By Graeme Virtue
The last time DC overhauled its entire comics range, in 2011, it was an exercise in subtraction. Characters such as Superman, Wonder Woman and The Flash were made young, fresh and new by hacking back the messy tangle of mythology that had grown around them over decades. Continuity – the accumulated baggage of all those formative stories, perky kid sidekicks, romantic dalliances and sometimes regrettable costume updates – was suddenly anathema. It was right there in the campaign’s title: the New 52. Now, after five years of slimmed-down stories, DC last month slammed the reboot button again with Rebirth, a restructuring of its entire slate of superhero titles.
If the New 52 hoped to lure the time-poor by boiling characters down to bullet points, DC Rebirth is more in tune with the current trend for longreads. All that old, daft DC continuity is back in play, with one notable addition so audacious it almost feels like a wind-up: in the pages of DC Universe Rebirth, a beefy 80-page sizzle reel for the new status quo, it was revealed that the paranoiac world of Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s caustic deconstruction of superhero tropes published by DC in the 1980s – has been folded into DC’s masterplan. Now, theoretically, its characters could team up with the Justice League.
The entire New 52 era has even been explained as a cosmic blip caused by Watchmen’s balls-out blue demigod Doctor Manhattan messing with alternate realities. This is a bold strategy, not least because Moore has a famously antagonistic relationship with DC. But it also threatens to overshadow the rest of the generally solid Rebirth project, which repositions Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Arrow and Supergirl so that they align better with DC’s various TV and movie projects. There are still some intriguing ideas to come, though, notably the introduction of Shanghai-based teen Kenan Kong, who will debut as a new “Super-Man” in two weeks. And the rougher edges have not been smoothed off entirely: Brit wizard Constantine does still call mossy golem Swamp Thing a “bloody turnip”.
Cross-universe collisions are nothing new. 2000AD’s Judge Dredd butted heads with Batman back in the 1990s, while the original crew of the USS Enterprise beamed down to the Planet Of The Apes last year in an IDW/Boom Studios comics crossover (entitled, brilliantly, The Primate Directive). Boom has now teamed up with DC for Lumberjanes/Gotham Academy, a six-part series by writer Chynna Clugston-Flores and artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell that combines two outlier comics into one cultish whole.
The Lumberjanes are five girl bunkmates at a peculiar, possibly eternal, summer camp next to a forest full of danger. At Gotham Academy, the faculty includes reformed C-list Batman villains and a secret gang of student detectives who solve mysteries between classes. When one a teacher vanishes without trace, the Academy crew end up on a road trip to Lumberjanes country where their sleuthing disturbs a sinister cabal of animal-skulled cenobites. Bringing together all these plucky, precocious kids for a Goonies-style adventure is a smart move, and it makes a refreshing change to read a comic where two sets of characters meeting for the first time don’t immediately have a massive fight.
Next up in Marvel’s lucrative production line of movie blockbusters is Doctor Strange, with Benedict Cumberbatch adopting the greying temples and disco collar of the sorcerer tasked with protecting Earth from supernatural threats. It is not the Batch-man’s first brush with comics. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s modern-day TV refit Sherlock was turned into a Japanese manga back in 2012 and canny UK publisher Titan recently launched an English translation as an ongoing monthly series.
It’s a notably faithful adaptation, so Sherlock is again introduced energetically thrashing a corpse with a riding crop. That first TV episode, A Study In Pink, hinged on some garishly coloured rolling luggage and that – along with all the on-screen texting palaver – presents certain challenges when it comes to being adapted into a black-and-white comic. Nevertheless, artist Jay crams dynamism into every layout, and his sharpened likenesses give the manga Holmes and Watson a more exaggerated, swashbuckling feel than their screen counterparts.