“I look down at it and know without question: I love this world. But there’s something missing.”
In the five years since DC Comics rebooted their universe through the Flashpoint event and New 52 line, the oldest major comics publisher in America has seen its fortunes fall. After being barraged with complaints about homogeneous artwork, constant crossovers interrupting series, and stories that just generally lacked heart, DC’s sales fell year after year. Last year’s DC You initiative, which aimed to diversify the tone of the DC Universe by introducing new creative teams and new storytelling styles, was received with a whimper rather than a bang. It was clear to everyone both within DC and outside of it that there was “something missing.”
With DC Universe: Rebirth #1, writer Geoff Johns espouses his take on DC’s problems and posits a solution to them. Visually realized by a huge team of artists including Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez, the Rebirth one-shot tells a story about the ten years of DC Universe continuity that were erased by the events of Flashpoint. It reintroduces old characters and brings in some controversial new ones as well.
Johns is a strong believer in DC Universe: Rebirth #1, and has gone on record saying that he will personally reimburse anyone who reads the issue and does not enjoy it. With that in mind, we at the Comics Beat seek to decide whether or not we should renew our faith in DC Comics or seek out reimbursement from the Bank of Johns in this week’s Roundtable Review of DC Universe: Rebirth #1.
Spoilers for Rebirth #1, Justice League #50, and Superman #52 begin after the jump.
Alex Lu: Going into this one-shot, my reaction to the Rebirth line as a whole has been lukewarm. I am excited for series that obviously seek to break new ground such as Gene Luen Yang’s and Victor Bogdanovic’s New Super-Man, but a great deal of the reborn line looks like more of the same– the same writers, artists, house style, and well-trodden ground we’ve all seen before. After reading Rebirth #1 though, I’m drastically more optimistic about the future of the DC Universe.
On the surface, Rebirth #1 is a story about Wally West’s return to the DC Universe– no, not the new, black Wally West, but the original that disappeared after Flashpoint. However, at its core, Rebirth #1 is more of a check in on the entire DC Universe. As Wally, who has been trapped in the Speed Force since the start of the New 52, zips around the universe, we catch glimpses of our present day titans not only as there are, but also as they were. Johns feels like these characters have had something stolen from them, and he wants to give it back.
Johns clearly loves the characters of the DC Universe, and that care shines through in several stellar scenes. Diana aka Black Canary and Oliver Quinn aka Green Arrow were once lovers before the Flashpoint. That relationship was wiped from the New 52’s canon, but was much beloved by fans. Johns gives the audience what they want when he has the former lovers share a sparked glance, even though they don’t understand why the look is so charged.
In perhaps the best scene of the book, Aquaman takes Mera to the island where they first met under less-than-amicable circumstances and proposes to her. The strength of that scene does not lay in the event itself, but rather the way that Johns and section artist Ivan Reis pace the scene. Aquaman surprises Mera with dinner on the island and Mera’s reaction turns from surprise into a sheepish grin as she tells Aquaman that this is where “I tried to kill you.” He points to the exact spot where they fought. It’s a clever beat that plays on the characters’ shared history and is done in such a way that even I, someone who has not read an Aquaman story, could feel for the characters. Indeed, Johns posits, it was love that was taken from the DC Universe, and its return is dearly welcome.
That said, while Rebirth #1 has very bright moments and recaptures a lot of what was missing in recent DC Comics stories, it does have some major issues. For one, the main plot about Wally West’s return to the DC Universe doesn’t work for me. Johns has admitted to several outlets that the reason why he wanted to write Rebirth #1 the way he did was out of adoration for Wally, but not all readers share that level of affection for the character. While I admittedly was overjoyed to see Barry Allen pull him out of the Speed Force just before he was consumed by it, I didn’t get a strong sense of who Wally was as a person. There is an overload of exposition from Wally throughout this book, and most of it focuses on the Universe itself rather than him. The most personal autobiographical captions appear on the first page of the book, when Wally talks about a watch handed down from generation to generation of West family members. The page is structured as a nine panel grid and each panel zooms deeper and deeper into the inner workings of the watch until you realize Johns is beating you over the head with a copy of Absolute Watchmen. The end result of all this narration is that you end up with a story that functions better as a meta-fictional critique of the DC Universe than it does as an actual work of fiction. There are no characters to root for or loathe in earnest. If anything, the main character of this story is the DC Universe itself, under siege from some higher power above that embodies the cynicism that has plagued many comics since Watchmen entered the zeitgeist.
