Why DC UNIVERSE REBIRTH Is A Gutsy Work Of Comics Criticism

The controversial comic is actually great, it turns out.

Last week DC Universe Rebirth #1 leaked onto the internet. It was a pretty huge deal in the comic book world because Rebirth is intended to be the latest in a long line of DC Comics continuity tweaks/resets, and it has become incredibly controversial, with many automatically dismissing the reveals in the book. For me the book isn’t just brave, it’s an enormously trenchant rebuttal of the grim n’ gritty tone that has threatened to swallow DC Comics since Frank Miller and Alan Moore redefined superheroes in titles like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. DC Universe Rebirth reads as a refutation of the way people have taken those titles to be the only template for serious superhero comics.  

When I say DC Universe Rebirth is the latest in a “long line” I mean this shit goes back to 1985. That was when Crisis On Infinite Earths came out, and in the years that followed the DC Comics continuity got nipped and tucked in events like Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis. And then, about five years ago, DC called a do-over. Hot on the heels of an event called Flashpoint (wherein The Flash went back in time and stopped his mom from dying and in the process changed history in a big way), DC once again wiped the slate clean and launched their universe over with what they called The New 52.

The New 52 chugged along for a few years, but it never quite took. The whole aesthetic was a little off, with its emphasis on darker storylines and a mandate from co-publisher Dan Didio saying that superheroes shouldn’t be married because they shouldn’t be happy. That was kind of the larger attitude that permeated this reboot, even if there were plenty of bright spots along the way. All of the characters got reset to where they started and many of them found themselves reliving previously existing stories for like a third time.

The New 52 didn’t quite work out, and sales reflected it. Over the last year there have been many who wondered just how DC would deal with this. In Flashpoint they had introduced a character, Pandora, who could have worked as an easy reset switch. Or so it seemed. Pandora never got utilized and, as of this week’s DC Universe Rebirth, she’s dead. Totally disintegrated. And that feels like a major statement from Geoff Johns, the writer who created her and scripted her demise in this comic.

Which brings us to DC Universe Rebirth, and all of the spoilers that have hit the web in the last five days. Over the weekend I had the chance to read a review copy of the book, and I’m glad that I did so before I got spoiled because the story I read was impressively emotional, completely surprising and, in the end, felt like absolute comics criticism of the type we have never seen before - a criticism turned inwards at DC Comics itself.

To talk about why this all works, and what it means, I need to engage with the spoilers that are already everywhere online. If you’ve managed to stay unspoiled please remain that way - I think DC Universe Rebirth is worth reading fresh. But if you have been spoiled and haven’t yet had a chance to read the comic, which is out Wednesday, I hope I can give some context to a book that I felt was really extraordinary and really gutsy. And maybe convince you to give it a chance.

The book opens with a disembodied narrator talking about watch making. The first page is a nine panel grid featuring watch works, and as a lifelong comic book nerd I immediately knew what this meant, or at least what it was referencing. I didn’t quite understand how that reference was going to play out in the comic, and I was stunned when it finally did.

Over the course of a few pages we learn that the disembodied narrator is Wally West, aka Kid Flash aka, for about twenty years, The Flash. This is where shit gets comic book-y - it’s the original Wally West, not the current New 52 version, who is a black kid. This is a white kid with red hair and a goofy yellow and red suit (that I love). He exists outside of the current New 52 universe, trapped inside the Speed Force (the metaphysical source of all speedsters’ powers - hi, comics!) and recognizing that something has gone wrong. The world has been changed, and for the worst.

Wally’s reveal is glorious - a huge, full splash of him in his classic Teen Titans era togs, standing in the middle of the Batcave trying to get Batman to remember him (speaking of remembering I did not take notes on which artist drew which chapter, so my apologies to Phil Jimenez, Ethan van Sciver, Ivan Reis and Gary Frank for not being able to praise them individually). Batman, by the way, is neck deep in his own issues here; he has recently gotten access to an omnipotent source of information and he asked for The Joker’s true name. The response was not what he expected: there are three Jokers, he was told. There is no true name*.

Anyway, Wally understands that he needs someone to remember him so he can escape the Speed Force. And he needs to escape the Speed Force because he can see that someone - and he doesn’t know who - has reached in and taken away not only years of the lives of superheroes but also their happiness and hope. Someone reset the heroes, Wally understands, and he made them all pretty miserable in the process.

That’s when I understood Rebirth was more than just another piece of continuity housekeeping. The panels read as critique, as an awareness that the New 52 status quo isn’t how the DC superheroes are supposed to be. Over the course of the comic we have Superman (the Superman from the Post-Crisis Earth, not The New 52 Superman, who dies. Comics!) realize that the new world he lives on feels like a hollow retread of his original world. Wally, bouncing around The New 52, sees that Green Arrow and Black Canary aren’t together in this reality, and he mentions how wrong that is. Again and again Wally observes elements of the New 52 universe where the heroes are disconnected from each other or unhappy and he reiterates just how wrong this all is.

As if all that meta stuff wasn’t enough, Johns keeps on going. At one point Wally becomes convinced he’ll never escape the Speed Force, so he wills himself to appear before Barry Allen to say goodbye. And as Wally watches Barry in action he notes that Barry has a huge grin on his face while he’s saving people, because he loves being a hero.

Remember, this is written by the guy they just made co-president of DC Films, a movieverse where a smile is the last thing a hero would wear. DC Universe Rebirth feels like a big mission statement not just for comics but for the movies as well.

