I’ve been excited about DC Universe: Rebirth in a way I haven’t been excited in a comic in a while. Of course, there have been new series I’ve been excited to check out, and the latest chapters in comics I consistently love, both of which have me eager to get to my comic shop on a Wednesday, but this was a different type of excitement. This was the kind of anticipation I felt going into the first issues of Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, Blackest Night, the best kind of event comics where you know as you start that you’re about to read something huge and epic. When this was announced, I was certainly intrigued, but it wasn’t until the release was impending that I realised just how ready I was for a comic like this. And it delivered on my high expectations.
Now, when I went into my local comic shop, one of the staff there I know had positioned himself next to the comic, and was warning passing patrons picking up the comic not to look inside, not to spoil any of the experience contained within. He said it was better to read this totally fresh, and I wish I had. I wanted to, but key details were spoiled for me on social media. I didn’t know the specifics so I was still able to enjoy the execution, but I’d have been knocked out of my chair reading that stuff without any prior knowledge. As such, I’m containing my very spoilerific thoughts to this review rather than posting it on my Facebook wall and risking sullying anyone else’s experiences. So, here it comes…
There is plenty I’ve liked about the New 52. But one of my regrets of the whole thing, five years on, was how much of the DC Universe’s history was lost. Yes, yes, I know, the comics on my shelf didn’t burst into flames so I can never read them again just because they were no longer canon. But comics like The Multiversity served as a reminder of how much I loved the DC Universe in all its bonkers complexity, rewritten timelines, legacies and death/resurrections included. And suddenly this old, lived-in universe with decades of accumulated gravitas was new-car shiny and fresh. Superheroes had only been around five years, everyone was younger, and a lot of the big events in these characters’ history, along with many of the great friendships, rivalries and romances, had never come to pass. It was always a controversial decision, but whether you were in support or opposition, I imagine that all DC readers were sad about at least one thing they loved no longer factoring into the stories they would read going forward.
If you felt that way to any degree, this is the comic for you. It’s not regression, as some feared. It’s not lashing out against diversity or progress. It’s not retconning the New 52 out of existence. This 80-page special (and for $2.99, that’s a hell of a deal!) gets off the ground running with a simple adjustment to the premise, but one with catastrophic implications that, I think, makes the whole thing much better. The New 52 isn’t just something that happened to us, the readers, at an editorial level. It is something that happened to the characters, within the world of the story. This is no longer a case of the characters are just now 10 years younger, and many of the experiences and relationships that defined them never happened. This is a case of these characters having those years, experiences and relationships stolen from them. And so, on some level, even if they can no longer remember it, all the stuff that happened to them before still happened.
The agent for conveying all this to the reader is none other than Wally West. Not the teenage Wally West of the current comics, the pre New 52 Wally West, the former Flash. This was one of the big reveals of this comic that was spoiled for me beforehand, and I think the commentary about it that I caught took his appearance in the wrong context. There has been discussion about how the restoration of this old Wally West was about catering to the latent racism of fanboys, that the only possible reason people could want this Wally West back was that they didn’t like the new version being black. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Oh, of course, I’m sure there are some mouth-breathers out there who hated Wally being made black. But for me at least, my sadness over the loss of “my” Wally West was much more down to the history I’d shared with him. It was the Geoff Johns/Scott Kollins run on The Flash – with Wally in the mantle – that turned me from a Batman fan into a DC Universe fan, not to mention making me love the mythos of The Flash. Barry Allen being restored into the role was a tough pill for me to swallow at first, and really it took a combination of the beautifully illustrated Francis Manapul/Brian Buccaletto run on The Flash’s New 52 launch and the excellence of the TV series and Grant Gustin’s performance in it for me to finally fully embrace Barry Allen back in the role, not to mention Barry being injected with many elements of Wally’s personality. I love Barry Allen now and am totally down with him as The Flash, but it still made me a bit sad that those original Johns/Kollins comics I had been so fond of now starred a character who no longer existed.
