In case you somehow missed it, DC Comics recently announced a new upcoming line-wide initiative they’re calling DC Rebirth. Details – except for the titles of the books – have been sparse thus far, but that’s never going to be an obstacle to fan speculation or random guessing. What we know for sure, according to Geoff Johns, is that this initiative will use the same core concept as his Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash: Rebirth stories, that of attempting to respect the present while, at the same time, recapturing the glory of the past. This has me feeling cautiously optimistic. Both of those aforementioned stories were very good, and I’ve thought ever since the New 52 relaunch that the biggest thing missing from DC was their wonderful sense of legacy.
That optimism in mind – and in a deliberate effort to counteract the Internet Hate Machine that knows for certain that everything will be terrible several months before it has, technically, been created, today’s Three Wishes is dedicated to those elements I hope the DC Universe – whatever shape it takes – will reflect from now on.
One of the things the New 52 did was roll back the ages of most of DC’s main characters. In so doing, many of the family units that previously existed were eradicated. The children of Wally West, Roy Harper, Alan Scott and others never existed at all. There was later a hullabaloo when the writers of Batwoman walked off the book, angry that DC wouldn’t allow them to marry off Kate Kane to Maggie Sawyer. Some took this as DC being opposed to gay marriage, which was ludicrous. If they had an anti-gay mindset they never would have published the book in the first place. No, it was any marriage DC was opposed to. The marriages of Lois and Clark, Barry and Iris, Arthur and Mera – all had been annulled in the most literal way possible. Only Animal Man seemed to survive with his family intact, and that is no doubt because virtually every good Animal Man story ever written has included his wife and children at the very core of it.
Even Jonathan and Martha Kent, who had been (mostly) alive since the 1986 Man of Steel reboot, were now both dead in the main DCU. With the sudden dearth of children, spouses, and parents, ironically, Batman now had the most successful family unit in the DC Universe.
There’s some weird notion – not just at DC, not just at Marvel, but in adventure fiction in general – that giving a protagonist a family limits storytelling potential. Think about it, what do you know about Han Solo’s parents? Does Flash Gordon have any brothers or sisters? When they married James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, didn’t they kill off his wife before the movie even ended? How many classic heroes’ adventures end with the hero settling down with a family, or at least implying that this transition is imminent?
Family is only an obstacle if the writer is narrow-minded enough to make it so. Bill Willingham’s Fables not only went on another 100 issues after the marriage of Snow White and Bigby Wolf, but their cubs became a vital part of the engine of that series. The Fantastic Four has always been about family, but the introduction of Reed and Sue’s children have made it unique among mainstream comics. Perhaps my favorite comic being published right now is Superman: Lois and Clark, precisely because it gives us a Superman in a family dynamic we’ve never seen before. Clark and Lois – those from the Pre-Flashpoint DCU – now live in the current DCU. Nobody knows who they really are, and they have only each other to rely on, while at the same time trying to raise and protect a son who is unaware of his parents’ great secret. It’s wildly fun. We know there will be a post-Rebirth title called The Super-Man. If that acts as the lifeboat for these characters, I’ll be overjoyed.
This is not to say I think every DC character needs to line up to walk down the aisle any time soon. That would be as short-sighted as refusing to let any of them marry. But shouldn’t at least the possibility be allowed to exist? Writers are hired to tell stories, and while some level of editorial control is beneficial, why would you automatically cut off access to any road without at least peering ahead to see where it could lead?
It may seem like a bit of a cheat to use this as my second “wish,” since Geoff Johns has already specifically stated restoring a sense of legacy is one of the goals of Rebirth, but I think it’s worthwhile to explore what exactly that means and what I hope it will mean to DC.
In the New 52 Universe (or Prime Earth, or whatever it’s called these days), Grant Morrison reinstated the notion of the Golden Age that Superman was, in fact, the first superhero. Back in the 30s and 40s it was easy to recognize Superman as being first, as all of the characters were brand new. But as time passed, some of Superman’s allies were retired, then later replaced. When DC brought in a new Flash, a new Green Lantern, a new Atom, but still had the original Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, problems understandably started to crop up. The solution, at the time, was simple: the current versions lived on Earth-1, the originals were on Earth-2. But Crisis on Infinite Earths did away with that in favor of a merged timeline in which Superman ushered in the modern age of heroes, inspired by the Justice Society (sans Superman) of old.
