Whew. Crazy week. The comic reviews are back, again. I can't guarantee that they'll be weekly, as games - the thing you're probably on this site for - take priority over my love of comics. Reviews and events conspire to keep me from talking about comics, but this week I had some breathing room.
For this week's reviews, I'm only going to talk about two comics. Both books have ended up being the most talked about books from their publishers. Both set up storylines that will be played out in the coming months. Those books are DC Universe: Rebirth #1 and Steve Rogers: Captain America #1.
- Written by Geoff Johns
- Art by Gary Frank, Phil Jimenez, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Joe Prado, Matt Santorelli, Gabe Eltaeb
DC Universe: Rebirth #1 is intended as the kickoff for DC Comics' relaunch of its entire publishing lineup. It's not a reboot like the New 52, but it does introduce new elements into the DC Universe. From here, readers are expected to pick up the Rebirth one-shots of the titles they want to read, all of which I've previously detailed.
Rebirth is essentially a double-sized version of the primer comics that readers generally get during Free Comic Book Day. These books hint at new story developments to get people interested in picking up certain titles, but they tend to lack a meaningful story. They're guidelines, hinting stories in other books and hoping you care enough to buy them.
The primary tale that Johns is telling here is quite meaningful to long-time DC Comics' fans though. Wally West, the third major Flash in DC's publishing history, makes his return here, bouncing through space and time via the Speedforce. Wally is desperately trying to get his former friends, family, and colleagues to remember him, so that he can remain in the DCU. The New 52 is revealed to be the result of someone rejiggering the DC Universe in a time of crisis, removing parts of the heroes' backstory and tweaking things here and there.
The book is clearly Johns lamenting the current state of the DC Universe, which is odd, because he's one of the primary architects of that status quo. It seems Johns wants to throw out the toys he created in the first place and leave the New 52 behind; a desire clearly seen in the random death of Pandora, a character created by Johns as a lynchpin of the New 52 universe.
"I love this world," Wally says early in the issue. "But there's something missing."
It's not hard to see that line as coming from Johns himself. Rebirth stands as a more hopeful, emotional tale than the work Johns has been doing over in Justice League. The pain and sense of loss in Wally West is keenly felt and that's probably because Johns rose to prominence with his run on The Flash featuring Wally as the title character. This is a personal return for him and from beginning to end, every scene with Wally absolutely sticks the landing. When Wally is finally ready to say his goodbyes and visits Barry Allen for the last time, the moment when Barry remembers and reaches out to him is well worth the price of admission for this Flash fan.
The problem with Rebirth is everything else, which is just thrown in at random. DC Comics is suffering a bit and Rebirth feels like a last ditch effort: throwing everything at the readers and seeing what works. It tries to keep some of the New 52 because many readers have enjoyed those books, but it also wants to reach for lapsed DC Comics fans. The result is confusing at best.
There's some definite wins here. Former Atom Ryan Choi is reintroduced as Ray Palmer's teaching assistant. The Aqualad from the Young Justice cartoon is als reintroduced here as Jackson Hyde, a young gay black man coming to terms with his powers. (John introduced him in Blackest Night and then did nothing with the character.) The Justice Society, which never existed in the New 52's Prime Earth, is hinted at returning via Johnny Thunder, who's trapped in an old folks home desperately trying to remember his team. And the Legion of Superheroes is brought up in a brief sequence.
Then things go off the rails a bit. Batman puzzles out the fact that there are now three different Jokers in the DCU: one based on the original Bob Kane incarnation, one based on Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, and the current one written by Scott Snyder. How Batman missed that there were three Jokers is somewhat perplexing and this explanation isn't as strong as Grant Morrison's idea that the Joker merely reinvents himself to match Batman.
New 52 Superman is dead, replaced by his pre-Flashpoint counterpart, who comes with a wife and son in tow. But he's also potentially not dead, as the Legion of Superheroes scene teases that he may have a place in that eventual book. Wally West is back, but he can't be Flash or Kid Flash: Barry Allen is the Flash and New 52 Wally West is supposed to be Kid Flash. Instead, New 52 Wally is randomly given powers and made a cousin to classic Wally, both of whom are named after the same great grandfather.
