Review: DC Universe: Rebirth #1 (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 26, 2016


The DC Universe: Rebirth special is certainly audacious, and I respect audaciousness greatly. But it will be years apparently before we know whether that audaciousness is justified, and therein lies the difficulty.

Spoilers for DC Universe: Rebirth #1 below the jump.

Countdown Redux

Geoff Johns's Rebirth reminds of nothing so much as Johns's Countdown to Infinite Crisis, and frankly (with only the mildest of puns intended) the similarity seems an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. But Countdown had going for it that despite its role in setting up the rest of 2005's DC Comics storylines leading into Infinite Crisis, it also read well as a story on its own; further it was clear on finishing Countdown where to go next to follow its threads (the four Countdown miniseries). Though Rebirth is a treat for Wally West fans (and who isn't?), it felt more advertisement than story in its own right; and further, though it's clear Wally continues into Titans, it's less clear where I should go to see Batman and Barry Allen discuss Flashpoint, for instance, or where the Watchmen characters will appear next.

Rebirth itself follows from Justice League #50 and Superman #52, and then continues into we don't know where yet. Going to some of the implicit themes of Rebirth, perhaps we ought be glad this is a continuum and not a full stop; at the same time, my biggest pet peeve with DC Comics events is only perpetuated here, that every event serves as prologue for something else, never a story in its own right (see Trinity War,Forever Evil, Darkseid War, and now Rebirth). Of course I'm happy to see Wally, to see Johns writing Wally, and to see Wally and Barry reconcile -- and for those reasons, I'd hardly take Johns up on his offer to buy back my copy of Rebirth -- but Rebirth was not the revelatory story I had hoped. Rather it's a collection of teases for DC's new "Rebirth" series with some nice Flash-family moments at the end.

Whither Revelations?

I feel shorted on the "revelation" front, too. Wally is back, yes. Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan, depending on what you read, variably created the DC Universe, will threaten the DC Universe, or stole ten years from the DC Universe, but none of that is actually in Rebirth so much as I've gleaned it from other sources. Atom Ray Palmer refers to something called the Microverse, but we're offered no greater detail as to what that is (nor, even, where to go to follow the Atom's storyline). At the end of books like Zero Hour, The Kingdom, and Infinite Crisis, I really understood something new and different about the DC Universe; I recognize Rebirth is the beginning and not the end, but I expected to come away with answers, not more questions (and uncertainty as to where to find those answers).

I did like the "ten years" concept; for all the unavoidable spoilers online, this one hit me square between the eyes. I figured the New 52 would turn out to be a pocket universe of sorts, some kind of alternate dimension (and then, if the pre-Flashpoint DCU still existed, we'd see various characters traveling back and forth from the "pocket"). Instead, the post-Flashpoint universe is apparently still the pre-Flashpoint universe with five years grafted to the narrative present (which I imagine as something akin to A Wrinkle in Time). That's brilliant on Johns's part and astoundingly makes a whole lot of sense. Insofar as a ten year/five year "jump" has been part of the narrative fabric of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths and post-Flashpoint DC Universes respectively (and I should know; check out my timeline), this is a fix with a lot of precedent and resonance.

Second, I totally thought Johns was going to kill off Wally, and that "KZT" at the bottom of the page where Barry grabs him is a great moment. Also, one of Rebirth's key narrative problems was always going to be how to reconcile a returning pre-Flashpoint Wally West with the Flash title's new (and TV-friendly) Wally West, especially with the grafted-five-years revelation that pre- and post-Flashpoint are the same universe, and Johns handled this brilliantly (is there a story problem that Johns has come across that he can't lick?). At the same time, Rebirth was meant to have a shocking death, no? Is Pandora's demise all that shocking, or is simply that her manner of death points so specifically to its culprit?

Who Blames the Watchmen?

Which brings us to the elephant in the room, that depending on what interview you read, it seems Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan is set to be the DC Universe's next big villain. I'm disinclined to be cynical, and at the end of the day I do believe that Geoff Johns and Dan DiDio's goal is to tell the best superhero stories possible; Watchmen, I'm sure, sells just fine thank you without needing this Rebirth push. And no doubt everyone involved recognizes immediately that building the new, improved DC Universe on the foundation of Watchmen invites every article for the next ten years to include as a footnote that Dr. Manhattan creator Alan Moore can't possibly be too happy about this. This suggests, in the best case, that Johns has got a story in mind so good that it's worth all the baggage that comes with Dr. Manhattan to use him. That's the hope, at the very least.

