Review : DC Universe : Rebirth #1 (Warning! Spoilers Ahead!)

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This wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?

Less than five years ago, when DC re-launched their entire line with their obviously-hastily-assembled “New 52” initiative, we were promised that “this was the big one,” that the changes it introduced were “permanent,” and that the then-new version of the corporate universe it presented was “here to stay.” At first, of course, sales were strong, but it didn’t take long for one thing to become very clear : people just weren’t crazy about this purportedly “darker,” more “mature,” and more “realistic” world their favorite characters were inhabiting. DC’s “brain” trust tried some tinkering around the edges here and there, and even went the “soft relaunch” route just last summer when they re-branded everything “DC You” and tried to impose a “lighter” tone on just about everything by means of editorial edict, but the writing was on the wall — as sales on pretty much every title apart from Batman continued to tail off, everybody knew the days of the “New 52 Universe” were numbered, and that we’d be starting all over from scratch with brand new first issues sooner rather than later.

Well, that “sooner” day has arrived with the release of DC Universe : Rebirth #1, an 80-page special (priced at only $2.99) written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary FrankEthan Van SciverIvan Reis, and Phil Jimenez (with an equally-large committee of inkers and colorists in tow) that, depending on your outlook, either manages to right the flagging ship that is the DCU or simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic. Unfortunately, from this critic’s point of view, the latter seems much more likely to be the case.

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Even though my headline already screams it out fairly boldly, this is the point at which my conscience compels me to reiterate one more time that there are, in fact, SPOILERS AHEAD, so if you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want a few key developments given away (I’ll be concentrating more heavily on thematic “spoilers” than on specific plot points, but still —), go no further. Are we all absolutely clear on that? Okay, good.

Let’s be brutally honest about something, then, shall we? If you want a writer who feels that addressing the obvious and superficial, surface-level deficiencies in any given character or group of characters is tantamount to fixing their “problems,” Geoff Johns is your guy. He did it with previous “Rebirth” efforts more narrowly focused on the Green Lantern Corps and the Flash, and this time he’s been tasked with doing the same for — well, everybody (never mind that he penned the Flashpoint mini-series that set this whole “New 52” mess rolling). In fact, the “suits” at Warner Brothers are so confident in his ability to get to the so-called “essence” of their four-color properties that he’s been elevated to co-head honcho (along with Jon Berg) of the so-called “DCEU” movie line, ostensibly to do some sort of “course correction” on that nascent enterprise since the roughly $900 million Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman : Dawn Of Justice took in at the worldwide box office is absurdly considered to be a “disappointment.” On the plus side, that means that Snyder’s probably on the way out over there. On the minus side, it means that Johns is in.

But let’s concentrate on the “plus” side of the ledger again for a moment, shall we? Because there’s one other huge plus to Johns’ elevation — it means that DC Universe : Rebirth will probably be the last comic book he writes in a good, long while, and that’s very welcome news indeed because, given the evidence on display here, the guy is absolutely out of new ideas.

For all its readily-apparent faults, the “New 52” at least was a forward-thinking enterprise. It had as its primary goal bringing new readers into the fold, simplifying and streamlinig DCU continuity, and telling accessible stories. It failed at all of those things, by and large, to be sure — but at their core, those are all good ideas. Rebirth, by contrast, takes the opposite tack : its primary objective is to bring back all the old readers that have been lost over the past few years and to “re-set” the characters and their timeline back to the way things were, albeit with a few wrinkles thrown in to keep folks guessing. There’s just one major flaw in this “thinking”: where they were was such a convoluted mess that it necessitated the previous re-launch in the first place.

Still, if nostalgia is your bag, DC Universe : Rebirth #1 has it in spades. Nightwing is back in blue. Wally West is a redhead (and, crucially for a depressingly large number of people, a white dude) again. Aquaman and Mera are back together. Green Arrow and Black Canary are back together. If that’s enough to convince you that DC is back on the right track, then sit back and enjoy the ride — you’re gonna love Rebirth.

