DC Universe: Rebirth #1 (one shot)
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank, Ivan Reis, Phil Jimenez and others.
Rebirth is many things. It’s soft reboot for the DC Comics universe. It’s an in-story arc, with various miniseries and tie-ins attached. It’s a brazen marketing push, even by modern comics events standards. But it’s also a clear editorial directive, one that permeates the chatter around it: things have gotten too dark, and we need to pull back and focus on hope and optimism.
But because of how DC works, with their love of continuity and metafiction, it wasn’t enough to just rebrand some books and decide that maybe some stories don’t need to be so grim. They had to build the edgy rebranding of the nu52 into an arc itself, an in-universe aberration that had lasting consequences. It’s not an apology, it’s something even better. A BAD GUY made these stories in a way you don’t like, and now all the old good guys you remember from before are gonna go get him.
To take care of this task, DC brought in a dream team of artists whose styles all evoke the long-gone glory days of DC Comics, and somewhat ironically, the architect of much of the nu52 status quo, writer Geoff Johns. Johns was a whipping boy for a while in a lot of circles for his predisposition towards violent dismemberment and heavy-handed metaphor, but when he’s on his game, he’s as heartfelt as anyone, and he’s on his game here. The story itself jumps around a lot, setting up stories for folks like Batman, Green Lantern and the Atom, but the focus is on pre-Flashpoint Wally West, who’s been trapped outside of continuity for years and is trying to get back in. Wally is classic DC incarnate, an idealistic, smiling sidekick who never gives up, even as his own wife fails to recognize him. He’s unmoored in time, but not in purpose, and as he sees that he’s no longer needed in this new world and he’ll likely never escape the Speed Force, he attempts to make peace with that fact. When he’s finally anchored by his mentor, Barry Allen, it’s a powerful moment, one with genuine joy and sadness. Johns uses a classic fan favorite as a show of good faith for this new direction (the fact that we already have a current version of Wally running around be damned).
It’s a gorgeous book, with a lot of great images even when it doesn’t necessarily need them. Colorists Brad Anderson and Jason Wright do a great job keeping everything readable even though a fair amount of the comic is set among dozens of lightning bolts. There’s a lot of repetition here, with Wally being sucked in and out of the Speed Force over and over, usually while spouting inner monologue. Still, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis and a stable of pencilers keep everything from feeling stale, alternating between low angle panels and tight close-ups for maximum effect.
Rebirth is a pure exercise in Johnsian Literalism, and if a character here is the good old days, we need an opposite number to represent the “fallen” era in which we now live. I put fallen in scare quotes because despite the initial friction, the post-Flashpoint landscape has leveled out into one that produces strong stories at least as often as it doesn’t. The cries of “change it back!” have faded with Snyder’s Batman run, “Darkseid War”, and other recent books, but maybe this is the turnaround time on deciding a reboot was a bad call. Anyway, every story needs a villain, and the villain here, improbably, is Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. It seems the good doctor is the force of darkness that has reached through the universe since Flashpoint and possibly before. How? Why? None of this is clear yet, beyond the implication that it happened, and that elements of Watchmen are being rolled into the DCU proper.
I have a sort of macabre glee at this development. Age, a movie adaptation, and the Before Watchmen line have made Alan Moore’s classic much less of a sacred cow, and Moore himself has made it clear he doesn’t give two shits what’s done with his work. With that in mind, and in the spirit of metafiction that DC and Johns love, why NOT have Dr. Manhattan in it? Why not cast him as an uncaring god, a tinkering observer who must be stopped by heroes who can’t even fathom him? It’s not nearly as clever as Multiversity but it’s much more readable and appealing than Convergence. If we’re gonna do this dance every couple of years, with new logos and new brandings and a new guy to fight in a metaphysical plane with a motion blur background, you may as well stunt cast it.
As a side note, I studiously avoided spoilers for this issue when they were posted last week, and didn’t know much going in beyond vague implications that Watchmen was being integrated. I reached a point this week when, perversely, I felt like by waiting I was developing a bias TOWARDS the comic. I have my share of contrarian tendencies, and seeing everyone rag on a two-sentence summary of a couple pages might have predisposed me to enjoying the comic. After reading, I don’t really think that happened, because I can 100% sympathize with people’s complaints. I just don’t really have a ton of reverence towards Watchmen, so seeing it cannibalized for this year’s crossover is more broadly interesting than anything else.
There are a lot of other little bits in this comic that I’m sure will play out in interesting ways. Johnny Thunder is back, and he’s old and sad! The Legion of Superheroes probably exists! DARKSEID IS A BABY!! Where and how all these stories will play out isn’t clear yet, but they seem fun enough. It’s also worth noting that instead of the usual oversized specials that are digests with various little stories (think Brave New World, among others), this is a Johns joint from start to finish. Clearly DC prioritizes this meta-story over pushing the new Superboy and Black Canary books, for better or worse.
Rebirth isn’t the best Geoff Johns story, nor is it the worst. It is probably the MOST Geoff Johns story, though. And as far as crazy ideas go, this is at least blasphemous enough to be interesting. There’s a lot of heart here, and as the relaunch’s main stated goal, that means something.