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DC Rebirth’s controversial conclusion undermines its strengths

DC Rebirth
DC Rebirth

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s DC Rebirth. Written by Geoff Johns with art by Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez, inks by Matt Santorelli and Joe Prado, and colors by Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Hi-Fi, and Gabe Eltaeb, this one-shot kicks off DC’s new Rebirth publishing initiative as Johns departs his comics work for the foreseeable future. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

Geoff Johns has been an instrumental force at DC Comics for more than a decade. During that time, he’s steadily ascended the corporate ladder, playing a larger part in DC’s film and TV projects while writing some of the publisher’s most popular character. Being named DC’s Chief Creative Officer in 2010 was a significant promotion for Johns, but it was a small bump compared to his new role as the co-head of the newly formed DC Films, which will oversee Warner Bros. upcoming films starring DC characters. Johns is also writing the new Batman film that Ben Affleck is starring in and directing, responsibilities that are forcing him to put his comics work on hold for the foreseeable future.

DC Rebirth is Johns’ parting gift to the DC Universe, a one-shot that sets up the publisher’s future by bringing back discarded elements from its past. At $2.99 for over 60 pages of story, it’s an outstanding value that shows how much DC wants readers and retailers to hop on board with the Rebirth initiative, and most of the issue is a careful, honest exploration of the things that went wrong with The New 52 on a narrative level. It’s a far more personal work from Johns compared to most of his New 52 writing (with the exception of his excellent run on Superman with John Romita Jr.). He uses this issue to air his frustrations with how DC Comics changed over the past five years.

As someone who became hooked on superhero comics in the early ’00s, I’ve read a lot of Johns’ work, and it introduced me to the rich mythology behind characters like the Flash and the members of the Justice Society Of America. Sure, that mythology was dense, but Johns had a talent for streamlining continuity in a way that made it accessible to new readers. I wanted to seek out other stories with those characters after learning about them through Johns’ titles, and his work was a gateway to the publisher’s expansive history. Johns thrives when working with the decades of history behind these characters, which might explain why his work in the reset continuity of The New 52 was so cold and uninspired. The finale of “The Darkseid War” in this week’s Justice League #50 and DC Rebirth read like the work of two different writers, and Johns is clearly more passionate about bringing back the mythology that was lost than building new mythology in The New 52.

The pre-New 52 Wally West is Johns’ mouthpiece in DC Rebirth, and reuniting with the character that played an integral role in his comics career brings a sense of joy to Johns’ writing. The content isn’t especially light or cheerful, but Johns’ heart is in it and there’s an excited energy that propels the issue forward. The issue is split into four chapters with titles associated to the major themes of each, beginning with “Lost” for the reintroduction of the old Wally West, who has been lost outside of realiy since 2011’s Flashpoint. That first chapter breaks down Wally’s history for anyone that doesn’t know and sets up the conflict that will be further explored throughout the issue, but it also establishes that Johns thinks DC lost its way in the New 52.

“I love this world,” Wally narrates at the start of the issue. “But there’s something missing.” It’s hard not to see this as Johns’ critique of how DC has handled the mythology he loves, and as the issue continues, he breaks down the changes that hurt the DC Universe in the New 52: “Heroes that were legends became novices. Bonds between them were weakened and erased. Legacies were destroyed.” Over the course of the next three chapters—“Legacy,” “Love,” and “Life”—Johns starts the wheels in motion to restore these elements, and it feels like a significant course correction until the final pages, which take a sudden turn into more troubling territory.

There’s a lot to appreciate in DC Rebirth, and as someone who was frustrated by the New 52’s dramatic erasure of continuity, I’m thrilled to see promising ideas from the past brought back for further exploration. “Legacy” teases the return of teams like the Justice Society and Legion Of Superheroes as well as individual heroes like Ryan Choi as The Atom and Jackson Hyde as Aqualad, and it’s nice to see Johns strengthening ties to DC’s past and future history while reintegrating characters that had been wiped out after Flashpoint. “Love” spotlights character relationships like Green Arrow and Black Canary, Superman and Lois, Aquaman and Mera, and Wally West and Linda Park, emphasizing that these personal bonds are what give these stories emotional weight. These are all good things, and hopefully DC editorial is actually taking note and committing to bringing these elements back.

The final chapter, “Life,” has Wally getting pulled out of his transdimensional state by Barry Allen. Before his grand return, he checks in on the New 52’s Wally West, who is a cousin that shares the name inherited from their great-grandfather. Johns tries his best to justify the presence of two Wallys West, but it’s difficult to spin old Wally’s return as a good thing for the New 52 character. There’s no denying that the pre-New 52 Wally West was a deeper character than the current iteration, but that’s because the New 52 Wally West has only been around for two years and is still playing a supporting role in The Flash ongoing series. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to break out on his own, and rather than committing to this new interpretation of the character, DC is bringing back the old Wally West that most comic fans know.