Still, if that’s not enough for you, don’t worry, there’s more : That “New 52” version of Superman that nobody ever really liked? He’s apparently dead. Pandora, the character purportedly responsible (at least on some level) for the “creation” of the “New 52 Universe”? She dies, as well — rather brutally, it must be said — in a scene clearly heavy with “metafictional” elements designed by Johns to absolve himself of any guilt over what happened as a result of Flashpoint. Heck, he even lets the Barry Allen Flash off the hook — and, by extension, wipes his own conscience completely clean — by revealing that the whole paradoxical mess he unleashed was, unbeknownst to him (and, by extension, us), the work of some “unseen hand” (as seen on the cover of this issue) who literally stole ten years from the DCU and meddled in the affairs of its heroes in order to “weaken” them and make their world easy pickings for some “outside force.” And it’s that “unseen hand” and “outside force” that proves what a creatively bankrupt enterprise this whole thing is.

At this point we’re firmly into “let’s not kid ourselves” territory, so let’s not : the reason the “New 52” failed comes down to one simple factor, my friends — overly-tight, unbending, pig-headed editorial control. The artwork on most of the books displayed a depressing uniformity of style clearly informed by mid-90s WildStorm comics (thank you, Jim Lee). The various storylines in many of the titles were obviously coming not from the creators, but from their bosses. Many of the lead characters — and almost all of the side characters — were flat-out interchangeable in terms of tone and dialogue. And the “assembly-line” approach taken on the books was such a painfully obvious exercise in micro-management that one could even flip through the pages of any given DC title and count on a fight breaking out every four pages, tensions between characters bubbling to the surface every 12 pages, a villain making a “surprise” appearance every 16 pages — you get the idea. It was some serious “by-the-numbers” stuff, quite literally.

Sure, the overall tone of the books was “darker” and “more somber” — and yes, our heroes are finally fucking smiling again in Rebirth. But guess what? They have no real reason to be, because all the powers-that-be that have been screwing up their stories for at least a decade, if not longer — Dan DidioEddie BerganzaBob Harras, the aforementioned Jim Lee, and others (you know, DC’s real “Rogues’ Gallery”) — they’re all still there. And with most of the titles post-Rebirth now being slated to ship twice a month and the vast majority of them taking the same “art-by-committee” approach seen in this 80-page special, do you really think the level of direction and influence the editorial ranks has over DC’s product (and “product” is exactly what it is at this point) is going to lessen? Be serious.

Still, Johns is clearly in the midst of one bloated, confused non-apology here, and while he and his bosses have been saying all the right things in public about having “lost our way” and “failed to honor our legacy” and what have you, the underlying message of Rebirth is as painfully clear as it is preposterous — none of this is our fault. Fortunately, he does offer up a couple of scapegoats for the truly dim-witted to focus their ire on : Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

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It’s standard fan-boy “logic” these days, of course, to blame Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns for setting DC on a “darker” path. Never mind for an instant that neither of those books are anywhere near as “dark” as they’re touted as being, or that they brought DC a level of relevance they haven’t enjoyed before or since, or that the company is still milking both of ’em for all they’re worth and then some. They “set the tone.” They “steered DC onto the wrong path.” They “took all the joy and wonder out of superhero adventures” by deconstructing them in plain sight a little too successfully.

Which is all complete and utter bullshit, of course. Yes, those seminal series were more “mature” and “somber” than what had come before, but that was only a very small part of why they were — and remain — such successful and revolutionary comics. They each had wicked senses of humor, were plainly relevant to real-world issues and concerns, and most importantly, addressed the human condition in a meaningful and substantive way , utilizing the much-maligned superhero genre as their means for doing so. But the geniuses in editorial and (perhaps even more significantly) accounting  — both at the time and since — never understood that. The message they took from the runaway critical and commercial success of the two titles that could (and by all rights should) have transformed the industry was that readers wanted “more dark comics” rather than “more good comics.” Is it any wonder the heights those books achieved have never been equaled at DC since?

