Wednesday, May 25, 2016

On DC Universe: Rebirth #1

So here we are again. DC Universe: Rebirth is a 65-page comic book scripted by Geoff Johns, drawn by a handful of the more talented artists to have collaborated with Johns in the past and priced to sell at just $2.99–a dollar cheaper than any 20-page comic that rival Marvel Entertainment has on the stands today. It's mostly narrated by a point-of-view character that guides readers through a tour of upcoming storylines that will play out throughout the publisher's imminent slate of new books.

If that sounds familiar, then congratulations and/or my condolences, as that likely means you read 2005's Countdown To Infinite Crisis #1. That particular over-sized, Johns-scripted, multiple artist-drawn, bargain-priced comic book that similarly enlisted a point-of-view character to lay out the DCU's status quo and tease big changes in DC's superhero line is now eleven years old, and both its age and the story it was countdown-ing to are emblematic of the inherent problems with this comic. Or, that is, the inherent problems with Rebirth other than the big, obvious one, which I'd like to set aside for a a bit if I may (You know the big, obvious thing that's wrong with this book already though, right? It was leaked online over the weekend and Johns gave an interview to USA Today about it; I think Abhay Khosla best characterized that big, obvious problem when he recently referred to it as "objectively fucking stupid" in this must-read essay on Co-Publisher Dan DiDio and DC Comics under his leadership).

In emulating the format of Countdown, Rebirth reveals just how backward-looking it is, although it looks back far further than 11 years, as it is, according to Johns in the above-mentioned interview, essentially written in response to a 30-year-old comic book (I suppose that too is reminiscent of Countdown to Infinite Crisis, as 2006's Infinite Crisis was itself a direct sequel to the then 30-year-old Crisis On Infinite Earths).

So 2006's Infinite Crisis offered something of a soft reboot to DC's continuity/history, altering the specific continuities of several characters while reshaping the nature of the DC Multiverse more dramatically than any comic since Crisis On Infinite Earths (although the pay-off wouldn't come until the conclusion of 52 in 2007, wherein those changes were solidified).

There was further tinkering to the timeline, the Multiverse and various characters in stories like Countdown To Final Crisis (2007-2008) an Final Crisis (2008-2009), and Blackest Night (2009-2010) and Brightest Day (2010-2011) and then, in 2011, Johns was tapped to do the unthinkable in the conclusion of his Flashpoint event series: Completely reboot DC Comics continuity in a way no one dared since Crisis On Infinite Earths, which lead to The New 52. Every comic would be relaunched with new #1s, even Action Comics and Detective Comics, every character would get a new costume design, the Vertigo characters were re-integrated into this new DC Universe (although Johns had just finished re-introducing them at the conclusion of Brightest Day) and the WildStorm characters would be as well.

The brand-new continuity would be a secret one, as after the Johns-written first story arc of Justice League, we would jump ahead to a "Year Five" of the New 52-iverse, and no one really seemed to know what might have happened during those five years...except for the fact that The Joker definitely shot and sexually assaulted Batgirl Barbara Gordon. Dramatically, DC's four generations of superheroes were reduced to one, so that there was no Golden Age, no former sidekicks and no real legacy characters (aside from the Robins).

The in-story explanation for this particular change of events was never made explicit. At the end of Flashpoint, in which The Flash Barry Allen and a Reverse Flash messed with the timestream and inadvertently created a dystopia where Batman had a mustache, Superman was skinny and Aquaman and Wonder Woman were genocidal maniacs, there was a cryptic scene where a mysterious woman in a hood (later revealed to be Pandora) smooshed two other universes (the Vertigo Universe and the WildStorm Universe) into the DC Universe that The Flash was trying to fix, in order to make the universe stronger to stave off some future...something.

That was about five years ago, and despite Pandora playing a part in a couple of big event story arcs spearheaded or written by Johns ("Trinity War" and Forever Evil), despite Pandora getting her own (quickly cancelled) series and then joining a couple of other mysterious characters of cosmic significance in a second series (that was even more quickly cancelled), just what the hell was going on was never explained.

