2021 was a fresh start for DC Comics. With a new soft reboot, DC made choices that led to CNN interviews and stories of fans returning to comics after decades away. This year has been full of great moments and the ire of Fox News, but what about DC as a whole?
To understand where we are now, we should take a look at DC’s recent history. What got us to Infinite Frontier and what mistakes were made that DC needed to think about and figure out how to solve?
After five years of New 52, DC was losing steam. Most books were struggling, and fans complained that the characters they loved were too different. They thought the direction of the stories was convoluted, dark, and missing a lot of what made DC special. So in 2016, DC began the Rebirth initiative under Geoff Johns. Johns pitched a new era for DC focused on legacy, where characters we have been reading for the last 5 years would interact with previous generations: Jaime Reyes and Ted Kord, ten year old Jonathan Kent and his father, Duke Thomas and Batman, and, most famously, Wally West and Barry Allen. The first year of DC was full of hope and stellar stories. Wally became the symbol of a new, more optimistic future where the new heroes could exist alongside the old generations. Dan Abnett’s Aquaman was full of positive energy, as Arthur wanted to unite Atlantis with the surface world. Jonathan Kent became Superboy, a ten-year-old who quickly began to spend time with Damian Wayne in Tomasi’s Supersons. Tom King brought back the decades-long relationship between Batman and Catwoman, which broke headlines everywhere when Bruce proposed. The two new Green Lanterns, Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz, endeared themselves to fans in Geoff Johns’ Green Lanterns, and Wally West began to explore the question “Who changed our universe?” in Titans.
At the heart of Rebirth, beyond all of the stellar uplifting stories, was a mystery about why Doctor Manhattan changed the fate of the DC Universe for the worse. In a new retcon, he became the reason the DC Universe felt so bleak, but his motives were unknown. As readers eagerly anticipated Doctor Manhattan’s return, Wally West’s investigation with the Titans turned up empty, and Batman’s investigation into a mysterious yellow smiley face was delayed by a clash between the Suicide Squad and the Justice League (Titans #6). At the end of the first year, it was finally time to answer, “What is going on with the button?”
Each issue of the four-part crossover was on the top 10 best selling list of 2017. But the answer at the end of the crossover was more mystery. Batman and The Flash learned that the past had been changed but didn’t know who did it, then went back to their own stories. The mysterious Mister Oz (who we later learn was Kal-el’s Father) revealed that he was saved from Krypton’s explosion by a mysterious force, but we never learn why (Superman – Action Comics: The Oz Effect). Then Batman’s investigations led to the discovery of the Dark Multiverse and the Batman who Laughs attempted to conquer Earth in Dark Nights Metal. The Button’s mystery was ignored.
The end of this event signified the end of the best parts of Rebirth: the bright, uplifting stories that brought back elements of the past while still giving us compelling new characters to enjoy. Though not every book landed like Justice League, Cyborg, and Blue Beetle, there was an overall consistency and excitement for the next phase of Rebirth, which promised Scott Snyder taking the reins. But the biggest problem Rebirth had was its mystery. The heroes tried to figure out who messed up the timeline, but readers never got answers. Big plot threads like Doctor Manhattan, the Three Jokers, and Atom getting trapped in the Microverse took a long time to get to. And DC Universe Rebirth #1, the comic that began this era of stories, often set up lots of stories that would take years to reach.
Most fans blame Geoff Johns’s Doomsday Clock as being the turning point in DC Rebirth. Initially designed to finally tell the story of the heroes meeting Doctor Manhattan, it quickly ran into problems. After a series of constant delays, it quickly became apparent that the end of the book was a long way off. Unfortunately, many of the stories the rest of the comics were telling were intended to catch up to Doomsday Clock by issue #12. These comics quickly realized that they needed to find new directions to kill time, and as such, took new story directions that had less oversight from management.
After Dark Knights Metal, DC began its “Summer of Events” based on a series of five big new exciting events in the DC Universe. Fresh off Dark Nights: Metal, Scott Snyder was given the reins of the Justice League with Justice League: No Justice. In headline-breaking news, Tom King announced that in Batman #50, Bruce and Selina would finally marry. Dan Abnett’s run approached its conclusion as Atlantis rose to the surface. Wally West and Barry Allen would go to war in Joshua Williamson’s Flash War. And in other headline-breaking news, DC announced that it bought the exclusive contract of renowned Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis, who would be replacing Peter Tomasi and Dan Jurgens on Superman. At the same time, many stories began to reach their end. James Tynion’s acclaimed Detective Comics run ended with Detective Comics #981, James Robinson’s Wonder Woman run came to a conclusion with #50, and Red Hood and the Outlaws got a new title with #26. On top of that, DC began a new series with their “New Age of Heroes” imprint, which ended up being one of the biggest flops of the decade, and Robert Venditti’s stellar reimagining of Hawkman. With all of these stories, it became clear that DC was undergoing a dramatic change.
