Thursday, 29 June 2017

DC Universe Rebirth Year One in Review Part 01

This month completes the first year of DC's Rebirth initiative with a lot of the books that started this month a year ago now hitting their 25th anniversary issues. After a year, it's time to reflect on what DC did well and what areas they still need to improve upon. But first, the high points!

1. Geoff Johns promoted to DC Entertainment President

This is one of the smartest moves DC Entertainment made this past year as Geoff Johns' promotion to a higher level position resulted in a stronger direction for the DC Universe as a whole. There have been no creative walk offs or conflicts with editorial, and the overall quality of the stories improved by a significant mile.

While co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee may like the DC Universe and characters in their own unique way, one of the things that was immediately learned from their management of the New 52 is that their creative vision didn't resonate with either the existing audience or the audience they were trying to attract. Their interest and efforts to diversify their content came from a good place, but they didn't know how to execute those in a way that met the needs of their target audience.

This is an area where Geoff Johns excels at, mostly because he loves the DC Universe and characters for mostly the same reasons that DC fans do. While Lee and DiDio seem enjoy a specific flavour of storytelling that borders more on the "dark and edgy," Johns has a more varied taste. Johns embraces the idea of the DC universe embodying hope and optimism and he's not against letting DC's heroes live rich and happy lives.

2. Greg Rucka being invited back to revitalise Wonder Woman

Without question, this was the most important move for DC considering the state of the mainstream Wonder Woman comic over the course of five years. While I've enjoyed and respected Brian Azzarello's work on other DC properties like Batman, he was also not the right choice writer for reinterpreting Wonder Woman's mythology for a modern audience.

The core of Diana's strength as a character is that she comes entirely from a place of femininity. Not only is she a character who challenges our stereotypes and accepted gender roles as defined by patriarchy, but even her story is centred on the idea of female legacy. She comes from an all-woman society that is not bound by the rules and laws of patriarchy and thrive in every profession--including war--because they don't live with any restrictions.

Diana is also the daughter of Queen Hippolyta, which makes her the heir to her mother's throne. When she makes her debut as Wonder Woman, she carries with her not only the legacy of her mother, but also the legacy of her entire society. When she meets and interacts with other women outside of Themyscira (like Etta Candy), she immediately becomes an inspiration to these women and empowers them to be the people they want to be. She encourages them to persevere.

When Brian Azzarello rebooted Wonder Woman for the New 52, he missed the mark on Diana's core strength on every front by masculinising her character and story, effectively weakening her in the process. He inserted men into Diana's story in a way that marginalised Diana's mother and the Amazons as the most influential people in her life. Worse yet, he turned the Amazons into rapists, murderers, and haters of men, which reinforced every negative stereotype about feminism.

Rather than embrace the character's femininity and the idea female empowerment, Azzarello's Wonder Woman did the polar opposite of those things, which gutted everything that made Wonder Woman a unique and interesting heroine. By the time Meredith and David Finch succeeded Azzarello to the title, it was very much a case of dropping the guillotine on the neck of Wonder Woman's future, which put the heroine in desperate need of a rescuer.

Enter Greg Rucka!

Words alone cannot express what a huge blessing it has been to have Greg Rucka relaunch Wonder Woman for the Rebirth initiative. He wasn't just tasked with the unenviable job of pulling Wonder Woman out of the grave she was buried in after five years of having her mythos hanged, drawn, and quartered. He also had to turn that damage control into a story that reinstated her classic mythos, and in a way that was inviting of both her existing fanbase and new readers. He didn't disappoint!

Rucka very cleverly (and respectfully) addressed all of the problems with the New 52 run and gradually replaced them with Wonder Woman's classic mythology. He also restored the Amazons to their former glory of being a highly progressive female society, and he even restored Etta Candy and Steve Trevor as her supporting cast. Classic Wonder Woman villains like the Cheetah, Circe, Doctor Cyber, Marina Maru, and Veronica Cale also resurfaced during his run, complete with their classic interpretations and nuanced characterisation. Ares was also restored to his more iconic incarnation.

Out of all the Rebirth titles, Wonder Woman was my absolute favourite. In addition to having Rucka on writing duties, it also had the dream art team of Liam Sharp, Nicola Scott, and Bilquis Evely!