Is this, the events of Rebirth, that long overdue explanation? Not really. This is a new, retroactive explanation, and one that seems to have been made up at the last minute along the same lines as the decision to use Flashpoint as an excuse to reboot the DCU line was. But we'll get to that in a moment. Where are we now, after five years of a near constant continuity fiddling, followed by five years of The New 52? Well, in terms of quality comics that connected with DC fans and/or new readers, The New 52 started out bad and got worse. The only book that has seen any real lasting improvement has been the Scott Snyder-written, Greg Capullo-drawn Batman, which, like the Johns-written Green Lantern book, mostly avoided the changes wrought by Flashpoint and The New 52; acknowledging them when necessary, but not dwelling on them. Nothing else DC has tried during the last five years has really stuck, with most of the books that weren't cancelled burning through creative teams at an incredible rate, and characters being re-designed and re-oriented almost constantly, as if it were the early 1990s again (Bruce Wayne even stopped being Batman for a while, and was replaced by a guy wearing a suit of armor).

Had The New 52 run its course? Apparently, and Rebirth here is the fix. And that fix is, of course, another reboot of sorts. If DC had metaphorically dug itself into a metaphorical hole with its reboots, then its metaphorical strategy to get out of that metaphorical hole is to metaphorically dig some more.

I would like to say that DC Universe: Rebirth undoes the changes of The New 52, but it is much more complicated than that. Rather, it changes an awful lot of the things back to the way they were before, so that the continuity stream-lining, more simplified version of the universe that DC tried selling for five years is more complicated than it was before. Put another way, we're mostly back to where we were in the summer of 2011, although there are two rounds of complicated, continuity re-jiggerings that get us back there.

Let's talk specifics of the book though, shall we?

There are four chapters and the objectively fucking stupid epilogue, drawn by Gary Frank (who worked with Johns on Superman, Batman: Earth One and the "Shazam" feature in Justice League), Ethan Van Sciver (Green Lantern: Rebirth, Flash: Rebirth), Ivan Reis (Blackest Night, Brightest Day, Aquaman) and Phil Jimenez (Infinite Crisis). Our narrator is the former Kid Flash and the former Flash III Wally West, wearing his yellow and red Kid Flash costume, and apparently ten years younger than he was the last time we saw him. After a first page that is broken into a nine-panel grid featuring his narration over a watch and the gears within, we learn that Wally's currently "lost outside of reality" and unable to break back in, having lost his grounding lighting rod (his wife Linda Park). West, being part of the third generation of heroes, the sidekicks of the second-generation characters introduced in the Silver Age, was one of the many that was excised from the DC Universe for The New 52. Although, like most fan-favorite characters, he was eventually reintroduced into The New 52...only in his particular case it was as a black teenager. This is the original (and white) Wally West, though.

Due to the events in "The Darkseid War" (a pretty terrible story that's been running through Johns' Justice League forever now, and just concluded today), Wally is able to at least try and enter The New 52-iverse, and warn the heroes that reality has been altered by someone who stole ten years from the universe in order to soften it up for attack.

This gives us an excuse to "check in" on everyone, as Wally appears in a bolt of lighting, pleas with someone to remember him and then gets sucked back into The Speed Force when they fail to recognize him.

He appears to Batman, who is faced with the mystery of The Joker's true identity, as revealed in this week's Justice League–there are actually three different Jokers*. He appears to a 90-something old man, who is actually Johnny Thunder, who does remember The Justice Society of America and was at one time in possession of a magical genie. He peeks in on a woman with a Legion flight ring who says she's from the future and knows Superman. And on Ivy Town University professor/supehero Ray "The Atom" Palmer and his teaching assistant Ryan Choi. And on Blue Beetle Jaimie Reyes and Ted Kord, who has just built The Bug and wants to form a crime-fighting duo with Jaime. And on Robin Damian Wayne, who has just turned 13, and celebrated by blowing out the candles on a cake in a dark room, all alone (Batman, Alfred, Dick Grayson? All a bunch of jerks, apparently). And on former Power Ring Jessica Cruz, who is now a Green Lantern (Justice League #50 again). And on Jackson Hyde, the new Aqualad that Johns created in Brightest Day (a character who is now gay, apparently).
To signal the end of The New 52, the character who symbolized it is exploded to death. Subtle!
Meanwhile, Pandora is killed in a blue explosion of energy. Who killed her? We'll find out in the epilogue, I bet! Unless you read Johns' interview, or saw the leaks online already.

