This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 26, 2016.
“Beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” – Rorschach, Watchmen #1
I’m so goddamn tired.
When you read a comic book published by DC Comics that is ostensibly about the last 30 years of their superhero publications and how those 30 years specifically impacted the last 5 years and how the following years will all be better, the only understandable response is a sigh of exhaustion. When you read that comic book twice, it’s probably time to go to bed.
Instead I’m here writing a review of DC Rebirth #1. It is a comic book that is all about one specific publisher of superhero comics and its last 30 years of history. The thematic core of this 80 page publication is so specific and inconsequential that no one outside of a very specific subculture will care about it nor should they. This is the slightest of slight objects, a tiny violin, a limerick written in disappearing ink, a joke with no punchline.
If you do not possess an understanding of DC Comics history that would rank at least at a 200-level college course, then DC Rebirth is absolute nonsense. The story supposedly at the core of the book is of Wally West, one Flash who has not existed (at least as a white boy), seeking out Barry Allen, another Flash, so he can return to existence. This narrative is comprehensible because Wally explains who he is and who everyone he sees is and that he hasn’t existed (at least as a white boy) for the past five years in captions that run the course of the entire issue.
In this at least there is a beginning, middle, and end, even if it comes in the form of a non-stop exposition dump. But that’s not really what DC Rebirth is about. It is really a metatextual statement about DC Comics, but don’t start to give it any credit because “metatextual” has more than three syllables. Writer Geoff Johns uses a couple of Flashes to ground the story because they’re the heroes that died during DC Comics’ first big reboot, Crisis On Infinite Earths, and then jump started the last five years in another event called Flashpoint. If you know what all of those stories are and have been paying attention to all five of those years, collectively known as “The New 52”, then this will all make sense.
If you’ve had something better to do with your time than obsess over ins and outs of 30 years of stories and corporate history concerning superheroes, then this entire comic will make no goddamn sense and you can happily forget it before moving on with your life.
The statement Johns is trying to make isn’t actually all that complex; it’s only that the topic is so myopic as to require a lot of study. If you’re one of the people who can happily walk away, but still want to understand, then the thesis of DC Rebirth is this: DC Comics is really sorry for the last five years of comics it printed. It promises to publish better comics in the future that will make you less sad.
If that sounds like marketing as opposed to storytelling or art, that’s probably because it is. The closest thing to a non-DC Comics centered theme that could be made from this comic book is that superheroes ought to be heroic. One might think it would be easier to write a superhero comic where superheroes are acting heroic than throw a massive event to say they ought to be, but then one probably isn’t too familiar with DC Comics. DC Rebirth is a story obsessed with its own importance when the most important thing it has to say is something everybody knows about superheroes.
They are bright and colorful. They present strong ideals and ethics. They were made primarily for children. None of this is rocket science, but based on the midnight releases, below cost pricing, and non-stop waves of marketing hooplah, it might just cure cancer. DC Rebirth isn’t even capable of conveying its own simple ideas though because it is so obsessed with the history of DC Comics that it undercuts its own thesis.
One of the key elements to understanding DC Rebirth is an awareness of another comic published by DC Comics in 1986 called Watchmen and that series’ impact on subsequent comics also published by DC Comics. Watchmen is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the medium because it is. It’s a work of human complexity, thematic layers, and formalistic experimentation that showed the excellence to which both the comics medium and superhero genre could aspire. It also was also rather dark with rape, prison riots, genocide, child-murder, and all sorts of other terrible things involved.
DC Rebirth looks to blame Watchmen for the darkening of DC superhero comics over the past 30 years, and wants to rebuke it. However, it starts to do this by including the characters of Watchmen directly into the DC Universe. Rather than making an effort to re-establish the tone it claims to be so important, it takes the unincorporated characters who are being blamed for all of the problems it wants to move past and makes them a part of the ongoing story of DC Comics. It even goes so far as to have the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan murder Pandora, the avatar of the New 52, and insinuate he’s an evil villain who will have to be continually confronted in the future.
Not only is that counter-productive, but the entire set up reveals a gross ignorance (or oversimplification, at the very least) of the history DC Rebirth sets out to explore. Blaming the darkening of superhero comics on Watchmenand mature superhero stories published in the 1980s sweeps away enormous shifts in the comics market. Current readers were encouraged to stay in while new readers were pushed away. Publishers responded to the demands of young fans who had become grown men. Increasing price points led to a higher average age of consumer. Blaming this change on Watchmen, while not entirely false, is the simplified understanding of an 8th grader who overheard some guys talking at his comics shop and decided to repeat a key phrase like gospel.
Furthermore, the names stamped proudly on the cover reveal a level of hypocrisy to this denouncement of dark, brooding superhero comics. It was Geoff Johns after all that began the New 52 era that is being apologized for in the pages of Flashpoint. The same comic in which he dreamed up an alternate Earth where Superman was a test subject, Wonder Woman and Aquaman were destroying the planet, and Bruce Wayne’s dad is now Batman and gets to murder his mom who is now The Joker. He followed this bright ray of sunshine up with the launch pad and centerpiece of The New 52: Justice League. It’s a comic where the biggest heroes of DC Comics meet do little more than fight and act shitty towards one another over the course of five years. Super villains save the planet more often than heroes do in this comic.
But none of those gratuitous, grim-dark comics were Geoff Johns fault. They all happened because of Watchmenand its creators who haven’t fucked with DC Comics in decades.
