Batman: Rebirth #1 provides an opportunity to reflect on just what DC seems to mean by describing its latest artistic and marketing initiative as a “rebirth.” According to Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, the guiding hand for the effort, rebirth does not mean reboot. That is certainly borne out by the evidence we have so far; none of the Rebirth issues to this point have wiped out the past or taken us back to origins. That is certainly for the best, because who really needs to see Superman arriving yet again from Krypton or the Waynes dying yet again in a dark alley? But if the characters are not literally being born again, what is happening? Words like “reset” and “restart” have been proposed, but in terms of Batman even they sound too strong. What we have in Batman: Rebirth #1 is a transfer, a passing of the keys from Scott Snyder to Tom King. Fittingly, the issue was penned by both of them.
The freshest aspect of the issue is certainly Mikel Janin’s art. Coming with King from the too-soon-ended Grayson, Janin brings his trademark sharp lines and precise structures (both architectural and anatomical) to Gotham, along with some relatively daring layouts including one set of panels configured in the shape of a bat. Janin’s art always works best with bold colors, and Jane Chung obliges with a bright palette that makes Gotham look and feel vibrant and luxuriant, for once the kind of place a reasonably sane person might want to live.
The story itself is almost a perfect blend of King and Snyder. The plot concerns a terrorist attack on the city by Julian Day, otherwise known as Calendar Man. Julian hasn’t had a truly memorable outing since The Long Halloween, and truthfully he mostly gets grouped with Crazy Quilt and Kite Man as an amusing but not-very-important member of the Batman rogues gallery. Perhaps his most interesting appearances recently have been as a reporter in the Channel 52 segments in the back of some of the New 52 comics.
His inclusion here allows King to indulge his taste for symbolism and structural experiments. Julian has invented a machine that accelerates the seasons, so the book can be arranged into days that each correspond to a different season. The whole issue can then serve as a structural meditation on the passage of time. Julian’s nature, however, is straight out of Scott Snyder’s preference for horror and his theme of a dark city that constantly presents new and varied challenges to those who would defend its citizens. Julian is now a mutant locked into a cycle of aging and renewal. He dies each winter to return with altered genes and abilities, only to deteriorate through the year and begin again.
We also see the introduction of Duke Thomas as a new partner for Bruce. No one who has been following the Batman Universe will be surprised at that. Batman decides that Duke will not be Robin, doubtless since Damian is still very much alive although occupied on his world travels. Instead, Bruce is trying “something new.” A Robin in all but name? Perhaps he will become the Lark who has been predicted in various peeks at the future. Or perhaps we will see continued exploration of the themes introduced in We Are Robin and Robin War.
With Calendar Man and his grotesque new physiology we see an image of rebirth and renewal, if not one that is probably in line with what Geoff Johns had in mind. With Batman's observation that Gotham's defenders have to themselves constantly come back better than before, we see something probably closer to the mark, if still redolent of Scott Snyder's artistic fascinations. But this book is not really a rebirth. It isn't even a restart or a reset. It is the beginning of a new chapter. Whether that is good enough for REBIRTH is a troubling question. Tentatively I will say, yes. But that is only because this is the strongest of DC's books. For the rest, this will not do.