DC Comics’ latest publishing initiative DC Rebirth has picked up full steam and the last few stragglers from the New 52 are fizzling out. So let’s have a look at both the stories that are being told and how the publisher approaches them.
DC Rebirth is a weird construct. After the occasionally-good fiasco known as the New 52 during which the powers that be at DC have decided to put aside all the continuity that came before and completely re-imagine their universe, DC Rebirth does something that few publishers – well, there’s only DC and Marvel that face that particular issue – would do: They acknowledged that they would not be friendly to new readers.
The Myth of the New Reader
Basically, at some point people at large realized that there have been several thousand issues in which Superman appears. Because people don’t think too much about things such as re-imaginings and the passage of time as a whole, they assume that everyone will have to have read every single issue in order to fully comprehend what’s going on in the latest issue. Everyone who has read more than three issues of any given comic from The Big Two – meaning DC and Marvel – knows that that’s not true, but the question whether or not something is New Reader Friendly has persisted for a number of decades now. Pretty much since I got into comic books in the early 1990s.
So what does that mean? It’s this theoretical approach that there’s an issue or an arc – a story told over multiple issues – in which new readers will find a point to get into the story without having to know anything that comes before. Having this every few issues is impossible seeing as everyone already on board apparently wants to preserve the legacy that spans back decades. It appears that these two approaches are mutually exclusive.
There are a number of things such as small flashbacks that explain things necessary for the ongoing story that happened elsewhere.
When DC announced that Rebirth would be not deliberately aimed at new readers. Of course, the question arose quickly, because it always does. Seriously. Anything happens anywhere in comics and someone will ask «But is it New Reader Friendly?» To this one, DC replied «No» in the form of DC’s CCO Geoff Johns during an interview right after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice happened.
Legacy. Hope. Optimism. Heart. Relationships. Epic storytelling. Cohesion. Love. These are the DNA of the DC Universe. – Geoff Johns, via Den of Geek
Personally, I don’t think DC’s after this fabled new reader as the New Reader Friendly initiatives rarely bring any significant long term success. Of course, the publisher wants to appeal to a new audience as well, but their primary focus is elsewhere. I think they’re after their fans. People who have ditched DC entirely because of the New52, or people who have been reading the New52 and just didn’t feel like these were their heroes and comics anymore.
I mean, I’m a huge DC Comics fan, but apart from Batman whose entire book was basically in continuous defiance of the rest of the DCU titles and existed somewhat out of continuity, I could not name a single book I read consistently or a book I was looking forward to. Sure, I like Superman, and I liked Brawler Superman with the t-shirt and the jeans, but I never saw him as Superman Superman. He was not the guy I grew up with. And neither was Snyder’s Batman. Green Arrow was at his all-time best under Lemire/Sorrentino, but then they replaced him with something else. I haven’t read a single issue of Flash since Flashpoint, even though The Flash is one of my favourite heroes.
I’m not one of the fans who is bitter at DC for the New52. Quite the contrary, I felt the reboot five years ago was overdue and necessary. I still feel like that. But the comics that they made with characters I care about and love, they just weren’t really it.
So while there are plenty of things that might attract new readers, DC is building on the legacy that they have always had.Because the new reader, they’re smart enough to find their own way around the universe that has currently got three characters with the name Flash running around. It’s not that hard, really. There are a number of online resources that explain to you what you’ve missed and what you need to know, if anything.
The Return of Lobo
Lobo is one of my favourite characters that DC has ever put out. He’s bold, he’s brash, he’s vile and he’s an immortal outer space biker with a love for genocide, beer, a waitress named Darlene and Dolphins. In the 1990s, he was the best satire that ever came up while the thing he was satirizing was still going on. He was everything that was wrong with the 1990s, where characters like Blüdgore or Dethkick were the norm. Now, I think I made these two up on the fly, but I’m not sure if they didn’t exist. Because the 1990s were a bad time for comics, even if you look past Rob Liefeld’s ridiculous stuff.
Okay, so maybe it was all Rob Liefeld. It probably was.
Basically, Lobo as a character still works, because they put more effort into him. He dialled everything up to 11. Violence, grimdark origin story, but also charm. He had everything a good comic book character needed, even if he himself as a character didn’t evolve at all over the 60 issue that his ongoing comic book ran.
So of course, when the New52 rolled around, he had to be re-invented.
Maybe he was still satire. But the thing is this: There was nothing to satirize. There was nothing grim or dark that could have been dialled up to 11. At some point, Batman’s butler Alfred Pennyworth got his hand chopped off. Why? For a similar reason as there’s the trope called Women in Refrigerators. This trope, first chronicled by comic book writer Gail Simone in the late 1990s. It describes the deliberate maiming, killing, raping or otherwise violating a female character so that the main male character gets a motivation boost to fight the bad guy.
So how do you top Alfred, one of the last pure and good characters in an entire universe, getting his hand chopped off?
