DC Rebirth and The Aesthetic of the “Cheap” Superhero Comic

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 10, 2016.

Batman Sunbathing

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of DC Rebirth #1, a comic I found so distasteful that I opened said review with this quote from Watchmen: “Beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” I stand by that review. DC Rebirth #1 is a poorly paced comic that relies primarily on the fascination of a very small audience focused on trivia over storytelling. Even worse, it’s a comic that can be called ethically challenged at the very least. Concerns over DC Comics’ continued efforts to piss in Alan Moore’s face have been dismissed as “no big deal”, but fuck those people, those awful garbage people. DC Rebirth #1 wants to take itself seriously, wants readers to take it seriously, and wants to make a lot of money launching another reboot of DC Comics. You can take the piss, but you don’t get to claim you’re doing it out of love and respect.

Considering my disdain for the entire enterprise and almost everyone involved with it, I’ve been shocked by my subsequent enjoyment of the “Rebirth” comics that have followed DC Rebirth #1. There have been a total of nine “new” titles released in the last two weeks as detailed by the fearless Mark O. Stack here and here. Some of these comics are concerned with bridging the gap between “New 52” stories and “Rebirth” stories, while others present themselves primarily as a fresh start. All are supposedly designed to be accessible as an introduction to new readers with a lowered price point of $2.99.

The actual level of accessibility is something Mark is covering and it fluctuates from the very successful (e.g. Green Arrow) to the mediocre (e.g. Wonder Woman) to the incomprehensible (e.g. Action Comics), but that’s not what interests me. As a regular reader of superhero comics and someone embedded into the comics press, I can typically figure out even the most arcane of texts with minimal effort. What has me really interested is the general quality of these comics, or lack thereof.

After having read all nine issues, some of which I liked quite a bit (i.e. Green Arrow and Detective Comics), I’m comfortable saying that my overall impression of their quality is mediocrity. That may be generous as a few of these comics (i.e. Superman, Aquaman, and Green Lantern) fall into the category of “outright dreck”. I’m no stranger to bad comics; I’ve been keeping up with capes comics at an admittedly unhealthy level for year. So reading some bad ones isn’t surprising. What is surprising is just how much I’ve enjoyed the reading experience of all of these “Rebirth” relaunches.

I think the most important factor in this questioning comes in the how of the matter. DC Rebirth has timed itself with a significant shift in my own weekly routine. I just returned to my hometown of Omaha allowing me to swing by my local comic store on Wednesdays and have easy access to a pool while it’s still sunny. Those things may not seem like a big deal, but after more than a year away those little joys mean a lot.

Going by the Eisner Award winning shop Legend Comics & Coffee on a Wednesday is mid-week delight. Part of the fun of comics, something I found when very young, was the ability to walk in and browse shelves of new material, snagging whatever issues intrigued me. Most of my comics reading now is done digitally for reasons of preservation, space, and cost. However, walking into Legend on a Wednesday and seeing so many comics at the $2.99 price point, I felt a sense of nostalgia. I could snag any of these, gobble them up, and not worry about their condition or continued existence after I was finished.

That’s how I went from planning to buy none of Rebirth to two weeks worth of issues. On Comixology they held zero appeal, but in person I was inspired to check them out. So I threw down a stack of comics that I had “discovered” and threw them in my bag. After that I snagged some beer, put on my swim trunks, and headed down to the pool.

I had an absolute blast.

To be entirely fair, sitting poolside with a good beer is already a very pleasurable experience, but I found the stack of DC Rebirth comics at my side enhanced rather than diminished that time. Nostalgia played a definite role. It has been a very long time since I was able to pick up superhero comics for $2.99 purely for the purpose of reading material. The aesthetic aspects of buying a floppy, sticking it in your pocket, then reading it wherever I found the time is something that connects directly to my formative years. Weighing down the stack of comics with that can of beer and folding the pages back to handle the breeze felt oddly rebellious and freeing. In this manner I was enjoying comics the same way I had more than a decade ago by grabbing a stack from the dollar bin and plowing through them cover to cover.

Red Lantern Pussy Cat

It can’t be chalked up entirely to nostalgia either. My eyes are much keener and tastes more refined than they were ten years ago. You can learn just as much from a bad comic as you can from a good one though, and the act of critically assessing these issues was immensely enjoyable too. Picking at Ethan Van Sciver’s mortifying and occasionally hilarious (he puts an angry cat between a woman’s spread legs) sexualization of women in Green Lantern Rebirth #1 was a satisfying act of dissection. Whether the mental gymnastics incurred by the reading was shared with friends on Twitter or kept to myself, I never regretted spending $2.99 on any issue because I found insights in every issue.

In both cases, the very act of reading these new Rebirth comics was what I found enjoyable. They are a return to basics for DC Comics. While very few actually satisfy the “hope and optimism” message pushed by Geoff Johns inDC Rebirth #1, they all feel like a return to what comics, especially superhero comics, are best at: producing disposable entertainments. The feel of a paper pamphlet in your hands, as something to be kept in a bag and beaten by water and wind, is enjoyable in and of itself. The comfortable plotlines and ludicrous swerves in character provide reassurance and laughter. These superhero stories all aspire to different things and achieve them to varying degrees, but they all ultimately embrace the nature of their format. And that aesthetic can be pleasurable by itself.

Some have tried to dismiss serious criticism of DC Rebirth #1 as unnecessary due its nature as a marketing tool. That’s nonsense. Even if it didn’t offend on an ethical standard, it still poses a serious thesis and attempts to construct an argument regarding the history and philosophy of superhero comics. Like any act of storytelling or art, no matter how confused with mercenary motives, it remains art and can absolutely be addressed with a critical eye.

That applies to all of these relaunch titles as well. None of them are attempting to make the same sort of sweeping statements at DC Rebirth #1, but they all have something to say. Whether that something is simply defining a character or posing a structure for the superhero genre, the creators of these comics are speaking to them and through them. By discussing my enjoyment of these comics, in spite of the poor quality of many, I am not suggesting they should not be criticized or diminished to something you should shut your brain off while reading. Nothing deserves that status.

What I am suggesting is that the manner in which we consume art can be worth the price of admission as well. That a comic can lead you to experience a pleasant sense of nostalgia or help you relax on a summer day or lead to some excellent jokes on Twitter does not make it a better comic. But it may make that comic worth the price of admission.

These two drives, the desire to observe good art and the desire for pleasant experiences, are not in conflict with one another. It is possible to engage either one or both simultaneously, without confusing one for the other. One does not have to defend how they spend their money or time against valid criticism. We enjoy what we enjoy, and there is already too little time in life to cut out simple pleasures for fear of being ridiculed. And at the same time, the ridicule of a comics quality does not ridicule its reader.

All of us can pick up something we know to be “bad” and enjoy it. These things are often called “guilty pleasures” when all they really are is pleasures. Enjoy these things. Enjoy DC Rebirth. I know I will. But if someone walks by me at the pool while I have a beer in one hand and Action Comics in the other only to scoff at my reading choices, I’ll know better than to take their derision personally. I’m having a good time, and that’s enough for me.


About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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