Tuesday, June 28, 2016

We Ponder the Ever-Growing Complexities of Superman and DC's "Rebirth" Event

It's no secret I wasn't a fan of much in the way of Superman comics since the launch of The New 52.  Somehow the character stumbled off the blocks, introduced in Justice League #1 as a showboat and almost a bully.  The history of the character never added up, what with DC's mishandled "we're five years in since Superman appeared" idea, a history they utterly failed to reconcile with pre-Flashpoint continuity despite their promises to the contrary.  The Superman title tried at the start.  You could feel George Perez try, get compromised again and again, and his abrupt departure and comments afterward about editorial interference jived with the inconsistency of what was on the page, not just in that title, but in many of the New 52 titles I tried out.

Over in Action Comics, Grant Morrison was given free reign to do as he pleased, and you could feel him trying to do something, working hard to try to seize the opportunity, but whatever he was trying to build with a blue-collar, working-man's hero in jeans and t-shirt was mis-appropriated to ill-effect by the end of the New 52 era and "Street Fighter" Superman in jeans and t-shirt almost a loud sigh that DC just didn't know what to do with the character they'd tried to assemble.

The comics just never quite worked.  I wish they had.  I can't say how much my waning interest in Superman comics took out my interest in comics in general.  If you've seen a major shift from comics to movies in my blogging - well, where do you suppose I'm spending my dollars and spare hours now?

Rebirth is DC Comics' latest line-wide reboot and an attempt to recapture what I'd characterize as the lost spirit of DC Comics.  Kicked off over the last month or so, they're basically ditching the line-wide decree to make their characters all more "edgy", rolling out all-new number 1 issues and trying to find their footing.  It won't solve a lot of the problems at DC as I haven't heard of a single person in editorial or publishing losing a job, and the guy running the Superman office at the moment is the same guy who was at the helm when the Superman line lost sales and went from 4 books to 2 (and those weren't holding steady).*

But all that aside - as Superman readers, what did we actually get out of Rebirth?

Well, man, they've certainly got their work cut out for them.

What's strangest about the entire Rebirth idea in many ways is that, once again, DC is refusing to give up on continuity in order to push forward with what they've got.  I've honestly lost count of how many times DC has had a line wide shake-up to manage continuity and put their editorial decision making right there in the comics, but since 1986, it's been more than a half-dozen times with increasing frequency of changes, large and small.

Last summer DC moved to Los Angeles from New York, put their normal books on hold for two months and spent the time with an event called Convergence, which saw a (wretched) mini-series and a slew of two-issue mini series that reflected various eras of DC publishing.  One storyline that survived out of Convergence was that we got a version of Superman and Lois Lane that had been married, as in pre-Flashpoint DC, and who delivered a child during this mini-series.  On the heels of the event, that same Superman (we'll call him Superman A) appeared in a mini-series called "Lois and Clark", which took place in continuity in the New 52 with our Post-Crisis Superman operating in the shadows as the New 52 Superman (Superman B) went about his business.

At the end of the New 52 numbering and pre-Rebirth, the New 52 Superman (Superman B) seemed to have perished at the end of a series of challenges that had been going on in the books for months.  I guess.  I haven't read them as I was reading what Superman comics I had read lately in trade, and none of that is out yet.

So, now our trans-dimensional Superman from a continuity I don't think we'll ever see again is the only Superman in the comics.  He has Lois and his young son, Jon.  He lives on a farm hundreds of miles from Metropolis, is not a reporter for The Daily Planet, goes by a different name I haven't even learned properly yet, and is basically a walking continuity disaster.

Now, when Superman B (that's New 52 Superman) died, the ill-conceived "Truth" storyline had revealed to the world that Clark Kent was Superman or vice-versa, so short of magical shenanigans, it's not clear how they put the genie back in the bottle if Superman A (that's post-Crisis Superman) is ever also going to be Clark Kent.

In short, I have no idea how or if they can somehow merge the Platonic ideal of Superman with the Superman we're being dealt.  Or, indeed, if it matters to the publisher.

The Superman Rebirth issue is sort of all-exposition and intended to catch you up on recent events.  It shows you Superman B is dead, Superman A is alive.  He recognized Lana Lang because she's the cross-dimensional counterpart to his own Lana, but she can't really see Clark in him, I guess?  Superman A believes Superman B will come back to life if he can help it, but it doesn't work out.  But he gets into Superman B's Fortress of Solitude and we spend a lot of pages rehashing the Doomsday fight from the famous Death of Superman storyline for reasons that seem to go beyond the immediate plot at hand.

Picking up with Action Comics 957 and 958, we see Superman A appear in public, stealing the thunder of Lex Luthor B who has decided to claim the S-symbol and Superman name in the wake of the death of Superman-B (and, frankly, it isn't that surprising that Superman A has a short temper even with an alternate universe Lex).  And, of course, Doomsday seems to make his first appearance in old-school Doomsday A form in current continuity after being about six different things over the course of the New 52, from a corporate construct to a virus.