Wally suggests at the end of Rebirth that "there's going to be a war between hope and despair. Love and apathy. Faith and disbelief." It's a jab, seemingly, at Watchmen's sensibilities, and by implication what Watchmen wrought, the grim and gritty comics of the 1980s. But that's problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Watchmen doesn't posit its apathy as correct in the end (indeed Rorschach would rather die than go along with Ozymandias's plan) and the book is hardly to blame for what inspiration people took from it. (Not to mention Rebirth elbows Watchmen at the same time DC Comics publishes a three-quel to Dark Knight Returns.)

We can extrapolate even further that apparently Manhattan's plan was to steal ten years from the DC Universe to "weaken" it by taking away love and legacy -- that is, to create the "apathetic," "despairing" New 52 DC Universe. That's a popular thing to say, that the New 52 was darker or rougher (perhaps because it's easier to separate old from new by virtue of "difference"), but I don't think it holds up. For every New 52 misfire, there's been years of instant-classic Batman stories, a strong (if not for everyone) Wonder Woman run, Jeff Lemire's Animal Man, Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul's Flash, the introduction of Green Lantern Simon Baz, Cyborg in the Justice League, and renewed popularity for Aquaman. To suggest the New 52 is a cosmic weapon of angst plays well in the soundbites, but it's too easy an idea to describe a publishing line that surely had its ups as well as its downs.

The Reasons for Forgetting

Johns makes a clear statement on this point when Aquaman proposes to Mera in these pages, repudiating DC's so-called "marriage ban" among its characters -- which again, I think, was a matter of letting the most scandalous parts of an explanation rule the issue without the necessary nuance. Barry says to Wally, "How could I ever forget you," but there are good answers to these questions and Johns knows them.

Pre-Flashpoint, the DC Comics heroes were married with spouses and kids; with no offense intended to spouses or children, there's a reason James Bond keeps de-aging with every movie. There is story potential in Superman and Lois Lane marrying, but this also meant we spent almost twenty years without any writer being able to introduce another love interest for either character, short of shlock-y "Lois is irrationally jealous"-type stories. Married characters can be written interestingly, but in the case of the DC Universe, stagnation abounded.

Ditto both the sidekicks and the Justice Society. Again, no offense intended toward either group, but with Batman on his fifth Robin (his son), Barry Allen on his second Kid Flash (his grandson), and even former sidekick Bart Allen ceding his name to a new Impulse, clearly some of these stables had grown too large. Why forget Wally? Well, Wally could maybe stay, but there's a whole lot else that needed to go. And I like the Justice Society, but I also like Superman retaking his role as the DC Universe's first superhero, and I don't mind the Justice Society living on Earth-2 the way they did pre-Crisis. To say that the DC Universe is about "legacy" is a modern anachronism, implying DC Comics began at Crisis on Infinite Earths and overlooking everything that came before.

Magical Cynicism

Ironically, a major theme of Infinite Crisis was how cynical the then-pre-Flashpoint DC Universe was, and how the pre-Crisis characters could show them the light. Now the pre-Flashpoint characters are the "light bearers," such to suggest cynicism is all relative (or more strongly, a narrative construct to be trotted out as needed). What will get tiresome is Wally and the pre-Flashpoint Superman constantly reminding the New 52 characters what it means to be "good," when it's all just story construct. There's a lot of meta-textuality in the DC Universe at the moment and it looks like there will be for a while, when I'm less concerned with which universe a hero's from than someone just telling me a good story for my money; I worry Rebirth has taken us farther away from that, not brought us closer to it.

I wish good things for the DC Universe; I think we all do. Nothing would please me more than to look back on DC Universe: Rebirth as the start of another Infinite Crisis-type era of greatness. But at some point that means the course-correcting has to stop and the actual moving forward has to start, and that the problems of the present can't perpetually be blamed on issues of the past. Characters are as good, bad, angst-ridden, or virtuous as their writers want them to be, no more and no less. The success of the "Rebirth" initiative will ultimately lie in whether the creative teams will stand behind what comes next or if we'll find "Rebirth" too on trial five years hence.

