SPOILERS ARE GONNA HAPPEN. JUST ACCEPT IT.
DC Comics is both a fundamental part of my critical and pop cultural identity and a comic company that I believe hasn’t really had an output worth paying for in five years.
There are some dotted successes here and there, sure. Most of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run is seminal Batman. There are also some dotted bright spots of indie-publisher comics and great writers doing an arc or two worth reading with characters like Wonder Woman or Aquaman.
But there is a spectre that has been haunting DC Comics – the spectre of darkness.
DC is a mythological company, their characters stand for something bigger than humanity and at their best are aspirational. They represent what it means to rise above and become ideals of hope, justice, and peace.
Yet DC seems to have lost sight of all that, and allowed a need to be serious and dark and attain some vague notion of what it means to cater to an “adult” comic book audience to become their guiding principle.
They’ve become violent, I mean, the Joker wore his severed face for a while. They’ve removed some of the attributes that made these characters so special, allowing relationships like Green Arrow & Black Canary and the Flash Family to fall apart for little clear reason. And worst of all, they’ve allowed that strain of thought to metastasize in their company like a cancer, and it threatens to take down their films, their games, their TV shows, everything.
But I don’t have to tell you that. DC Comics has done it for me.
Today marks the release of DC Universe Rebirth, the opening salvo in DC Comic’s “Rebirth” launch, which is essentially a rewrite of the “New 52” launch from five years ago that seemed to create everything I mentioned above. This special is written by Geoff Johns, alternating comic book legend and villain as the architect of the “New 52.” Johns seems to get that he’s been fucking up with this universe over the last five years and is here to do his best to fix it.
The result is one of the most incisive and poignant acts of metatextual comic book criticism ever committed to paper, on the level of Kingdom Come, and it’s by a company pointing the gun at itself and that I was deeply worried was no longer that self-aware.
While there’s a few other bits of story thread going through here, it’s the mainline that should be our chief concern here. A faceless narrator speaking of his life being ripped away from him is revealed to be Wally West, the Kid Flash. Or at least, someone who was the Kid Flash.
You see, Wally West was once one of the most prominent heroes of the DC Universe, someone who started out as a devoted fan of the Flash and, when a freak accident gave him the same powers, showed extraordinary heroism as his sidekick and then eventually as the Flash himself. He was a fan-favorite for his wit and the legacy he represented. Until he disappeared with the “New 52.”
Wally here represents an old universe breaking through, trying its best to reach into a universe consumed with its own darkness, reminding them that there’s something they’re missing. It’s a beloved fan character and absolutely representative of an older time, dressed in his Silver-Age sidekick suit.
Unfortunately, Wally keeps failing to connect. There’s too many things wrong for him to hold on to any one person, and he’s trying to find someone to hold onto in a universe that no longer recognizes who he is.
Until he sees Barry Allen, the original Flash and Wally’s idol, saving people just like the old days. He’s smiling from ear to ear and doing good because he knows that’s what he needs to do. It’s that purity and Wally’s connection with him that gives him the desire to have just one last moment with Barry. But during that goodbye, Wally’s words break through and allow Barry to recognize him and pull him away from the Speed Force and back into reality.
Besides the metatextual aspects, the moment is immensely touching. It’s a scene that not only works intertextually through the recognition of the Barry/Wally friendship, but in the actual narrative construction itself. Johns and artists Phil Jimenez and Gary Frank have constructed a gorgeously emotional set of pages all focused on their faces and their reactions with a wonderfully poetic bit of goodbye from Wally. It’s wonderfully cinematic as well as being a great bit of panel art.
Essentially, Rebirth is Johns taking an outsider into the current universe to grapple with the idea that something has become lost. There’s a wonderful page where Wally observes a fleeting connection between Green Arrow and Black Canary, once one of the great love stories of comics, and how without each other the two feel something missing.
Remember too that the “New 52” was created by a Flash (within the universe), so Johns brings a Flash in to end it. Wally sees the darkness cast from the last five years, and he does something, he reminds the universe of what it could be, and what it once was. For Johns, Rebirth is about the idea that their past must once again become their future.
Not all of their past is so good though. For it is the final reveal that brings this whole story into sharp focus. Batman finds in his cave the badge of the Comedian, and an epilogue on Mars doesn’t need words to tell you who created this universe, or at least altered it to what it is now.
Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen.
For those of you unfamiliar with comic history, Watchmen is one of the most seismic superhero stories ever. In terms of significance, it’s Lolita meets The Great Gatsby. It’s Breathless meets Citizen Kane. It’s mastery of the form combined with a deconstruction that creates a new path forward.
It’s also unfortunately one of the most toxic stories for the superhero genre. For a legion of creators had no idea what Watchmen meant, and simply rested on its darkness and its realism and its difficulty. There was no understanding of why this story was written, or what it really meant. All the surface thrills of superheroes fighting and fucking and swearing were replicated by countless pale imitators. Introducing Watchmen into this universe seems to be a recognition of the fact that the legacy of that comic seems to have cast this dark pall on the universe and it’s the first attempt to try to exorcise the demon from the inside.
I’ve seen criticism that this is Johns passing the buck away from the role he played in darkening this universe and on to Alan Moore. That’s a misreading of what’s going on here, not woeful, but a misreading.The only finger here is pointed squarely at him for letting it get this far. Rebirth is his mea culpa and his confession as to what brought it to this stage. He wants us to understand all the factors that brought DC to this point and none represent that better than Watchmen, but I don’t think that means he thinks that it’s Moore or Watchmen’s fault.
In fact, there’s one more interesting bit of self-criticism that perhaps comes to mind only due to timing. Watchmen actually brought one more rather dark, gritty creative into the DC fold. One that has possibly been the most public poisoning and humiliation of the DC brand.
Remember, folks, Zack Snyder directed Watchmen. He brought all the Watchmen lessons to Batman v Superman.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, Johns knows that he needs to make a statement as the new creative head of DC Films. Here it is. It’s subtextual, sure, but it’s a repudiation of the darkness through this whole universe, including the films. The films that have been visited by the same poison that Johns is trying to get out with Rebirth.
Now whether Johns can follow through on his promise to right what has been wrong with DC remains to be seen. There is much work to be done. But dammit, for the first time, I believe it can be started.
There is a world that can use the hope these characters provide. For the first time in a long time, we can see that sun rising again.