When “Flashpoint” hit in the late summer of 2011, DC announced that this was it: there was no turning back from the events that would de-age, mind wipe, and generally disrupt their characters of 70+ years. A little less than five years later, and we have ‘Rebirth’ – an attempt to stick to that ‘no turning back’ mandate, while doing just that, and sticking as many hints, teases, and reveals as could be gathered in 60 or so pages.
There’s no real way to talk about this book without spoilers, so be warned, you will be spoiled if you don’t look away!
Written by Geoff Johns
Illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jiminez
It all begins here. Do not skip to the last page. Do not let a friend or message board ruin this comic for you. The future (and past) of the DC Universe starts here. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
I’ve been reading DC Comics since I was three years old. Well “reading” is a stretch, but every Saturday morning, my dad would take me with him to go visit his friend, who was a tailor. He would stop at corner store, pick up coffees for he and his friend, and buy me a comic. I remember “Justice League” #1, “Batman” #401, and various other ‘Legends’-era stories keeping me company while my dad and a man with an incredibly thick Italian accent talked about things I could not care less about in a storefront that smelled like biscotti.
Before I could read, I would ‘write’ my own story as to what the characters were saying. In some ways, that was the start of my fanboy nitpicking, because I used to think that my stories were ‘better’ than what I was getting in the comics themselves. But my connection to the characters was deep, and felt real. So much so that, the same man who would buy me comics to keep me quiet while he and his friend chatted, painted Batman and Superman on my walls, literally overlooking my bed. He started Captain Marvel, but it didn’t get finished before I switched rooms and was ‘too cool’ to have Superman on my wall.
My dad isn’t a comics reader, but he understood the pull of those characters in my life – characters that have been with me longer than almost anything else in my life. Maybe he understood that by putting those comics in my hand, he would be unlocking my imagination, my hopefulness, my desire to see the good guys win. Maybe he just wanted to keep me busy for a half hour. I really don’t know.
That is my secret origin as a comics fan; it is why I am writing about “DC Universe: Rebirth” today. And it is that part of me that loved so many parts of this comic.
But that’s not all of who I am anymore. I dropped off the comics train for years at a time; I (briefly) found more affinity with Marvel characters; I had a framed “Bloodstrike” #1 poster signed by Dan Fraga. I once only had one comic on my shelf: “Ghost World.” I now have an office in my house with original art on the walls and a Green Lantern Funko on my desk. My comics fandom has grown up a few times over, and while I haven’t eschewed what I loved about comics then, I am certainly more critical now. I have to be; if I enjoyed comics the same way 30 years apart, there would be something wrong with me.
It is that critical, more analytical part of me that had some serious problems with “DC Universe: Rebirth.”
The important thing to know about this comic is that it is barely a comic. It is a series of vignettes, mostly unconnected, that are dripped throughout a Wally West story that, itself, is quite episodic. Aside from the Wally framing device, nothing joins these vignettes whatsoever.
Well, that’s not entirely fair – they are all joined by the fact that Geoff Johns is cherry picking his favorite characters to work with.Continued below
And that’s not entirely a bad thing.
Geoff Johns is the closest we, the readers, have to a surrogate in comics. He is as openhearted and wide eyed as the rest of us, but he’s the guy who gets to literally write the words in comics, not just make up their own scripts like I used to when I was a kid. Johns gets why DC works, and even in his missteps, he never loses the thread as to what makes DC special. If you can excuse his first few “Justice League” arcs as him trying to assimilate into the dystopian DiDio world that was the New 52, the biggest sins of his DC career have been because of over-reach or failing to express clearly why he loved a character (I still don’t know why he thought Aquaman was awesome – his New 52 book was so dour and decompressed, but still felt like a labor of love).
This book is also 60 pages of Johns atoning for, perhaps, his greatest sin: the loss of Wally West.
Now, I know that Johns probably never intended for Wally to go away when Barry came back, but his story, and the implication in the story that Barry was the real Flash, opened the door that let the New 52 kick Wally’s ass out. This issue, more than anything else, attempts to rectify that, and brings Wally back to the forefront of the DC Universe.
(Note: on a podcast somewhere, there is record of me wanting Wally to be the new Psycho Pirate, the only person who remembers the pre-Flashpoint years. So, you’re welcome for the idea, Geoff.)
The Wally stuff is the strongest in this issue because it has a thread that it follows across the entire issue. We see Wally trying to reconnect with various people in his life – Bruce, Linda, and finally Barry – and commenting on things as he goes along. As a device, it works reasonably well, and it hides the fact that so little else from this issue can be considered a story.
That isn’t to say that the vignettes aren’t enjoyable – for a continuity geek like me, many of them were wonderful. Seeing Ted Kord and Jaime Reyes interact, seeing a Legion ring for the first time in years, having the tease of a Ryan Choi Atom – these are all things that many fans have been waiting for, and waiting quite some time for, at that.