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“So,” you rightly ask ” what the fuck has all this got to do with Rebirth“? Quite a bit, actually — the “New 52,” you see, was all Dr. Manhattan’s fault! There have been a lot of rumors flying around about Big, Blue, and Naked being “revealed” as “the creator” or even “the God,” of the DC Universe, but while Johns and his largely-competent-if-hopelessly-dull team of artists never go so far as to make that explicitly clear, he is, in fact, shown to be that “unseen hand” I was blathering on about a few paragraphs (shit, it feels like a lifetime) back, and the existential conflict that’s being set up to propel this storyline forward into and through the newly-renumbered (except for Action Comics and Detective Comics, which are reverting to their “classic” numbering) slew of comics making their way onto shelves starting next week is one of the “classic, more hopeful” DCU vs. the “grim and gritty” universe of the Watchmen.

This just sucks on so many levels. For one thing, Before Watchmen was bad enough, but even if you’re one of the legions of suckers who has fallen victim to the years-long propaganda campaign perpetrated by DC and its compliant shills in the comics “press” to falsely portray Moore as some bitter, crazy old man, pissing on he and Gibbons’ creative legacy like this is just plain mean-spirited and gratuitous. The image we’re “treated to” in this comic of Batman holding up the Comedian’s iconic, blood-stained “smiley-face” button is both depressing for the clear “hey! We still don’t get it!” signal it sends, and infuriating for the insult it adds to previously-administered injuries. “Piling on” will get you a 15-yard penalty in a football game — in today’s comics world, it will probably earn Geoff Johns unmitigated praise for “having the guts to go where no one else would before.” And people wonder why I despair sometimes.

Still, for all the bitter taste DC Universe : Rebirth left in my mouth, there were a couple of things that even I have to admit to liking about it : it was beyond nice to see Ted Kord back as the Blue Beetle. Having Dick Grayson ditch the spy game and return to super-heroing full-time is a good move. The JSA returning in its “classic” iteration is a no-brainer. And while the whole thing plays out as more a slap-dash series of “Cliff’s Notes”-style vignettes assembled for the purposes of both getting us up to speed on what we’ve been missing while we’ve been shelling out three and four bucks per issue every month for comics that take place in a universe that doesn’t even “count” anymore and to “tease” where things might be headed in subsequent months than it does an actual, cohesive narrative, some of Johns’ rapid-fire “let’s check in over here for a minute” stuff does, in fact, work.

But not nearly enough of it by any stretch of the imagination. And while a number of the creative teams on the forthcoming Rebirth titles seem reasonably promising on paper (Peter Tomasi Patrick Gleason and Doug Mahnke on SupermanGreg RuckaLiam Sharp, and Nicola Scott on Wonder WomanTom KingDavid Finch, and Mikel Janin on BatmanChristopher Priest and Carlo Pagulayan on Deathstroke), until I see some kind of proof that DC is loosening up their editorial control and actually allowing their creators to tell good stories, I remain beyond skeptical. If you’ve been waiting for years to see who wins a fight between Superman and Dr. Manhattan, or what happens when Blue Beetle and Night Owl team up to cleanse the streets of Hub City of evildoers, congratulations — odds are that you’re about to get your wish. For the rest of us, though, the downright pathological lack of originality on display in DC Universe : Rebirth #1 offers evidence of nothing other than the fact that five years (or less) from now, they’ll be doing the whole thing over yet again.

Story: Geoff Johns  Art: Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez
Story: 2 Art: 5 Overall: 3.5 Recommendation: Pass. Please.

DC Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

7 comments

  • Ryan C. (trashfilmguru)

    Reblogged this on Trash Film Guru.

  • I don’t know, man, this is the most fun I’ve had reading a mainstream comic in a long while. Geoff Johns has a clunky writing style, but his love and admiration of these characters shines through here. While we may end up with Dr. Manhattan as super villain, I think it works here on a metaphoric level. Johns isn’t absolving himself and his cohorts of their mistakes, he’s sincerely apologizing for taking wrongheaded inspiration from Watchmen and showing readers that the reasons we fell in love with these characters still matter to, if not the rest of the head honchos, at least him.

