One thing that frequently comes up when I’m beginning a review is the duality of comics as we Americans generally know them. Obviously they’re both written and drawn, prose and pictures, but the dichotomies go deeper. They’re serialized chapters, but they’re self-contained issues. They look to the future with a foot in the past. They’re looking to do something new with characters that may well have existed before the creators were born.

On what basis should we evaluate a comic and does it change depending on the individual issue? That’s the problem I found myself confronting when I put down DC Universe Rebirth, because this monster of an issue is not just a story, but a statement of purpose.

Geoff Johns is a writer that enjoys the complexity of the simple – there’s even a term for it, Johnsian Literalism – and, as such, this is in many ways a simple issue. The story is straightforward and the dialogue favors clear metaphors over fancy flourishes. But simplicity doesn’t fully capture Johns’ spark. His success and career are based on the sincere and heartfelt belief that these characters, even in their most simple and goofy incarnations, have a single nugget of joy and truth in them that can and will not fail.

Reading DC Universe Rebirth, it’s hard not to see that concept being expanded beyond a roadmap for understanding individual characters and franchises into a driving force for DC’s Legendarium. And, just so, the story is all about the things that have defined DC: the heroism of sacrifice; acceptance of legacy; becoming something bigger than yourself; and, most of all, family.

Johns guides the reader through a beautifully concise argument for why these facets of the DCU are important. He’s channelling his inner Morrison, sans the opacity, allowing the sweeping scope and meta-commentary to be enjoyed by all.

But not everybody appreciates such straightforward storytelling and there are several choices that undermine the message of the piece. And, of course, as is common in these Morrison-esque comments on the genre, I think the story works much better as an Elseworlds or a self-contained epic, rather than a new status quo for the entire publishing line.

Reintroducing the Pre-”Flashpoint” Wally West is incredibly appropriate, as it gifts the issue an emotional lightning rod. Wally’s always been a beloved character and his struggle to connect with a world that’s forgotten him is deeply touching as penned by Johns. The dramatic irony of having such cosmically greater knowledge than almost all the characters gives the reader something to bite into and Johns writes Wally’s struggle wonderfully, even if the assumption of Linda’s role is a bit tiresome.

Relief is a huge part of this issue’s appeal. One of the few things that fans seemed to be universally upset about throughout the New 52 era was the disappearance of the Titans-era heroes. Wally West and Donna Troy’s disappearances in particular were singled out as emblematic of the flaws in this new universe. And though the fan outrage quieted a little when a new Wally West arrived, bringing some much needed diversity to the Flash family as he did, something was still missing.

It’s no surprise that Johns uses that exact phrasing to describe what’s gone wrong in story. After four and a half years of complaining and accepting and settling, it is nice to see DC actively acknowledging, admitting, that the fans’ complaints are valid. So many of the things I’ve mourned, from marriage to magic to legacy, are reintroduced here, often with surprisingly sincere criticism of the previous approach.

But, of course, the big surprise of this issue is that Johns has set that change up as the act of an in-universe evil and that has huge consequences for the issue. That choice effectively removes responsibility from DC. It’s not hard to imagine Johns having chaffed under the New 52 policies, having clearly fought for the Aqua-marriage during his tenure on that book, and some have seen Rebirth as a coup for Johns’ creative vision over the DiDio led ideals of the New 52. However, while optimists can, not wrongly, say that Johns is merely making the best of a bad situation, the personal nature of the issue makes this choice highlight much of what is wrong with the one-shot.

At best, the need for this kind of huge reveal could be read as a stealth admittance that Johns is not so free to craft a universe of hope as he would have you believe, but a darker interpretation is in keeping with his bibliography. Johns loves to show a victory over the darkening of comics, but part of his success comes down to the way that this allows him to write some very dark comics as long as those elements are villainized.

The reintroduction of Ted Kord is one of the happiest and most worrisome moments of the issue for me and one that exemplifies what is best and worst about the book. I love that we’re finally getting to see Ted and Jaime as a duo – I seriously wrote an article about how wonderful that would be a year ago – but not only has Jaime seemingly lost some of his enthusiasm and fanboyishness, but Ted’s youthful belief in heroism reads not only as an optimistic throwback but a potentially negligent self involvement that shadows the beloved hero. Joy and realism coexist as fans have clamored for, but here they seem to undercut one another.

Even more obviously is the choice to re/de-retcon Jaime’s scarab from a perceived magical talisman that’s actually alien technology to perceived xeno-tech that’s actually mystical. It’s another of those weird returns to the way things were that are so controversial in Johns’ work and have worried Rebirth cynics from the beginning. It’s all the stranger for the fact that the magical nature of the Scarab has never played a significant part in Ted or Jaime’s stories, instead being tied to the only Blue Beetle that has not yet made an appearance.

The choice to have this revelation come from Kent Nelson further muddies the waters. It’s not that his appearance isn’t in keeping with Rebirth’s stated goals. The return of a classic character who’s not in their mid twenties is welcome. But, taken as a whole, Jaime’s generation definitely feels sidelined compared to the previous whiter, more authoritative one. And obviously this was merely an attempt to work in one more character that demonstrates what Rebirth is doing, but one fear that this issue did not address was the possibility of things swinging back too far.

It cannot be ignored that the New 52, especially the DC YOU era, did some things right for the brand, but it was consistently criticized for trying to channel the so-called Dark Age of Comics (in this instance let’s call that 1989 to 1997) without incorporating enough of the elements of the Modern or Iron Ages that that space of time has also been considered part of. As polar an opposite as Rebirth is trying to make itself to the New 52, this issue is also mining many of those same years, just taking the more uplifting elements instead.

