DC’s Rebirth has officially begun, as the hope, optimism and legacy that once defined their universe returns. Although its thrilling one-shot set the stage for what was to come, along with saying a tearful farewell to Geoff Johns, the first wave of Rebirth titles hit the shelves in earnest this week. As we enter a new era of for the DCU, how do the World’s Finest; Batman and Superman fare?
Tom King and Mikel Janin; the creative team that brought you the spy-fi adventures of Grayson join forces with legendary Batman writer; Scott Synder to bring you the adventures of a newly revitalised Batman as he faces off against Calender Man. Legacy is truly at the thematic forefront of this issue. Duke Thomas; a character present throughout Synder’s run and who played a key-role in We are Robin returns to take Bruce up on the offer made to him back in Batman #50. Yet here we begin to see a change in Bruce, a willingness to try something new, to strive for something different. For years, the idea of a Robin has acted as an anchor for Batman, yet all of his sidekicks have to varying extents gone on to form distinct legacies of their own. In this light, the decision not to have Duke become a Robin is an incredibly compelling way of both recognising the evolving nature of this world and its characters, while simultaneously expanding the mythos. The costume that Duke receives may have some questionable design-choices, but I am interested to see where this goes and what distinctive element this young crime-fighter will carve for himself. The issue’s central antagonist; Calendar Man is given a twisted horror movie origin and power-set that feeds into the larger theme of the death and rebirth. The transformation that Julian Day undergoes throughout the issue is beautifully rendered in all it’s horrific glory by Janin with a physicality that often is absent from the meidum. The Dark Knight’s new costume is also superbly rendered, highlighting the elements, particularly around the cowl, where it takes inspiration of the design featured in Morrison’s run on JLA back in the 90s. This reverence for the past can also be seen in a delightful moment of fan-service that showcases the evolution of the Batmobile through the ages. The one issue that Janin’s character designs highlight is that he has trouble in distinguishing faces. Indeed, his Bruce Wayne is overly similar to how he portrayed Dick Grayson. One could argue that this symbolises their father-son relationship and how to two men have grown in tandem, but I think may be too forgiving a reading. Fans may be disappointed that the Joker mystery teased in at the end of Justice League #50 takes a back-seat to, but this issues firms establishes the Caped Crusader’s new status quo and dynamic duo. The idea of multiple Jokers plays into Batman’s story as one of self-improvement. He may have ups and downs, but each time he returns as a better version of himself. More meta-textual commentary on the nature of the franchise as a whole? Probably, but as we will see below and as last week’s Rebirth #1 that isn’t a bad thing where it enhances the story rather than replaces it.
The Man of Steel doesn’t come off as well as his Gotham counterpart. Perhaps we have been spoiled by the sublime American Alien, but somethings about this take on Clark Kent seems forced and overly complex. Complexity is good when it allows for deep character introspection and examination, but is less useful when you hope to garner new readers. At times, it feels like the comic is trying to guilt us into liking a version of Superman that was widely criticised by the fandom by having the old Superman point out elements where he surpasses his predecessor. This section reads like a bit of post-facto rationalisation for some the creative choices taken with the character by having them be approved by the “real” Superman. This approach is best summarised by one scene where the older Clark Kent remarks on this Superman erecting statutes to both his Krypton and Earth parents whereas the classic Fortress of Solicitude only had statues of the former. DC have cleverly woven in a way for them to respond to fan criticism, yet in doing so, they vindicate those critics by essentially acquiescing to the point of killing the modern version so that the classic “real” incarnation can once rule the roost. There is surely a level of cognitive dissonance at play here. Furthermore, there is an attempt to examine the much-maligned notion of comic book deaths and the seemingly revolving door of the afterlife. Indeed, the book is at its most interesting when it presents a subversion of that trope, when it forces Clark to address what might happen if this Superman doesn’t return and the legacy he might have to adopt. This leads to the odd ouroboros-inspired notion of the old Superman being inspired by the new Superman’s death so as to reclaim the mantle that he had uncharacteristically abandoned. The Superman family of books are taking a strange path between the re-introduction of the pre-New 52 Superman as the main Superman, Luthor attempts to usurp the title in Action Comics or the creation of the Chinese hero Kenan Kong in New Super-Man. If this sounds confusing, it’s only because it is and even the characters themselves comment on it. The Superman titles appear to be focusing on a battle for that legacy and the prestige it brings, but it’s unclear if the survivors of Krypton have the funds or capacity to franchise the House of El and establish Superman Inc.
The first week of the Rebirth initiative holds much promise. It’s clear that DC has become interesting in examining the cultural impact of its heroes within their own titles. Between the Watchmen reveal and the discussion found in today’s books, the writers are hoping to take a leaf out of the book of Morrison in starting a meta-textual conversation about these characters. Such endeavours are worthy of respect and help to elevate the medium, but they shouldn’t be all-consuming as it risks alienating casual or new readers. Geoff Johns may have said this is a return to basic first principles for DC, but I would argue that what Rebirth offers readers is a thesis on why those basics worked. Rather than merely replicate what came before it places those stories in context and demonstrates how those ideals can inspire us today. Everything old is new again.
Review copies were kindly provided by the publisher.