It is no accident that the great unveiling of DC’s plans for its Rebirth quasi-event comes on March 26, one day after the début of Warner Brothers’ Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. After all, a greater synergy between the media representations of the various DC properties is one announced goal of Rebirth, and from a marketing standpoint it only makes common sense. When I was first perusing the cast list for the Batman vs. Superman movie, I confess that I was less than immediately enthusiastic about many of the casting decisions, with one notable exception: Jeremy Irons seems to be a truly inspired choice to play Alfred Pennyworth. Now, as I consider Rebirth and its possible ramifications, I am reminded of something Irons said in his role as the Chief Morlock in the 2002 remake of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. It was not a very good movie, in truth, and Irons was in a “cash the check and run” phase of his career. Still, the line, which I paraphrase here, was haunting. “We all have our time machines: those that carry us backwards, our memories; those that carry us forward, our dreams.”
DC is reaching both forward and backwards in its Rebirth effort, trying to call forth greatness from the epic past of the DC Universe to revitalize a publishing line that has fallen into dire straits in terms of its relative market position vis-à-vis Marvel. Given that some, although certainly not all of DC’s plight comes from reader dissatisfaction with such experiments as the New 52 and the DC You, each of which in their own way attempted to establish a clear break with the last, it’s understandable that the company might look to memory as fuel for hope and dreams. But it also constitutes an enormous risk.
For one thing, the emphasis on restoration of iconic elements of the past, an emphasis underlined by the fact that the Rebirth initiative is headed by Geoff Johns, whose Green Lantern Rebirth was the archetype of an effort to restore history and tradition without resorting to fundamental reality shifts, risks binding the publisher to the base demographic of comics readers with even stronger ties. This segment of the customer base is the most stable and loyal for the present moment, but it is also the oldest and least possessed of long-term viability. Still, with the disappointing sales from the DC You initiative, an attempt deliberately to cultivate new readers and a new kind of audience, DC likely believes it has no choice.
The more complicated question, and frankly the more interesting one, concerns the mechanism of Rebirth, and here memory seems to play as large a role within the fictional universe as it does in real-world marketing calculations. DC has apparently elected to forego a Crisis event, which is very likely for the best. As was observed in the pages of Justice League some months ago, the timeline of the DC Universe has been rewritten on so many occasions it has become fragile. Or, to put it another way, everyone is tired of Crises and full-on reboots, including retailers. The word of a relaunch and renumbering has caused enough consternation, leading DC to make numerous gestures to reassure that no new reboot is in the offering, including flat out promising such, of course, but also taking the symbolic step of reverting Action Comics and Detective Comics to their original numbering, a gesture of deep continuity with the past.
How, then, will the Rebirth be effected if not through a Crisis? Geoff Johns has said that DC regards Rebirth very much as an ongoing project, and it would seem this philosophy guides it from the beginning. Although there is a turning point planned, DC Universe Rebirth penned by Johns and drawn by Ethan Van Sciver, his partner from Green Lantern Rebirth, it seems that the mechanisms will be much more diffuse than a pinpoint event, even if the event is not called a Crisis. We are already seeing, for instance, movement in the various Superman books toward the Rebirth boundary, with the coming eight-issue crossover by Peter Tomasi supposedly helping to set the stage along with Dan Jurgens’ Lois and Clark, featuring refugees from the pre-Flashpoint continuity. Johns has specialized in the recovery of iconic representations by using ongoing narratives, massaging continuity rather than flatly overriding it. The one exception, Flashpoint was a reboot imposed by editorial fiat, and likely is the model DC wants to avoid.
So if there is to be no Crisis, and we are seeing some kind of gradual, or at least diffuse, rebirth aimed at restoration within ongoing narrative, what kind of storyline should we expect? Here we are talking rank speculation, but it certainly seems that the essence of Rebirth concerns memory. There are rumors of a return of the Justice Society in its classic form, a World War II super team whose existence was suppressed from history. Such a development would hint that there are deep mysteries in the DCU, entire pasts waiting to be revealed. From another angle, Batman and Robin Eternal is hinting strongly that the key to Nightwing Rebirth will be the obliteration of memory, as the technology of Spyral erases Dick Grayson’s superhero identity from the awareness of humanity (and presumably also aliens resident on Earth).
The most tantalizing clue, or perhaps it is just a coincidence of plotting, come from Dan Abnett’s Titans Hunt. The original Teen Titans, like the rumored JSA, were forgotten, but now are returning to history. It is almost a Titans Rebirth already, given the way Abnett is methodically walking through the earliest parts of Titans history and reintroducing the elements in modified form. So we have Mister Twister, who is well on his way to a Gargoyle/Antithesis characterization; the Mad Mod; Hatton Corners; Diablo; and now Honeybun and Ding Dong Daddy (and that last is one, along with the Mad Mod, I would have bet good money against seeing again). We will probably see the Fearsome Five very soon now, and would anybody be at all surprised if Ding Dong Daddy has the Biker Buzzards as his cannon fodder? And given how all of this is wrapped up with Mal’s song, I wouldn’t be stunned if DJ DeeJay puts in an appearance.
Does TITANS HUNT, with its emphasis on memory and it's obvious philosophical kinship to GREEN LANTERN REBIRTH point the way to the Rebirth of the DCU? Much depends on whether the rhetoric about a return to continuity is honest, and whether some rumors circulating, particularly about a reborn Justice Society, are true. If it is true, this could represent one of the most interesting narrative maneuvers in the history of mainstream superhero comics-- the refashioning of a universe not by retcon or crisis, but by secret history, and by a revelation that the world was much stranger than anyone knew. It is the illuminati theory of superhero history, and not something one would have associated with the DCU. But hope carries us forward, and looking at the recent sales figures, the time for bold measures is at hand.