggest surprise of DC Rebirth for me was the announcement of Christopher Priest writing Deathstroke, and while I’m not completely sold on the series two issues in, it’s the first time I actually want to read more about this current interpretation of Slade Wilson. I know how intricate Priest’s plotting can be and it’s clear that he’s laying the groundwork for something bigger in these first issues, but I’m still finding it hard to connect with the lead character in any sort of meaningful way. I want Priest to give Slade some substantial, complicated personal relationships, and it does look like he’s starting to do that by bringing Slade’s family and ex-partner back into his life.
Deathstroke is one of the books where I’m actually excited about double shipping. It’s too early to tell if artists Carlo Pagulayan and Jason Paz can keep up with the schedule, but I think this book has a better chance of grabbing an audience if it gets issues out at a faster pace that has readers waiting a shorter time to discover the full scope of the narrative. I’ve missed Priest’s voice in superhero comics so I may be a bit too hopeful in my assessment of Deathstroke, but I’d love to see him crack the Deathstroke code and make this one of DC’s top titles.
What are some of the things you’d like to see from Rebirth moving forward? Are there any characters you feel are due for a Rebirth return, and who would you want to see working on them? Ralph and Sue Dibny came back in Gail Simone’s most recent Secret Six, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them get their own book.
Tim O’Neil: DC has done a good job so far of avoiding some of the pitfalls into which the New 52 famously fell. While the first month was a massive success, the speed with which the new line was launched was proportionate to the speed with which half the line promptly tanked once the heat was off the event. Rolling out Rebirth over the course of many months appears to be an effective counter to that dilemma by ensuring eyes remain focused on high-profile relaunches for longer than just a single month. The fact that many of the relaunches are staffed by a mixture of newcomers and veterans with solid track records gives the company more flexibility in terms of managing expectations. But it also means that once the “bloom is off the rose,” which in practical terms means whenever readers and retailers tire of seeing that blue Rebirth banner on the stands, the company will have a harder time moving blockbuster numbers for, say, Cyborg or Blue Beetle.
In terms of new launches, I think the success of Rebirth in month three or four is going to say a lot more about the future direction of the line than month one or two. And it’s not the guaranteed hits like Batman or the dependable performers like the Superman line who will dictate this direction, it will be the midlist. Publishing two issues of Batman every month is clearly a much better way to make money than taking the gamble on a commercially negligible character like Plastic Man. If they come out of August and September with strong sales not just for the top-tier books but for the deep midlist as well, they might be willing to take more chances on Plastic Man.
There are some books that could definitely take off, or at least surprise with solid performances. The Flash seems like a solid contender to be a breakout book, given the character’s recent history of decent but rarely exceptional sales, as well as his current high profile outside the comics world. Carmine Di Giandomenico is a talent with strong potential who made his bones at Marvel, and is well suited for a book about speed, and while Joshua Williamson is a new name to me he seems to get that a book about the Flash should be peppy, bright, and packed to the brim with colorful supporting characters and ongoing mysteries. I’d dearly love to see Deathstroke take off as well. There’s no reason why Deathstroke can’t work as a solo character, and he’s done so before, during his first solo run in the early ’90s, back when he still went by Deathstroke The Terminator.
Priest has done his homework and the book so far is a direct continuation of the tone established by Deathstroke creator Marv Wolfman in the pages of that run, even down to the reintroduction of his (supposedly) long-dead aide-de-camp Wintergreen. That is not to say that the book isn’t still clearly a Christopher Priest vehicle, and while it is to be hoped that more of his distinctive voice might eventually come to dominate the book’s tone, the fact that he has done his homework in an attempt to get back to the only time the character has ever worked as a solo protagonist for a sustained amount of time is a good sign that he is eager to make the book a hit. Priest has been treated very poorly by the industry, so much so that he essentially retired for a decade. If there’s any justice at all his Deathstroke should do well, opening the door for more work by him in the future.
The biggest variable here is the art. Because so many of these books are double-shipping, they are going to necessarily have rotating artists. Readers are accustomed to that in the year 2016, at least inasmuch as rotating artists can be made to work under the guidance of a strong central creator like Brian Michael Bendis or Jonathan Hickman. But shifting creative teams can often bode poorly for smaller books that might already face an uphill battle for readers’ scant attention and even scantier dollars. Batman can survive if David Finch takes a couple months off because he’ll most likely have a competent replacement. If DC can keep the art situation on its double-shipping books under control, it has a much better chance of maintaining sales momentum as the huge debut numbers recede further and further into the rearview mirror.
To return, finally, to your question regarding what we’d like to see in the future, I’ll answer by pointing to another conclusion: A great deal depends not just on the success of Rebirth but on another initiative announced earlier this year, the Young Animal line spearheaded by former My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way. Without the appeal of a cross-media celebrity like Way (with a good if sparse résumé as a comic book creator himself), I don’t know if DC would be willing to pull the trigger on a micro-line devoted to summoning this very specific moment in the company’s long history. Just as the current Superman line seems to have been constructed largely to appeal to readers who enjoyed the early ’90s version of that character, Young Animal takes its (very unambiguous ) inspiration from another part of the early ’90s, when the “weird” corner of the DC Universe transformed into Vertigo. Since so many of the Rebirth launches regardless of their quality can rightly be categorized as—for lack of a better term—“meat and potatoes” superhero comics, the existence of a line like Young Animal points to the fact that the company acknowledges that it needs to have an outlet for books and concepts that appeal to a slightly older and less spandex-obsessed crowd. This is something else the company used to do well, before the change in creator-participation deals at Vertigo led inevitably to that line’s implosion.
We don’t know how well Young Animal will do, or whether it’ll even survive past Way’s initial involvement. But the question is bigger than just that specific line. DC needs to prove that it can sell comics outside the “meat and potatoes” mold, because the creative future of the company is dependent on them being able to make money off books like Prez and the aforementioned Omega Men, books that could never be expected to achieve Batman-level sales, but could possibly do similar things to what early Vertigo’s successes did. Looking at the first wave of Rebirth launches the company is putting a lot of money on a relatively safe bet: making slightly better comics that appeal to lapsed readers who may have been put off by the New 52. That bet turned out a lot safer than I could have anticipated.
DC needs to prove it can do more than just “the safe bet,” however, because a DC that can’t sell comics that don’t prominently feature members of the Justice League is going to turn real boring, real fast. The success or failure of Young Animal might indicate just how serious DC is about fixing the mistakes it made with DC You, and how much ingenuity they might expend in the future on similarly left-field initiatives—the kind of creative gambles that sometimes fizzle, but which can also sometimes pay massive dividends with the right kind of institutional support. It failed with Omega Men but even that book succeeded in bringing Tom King to DC’s attention.
Rebirth has succeeded so far in that it has done a good job of giving readers precisely what they said they wanted, which is no mean feat in today’s marketplace. DC needs to prove again that it can successfully sell readers something they don’t yet know they want. At some point even satisfied customers eventually want something different.
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