sequential art

How DC Comics Scored Its Biggest Win in Years With ‘Rebirth’

Art by Ivan Reis, Gary Frank, Frank Prado, Joe Prado, Brad Anderson, and Hi-Fi. Photo: DC Entertainment

On May 18 of this year, DC Comics invited a handful of journalists to a mysterious conclave in midtown Manhattan. The purpose was to have breakfast with Geoff Johns, a veteran comics writer and the new co-head of DC’s movie operations, who was there to unveil his latest writing effort: DC Universe Rebirth, the year’s most hotly anticipated comic. Rumors had held that it was going to contain a cosmic “reboot” of the DC universe, in which the status quo would be blown up in favor of a new approach. DC had done reboots and quasi-reboots many times before — in 1986, 1994, 2006, and 2011 — and the publisher was in dire financial and critical straits, so industry-watchers braced ourselves for yet another uninspired go-round with the tired trope.

Copies of the issue were passed out and I perused it with a degree of confusion. The story featured a pre-2011 version of a superpowered speedster named Wally West (the third person to hold the title of the Flash), who emerges from some kind of limbo and visits various DC superheroes, ominously remarking that things aren’t the way they should be — that someone manipulated reality and “Heroes that were legends became novices. Bonds between them were weakened and erased. Legacies were destroyed.” It was a not-so-subtle declaration that DC felt it had gone astray.

I rolled my eyes. It seemed like yet another bit of attempted streamlining that would in fact only make things more convoluted. But by the time I finished reading, the reboot had never come. Afterward I asked Johns which version of Wally West this was, given that the narrative left it ambiguous whether he was the version from before the last reboot, or the one before that, or even the one before that. Johns just smiled and said, “It’s Wally West.” Continuity specifics weren’t the point. This was just supposed to be the ideal version of Wally, a greatest-hits compilation with a human face. As I pondered that surprisingly straightforward approach, I began to admire it.

I wasn’t the only one. The comic kicked off a line-wide course correction entitled Rebirth, and it’s been both innovative and profoundly successful. Just 13 months ago, DC only held 27 percent of the comics industry’s market share for units sold. It was a distant second place behind rival Marvel, which clocked in at 40 percent. Astoundingly, DC has flipped the script: In September, it clocked in at nearly 44 percent market share; Marvel could only snag around 31 percent. Rebirth has given the company its first fighting chance in half a decade — and though its future is uncertain, it’s already offered a subtly revolutionary vision of how to manage that trendiest and most unwieldy of entertainment phenomena, the shared universe.

One of the unique quirks of the superhero-comic genre is the accumulation of what geeks refer to as continuity: the sum of all the stories about every character in a given fictional universe. What Superman does in one issue can be referenced 20 issues later; what Batman does in one story arc might affect what happens to Wonder Woman in another. As decades of tales roll on, continuity becomes more and more byzantine. To understand a new story, you often need to be familiar with a pile of existing continuity, which presents a dauntingly high bar for a newbie. It has been attempts at treating that chronic illness that compelled DC to initiate its many line-wide reboots, with their latest one, New 52, occurring in 2011. It was, initially, a smash.

In the New 52, all of DC’s superhero series were canceled and 52 new ones were relaunched in an alternate reality. There, all the classic characters were younger and their origin stories were revised and reintroduced. Theoretically, this was supposed to make the comics easier to understand — all the old continuity was erased, so a novice reader wouldn’t need to have read anything that had gone before. For a few months, it looked like it was working. Orders from retailers spiked, putting DC ahead of Marvel for the first time in years.

That bump was not to last. By the start of 2012, Marvel was back on top, and it stayed there. It wasn’t hard to see why. The new DC continuity was supposed to simplify things, but the company had tried to eat its cake and have it, too: They didn’t want to erase certain classic narrative elements from the past, and incorporating them into the new timeline made for some baffling contradictions. For example, the new version of Batman was a guy who’d only been operating for a few years … but somehow, he’d already died, come back from the dead, and worked with three different sidekicks. On top of that, some beloved characters were totally wiped away. Others were reimagined with new attitudes or backstories that eschewed much of what had made them cool. Sales were dismal and reviews were brutal. By mid-2015, the New 52 experiment had more or less failed.

