Review and Analysis: DC UNIVERSE: REBIRTH #1

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DC UNIVERSE: REBIRTH #1
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Phil Jimenez, Joe Prado, Matt Santorelli, Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Gabe Eltaeb, and Hi-Fi
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: May 25, 2016

A hero returns — and opens the floodgates for the rebirth of the entire DC Universe — while a god watches and threatens the very nature of love, hope, legacy, and life in the world. Answers as to the true nature of the New 52 are finally revealed, but a brand new mystery rears its head. As the clock ticks…

Upfront, know that this is going to be a spoiler-ridden article. If you haven’t read DC Universe: Rebirth #1 yet, give yourself this gift: close this article and go read it unspoiled, if such a thing is still possible. My heart broke to see scans, previews, and reviews for this comic go up days before there was any ability to buy the issue. Because if you’ve consumed this comic in sound bytes and bullet points, angry tweets and ad-ridden listicles, you’ve lost an experience you can’t get back.

No matter how you feel about this comic: if you didn’t read it before seeing it dissected for you, you didn’t really read the story the way it was meant to be. You may have read a comic that fills in gaps between ideas that you no doubt have already reacted to, but that’s not reading a story.

I feel exceptionally lucky to have read this book, cover to cover, before any spoilers could make their way to me. Sure, I had certain assumptions about where it was going. The final page of Titans Hunt #8 (and common sense) made the original Wally West’s return a de facto element. I knew from the Rebirth promotions that the original Superman and Lois Lane were back, with their son, taking over for an exiting New 52 Man of Steel. There was no going in totally cold, of course.

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But what I didn’t understand — what I couldn’t have known — is what the story Geoff Johns and company were weaving page after page would feel like.

The Return of Wally West

I grew up with Wally West. And I don’t mean to say that when I was growing up, Wally West was the Flash. I mean, I literally grew up with Wally. He started aging on the comic page when I started reading, going from Kid Flash in New Teen Titans to the Flash post-Crisis on Infinite Earths. He went from being insecure and impatient to mature and responsible as I did. He found the love of his life as I did. He grew up. I grew up.

And so there’s a lot of emotion for me in seeing this man who represents so much of my personal growth crackle back onto the page. And he does so with such vibrancy and characteristic charm, with artists across the board that gave George Perez’s classic rendering of the Fastest Teen Alive its fair due.

Every artist on this comic did this return of a Flash justice. Ethan Van Sciver captured the pure optimism of Wally’s origins perfectly, with his sharp, precise line and a kind of glow that only someone who loves these characters as much as we do can. Gary Frank delivered an unbelievable amount of angst in Wally’s attempt to reconnect over and over, really capturing the physicality of pain in the process. Ivan Reis caught something that actually pushed me back a moment: pure love in Wally’s eyes. The sense of adoration as he looked at Linda Park, his wife, was simply magical.

But there’s no question in my mind where the issue took hold for me was in Phil Jimenez’s reuniting Barry and Wally, ostensibly for one last goodbye. Jimenez (alongside the other three pencillers) is absolutely one of my favorite artists, and for good reason. His sense of realism, now surpassing even Perez’s, is grounded entirely in empathy. Be it joy or pain or wistfulness or any combination of the above, Jimenez makes every facial expression and interaction within the panels something that moves you.

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And in this case, Barry’s grief and relief at the memory of Wally returning — those few words that Johns chose so carefully and perfectly flooding out of his mouth — made it impossible for me to not cry at their long overdue embrace. “How could I ever forget you?” I’m not kidding. Not a well-up. A full cry.

That hug, with the lightning cascading around their bodies, was something I never knew I needed until I saw it.

But it leaves me with a conundrum, nonetheless.

How Many Wallys Is Too Many?

That’s really a trick question, because I said as much a month or more ago that the return of any white Wally West (in conjunction or by replacing the young, biracial one) was one of two things I could not accept about Rebirth. And reading this story, the potential for problems still remains. But what Johns does manage to do really well with DC Universe: Rebirth #1 is to hold the dilemma of two Wallys to a potential — and not fully realized — problem.

That is, it could work, despite my misgivings.

Like so many of Johns’ reworkings of continuity over the years, having two cousins from sides of the family long estranged named after the same great-grandfather is pretty clever and simple. It releases younger Wally from the specter of expectation in reliving older Wally’s life, but it lets him take on the legacy and be his own Kid Flash.

If he’s allowed to.

Whether or not both Wallys will be able to grow and develop along their own paths is entirely out of Johns’ hands at this point, as Rebirth is, sadly, his last comic book project for some time. An optimist would see the prominence young Wally was given in the Rebirth promotion — a place on the initial Jim Lee-drawn banner, a role in not one, but two ongoing series (Flash and Teen Titans) — as a sign that DC is committed to his future, even with the original Wally West’s return and place in the Titans ongoing series. And making him a distinctly separate character (albeit with the same given name) is a sign that the two can coexist in earnest.

