Batman: Reborn and Fixing DC Comics (UPDATED 07/02)

(Writer’s note 12/03/10: You may find this piece to be somewhat more relevant now that Grant Morrison has concluded his stint on Batman & Robin. Feel free to read both, and thanks for visiting!)

Batman comics are just about all I buy anymore. Marvel forfeited my business – completely, irrevocably – after the plodding mediocrity of Secret Invasion and unimpressive early entries to Dark Avengers (“pick up Invincible Iron Man,” they coo, vainly). DC, unable to unify its disparate brands after the brilliant psychedelia of Final Crisis (ultimately insignificant, save for DC’s predictable “Final Crisis Aftermath” schlock and Batman, but more on that later), pretty much has me in the bag for this summer’s “blockbuster event” Blackest Night, but has me less and less interested in some of my previously favorite books like Justice Society of America, Action Comics, Green Arrow/Black Canary, and The Outsiders; they’re just too all over the place. Will I pick them up on occasion? Sure. But can I really find it within myself to actually care about the supposed importance of, say, Deathstroke’s most recent dip into the bleeding rumps of the Teen Titans? Not really. Because half the time, these stories aren’t even fun anymore, and they almost never have any impact whatsoever on the rest of the “DC Universe,” which now seems a collection of galaxies with light year upon light year between them.

It’s cynical, but it’s also mostly true. DC understands how to provide excellent standalone stories, based on the preview material for Wednesday Comics – which looks stunning – and their major events like Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis (mentioned above) and Geoff Johns’ Sinestro Corps War (which, despite spanning several issues across a number of series, is collected in two very digestible trade paperbacks), yet its monthlies exist in some sort of horrible limbo between those and the admirable cohesion of the Marvel Universe. The monthlies share characters, vague references to “big ideas” (Martian Manhunter and Batman getting incinerated are about the only two things that DC’s writers seem to be getting out of Morrison’s sprawling opus), but generally fail miserably in attaining any sort of dramatic weight. The Spectre can suffer and rampage all he wants in the Revelations mini-series, but then a seemingly different character altogether is featured a few months later in Justice Society under the same name, which makes both exercises seem pretty insignificant. Similarly, Mary Marvel, forced to change her look and become an insane force of lust and violence after being possessed by an evil God in Final Crisis, should, presumably, be back to sorts after Darkseid is crushed and good prevails, but she’s strangely present in her S&M form in Johns’ recent JSA arc; is this supposed to take place during Final Crisis, when all of these characters were united against a force beyond all reckoning and the skies were raining fucking blood, or is it set afterwords in a DCU that is seemingly – bewilderingly – unaffected by the cataclysm, save for Mary Marvel’s ass-hideous haircut and exposed Shazam-boobies? Readers can’t enjoy these stories on their own, as they would be able to with the aforementioned events or Wednesday Comics, because the editors insist on pushing the concept that these threads are all connected when they just aren’t.

It’s difficult territory to navigate, I’m sure. Marvel’s Universe feels like a cohesive whole, but that can make it kind of boring and one-note from time to time. And we wouldn’t want DC to forget continuity completely, because then the comics would feel less essential and the science fiction tapestry would collapse altogether. So what should they do?

If the last month of Batman is any indication: reboot.

Batman: Reborn, the theme that has connected all of the Batman cluster of comic books (now spanning Batman, Batman and Robin, Red Robin, Streets of Gotham with Manhunter, Gotham City Sirens, Detective Comics with The Question, and soon, Batgirl), is working, working so well that I’m a little amazed they haven’t been able to do this before and a little sad that, inevitably, DC will probably revoke it all and make a mess of things again. But hey, let’s enjoy it while we can.

It’s startlingly simple in concept. Grant Morrison destroys Batman in R.I.P., kills him – sort of – in Final Crisis, and leads, guns blazing, into a brave new Bat-world. Every Batman book was temporarily canceled after the old series wrapped up (some permanently), mostly in a haze of forgettable mediocrity (though kudos should most definitely be given to Neil Gaiman for providing one of the best pieces of serialized graphic genius in recent memory with Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the grand finale to an era of DC’s Dark Knight). In the interim, Tony Daniel excreted Battle for the Cowl, which declared Dick Grayson (formerly Nightwing and the original Robin) the new Batman with Damian Wayne (Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul’s test tube baby) as his Robin, and we got a host of other miserable tie-ins in anticipation of the new monthlies.

So, growing pains, yes, but June finally delivered. Batman and Robin, the main event, was deliciously bizarre, simultaneously the most fun and sinister thing on the market. Batman delivered a pitch perfect tale of Grayson stepping into his new role to save Gotham City from the absolute Hell it’s descended into after Wayne’s demise. Red Robin, admittedly a somewhat weaker entry, provided a solid look at Tim Drake’s crazed endeavor to punish baddies globally and discover the truth behind Batman’s disappearance. Streets of Gotham, though not exactly paving new ground, was a lot of fun and looks to be setting itself up for a great first arc. Detective Comics and Sirens, while more on the periphery than the preceding titles, certainly weren’t anything to sneeze at, either.

The best part? You could see, with refreshing clarity, how each title weaved together. Every book feels completely unique, but they don’t feel disconnected. This sort of highlights what is probably the key issue halting the DCU right now; they don’t want to homogenize their products, but they’ve yet to find a way to link them all together with the finesse of Batman editor Mike Marts (who probably deserves a raise). It’s pretty much the reason why Justice League, once their flagship title, is now a putrid mess that desperately tries to reference the goings-on in the DCU but always feels irrelevant.

(As an aside, this iteration of Justice League has been horrible and confused from day one. Justice League: Reborn, anyone? No, Cry for Justice doesn’t count, despite looking awesome.)

DC’s got talent, obviously. There are occasional glimmers of brilliance everywhere. Batman: Reborn features, perhaps, the highest concentration in recent memory. But otherwise, DC is mired down in self-inflicted continuity woes and, blegh, enough is enough already.

Blackest Night? Sure, sign me up. It’ll probably unite the DCU for a year and then be retconned or forgotten. In my opinion, though, the Bat-Universe is the most cohesive, worthwhile place to drop money on ink and paper for the next several months. Years?

Here’s hoping.

07/02 EDIT: Well, I suppose that was all a bit much to get worked up about, since as of yesterday’s new issue of Batman & Robin, there are officially some tricky continuity problems between the Reborn books.

Shame on you, Mike Marts.

The most glaring inconsistency is probably how the Gotham City Police Department and Commissioner Gordon respond to the presence of a new Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder; the attitudes in Streets of Gotham (#1) and Batman & Robin (#2) seem a bit contradictory in particular. And Dick Grayson’s tone is not altogether unified, I suppose, but different writers are bringing different things to the table, so it’s hard to be too surprised (or picky).

Thinking about it, though, I still applaud the fresh new direction for the Bat-books and think that there is an overall sense of cohesion, even if things are getting a little murkier (certainly something that will just get work the more issues each one has).

Still, though, how God damn hard would it be for an editor to step up and say, “this is how the characters are going to respond to these events, this is the order that things are going to happen in,” and so forth? What does an editor at DC Comics do, exactly, other than take stupid teaser images of bulletin boards to ship off to Newsarama? There seems to be this prevailing issue of creative teams holding books hostage, and while I’m loathe to suggest any sort of restrictions on artists or writers, someone has to put their foot down at some point, right?

Right? Guys?


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