DC's DiDIO & LEE on Whether REBIRTH Was a Repudiation (or Not) of WATCHMEN and the NEW 52

DC Universe: Rebirth #1
Credit: DC Comics
Credit: Gary Frank (DC Comics)

Although DC Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee are hoping Rebirth can duplicate the kind of high sales numbers the company saw when the New 52 was launched in 2011, the two executives aren't shying away from admitting that the "New 52" had a few things wrong with it.

And although DC Universe Rebirth undoes some of the damage done by the "New 52," the two executives prefer to focus on how the upcoming stories are adding things back into the "New 52" that were, admittedly, missing.

But one of the things being added into the DCU is something that's never been there before — the world of Watchmen, the acclaimed graphic novel that was formerly completely separate from DC continuity. With DC Universe Rebirth, the Watchmen characters have crossed into the DCU, and in fact were blamed for the "New 52" reboot itself.

So why add Watchmen to the DCU? And what's the new approach to continuity? And is all the commentary about DC being too dark in the past representative of how the company's executives feel? Following up on our pre-Rebirth interview with the two executives, Newsarama talked to Lee and DiDio to get their insight on those post-Rebirth questions and more.

Credit: DC Comics

Newsarama: So Dan, Jim, let's cut right to the chase. Was there any hesitation at the idea of introducing Watchmen into the DCU? Was that just something you thought made sense?

Jim Lee: Look, we expected it would be a controversial decision. I think with all storylines that have that potential to go that direction, you have to look at the story and the creator that's telling that story and look at the trade-offs, honestly.

With all kinds of potentially controversial decisions, we always weight the creative upside of making these kinds of changes. And I think the story that Geoff Johns came up with really accomplished that. There was a lot of creative upside to making this a reality, a change in DC continuity.

And if you've read any of the reviews or criticisms online, a lot of people picked up on the meta aspect of it, which was really interesting for us to read.

But at the end of the day, it fit in. You're doing it retrospectively, of course. But it definitely positioned and re-seated the "New 52" within the context of the pre-existing universe continuity, and incorporated elements of Watchmen.

I think it comes down to, do you do something that's disrespectful of the Watchmen or do something that alters what that story is? And our goal is to do neither of those.

So I think it's an incredible tease and set-up for a bigger storyline. But as far as, is this a Watchmen story? I think it's not. It's handshaking the concept of the Watchmen and using it to adjust some of the continuity that was going on in the DC Universe.

And I think you have to wait and see for the rest of the storyline, I won't really spoil it.

But you'll see that there was some tremendous creative upside in making this happen.

So it was a challenging, difficult decision to make, but in the end, we stood behind the creator, the storyline, the creativity of the storyline, and we feel we have a very exciting story that will unfold in the coming year.

Credit: DC Comics

Nrama: As you mentioned, one of the things people have picked up on from Rebirth is that there's kind of this meta context that the DCU has been dark and has turned away from its hopeful and inspirational nature. There's even an implication in Rebirth that Watchmen kind of infected DC Comics since it was published. Is that idea at all supported by the DC publishing side of things?

Dan DiDio: You know what's interesting to me is I've always found comics to have a little bit of a counter-culture feel. And that's one of the things they did — they took ideas and sensibilities and they found a way to build story around it and find a way to galvanize the sensibilities of the world.

One of the things that's interesting in the world today is that there's an inherent negativity and anger and hostility that's all around us. This felt like the right time to shift the sensibilities of the publishing line to actually bring back a counterpoint — a sense of hope and inspiration.

If we have a world that is lacking heroes or people to rally around, then we're going to elevate our characters and show them what that level of hope and inspiration is about by putting our characters in the forefront by showing what it means to be a hero again.

Credit: DC Comics

So it seemed like the right time to embrace this story. Just the same way we attacked different sensibilities in the world post-9/11, now it felt like we needed heroes again. And there's no better way to tell hero stories than with our characters.

