Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: DC Universe: Rebirth – The Deluxe Edition

Review DC Universe Rebirth The Deluxe Edition Geoff Johns Gary Frank Ethan Van Sciver Ivan Reis Phil Jimenez Superman Batman Wonder Woman Flash Barry Allen Green Lantern Dr. Manhattan Watchmen DC Comics hardcover comic book
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez
Collects: DC Universe: Rebirth Special #1 (2016)
Published: DC, 2016; $17.99

The recent publication of DC Universe: Rebirth – The Deluxe Edition, an eighteen-dollar hardcover version of the three-dollar softcover special issue released in summer 2016 to spearhead the latest relaunch of DC’s superhero line, makes now seem as good a time as any for me to resume posting on this blog. And while I only wish that I could in good conscience make some ham-fisted analogy between the “rebirth” of DC’s publishing line and that of With Great Power, the fact is that I find the Rebirth special off-putting in quite a few respects.

I probably haven’t read as many DC comics as the average DC fan, but I’ve certainly read a lot more than the average person in general. I only mention that because this book left me scratching my head at least once every few pages, and I can’t see it faring much better with the average non-comics reader or even with more seasoned comics readers who may lack an intimate knowledge of DC history. Of course, it would seem that the book was never meant for those audiences. DC president Diane Nelson suggests as much in her introduction to the hardcover edition: “I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this deluxe edition of DC Universe: Rebirth has not yet read it in another form, be it print or digital,” she writes. And while it’s a little sobering to see a major publisher of corporate comics openly admit to repackaging the same material for the same small group of fans over and over again (be it conceptually, as in the intensely nostalgic bent of the entire Rebirth line, or literally, in terms of trade paperback and hardcover collections of single issues), it’s also a little surreal to see that fact so baldly acknowledged by the company’s president in the opening pages of the Rebirth initiative’s flagship book.

The main story of the Rebirth special, which concerns itself primarily with the characters, histories, and interpersonal relationships that were erased from DC continuity as a result of the publisher’s “New 52” relaunch in 2011, is easy enough to follow; it’s the interstitial scenes and cutaways that make the overall book something of a muddle. In between scenes depicting the pre-New 52 character Wally West as he encourages the major characters of the post-New 52 DC Universe to remember his existence, writer Geoff Johns and his team of artists (Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez) jump around in time and space to tell brief vignettes about various other characters. The trouble is that many of these vignettes come and go without contributing anything to the book’s main story, instead leaving the reader with a handful of apparent revelations that make little sense if you’re not familiar with what, say, Blue Beetle or the Atom have been up to since 2011 (and how that differs from what they were up to before that).

Even a lot of the reveals concerning DC’s more popular characters fall somewhat flat. Among them is Batman’s discovery that there have been three Jokers (rather than just one) running around Gotham City since 2011. This idea might have been interesting as the payoff to some larger ongoing mystery in Batman’s corner of the DC Universe, but instead it just sort of drops into the story with a dull, embarrassing thud: it feels less like a deliberate plot development than it does an officially-sanctioned No-Prize designed to make sense of five years’ worth of conflicting editorial decisions regarding Batman’s nemesis.

The reveal that the pre-New 52 version of Superman has been living in hiding for the last five years is a little more interesting, but like many other sequences in this book it’s undermined by the book’s poor page layout. Superman’s vignette is similar to most of the other vignettes in the Rebirth special in that it runs for two pages; rather than being organized as two-page spreads, though, many of these sequences are instead split in half by a page turn. Not only does this make for some really choppy reading at times, but it robs several of the more potentially impactful moments of their significance. Take the page on which Aquaman proposes to Mera, for example, which arguably would have resonated more strongly had it not been paired with a page depicting the mournful, cordoned-off scene of the New 52 Superman’s death. The page break in the middle of the pre-New 52 Superman’s story fosters something more than just thematic incongruity, though, and I had to flip back and forth between the story’s two pages just to figure out how a particular character could have suddenly appeared in the scene without Superman’s noticing.

In general, these short sequences inflict a sense of bewilderment similar to what one might experience in the final pages of a Marvel crossover event. But whereas a book like Marvel’s Civil War, which bombards the reader with a flurry of short sequences that essentially preview the series and story arcs that follow that series, arguably earns the right to show us where characters like Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and the Punisher stand at the end of the story – that is, by virtue of having just portrayed these characters over the course of its seven issues – the Rebirth special offers no preceding context for the multiple previews it forces readers to endure.

But worst of all is the way the Rebirth special extends DC’s deeply immoral exploitation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, by contending that the most fan-beloved aspects of DC history were erased by Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. For one thing, this is yet another ad hominem attack by DC on Moore, who Johns effectively blames here for how poorly received the DC’s New 52 initiative was – for having “weakened” the DC Universe by instigating a “war between hope and despair,” “love and apathy,” “faith and disbelief.” What Johns seems to forget is that Moore and Gibbons’ series was in fact a deconstruction of how insipid mainstream superhero comics had become by the late 1980s, not a call for superhero comics to become more dark and cynical. The publisher learned all the wrong lessons from Watchmen, and to call the thirty-year-old series to the carpet for that is both mean-spirited and dumb.