As you dig down, it's the little things that are off. The Legion tease makes a big deal of what seems to be Saturn Girl being trapped in the past, but when the Legion launched in the New 52, an entire team was in the past. They still are, as the Legion Lost book was cancelled with no resolution. Choi is Palmer's TA, but Palmer was previously introduced in Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. as that organization's UN liaison. That book made a big deal out of the fact that Palmer wasn't a superhero (or a teacher?) and didn't have a costume. The closest they got was a familiar colored shrinking suit in an issue of Batman/Superman.
Last we saw Blue Beetle, he was in space. Now he's back on Earth with a new mentor, original Blue Beetle Ted Kord. We find out his scarab isn't alien technology anymore, it's magic. That information is delivered to Kord by Doctor Fate, but not the Doctor Fate that features in the current comic entitled Doctor Fate. There's a bunch of "this is how things are now" and general inconsistencies, but no explanation why. No Crisis or Flashpoint to mark the change.
The biggest change to the DC Universe actually seems to be the one Johns and company have thought about the most. The architect of the New 52 is heavily hinted to be Dr. Manhattan from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. And Batman finds the Comedian's iconic smiley button buried in the Batcave. Yes, Watchmen is a part of the DC Universe proper and seemingly painted as the negative force behind its current composition.
On one hand, that's a cool idea. Johns has hinted that the Watchmen characters have been seeded into the DC Universe, we just didn't realize it at the time. One character, Mr. Oz, is clearly meant to be Ozymandias and was previously introduced by Johns in Superman #39 back in 2015. The smiley button Batman found in the Batcave? It belonged to the Comedian, who some surmise may have hidden himself as Thomas Wayne. (Fun fact: Thomas Wayne in Zack Synder's Batman vs Superman and The Comedian in Zack Synder's Watchmen? Same guy: Jeffrey Dean Morgan.) The current Question is believed to be a version of Rorschach.
The first problem is that Watchmen was a complete tale and has little place in the DC Universe. Creator Alan Moore has said as much and I tend to agree with him. It's a deconstruction of superheroes; adding it back into the DC Universe sort of misses the point, like trying to graft Neon Genesis Evangelion bits back into normal mecha shows Mobile Suit Gundam or Space Runaway Ideon.
"It seems a bit desperate to go after a book famous for its artistic integrity. It's a finite series," Moore told Fast Company. "Watchmen was said to actually provide an alternative to the superhero story as an endless soap opera. To turn that into just another superhero comic that goes on forever demonstrates exactly why I feel the way I do about the comics industry. It's mostly about franchises."
Second, the Watchmen characters only existed because Moore wasn't allowed to use the original versions, which were the heroes from Charlton Comics. Some of those characters are already well integrated into previous DCU continuity. Dr. Manhattan is Captain Atom, Nite Owl is Blue Beetle, Rorschach is the Question, Silk Spectre is Nightshade. They're in the DC Universe already, having broken, twisted versions of them brought alongside doesn't particularly improve anything.
Worse, DC's integration track record is spotty. Johns and the company at large are known for introducing characters and then never delivering on teased stories. Pandora, who dies in Rebirth, is a great example. Entire lines of Wildstorm, Milestone, and Vertigo characters are either not used or mis-used. Wildcats, Stormwatch, the Authority, Static, Icon, Xombi, Hardware, Shade the Changing Man, Sandman Mystery Theatre; these are all properties that could work with the right team and probably would reintegrate better in the DCU. (See the new Hellblazer comic.) And that's before you get to all of the heroes that exist in the DCU already that don't get any play.
I don't know if DC Comics is capable of delivering the Watchmen characters in satisfying fashion, as they have yet to do so with their other properties. If they can, awesome. I'm always open to being surprised, I just have yet to see that kind of great work and follow-through from the current management.
Despite all these issues and my misgivings, Rebirth does work. It feels hopeful and it tugs hard on that nostalgia as a long-time DC Comics fan. For many, it's enough to simply see their favorite heroes again. If you missed the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, Green Arrow/Black Canary, Wally West, Ryan Choi, or the Justice Society, they're coming back. If you loved the New 52, most of that is still here. And at the very least, DC is promising not to screw it all up again.
Let's hope they keep their promise.