You just don’t. That’s the problem. So you can’t really satirize it. What you could argue that Lobo was satirizing was the neon glowy elements on seemingly every costume after the New52 was announced, but by the time that the new Last Czarnian came around, most characters had a re-design already, removing the elements that fans have dubbed Tron-armour.
The new Lobo also couldn’t make fun of classic storylines anymore or events that happened years ago in different comics. Because, according to the editorial mandate, these didn’t happen anymore. So instead, he got some vaguely dramatic story about how he became the last of the Czarnians and how he is an honourable scoundrel bounty hunter. Or something. Nobody really cared. Sure, I read the book, but reading and caring are two different things.
So the new line-up of the Justice League of America is a strong signal that DC has faith in their legacy, that they trust the good old characters. Here’s the characters that will be united under the prestigious moniker of the USA’s best and finest:
- Killer Frost: She’s a main character on TV’s The Flash where she’s portrayed as a good-at-heart character who goes super violent when she uses her powers.
- Vixen: A character on TV’s Legends of Tomorrow. She can tap into the power and abilities of any animal on Earth. On some occasions, she even managed to tap into animals from outer space.
- The Atom: This isn’t Ray Palmer we’re talking about, so not the guy you know from TV’s Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. It’s Ryan Choi, a character who first appeared a few years back and had quite the fan approval.
- The Ray: Ray Terrill can transform his body into light. He’s nearly invulnerable but a rookie on the team.
- Black Canary: Known from TV’s Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow. She’s a martial artist and has a sonic scream that can shatter eardrums. She’s also the perpetual love interest of Green Arrow in the comics.
- Lobo: The Main Man. Intergalactic bounty hunter with a love for violence and a meathook.
- Batman: The World’s Greatest Detective. Why am I even explaining who Batman is? You know Batman from every medium ever.
The youngest character on this list is Ryan Choi who first appeared in 2006. The Ray first appeared in 1940, Black Canary in 1947, Killer Frost in 1978, Vixen in 1981, Lobo in 1983. So no character comes even close to not having any kind of legacy. Because this is the new DC. Now these characters don’t have one singular legacy, but they have had their own rich stories in the past that the characters can build on and bounce off of each other. Ryan Choi, a professor, and Lobo, a drunk biker, appear to have little in common but these characters will work together on a page. They will interact and debate and discuss and they’ll manage to save the world somehow.
Writer Steve Orlando can build these characters on their traits and do things with them that are distinct and diverse. Not the kind of diversity where one character is of African-American origin and another one is Asian, but these characters are diverse in the sense that they go about things differently. While Batman doesn’t kill or use guns, Lobo kills first and asks questions later. So readers appear to be in for quite the treat.
Similar arguments can be made for Teen Titans which is led by Batman’s son and they’re battling Ra’s Al Ghul’s trainees. Again, full of legacy.
The Return of Happiness
A few years ago, the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics said that superheroes can’t be happy. This was right before he made the marriage between Spider-Man Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson go away after a deal with the devil.
DC Comics disagrees with that as per Rebirth. The prime example for this is Green Arrow.
Oliver Queen’s origin was kept intact and seemingly removed from the mythical add-ons that were introduced during the utterly amazing run by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino during the New52. He’s just a guy with a bunch of trick arrows.
That’s not what makes Green Arrow such an exciting book, because it’s the inherent happiness. Similar to TV’s The Flash during its first two seasons, the characters allow themselves to be happy. After fighting the evil that this world has to offer, they don’t go home to brood or battle the drama at home. They go home and they allow themselves to be happy.
Case in point: Green Arrow and Black Canary have just defeated some global evil that I’m not going to spoil and they are on their way home.
Does a scene about Chili add anything to the drama? No, quite the contrary. It takes away from the drama, makes the heroes human and they’re just like you and me. They make bad puns, they laugh and they have lives that are sometimes just a pot of chili.
The Opposing Trend
Interestingly enough, DC’s biggest opponent, Marvel Comics is having what could be considered their own New52. They’ve rebooted their universe in the past few years so many times that any sense of legacy has gone out of the window. Characters are being written and re-written to fit whatever the plot demands. Case in point here is the recent treatment of Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel who used to be Ms. Marvel.
Personally, I pretty much have dropped Marvel at this time. The only books I still read are Old Man Logan which, lo and behold, builds on the legacy of a character and has occasional bouts of humour and humanity in it.
The conclusion is sort of obvious here: Continuity, legacy and humanity will good comics make. New Reader Friendly is not the end-all, be-all of comic books. Mainly because there are a few simple mechanisms in place that will let new readers know exactly what they’re in for.
If you’re a new reader and you don’t know whether or not the issue you’re holding is in the middle of an arc, just ask the person at the counter. Because they probably know. Or look it up online for half a second. We live in the information age, people. Or you could just take the plunge, read half an arc and decide whether or not you like what you’ve read.
And most of all: Laugh, have fun and keep reading.