Wally appears before Barry and Barry manages to remember him, pulling him from the Speed Force, and get this… it’s really emotional. It’s a huge moment, one that absolutely played for me, a guy who read DC Comics in the 80s and 90s and for whom Wally West IS The Flash. After taking a magical misery tour of the New 52, Wally’s return is a big, bright, hopeful note.

None of this is what has set the internet aflame. It’s the next revelation that has rustled all the jimmies, and by the time it arrived I had seen it coming, but that didn’t stop me from gasping out loud. It was the most astonishing reveal I have ever seen in a mainstream comic, and it’s a swing so big, so audacious, I was stunned and impressed.

The mysterious being who fucked with the DC Universe? Who stole ten years from the lives of the superheroes and made them unhappy and disconnected and grim? None other than Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen.

This is huge on one major level, in that it technically brings Dr. Manhattan into the continuity of DC Comics. Watchmen has always been its own thing, a universe unto itself (although cameos and references have happened in the past), but now a character from Watchmen is revealed to be not just a player in the DC Universe but a major player.

But what’s bigger is the meta commentary. Geoff Johns is drawing a straight line from Watchmen to The New 52. He’s saying that the deconstructionist comic books of the 80s - great books, seminal classics - have so poisoned the well that they have negatively impacted what came after. It’s the ultimate piece of comic criticism (and one I think a lot of old-timers, who were alive and energized when Watchmen first hit stores, would agree with) and it’s in the form of a comic.

Yes, Geoff Johns says, DC is too dark and unhappy today. And what’s more, it’s a direct result of chasing the dragon of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and getting ever diminished returns.

Oh, and he has one more thing to say: it was Dr. Manhattan what made The New 52, not Flashpoint, which Johns wrote. Like, there’s a line of dialogue where The Flash is relieved that he didn’t cause this new sad universe to exist.

Okay, so that’s the meta stuff, which I love. But does this work at all, on a comic nerd level? I think it does. The premise isn’t that Dr. Manhattan is some kind of evil being, but rather that he’s a scientist. And when he’s on Mars, considering what love means, what happiness is, he takes a moment to peek into an alternate universe and he fucks with one variable. He reboots the heroes and makes things darker to see what a universe without hope is like.

Man, you cannot get away from the meta commentary, can you?

In the context of this comic, where it is revealed that a distant Dr. Manhattan in his own universe fucked with the DC Universe as an experiment, I think it works. What doesn’t work is if DC decides to turn Dr. Manhattan into a supervillain, to have all the heroes assemble to beat him up like they did with the Anti-Monitor in Crisis on Infinite Earths. If this is allowed to play out as a philosophical concept and not as a beat-em-up concept it could end up being one of the most ambitious and bizarre stories of all time.

DC has long been a work of meta-fiction, telling stories about itself featuring characters with different levels of self-awareness (long before Deadpool broke the fourth wall Animal Man had to struggle with the fact that comic book writer Grant Morrison was ruining his life because it made for good drama. And that was all in continuity! Animal Man was a member of the Justice League!), but DC Universe Rebirth takes it to a whole new level. I have never read a comic book like this, one that operates as a mea culpa and as continuity housecleaning and as a new direction and as an emotional story about how much these characters mean to us.

What’s next? The reboot aspect of DC Universe Rebirth is light. Nothing has changed - there was no cosmic reset at the end of the book - but now the knowledge that there was another universe is out there. It’ll be interesting to see who remembers their previous adventures, to see how characters respond to learning their own secret histories and to see which elements of the New 52 status quo melt away.

What Geoff Johns has done is the thing that too few writers do (the aforementioned Grant Morrison did it during his run on Batman): he made it all true. Rather than clear away continuity, DC Universe Rebirth brings back all the discarded continuity and also retains the New 52 continuity. There’s now more to play with, not less. And DC, as an extended work of meta-fiction, has gotten even richer. While many will zero in on Dr. Manhattan as the most seismic impact from DC Universe Rebirth the reality is that this one 80 page comic reverses a thirty year company policy that placed a hyper-attentive eye on continuity, and that valued stories ABOUT continuity as much as it valued the stories themselves. Now it’s all continuity, and you don’t have to argue about it anymore**.

As for complaints that bringing in Dr. Manhattan cheapens Watchmen… I don’t buy it. There’s already been Before Watchmen, if we’re going to worry about sullying those characters. But also, that comic still exists. It always will. It is singular and stands on its own. Maybe this version of Dr. Manhattan is from Earth Watchmen 2, as opposed to the one in the trade paperback you own. But who cares, really? Is the story good? Then the story is good. That’s all that matters. Using these characters is not that different from the way Alan Moore himself uses pubic domain characters in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Lost Girls, where they have new lights shone on them for purposes of both entertainment and deeper thematic exploration and deconstruction. I think Dr. Manhattan is fair game… as long as future writers and editors don’t fuck him up. In fact I don't think you could tell this story with just some new cosmic baddie. This story required a larger meta aspect to make it truly work. It exists as commentary and entertainment all at once in a way that only Dr. Manhattan allows.

I quit reading DC Comics about three months into the New 52. Now, for the first time in five years, I’ll be buying DC again. I hope that DC Universe Rebirth’s call for hope and optimism gets heard across all the DC titles in the months to come.

*Side note: I love this. When it was announced that Batman would find out The Joker’s true name I groaned. He’s more powerful as a force of chaos and not the sad man who he is revealed (maybe? It’s not clear in the text but many take it as canon) in The Killing Joke.

**Pre-Crisis continuity is also technically still there, thanks to the survival of Superman Prime and the Psycho-Pirate. Everything in DC Comics’ 80 year history really happened now.