The secret of DC’s Rebirth project is that there is no secret at all. Commercially, the project aims at discerning the most popular versions of the company’s proprietary characters and presenting those versions to readers. Whether it is a true renewal or a giant exercise in retail pandering, or whether there is any real difference between those things, is a judgment that can be safely left to comic book fans. After all, those fans are famously, and notoriously, erudite and combative.
Rebirth also has a full creative agenda yet to be completely revealed. So far, it is clear that the initiative involves the intrusion of Doctor Manhattan, and perhaps other Watchmen, into the DC Universe. One suspect yes that somewhere in Northampton Alan Moore, bizarre curmudgeon that he is for all of his undoubted talent, is figuratively howling at the moon. Nevertheless, Batman #21 features a variety of homages to Moore and Dave Gibbon’s 1986 opus. Most of those come by way of artist Jason Fabok, who utilizes Gibbon’s famous nine-panel layout to frame (literally) the tale of a confrontation between Batman and Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash who, we know from the pages of The Flash, has recovered his memories of the Flashpoint event, including his death at the hands of Thomas Wayne. Fabok also makes use of the bloodstained Smiley Face, both in its actual form and in various symbolic representations of circles and slashes.
The actual story, as penned by Tom King, is rather less successful than the art. King’s formalism fits well with an exploration of Moore’s themes. Indeed, King has stated on multiple occasions that Moore is one of his literary heroes. However, King’s heavy handed emphasis on patterns and themes and his overwrought plots and dialogue tend to lay bare what the more subtle hand of Moore revealed gradually and/or through dramatic twists. It doesn’t help that King is setting up the first installment of a crossover, or that he has the thankless task of chronicling a fight between Bruce Wayne and Eobard Thawne. The legions of rabid Bat fans will explode if the feel Batman has been used as a helpless punching bag. On the other hand, hordes of obsessive continuity experts will want to know how the human Bruce can survive more than a few seconds, literally, against a time-traveling super speedster. It also doesn’t help that many of these fans are one and the same, or that an important plot twist has already been spoiled by solicits.
But the story, or rather the story mechanics and elements, have never been the important part of Rebirth. This initiative is about the destination, not the journey. We aren’t exactly getting there with the speed of a Flash, but things are moving along very nicely, indeed.
The book closes with Thawne in .... well, he seems to have met the good Doctor Manhattan. What that portends is later in the journey. For now, though, we must satisfy ourselves with the Doctor's own wisdom, that the story never ends, even if commercially driven reboots and relaunches must.