This decision becomes more loaded when race is a factor, and even though the new biracial Wally isn’t being completely replaced by his previous white incarnation, this is still a blow to the New 52 Wally’s identity. It’s reminiscent of Marvel’s treatment of Sam Wilson’s Captain America, and while he’s still technically Captain America and sharing the name with a newly de-aged Steve Rogers, he now has to share that title when he used to have his own distinct superhero identity as The Falcon. That may not seem like that big of a deal, but in situations like these, one of the characters is going to be a higher priority for the company. In the case of Captain America, it’s the one that is going to be most familiar to millions of moviegoers, but Wally West’s status as a supporting character on The Flash TV series doesn’t quite have the cache of starring in a film franchise.

Time will tell which version will become DC’s main Wally West, but the fact that the scenario exists at all is unfortunate. I’m happy to see the old Wally back, but it makes me wish that the New 52 Kid Flash had been introduced as a completely different character that shared similarities with TV’s Wally West but wasn’t saddled to that name. Even within the issue he’s referred to as “the other Wally West,” which wouldn’t have been a problem if he was introduced as a brand new character taking on the Kid Flash mantle. DC probably wasn’t thinking about bringing back the old Wally two years, but this situation makes a good case for creating new heroes of color rather than race-bending existing characters.

Four of Johns’ major artistic collaborators at DC Comics handle DC Rebirth’s visuals: Ethan Van Sciver (who worked with Johns on Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash: Rebirth), Gary Frank (who worked with Johns on Action Comics and Batman: Earth One), Ivan Reis (who worked with Johns on Green Lantern and Aquaman), and Phil Jimenez (who worked with Johns on his first big DC event, Infinite Crisis). These are all superstar artists, and while they have their flaws—Van Sciver’s anatomy is awkward at times and Frank has trouble drawing smiles that don’t look deranged—they bring Johns’ story to the page with the right mix of spectacle and atmosphere.

The majority of DC Rebirth represents a significant step forward for DC in terms of repairing its fractured line by remembering the things that make these characters and concepts entertaining and inspiring. But that good work is undermined by the final moments of the issue, which introduce a massive twist that comes with a lot of ethical baggage. Wally West remembers the world before Flashpoint changed everything, and he’s the only person who knows about the outside force that tampered with DC’s history after Flashpoint. He doesn’t know what that force is, but he’s aware that someone out there stole a decade of their lives, and he goes to Batman for help solving this mystery.

The first clue in Batman’s investigation is found at the end of the issue when he catches a glimmer inside one of the pits in the Batcave, chipping away at the rock to discover a yellow smiley face pin with a spot of blood on it. Johns doesn’t concretely confirm it, but it’s heavily implied that Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan is responsible for the New 52, which is the exact kind of “holy shit” moment that makes the comics community go wild. In the context of DC Rebirth, Watchmen represents despair, apathy, and disbelief, and Johns argues that DC Comics has struggled to escape the shadow of Watchmen over the last 30 years. He’s not entirely wrong; Watchmen has been a huge influence on all the superhero comics that followed it. But DC Rebirth presents a reductive view of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work, which traffics in those aforementioned emotions but also finds room for legacy, love, and life in its pages.

On a story level, the DC Universe against Dr. Manhattan sounds like the exact kind of multiverse craziness that is an essential part of DC Comics. On an ethical level, integrating Watchmen into the main DC continuity is the exact kind of dishonorable behavior that is also an essential part of DC Comics. Both DC and Marvel have a despicable track record when it comes to how they’ve treated the people responsible for some of their most popular creations, and DC’s continued exploitation of Moore and Gibbons’ work, which they were robbed the rights to because of a loophole-laden contract, is one of the major blights on its reputation. (David Brothers has a comprehensive rundown of the issues surrounding Watchmen in this 2012 Comics Alliance piece.)

It’s especially insulting when that work is being used as an excuse for the disappointing performance of a relaunch plagued by major editorial problems from the very beginning. Watchmen didn’t make DC alienate readers and retailers, and looking back at the New 52 launch titles, it was not a guiding influence for those titles. Alan Moore played no part in the mess that was the New 52, but DC’s management certainly did. Abhay Khosla has assembled a large amount of damning evidence against DC co-publisher Dan Didio over at The Savage Critics, and it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the publisher given the past behavior of the people that are still in charge. DC’s pathetic response to its current sexual harassment scandal was especially disheartening, and it’s increasingly difficult to support a superhero publisher that acts like a villain so often.

A lot of comics readers don’t know about DC’s disrespectful treatment of Alan Moore or the sexual harassment scandal, and those readers will likely enjoy an issue jam-packed with big moments for the DC Universe. DC hasn’t made any sort of announcement regarding the future of Watchmen characters in the DC Universe, but the image of a ticking clock that ends the issue suggests that something is coming. The idea of a crossover with Watchmen would be far more intriguing if it wasn’t such a blatant act of disrespect to Alan Moore, but if Moore’s wishes were respected, that crossover probably wouldn’t be possible. That last moment has definitely gotten people talking, and this book is going to sell a massive number of copies because of it. But at the end of an issue that spends so much time fixing things, the Watchmen twist leaves a big crack in that repair job.