In 1985, eternal comic-book rivals Marvel and DC each launched massive stories that pulled together virtually all of their superhero titles. Marvel’s was called Secret Wars II — a sequel to a similar endeavor from the year before — and it roped a bunch of existing series into one big narrative about an otherworldly visitor. DC’s was Crisis on Infinite Earths and, though it had a story, it was primarily about altering the company’s status quo: A cosmic battle created a new version of the DC universe, which included deaths of major characters and the extinction of entire parallel realities. Whereas Secret Wars II came and went, Crisis left a lasting impact — as superhero publishers are fond of saying, nothing was the same again.
Thirty-one years later, the two giants are in a similar spot.* This summer, each of them kicked off massive projects with aims that eerily echo their forebearers. Marvel’s is a story-based crossover event with the moniker Civil War II — again, a sequel — and DC’s is a hard-to-define cosmic shakeup entitled Rebirth. They’re both ambitious and, as is true of all such events, they’re also a blatant attempt to juice sales by making everything seem momentous. To that end, they’ve both been successful: June was the biggest month for retailer orders since 1997, with Civil War II and Rebirth material topping the charts. But that leaves us with a wholly different question: In terms of artistry, are either of these things worthwhile?
It’s a question geeks ask themselves every year. When the 1985 efforts kicked off, these sorts of sprawling, publisher-enveloping crossovers were highly unusual. Nowadays, readers and analysts speak wearily of “event fatigue.” Every summer — and sometimes multiple times per annum— Marvel and DC launch explosive undertakings intended to snatch eyeballs based on supposed future impact: Execs spout pablum about how the event is a great jumping-on point for new readers, which is usually bullshit, since existing knowledge of characters and past story lines is usually necessary for enjoyment. Meanwhile, creators have to grudgingly interrupt their planned story arcs to accommodate the new shared narrative. Sometimes these projects are genuinely exciting (e.g. Marvel’s confusingly titled Secret Wars of 2015, which was wholly separate from the previous two events of that name); sometimes they fizzle embarrassingly (e.g. DC’s Bloodlines of 1993).
This year, DC was unquestionably the more desperate party. According to industry analyst John Jackson Miller, the company only held a 26 percent market share in terms of dollars earned for 2015, a vastly lower number than Marvel’s 39 percent. Moreover, DC had lost a lot of fan goodwill in the past few years — in 2011, they’d done yet another cosmic relaunch in the vein of Crisis on Infinite Earths, entitled Flashpoint, wherein every one of their superhero series rebooted with a new number-one issue, younger versions of characters, and a simpler continuity. The new universe was called the “New 52” because there were 52 rebooted titles. It was initially greeted with cautious enthusiasm, but as time went on, the new status quo grew frustratingly contradictory and often overly dark. To add insult to injury, a 2015 attempt at more ambitious and diverse titles called DC You stumbled with low sales and high-profile threats of cancellation from concerned execs.
Rebirth is a little odd: Thanks to mysterious universal machinations (which curiously involve the legendary mid-’80s tale Watchmen) some characters and events from the pre–New 52 continuity are coming back, and virtually everything’s getting a new number-one issue that’s designed to act as a good jumping-on point for readers who were alienated by the company’s post-2011 path. It’s not exactly a reboot, though: The New 52 stories all still count, but the universe has been tweaked to bring back things that were lost in the fire. As such, the New 52 version of Superman has died and the pre–New 52 version has returned and taken up his mantle; a version of the Flash who was erased in the New 52 is back; Green Arrow and Black Canary are a couple, which they hadn’t been since 2011; and so on. There’s also a tonal shift: As DC Entertainment president and chief creative officer Geoff Johns told me, the two guiding keywords are “hope” and “optimism.”
Civil War II is simpler. A new character named Ulysses has popped up. He has the ability to predict the future, and his existence leads to a Minority Report–esque dilemma: If heroes can foresee crimes and attacks before they happen, do they have the right to take out baddies before they actually do bad things? The question splits the crusader community, echoing 2006’s Civil War event, in which a superhero-registration act precipitated a battle among those for and against. Of course, that older story acted as the inspiration for this summer’s Captain America: Civil War, and this year’s use of the name and general setup of the comics is a transparent attempt at brand synergy.
It’s something of a fool’s errand to use the quality of individual comics as the yardstick for measuring the events against one another. DC has about 40 ongoing series and Marvel hovers around a whopping 80. They’re all of wildly different quality, but that’s because there are different creative teams and agendas for each one. Just because a Civil War II issue of, say, the excellent Ultimates is good doesn’t mean the event as a whole is good — it just means writer Al Ewing and artists Kenneth Rocafort, Djibril Morissette, and Dan Brown are doing a good job. I’m not particularly moved by the current run on DC’s Titans, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth throwing Rebirth under the bus as a result.
Instead, as we reach the rough halfway point of each event, a better strategy is to take a step back and look at how the overall concepts of each one are playing out. When you do that, DC’s desperation seems to be paying off, because Rebirth has been far more fascinating and creatively fertile than its Marvel counterpart.
Civil War II feels constricting and warmed-over. Haven’t we heard this debate about pre-crime a thousand times before in popular culture? And there have been Marvel characters with the ability to see the future before — why would Ulysses pose a new set of questions? Plus, the results of his predictions have felt arbitrarily shocking and unrelated to the themes of the core concept. So far, James “War Machine” Rhodes and Bruce Banner have both been killed off due to visions of the future, but there’s nothing about either of their deaths that has much of anything to do with the moral wranglings of convicting people before crimes are committed. Also, those deaths aside, the stakes have been bizarrely low: So far, it’s been less a war than a series of collegial disagreements among friendly heroes. Presumably, a vicious battle is coming, but for a story that began in mid-May, the story has felt agonizingly decompressed.
Meanwhile, Rebirth is all about possibility and freedom. The shackles of the New 52 have been removed, allowing creators to keep what made it work (mainly a continuity that only stretches back a few years) and bring back beloved elements that had been lost (such as an older, wiser, paternal Superman). DC has used the reshuffling as an opportunity to launch some very promising new stories, most notably one about a Chinese Superman knockoff in New Super-Man and another about an unlikely team of Batman allies thrown together to fight an army of Batman-modeled soldiers in Detective Comics. Not all the series are great, but at the halfway point of Rebirth, DC feels fresh and exciting in a way it hasn’t in years.
Perhaps more importantly, Rebirth’s change to the status quo feels far more lasting than whatever is going to happen in Civil War II, since death is always mutable in comics and there’s no way all the good guys will permanently hate each other. The lesson feels simple: Events might be good for sales, but for them to actually add anything of import to the near-century-long superhero canon, it’s better for them to be about birth (or, well, rebirth). While death and destruction will always be repaired, new ideas have a genuine chance of evoking wonder and pushing the genre forward.
*This article has been updated to reflect the fact that it has been 31 years since the older stories mentioned.