Wally keeps floating around the DC Universe, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. There's Grail and Baby Darkseid, talking about Wonder Woman's long lost secret twin brother (Justice League #50), there are a bunch of characters milling around where Superman died in Superman #52 (If you missed it, don't worry; it was pretty dumb). Green Arrow and Black Canary make eyes at one another there, and the other Superman gets a visit from a mysterious stranger calling himself Mr. Oz who tells him "You and your family are not what you believe you are... And neither was the fallen Superman." And Aquaman proposes to Mera.

And then the story starts to resume a story shape, after a rather weird, almost clip-show like format (Status quos for several other characters, including John Constantine and Swamp Thing and new character Gotham are teased). Wally meets New 52 Linda, who doesn't remember him, sees the other Wally West, who, it turns out, is the original Wally's distant cousin and, finally, he meets The Flash Barry Allen, who only remembers him at the last second...and is able to pull him back into reality.
"It was Alan Moore."
The pair have a portentous discussion about the threat that's coming, about the fact that someone deliberately stole years from them in order to weaken them for a future attack. Who is it? The last page sees Batman holding aloft The Comedian's blood-stained smiley face pin from Watchmen, while Wally's dialogue box reads "...we're being watched."
Yes. That happened. That actually fucking happened.

The epilogue is a five-page sequence, in which the lay-out moves from a splash page to a four-panel page to a Watchmen-esque nine-panel page and then to a four-panel page and another splash. The "camera" moves from Earth to Mars, where we see a broken watch being lifted into the air by an unseen force, taken apart, cleaned and put back together. Narration boxes capture dialogue between Ozymandius and Dr. Manhattan.

The last page, showing a yellow clock face with a blood splatter on it over a black field, includes a big huge yellow, black and white blurb "The Clock Is Ticking Across The DC Universe!"

So apparently it was Dr. Manhattan that stole years from the DCU and made, inadvertently or on purpose, The New 52. And the DCU is going to gradually "remember," perhaps even recover, parts of its old continuity. A confrontation with the characters from Watchmen seems to be all but promised, but there's no indication of where it might occur. Johns is apparently leaving DC Comics for a while to focus on un-fucking-up Warner Bros movies based on DC Comics, and the near future for all of the titles seem pretty set at the moment (Justice League, which would have been the obvious best guess for the story to continue, is being taken over by novice writer Bryan Hitch).
I swiped this image from Comics Alliance, as my scanner wasn't big enough to accommodate it. For help identifying the above characters, you should visit the CA post I stole it from.
That's followed by a two-page spread showing the state of the DC Universe's heroes, including Wally West in a new (and pretty nice) costume. There are a lot of new costumes on this page, and they are mostly great improvements. Raven, Supergirl, The Demon and Red Robin all have returned to their original costumes or ones closer to their originals. Donna Troy has a new look that actually doesn't look so bad. Rick Flag is there, as is Ted Kord riding in the Bug, the new Huntress, Superwoman Lois Lane and the new Superboy and the new, Chinese Super-Man that Gene Luen Yang will be writing. I was surprised to see the entire Marvel Shazam Family too, as I wasn't sure how DC would proceed with those characters if the word "Marvel" is off limits (What do you call Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel if Captain Marvel is now named Shazam? Shazam Jr. and Mary Shazam...? And what about the other three "lieutenant Marvels" from Johns and Frank's Shazam strip...?) Conspicuous in his absence is Kyle Rayner.

That splash is followed by eleven pages of house ads for upcoming series.

