The Meta of DC Universe Rebirth
In DC Universe Rebirth, there is a meta subtext to the entire story that reads as Geoff Johns’ apology to fans. Please keep in mind that there are spoilers in here, so don’t go any further if you haven’t read DC Universe Rebirth yet and don’t want to know key plot elements for not only this comic but for a plethora of new series.
“Someone Stole Ten Years From Us.”
It was this time period that started almost with Identity Crisis, which remains to this day as one of the most controversial stories DC Comics has published. The mini-series, written by Brad Meltzer, retconned characters and turned a minor Justice League villain into a rapist, a supporting character into a murderer, and heroes into characters that compromised their principles to keep a secret. It took beloved characters and did something unique with them. Unfortunately, that change didn’t stop with Identity Crisis.
DC’s characters became darker. Granted this was a path we have been on since the 1980s with Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. It readily carried over into other media. Identity Crisis didn’t come out of nowhere, it actually built on a few things that Dave Meltzer had noticed and snowballed, much like an episode of his History Channel conspiracy series, Decoded. The Atom and his long-time wife, Jean Loring divorced in Sword Of The Atom, a story that used an injection of more realistic story elements to evolve a character that seemed stagnant. After Identity Crisis, we were faced with event after event that reiterated that the DC Universe had grown darker, to the point of it being the motivating plot of Infinite Crisis.
When the New 52 started, it was a decidedly darker universe, acknowledged by characters within this very story. It also had characters starting from scratch. These characters had been very established within the DC Universe, but now they were all learning the ropes again. When Geoff Johns has Wally West say that someone stole ten years, it has a dual meaning. Within the context of the story, that person is Dr. Manhattan. In the meta of DC Universe Rebirth, that person is Dan Didio, who began with DC Comics approximately ten years before the New 52 was launched. It was actually nine and a half years before, which is why I said “approximately.”
“Legacy Isn’t Forgotten.”
By rebooting the entire DC Universe, and making the decree that Superman had to be the first costumed hero, A lot got thrown out along the way. There was no Justice Society, no series of speedsters to carry the mantle of the Flash, and no inspiration given to younger heroes. Without inspiration in the comics, why would expect these heroes to inspire the readers?
With the reintroduction of heroes inspired by other heroes, we are getting back the optimism that made the DC Universe so appealing to generations of comic book readers and fans. While the Marvel Universe might have been more dynamic and more relatable. The DC Universe was inspirational, with heroes that you could look up to. Hopefully, it will be again.
“…What Have They Lost?”
DC’s pantheon of characters had relationships in their histories that made them unique. DC Universe Rebirth uses Green Arrow and Black Canary as the example, but also featured the pre-52 Clark and Lois, Aquaman and Mera, and tragically, Wally West and Linda Park. There was a famous editorial decree in the New 52 that characters would not get married. The bonds between existing characters was severed, and with those bonds gone, an appeal was lost. Let’s hope that this holds true and isn’t overruled by another, arbitrary editorial decree.
“You All Forgot Things.”
This is not so much a message to fans but to DC’s editors and writers, albeit perhaps unintentionally. They are the ones that crafted the New 52. It reinforces everything that Geoff Johns is trying to say and he puts it in the mouth of the one character that is the sum of everything that the New 52 lacked.
It’s not unusual that DC’s sales and market share have suffered since the successful launch of the New 52. We’ve covered most of those, but this should be considered a message for how badly some characters were handled. Sometimes, editorial decisions were so heavy-handed that creators felt forced to leave books. Female characters were especially badly treated in the early stages of the New 52, with Starfire becoming the poster child of how not to treat a female comic book character. Of course, there is the issue of sexual harassment at DC Comics. Thios also does nothing to signify a change at the top of DC Editorial, which can and has nullified
Of course, I could be reading into a lot of this subtext. The meta content of the story could just be accidental. It should also be noted that Geoff Johns was responsible for some of the darkness that permeated the DC Universe over the years, most notably the Darkest Night event that went on and on through almost every DC Comics title. However, DC Universe Rebirth is a good start in a right direction. We have been here before, with DC Comics streamlining titles following a disappointing quarterly report and allegedly issuing an edict against “Batgirling” titles.
That brings us to the real problem, and it started more than ten years ago. With the success of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, the industry took a lesson from them. Apparently grim and gritty worked, so everything should be made darker and more “realistic.” The same mistake gets made in all creative industries where those in charge look for a simple recipe for success. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, especially Watchmen, were rich in subtext that not only commented on the characters, but on the industry and society as a whole. Making characters and stories darker do not guarantee success. There’s not an easy path, but since the industry wants one, we can boil it down to one sentence.
“Make good comic books.”