3. Restoring Superman and Lois Lane to their more iconic status quo

Another property that was rebooted in a damaging way during the New 52 was the Superman line of books. The Superman of the last five years had little in common with the more iconic character most people know, since many of his recognisable traits were jettisoned in favour of making him a darker character.

With few exceptions (depending on the writer), the "darkening" of Superman translated to characterising him as "entitled," "angry," "brooding," and "cynical." Exactly all of the things that are opposite of Superman. Lois Lane faired no better as she was essentially removed from her place in the Superman mythos, having little to no presence in the books at all.

The last year of the New 52 and Rebirth course-corrected on all of these fronts. Most notably in Dan Jurgens Action Comics run where he focused on reestablishing Superman's core mythology, while Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason focused more on developing the Superman family in their Superman run.

When the time came to address the why New 52 Superman and Lois Lane were separate characters from their post-Crisis incarnations, the characters were simply established as having been split into negative and positive versions of themselves (aka, the concept of Red Superman and Blue Superman).

This meant that the New 52 versions embodied the characters' negative energy while the post-Crisis versions embodied their positive energy. This explained why both versions of these characters had drastically different personalities, with the New 52 versions embodying their worst traits and the post-Crisis versions embodying their best traits. This conundrum was resolved by simply merging the two versions into one.

As you can tell, "Superman Reborn" was my favourite Superman story during Rebirth!

4. Restoring Bruce Wayne's humanity

This was actually started during Scott Snyder's Batman run during the New 52. But even with Snyder moving away from the idea of Bruce being the insufferable, angry, and condescending bastard we've known for the past 30 years, his Bruce Wayne was still largely withdrawn. He loved the people in his life, but he also kept them at a distance emotionally. He was also very much still "married" to his Batman identity and work.

For Rebirth, writer Tom King is essentially continuing the character ground work Snyder started during his New 52 run, but is taking it a step up. He's not only exploring what makes the character Batman, but also what makes him Bruce Wayne as well. As of Batman #24, Bruce is starting to ease up on his need to be Batman and is starting to open up emotionally.

5. Giving previously failed diverse characters and titles another shot to succeed

Three diverse books that were regrettably cancelled very early on during the New 52 were Birds of Prey, Batwoman, and Blue Beetle. The cancellation of Birds of Prey in particular hit close to home because this was a book that was previously celebrated for its focus on female relationships and how this led to meaningful character development for all of the team members.

One of the reasons the book failed during the New 52 was because that focus on female friendship was largely absent from the book. Though the team had a racially and sexually diverse cast of characters with Katana, Black Canary, Starling, Batgirl, and Poison Ivy, there was also zero organic chemistry between them because no time was devoted to developing their relationships with one another. As such, they were very much a generic superhero team with very little to nothing gelling them together as a group of friends.

For Rebirth, DC decided to reinstate the original team of Black Canary, Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, and Helena Bertinelli as the Huntress with a stronger focus on friendship. While that focus has mostly been between Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance, the Benson sisters--Julie and Shawna--are also working to reintegrate Helena Bertinelli as both a valued member of the team and as a friend both Dinah and Barbara.

Another title I feel benefitted strongly from Rebirth is Batwoman. During the New 52, Batwoman was actually off to a very strong start under W. Haden Blackman and J.H. Williams III before DC editorial sabotaged their longterm plans for the character, including plans to let her marry her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. The latter in particular was seen as a dick move from DC by fans, especially given the status of marriage equality for LGBTQA around the world. Worse yet was the Nocturna storyline by Marc Andreyko, which saw the titular character get raped by the aforementioned villain.

With Rebirth, Batwoman got a fresh start as a leading character in Detective Comics before being spun-off into her own solo title once again. Putting her in Detective Comics before launching her into a new solo book was a smart move from DC. In being a part of a high profile book, this helped to increase visibility for the character and allowed her to reclaim a lot of the initial fan support she originally started with. Detective Comics additionally brought back fan favourite characters like Tim Drake, Cassandra Cain, and Stephanie Brown who were previously either mission in action during the New 52, or had very little visibility.

One last title that benefitted from Rebirth is Blue Beetle, which not only placed the Mexican-American Jaime Reyes back as the book's protagonist once again, but even brought back another fan-favourite Beetle: Ted Kord.

6. Hiring more diverse creators on high profile books

This is--in my opinion--a significant step up from the New 52. Whereas the New 52 had a near monolithic white, heterosexual, male creative braintrust, Rebirth has been doing a significantly better job at recruiting diverse creators on both their high profile books and their lesser known ones. Compared to even two years ago, there are more women, LGBTQA, and POC working for the company as creators.

