Review: REBIRTH #1 Delivers More Than a Story

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DC Universe: Rebirth #1 is both a mea culpa and a recrimination of sorts from Geoff Johns.

I’ve read it twice now, and I’ve seen a lot of online reaction — a lot of it cautiously positive — and one thing that keeps going around in my head: “How did DiDio and Lee and Harras let Johns do this?”

Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee have been the targets of a lot of flack from DC fans, especially over the past five years since the New 52 reboot. And editor Bob Harras is no stranger to criticism, either. Indeed, when you consider that Harras was in charge of Marvel during the “almost going bankrupt” days, one wonders why he’s not under fire any more than he is now.

But with Rebirth, it seems that the editorial team at DC Comics has waved a white flag. Whether the plan all along was to end New 52 after 52 issues, the perception is that the initiative has been seen as a mistake. And when you read the words Johns is putting in the mouths of our favorite characters — most especially pre-New 52 Wally West — there’s a very meta-textual layer that resides under the surface.

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The fact that we’re even talking about a reset after five years of the New 52 seems difficult to fathom, and as word spread around the internet about what Rebirth was going to do, I personally felt some cautious optimism. I was one of the many DC fans who abandoned the company after the New 52 rolled out, for a number of reasons that included time, money, and frustration at the perceived mishandling of the characters.

As we’ve seen with the legal battle between Paramount and the Axanar fan film project, fans have a vested interest in their story universes. And while we don’t have a right to certain stories, we certainly do have expectations that the stories will be good. This was something that the New 52 (for many) failed to deliver. Add to that the behind-the-scenes turmoil with so many creative teams jumping ship (three years into it we counted 36, including Andy Diggle, Tony Daniel, George Perez, and others), plus the rehashing of harassment charges against editor Eddie Berganza, and DC Comics doesn’t have much of a solid positive reputation.

Then there was the less-than-stellar performance of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which directly led to a shake-up at Warner Bros. (something we discussed on The Rogues Gallery; click here to listen).

Which has us circling back to Geoff Johns and the new direction everything is about to take.

DC Universe: Rebirth #1 Cover Art by Gary Frank
DC Universe: Rebirth #1 Cover Art by Gary Frank

DC_Logo_RGB_031816The first thing to notice is the new logo. It’s clean and hearkens back to the classic logos of the company’s past. No more peeling sticker. And while it’s not the bullet, it follows the tradition of the circle with the letters inside.

With that visual element alone, DC is making a statement. It’s not exactly what came before, but it’s a recognition of the publisher’s history. And that adds additional meta-context to Rebirth.

Not only that, but Gary Frank’s cover art gives us our heroes moving toward light. It’s almost as if visually we’re being told the days of “dark and gritty” may be coming to an end. Indeed, Johns has given plenty of interviews in recent days, and he talks of restoring a sense of hope to the DC Universe.

Rebirth is about focusing in on the core of the character and their respective universe,” says Johns in the solicitation listing. “It brings back what has been lost, the legacy of the characters, the love and the hope of the DCU!”

Part of that reach back to legacy includes Action Comics and Detective Comics reverting back to the numbering of the pre-New 52, so the next issues will be — adding the 52 issues in between — Action Comics #957 and Detective Comics #934, respectively.

I also like the fact that Rebirth isn’t a reboot. It’s not something that erases the New 52 and ignores the continuity. In a carefully crafted way, Johns has used the grim nature of the New 52 — as well as earlier, darker stories like Watchmen, The Killing Joke, and Johns’ own Flashpoint — as a foundation for the new direction DC Comics is (hopefully) about to take.

The general idea is that some outside force has tampered with the DCU, moving pieces, erasing memories, eliminating people and events, re-arranging others so that ten years have been snatched away. Our outside narrator, revealed early in the book to be pre-New 52 redhead Kid Flash Wally West, has been locked in the Speed Force outside the New 52 universe, and he recognizes that it’s been altered. Armed with this knowledge, he attempts to break free before the Speed Force absorbs him. But in order to do that, he has to make a connection with someone — anyone — who could possibly remember him.

Along the way, his words are reflective of many criticisms of the New 52, as well as Dan DiDio’s opinion that heroes can’t be happy in order to stay heroes, a foot-in-mouth statement that came out of the Batwoman kerfuffle in which Haden Blackman and J.H. Williams III abruptly left the title because DiDio and Company wouldn’t allow Kate Kane to marry Maggie Sawyer, something that had already been approved as an early plan, then scrapped — along with Aquaman’s marriage to Mera and Clark Kent’s marriage to Lois Lane.

Indeed, Wally’s observations about the DC Universe’s lack of hope, lack of light, seems to be an indictment of DC’s own decisions to publish comics titles heavily influenced by the “grim and gritty” WatchmenThe Dark Knight ReturnsThe Killing Joke, and more. And to make Dr. Manhattan the “antagonist” (as Johns describes him, not a “villain”) just seems to further this point — that the whole comics industry went askew with the wrong lessons learned from the success of those titles.

Rebirth weaves those elements into a story that contains all of Johns’ signature techniques. His stories focus on character, and there’s plenty of that here. Quiet moments, and moments of reflection, are scattered throughout the book. And there are enough teases for other stories that don’t feel like they’ve been shoehorned in like an e-mail with trailers for the next movie…

Johns has said that the writing staff took their time to discuss what makes each hero great. He’s stated that Rebirth gives everyone a direction, comparing it to New 52’s lack of anything of the sort. One wonders how he can afford to be so candid in his criticism of the company that signs his check, unless he’s become insulated by the company that owns the company that signs his check. His elevation to co-chair of DC Films, in addition to being Chief Creative Officer at DC, may give him a tremendous amount of sway.

Could the days be numbered for Dan DiDio, Jim Lee, and Bob Harras?

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Consider, also, the splash page at the end of the book. You’ll see something on the faces of many heroes, something we haven’t seen in a good long while. They’re smiling. Looking forward to the journey. It’s a splash page reminiscent of George Perez and Dick Giordano and Alex Saviuk. The art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Hi-Fi really hearkens back to those days when the heroes enjoyed being heroes.

Now, for those who are criticizing Rebirth as a navel-gazing self-reverential piece of tripe, consider that DC has always built their stories on the history of the legends in their pages. Until the New 52, there was a sense of legacy. You didn’t have to read every back issue to know what was going on, but there was a sense that these characters were more than just characters in a story. The DC Universe, more than Marvel, has always been a type of Modern American Mythology. Where Marvel’s characters have always been flawed, DC’s set were more idealistic. And that inspired generations of readers. It gave us something to aspire to be, a standard to look up to. These days, you have to look to Chris Evans’ portrayal as Captain America for that legacy.

Nowadays, where do we look for hope? Where will we find it? With our political leaders? Our movie stars? It’s the economy. It’s the environment. It’s the government. It’s the special interest groups. It’s the terrorists. It’s the schools. It’s the bathrooms. It’s the ______________.

Where is the hope? Who are our heroes?

Rebirth #1 is an excellent blend of nostalgia for the pre-New 52 days, recognition that New 52 happened and is a thing, and anticipation for the next chapter in the DC Universe. Make no mistake: DC has a long way to go to earn the goodwill of long-abandoned fans, but this book is a bold step in the right direction.

 

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Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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