What I thought of DC Universe: Rebirth #1

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It’s 2016, so it must be time for another DC Universe reboot, but this one masterminded by Geoff Johns brings back the hopeful, cheerier DC Universe that Johns apparently loves, ditching the dark, miserable one that Johns played such a major role in creating. Except as revealed in leaks last weekend, it’s nothing to do with Johns, or DC chief Dan Didio, or the miniseries Identity Crisis but rather it’s Watchmen (the book, and it’s creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons shoulder the blame according to this extraordinary comic)that  is the real smoking gun as to where DC went wrong over the last decade or so according to Johns and this already controversial comic.

Before getting stuck into Rebirth, it’s worth spending time having a wee recap of Identity Crisis. This was a 7-issue miniseries released in 2004 which was to redefine what DC’s superheroes were, so no longer were they these shining figures of hope, but instead they were darker, more ‘gritty’ and instead of fighting bad guys they were busy fighting each other. To make the point that the brighter days were over, Sue Dibney, wile of the Elongated Man and part of the jokey, fun Justice League International was raped by Dr. Light.

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It’s clear what DC were doing here as this at the time was massively controversial, and although Identity Crisis sold,  it’s worth paying heed to the comments of creator Kyle Baker at the time.

BAKER: This is a business, and all this stuff revolves around giving people what they want to read. All of the trends that you see in comics are a direct response to sales. DC and Marvel do what sells, and they repeat what sells. If the Atom is a villain, it’s because audiences respond to superheroes that have turned into villains, and that’s what they want to read. We were talking about how you have to change things over the years. Everything is a response to trends; public fantasies change as a response to trends. Someone like Captain America is created as response to Nazism. He’s a fantasy of beating up the Nazis, a fantasy of America. You could probably sell a character like that today, but that character was created because of the times, and the fantasy that people were the hungriest for. Even the name “Plastic Man” — when Plastic Man was created, plastic was this new miracle polymer. All of the Marvel characters were created by radiation, and Iron Man’s superpower was transistors, because that was hot at the time. That was what had captured the public imagination. I think the last superhero fantasy that really grabbed the public that way was The Matrix. [laughs] That fantasy of breaking out of your shitty office job and fighting crime, instead of being some cog in a cubicle somewhere. That really resonated with people at the time.

So if people are fantasizing about their heroes becoming murderers, that’s just what’s in their heads right now. That’s what they want to see. That’s what they’re dreaming of.

FARAGO: Yeah, it’s, uh —

BAKER: Weird.

FARAGO: I thought the industry was moving away from it, and there were all these signs that people wanted the noble heroes again —

BAKER: Isn’t that [Identity Crisis] the biggest book of the year?

FARAGO: Yeah, easily.

BAKER: Every time people buy it, they’re going to do another one. That’s common sense. If the biggest book of the year features brutal rapes, you’re going to have to top it next time. You’re going to have to come up with, what’s worse than that? What’s worse than raping and killing a character’s wife? We’re going to have to top that. Maybe we can cut Lois Lane’s head off and shove it up her ass. That’s what’ll be at the next meeting. We’re going to have to figure out how to brutalize the rest of the DC universe.

And they did figure out how to brutalise the rest of the DC Universe (DCU) as it veered from one major event to another and the DCU five years ago went through the New 52 revamp which made all their heroes a bunch of pricks. Superman? Prick. Batman? Prick. Green Lantern? Prick. You get the jist…

Thing is the sales of Identity Crisis were never reached by DC by the time it got to the New 52, barring a few titles like Grant Morrison’s Superman stories in Action Comics. Even then the diminishing returns for moody, grim, violent rapey, angsty superheroes were minimal, especially with Marvel’s film arm producing bright, cheery heroes who save people and act generally like superheroes. So in 2016 we come to DC Universe: Rebirth where for the last decade and everything that happened in it is blamed on Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen who created the New 52 to see what a universe without hope is like. It’s been posited this is a ”gutsy work of comics criticism’, but that is frankly, a load of fucking shite. If it was Johns would turn this so-called criticism upon himself, and his superiors who for a decade have shaped the DCU into what it is now, not a comic produced 30 years ago that still makes DC money. Maybe it’s the fact it’s a constant reminder of what DC’s lost in terms of talent and prestige that clearly annoys Johns about Watchmen, I dunno, I don’t live in his head.

The comic itself makes it clear with it’s opening 9-panel grid opening page where it’s coming from and it’s a jarring sight, but unlike Grant Morrison’s Multiversity event last year, there’s no sign of Johns having read, or grasped what Watchmen was.

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The disembodied narrator could be Johns himself speaking, and it probably is even if it’s odd that someone who helped get DC’s superhero titles in the mess they’re in is saying there’s ‘something missing’. As for the story, if you’re hoping to jump on board picking things up from scratch then forget it. This is a comic with three Jokers.

