This is going to be unforgivably nerdy.
This month, DC Comics is rebooting nearly all of its titles. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Action Comics, Detective Comics, Green Lantern et al. will all be reset to #1, as will (presumably) the stories of those depicted in each one’s pages. If I’m to use the hastily improvised analogy of DC as a militarized force, Justice League #1—August 31st—is the forward scout, and the flagship titles set to premiere next Wednesday will make up the first wave. I suppose the new Hawkman will head up the air squadron, though judging by the pang of shame I just felt it seems I’ve taken this metaphor too far.
It’s fair to call this sweeping editorial move unprecedented. While the Ultimate imprint Marvel launched in 2000 reintroduced its characters with revised origins and characteristics, it exists as a parallel continuity, with the “mainstream” Marvel comics and characters continuing to print to this day. And while DC’s 1985 limited series Crisis on Infinite Earths attempted to streamline the continuity (see how long that lasted) it did so without erasing or invalidating the iconic Golden Age of comics, wherein Superman and Batman fought alongside American troops in WWII. Perhaps I need to do a more thorough search, but it seems DC’s decision to hit the reboot button is the ballsiest move in the history of the comic book industry.
Two pertinent questions arise: Why? and Will it Work?
Non-comics readers, being unfamiliar with the DC universe and continuity and all those things people with social lives never have to worry about, might miss the significance of this move. Resetting not just a few but the vast majority of the series in the DCU isn’t just knocking each issue number back to 1. Some of these series have accumulated roughly half a century’s worth of developments, twists and revelations, quite a few with lasting effects: Barbara Gordon, most famously known as Batgirl, has been confined to a wheelchair since being crippled by the Joker in 1988’s The Killing Joke; Superman and Lois Lane have been a married couple since 1996; and let’s not forget all of those who have taken up the mantles of the Green Lantern and the Flash, with the most iconic Lantern, Hal Jordan, having briefly become the supervillain Parallax. Long story short, rebooting the DCU is like paving over the entire history of Coronation Street, but with more explosions.
If you imagine the above set to this music, it's even better.
A lot of readers, me included, are peeved about this to varying degrees. After all, it’s a kick in the nuts to be invested in all these developments and then see them flat out ignored. Personally, I will be saddened to see Dick Grayson, the original Robin, busted back to Nightwing after having been a stellar Batman. Generally speaking, the reboot is a dick move... but I get why DC did it. Green Lantern’s Blackest Night storyarc is an engrossing ride for anyone familiar with the history of the DCU and its denizens but, simultaneously, it must be perplexing to any casual reader. Kind of like The Wire.
"Where's Jason, Joker? Where's Jason?!?"
Unless there’s some way to fill in the reader with every issue (short of directing them to overly long Wikipedia articles), this type of continuity isn’t incredibly appealing to newcomers. In this sense a reboot, like Donne’s Death, is the great equalizer. But, again, this egalitarian practice by its very nature will be aggravating to the existing legions of established fans. In short, it’s a risky business decision, one that will either inspire growth (new readers) or losses (those online who’ve said they’ve cancelled their subscriptions in disgust/exhaustion).
So the Why is out of the way, clearing a path for the second, more important question: is this even going to work?
If I can think of a single good reason to start back at square one, besides the whole not-as-alienating-to-new-readers issue, it’s that DC’s continuity has neither been incredibly consistent nor permanent in its three-quarters of a century run. As previously mentioned, Crisis on Infinite Earths attempted to reconcile contradictory and dated elements that had amassed in the DCU since the mid-1930s. The resulting continuity would be firm, Goddammit!—except it wasn’t. While Babs Gordon may have been spinning about in her wheelchair since ’88, Jason Todd, the second Robin, has been both killed and resurrected in less than two decades. Grant Morrison, otherwise one of the finest writers in the business, spent not one but two storyarcs building up to Bruce Wayne’s supposed death (the first one being ironically titled Batman R.I.P.), only to send the original Bats back to prehistoric times and forcing him to fight his way back to the present. And of course, the DC landscape over the last decade has seen one game-changing crossover follow another, each intended to be more catastrophic than the last. And for what? for Bruce to end up donning the cowl again less than a year before the reboot came into place?
One major problem that has plagued both DC and its main competitor Marvel over the last few decades is a lack of risk and permanence in storytelling. It’s difficult to fear for Bruce Wayne’s life when you know, almost for certain, that he will be brought back within a couple years, max. Comics fans have felt this reassuring but dull certainty since the Man of Steel was resurrected after the much-hyped Death of Superman event. Year after year superheroes and villains have been duking it out on the ground and in the air with powers that would be the envy of several Greek gods and yet it’s only the civilians that seem to stay dead. If I were to write an unstoppable character who had zero chance of dying or even being hurt in any given situation, that would be poor, boring storytelling. DC and Marvel have been doing the same thing, except they’ve had the temerity to say, repeatedly, that these recurring catastrophes will have lasting effects.
And again, I understand. The major comics houses are businesses at their cores and will naturally try to get as much bang for their buck as possible. They’ll do so by building up hype, insinuating that this crossover or the next will be truly climactic, and then leave a few loopholes that will allow for the resurrection of a supposedly dead hero. And they’re going to keep going it because, by God, it fucking works. I’ve read the complaints about this reboot from tons of people online and yet the pre-orders for Justice League #1 are record-breaking. Hell, I’m going to be laying down a pair of toonies for Batman #1 next Wednesday because in spite of my mostly-muted nerd rage I’m still interested to see in how this all goes down.
Nerd rage: if regular rage needed Cialis.
It’s because of these trends that I fear the storytelling won’t necessarily improve, that within a decade we’ll see the same problems and clutter that plagued the DCU in 1985. It happened with Marvel: the Ultimate universe was a sleeker, meaner beast until it was eventually bogged down by character resurrections and world-shattering events. They recently killed off the Ultimate version of Spider-Man, and while they’ve introduced a new character to take up the Webslinger’s role I wonder if they’ll bring back Peter Parker within a couple of years, if only because he’s a more iconic character—see Bruce Wayne, or Hal Jordan, or countless other secret identities throughout the decades.
I could stay cynical, simply accept the cyclical storytelling/business model of modern comics, but Hell, series with truly mortal characters and a clearly defined storyarc do work and are successful, critically and financially. DC has been telling stories like these for two decades through its adult-oriented Vertigo imprint. Sandman, Preacher and Hellblazer are hands down some of the best stories in the medium and it’s not because the characters are allowed to say ‘fuck,’ but because readers can form emotional ties with these characters and truly fear for their continued survival. Similarly, Image’s The Walking Dead is so successful because any of its well-established characters can be killed off, zombified or permanently mutilated at any given moment.
For God's sake, the protagonist has been missing his right hand for over half the series now.
I’m not saying Batman should be held at gunpoint in every issue. But if we’re to believe in his humanity and empathize with his struggles, convince us of his mortality. It might not seem like a good business decision, but history has proven otherwise.