But these feel like teases for stories that will happen at some time, but aren’t really stories themselves. Sure, we see the building blocks of “Blue Beetle” being assembled, but aside from that, what? There’s no Atom book, no Legion book, no book featuring Jackson Hyde to speak of at this moment. Will these be like the “Trinity War” Free Comic Book Day issue, where things were teased that took literally years to come to fruition?
These stories, almost every single one, also felt like they didn’t need to be contained here. Sure, this is a convenient place, as it is the launching point for this new initiative, but nothing about Ray Palmer shrinking down into the microverse has anything to do with Wally and/or the changes to the DCU.
The only vignette that felt like it belonged with the Wally story was the Johnny Thunder/JSA piece, which felt like part of the Wally story because it is part of the Wally story. Thunder is one of the least well remembered members of the Justice Society, in part because he wasn’t as easy to update for modern times, so he is an interesting character to use as the entry point for that book, whenever and wherever it’ll pop up.
This book features three great artists in mainstream, superhero comics – Gary Frank, Phil Jiminez, and Ivan Reis. It also features Ethan Van Sciver, who has history with DC and Johns for ‘Rebirth’ stories, but whose work has always felt a little stilted and lacking movement for a Flash story, which makes his contributions both here and in “The Flash: Rebirth” unfortunate. He gets to draw Wally’s first reappearance, and for the fastest man alive, he sure looks posed. I understand why Van Sciver was picked for this part of the book for sentimental reasons, but I can’t get behind his work here too strongly.Continued below
Gary Frank handles the next chapter, titled “Legacy,” which was my personal favorite, both visually and story wise, in the book. This should come as no surprise, as I’m a guy who thinks that legacy is what makes DC special, and thinks the Teen Titans are the quintessential DC characters, more so than the Trinity.
Frank especially shines when handling Johnny Thunder. This is a frail, disturbed old man, and Frank does an admirable job in presenting him as such. He looks terrified, and that fear really translates well to the reader. All of the vignettes he draws feature generations (hence “Legacy”), and he does a really nice job framing the panels to show division of authority, age, or power. Even without words, we know who is in charge in each interaction, and he imbues his always strong character work with a real sense of awe – each piece, at one point, features a character realizing that what they’re dealing with is far above their pay grade/scope of understanding.
Ivan Reis handles the “Love” section, and this is the emotional core of the issue. This is primarily about romantic love – Aquaman and Mera, Wally and Linda – but it is also about familial love and, generally, just a sense of care for one another that had been missing from DC’s books for quite some time. I liked this part quite a bit, even if it felt a little maudlin at times. Johns has the ability to walk that line between sentimentality and schmaltz, and he does so nicely here.
From there, “Life” wraps up the issue, shared by Phil Jiminez and Frank, and the art is overwhelmingly fantastic in the climax of the series. Johns is never shy about having his books be wordy, and parts of this issue felt like the words were overwhelming the visuals, but in this last section, the pairing is pitch perfect. When we see Barry remember Wally, we see the joy, guilt, and shock that he feels in his heart at the entire situation. While the book may not be perfect, the moment of re-connection between Wally and Barry is.
This book spends a good amount of time establishing the new DCU status quo, which is “We must be everything to everyone.” Did you come in at the New 52? Well, that continuity is still the prevailing one! Are you an older fan? We haven’t forgotten about you! Do you only dabble in comics, but have read a few of the big graphic novels/collected editions we have published over the last 30 years? We’ll rope them in, too!
The one reader that this book didn’t really consider is the new one, that mythic figure that we hear about all the time from publishers and retailers alike. The idea that any reader could pick up this issue – rife with history and exposition as it is – and not be totally, completely, lost is laughable. This is a book for die hard fans which, on the surface, I have no problem with; where it becomes an issue, however, is that this isn’t being pitched as a book for the die hards. This is being presented as a book for all comic fans.
And the main reason for its inscrutability is due to the fact that much of this exists to further/fix/tweak continuity. Continuity can be your best friend; Geoff Johns proved with “Green Lantern: Rebirth” just how useful 50+ years of stories can be in the crafting of a fine story. Continuity can also be your worst enemy; see many, many books pre-“Crisis on Infinite Earths” that spend more time catching the reader up than telling a new story.
This issue somewhat splits the difference – we get Wally explaining concepts from the 50s until now in relatively straightforward terms, where someone who maybe never read “Flashpoint” can still understand what the hell is happening. But, then we get Legion rings presented without context, or an Aqualad that most folks know from a cartoon introduced by just his first name and the fact that he’s staring at a fish tank.