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So this is a reboot not for new readers as such, but for older readers who’ve perhaps ditched DC and this is to attract them back, which if so, is extraordinary. Why not just wipe everything out and start again from scratch rather than make it needlessly convoluted in the first few pages for anyone that hasn’t a knowledge of 75 years of DC history?

Anyhow, the narrator is Wally West, former Flash but back in his Kid Flash outfit, and he’s touring the New 52 world trying to find a connection with someone to pull him out the Speed Force so he can return to this world and warn them of some threat or other. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. The art is so painfully bland/awful/uninspiring and reeks of the conformity of the last decade of DC’s art by numbers policy that when added to a remarkable for all the wrong reasons script, this becomes a hard package to read if you’re not a serious DCU fanboy/girl. if you are then you’ll be glad to know everything is back. Even Crisis on Infinite Earths is back.

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As said, new readers turn away now. This isn’t for you, this is for the people who lap up DC continuity like an alcoholic licking a spilled tin of Special Brew off a pavement.

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That’s the hand of Dr Manhattan who is behind the darkening of the DCU, and as you can see in the dialogue, Johns is blaming the ‘darkness’ on one thing, and one thing alone and that’s Watchmen which is remarkable. Watchmen is a multi-tiered work that acts among other things as a criticism of the darker comics which were becoming more in vogue in the mid 1980’s, a fact Johns totally overlooks here. By the end of the book it’s dripping in hope with  a cautious note that the bad times always lurk round the corner. It’s a complete artistic work.

The New 52, and indeed, the last decade of DC is as said, the decision of a number of people who’ve looked at sales figures and decided rape, violence and ‘dark’ = money. It’s a decision of a large multinational corporation and a handful of it’s employees to impose a philosophy upon it’s comics because they think running a line of superhero comics can be done by committee and accountants. The creative instinct is suppressed to ensure creators create product, not art. What Johns should be railing at is DC’s consumerist obsession with marketing a superhero universe where everything is the same, rather than as it was previously, where there was a mix, something Johns hints is returning to the DCU which may in the long run be a good thing if it actually happens. Right now it’s a mess.

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And indeed, since Watchmen DC’s taken the topic of darker superheroes on before, most notably with the excellent Kingdom Come series, but the deeper one gets into Rebirth the more insane the meta aspects become. None as much as the scene where Pandora, the character behind the New 52 is murdered by Dr Manhattan.

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Subtlety isn’t a Johns strong point here.

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That, if rumour is believed, is Ozymandias from Watchmen. Even John Constantine and Swamp Thing turn up in this jumbled, disjointed mess.

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Then when you think it’s all coming to an end at last, Johns pisses in your face again as he hammers home the point that Watchmen was really miserable as far as he’s concerned and is responsible for dark superhero comics, Simon Cowell and cancer.

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After the much publicised page of Batman holding up the Comedian’s smiley badge, there’s an epilogue where it’s driven home that now Watchmen is part of the DCU.

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DC Universe: Rebirth takes a complicated mess of continuity and makes it worse. it throws in Watchmen as a scapegoat for a decade’s worth of bad corporate creative decisions in order I presume to absolve people like Johns from any sense of responsibility for what they’ve helped create. It takes one of mainstream comics best, most respected books, a book that changed comics, brought in tens of thousands of new, fresh readers and is still selling massive amounts 30 years after first publication, and crams it into a mess of a book in order to give it a kicking.

Yet by doing so Johns proves Alan Moore’s point that DC Comics are so creatively bankrupt they have to mine works he did three decades ago to help them sell comics. This also isn’t going to fill creators who may create new, exciting works with joy or confidence as after all, they’re seeing Geoff Johns metaphorically rub his balls all over Moore and Gibbons creation while shouting ‘IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT‘ loudly at the top of his lungs at a picture of Alan Moore he’s stuck on his bathroom mirror.

This doesn’t crap all over Watchmen as a work, because that’ll always be there, and anyhow, DC’s already done that with the inept Before Watchmen crap from a few years ago. What this does is show that Paul Levitz deserves much more praise for protecting Watchmen from this sort of exploitation as it protected not just it’s artistic integrity, but showed that although DC were bastards, they weren’t fucking bastards. They are now.

DC Universe: Rebirth is trying to have it’s cake, eat it, and after it’s thrown it up force it down your throat because it’s what you want, honest. Rather than do a flat out reboot it’s chucking everything in because one has to keep the hardcore continuity geeks happy, and fuck new readers. If they’re not up with seven decades of DC history then tough. Here’s a bit of New 52, here’s a bit of pre-Crisis, here’s a bit of something new, here’s some Vertigo. It’s all there. It’s all a mess. A fresh start will piss off the 30-50 year old core readership of DC Comics, but it clears everything out. It leaves a blank slate. It gives creators freedom, rather than have to throw in a mention of say, The Killing Joke, because going back in time to draw inspiration rather than try something different and new is all they know. Didio,Johns and the others making decisions at DC are locked into a spiral where after this they’ve left themselves with two options: to do a fresh start or fiddle round the edges yet again and lose readers til it’s just a small core of bitter fans clinging on because ”their” characters are what’s important to them.