It worked with Hal Jordan, right? Green Lantern and AirWave were cousins, same name. Never a problem.

Except we don’t talk about AirWave. Ever. And more to the point, there’s a racial component to the issue that Marvel Comics has been exhibiting over and over for years with its execution of multiple Spider-Men, Captains America, Captains Marvel, and Giant Men.

The latter two played out over the years, with non-white versions either ultimately banished to other codenames and dropped into an occasional team or outright killed as event cannon fodder. The former two are co-existing as we speak. But how many fans really see Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson as equally owning the title? And how long will Marvel?

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This is the danger of two Wally Wests. And as someone who had my Wally — who got to grow up with my Wally — it worries me that there’s a possibility young Black or biracial kids won’t get a real chance at their Wally. Because they deserve it. I had my time. And even as tears rolled down my face as they did Barry’s, I still would rather say goodbye than steal that opportunity from someone who hasn’t had it yet.

Again, if Wally’s fate was in Johns’ hands, I’d be less worried. Because if there’s one thing Geoff Johns is known for, and deserves respect for, it’s not being able to fix things. It’s actually being able to fix things so elegantly that afterward, you wondered why it was ever a problem at all. He did it with Hawkman. With Power Girl. With the Legion of Super-Heroes and with the JSA. And now, with the entire DC Universe. And he did it with a story that pulled at my heartstrings as much as it tickled my intellectual curiosity at what comes next. And that’s classic Geoff Johns right there.

The only problem is, a lot of those things went to hell after Johns no longer wrote them.

The New 52 is over… or is it?

Nevertheless, there is something about DC Universe: Rebirth #1 that sets a tone and direction for the DC Universe that, if carefully cultivated, should make fans old and new very happy. Because contrary to a lot of chatter and my own observations from time to time, I’m not sure longtime fans and newer fans, no matter what their demographic make-up, really want anything that different from each other.

At its root, the New 52 seemed to work best when it embraced the Johnsian philosophy of heroism, optimism, and hope. We saw it in Batgirl. We saw it in Midnighter. We got it in Batman and Justice League and Gotham Academy and Harley Quinn. We didn’t get it in Savage Hawkman or Teen Titans. Or even Superman.

And so, like with so many renovations Johns has undertaken to date, Rebirth doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And we finally have a definitive answer to what happened to the pre-Flashpoint universe. It’s simple. It never went anywhere. It’s right here. Just… tweaked.

And while Johns has put the Flash into a position of knowing that the universe isn’t what it should be — that something’s been taken, be it time or hope or memory — that change hasn’t gone away. Nothing that’s happened in the last five years is undone, and it coexists peacefully with all of the history that came before it. It’s an elegant solution to the problem, and quite frankly, it’s left me wondering, why did it ever seem like such a problem?

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Well, the absence of a significant number of heroes may speak to that, and while the New 52 introduced a large number of characters of diversity — persons of color and queer heroes and heroines both — so many have been lost to the universal tweak, including a wide swath of Johns’ own:

Tomcat, Cyclone, Lightning, Thunder, Grace, Jesse Quick, Hourman, Amazing Man, Hawkgirl, Judomaster, Obsidian, Northwind, Atom Smasher, Jade, Jakeem Thunder, Doctor Mid-Nite, Citizen Steel.

Most of them, the JSA. And as we see Johnny Thunder approached by the Flash and the return of the Justice Society harkened, it brings up my second biggest concern about Rebirth: the return of an all-white, straight, male society. It’s 2016. We can’t have that anymore. We just can’t.

But if the New 52 never truly was a separate universe. If every story that came before still holds true, as Rebirth makes clear — remembered or not. Then the JSA that returns will be that JSA. It will be a multi-generational group of diverse people, working together as a family. It will mean Jakeem is the great-grandson who believes Johnny’s tales of mystery men long gone. It will be Johns’ JSA. Not a pastiche of white guys plucked out of some mysterious version of 1941 where no one was Black or Latino or gay, and women were relegated to being the secretary of the group. It will be the diversity and hope and optimism we already had and lost.

Also, a big gay surprise.

And that theme cascades already through this issue with the return of another Johns creation: Jackson Hyde, Aqualad. Jackson (also known by the Atlantian name Kaldur’ahm) didn’t have much of a life before the New 52, having only been introduced months before in Brightest Day. His real legacy to date, oddly enough, has been as lead character in the Young Justice animated series, a show that brought and energized an entirely new generation of readers to comics amid the New 52 — readers who may feel that Rebirth is a rejection of everything they invested in.

Aqualad’s return feels in some way like a sign that shouldn’t be the case. And admittedly, so much of Rebirth is being filtered through my own lens as a reader of DC Comics for over 30 years. So, I don’t have the best sense of what kind of optimism it may or may not endow a fan of more recent (although no less committed or deserving) devotion.

