Thursday, June 2, 2016

Spoiling The Past: ‘DC Universe: Rebirth’ and ‘Captain America: Steve Rogers’

Two comic books grabbed a fair amount of attention last week: DC Comics’ ‘DC Universe: Rebirth #1’ and Marvel Comics’ ‘Captain America: Steve Rogers’ #1. Both had controversial endings that were seen by some as intriguing plot developments, and others as disrespectful to some of comics’ most revered creators. I basically fall into the second group. My reasons for being bothered by these comic books are as follows.
In ‘DC Universe: Rebirth’ #1 the characters from ‘Watchmen’, the classic 1980s comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, are introduced into DC continuity. I had half a suspicion that ‘Watchmen’ was being referenced on the first page, due to both the use of that series’ characteristic nine-panel grid layout, and pictures of the insides of a watch, an image closely associated with ‘Watchmen’ character Dr. Manhattan. But it became clear to me only near the end of the issue when the caption ‘… we’re being watched’ appears above Batman finding the trademark pin of another major ‘Watchmen’ character, the Comedian, on the wall of the Batcave.
The issue’s epilogue erases any remaining doubts, as we get further, more obvious references to Dr. Manhattan: pictures of Mars – his home for a lot of the ‘Watchmen’ story – and an excerpt of his dialogue from that series’ final issue. The implication seems to be that the Doctor has been responsible for the recent, damaging changes in the DC Universe, taking ten years from some characters, and erasing other characters entirely.
As a reveal taken in and of itself it is quite clever. Few would have expected a character from a series that has heretofore been totally outside of DC continuity to be revealed as the main threat to DC’s heroes. But the use of the ‘Watchmen’ characters is unsettling to me for several reasons.
The first is that ‘DC Universe: Rebirth’ #1 seems to be a criticism of DC’s direction since the famous and somewhat disliked ‘New 52’ relaunch. It seems to imply that the DC Universe lost some important things that made it work when it compressed its timeline following the ‘New 52’, in particular removing or sidelining some of its popular ‘legacy’ heroes, that is, characters that had taken up the mantle of other heroes. ‘… There’s something wrong with history. Someone has infected it …’ says one of the most popular of those ‘legacy’ characters, Wally West a.k.a. the third Flash, who returns in this issue. By revealing this ‘someone’ to be Dr. Manhattan, ‘Rebirth’ writer and DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns seems to be implying that what went wrong with the DC relaunch was trying to imitate the ‘grim ‘n’ gritty’ atmosphere of the ‘Watchmen’ series. At worse this could be seen as blaming Moore and Gibbons for a failed creative direction at DC they had nothing to do with. On the other hand Johns may not be blaming them at all, just the creators who tried to imitate them.
But the more troubling aspect for me is that Alan Moore has made it abundantly clear that he did not want DC to use the ‘Watchmen’ characters again. Now it may be argued that since DC already went against Moore’s wishes with their ‘Before Watchmen’ line of comics a few years back that the horse has already bolted on that one. Nevertheless I think they used the characters more respectfully in those series compared to ‘Rebirth’. Those series were further exploring the characters, by creators who admired and respected them. In ‘Rebirth’ they are being primarily used as a plot device. Dave Gibbons initially seemed to wish the ‘Before Watchmen’ series success, although later comments suggested he was dismissive of the project. But Gibbons’ comments at least point to another somewhat redeeming aspect of ‘Before Watchmen’: like the original series itself it was self-contained, and you could completely ignore it if you so wished. It is a bit harder to ignore the re-use of the ‘Watchmen’ characters when they are thrown smack bang into the middle of DC continuity.
Bringing in these characters is clearly going against Alan Moore’s wishes. Every decision-maker at DC Comics must have known this would piss him off. And sure, Moore doesn’t own the characters, and he would have known there was a risk that DC could do things following his story that he didn’t like, just like has happened to many other creators that have done work for either DC or Marvel.  But first, all those past wrongs do not make this right. And second, Moore has made his opinion so well-known that it is clearly disrespectful to him and his work to use the characters in this way. A shame, because the rest of the issue was OK.
In ‘Captain America: Steve Rogers’ #1 one of Marvel’s greatest heroes and ‘boy scouts’ was seemingly revealed as a long-time member of the evil HYDRA organisation. Many fans are not pleased about this at all, particularly since HYDRA has been closely associated with Nazis, and Captain America’s creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were both Jewish.

This news was initially tough for me to take. This is not just a ‘shock’ development to the character: it seems to go against the very reason the character was created. Cap was created specifically to fight Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, not to be a double agent for them.
In comics though many of these types of developments don’t last, and having read the issue now I suspect even more that it is a red herring. Even if not reversed in the current storyline there is a good chance that another writer will reverse it down the track. So perhaps in the end it will be relatively harmless, any injury to the intentions of Kirby and Simon notwithstanding. That makes it less bothersome to me than what DC Rebirth has done, although I actually found the latter the much better story overall. And maybe the DC Rebirth reveal is a red herring as well. But given DC Comics’ recent track record I don’t hold much hope for that.

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