And I guess we should talk about Watchmen, since it’s now officially a part of the DC Universe that we live in. I feel unqualified to take a firm position about the creative rights controversy that has long surrounded Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ characters, but I do want to speak to this from a narrative perspective– I think bringing the Watchmen into the DC Universe is a poor choice. Johns clearly lays out his intent in at the close of Rebirth #1‘s second chapter, where Dr. Manhattan incinerates Pandora. Pandora says Dr. Manhattan’s “cold heart believes in…Skepticism. Doubt. Corruption.” On the other hand, the heroes of the main DC word “embody” hope. While I respect the dichotomy that Johns is attempting to set up here, I don’t think the social commentary works because Watchmen itself is not a hopeless book. A lot of the books that attempted to replicate the gritty veneer of Watchmen without capturing the soul that makes the book tick are empty and corrupt. However, Watchmen itself is story that breaks superheroic archetypes down only to build them up again. Indeed, Dr. Manhattan’s arc is about a man who becomes a god and loses a great deal of his humanity to cynicism and skepticism, only to rediscover hope through human connection and love. Rebirth #1‘s greatest sin is regressing the character of Dr. Manhattan to the point he started at in Moore’s series in order to prove a meta-fictional point.
My initial reaction to the Watchmen reveal was shock. Johns’ work has always been good at shocking. However, when you really break it down, the reveal lacks the deeper meaning that Johns intends for it to have. Thus, Johns’ use of Dr. Manhattan and the Watchmen world ultimately undermines the point he effectively succeeds in proving throughout the rest of Rebirth #1. The DC Universe has had no end of shocking reveals and apocalyptic events, but it has been sorely missing character-driven stories with real inter-personal relationships and human emotion. You can and probably should have both, but you should never sacrifice the latter for the former. Rebirth #1 does, which tempers my enthusiasm for it to some extent.
Ultimately though, I am far more excited about the future of the DC Universe than I was just last week, and that’s a pretty big swing of the emotional pendulum for such a short period of time. Johns, Frank, Van Sciver, Reis, and Jimenez have revitalized a huge number of characters in a relatively small number of pages, bringing new visual energy and real affection to world that has been dominated by cold action and homogenous house art styles for several years. I look forward to seeing where the rejuvenated titles go, because if they’re as good as Rebirth #1 was overall, then DC’s future looks bright indeed.
Perhaps we should put those smiley face pins back in the closet though, no?
Kyle Pinion: Geoff Johns knows how to write Wally West. I might argue his run on The Flash is the high watermark for his career, and his return to the character does not disappoint. I found myself getting choked up at the big reunion scene between Barry and Wally, despite being likely the most cynical member of Team Beat.
And while the issue is loaded with Johns’ signature heavy-handed exposition, a thing that generally never jibes with me, being conservative when it comes to narration in comics, it’s hard for me to argue that Rebirth #1 is not a well-paced, enjoyable comic up to a point. It’s also a good looking one, particularly where Phil Jimenez and Gary Frank are concerned.
However, that aforementioned point is a big one, as the big end issue reveal does not sit well with me– not so much for the idea of involving Watchmen characters in the wider DC universe (I think the idea of “After Watchmen”, an off-handed joke at one time, was an eventuality that we would soon face) but I instead take issue with the idea that Doctor Manhattan should be the Johns’ representation of “cynacism” in the DC Universe. The scene in question that bothers me most: the execution of Pandora who was the ominous presence of the New 52 at its inception. Her reaction treats Jon Osterman as a malevolent force, and that simply does not jibe with Dr. Manhattan as readers have come to know him in Moore and Gibbons’ seminal work. I have a hard time believing the man who proclaimed Laurie Jupiter “a miracle” would become this standard bearer for grim and gritty story telling. It’s an odd, ugly note in an otherwise fairly enjoyable jump-start for the ‘rebirthed’ DCU.
