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 ReduxGeoff 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 ForgettingJohns 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 CynicismIronically, 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.