If you've been reading DC Comics during The New 52 period, than you'll notice that the laundry list of changes that occur in Rebirth synch up with the exact things that DiDio, Co-Publisher Jim Lee, Chief Creative Officer (and second most popular DC writer) Johns all apparently decided needed changing in order to fix the DCU and come up with something better, The New 52.

They un-married Superman and Lois and Aquaman and Mera, for example, and now we have a married Superman and Lois and an engaged Aquaman and Mera. They removed the JSA and the original Teen Titans from continuity, and now they are returning them to continuity. Aqualad II, Ted Kord and Ryan Choi were all jettisoned...and are back now. All of the terrible, Lee-designed costumes are being exchanged for new, less terrible ones that lack all the seams, armor plating and high collars.

There's this bizarre argument that DiDio has been making for years now that goes something like this: 1.) There's something wrong with DC Comics, these comics that I and my staff and all our freelance talent have been making aren't as good as they should be, so 2.) We need a drastic change in order to improve things and point them in the right direction and 3.) The best people to make those changes are me and my staff and the same group of freelance talent who were making the comics that I didn't think were as good as they could be. And this has happened over and over and over, from Countdown To Infinite Crisis/Infinite Crisis/52 to "One Year Later" to
"Brave New World" to Countdown to Final Crisis/Final Crisis to Brightest Day to The New 52 to "DCYou" to "Rebirth."

Geoff Johns keeps being called in to fix things in a crisis comic of some sort, be it at the franchise level (Green Latnern: Rebirth, Flash: Rebirth, Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, the ensemble cast of Brightest Day) or on a line-wide scope, and he does it..and then DC asks him to change everything for them all over again.

Looking at the state of the DCU as "Rebirth" presents it, it is, as I say, a lot more complicated than simply un-doing the New 52 and restoring the pre-Flashpoint DCU, but taking stock of all these changes, what is really different? Did DC really just want to make Barbara Gordon Batgirl again and give Superman a new pair of boots? Because they could probably have done that without Flashpoint and five years of The New 52, you know?

As for the Watchmen business, I don't even know what to say about it at this point. It's just gross and weird. I mean, doing Before Watchmen was bad–and I fear I used up all my rage about DC Comics having sexual intercourse with that particular dead horse upon the announcement of Before Watchmen–and now they are going even further, rather bizarrely taking characters out of Watchmen to use as action figures in a goofy fight comic, where maybe we'll get to see Batman beat up Rorschach or something? What's the point of that?

If you ask Geoff Johns, it's...well, his answer will be bullshit. There's a point in Johns' Rebirth script where he has Wally West talks about the fallen DC Universe as represented by The New 52, the one Johns created, and he says this:
A darkness from somewhere has infected us. It has for a long time now, I think. Even before the Flashpoint.
Yeah, no shit. I can't even really wrap my head around Johns' meta-textual argument with Watchmen without my head threatening to explode. I don't know if "infect" is quite the right word, as DC, during much of Johns' writing career with the company and during the time Johns was creative director, has been strip-mining Watchmen, and the works of Alan Moore.

When it comes to making DC a darker, more cynical, less hopeful place, Johns is perhaps the guiltiest party, as one of the two jokes about Johns' stories involve someone getting their arm chopped off and someone being impaled through the chest from behind. And for a guy using his surrogate characters in this comic to cluck about the point-of-view that a young Alan Moore might have shown in a 30-year-old comic book, Johns has always rather readily exploited the works of Moore. I don't think I have enough fingers to count the number of comics Johns has extrapolated from Moore's body of work, from the JSA quoting Watchmen, to the Black Mercy from Moore's "For The Man Who Has Everything" showing up early in his Green Lantern run to his plundering of Moore's few Green Lantern comics (how much fucking mileage did Johns and his followers get out of fucking Mogo?) to his usage of Moore's co-creation Constantine and a version of Swamp Thing that leaned so heavily upon Moore's run on the character...

