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Rebooting DC: Worth It?

by on June 4, 2011

DC Comics loves changing the status quo, in a big way. Ever since 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, they’ve been constantly trying to outdo themselves with huge universe-wide crossover events like Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis that guarantee that “nothing will ever be the same”. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. At the time, Crisis on Infinite Earths was a fresh kick in the pants DC needed; its 50-year old continuity had become overwhelming to new readers, confusing for old readers, and aggravating for writers. The idea to celebrate DC’s 50th anniversary with a massive story that would clear up the universe’s convoluted history
was a good one, and was something that was both necessary and groundbreaking at the time. But if there’s one thing comic companies love to do, it’s taking something successful and running with it, on and on and on. Rare mega-crossovers later became regular occurrences, and actually started turning the DC universe into the very thing the original Crisis was made to get away from: a convoluted mess gunked up with continuity. Now that DC is attempting to push the reset button and start anew in September with a completely different issue numbering scheme and lineup of titles due to a less-than-fictional demographic crisis, will things get any better for them?

I can’t really say I’m sure. After all, I’ll admit I don’t read comics. The doesn’t mean I’m not well-versed in comic mythology, I’ve just never been able to get into the comic books themselves, and it’s mostly because of the continuity problems the reboot aims to solve.
In essence, this reboot was made specifically for me. But if lessening confusion was what it was all about, then the amorphous nature of this reboot aim to do the exact opposite. In all seriousness, what is this? It’s not a new continuity, because several old DC events (like Brightest Day) are still canon. It’s not a new approach at the already-existing universe, because there are certain things that were changed from the original (like Barbara Gordon becoming Batgirl again). So what am I even looking at? Is this some kind of bizarro DC-verse where a Back to the Future-type mishap caused the present to be the same yet disturbingly different at the same time? Or did DC just say “screw it” and used a massively-hyped “reboot event” to conveniently get rid of the things they didn’t like without need for an explanation? This whatever-it-is approach really disappoints me not because it changed too much, but
because it doesn’t change enough.

When you announce that all of your titles are being relaunched at issue #1 (including the decades-long titles like Action Comics) and that DC will never be the same again, you better mean it. I think that this reboot could have been a great thing for DC had they actually committed themselves to rebooting DC. When it comes to something as major as this, you have to go all out or go home. Instead of creating a confusing (and mostly infuriating) mashup of old and new canon, DC should have made a true reboot, a completely new continuity with no connection to the old DC. That could have given them a chance to start over from scratch and simplify the characters. It may not have been perfect, but it would have at least accomplished what this reboot was aiming to do in the first place. The fact that DC couldn’t even commit to rebooting their line shows that for all their talk of “changing things forever”, they’re still as averse to risk-taking as ever.

There are so many reasons why the comics industry is in such bad shape that you could write an entire stack of books about them. But really, the majority of those problems all share the same general theme: insularity. The success of superhero movies, television shows, and merchandise has proven that mainstream audiences have no problems with the characters and concepts themselves. In fact, superheroes are more mainstream than ever. Mainstream audiences don’t casually read comics simply because being a causal comics reader is harder than it has any right to be. First of all, finding physical comics is a challenge in and of itself. Outside of the few books you can find in supermarkets or the small shelf of comics at the local bookstore, most American comics are found mostly at dedicated stores targeted mostly to current fans. Going back to the bookstore, the fact that American comics take up a small rack and maybe a shelf and Japanese comics have an entire section to themselves speaks volumes on how manga publishers have succeeded in getting people into their wares in contrast. 

Since manga companies don’t have huge legacies behind them, instantly recognizable and iconic characters, and a massive universe to tell stories in, selling English manga constantly involves trying to get people to pick up titles they know nothing about. Manga are targeted to teenagers and young adults and collected in conveniently-numbered volumes. With American comics, there is no clear-cut beginning or endpoint. After all, where do you start? Sure, there’s a mainline series, but issues can be decades old and hard to find. And what about crossovers, events, spinoffs, and miniseries? Having such a confusing and difficult publishing history may be fine for an episodic comic strip where you can jump in at any point, but it’s irritating when you have a series that puts continuity above all else. A casual reader should never have to do extensive research just to start reading a work of fiction.
E-comics are definitely a large step in the right direction (and one of the few great ideas in all this hoopla), but there’s still a lot of inaccessible material out there.

But let’s ignore all of that and assume that complex continuity in a shared universe is inevitable and unchangeable. After all, none of these reboots ever manage to solve those continuity problems; they’re just temporary quick-fixes until the reboot’s continuity becomes too complex itself. I’ll assume that a beginning of a story arc or creative team’s reign should be a satisfying starting point, as that’s a common way to get into comics.
But even then, the editors in charge of the comics seem to care more about continuity, legacies, and pushing their own personal likes and dislikes on to the company than actually letting creative people tell a story. This self-absorbed lack of long-term thinking and priorities is what’s really afflicting the American comics industry, and reboots, events, and gimmicks won’t ever fix it. While being familiar with and liking the characters should obviously be a prerequisite, DC should be run by good storytellers, not fans.

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