Originally published as part of a team-up review at ComicsBulletin.com
Since its announcement, DC Comics’ “Rebirth” initiative has been met by equal parts excitement and trepidation from the comics community. Is it a reboot, or is it just a fresh jumping on point? Is this an effort to win back longtime readers, or pull in new ones? Can it possibly do both? With the release of DC Universe Rebirth #1 by Geoff Johns and a healthy stable of artists (10 are credited on the cover), some of those answers are finally answered. And in examining this one-shot special, it’s easy to see how this comic can make many readers extremely happy. It’s also easy to see how this issue can make people pissed off.
Structurally, as an comic tasked with closing out the New 52 continuity as we know it and reintegrating decades the publisher’s history, DC Universe Rebirth #1 is a success. Throughout the issue, there are flashes of vintage Geoff Johns. In an issue comprised of multiversal and space-time fluctuations, it is the emotional beats which resonate the most. Helping the cause is Johns’ return to the character that made him DC’s star writer, as Wally West is the focal point of the issue. Not the controversial character that has appeared throughout the current Flash comic, but the red-headed hero that is DC’s legacy incarnate. Throughout DC Universe Rebirth #1, readers follow Wally as he jumps from character to character, only to discover that they have no memory of him. The anguish he feels jumps off the page, and with each rejection the pain stings more and more. This reaches its peak when Linda Park, the love of his life and mother of his children, states “I don’t know you.” From here, all hope seems lost, and during a heartbreaking conversation with Barry, readers get the sense that this is Wally West’s proper send off. His last hurrah. Until it isn’t. The moment that immediately follows this brought tears to my eyes. It is the culmination of the book’s mission statement – that heart has been missing from DC’s books.
This is a theme which is carried on throughout DC Universe Rebirth #1, as Johns and his various art teams sprinkle in bits and pieces hinting at legacies within the DC Universe that have been lost in the chaotic reshuffling of time that was the New 52. There’s Ray Palmer and Ryan Choi. There’s Ted Kord and Jaime Reyes. There’s an unnamed member of the Legion of Superheroes. There are also hints at lost relationships, specifically between Green Arrow and Black Canary, while Aquaman and Mera indicated that married superheroes are back on the table. These numerous developments are exciting as an avid reader, but can confuse those unfamiliar with these concepts.
Johns’ ambition to follow Grant Morrison’s “it’s all connected” approach is admirable, but what works for The Multiversity does not work here. Despite being the culmination of a career’s work, and a thesis on the true potential of comic books, The Multiversity is a rather accessible work because it is not burdened by continuity. Conversely, DC Universe Rebirth #1 is an attempt to tie together the entire history of the DC Universe dating back to 1938’s Action Comics #1, and can only truly be appreciated by those with a PhD in DC Comics, or at the very least a healthy knowledge of the past 30+ years of published comics. What makes this an even bigger problem is that the growth of the DC Universe is a muddier journey than the rival Marvel Universe. Whereas Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others built Marvel organically, DC’s stable of heroes grew via corporate acquisitions. Look no further than their handling of
Captain Marvel Shazam for proof. Considering the material Johns is required to pull together, it’s impressive this issue is as coherent as it is.
We might as well address the elephant in the room. DC Universe Rebirth #1 marks the incorporation of Watchmen into the DC Universe. More specifically, Johns makes Doctor Manhattan the reason that New 52 timeline was so screwed up, shifting the blame from Pandora (remember her?) and Barry Allen. Given Watchmen‘s status as one of the medium’s all-time great works, this is a very risky move by Johns – and it’s unclear if it paid off.
Does this tarnish the original book’s legacy while simultaneously giving Alan Moore another kick to the groin? Perhaps, but in that case Watchmen is already tainted thanks to the 2009 movie and the Before Watchmen books. Some have said that this is DC’s attempt to exorcise themselves from the grim and gritty approach to superheroes that was kicked off by the success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. That may be the case, but the choice of art styles, the main events of contained within the book, and who the writer is point to something else.
Geoff Johns, at his core, is a fan of superhero comics. His forte is big, superhero action while striking an emotional chord for readers. His works to not attempt to provide a metatextual analysis of genre conventions or socio-political commentary. It’s why in an era where independent and creator-owned content grows stronger each month, he remains firmly entrenched in the DC Universe. Because it is Geoff Johns, the decision to bring Doctor Manhattan and the rest of the Watchmen crew to the DC Universe was not likely made to anger Alan Moore even more, or make a statement on comic books published since the late 1980s. It was likely made because Johns thought it was a cool idea that hadn’t been tried before. And he might very well be right.
DC Universe Rebirth #1 is by no means a perfect comic. Parts of the narrative feel rushed, despite the 80-page count. And the Watchmen inclusion is a head-scratcher. However, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy the hell out of this issue. I remain cautiously optimistic about “Rebirth” as a whole, but if the books manage to follow the lead of this one-shot special, Wednesdays are going to become a hell of a lot more fun.