So last week, I wrote a sarcastic, facetious, (hopefully) funny piece on Geoff Johns' DC Rebirth. It was fun being a snotty punk again. But as time passed, and I really thought things through, I started thinking I should maybe write a less-snotty follow-up. Something that discusses my problems with the book in-depth, without all the snark and (a word we'll come back to later) cynicism. So let's give that a shot…
DC Rebirth 1 by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez
This is a comic I hadn't intended to read. I just didn't have any interest. It sounded like another continuity porn reboot from Geoff Johns, a writer whose work I don't have much use for. I've gone into why I don't like Johns' stuff before, but in brief... I don't like his writing on a basic level. His dialogue strikes me as a bit wooden, his dramatics feel overblown, and I don't often like his big ideas when he sets in to reform a series. There's nothing inherently wrong with what he does, and if people enjoy it, hey... More power to them. It's just not my thing. So I was all set to give Rebirth as big a miss as possible. Then I saw this:
Geoff Johns may not be my thing, but Alan Moore very much is. So when I heard that Johns was going to be bringing characters from Watchmen into mainstream DC continuity, and in fact making Dr. Manhattan the bad guy... Yikes. Even setting aside the problems I have with how DC has handled the Watchmen contract over the years (which, trust me, is not an easy thing for me to set aside)... That struck me as such a terrible idea that I had to comment. And if I was going to comment, I felt like I had to read it. So I snagged a copy, took a deep breath, and dove in.
That, as the caption says, is Wally West, formerly known as Kid Flash, possessor of one of the best super hero costumes ever designed, and the only person who remembers what the universe was like before the New 52 reboot. Well... The only fictional person, anyway. As we'll see, Geoff Johns remembers it all too well. But, anyway...
I have only a little nostalgic attachment to Wally, and even less (like, zero) for the 20 years' worth of stories in which he introduced himself every issue by telling readers his name. So a lot of the things he goes through in this comic mean nothing to me. I mean, sure. I feel for his basic human suffering. But when his wife failed to recognize him in this post-reboot universe...
...I didn't really feel it so much. I'm sure this pulled at the heartstrings of Wally and Linda fans, but... I don't know that I've ever read a whole comic with her in it. And the writing, again, is not so great. So there's a limit to how much I'm going to care. Later on, though, when he went through the same thing with his mentor Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash...
...I was genuinely touched. Hell, I'm choking up a little bit, even now. And I have to give it to Johns on this one: it's not just Barry Allen making this an effective moment. I mean, it doesn't hurt. If you're a comics fan of my generation, who read Crisis on Infinite Earths at an impressionable age, the guy freaking died for your sins. So anything involving him is going to have the emotional upper hand. But that's not what does it. In fact, their (entirely platonic) hug when Barry finally remembers Wally...
...feels kinda weird after that thing with Linda. I mean, the dude's wife doesn't recognize him, but his aunt's boyfriend does...? And then all that face-cradling...? Hrm. Maybe I'm just being cynical here (that word again!), but if that was anyone other than Barry Allen, the nicest super hero ever... It wouldn't play right.
But again, that's not what makes the scene work. What does? The “Thank you for an amazing life.” Because that... Good lord. It's not good dialogue, technically. But if you've ever spent very much time thrilling to super hero adventures, it's damned effective. So score one for Geoff Johns.
Otherwise, though... Whoosh. I haven't read this kind of bald-faced continuity porn in a long time. Even something like Secret Wars (Jonathan Hickman's recent crossover book for Marvel), with its many details that work best if you love the Fantastic Four as much as I do, doesn't make this blatant an appeal to nostalgia. It plays on it, certainly, but there's still a story to follow if you don't have a pre-existing emotional attachment to the characters. That's not so much the case here. Rebirth plays out more like a litany of regrets, a travelogue of the current DC Universe conducted by someone looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. That's most apparent, I think, in the page Johns devotes to feeling bad about Green Arrow and Black Canary:
He's not even playing fair, really, ending the scene with that “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” thing. I haven't been reading the Green Arrow comic much post-reboot, because every time I do, it's bloody awful. But I was reading the Black Canary relaunch, and for her at least, this “lonely longing” stuff is completely manufactured. So Johns may have been feeling bad about them not having a relationship, but the characters themselves most definitely haven't been. Now, that's the whole point, I realize. The story here, such as it is, is that Dr. Manhattan has stolen ten years from these characters' lives. Their world has been made more cynical and unhappy than it used to be, and they don't remember it for the most part.
But that's all a matter of how you play things, isn't it? Before Rebirth, these characters were just out there living their lives, not looking back with regret on something that didn't even happen to them. Johns is on record as saying (and the comic itself makes this very clear) that the point of Rebirth is to return hope and optimism to DC super hero comics. Which is fine. I'm all for it. But if that's the case, why do it this way? Why not just... write stories with more hope and optimism in them? If you want Green Arrow and Black Canary to be in love, write a story where they fall in love. Explore the excitement and joy of a new relationship between two lonely crime-punchers. Don't write a story in which they're filled with vague longing due to the machinations of some great cosmic force beyond their understanding. That's far more disheartening.
