I am not doing a 10 best comics post for 2016.
There are a number of reasons for this. For one, a lot of the comics I really enjoyed this year are things I put on my list last year. For another, a lot of the comics I really enjoyed this year have been around for a while. For a third, I kind of already showcased some of my favorite comics of this year in Polygon’s comics webseries, Issue at Hand.
Instead, I’m going to talk about one particular event that has stunningly exceeded my expectations as a fan and a critic, and then I’m going drill down to talk about one single comic. It’s a book that perfectly represents how this event succeeded, and it was comic that I was most surprised to love this past year.
So, without further fuss, DC Comics’ Rebirth event.
The New 52 is dead, long live the DC Universe
One of the first posts I ever wrote for Polygon is entitled “The New 52 is dead: DC Comics details diverse, character-driven new direction” (click it if you must, I think it was the post where Chris Grant taught me how to do feature layouts and now it makes my eyes bleed). “The New 52 is dead” was not about Rebirth, but about DCYou, DC Comics’ 2015 summer relaunch, and the title wouldn’t turn out to be a prediction. It was more an expression of my own personal hopes and what I thought DC’s description of the goals behind its new … editorial … policies …
OK, it was mostly an expression of my own personal hopes. Perhaps even predominantly. I was trying to put it out there in the world, like the Secret. That’s the Secret, right?
I was trying to murder the New 52 with my mind.
I only had to wait a year, because that’s when DC Comics’ co-publishers, Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, first cryptically tweeted a tease for the company’s Rebirth initiative.
A brief summary
If you have been inside the comics world at all in the past five years, you already know this, but if you haven’t there is absolutely no reason for you to so I’ll try to nutshell it. The New 52 was DC Comics’ first complete universe-wide reset since 1985. It was supposed to galvanize the company’s dismal sales numbers and bring in new readers by modernizing characters and eliminating decades of backstory.
In the short run, it created a temporary increase in sales by encouraging existing DC Comics readers to buy more books. In the long run, it produced no appreciable increase in sales. It made sweeping changes that pissed off existing readers while simultaneously making continuity even more confusing for new ones. And while it produced a few genuinely great books in spite of itself, it also featured editorial oversight of creative teams so restrictive that for a while it seemed like an artist or writer was quitting or being removed from their book about once a week.
DC tried to make the New 52 work for five years. In 2016, it finally gave up.
As information on the Rebirth line was rolled out, I was cagey. The proof would be in the books themselves, not what the co-publishers said were their motivations. I’d been burned before!
Some of the biggest announcements played directly to my personal interests. Batwoman was back after her solo series floundered when its creative team quit because DC editorial refused to allow the character to marry her fiancée. She’d be in a team book where she works alongside Batman for the first time. One of my favorite writers and one of my favorite artists would be creating a new canonical origin story for Wonder Woman. DC editorial was talking extensively about how the company’s biggest priority was to restore a sense of legacy — a sense of the shared history between its characters — that the New 52 lacked. But my fears would not be assuaged!
So I was still skeptical when Rebirth #1 kicked off the new direction, not with a big crossover that would be incomprehensible to new readers, but with a single oversized issue that read like a textual apology for the New 52. I mean, it established, in canon, that most of what fans had hated about the New 52 DC Universe had been caused by a cosmic force that had literally stolen the good things from the DC timeline. Sure, that cosmic force was Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen and I still have mixed feelings about that, but Rebirth #1 felt both bold and even slightly insulting in its commitment to kicking sand in the face of DC’s biggest publishing event in decades.
The proof was in the books. And I’m happy to say …
The books are good
2016 was a year where I found myself feeling predominantly positive about the output of DC Comics for the first time in a long time. That’s not to say that there aren’t some things that still bother me, because there are, but in terms of the books themselves … there is a lot that I like.
It would be one thing if DC was simply earning my esteem, but it should not be omitted that Rebirth is working on a business level as well. DC has increased its market share of units sold in the American comics industry from 27 percent before Rebirth (compared to Marvel’s 40 percent, at the time) to 44 percent (Marvel, now: 31 percent). It’s the first time that DC has pulled ahead of its rival in years. The last time was that short-lived post-New 52 bump, and by some reckonings, Rebirth is selling significantly better than even that.
DC is making better money than it has made in a long time based on a more diverse creative pool than the New 52, a more relaxed attitude towards allowing characters to guest in other books (creating that important superhero sense of being connected to a wider universe), as well as pushing a slew of interesting new characters into the spotlight and taking a back to basics approach when it comes to the classic ones who were most struggling. This is a creative and editorial direction that I’m very, very glad to see be supported in sales.
And if I had to pick one book that exemplifies those changes, it’s Superman.
And I’m just as surprised as you are
In 2016, I added the main Superman title to my pull list for the first time.
The only problem with this book is it’s rooted in some comic book shenanigans of the highest order — which makes it hard to recommend to new readers. But, Peter J. Tomasi, Doug Mahnke, Patrick Gleason, and the other creators on the book are using those comic book shenanigans to create some of the best character moments I read this year — exactly the sort of thing that new readers should be interested in.
At its most simple, Superman is a book about Superman and his family: his wife, Lois Lane and his young son, Jon. Jon has nascent powers of his own and just found out that his dad is secretly Superman, Lois is restarting her career as a journalist after years of working anonymously and Clark is figuring out how to be Superman publicly again, after the death of the New 52’s Superman.
Oh, right. That’s where the comic book shenanigans come in: Clark, Lois and Jon are all refugees from the version of DC Comics continuity that immediately preceded the New 52, and they’re stranded in the modern DC Comics universe.