This is the trouble with comic book “elastic time.” Having characters like the JSA so inexorably linked to a real-world event like World War II makes their use increasingly complicated as time goes on. Marvel had this same problem, but to a much lesser extent, because they retired all of their World War II-era heroes, and those that later returned had easy outs to explain their longevity (Captain America was frozen in ice, the Sub-Mariner was a mutant, Stan Lee had the power cosmic, etc.).
Look, I get the desire to give Superman the significance of being first. He’s earned it. But with a restored multiverse it’s easy to give him that honor while still having a “prime” Superman who lives in a world of earlier heroes. Even if they aren’t currently being featured anywhere, characters like the JSA, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and the All-Star Squadron are part of the fabric of DC Comics. Removing them from DC’s history robs us just as much as we would be robbed by removing Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin from American history.
And legacy doesn’t work just one way. As rich as DC’s past has been, so too has their future. Yes, I’m talking about the Legion of Super-Heroes. There is no greater testament to Superman and the Justice League than the idea that they will still be inspiring new heroes 1000 years in the future. The Legion needs to return. How? I’m not sure. You won’t find a more devoted group of comic book fans than those who love the Legion, but “devoted” is not, unfortunately, a synonym for “large and with an incredible amount of spending power.” But something needs to be done to Rebirth the Legion into a going concern once again.
One of the main complaints levied against DC in recent years – and one that is difficult to argue with – is that the books largely have taken on a grim tone. That’s fine in some cases, but it should never be the case across the board. Sure, Batman lives in darkness, and the members of the Suicide Squad are inherently dirty characters, but that can’t apply to everybody. Superman is, and should be, a symbol of hope. Green Lantern literally makes things out of light. The Flash… hell one of his main foes is a talking gorilla. Be it Jay, Barry, Wally, or other, nobody should enjoy his life more than the fastest man alive.
Dan Didio has gone on record as saying that being a superhero should come at a cost. (This is also largely the rationale for doing away with the families of so many characters.) To a degree, I can agree with that – y’know, the whole “with great power” jazz. But it doesn’t always have to be the same cost, does it? And debts can eventually be paid, except of course for student loans, so why must these characters be burdened with the cost of being a hero for their entire lives?
This was one of the reasons I quit reading Daredevil years ago. While it was unquestionably one of Brian Michael Bendis’s better runs, it eventually became so relentlessly bleak that I just couldn’t take it anymore. “Can’t Matt Murdock ever have a good day?” I would ask of random passerby, who would then look at me funny because Netflix wasn’t a thing yet and they had no idea who I was talking about.
Real life is not in monotone. Nor should be our fiction. In fact, the best fiction of any kind – the most compelling stories and most engaging characters – recognize this. Ask a Futurama fan what the best episode of that series was and, if they can stop crying long enough, they’ll tell you it was “Jurassic Bark.” Scrubs viewers will likewise say one of the show’s most memorable moments came when it was revealed that Dr. Cox’s best friend had died of cancer, and all the wacky hijinks in that episode were the bitter daydreams of a grieving man. But just as comedy is better when there are moments of solemnity, so too are more serious stories served by having rays of light. Few people will deny that Breaking Bad is one of the greatest dramas of the 21st century, but that doesn’t account for how unexpectedly funny it could be. (Just watch it. You’ll never again try to dispose of a body in a bathtub full of acid without giving in to a knowing chuckle.)
DC has begun to make strides in this direction. Harley Quinn is a mostly-lighthearted book, as is the new Burnside era of Batgirl. Last year’s Bizarro and Bat-Mite miniseries were both wonderful. But that’s just a start. DC’s most popular media incarnations at the moment are the Flash and Supergirl TV shows – both of which are unabashedly fun – and Arrow, which embraces darkness more fully. And they all work. And they all fit together. And it’s a beautiful thing. The creators of these shows have mined the rich history of the characters for the wonderful things that made them last, while at the same time recognizing that they don’t have to be exactly the same to coexist.
DC TV takes its cues from DC of old. It’s time for DC of today to do the same thing.