So I guess what I'm saying here is, it's not Dr. Manhattan making our heroes miserable. It's Geoff Johns.
Okay, so I slipped back into “snotty punk” mode a bit there. Sorry. But if you’re gonna go meta, you open yourself up to this kind of thing.
Anyway. All joking aside, I do understand the reason for doing it this way: conflict is the soul of drama, and framing this tonal change as a battle for the soul of the DC Universe makes it more exciting. The idea of heroes battling against existential dread is compelling, especially for the adult audience Johns is pitching this thing to. Plus, you know… If I can be cynical again here for a moment… You’re gonna sell WAY more comics telling people that it’s “DC vs Watchmen” than you will if you just say, “We’re going to be more optimistic in the future.”
But that brings me back to my real problem with Rebirth: it blames Watchmen for all the ills of modern super hero comics. Now, I should be clear here: Johns isn’t attacking Watchmen as a work of art. He’s attacking its massive influence over mainstream super hero comics. And, hey. That might well be something worth attacking. Lord knows there’s been ten million ham-fisted attempts to emulate that book over the last 30 years, and the vast majority of them have gotten it completely wrong.
So, okay. Sure. Attack the editorial decisions that have lead to those ten million bad copies. Many critics believe Johns is doing just that, in fact. Evidently, the conflict between DC’s various creative executives has been rather bitter in the years since they forced Paul Levitz out, and many think Rebirth is Johns making a direct attack against the editorial tastes of his co-worker Dan Didio. So the thinking goes that, with Johns departing the company’s comics branch to oversee future movie projects, Rebirth may be his way of shooting a metaphorical middle finger at Didio as he walks out the door.
Now, that’s a really entertaining reading, and I suspect there’s a lot of truth in it. But this doesn’t alleviate my problem with Rebirth. Because in the actual story… hell, in the same interviews that go out of their way to explain that Johns isn’t attacking the finest super hero story ever written… Johns is pretty much attacking the finest super hero story ever written. Because he’s not just calling out the decisions that lead to all those bad imitations. He’s calling out Watchmen itself, claiming that its much-vaunted realism is in reality nothing more than cynicism. And that’s an opinion I have no patience with.
I’ll grant you that Watchmen spends a lot of time peering into the darkness. Super heroes, of necessity, operate from a strong conviction of personal righteousness, and Watchmen is, in large part, about that conviction going horribly wrong. Ozymandias makes himself into a monster in service to what he sees as the greater good. Rorschach loses his mind in service to his own, very different, vision of the greater good. Their stories are tragic, and they take other characters down with them as they fall.
But they don’t take everyone. Nite Owl is rejuvenated by love. Silk Spectre faces harsh truths, and in the process finds herself. But most importantly, when things are at their worst, they find each other.
And Dr. Manhattan, who’s in danger of becoming cold and distant, comes to embrace the miracle of existence, and learns to love humanity.
That makes it a very hopeful story, to my way of thinking. Some heroes fail, yes. They fail spectacularly, hideously, still painfully retaining their heroism even as they fall from grace. But other heroes pass through the darkness of those failures and, redeemed by love, come out the other side better than they were before. There’s nothing cynical about that at all.
Now, I can see how someone might come to a different reading. Even after recognizing what a miracle each human life is, Dr. Manhattan still kills Rorschach to protect Ozymandias’ secret. And the revelation of that miracle comes down less to understandable human love, and more to a clinical scientific curiosity. He even still seems distant in that final chapter, lacking in understanding of real human concerns. What he says to Ozymandias just before he leaves Earth, in fact, could be considered an act of careless cruelty.
“Nothing ever ends.” A simple statement of fact to Dr. Manhattan, but deeply unsettling to a man who’s just murdered a city, and who dreams of black freighters. I’m sure that’s a very significant line to Johns, as well, because he quotes it verbatim on the last page of Rebirth:
So I can see how someone might come to the conclusion that Dr. Manhattan is a cold, clinical bastard capable of warping life in his own imperfect image. I just think that’s a shallow reading. Dr. Manhattan kills Rorschach not to protect Ozymandias, but to prevent nuclear armageddon, sacrificing one life to save millions. He even tries to be kind about it (though Rorschach, being Rorschach, isn’t having any of that). He also shows a kindness in that conversation above: much as Ozymandias tried to act like a god, Adrian Veidt is still just a man, and he obviously feels guilty about what he’s done. So Dr. Manhattan doesn’t tell him that he killed Rorschach. He just says that he’s sure Rorschach won’t reach civilization, reassuring Veidt as you would a child, in an attempt to leave one less corpse on the man’s conscience.
And going back to the page before his talk with Veidt, Dr. Manhattan even smiles when he finds his wife sleeping with another man. All he wants is for her to be happy. Like a loving father. Or, you know… God.
So for me, any reading that sees something in those pages so bad that it leaves room for Dr. Manhattan to become a villainous deity, seeking misery and strife, strikes me not just as shallow, but also as pretty… well…