The mechanics of DC Comics' latest relaunch of its superhero line — precisely which books are returning to their original numbering, and the fact that several titles will now be published twice monthly, etc. — have engendered much discussion among retailers and collectors.
But let's talk big picture.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that superhero universes periodically reshuffle their narrative decks. The in-story explanations differ in often tortuous ways, but the only true driver is sales. Or, rather, a lack of them.
That's because superhero comics, like soap operas, exist in a state of perpetual narrative churn. Events pile atop events because story demands movement, and as this movement occurs over months and years, details continually accrue to characters.
Comics executives and editors grow worried that all those details complicate the storytelling, alienating new readers by weighing characters down like barnacles on a hull. They issue periodic edicts to scrape them off.
DC Comics first big scraping came in 1985-1986, when a series called Crisis on Infinite Earths culled the existing DC "multiverse" (a network of parallel earths featuring alternate-reality versions of many characters) into a single reality.
It didn't take: in 2005's Infinite Crisis, the multiverse returned.
In 2011, it went away again. A new status quo — dubbed "The New 52" — asserted itself. Classic heroes were replaced with versions who were younger and less experienced, broodier and more conflicted.
And now, just five years later, DC is calling still another metafictional mulligan.
The fact that DC keeps rebooting their reality isn't surprising. What is remarkable, however, is the sense that the cycle is speeding up.
The idea behind Rebirth, which debuted last month, is a tonal one, according interviews given by DC's Geoff Johns, the chief architect of the effort. "It felt like there were things that had gone missing," he told USA Today.
"Not the characters but an overall feeling of hope and optimism."
On that point at least, he's not wrong.
In the 1980s, around the same time that Crisis on Infinite Earth streamlined DC's continuity, comics like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke engaged in their own forms of deconstruction. They were interested in casting a cold, cynical light on the whole notion of costumed heroes, replacing their reflexive altruism with baser impulses: nihilistic violence, sexual repression and fetishism, and an unrelieved, unapologetically sociopathic worldview.
You have to understand that this approach seemed novel, even bracing, back then — markedly different from anything superhero comics had attempted before. Which was exactly their appeal; they seemed adult, sophisticated, bitterly ironic.
The problem, however, was just how strong their appeal proved to be. A generation of readers seized on those books and internalized them, insisting with every purchase that their gimlet-eyed take on superhero storytelling was the only one worth reading. Hordes of books followed that adopted a similarly dark and violent tone; within a few years, "grim and gritty" became the only way to tell superhero stories. What had begun as a clever riff on familiar material became the material itself.
The Villain of the Piece
Johns' stated aim of returning "hope and optimism" reads like the marketing copy we've come to expect at a relaunch, but it's his choice of villain that suggests things are fixing to get awfully meta up in here.
The sinister force behind Rebirth? The all-powerful Big Bad who, it was revealed, manipulated the timeline and altered the DC Universe in ways too complicated to go into here? Dr. Manhattan — a character from the signal grim-and-gritty 80s superhero comic, Watchmen.
Johns has employed similar metafictional gambits before. The villain of Infinite Crisis was essentially a super-powered fanboy who peevishly insisted that reality (read: DC comics) was not as good as it used to be. But this at least feels like a broader acknowledgment that the Dark Age of comics has persisted too long, and that a new age may soon dawn.
Of course, execution is what matters here, and the Rebirth titles that have appeared thus far are only beginning to address the loftier theme of capital-H Hope that Johns keeps talking about.
There are trade-offs. "DC You," a 2015 effort that introduced some new characters and welcome diversity to the DC Universe, seems like it's about to die on the vine, or at least get severely pruned back.
It's entirely possible that Rebirth will prove another false start, only the latest instance of narrative churn, just another do-over in the increasingly fast cycle of do-overs that mark the new superhero normal.
But the idea of it — of heroes triumphing over the physical manifestation of comics' most cynical and violent era — carries an primal, uncomplicated, emotional power. And that kind of power is what superheroes are for.