In short. This is bollocks.

DC Comics , Suicide, and Misogyny

The latest bit of organised insanity from DC Comics is this competition where drawing a picture of the character Harley Quinn in several situations may get you published. Here’s the description of the last of four panels DC would like people to draw.

Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen.

This has caused a wee bit of a kerfuffle as well, it’s such a fucking awful idea. DC have effectively tried to sexualise the actual act of suicide in a way to get what is a bit of cheap publicity which yes, involves people like me pointing out the problem with doing this. It’s a perfect bit of marketing if one has not got ethics or a soul to worry about.

Taken in isolation it doesn’t seem too bad, but when you consider that DC changed the character from this…

To this..

There’s nothing essentially wrong with sexualised superheroes if used in the right context  as I’ve explained before, but this is different. This is cheap and pandering to a certain large part of the customer base who see female characters as gratification only, which in this context is dubious and wrapped round a sexualised image of suicide is morally dubious at best, or pandering to the worst of people.

Coming around the same time as their decision to refuse a lesbian marriage in their Batwoman title, and just before Suicide Prevention Week, you have to think that DC is run by people who have no idea of the world beyond their own cynical worldview. You’d probably be right. These joyless decisions to ensure that DC closes out a larger readership confirms what the likes of Karen Berger have said about the company that it’s given up on dealing with anyone that isn’t in their current core readership, even if that means alienating people and generally making themselves looking like enormous arseholes.

Hey Kids! COMICS!

ImageThe New York Times has a really quite fascinating article on Karen Berger that’s pretty much essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in comics, and no, not just superheroes but comics as a medium and where the major companies are heading.

There’s a couple of sections which stand out for me. The first is this one:

Ms. Berger said she noted changes in DC’s priorities in recent years. “I’ve found that they’re really more focused on the company-owned characters,” she said. DC and its Disney-owned rival, Marvel, “are superhero companies owned by movie studios.”

This is probably the first time I’ve seen a high level employee (or ex-exmployee) point out what’s been increasingly obvious over the last decade that DC and Marvel have focused on pumping out titles featuring their superheroes at the detriment of anything else. Of course there are people who will point out the odd one or two titles which aren’t just superheroes, but on the whole DC and Marvel publish superhero comics to a decreasing marketplace.

Which brings me to the second part which stands out…

Dan DiDio, the co-publisher of DC Comics, said there was “some truth” to these feelings of a shifting landscape, which he said were industrywide. For comics published by Vertigo and by DC, he said: “There’s not a challenge to be more profitable out of the gate. But there is a challenge to be more accepted out of the gate.”

Mr. DiDio said it would be “myopic” to believe “that servicing a very small slice of our audience is the way to go ahead.”

“That’s not what we’re in the business for,” he added. “We have to shoot for the stars with whatever we’re doing. Because what we’re trying to do is reach the biggest audience and be as successful as possible.”

Again, this is the first time I think Didio has admitted publically that creativity, innovation and experimentation is a thing of the past, and that ‘servicing a small part of our audience’ really means ‘fuck you’ to a large a loyal audience of readers who would enjoy the experimentation of the Vertigo years. It is however about servicing a not much larger section of the audience with superheroes, or at least, how people think superheroes should be portrayed to a shrinking marketplace.

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So when your audience is teenage boys and middle aged men you end up with Batman fucking Catwoman on panel, or any of the dozens of other examples of DC fuckwittery which means they appeal to a smaller and smaller market. It’s all calculated to sell as many copies to as limited an audience as possible while ensuring they exploit as much intellectual property as possible, and if it’s sexist or moronic then great because a lot of the audience want that.

Never mind there’s a larger group of people who might want to read stories about Catwoman where she’s not just an arse and a pair of tits, or seeing Sue Dibny raped in a story which set the tone for the last decades worth of DC stories.

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There’s no joy in this. There’s just people trying to be ‘mature’ by being as sexist as possible while the buying audience decreases because superheroes aren’t fun and as children’s characters they should be fun. However this is basically DC telling us that it’s over for anything fun or different or experimental.

It’s all grim, misogynist rape and violence for here on in. I’m no prude, but when you make children’s characters deliberately inaccessible to children and most women then you’re really not reaching for the stars and trying to expand your readership because frankly, everyone is too scared to lose their job and take the leap that Berger has.

So I wish Berger well. She’s helped provide me with vast amounts of entertainment over the years, and I apologise for trying to chat her up at a UKCAC in the 90’s. My only excuse was I was exceptionally drunk…