A brief summary
In DC’s 2015 summer crossover, Convergence, dozens of specific times and places from all over the DC Multiverse were pulled from their usual homes in the spacetime continuum and brought to a single planet and a single time.
This included a significant chunk of the pre-New 52 DC Universe (the post-Crisis On Infinite Earths DCU), and that chunk included Superman and Lois Lane. Lois and Clark have been married in post-Crisis continuity since 1996, and during the events of Convergence the two conceived and delivered a child. But at the end of Convergence, the family was not returned to their original time and place — instead they were stranded in the New 52 universe just before the rise of the superheroic era.
Alone in a strangely familiar but undeniably different DC Universe, witnesses to the rise of its Superman and its Justice League, Clark and Lois decided that it wasn’t their place to openly interfere with the development of this version of history. They took the surname White after their old editor, made enough money as reporters to buy a farm 300 miles north of Metropolis, and set about raising their son, Jon. Clark quietly and covertly worked to save lives around the world in a more stealthy version of his old costume, and Lois made headlines with her pseudonymously published investigative reporting.
That status quo lasted until the death of the New 52’s Superman, when post-Crisis Clark fought alongside his younger counterpart and made his first connections with the wider superhero community of the New 52. Now, for all that the public knows, he is their Superman; but among the Justice League he’s a mysterious, ludicrously powerful stranger wearing the face of their dead friend. And to Clark, the Justice League is a strange mirage of familiar and unfamiliar qualities mixed together — in exactly the same way the New 52 was for fans of the post-Crisis DCU.
But while Rebirth’s Action Comics focuses on Superman’s punchy, space-y adventures in Metropolis fighting Doomsday and Lex Luthor and space bounty hunters — Superman is staying close to home and family: Jon and Lois.
The second son of Krypton
Jon gives Clark that element so elusive in bad Superman stories and so abundant in good ones — it puts the focus on Clark’s humanity and vulnerability. It gives Clark moments to wonder what advice either of his fathers would have given him about parenting — when the ones from his old universe and his new adopted one are all dead. It packs the book with domestic family moments that give its wild, sci-fi action scenes weight, depth and contrast.
In fact, my favorite moment in the entire series is of Jon, peeping over his windowsill to see Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman on his front lawn. The twist here is that we see this scene — the first private meeting between the New 52’s Batman and Wonder Woman, still mourning their Superman, with an identical but older alien who says he’s from another Earth entirely — from Jon’s perspective. It’s not a reaffirmation of the Justice League or a gathering of the world’s greatest heroes.
It’s two powerful, famous strangers who could be here to take his dad away, or worse: to take him away.
Rebirth Superman shows us the DC Universe from a very rarely seen perspective: that of a child in a living nuclear family who isn’t going on crimefighting patrol every night. Finding out that his dad is Superman and that someday he might have all of the same powers is cool for Jon. But the idea that his whole family is keeping a big, alien secret and that his dad is risking his life every day — traveling to space, putting down scientific monstrosities, nearly dying of the heat and pressure at the center of the Earth — is plenty scary, too.
Super-dad to the rescue
And that brings us right back around to how well Superman uses Clark-as-a-Dad to show the best of Superman as a character. Recently, while using Kryptonian technology to perfect Jon’s science fair project, father and son were transported to Dinosaur Island, discovered the final resting place of DC’s infamous World War II commando characters, the Losers, and fought pterodactyls and a giant albino gorilla.
And in the middle of all of that, Clark realizes that Jon has stopped taking all the weird science completely in stride.
It’s the oft voiced question of any modern Superman adaptation: How do you take a character like Superman and make him “grounded?” You don’t do it with realism of physics, politics or narrative rules — you do it with realism of emotion. Because once you’ve got dogs with laser vision and time-lost WWII vets riding tame pterodactyls, emotional realism is kind of the only realism you’re left with.
I mean, the audience has to connect with something. And dammit, I fucking connected with Superman being a kind dad to his son in a strange world.
Stranger in a strange DC Universe
Superman is performing a fantastic metatextual trick, where as Clark explores the way the New 52 differs from his native version of reality, the reader is reminded of the ways in which the New 52 differs tonally from what came before it. Clark remembers dying at the hands of Doomsday and being brought back to life — something that never happened, and, though he does his best to find a way, apparently won’t ever happen for the New 52’s Superman. In his own universe, Clark’s mother is still alive — in the New 52 the Kents were killed by a drunk driver before Superman ever put on the costume.
Clark and Lois — who is every bit the emotional and romantic partner to him as her New 52 counterpart was never allowed to be — remember older, wiser, more centered versions of Batman and Wonder Woman. They remember Barbara Gordon becoming Oracle, the technological mastermind of the light side of the DC Universe. They remember Barry Allen’s young sidekick, Wally West, grown to adulthood and fully embodying his mentor’s mantle as the Flash. They remember the loving if tumultuous relationship between Black Canary and Green Arrow. None of those things existed in the New 52, but under Rebirth, they’ve all shown hope of returning.
Superman is constantly criticized as a concept too old-fashioned for modern audiences, and now he’s literally from an older universe. He’s always been a character whose main conceit has been about being an orphan from another world, and stranding him in another continuity only doubles down on the qualities that have made him so enduring.
And what better character to represent the success of an older version of the DC Universe than Superman himself, the first superhero? There’s actually a certain amount of precedent. And what better way to showcase the optimism and sense of moral duty at the core of his character — and so scorned by people who don’t get that that’s the whole point — than in how he imparts it to his son.
Good job, DC Rebirth. And good job, Rebirth Superman. You did the most surprising thing of any comic in 2016 — you made me believe again.