Johns’ desperate drive for hope and optimism doesn’t always sit well with these understandable hints of darkness. As Rebirth’s first wave, this issue needs to sell readers on the idea that comics absolutely can be fun again, but the fact of the matter is that, no matter how it has to market itself, this book is not claiming that the battle is over, it’s begging you to support the war effort.

For better or worse, DC Universe Rebirth is and feels editorial, because Johns is DC editorial. It is a comment and an opportunity for the writers whose work we have not yet seen. In this respect, it can feel very detached from the DC Rebirth push itself. Though it strives to set a tone, this is absolutely a Geoff Johns comic book with all the good and bad that comes with that.

Some of that good is that Johns has a strong relationship with some incredible artists, specifically artists who are great at giving books the scale and gravitas it takes to relaunch an entire publishing line. Gary Frank is probably the clearest voice, stylistically, blending his hyper detailed linework with some more traditional images. It would have been easy for Frank to draw something that felt ‘real’ but he wisely avoids that in favor of something true, something that feels in line with DC’s history and all the levels of realism therein. Frank’s deviations from his norm sets a tone for the issue and, at least for the casual or the enraptured reader, it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t consciously notice the shift in artists on a first read.

But despite the relative seamlessness of the transitions, these are very different artists and they’re used very differently. Frank primarily gives us a look at the past, homaging artistic greats like George Perez in glimpses at the old DC Universe or summoning up some of the American Gothic retro look he employed in his Superman work as we survey the civilian lives of the once-were heroes.

After two chapters dominated by Frank’s artistic sensibilities, we turn to the present, The New 52. Unsurprisingly it’s Ivan Reis, Johns’ collaborator on Aquaman, who represents this period. Reis does honor to recent years, crafting a sort of eulogy for the era, centered around a two page spread of Superman’s ‘grave’. This is the house style of the New 52 and, as one does when someone or something’s time has passed, Reis focuses on the good, giving us a taste of the boldness and cinematic drama that it strove for. Though panels often chose between awkwardly capturing an honest moment and statuesque compositions, for good and ill, I can’t deny that Reis’ section is one of the most visually appealing.

Phil Jimenez handles the final chapter. It’s something of an obvious assignment. As we look to a future of Rebirth, Jimenez delivers the most personal style of the issue, deeply influenced by the greats of the past but focused on the here and now. Jimenez has always been an artist with a focus on emotion and that’s very much the order of the day.  At times individual faces don’t work – usually too realistic, occasionally not realistic enough – but Jimenez supports the emotion of his scenes beautifully. The ragged energy of the layouts matches the feeling of the story and Jimenez really sells the acceptance of the new Wally West.

A Thought and a Half:

  • One thing that does confuse and kind of bother me about this issue is the choice of the ultimate villain. Admittedly the final twist, for all the reasons it can feel wrong, is pretty fantastic as a moment. It’s pretty clear why Dr. Manhattan was chosen as the ‘villain’ of the New 52, between offering something new to the Watchmen formula and a power level that’s essentially unmatched in comics, he provides a natural awe and intrigue for the story. But, assuming that Dr. Manhattan will end up being the villain, this force of grit and faux-realism that attacked DC’s franchises, it seems both narratively and extra-narratively out of step with my understanding of Watchmen. It seems likely that Johns will pin the criticism that the New 52 being not adult so much as adolescent on Manhattan’s trouble connecting to emotion, more playing telephone with Jon Osterman’s memories of them. However, Dr. Manhattan’s entire arc in Watchmen is about recognizing that, whether by faith or science, the human condition and optimism are valid. Manhattan seems to be a representative of Watchmen, which itself is used as a symbol for all that is dark and gritty about comics that followed it and The Dark Knight Returns. Ignoring that DC has gone back to both of those wells in recent years and therefore should perhaps not throw stones, I also find this commonly accepted factoid to be highly inaccurate. As it has been pointed out many times, both of those stories, while incredibly influential for their more realistic tone, end in a place of hope, or at least optimistic ambiguity over human ability to create a more just society. Oddly enough, Watchmen, the comic, is a criticism of “Watchmen”, as it appears in our cultural memory. Johns even uses Manhattan’s exchange with Ozymandias from the end of the series in this comic, seemingly ignoring Manhattan’s position as one of the two characters with an answer. To me those lines represent his acceptance of the good and bad of human life and the value of it. In fact, I think it would be interesting if Mr. Oz turned out to be a bluff and Ozymandias was revealed to be the villain, using his intrinsic field technology to mirror Manhattan’s powers in a failed attempt to atone.
  • While I think it is far too harsh, one could view Johns as a sort of Ozymandias figure, a young prodigy obsessed with fixing the present by rewriting the past who uses stories to plant ideas in the minds of those he doesn’t trust with the truth. If so, this almost becomes Ozymandias’ revenge on Manhattan. I don’t think that is a fair assessment by any means, but it would certainly make a great comic. Ironically, Johns would probably write the hell out of that…

Grade

B

Conclusion

If you come to this book with cynicism, a position that I can’t deny is justified, there is a lot to worry us. But, if you’re willing to trust, to have a moment with Johns and his artists and with DC Comics, even for just one read through, there’s a lot to be excited for and there’s a lot of what has been wrong with DC put to rest.In the end, DC Universe Rebirth had to serve a lot of masters, but one stood out. It’s rare that you get a big event comic like this as a one-shot and it’s rarer to see a singular writer’s vision so clearly communicated to the audience.This isn’t just a comic, it’s a narrative essay. So, as a comic, DC Universe Rebirth is satisfying as a fan and impressive in scope but intentionally simple. But, as a conversation about DC’s brand, it really shines. Some comments seem unclear or not fully thought through and the demands of its corporate beginnings cannot be completely hidden, but, no matter your feelings about Johns’ writing or the impact of creator rights, this is a comic that beckons you to dream again and that’s what DC needs right now.