That change led to a shift in the tone of the universe, and a series of story blunders. Wally and Barry’s war was the culmination of Wally’s anxieties at being lonely in the universe. Once the symbol of positive hope in the DC Universe, Wally became darker and full of trauma, leading to Heroes in Crisis. Batman’s wedding was called off at the last minute by Selina Kyle, a disappointing outcome after forty-nine issues of build-up and a five-part series of wedding tie-in stories. Ignoring the fact that the New York Times reported the outcome before the comic even came out, the break-up was still a massive turning point, as Batman became darker, moodier, and unlikable. A couple issues later, Nightwing got shot in the head and became the hated Ric Grayson. Bendis’s Superman received criticism immediately, as Rogal Zar’s writing was forced and boring. His run would later make one of the worst decisions in Rebirth by aging up John from ten to seventeen via a field trip with his granddad, whom Superman would later be complicit in killing (Superman #7 and Superman #15). Teenager John, after surviving seven years trapped on Earth-3 in a prison, would almost immediately proceed to create the United Planets and then go to space college in the future (Superman #15). Meanwhile, Wally’s trauma led him to create a mass shooting event, killing Arsenal, Poison Ivy, and Lagoon Boy, framing Booster Gold and Harley Quinn for the crime, and eventually committing suicide (Heroes in Crisis). Wally used to be the symbol of DC Rebirth; with his dark turn, as with the aging up of John, it was clear that the positive spirit of Rebirth and the uplifting sense of legacy of Rebirth were now dead.
The next year of comics proceeded to only get worse, as Bendis and Snyder both began massive events. Snyder’s Year of the Villain led to every story at DC trying to tie into the war between Justice and Doom while still continuing their current storylines. Bendis’s terribly named Event Leviathan saw every major intelligence organization brainwashed into joining a new country as Leviathan. And Bendis’s other event The Truth resulted in Superman revealing his identity as Clark Kent to the world. Nothing explains the messiness of this period of DC Comics less than the triple event tie-in Action Comics #1018, which tries to somehow combine all three stories together. On top of that, DC had a fourth event focused on The Batman Who Laughs infecting heroes and turning Supergirl, Hawkman, James Gordon, Blue Beetle, Donna Troy, and Billy Batson evil. This dark plot forced many stories to end abruptly and ruined stellar runs like Robert Venditti’s in favor of bad tie-ins that didn’t make much sense. Needless to say, 2019 was a disaster on many fronts.
The continuity of DC continued to get even more confusing until it was impossible to explain. The Year of the Villain ended with the Justice League losing, existing in a black void, while Lex Luthor and the Batman Who Laughs fought over the future of the Earth. The Batman Who Laughs won and remade the Earth in his image. Every comic that just told stories in Year of the Villain had to somehow pretend the ending didn’t happen while still acknowledging that the event had concluded. Comic continuity basically became meaningless and was left in a state of confusion.
There was one positive development in all of this chaos, which would prove to be the saving grace of DC’s last year. With Batman #85, Tom King’s Batman run came to an end. Having soured many fans on the series, it ended with a bad taste in people’s mouths, but Tynion, who wrote Rebirth’s Detective Comics, took the title with plans to write a fifteen-issue story ending with Joker War. The intent was to move to DC’s next era, the rumored 5G, soon after (Tynion’s “Tiny Onion Blog” #24). But in the lead up to Joker War, a series of events at DC led to dramatic staffing changes including the firing of Dan DiDio and the cancelation of 5G. With so much turmoil, DC let Tynion continue for the foreseeable future on Batman. With a longer run ahead of him, Tynion set about fixing the Batman line and bringing the stories together. With Joker War, he turned Ric Grayson back into Nightwing, helped make Barbara Gordon Oracle again, and placed more emphasis on Gotham’s villains over King’s single main villain. The biggest thing to come out of Joker War, though, was the beginning of a template that the rest of DC would follow.
Tynion returned to the level of care that previous editors used to put into continuity. Among many other things, Joker War was one of the most continuity-tight and connected events DC had put out since Rebirth. Almost every plot point in the event led to a major change in 2021. After the Joker ripped out Barbara’s chip at the beginning of the event, she realized needed to be more careful and decided to focus on being Oracle again (Batgirl #47 and Batman #99). In an effort to remove Joker’s resources, Catwoman transferred the Wayne fortune to the Fox Family (Catwoman #25). The events of Catwoman #25 were then referenced throughout the rest of the event in a way that rewarded fans for reading the tie-in. The idea of stories being important and connected would go on to be a major element of Infinite Frontier, as DC planned to do this on a much larger scale.
