If You’re a DC Fan and You Hated ‘Batman v Superman,’ You’ll Love ‘DC Universe: Rebirth’ #1
At least that’s one potential interpretation of the fascinating new comic DC Universe: Rebirth #1, a book designed to reintroduce lightness and hope into a publishing line (and perhaps a cinematic universe) that has become increasingly obsessed with darkness and misery — and to reintroduce lapsed comics readers to the characters they love.
Fittingly, the protagonist of DC Universe: Rebirth is something of a lapsed hero himself. His name is Wally West, who first appeared in 1959 as the Flash’s sidekick, Kid Flash. After years as a member of the Teen Titans, Wally inherited the mantle of the Flash, when Barry Allen died defending the universe in the 1985 series Crisis on Infinite Earths. Wally held the Flash title for more than 20 years, until Barry Allen’s resurrection in 2009. (The core philosophy of comics publishing is John Cleese’s character from the witch scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying, “He got better,” with a shrug.)
Wally hung around as a side character for a few years, then vanished completely when DC rebooted their entire history after a series called Flashpoint. He became a casualty of what DC called “The New 52” (named after the company’s full lineup of monthly comics), which featured a streamlined universe with younger characters who’d never lived through the previous 70 years of stories. In The New 52, Barry Allen was the only Flash. Not only had Wally West never been the Flash, it was as if he’d never even existed.
As anyone who read comics in the ’90s will tell you, Wally West was a great character— and a useful symbol, because he was a second-generation superhero inspired to do good work by the original Flash. On a metaphorical level, that made him the living embodiment of classic superhero comics values, which have motivated and encouraged young readers with stories of valor, courage, and selflessness for decades. Wally’s success following in Barry’s altruistic footsteps implied that readers could do the same. Whether intentional or not, when DC erased Wally, they also erased that idea.
Right around the same time DC Comics eliminated Wally, Warner Bros. initiated a new shared universe of DC superhero movies, one sorely lacking in similarly aspirational figures. In Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, superheroism is less of a calling than a burden. Through two movies, the future members of the cinematic Justice League have largely acted out of hatred and bitterness. Superman murders and mopes; Batman rages and regrets. The only thing these guys might inspire a viewer to do is to avoid heroism at all costs.
So Wally’s return in the pages of DC Universe: Rebirth feels like a timely one, particularly once writer Geoff Johns’ full story gets revealed. In the issue, Wally West exists as a sort of ghost floating in the “Speed Force,” the metaphysical dimension that gives speedsters like the Flash their powers. Wally observes the events of current DC Comics continuity but can’t interact with them because no one there remembers him. He tries to break through and contact heroes like Batman, but his efforts repeatedly prove unsuccessful.
His actions aren’t selfish; he’s less interested in returning to life than in warning the living of an impending danger from outside of time and space. It turns out that the line-wide reboot of "The New 52" wasn’t a random act of the universe rewriting itself after the temporal confusion of Flashpoint. Instead, Wally says, someone deliberately altered history to erase 10 years of DC continuity.
“A darkness from somewhere has infected us. It has for a long time now, I think. Even before the Flashpoint.”
That’s a pointed line, freighted with meaning in a world where DC’s superheroes of both the page and silver screen have been criticized for their increasingly disturbing behavior. This infectious threat only gets more metatextual at the end of the issue, when (SPOILER ALERT) Batman discovers a clue that points to this darkness’ origin: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen is a masterpiece. It helped change perceptions of what comics could be, and for that it will always be an important and canonical graphic novel. (It’s also a great story to boot.) But in recent years its influence has been less positive, inspiring countless knockoffs and contributing to a belief that in order for a comic book to be taken seriously or considered great art it has to be gloomy and violent and depressing. In 1986, Watchmen was a reaction to the superhero comics mainstream; in 2016, its bleak tone and suspicious worldview is the mainstream. In a figurative sense, Watchmen (along with a couple other books by Moore and Frank Miller) is to blame for the darkening tone at DC. Now Watchmen is to blame in a literal sense as well, which is kind of brilliant.
The other interesting aspect of making the Watchmen the villains in a story about the bleakness of modern comics is the fact that the Watchmen movie was directed by Zack Snyder — who then went on to direct Man of Steel and Batman v Superman (and soon Justice League) with a similarly cynical approach. In an interview with USA Today, Johns confirmed that Rebirth’s extradimensional menace will ultimately be revealed as Dr. Manhattan. But Dr. Manhattan never appears in DC Universe: Rebirth #1, leaving the viewer to read that big, ominous hand above as a stand-in for any outside influence with ties to Watchmen looking to leech every ounce of cheerfulness and optimism from DC’s core heroes. Like, say, Zack Snyder.
You can say I’m reading way too much into this comic, and under other circumstances, I might be inclined to agree with you. But DC Universe: Rebirth was written by Geoff Johns, a man with a long history of turning the meta aspects of comics history and fandom into their direct text. In 2005 he wrote a sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths called Infinite Crisis. Its villain was a kid named Superboy Prime, a version of Superboy from “the real world” who had spent decades in limbo watching the events of current DC Comics from what might as well be the supernatural equivalent of his mom’s basement. This Superboy rants and raves about how he knows what’s best for DC’s characters, and how things would be “better” if he were in charge. Breaking free of his prison, he returns to reshape comics the way he believes they should be.
Johns later confirmed in interviews that he intended Superboy Prime to represent the dark side of comic-book fandom. The character’s entitled rages and his obstinacy in the face of change, in light of the internet’s reaction to projects like the new all-female Ghostbusters, seem even more prescient in hindsight. Although Superboy Prime hasn’t popped up in DC Comics lately (he was, ironically, erased by Johns’ new metatextual meddler, Dr. Manhattan), I think about him pretty much every time internet fandom’s ugliest impulses rear their heads. With a little copy editing, some of the hate mail I got for my own Batman v Superman review could have worked perfectly as Superboy Prime dialogue:
If you liked Batman v Superman, that’s great; more power to you. There’s certainly room for darker, angrier superheroes, and clearly there’s an audience for them too. But there’s also an audience for the medium’s more uplifting side, one that’s been underserved in recent years. “I realize it wasn’t 10 years that was stolen from us,” Wally says at one point in DC Universe: Rebirth. “It was love.”
True to those words, the biggest moment in the entire comic book isn’t a slugfest between a hero and a villain. It’s a hug between two old partners.
It’s hard to imagine the heroes of Warners’ DC movies ever hugging under any circumstance. Amazingly, this pointed reaction to recent DC Comics is coming from DC Comics itself. Credit to Geoff Johns for turning the situation into gripping story fodder. DC Universe: Rebirth #1 truly marks the dawning of a new era in superheroes.
DC Universe: Rebirth #1 by writer Geoff Johns and artists Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jiminez is on sale now.