As for Rebirth, Johns accomplishes his main goals here, I think, and he's on much surer footing now that he's allowed to reference DC continuity once again. His great strength has always been his ability to use complicated continuity and synthesize something exciting out of it, which might go a long way towards explaining why none of his New 52 work has been all that good, and certainly not nearly as good as any of his pre-Flashpoint writing for the publisher. He even gets a big "Oh shit!" moment at the end, of the sort that gets everyone talking...even if, in the case of someone like me, that talking mostly consists of wondering aloud what on Earth is wrong with Johns as, like, a human being.

The art is as strong as you're likely to find among DC's stable of house-style artists–these guys are head and shoulders above a Jason Fabok or David Finch or Ed Benes or whoever, even if they're not the best artists DC has drawing comics for them (There isn't a single image in these 65 pages that features as much style, excitement or life as, say, Babs Tarr's cover for this week's issue of Batgirl, despite how good at drawing watch cogs these guys are).

On a purely craft level, Rebirth features pretty strong work for comics of this sort. As for the context, the the point that Johns seems to be trying to articulate in order to make this something more than a much-needed clean up of the last mess that he and his fellow executives have made? It hurts my soul almost as much as it boggles my mind. Can a publisher really premise its entire line of comics for the forseeable future on a rebuke of the 30-year-old Watchmen? And how convincing is it for DC, DiDio, Johns and company to try to argue with Watchmen? The simple fact that they are even engaged in a one-sided argument against the book and its creators makes Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons the winners here, doesn't it?

But whatever. The New 52 is all Alan Moore's fault. At least it's all over now, and DC seems poised to publish some comics in the near future that are much less terrible than many of the comics they've been publishing. Hooray...?

*I'm interested to see how this plays out, and I'm glad that this turned out to be the big reveal about The Joker's origin that Batman learned from Metron's omniscient Mobius Chair in "Darkseid War," as I was afraid it would simply be revealing the true name of The Joker, who would apparently be someone Batman knew. While I'm withholding judgement on this Joker business, I should say that I really like Grant Morrison's conception of the character as one who reinvents himself constantly. Scott Snyder wrote two big Joker story arcs in his New 52 Batman run (three, if you count the pre-Joker Red Hood that appeared in "Zero Year"), and the Jokers in both "Death of the Family" and "Endgame" were as different from one another as they were from any previous Joker. Additionally, Snyder added an element to each of his Joker appearances wherein the character's schemes involved some kind of "joke" to them. For example, whether or not he knew Batman's secret identity (and the identities of all of his allies) or whether or not he was an immortal, urban legend-like supernatural figure who had been haunting Gotham for generations.


David Charles Bitterbaum said...

The fact that DC's best idea for something "new" is to work-in a comic from the 1980's basically sounds like they are admitting they no longer have any original ideas and it has all been downhill for them since "Watchmen." Is that the message they actually WANT to send?

Kaijumaster said...

Since 2004 I've thought that it causes Geoff Johns physical pain to know other people are allowed to write comics that aren't him. Today this was confirmed.

Lee Lemon said...

I'm kind of in shock that DC did this. Everyone sneers when Alan Moore says they are still basing their comics on a few stories he wrote 30 odd years ago but this is the most blatant DC have ever been about it!

Just a really terrible idea. How about just making some good comics DC? How about not feeling the need to have massive crossovers every 5 minutes?

I think they've totally missed the point about what was good about their 80-90s output...

SallyP said...

What the...hell? On the one hand, I am overjoyed that characters that I love and have missed so, are back. On the other hand...what the hell?

Unknown said...

I've never found John's work to be particularly dark, and I don't think that counting the amount of grievous physical injuries characters he's writing endure to be a good way to measure "darkness." Peter Jackson's "Braindead" features way more dismemberment than David Fincher's "Seven," but I think we can all agree "Seven" is the darker film.

Most of John's work features fairly idealistic heroes who encounter setbacks, but manage to rally and defeat them in the end by focusing on the core essence of who they are and what makes them a hero. A "dark" work wouldn't just be violent, it would be cynical about the motivations of the characters and have bad things happen because people and the world in general all suck. It would have characters behave cruelly and selfishly, and mock heroism and idealism as outdated. It would take characters who are supposed to be noble and heroic and have them do evil things for banal reasons.