The story of Rebirth came to a conclusion in Snyder’s sequel to Dark Knights: Metal, Death Metal. Focused on the heroes after they fail to reclaim the world The Batman Who Laughs created, the story is fun but messy. Due to the firing of Dan DiDio, Death Metal had a new role, serving as the final comic of the Rebirth era. This means that the comic was required to wrap up Rebirth, including the Doctor Manhattan storyline. As such, it was messy. Snyder tried to retroactively tie in a Wally West with the powers of Doctor Manhattan to the merging of the timelines into one definitive timeline, while also trying to tell a story focused on a Superman with the arm of Doomsday and a Bruce Wayne who became a dinosaur. It ends with Diana giving up her life to merge the timelines and transcending to a higher level of existence. The story took on too much, and as such it felt like a disappointment heading into Infinite Frontier.
Overall, there’s a couple of lessons that can be learned from DC Rebirth. First, stories that set up mysteries need to resolve sooner rather than later. When Doctor Manhattan was teased to have been messing with the multiverse, fans needed to see significant plot development on that front sooner. As Doomsday Clock proved, relying on comics to resolve plot threads far in the future provides lots of room for things to change, and for plot threads to be either discarded or changed dramatically due to too much time passing. Secondly, fans lose interest in plot threads the longer they take to resolve. Take Hickman’s X-men as an example: fan hype around the story among non-X-men readers has all but evaporated because it took too long to come back to core mysteries.
The second lesson DC can learn is that the line can’t be too dark. Originally learned after New 52, this lesson proved to be part of the downfall of DC Rebirth. Making a comic dark can work out, but it often comes with a lot of risks. Too many dark comics can make stories unlikable and the line feel bleak and not exciting. Depressing stories, while compelling, aren’t necessarily fun.
Thirdly, continuity matters. The less connected stories become to the main plot of the universe, the less readers care about stories. Make your comics add to the main story and supplement it. Comics connectivity is what separates DC and Marvel from every other comics publisher. They can tell one story over dozens of comics every month and build to something bigger. Connectivity and continuity reward the reader by making sure what they read matters to the bigger story and help the universe stay on the same page.
Fourthly, be careful with changing characters. Most of the worst decisions in Rebirth came from drastically changing beloved characters. DC needs to learn the balance between moving a character’s story forward and changing who the character fundamentally is. Big, sudden character changes have not proven to be exciting. Instead, DC should take its time and let characters naturally grow and evolve.
The fifth, and probably most important, element that DC needs to learn is that diversity is important. DC’s output over Rebirth got consistently less and less diverse as they stopped selling stories with majority BIPOC casts, BIPOC leads, and queer leads. In September 2019 (a month in the second half of Rebirth I selected at random), out of the fifty in-universe stories printed, only three in-universe titles had a primarily BIPOC cast, and zero stories featured a queer character whose queerness is a part of the book. (Harley Quinn and Wonder Woman did not have queer stories during that year.) Only 6% of stories featured diversity in any capacity. The closest to a queer story DC had that month was Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, a story accused of queerbaiting readers into buying it while simultaneously showing that Harley and Ivy are straight and shouldn’t love each other. One year later in 2020, diversity was similarly awful with three books with BIPOC casts (Teen Titans, Batman and the Outsiders, and Tom Taylor’s Suicide Squad) and two with queer leads and/or significantly queer casts (Suicide Squad and Hellblazer). With forty-one total in-universe titles that month, DC had less than 10% of stories with non-cis, non-straight, and non-white casts.
In terms of diverse creators, DC was similarly lacking. Out of the 119 different spots for writing and art (excluding covers), women only made up thirteen spots. In other words, only 10.9%. Black creators made up 3.3% with four. Asian creators had 5.9% with seven. Hispanic creators had 3.3% with four spots. Women of color made up only 1.6% of DC’s output in September 2019. Not included in the chart is Grant Morrison who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. I purposefully didn’t include a non-cis category in this data as I didn’t want to leave out other non-cis creators who I may have accidentally mis-gendered due to an inability to find clear information about sexuality. These metrics are the best data I could generate based on my knowledge and researching each creator individually. Data on the percentages of queer people in the company in particular are hard to gather (without missing people), and I didn’t want to exclude queer people based on the lack of information that is out there about some of these creators.
It is important to also acknowledge that among these white men, such as Warren Ellis, Brett Booth, Scott Lobdell, and others, there are those who have been accused of dangerous acts against women and other femme-presenting individuals including grooming, encouraging the harassment and abuse of women.
The comics creator diversity metrics at DC in September 2019 are absolutely abysmal by all diversity standards and go towards explaining why the comics themselves lack diversity in their characters. DC can’t succeed at creating a diverse comics portfolio when people of color, women, and queer people are not fairly represented in the creation of comics.
In the next part, we will focus on breaking down the big trends of 2021 from January of 2021 to December 2021.
Next: Part 2