On top of all that, DC Rebirth conveniently forgets that in the oversimplified narrative where Watchmen ruined everything, there’s always another comic mentioned as well. Except that comic is currently having another over-priced sequel published with the name of its original creator slapped on work that barely resembles anything he has done before. I imagine if Alan Moore had learned to play ball and endorse “Before Watchmen” instead of denouncing DC Comics morally questionable business practices, then he too could have the same sweetheart deal as Frank Miller.
Luckily for Geoff Johns, while he can’t blame The Dark Knight Returns, he still has Watchmen as an easy target. Although this probably won’t stop him from digging up another 8 page backup story by Moore down the road to base a six-year Green Lantern epic on before denouncing the bearded, English wizard as the bane of all superhero comics.
If you can get past the rampant hypocrisy, barely there story, and reliance on immense swaths of inane knowledge,DC Rebirth still runs into the problem of not being a well-executed comic book. By invoking Watchmen in its pages and playing with those characters, it invites comparison to one of the greatest superhero comics ever produced. It doesn’t fare well when compared to a slightly above average superhero comic, though.
DC Rebirth was drawn by everybody at DC Comics. Technically, this isn’t true, but it certainly feels that way. And if we’re treating facts the same way this comic treats history, then we can get away with statements like this. Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jiminez all contributed pencils to the 64 pages of actual story in the issue. They project similar styles, but the jumps between artist every 4 to 10 pages are noticeable and prevent the issue from reading as a cohesive piece. Even in actually good comics published by DC Comics like Future Quest #1 (a story that manages to be fun without complaining about stories not being fun) this blending of similar artists creates a disruption. These shifts when not done purposefully, like with a time jump or dream sequence, point to the obvious changes and reminds readers they are looking at a comic rather than allow them to be absorbed by the story.
That these are the four men who best defined the house-style of The New 52 runs counter to everything DC Rebirthis trying to promise. It appears to be saying to readers that everything will be different, it just so happens to look the exact same as all of the stories it is denouncing.
It’s telling that the best page layouts in DC Rebirth are those pulled directly from Watchmen. The issue makes use of a standard nine-panel grid at multiple points and each time the action is clear. Most make economical use of space, although a nine-panel sequence of Batman thinking repeats moments with no purpose. This is followed by a splash in which Batman looks at The Comedian’s button. Another moment lacking cause except to remind readers that, yeah, Watchmen, because Watchmen.
Frank, Reis, and the others are practiced storytellers and many of their pages are perfectly readable. Except whenever they attempt to assemble more than six panels together or try for a special effect within the grid, the results are disheartening at best. Rather than weaving pages together, panels are often jammed together at the bottom in tight vertical or horizontal patterns. At best these layouts are useless, providing no information as slices of the same sky are repeated lengthwise. At worst they pack information together so tightly that readers can absorb what is happening with a squint, but will be incapable of feeling much impact through their creased eyelids.
None of these men are on the same level of draftsmanship as Dave Gibbons either. Basic elements of composition are routinely lost in continual close ups and extra-stylized and unnecessarily posed panels. Figures are contorted into shapes an artist can routinely draw and emotions are broad in case readers might forget what sadness looks like.
Consider a face not presented head on or in profile. Apparently heads sort of look like eggs and so this face will look like an egg with some features applied to it.
Or what about the asses of the Flashes in their climactic reunion? Apparently the speed force shapes the gluteus maximus to resemble a lightning bolt rather than a recognizable component of human anatomy (no matter how muscular).
None of this really matters though because looking for artistic meaning in DC Rebirth is a fool’s errand, and I just so happen to be a fool. The real purpose of the comic is made clear after the conclusion when a series of page-sized advertisements for upcoming DC Comics series are revealed. Because like I said 1,486 words ago this entire story feels more like marketing than anything else. DC Rebirth is an extended advertisement in the form of a story that’s about the sort of thing only the small audience it’s trying to hock its wares to could possibly care about.
This comic isn’t here to make you understand something or care about anything. It knows what its intended audience wants and is here to give it to them. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that the foundations of this narrative are hypocritical in nature and insincere on a basic visual level. It understands some people like Ted Kord, so it’s going to give them Ted Kord grinning like an idiot. It understands some people like Flashes, so here’s TWO Flashes and they’re hugging. It understands some people like Green Arrow and Black Canary fucking, so here’s those two in separate beds wishing they were fucking.
And it’s all in the hope that someone will buy this shit because that’s what they claim to want. Just buy it. Just give them $2.99 every two weeks and they’ll make you happy. They swear it’s for real this time, baby.
Calling DC Rebirth a superhero story is dismissive of superhero stories, and that’s a category with a very low bar for entry. It’s an advertisement that you’re supposed to buy for $2.99 so you can get excited for a lot of other comics that will also cost $2.99. This is the DC Comics consumer-machine at work and it appears to be working for the first time in 5 years based on the way people who like Ted Kord, lots of Flashes, and Green Arrow and Black Canary fucking are eating it up.
On its surface there’s the CCO of DC Entertainment making a superficial marketing pitch that may actually reflect his deepest held beliefs. He’s asking you to buy into the idea that these comics will be good again and that everything is really the fault of some comic published 30 years ago. The man wants you to believe the lesson ofWatchmen was that superheroes should be grim and gritty, but you and him are too smart to be fooled by that now.
Except that was never the point of Watchmen. If there was a lesson to be taken from that comic 30 years ago, it was that superhero comics could be good. It’s too bad nobody involved with DC Rebirth bothered to learn that one.