Over the last week or two, a discreet corner of comic book fandom has been abuzz with news of the latest round of refurbishments to the DC Comics Universe. The locus of these changes was a one-shot issue aptly titled DC Universe Rebirth. Penned by DCU life coach Geoff Johns and penciled by a handful of the company’s absolute best artists, Rebirth was a clear example of an honest attempt by DC at putting its best foot forward.
But unlike “reboot” events of the past (briefly, 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, 2005’s Infinite Crisis, and 2011’s Flashpoint), the Rebirth era comes unattended by a narratively distended, personally expensive pretext crossover event. Rather, DC is skipping all that, and jumping right into it.
When I heard about Rebirth, I was excited. After years of dedicated “every Wednesday” obsession, in recent years I’ve been almost completely out of the loop on DCU—ever since New 52 almost five years ago. For reasons I discussed in a post two years ago, I just wasn’t interested in the post-Flashpoint DCU.
Briefly: I thought that the re-numbering of Action Comics, which had been continuously numbered monthly since Superman’s creation in 1938, was a cultural travesty. Similarly, New 52’s touted streamlining of the DCU culled far too much from the herd. In addition to losing significant characters like Wally West, the New 52 reboot deleted the Justice Society of America from its continuity. I’m not really here to babble about this specific issue, but suffice it to say that the JSA was the Justice League before the Justice League, and that the DCU made no sense without those characters and that sense of history.
Pleasantly enough, Rebirth is correcting precisely those mistakes. They’re restoring the JSA (as well as the Teen Titans) to continuity, and they’re re-re-numbering Action Comics (and apparently, Detective Comics too). From the point of view of a longtime DC fan, I can’t tell you how welcome these changes are. It’s enough to genuinely rekindle my interest in DC.
But, it must be said, the changes I am so excited about were overshadowed by the bigger, “big” news; namely, that Watchmen (or some form of it?) is being folded into canon continuity. Let me tell you. Turning to the last page of the issue and receiving this news was a real turd in the punchbowl.
Incorporating Watchmen into DCU continuity is a bad idea for a couple reasons. First, Watchmen is by its very terms a hermetically-sealed narrative. Its critique of spandex necessarily requires a certain critical distance from that spandex. If the story gets intertwined with the source material, if it becomes “complicit” with the very thing it is critiquing, then it stops being criticism and starts to look like mere parody.
Additionally, and maybe more problematically moving forward, the Watchmen characters were themselves counterpart derivatives of existing DCU benchwarmers like Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom, and Nightshade (originally from Charlton Comics, merged into the DCU in 1983). So, at best, they’re duplicative of existing characters, and we don’t need them for anything but buzz and a possible short-term boost in sales.
But on the other hand, I don’t completely blame DC for the move. Think of it from an editorial point of view: culturally and financially, DC is always getting pummeled by Marvel, despite the fact that DC is home to practically every masterpiece of the medium, Watchmen most of all. DC already made the standalone Watchmen movie…so I guess that’s that? From a competitive angle, I can definitely understand taking the position that DC needs to utilize Watchmen to its fullest potential at this stage. Crudely, that potential may be measured in dollars, but it can also be considered a potentially crucial element in a desperately needed creative revitalization of the DCU.
So, to be fair, what choice does DC really have? Can you blame them for trying to synthesize and leverage their existing properties for maximum effect? They can’t just sit on Watchmen any longer. That’s just not how the comics biz works, is it?
Additionally, there are some indications that they’re doing this in an intelligent and interesting way. As one observer explained, the supposedly “dark” New 52 universe appears to have been the result of a jealous and omnipotent Dr. Manhattan, who wanted to make the DCU as fucked up a place as the reality that he came from. This idea is grounded in a meta-critique of the company’s editorial direction.
“That’s what makes this fascinating. DC Comics has entered a fight with its own past. With its own creative decisions. DC helped to create the darkness withWatchmen, and now it’s trying to beat it back 26 years later.”
The idea is that the Rebirth era will be brighter and more hopeful. True, this sounds suspiciously familiar—like, for instance, the precise motivation behind Superboy Prime’s notorious reality-punching during Infinite Crisis—I agree that it’s a pretty decent concept. It will be interesting to see how DC develops this, considering their decision to forgo a big crossover event that would be the typical vehicle for this kind of thing.
With Rebirth, yet again we see that DCU storytelling functions through a cyclical, meta-historicized process, with History emerging from the chaotic narrative rubble in a manner akin to Hegel’s “Cunning of Reason.”
Perhaps Rebirth is partially about recognizing that the DCU is best at its most expansive and cluttered. If Marvel has cornered the market on the “middlebrow action-blockbuster with a vague social consciousness,” DC needs to rediscover its identity as the wacky, unpredictable, sci-fi alternative. As such, the DCU will always be dorkier, harder to break into, and less conducive to assimilation into culture industry. In other words, DC will never be Marvel and maybe it should stop aspiring to be. By restoring the old numbering and resurrecting its precious, frustrating, paradoxical dormant continuity, DC may be coming to terms with that fact.
In 2004, novelist Brad Meltzer wrote a controversial DCU story called Identity Crisis. Though it’s one of my all-time favorites, to many readers Identity Crisis represented a profound moral failing by the DCU. Maybe, just maybe, that Identity Crisis is over?
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