I am exactly in the target demographic that Johns is going for here: I am a guy who started actively reading comics just after “Crisis,” and so Wally was my Flash. And so, I got the references Johns was making, and I got chills when I saw that ring – I’ll even admit to getting, perhaps, a little misty at Barry remembering his nephew. But ultimately, the issue rang hollow for me, due to the last few pages.Continued below
If, for some reason, you haven’t read the issue, please, please stop reading right now.
Bringing Dr. Manhattan, the Comedian, and (presumably) the rest of the cast of “Watchmen” into DC Continuity is something I absolutely despise. If you read what Johns has said about the book, he claims that Dr. Manhattan is the apathy and coldness to the warmth and love of the DC Universe, and that this will ultimately lead to a battle between cynicism and heart. We know what side Johns is on.
But what side are the readers on? Because honestly, when I saw Batman pick up the Comedian’s pin, I cringed so hard I practically paralyzed myself. But I could also see many readers grinning and pumping their fists at the idea of the Comedian sniping Batman, or of Dr. Manhattan destroying the Flash with the snap of his giant blue fingers. If Johns wants readers to cheer for Superman over Rorschach, he’s probably picked the wrong side in the battle.
The fact that there is a large swath of the comics audience that loved Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film so reviled that Warner Bros. is restructuring their entire DC film division, means that there is a large swath of fans who would love to see the DC heroes fall to Alan Moore’s creations.
The majority of this book was so hopeful and full of energy, love, and history, and I couldn’t help but feel that it was all the appetizer to the DC V. Watchmen main course, and that course turns my stomach. Not even for the obvious reasons, like that Moore’s work was never meant to be superhero comics, but rather comment on superhero comics, but just for the thing that “Watchmen” has come to represent in the world. “Watchmen” is universally regarded as a comic for people who don’t like comics.
And fuck that.
If someone doesn’t like comics, that’s fine. But don’t bring those characters – ‘superheroes for grownups’ or however uninteresting people describe “Watchmen” – into the comics that are about hope and love. Because there’s no way their presence will be a net positive. If hope loses, that’s a terrible story. But if hope wins, you’ll raise the ire of all those folks that only see comics as being good if they are ‘mature.’ This won’t bring in new readers; if anything, this will further alienate people.
The ultimate weirdness about this is that Geoff Johns, the architect of ‘Rebirth,’ writer of this comic, the one guy of the DC brass that approaches comics from the perspective of a writer first, won’t be anywhere near a comic for some time. I mentioned earlier that the Warner Bros./DC film division is getting a shake up – that shake up is Johns getting more power. We’re going to see less of Johns in comic shops than we have in well over a decade.
(And yes, I know that he’s still CCO, and he will be overseeing ‘Rebirth’ – but he won’t be the one writing these stories for quite some time)
Because of that, it is up to DC’s editorial staff and writers to get these characters where Johns sees them going. I can’t help but think that the next time we see Johns will be writing that Dr. Manhattan/Wally West standoff, and that probably won’t be for a year or two. Will this be relevant then? DC always talks about long term planning, but everything keeps changing, and changing all the time. DC You was launched a year ago, and almost instantly dismissed. Will ‘Rebirth’ stick?
I honestly don’t know. I want to believe that it will, because I want the first 55 pages of this comic to be the beginning of something special and fun for DC. I want young, African American Wally West to be a great Kid Flash, and I want Wally West to be something special and new – not quite the Flash, but not quite a kid, either. I want two Atoms running around, I want Legionaries. I want a great JSA book again. I want to believe in all of this.
But then I remember those last few pages again, and I don’t believe we’ll get them.Continued below
I want to end this review with a plea to DC: don’t let the last few pages of this book trump the first 50. There is nothing that will hurt fans more in the long run than making the lasting legacy of ‘Rebirth’ to be “the comic that brought “Watchmen” into continuity.” If the plan is truly to shut the door on the cynicism of that book, then slam the door shut so hard that the picture frames fall of the walls. But know that even doing that is going to alienate some of your readers.
There’s a panel in the issue that shows Wally West as a kid, all the way up to present time, all the different faces/masks he’s worn. The young Wally looks incredibly like Alfred E. Neuman, the face of MAD Magazine, another DC property. I’ve shown this to a few people, all of whom think that I’m nuts. DC would never purposely slip a reference to MAD in a DC comic!
Until I read this issue, I would have thought the exact same way. But how is putting Neuman into this book any less absurd than putting Dr. Manhattan in here?
In some ways, having the door being blown so open that Nite Owl and Silk Spectre can walk through is exciting, because it means anything can happen. But, that also means that anything, no matter how bad, can happen. I want to believe in DC; I just don’t know if I can anymore.
Final Verdict: 6.2 – The Rosetta Stone of modern DC Comics is not so much a comic as it is a glyph, through which we can understand our own fandom, and then view the future through that lens. I’m hopeful that I’m not seeing things clearly, but I fear that I am.