But to get back on point, the return of this pre-52 Wally West works so well because he is an emblem of what was lost with the New 52. Perhaps more than anyone else he is a standard bearer for the change and legacy the DCU was once known for. He began as a child, becoming Kid Flash. He grew into a teenager, becoming a founding member of the original Teen Titans. He became an adult, and took over the mantle of The Flash. He grew from cocky young man struggling to escape his predecessor’s shadow to a great hero in his own right, becoming so entrenched in the role in this era of temporary substitutes that, by the end of his tenure, I believe he had actually been The Flash for more years (in our time) than Barry Allen had! He married Linda Park, they had two children, who grew from infancy to being fully-formed 8-10 year olds with personalities and superpowers of their own. He lived a full life before us on the comic page. And then in an instant that was all gone because such a life couldn’t possibly exist in a condensed 5-year timeline. Reading the four-page montage in this book – masterfully illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver – where Wally chronicles his full history from Silver Age through to Flashpoint, I got chills, seeing all that stuff being referred to in a central DC comic once again. Who better to be the agent through which the events from before the New 52 are put back on the table? And that they are. For example, I never got round to reading Flashpoint, but now I absolutely want to read it, as it feels important and relevant again. Stories from before the New 52 have teeth once more.
That’s not to say that the New 52 is thrown under the bus. As I said above, there has been a lot to like in the New 52 as well, and we see elements from various books picked up on here, be it the developments of this week’s issues of Justice League and Superman or references to Swamp Thing storylines from a few years ago. But in amidst that, new wrinkles are being factored in, more remnants from the world that was being brought back into the mix. Old and new all forming a ragged yet fascinating tapestry.
And, to go back to more Flash talk, I loved the characterisation of Barry Allen here. We had a whistlestop tour through a lot of familiar heroes and villains, but I think The Flash was my favourite. Even the little touches demonstrating his remarkable decency and optimism, how more than any other hero it’s the Fastest Man Alive who takes the extra time to ensure the people he rescues are happy as well as safe. But on a bigger level, having him be the one figure within the New 52 Universe who can remember everything from before Flashpoint and you knows about a malevolent outside force working against them all puts him in a real centrepiece role within the DCU, poised to be a crucial figure in yet another Crisis down the line.
And yes, about that malevolent outside force… that was the other thing spoiled for me in advance. It turns out that the figure behind the disruption of the New 52 is none other than Doctor Manhattan, of Watchmen fame. The characters don’t know this yet, and we are left in the dark about the specifics of how and why, but the world of Watchmen is now somehow in play within the DCU. That’s going to upset a lot of people, I know. And I am wary of disrupting that perfect, self-contained clockwork industry of the classic comic. And yet, I can’t deny that the reveal of that smiley face button in the Batcave got my heart racing even without it being a total surprise. The sheer audacity of it has sparked my interest, and I absolutely need to know how this is going to play out. Geoff Johns has successfully implanted a longform mystery into the heart of this DCU rejuvenation, with a conflict not quite like anything we’ve seen before. And even though we don’t know the specifics, the stakes are laid out: this is a battle between the bright and hopeful optimism of the DC heroes and the bleak cynicism of Watchmen. We’ll see what happens next!
But in talking about all these fascinating mechanics and intriguing developments, and looking into this as a new beginning, there’s something else that’s worth pointing out. This is also an ending. For now, at least. This is Geoff Johns’ last comic for the foreseeable future, with him transitioning fully into the executive role that has been occupying more and more of his time in recent years. And in that context, DC Universe: Rebirth reads a lot like a swansong for his decorated comics career. We are taking a tour across various characters Johns has written for, touching on numerous stories he contributed to. Wally West as our guide through all this becomes appropriate, given how he was the protagonist of one of Johns’ first major DC writing gigs. And The Flash’s significance is fitting as Johns has always called The Flash his favourite character. As a writer known for his big, epic events and in particular his breathtaking setups for those events, it is fitting that his final bow be a setup for the biggest event of all, handing the reigns over to others to see it through. After giving us a Green Lantern: Rebirth and a Flash: Rebirth, Geoff Johns leaves us with a DC Universe: Rebirth.