Alexander Jones: Kyle, I completely agree with your points. After reading through Justice League #50, launching the same day as DC Universe: Rebirth #1–I was happy to see some cohesion in the two issues. These two comic books feel extremely connected, and that connectivity was the core strength of the pre-Flashpoint DC Universe before Flashpoint.
Before I dig into the story itself, I want to jump in and say that this issue is drawn by a murderer’s row of exceptional artists doing what they do best–this comic book is wearing an incredibly slick tuxedo. This thing is chock full of really beautiful moments and I almost love it with all of my heart and soul–it’s like looking at the Mona Lisa through a pop art lens.
I was also a big fan of Johns’ decision to focus the narration of the story through the eyes of Wally West. There is a lot going on in this comic, but it feels focused and chock full of delicious secrets waiting to be uncovered. This whole issue is likely brimming with the same kinds of secrets and stories that were permeating throughout Green Lantern: Rebirth, originally published in 2004. There are many nods to to that classic story and I feel like for the most part this comic book achieves what it is trying to do– evoke the golden past of DC Comics.
Kyle and Alex mentioned this above, but I do believe it bears repeating: the part of this book that sours me most is the inclusion of Watchmen characters. I don’t believe that the only way to prove what Johns wanted to prove in Rebirth #1 was to use The Watchmen. I completely understand why DC has made this decision with these characters– they broke the seal after Before Watchmen, so it was only a matter of time before they did it again to make a quick buck. I only wish it could be done with the consent of the original creator.
Todd Allen: Rebirth #1 was a strange, strange comic. At the same time, I can’t say it was a bad comic, but I’m not entirely sure why it exists.
On a surface level, the art is as good as DC puts out. The narration was just a touch too overly angst-ridden, but Johns is in charge of adapting the DC properties to TV and now film, so I suppose I should have expected that. A lighter touch would have gone a little further to spreading the message of hope that Johns clearly wants to espouse, but that’s a minor quibble.
This comic had a LOT of exposition, which was necessary to explain the convoluted state of affairs springing out of Flashpoint. It referenced a few things from the modern canon including the last couple issues of Superman, the most recent Justice League arc, and whatever’s going in Titans. However, while we deal with the aftermath of Darkseid’s death/rebirth and Superman’s death, the comic never actually explains why these things are happening. It actually tells us to read Justice League #50 and Superman #52 before reading Rebirth #1. If this is a jumping on point, that’s poor form. (Demerits to the editor.) You’re supposed to be bringing people back to fix plummeting sales. Don’t assume I’ve been reading all your monthlies and don’t tease me to pick up the tpb, because it won’t be out for another 6-12 months.
Also on the surface level, it puzzles me that we have the setup for a mini-series to finally pull the safety valve that Flashpoint set up… except Johns isn’t going to be around to write it. He’s been kicked upstairs and was never writing anything past this one-shot from get go – at least as far as anyone has bothered to tell me.
Where do we see Johnny Thunder looking for Justice Society (and will DiDio actually allow the original Justice Society back on the premises… but that’s a meta issue and I get ahead of myself)? Where is Batman tracking down the Watchmen? Who is writing those arcs? Johns sets it up and then somebody else *presumably* runs with it?
What’s the point?
It was nice enough for what it was, but nothing to write home about.
On the metatextual level… oh my.
An entire story that seemed very clearly to be the COO of DC berating Dan DiDio, the Co-Publisher of DC, for completely ruining DC Comics for the last decade. A point by point deconstruction and trashing of editorial trends. The hand of Doctor Manhattan as the hand of DiDio reaching out to crush hope and marriages, stealing a decade of comics.
Yes, I read it as a pissing contest between two executives. I’m glad DC has such strong leadership. Good job with the troops, Diane.