But damn. Having Jackson be openly gay (I hesitate to even use the phrase come out, as it doesn’t seem as if he was ever in) is a great sign. It gave me that pitter-patter of excitement to see another beloved character join the tribe, and one who many fans felt for years should always have been there.

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Jackson’s return and Ryan Choi’s return, as well as the focus on Jaime Reyes’ mentorship under Ted Kord, Jessica Cruz’s elevation to Green Lantern alongside Simon Baz, and even (God willing) young Wally’s place in the Kid Flash legacy all point to a rejuvenation of the past, but also a continuation of the best of what progressive fans have loved about the New 52.

In more ways than one, it feels like the mirror image to the last 80-page comic DC used to kick off a brand new era: Countdown to Infinite Crisis. Also written by Johns (alongside Judd Winick and returning Wonder Woman scribe Greg Rucka), that comic ended in a murder that set a spiral of darkness onto the DC Universe for years. Exciting? Absolutely. But undeniably dark.

But Rebirth #1 doesn’t have that sense of darkness, despite its rather ominous ending. It stands for hope and a brighter future starting, well, now. And that’s partly due to the exquisite work each artist did in bringing back that symbol of absolute, full-time heroism in Wally West. It’s due to an incredible set of colorists imbuing that sense of brightness and pure life back onto the page. And it’s partly due to the nature of the narrative Johns lays out. That lyrical introspection that Wally gives, page after page, never wanting to give up on the world and the people he loved so much.

It’s the story, not the moments taken out of context or even the check boxes of each hero of color re-entering the world of monthly comics. It’s the entire piece as a whole, flowing and building, that shows just how much may have been missing in the universe as a whole. We had bits and pieces of that hope and love. Maybe it is time to have it permeate all corners.

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And then there’s Watchmen.

How long has that hope and optimism been missing from DC Comics’ line as a whole, I wonder? I think it depends on who you ask. I wary of asking, because the question consistently gets heard as being about fun or enjoyment. It isn’t about that, at all. Some of the comics I’ve enjoyed the most over the past ten years are some of the darkest. But they weren’t necessarily optimistic, and perhaps that’s been a dirty word in super-hero comics for almost as many years as I’ve been reading.

The fervent attachment to reactionary comics like the Dark Knight Returns (which sees its second sequel on the publishing docket as we speak) and Watchmen in the late 1980s certainly opened up what comics could be, but for DC, it may have taken a universe that always relied on hope and tainted it, even tangentially.

It’s a powerful thing, hope. But nihilism is equally potent. And seeing the potential for the immovable object to meet the unstoppable force — well, that’s pretty tempting as a reader. And as a long time fan, it gives me a chance to look back and wonder at the universe’s history a bit.

Is it really Doctor Manhattan’s fault we got to where we are today?

I mean, clearly, in the issue at hand, that’s the implication. With dialogue plucked right out of the very end of Watchmen #12 (as well as Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan #4) — and already three deaths due to the same explosive handwave that Rorschach fell to — we are now faced with a threat from outside the universe, outside time, outside humanity. Outside DC itself, in a way.

I find it pretty damn intriguing, and whatever meta commentary you want to subscribe to in regard to a possible Johns critique of the New 52 or an overall critique and engagement with the culture of darkness Watchmen ushered in, it made for an absolute 100% jawbreaking moment unspoiled.

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And I maintain the same measure of regret and trepidation than I had when Before Watchmen arrived. While the legality of their use is unquestionable, many fans take issue with the ethics. I personally don’t consider these characters fully original, as derivations of DC’s own characters purchased from Charlton briefly before Crisis on Infinite Earths. However, I do see the danger in damaging characters that have had so few appearances. One bad one is a much higher percentage of the whole than with say, a poorly executed Batman tale or terrible two years on Wonder Woman that’s finally ending.

So, execution is undecided. But the possibility? It’s left me more than a little intrigued. (Also, FYI, The idea of my favorite super-heroes fighting a guy with a giant blue wang is full-stop irresistible to me.)

The Final Verdict

On Rebirth? On Wally West? On Doctor Manhattan as the ultimate challenge and indictment? On hope?

No, the final verdict, like with any review, has to be on story, on art, on the pages in front of me and the experience I had as a reader. And that, unequivocally, was supreme. Whatever happens next, whatever potential or danger that comes with where this comic leads us, at its root DC Universe: Rebirth #1 delivered a magnificent and moving comic book story by Johns, with cohesive, compelling line art by Jimenez, Van Sciver, Reis, and Frank. The experience of this book is one I will remember for years to come, and hopefully will lead to a new era of love for comics that will take me into my next 33 years as a fan. And if it doesn’t, and Johns’ swan song is just that, I’ll cherish it for that alone.

The Verdict: 9.5/10

 

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