Stephanie Brown. Ryan Choi. Wally West. Here we go.
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13 comments:

  1. I wish the internet and my own uncontrollable curiosity didn't rob me of reading this book unspoiled, but the Wally West material still moved me tremendously. The Watchmen stuff, on the other hand, rubbed me the wrong way, and I think Johns should have used the Earth-4 Captain Atom (last seen in The Multiversity: Pax Americana) instead of Dr. Manhattan. And whether Mr. Oz is who he's rumored to be or not, I'm glad that dangling plotline won't be forgotten.

    To be frank, I'm not one of the readers the Rebirth initiative is desperately trying to win back, because I'm fine with the New 52 continuity and I still think it's possible to tell great stories in it. "The Darkseid War" (which this book partially spoiled for you, unfortunately) is a fine example of that, mixing familiar elements with new ones and re-arranging them to tell a story that feels fresh and surprising, and couldn't be told in the pre-Flashoint continuity. The problem is that, lately, Justice League and Batman were just about the only non-fringe books that were getting that approach right. No wonder I called them "the few nifty two".

    I'm sure some good stuff will come out of Rebirth, and I'm particularly looking forward to King's Batman and Rucka's Wonder Woman, but this whole new direction for the DCU still won't solve DC's biggest problem: terrible editors who chased good talent away from the company and keep them from wanting to come back. The news that Johns will take some time off from writing comics is very troubling, because I don't trust DC's editorial to bring his overall plan to fruition without his direct involvement.

    Lastly, one thing that makes me curious is whether this special will be collected anywhere other than the Rebirth omnibus. I think there should be a ninth Justice League volume collecting this along with the series's last two issues, which Johns didn't write.

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    1. The idea of Mr. Oz as Ozymandias bugs me because it doesn't seem like him to be a hooded figure offering teasing hints, but we'll see how it plays out. But Johns using Oz -- and the idea that Johns has been seeding aspects of this all along, like the Flashpoint letter -- is very interesting. If there's a cynicism at issue here, it's that we've grown so used to dangling plotlines when creative teams change, never to be addressed again, that it never occurred to me to read any deeper into Mr. Oz or even to keep him in mind. That's frankly what "Rebirth" needs to combat, that unfinished or abandon storylines sometimes feel more the rule than the exception.

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  2. I can't help but read a pointed comment related to Geoff John's new position in DC films at the end of Rebirth. When the position was announced last week he gave an interview where he went on about infusing the DCEU with hope and optimism. When the comic contrasts hope and optimism against the Watchmen world of despair and apathy I couldn't help thinking of those interview comments and how they could be directed at Zack Snyder who directed the Watchmen movie and tried to make Batman v Superman into Watchmen.

    My concern is that just as Batman v Superman insisted a lot that it was 'mature', 'dark' or emotionally 'real' while failing to be, Rebirth and Johns' insistence that everything will be be full of 'hope and optimism' will be a similarly empty promise in the DCU moving forward (and the films for that matter). Stop telling us things will be more positive and actually show us

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    1. I see how a jab at Watchmen could be extrapolated to be a jab at Zack Snyder or the Batman v Superman direction of the DC Cinematic Universe. It's a funny kind of jab, however, because the here and now is that Rebirth is meant to fix the supposed sins of the New 52. That's not Watchmen's fault (movie or book) except in the vaguest sense of how cultural consciousness has evolved since that time; rather it was Johns himself who wrote Flashpoint and who was presumably at the table when Dan DiDio and company decided on the New 52 direction. Johns putting "How could I ever forget" Wally in a character's mouth comes off a bit tongue in cheek given that it was Johns and company -- not Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, or Zack Snyder -- who benched Wally in the first place. Rebirth might have sat better with me if someone in the book had taken responsibility for the missing ten years -- if, perhaps, Johns had not absolved Barry Allen of the responsibility -- rather that foisting it off on our supposed modern attraction to the grim and gritty.

      Side note, while I appreciate DiDio, Jim Lee, and Johns's public mea culpa in the live DC event, I don't think it was all that necessary. Rather I think the overriding narrative of the New 52 has always been one where DC was going to have to apologize for it and the public arc wouldn't be complete until they did. Good that they did it, but I think there's a lot in the New 52 they shouldn't have to apologize for.

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    2. Agreed, Watchmen is being used as a scapegoat in the comic world (and arguably Snyder in the movie world) for course corrections that should have been obvious much sooner.

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  3. I wonder where this book will be collected. I mean, obviously in the giant book with all of the Rebirth issues, but anywhere else? Titans, maybe?