There's also a Clark Kent of sorts of mysterious origins running around Jimmy Olsen, but I suspect we're about to get a very Kryptonian answer to that query.  I've seen enough Cyborg Supermans, Super-Robots, etc... in my day.

Over in Superman #1, we get a picture of the farm life the Kents are setting up, and this book seems to be a bit more about what happens when Superman and Lois do have a kid, something the books had wanted to tackle on and off since One Year Later (see Chris Kent), but which DC seemed to lack the perspective to try to go with despite a whole lot of set up.

How DC manages a dead Clark Kent who was Superman B, a Lois B who should still be alive, and our Lois A and Superman A sharing the same planet remains to be seen.  I have no doubt that it'll be interesting to some degree, but I don't see how this holds up over years of storytelling.  It feels like a narrative time bomb certain to go.

Or, at least, to create some major problems somewhere down the road.

Now, there were some typical foreshadow-y type comments made in the comics, "it seemed extraneous at the time" lines dropped here and there, like "you and your family are not what you think" that make you pretty certain DC's got some sort of plan for how they're going to sort this out and not wind up a total mess on their hands.  But, c'mon.  Let's be honest.  Why start trying to make sense now?

The writing is by Dan Jurgens on Action Comics and Patrick Gleason and Peter Tomasi on Superman.  Tomasi I think of as one of those strong utility players - maybe not as flashy as a Grant Morrison, but his work is simply consistently better than most of what shows up in superhero comics.  Gleason I think of as an artist, and I just don't think about yet as a writer, but Jurgens...  well, Jurgens had a good long run on Superman books a long time ago, and while I once upon a time found his stuff a bit dry, he seems a lot looser these days, more organic, and he has an absolute tone when it comes to Superman that resonates.  He's a surprising choice to give us Superman in 2016, but he's also a great choice if you want back the Post-Crisis magic.

It's kind of hard to figure in some ways.  While I'll be the first person to say I'm glad the books are doing something... different, I guess, and with a Superman who is perhaps more recognizably the Superman of the pre-New 52 era...  I also sort of expect Superman to be named Clark Kent and work at The Daily Planet alongside Lois Lane, whether she's his wife or his lady friend/ co-worker.  This is a lot of baggage to sort through, and I'm not sure doing if that's what they're going to do, or if the solution won't be more awkward than their starting point.

It's so continuity heavy, and while I assume DC is currently more concerned with bringing back lapsed readers who can groove on this sort of thing than they're interested in recruiting new readers, I have to wonder if it doesn't all feel like a bit much.  Superman is complicated enough.  He doesn't need two or three origins.

Part of me just keeps staring at this convoluted story, the blue boots, etc... and I kind of wonder "surely DC doesn't intend for this to be how they sell their second most recognizable IP on the heels of five years of a different and poorly accepted version.  Surely DC would just put him back in the red trunks and high five their public once again..."  But... nope.

While I am pleased to have Superman *acting* more like Superman - something, somehow, DC was not able to swing since the New 52 except in rare moments of the Geoff Johns run - the blue suit and boots feels like some weird war of attrition going on at DC Editorial.  Yes, you can have back your Superman, but the DC Universe must be mired in the past five years of continuity, and not only can he not have his red trunks, he can't have his red boots.  So there.

I'm unsure what the future holds.  I have some preferences.  And a dream for a streamlined DCU that can get the characters back down to a version unweighed by continuity at the get-go or DC trying to ape Ultimate Marvel as they've done with the less than stellar Earth One effort.  You might as well try for a version of the DCU that matches your licensed images and public perception.  Just imagine!  A Batman with a single Robin!  A Wonder Woman who doesn't stab people and has an invisible jet!  A Superman who is a reporter by day who's co-workers don't know that he's Superman!).

If DC is hoping to get us back - us strayed DC loyalists - they're gonna need to get this right, not just with a couple of issues, but in a sustained way that lasts for a while, and - yes - gives us some of the basics we'd like to see.  Red trunks I can maybe live without, but I'm going to need to see some hard work on the part of DC to give me something recognizably Superman - something I haven't seen in comics or movies in over four years.

Here's your punchlist:

  • Daily Planet
  • Lois Lane, reporter
  • Jimmy Olsen, photographer or cub reporter
  • Perry White
  • Superman is Clark Kent, reporter
  • Truth
  • Justice
  • A mid-20th Century idealism we'll call The American Way

If you can't do those things, I don't even understand what we're doing here, and your attempt to win me back with Rebirth may be the biggest disappointment of them all.

*Eddie Berganza is also a bit of a mess as a human being and this sort of thing keeps following him around.  And, yet, there he is in a high profile gig working with the moral center of DC's universe.

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