That’s not even what’s most upsetting about this book, though; more importantly, the Rebirth special promises to introduce the characters of Watchmen into the DC Universe for the first time. While this is not strictly illegal – the nature of Moore’s 1985 contract ensured that the rights to Watchmen would revert to him only once the series had gone out of print, and DC has assiduously reprinted it ever since – I have yet to see or hear a convincing argument that the decision is anything less than unethical. Both Moore and DC fully expected that the rights to Watchmen would revert to the authors – that’s how such arrangements had always worked out, and there was nothing unusual about this particular deal at the time – and it was only Watchmen’s tremendous success, ironically, that kept it permanently in print and forever out of Moore’s legal control. So while DC’s inclusion of Moore and Gibbons’ characters in the Rebirth special may be lawful in that regard, it violates the spirit of the initial agreement, which held that Moore and Gibbons were, at the end of the day, the rightful owners of Watchmen.

The widespread apathy of comic book readers toward this outrage has taken a range of disturbing forms, from criticisms of Moore’s physical appearance and religious beliefs to the absurd argument that a corporation such as DC cannot be expected to act against its own interests and should therefore be supported in the exploitative position it has taken against Moore (and other creators) over the years. These same readers valorize characters, like Superman and Batman, that frequently act against their own personal interests for the betterment of society: who fight, among other things, corporate greed (e.g., Lex Luthor) and strive to improve the world by directing the profits of big business toward global welfare (e.g., Batman’s charitable Wayne Foundation).

That fact raises a significant question: while it’s true that most corporations don’t act for the common good, does that really mean that we shouldn’t expect them to? In the cases of DC and Marvel, in particular – companies that generate billions of dollars on the backs of characters that espouse altruism, charity, and moral responsibility – should we not demand even the slightest emulation of the positive qualities they so relentlessly promote? Should we reward and celebrate these companies when, as in DC Universe: Rebirth, their actions represent not only a bullheaded unwillingness to redress past wrongdoing but also a concerted determination to persist in that wrongdoing? These are the moral questions, unwittingly, with which the publishers of contemporary superhero comics force us to contend.


  1. I've long-since lost interest in DC heroes. The company messed up big time when they had their 2nd 'Crisis', and it's been a seemingly never-ending succession of musical chairs ever since. As for Moore's Watchmen being exploited, I can't say that I agree with you. For a start, they were stand-ins for Charlton heroes that DC owned, and Moore himself has made a career from writing about other people's characters. Did he ever say "I'm not going to write Superman because the character really belongs to Siegel & Shuster."? (Not that I necessarily accept that idea, because S&S signed away their rights several times over the decades.) No, so his double-standards give me pause for thought on the issue. Usually, books have a natural lifespan. When they stop making money, they go out of print. There's no point in perpetuating something that costs more money to publish than it brings in. The fact that Watchmen hasn't gone out of print means that there must be a demand for it, so it's naive for Moore to expect DC to hand back the rights while it's still making money. Gibbons doesn't seem to have the same problem with it as Moore - not that I've yet read anyway.

  2. That's an interesting point about Moore having a double standard when it comes to creative ownership. I think Watchmen can safely be considered parody, though, which makes Moore's "use" of the Charlton properties something altogether different from DC's use of Watchmen. I also don't think it invalidates someone's position to have held an opposing position when they were younger, as Moore obviously did when he wrote Captain Britain, Superman, Swamp Thing, etc. But there's certainly food for thought there, and I can't help but wonder if anyone would go so far in defending Moore as to argue that *all* of his work in that vein can be read as parody. (I certainly wouldn't, but I can imagine someone with a little too much time on their hands marshaling a compelling case.)

    But even if Moore *is* a hypocrite (and I'm not fully convinced that he is), I don't think that justifies his poor treatment by DC. Perhaps this simply comes down to my own skepticism toward "eye for an eye"-type punishment; I don't believe murderers should be murdered, for example. And while I'm not so naive as to believe that DC would willingly allow the Watchmen rights to revert to Moore, I don't think it would be out of the question for the publisher to undertake a good-faith renegotiation of the original contract so that Moore and Gibbons can earn more than 2% royalties (the figure I've seen cited most recently) going forward.

    1. I think any sympathy I could have had for Moore evaporated when I saw him in an interview attack Stan Lee and claim things about him that simply weren't true. (For one, Stan has never claimed to have created Captain America - it's not his fault that less-informed media people have, in the past, credited him as the creator.) Also, that Lost Girls book seems a decidedly dodgy piece of work, which Moore casually dismisses as an 'exercise in pornography'. Surely obscenity would be a more accurate description?) On the question of Watchmen being parody, I'm not entirely convinced it qualifies as such, Marc, because Moore's original intention was to use the Charlton heroes. It was only because DC didn't want to decimate characters they'd just spent a small fortune purchasing the rights to, that 'stand-ins' were used. And, even if certain literary characters are now 'out of copyright', I think it's 'unethical' of Moore to do some of the things he's done with them. It would be like doing a pornographic story about Sherlock Holmes - it's just not in keeping with the spirit of the original author's intentions. Having said that, I wasn't suggesting that any kind of 'eye for an eye' punishment of Moore is acceptable, only that one 'thief' can hardly legitimately complain about the behaviour of another. And that's a figurative analogy of course, but you know what I mean.