Nrama: The other thing that this story felt like was kind of a repudiation of the "New 52," that things were stolen from the DCU. Do you see it that way?

DiDio: The launch of the "New 52" is still the single most successful period of time for DC Comics, in sales and storytelling. For us, this is an evolution of that period of time.

That said, we probably changed some things a little bit too much, and we left things out that really resonated very importantly with our fans. And this was an opportunity to start to work those beats and stories back into storytelling so that we're able to reach the greatest audience possible.

I mean, you know, we don't — as much as some people might think changes are being made haphazardly, when we do a line-wide change of this sense, it's thought all the way out, about where the weaknesses are in our storytelling, what needs to be addressed.

So everything you saw in Rebirth was meticulously planned and discussed, because we realized these were the things that were missing with our audience, and if we really wanted to connect to them, and to really improve sales to get back to those numbers we had when we first launched the "New 52," we had to make some changes. And that's the reason why we went down that road.

Credit: DC Comics

Lee: When I said the meta stuff was interesting to read, I meant it was interesting to me, because that wasn't necessarily the intent of Rebirth, this repudiation that you're talking about. It was interesting that people picked up on that and ran with it.

I think at the end of the day, what Rebirth is really about, if you take that line literally or look at it through the meta prism, you know, "I love this world, but there's something missing," I think it's more than: Hey, the "New 52" was exciting and introduced a lot of new elements. It excited the readers and brought in new readers and new fans. But there were things that we overlooked, and elements of the DC Universe that really were core to the universe, that in our zeal and excitement going forward to establish new continuity, that we might have overlooked.

And I think that was Geoff saying, look, we have to restore these elements. These are critical elements of the DC Universe. And he came up with a storyline that embraced the hope and optimism of the DC Universe and allows us to restore those elements.

So I think, to me, it's more additive, rather than a repudiation. But it was interesting reading these reviews, because people were looking at the story in so many different ways and looking at all the different layers of the story. And that was interesting for me to see as a reader and as a fan, that people were very engaged, to that level, by the story. Because that, to me, signaled that we were on the right track. It got people really thinking about comics, the history of comics, what DC Comics should represent, what kind of stories they want to see, and what these characters represent.

So I think it's a creative challenge to everyone — the fans, the editorial teams, the business, of where this business is going. That's a heavy story to put out there, and I think it's great that he was able to weave it into an entertaining story as well.

It accomplished all that, and I think that's why it's really resonated with the readers.

DiDio: And if you read the book, you can tell that Geoff put his heart and soul into writing that book, the Rebirth special. I think that's why it worked so well.

From our standpoint, we always need to evolve. We always need to grow, we always need to change, we always need to reset every once in a while. That's the way our business works. We're in a periodical business. We've got to turn out a great number of books on a monthly basis, or twice-monthly basis now. So in doing so we've always got to find the best opportunities, the best stories. And if there are good ideas that were left unused and not touched upon from the "New 52," we would be making a mistake not to explore them at this point and not build on them.

What's exciting to see is that, because these ideas have been rested for an extended period of time, the level of acceptance for them and the excitement for them has never been greater.

Credit: Brett Booth (DC Comics)

And actually, I remember my days when I first started at DC and Paul [Levitz, former president and publisher of DC Comics] used to do this. He used to talk to me about characters all the time. And he used to talk about, when a book was canceled, you'd have to put a character on a shelf for three to five years. He said, "Let some of the toxicity wear off from whatever that previous run was. Let other people remember how wonderful the ideas were. And then come back strong and hopefully be able to rebuild the character or story for a long run again."

That's how they used to cycle the DC characters through. You used to see a Hawkman book or something every five years or so.

We've accelerated that, and probably to our own detriment in doing that. We've rushed books behind books so quickly that we didn't have a chance to build an audience.

And I think in this case, we actually rested something the right amount of time, so when it comes back, it's going to come back stronger than ever, and hopefully can last for as long as it can.