    • Ryan C. (trashfilmguru)

      I don’t see how the fundamental “inspiration” from “Watchmen” is to “make things darker” unless you’re a writer whose vision and inspiration is very limited. As I said in my review, the fundamental message of “Watchmen” was that audiences were hungry for more good comics — not more dark comics. DC clearly still doesn’t get that message, and the fact they’re bringing Moore and Gibbons’ characters into their universe shows they not only don’t respect those two creators, they don’t respect the nature of their work in the least. “Watchmen” really only works as a “stand-alone” story, and the diminishing returns we’re going to get from each new appearance they make will certainly bear that out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you liked the book and feel optimistic about the future of DC’s line. I wish I felt the same way. But there’s not a single new idea on offer here, the story is in no way accessible to new readers, and DC are continuing to strip-mine their old properties — even ones that were never part of their corporate universe previously — for all they’re worth. Heck, Johns couldn’t even come up with an original line for his cliffhanger, instead “borrowing” directly from Moore and Gibbons with the end result being that unless you’ve read “Watchmen” (and a lot of younger readers, believe it or, haven’t), the ending of this book won’t even make sense. I found the entire thing far too backward-thinking and alienating. But, clearly, judging from the fact that my review got a bunch of “thumbs-down”s and low “star ratings” yesterday — before anyone had even read the book! — people are ready to love “Rebirth” and feel this is just what DC needs (or hope it is, at any rate). I certainly hope time proves them right. And I’m really looking forward to Alan Moore’s next interview, aren’t you?

  • Man, you said it all! Thanks for doing a critical review of this thing instead of just running down plot points and stroking the product. The well is dry with Johns; DC desperately needs some new blood.

    • Ryan C. (trashfilmguru)

      Thanks, Johns appears to be on the way across the street to the movie side of things, so he’s being richly rewarded indeed for never having an original idea in his life. The problem is, of course, that the likes of DiDio, Lee, Harras, and Berganza are all still around. The cultural and creative rot at DC has sunk in so deep that nothing will truly change until ALL of these guys are gone. This latest reboot will buy them three of four more years of job security, but once it runs out of gas, MAYBE someone at Warners will realize that wholesale — rather than cosmetic — changes are what’s needed there.

  • Great review. This really looks like a stinker. I see what you mean about some of the titles “looking promising on paper” but at the same time there’s no talents I would say would be even remotely close to the talents Kirby, Eisner, Ditko, Raymond or Wood. Hell, I don’t even see many names I would put alongside good journeymen artists and writers like Otto Binder, Gardner Fox, Wayne Boring or George Perez.

    I’m not as big a fan of Watchmen as a lot of people who are into comics (I prefer his Swamp Thing run, Top Ten and even his 2000AD stories) but the way DC has been treating him is sleazy as hell. It seems to be depressingly common in comics for companies to rip off their talent and fandom to go “Oh Kirby/Ditko/Moore/Wood/Siegel and Shuster are just bitter old men and crazy as a box of frogs” when they complain about the awful way they have been treated. Pretty shameful to be honest.

    • Ryan C. (trashfilmguru)

      Yes! That’s it exactly! Notice that it’s always the people who have done the most for the industry — and then had the “nerve” to demand (or even ask for) a little something in return that get painted as “crazy old-timers”? Marvel’s treatment of Kirby in his later years is beyond reprehensible, and internet fan-boys (a polite term for “unpaid industry shills”) continue to paint Ditko as a bizarre and unapproachable recluse who remains aloof and silent when in truth he issues new comics and essay work very frequently and is known to warmly receive visitors to his studio — even unannounced ones — all the time. Sure, DC gave Siegel and Shuster a little something toward the end of heir lives but that was after decades of living in abject poverty while their creation raked in billions. The same tired tactic is being used on Moore now that he’s getting up there in years and doesn’t wish to spend what time he has left engaged in lengthy legal battles, but anyone still buying into DC’s reprehensible propaganda campaign about him being “unreasonable” or “intransigent” would do well to read this timeline and get a much clearer picture of who has been doing the screwing and who’s been getting screwed all along : http://www.comicsbeat.com/the-creators-position-viewed-through-the-lens-of-alan-moore/