I’m not the only one who read it that way. Earlier today, I was talking to someone for whom that comic was the final straw in his/her decision not to apply for that DC writer’s workshop. If you read the news sites, I’m sure you’ve heard some of the same stories about inter-office warfare I have. This person considered Rebirth as an indication of how toxic it had become and decided (s)he just didn’t want to deal with that kind of an environment. I don’t blame him/her.
It is utterly absurd to air the company’s editorial in-fighting out for all to see like that. And when the demonized Co-Publisher is still there? That’s insane.
That said, I did agree with most of the criticisms Johns was leveling at the past 10 years of DC stories. Was the Justice Society disappearing supposed to be a metaphor for creators getting run off? I see Greg Rucka has returned. Was Doctor Manhattan’s casting as the big bad a joke about DiDio’s Watchmen obsession or just the most handy vehicle? I found dragging Watchmen into this incredibly distasteful and I do NOT want to see JLA vs. Watchman as an event.
Johns is also not anything approaching an innocent in what’s gone wrong with DC in the last decade. Flashpoint was a blood soaked hot mess and not fondly remembered in many circles. While his Green Lantern work was strong through Blackest Night, Flash: Reborn and the whole tired “Zoom killed my mommy” thing is part and parcel of the tonal problems he calls out in this.
It’s very strange for the kickoff book for a relaunch to come right out and say “look at all the terrible, terrible things that have been done to those characters you used to like. Now that I’ve reminded you how bad it got and why you left, would you please come back? I promise not to stab you this time.”
A bit of Sisyphus in action if the promised tonal changes don’t stick, too.
So yeah, my reaction to the book is that it’s decent for what it is, but I’m not at all sure that it was a good idea. On the other hand, the first step is admitting you have a problem.
Strange that you air your problems and then hand it back to the person on whom said problem is blamed.
Heidi MacDonald: I must yield in knowledge of and love for the DCU to you guys. I approached this the way I did Flashpoint back in the day , as a new reader who had only nodding familiarity with the way the universe has been run in the New 52/DCYou era.
However, as someone who follows the BEHIND the scenes of the comics industry, I found every page of this riveting! When the first preview materials went out about this with the “There’s something missing” copy, it was obvious this was a comment on the actual state of the DCU; given the fact that writer Geoff Johns was always against the “reboot” nature of the New 52, the scheme to steal 10 years from the characters, and to remove the relationships (Ollie and Dinah being one so obvious even I got it) is as much a commentary on this behind the scenes conflict as any battles on the page.
That said, the vehicle of Wally West’s desperate apparitional jaunt through the lives of all the characters, uniting this and that Blue Beetle, peeping in on Aquaman’s marital life, defining the other Wally West and so on, is an effective dramatic conceit for this metaphorical journey, as the personal connections return to a universe that was sort of a grim and lonely place for a while there.
While I’m not always on board with the DC style, the art by the top artists Frank, van Sciver, Reis and Jimenez is up to the task. Ivan Reis in particular gets perhaps the book’s most affecting sequence as Wally tries to contact the person who means the most to him; the emotions captured reveal a subtlety and nuance rare in a superhero book.
So on the whole, I was on board with this. If you know anything about the kind of comics I like from reading this blog, you may have guessed that for ongoing comics I like stories that center on relationships, motivations that affect characters and the sort of affable melodrama that you can spin out for years. So this is it, then? The antidote to the Crisis Era?
Well, not quite. Continuing on the Flex Mentallo-esque fourth wall breaking, the use of the Watchmen characters as the shocking deus ex machina, it must be admitted, works internally–and the way it’s handled is surprisingly respectful. But it can in no way be condoned in light of the indifference to creators that has stained so much of comics history. You can argue this or that aspect of this move, and that’s for a longer blog post, but to put it in Twitter length: Watchmen should be left alone where it belongs.
The other matter is the credits of the book, which show Eddie Berganza is the Group Editor of Rebirth #1. I won’t rehash that here either, but it’s a sobering reminder.
Suffice to say that as optimistic and hopeful as Rebirth wants to be, by its very nature it can’t be separated from its own history. There is no clean slate. Battles are still being fought. We’re not there yet. But like Wally, we need to try to reestablish a humane and ethical connection to keep these heroes on the inspirational plane where they should be.