Nrama: It's interesting to hear you kind of — I don't know if the word is "admit" — but you said that every once in a while, and I'm guessing every five or 10 years, you do have to reset things and decide, "what is our line saying now?" And you just revised things again that way, not rebooted mind you. But it sounds like you're saying that's just the nature of a periodical business. That's what this is?

DiDio: Yeah.

And you know, if I could get anything back from the "New 52" and do something over, I'd probably try to look at a better way to introduce the line so it felt like a continuous story, rather than just a hard stop and a hard, fresh beginning again.

But, you know, we Monday morning quarterback on every decision that we do here.

Nrama: I don't know how much you can say about how the continuity works. I assume we'll find this out as we go. But Rebirth seems to embrace Crisis on Infinite Earths but it rejects, for example, Identity Crisis. Can you speak from a publishing standpoint how that affects the books in your backlist? What "counts" and what "doesn't?"

DiDio: It's an interesting question because, ultimately, the backlist is determined by the sales. If you look at Dark Knight Returns, that was never to be part of any continuity, and yet it continues to go. And Killing Joke was never supposed to be part of continuity and yet it came in, and it's still a best-seller.

The story that were picked and chosen in moving everything forward were integral for the storytelling for what we're planning to do for the future.

I mean, when you have 75 to 80 years’ worth of publishing behind you, every story can't have the same weight or matter in continuity. Every story cannot be as canon as the others.

And the ones we're choosing and how we're working forward are the ones that help best to keep the characters moving forward.

Lee: I think that very same question came up before we did the "New 52." They were saying, "how are we going to sell this trade if it's no longer in continuity?" And I think, at the end of the day, the readers are very bright. They know how to weave this all together, and essentially create their own version of the DC Universe based on what they've read and their favorite stories.

Like Dan said, the stuff that sells the best or is the most revered tends to rise and dominate the continuity space.

And if you look at the concept of Rebirth and look at what Geoff has done with the Flash and Green Lantern prior, you see that, it is a sorting through of the past and picking out the elements that are more core and representative of the characters and elevating them and pushing them to the forefront.

That's not necessarily to rewrite past continuity, but it's really a focusing on what's important going forward.

Nrama: But you guys know that die-hard fans' heads will explore trying to figure out how one thing fits and the other doesn't. Is that dealt with in upcoming stories? Or is it just left with the idea that continuity got "messed with" and so this is just the way it is?

DiDio: Things will unravel as we go forward. Some things will be explained and some things will probably be left hanging.

Nrama: I know we're about out of time. But looking back at my interview with the two of you before Rebirth came out, is there anything you didn't get to say then that, now that people have read Geoff's issue, you can more clearly explain?

DiDio: I think the immensely positive reaction is self-explanatory.

Nrama: Aren't you lucky you get to say that?

DiDio: Yeah, that's the first time I've ever said that! [Laughs.]

Lee: It was not an easy or light decision to make, but it was gratifying to see that the reaction was very, very positive, not just for the Rebirth special, but for all the Rebirth #1's and the first issues of the books we've had so far.

What we're seeing online from the fans and what we're hearing from the retailers is that they're embracing it. So it's exciting. We're really pleased with how it's going, and it makes all the hard work worthwhile.

DiDio: And hard work is the key part right here. The number of hours, the amount of energy, the amount of writing, rewriting, meetings and discussions and work that's going in to building this, the fact that it's being so incredibly well-received, I think, is really just a rewarding feeling for all of us. And we're very excited by the fans, that there were fans out there who felt disenfranchised but now, they're able to come back and try everything again. And we're hoping to hold on to those fans that came on with the "New 52" and feels like this is their version of the DC Universe. There shouldn't be everybody feeling like, "my version." It should be all of our version of the DCU, all of us enjoying the same world, the same characters together, the interpretations.

And hopefully this direction, this focus from Rebirth out is something that really unites the DC comic fans.

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