No one saw that more clearly than DC Comics co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee. Standing in the sun-drenched lobby of this year’s New York Comic-Con, DiDio recalled to me what it was like to be the public face of DC at that convention’s 2015 installment. “We were met at a couple of panels with a level of apathy that I hadn’t seen for a very long time,” he said in his Noo Yawk basso profundo. “There was a disconnect with the fan base, more than we’d even perceived. It felt palpable. Nobody was really into the stories. We might’ve gone a little bit too far with some of the New 52 stories and lost the connective tissue that people really used to identify with our characters.”

Shaken, DiDio and Lee flew back to DC’s Burbank headquarters after the October convention. Along with Johns — then DC Entertainment’s chief creative officer — Lee and DiDio hammered out a rescue plan for their titles. They initially thought they would launch a crossover story that used typically out-there comic-book logic to recapture old glory by grafting pre– and post–New 52 continuity together to make what would surely have been an even more complicated patchwork quilt of facts and events. But once they had it mapped out, they realized they were missing the point. What they needed wasn’t a cosmic shakeup — they’d already done that, and look at where it had gotten them. Though they still wanted to execute an attention-grabbing event, they decided to start small. The tactic was to hit upon what Lee refers to as “the most Platonic, idealistic version of each of these characters.”

The trio decided to name their inchoate new plan Rebirth and, on January 22, Lee tweeted a picture of a mysterious blue curtain with that word projected on it. Readers didn’t know what was being teased — and, in a way, neither did the men in charge. The project was being built in piecemeal. Johns took the lead, becoming what Lee calls the “showrunner” for this malleable new plan. He wasn’t interested in ruling by editorial fiat, which was what he, Lee, and DiDio had often done when they issued marching orders for the New 52. Instead, Johns started calling up creators for the various existing DC titles and others who were already tapped to come aboard soon. One by one, he invited them to Burbank, not explaining what, exactly, they were coming there for.

Green Arrow writer Benjamin Percy was summoned in January. “We sat down in a room together, and one wall of windows looks out on Burbank and on the other wall is a big whiteboard,” he recalled. “Geoff’s like, ‘Alright, what are the greatest Green Arrow stories ever told?’” Percy gave his answers. Then Johns told him to list all the recurring motifs and plot devices that make Green Arrow unique. And all the most important supporting characters. And the villains. The whiteboard filled. “It starts as kind of a spider-web cluster, and we build out from there,” Percy said. “We figure out, ‘Okay, if you have that, what would be the greatest Green Arrow story line we could tell?’”

Some of the elements they came up with directly contradicted Green Arrow’s New 52 status quo — and, indeed, edicts that DC had given Percy in the past as a way of modernizing the character. “When I was writing the New 52, I was told, ‘No goatee. No Black Canary,’” Percy says, referring to Green Arrow’s classic facial-hair style and superpowered love interest. “But two of the first things we put up on the board were: ‘goatee,’ ‘Black Canary.’” Percy would be free to bring those things back right away, previous rules be damned.

Writer after writer was invited to whiteboard meetings and found themselves surprised at how readily Johns gave up the existing set of rules. Batgirl and the Birds of Prey co-writers Julie and Shawna Benson were fans of classic stories where Batgirl became a hacker named Oracle; Johns told them to have Oracle be part of Batgirl’s past now, even though that stuff had been wiped away in the New 52. Supergirl had been a dangerous loose cannon in the New 52, but Supergirl writer Steve Orlando told Johns he’d always thought of her as being “about problem solving without necessarily meaning hitting someone in the face”; Johns told him he could have her act that way without any explanation of why her personality had shifted.

Some decisions were top-down, such as replacing the youthful New 52 version of Superman with the older one from the previous continuity, and resurrecting Wally West. In all cases, the plan was to not waste too much narrative space on in-universe justifications. As their logic went, an improvement is an improvement, and it doesn’t matter much if you lay out in detail why the improvement happened. Flash writer Joshua Williamson told me he was getting into the weeds about why an idea might not work due to New 52 continuity, but “Geoff was like, ‘Just forget everything. Forget everything, none of that matters. None of it matters. What are you trying to say about this character?’”

This was a subtly and mildly revolutionary approach to a superhero overhaul. There had been no shortage of reboots at DC and Marvel, all of them designed to short-circuit the whole operation through some apocalyptic, reality-shifting story line. More recently, Marvel has tended toward canceling batches of series and restarting them with new number-one issues to provide the illusion of change without actually altering anything. Rebirth was going to be something that sought the best of both worlds: There would be genuine change to the status quo, but most of it would happen without fanfare, and there would be no intrusive mega-crossover to disrupt stories that were already going fine.