On the writing side, DC has talents like Steve Orlando and Mariko Tamaki working on two separate Supergirl titles, and they are bisexual and Japanese-American respectively. On the front of Asian representation, DC also kept Gene Luen Yang--who previously worked on Superman during their DCYou era--to launch a new title starring a new Chinese character: New Super-Man.

They also brought Marguerite Bennett on board to relaunch Batwoman along with James Tynion IV, both of whom are queer creators. Both creators have also worked on Detective Comics. DC also recruited Julie and Shawna Benson to work on Birds of Prey, Hope Larson to work on Batgirl, and Shea Fontana to succeed Rucka on Wonder Woman. DC also got Christopher Priest on Deathstroke, Vita Ayala on the Wonder Woman Rebirth annual, as well as Kevin Grevioux to work on a Wonder Woman spin-off miniseries, Odyssey of the Amazons. The latter three are African American.

The artist front is where a lot of DC's diverse creators reside. Amongst the women who have worked for them on their Rebirth titles and miniseries include Joelle Jones (Supergirl: Being Super), Emmanuela Lupacchino (SupergirlGreen Lanterns, and Trinity), Mirka Andolfo, Bilquis Evely, and Nicola Scott (all for Wonder Woman). Amongst POC artists who have worked for them include Marcio Takara, Marcus To, and Minkyu Jung (all for Nightwing).

On the whole, there are definitely more women working for DC than in the past five years, which is a significant improvement. While they're definitely recruiting more LGBTQA and POC as creators, I do think they could still better on this front. Namely by hiring more black, Asian, Latinx, and even Islamic creators. While I'm also happy to see more gay and bisexual people on DC titles, DC could also look for more people on the spectrum like trans people.

On that note...

7. Recruiting new talent via DC Writing and Artist Workshops

This is DC's best idea since starting a digital comics line, and one that I feel is worth investing in.

In addition to looking for people already working in the comics industry, I think the new talent workshop is an excellent opportunity for DC to find new, much needed diverse voices for their books and characters. In fact, quite a lot of new diverse talent came out of the first new talent workshop alone.

Amongst the new talent DC acquired from this project include Vita Ayala, Emma Beeby, Joelle Jones, Hena Khan, Juan Ferreyra, Minkyu Jung, and Erica Schultz.

The only criticism I have about the project is that I feel that DC is still limiting themselves on the types of talent they want to recruit for the workshop. I do think submitting previously published works is fair game since they are, after all, looking for new creators. But I also don't understand their rule against submitting sample scripts using their own characters, which doesn't make sense to me.

At best, it's probably being done to prevent any potential conflicts between editorial and a potential new creator, especially if both have very different ideas about the direction they want to take any one DC character in. It's probably also being done to limit the amount of applications, because who the hell wouldn't use this opportunity to get to write their favourite characters? On that note, it could also be that DC only wants to use certain characters at a given time, and the characters a new writer may want to write may not be the ones the publisher needs them to write.

All of those would be valid reasons, I think, but I also think those kinds of problems can be prevented as well. Like say on the outset what the expectations are between creators and the company. Make it known that a new creator won't have complete creative control on a book and that plans can change at any time. To limit the number of applications, establish a "first come, first served" model and establish a cut-off number or a short timeframe. If DC needs new talent for certain characters, specify which characters they are primarily interested in finding new voices for.

Beyond that...I really don't understand the "DON'T USE OUR CHARACTERS!" rule. I think in addition to finding new creators who have the right skills for writing a comic...wouldn't the publisher also want to make sure they're hiring the right people to develop their characters? I would like think it would be equally important to them that their new talents actually get who their characters are to know where to assign them too. Additionally, letting new talent submit sample stories with their characters would also give them an idea of what lesser known characters people are interested in writing. They could then potentially use that opportunity to unbench and develop new stories for those characters. But that's just me...

If anyone knows the answer to the "DON'T USER OUR CHARACTERS!" rule, please let me know! I genuinely want to know the answer to that one because logic for me dictates that knowing DC characters would be important for knowing who to hire for these characters.

Other than that...this is it for the high points list! For Part 02, we'll talk about the things Rebirth can improve upon to guarantee longterm sales growth and not short term success!

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