I'm not saying Johns has never written "dark" stories by my definition (I think it was his idea to turn Maxwell Lord evil and he definitely couldn't stop corrupting the Guardians when he wrote Green Lantern). But I don't think it's fair to say he is making the DC universe darker overall because he has characters get injured badly during fights. Most of his stories are about idealistic heroes winning by being idealistic.

Making Doctor Manhattan the villain of all this sounds like a bad idea on paper. But there were other ideas that sounded bad on paper that DC comics managed to pull off well. Giving Batman a biological son sounded like the worst idea in history when I heard about it, but it turned out great. Bringing Barry Allen back when he had such a good death sounded awful, but it turned out there were still a lot of great Barry Allen stories left to tell. This story could well turn out awful, but I'm much more optimistic about it than I would have been in the past.

Matt D said...

I tried the first few issues of the Nu52 and dropped off, despite having maybe 10-12 DC comics I was still enjoying in 2011 before that. I was hugely engaged in the lead up to Infinite Crisis (and less hugely but still heavily engaged between 96 and that point, or so).

I think one reason I enjoyed this so much was because I had dropped everything DC for a couple of years. It was like seeing an old friend. It was nostalgia driven but at least the tone was that sort of 1996 Waid on Flash/Kesel on Superboy sweet spot that I enjoyed so much. the Comic Alliance roundtable's biggest complaints seemed to be focused more on those people who HAD been reading and I can get how frustrating this might be to those people, because I lived that.

At the same time, I completely agree with how disingenuous it is to point the finger at Watchmen on a metatextual level without pointing it at Geoff Johns himself too. I wonder if he lacks that perspective to blame himself (and I've seen him come off as defensive in interviews so maybe?) or if he has gained maturity and wisdom over the years through failed attempts and just thought it would distract from the story. Maybe I'm just slightly reactive but the idea of "blaming" Watchmen is kind of clever to me. I know that I wanted to blame Frank Miller and Alan Moore on some level for the decompressed, street-level, deconstructed, wonder-less Marvel of the early 00s, but it's not them that were the problem but the litany of writers who would say in interviews "Oh, i got out of comics when I found girls as a teenager but got back into them in college when Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen came out." I saw that pattern again and again from the people who were writing the comics that frustrated me the most.

The Comics Alliance roundtable talked a lot about white Wally West coming back as the POV and how that pushed against representation. I'm less worried about that after reading the four rebirth issues from yesterday. Superman didn't have much in that way (though at least Lana is still an engineer; I don't know when they did that but it's a cool addition to the character), but the GLs of earth will be Baz and Cruz, Duke Thomas was the secondary protagonist in the Batman one, and at least they're outright (and maybe too heavy-handedly) tackling Ollie's white privilege and hypocrisy (though still balancing it with a desire to do good) in Green Arrow (plus apparently Black Canary is still part-Jem or whatever they did there, which people seemed to like when I was checked out, so that's cool).

On a selfish level Rebirth was aimed at me, not the 1970s fan they were trying to recapture in Infinite Crisis but the post Zero Hour fan who used New 52 as a jumping off point. And I think they'll make comics I like for a few months at least. And then when it comes to the next event, they'll realize that it's a hell of a lot harder to build things up than tear them down and the cracks will show (it's continuity on top of continuity, such unshaky ground), and that wisdom will be shown to be an illusion (again; it's the same people in charge! The same people!).

But I'll enjoy what I can while I can.

Marc said...

This is an incredible analysis of DC: Rebirth -- the best I've seen so far, in fact. You do a great job of unpacking the futility of these sorts of reboots in general, and the hypocrisy of Johns's case against Watchmen specifically. One can only wonder at how Johns is able to reconcile his own repudiation of the last decade of DC Comics with the fact that he's been its primary architect. How ironic, too, that of all people, he's the one Warner Bros. has tapped to restore some "levity" to their Batman and Superman film franchises.