Readers and industry-watchers could be forgiven for not quite understanding all of that, given that it hadn’t been tried before. In February, DC laid out the list of Rebirth series, all but two of which were going to start with new number-one issues. (In a surprising move, DC reverted the long-running Action Comics and Detective Comics back to their pre-2011 numbering system, meaning they were now putting out issues numbered in the 900s). Some of the titles were old standbys, your Supermans and Batmans; some of them were intriguingly odd, like the tale of a Chinese Superman knockoff called New Super-Man and a series about the adventures of Batman and Superman’s young children. Many of the books would come out twice a month, a departure from the standard monthly schedule of the comics industry. The company didn’t do a great job of explaining themselves — Lee and Johns both tweeted, “IT’S NOT A REBOOT,” but didn’t say what it was. “It’s not just an event,” Johns said in a promo video (below), “but an ongoing mission for us” — another stubbornly vague description.

Then came that DC Universe Rebirth issue that Johns shared, with its reintroduction of an idealized Wally West and the notion that the universe had gone astray. It sold like crazy, becoming the most-ordered comic in the month of its release — it moved an estimated 235,791 copies, while Marvel’s top comic only racked up 177,283. From July to September, DC beat Marvel in market share. What’s more, reviews were near-unanimous in their tone of surprised admiration. As IGN writer Jesse Schedeen put it, “Reading Rebirth feels like coming home again.”

When the first wave of the Rebirth series launched in June, it became clear that you really didn’t have to understand or care about universe-shifting sci-fi mishegoss in order to dig into the relaunches. They were, almost to a one, self-contained stories that used New 52 elements that had been working and scrapped the ones that hadn’t. Supergirl, Green Arrow, and Batgirl and the Birds of Prey have all received critical acclaim, but so have stories about lesser-known characters in titles like Deathstroke and Detective Comics. Sales leapt in title after title and the word of mouth has remained excellent.

The overarching plot about the rejiggering of the universe has played a shockingly small role, meaning you can read any one series without having to pick up any others for context. That said, DC Universe Rebirth did drop one bombshell tease: Dr. Manhattan, a lead from the epochal 1980s graphic novel Watchmen, may or may not be responsible for the ways the world went wrong during the New 52. But subsequently, the powers that be haven’t placed much emphasis on that development. Indeed, DiDio more or less admits the move emerged largely from a desire to get headlines: “In today’s world, with so much media, so much property, so much out there, you’ve got to do things that capture people’s attention,” he said.

As often happens with projects of this scale, Rebirth’s rise has slowed down a bit. Marvel squeaked past DC to reclaim the top spot in October, but as industry analyst John Jackson Miller told me, that kind of drop-off shouldn’t cause alarm: “All DC really needs to care about is its sales versus last year, not their sales against Marvel. And that comparison is pretty good.” No matter the future, the rebound has been remarkable, giving the publisher momentum it hasn’t had in years.

What’s more, the comics are genuinely great. Take, for example, Deathstroke. DC did something once thought somewhat impossible, which was to get Christopher Priest to write a comic for one of the Big Two publishers again. Priest was one of the greatest superhero scribes of the 1980s and ‘90s, filled with big ideas, uniquely rhythmic dialogue, and distinctive story structure. But he grew frustrated with the industry’s creative bankruptcy and the fact that he — a black writer — kept getting pigeonholed to write black characters, so he left comics, seemingly permanently. Then DC asked him to write a series starring B-tier supervillain and white dude Deathstroke (no doubt in anticipation of his turn in the Ben Affleck Batman solo film), empowering Priest to restore the pre–New 52 version of the character. Now we have a book that’s eminently Priest-y, filled with smart political commentary and rich characterization. There’s nothing like it in the superhero ecosystem, and it’s only getting better.

But beyond any individual comics, Rebirth has introduced a narrative innovation that’s subtle yet massive in its implications. It’s providing a new playbook for companies — be they on the page or on screens big and small — that run shared universes filled with overlapping continuity. It says you can finesse your characters and trust that your fans don’t need things laid out for them too fastidiously. Think about what that could mean for the artistically troubled DC cinematic universe: You could make things brighter or funnier, or even outright change Harley Quinn’s origin story or Batman’s philosophy without worrying much about explaining it all away. In the Rebirth model, the existing tropes and traits are around for longtime fans, but there’s also an elegance that’s attractive to people who are new to the universe. In other words: Welcome back, Wally West. It’s always nice to see a familiar face.

Behind DC Comics’ Hugely Successful ‘Rebirth’