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    1. Titans or Flash. Depends on how tied up one or both of those are with this; probably Titans.

      So the place to go after Rebirth now is ... Titans. Titans is the linchpin of the "Rebirth" DC Universe. After Flashpoint, at the beginning of the New 52, it was Justice League and Action Comics. I know this isn't a popular opinion and I recognize people love the Titans, but this really seems to me a recipe for trouble.

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  4. This sounds like a lot of the same thematic ground that Grant Morrison had been covering for years and years, going all the way back to Flex Mantallo. I sure hope the promise of a more diverse DC universe (both in terms of character demographics and in terms of styles of story) is something that Johns can live up to....

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    1. Totally. I went on at length about how Grant Morrison was saying much the same thing with Final Crisis. The difference is, Morrison had every right to criticize (in this case, Crisis on Infinite Earths) because Morrison didn't do it, and worked to unravel it almost right away in Animal Man. Johns pointing the finger at Watchmen doesn't hold up as sincerely (though I don't doubt Johns's affection for Wally).

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    2. Also Morrison made the points much more eloquently, if often more obtusely, same with his explanation for the Joker's changes over the years. And unlike your complaint about Rebirth in the review, Final Crisis was a DC event that was a self-contained, complete story.

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  5. I honestly don't know if you liked this issue or not. It sounds like the (pardon my pun) biggest issue is that it was set up for the rest of the DCU and it didn't have an end, which confuses me because that's exactly what I was expecting.

    For me Rebirth was amazing. It was very emotional, and it brought something new to the table for the DCU that was feeling a little stale, even though I like the N52. The little hints and teases this book had only made me want to go out and buy those books. Books I would never have bought are now on my radar because of Rebirth. I'm interested in seeing where things are going now, but with all the interviews from creators I can seriously say that I feel safe at DC.

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    1. Cody, I don't know if I liked it or not either. No, I kid; I did like it. I liked seeing Wally and Barry reconcile, I liked how Johns reconciled the new and old Wallys, I liked this idea of ten years ripped away, and I'm highly impressed Johns seeded in things like Mr. Oz from Superman: Men of Tomorrow and the Flashpoint letter.

      But I went in thinking I would be told the new secret of the DC Universe, and I came out with only a glimmer of that secret. I wanted to read something revolutionary, and instead I was told "Tune in next week!" Life and love are supposed to be back in the DCU, but it's hard to feel that in between quickie advertisements for Green Lanterns, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc. I was looking for a story -- which I felt I got more of in Countdown to Final Crisis -- and instead I got sold to, and that starts this off for me on the wrong foot.

      Trust me, I'm still reading "Rebirth" titles. Keith Giffen's back on Blue Beetle. Greg Rucka's back on Wonder Woman. Peter Tomasi's writing Superman. Phil Jimenez is writing Superwoman. Things do feel good. But I'm also hoping for this not to be business as usual, and so far Rebirth was kind of business as usual.

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  6. I didn't even realize this had come out but I dropped all DC titles around the horrid "The Truth" story line in the Superman books and haven't really kept up with what's been going on at DC. Nothing I've read about Rebirth has made me want to start collecting DC comics again (though I'll probably check out Supergirl and the Chinese Superman comic).

    I just don't have faith that Rebirth will be better than the New 52 or fix the problems (Not that all of the New 52 was bad, I liked quite a bit of it) that it had because it's the same people behind the scenes that did the New 52. The same people that drove away a lot of talent to Marvel and indie comics. The same people that got rid of the legacy characters because they blamed those characters and the married couples on why the comics had stagnated and were losing readers. Now they're just blaming something else. I hope that Rebirth puts DC comics on a stable footing and that it starts pulling in a bigger market share but I'm not holding my breath.

    I find it ironic that Johns is criticizing the darkness in comics and blaming it on Watchmen when he's one of the prime movers for darkness in comics. He's written a ton of dark and horrible things. Blackest Night killed off a lot of characters in gruesome ways. I remember Black Manta splitting people open during Brightest Day. The Sinestro Corps War, while an amazing event, was about as dark as it comes. If you want to blame Watchmen for starting the grim and gritty routine that's fine. Just don't forget that writers like Johns are the ones who perpetuated it.

    Still, my natural comics pessimism aside, DC does seem to be doing all the right things when it comes to Rebirth. I want it to succeed for the company, for the comics, and for the fans.
    -Kon30

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