DC Universe Rebirth #1: Reclaiming Hope from Despair

DC-Rebirth-Shot-05

By Mauricio Castro

So, it’s here.  I read it.  Guess what?  I LOVED it.

What follows after the jump is a review with some spoilers for DC Universe Rebirth #1.  I’m going to be discussing some aspects of the book that have already become polarizing even before the issue has been released.  I won’t be spoiling anything for the sake of spoiling it, but a full review of this needs to be able to address some of the big elephants in the room.

Again, if you don’t want to get spoiled do not read any further.  Walk away with the knowledge I’m giving it an A and buy the issue and read it yourself and come back later.  Everyone else, step into my parlor…

So, welcome, those of you who stayed!

Down to business.  At its core, DC Universe Rebirth #1 is a commentary on the directions comics, and DC in particular, have been heading in for thirty years in a desperate plea for acknowledgement and “maturity.”  We’ve had thirty years of the medium shaped by the dark pessimism of the mid-1980s and works like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns.  Basically, the industry went dark in an attempt to show that comics had “grown up.”  In DC Universe Rebirth #1, Geoff Johns calls into question whether this was the right path to take.

It’s not that Johns is calling into question the value and quality of those seminal works, but rather of the lessons we took away from them.  Thirty years of influence have brought us so many stories in which we question the very existence of heroism and the value of hope.  Somewhere along the way, the conventional wisdom for superhero stories became that a good, complex superhero story needed to be dark and bleak.  This type of thinking has reared it head again and again in comics and other media.  It was just two months ago that we saw what might have been the cresting of that wave when Warner Brothers released Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a movie which gave us a cynical Batman who had no concern for human life and who could not help but project his grim world view onto others.  It also gave us a Superman who was incapable of inspiring hope in a dark world and who had so little in the way of thoughts and motivations that he had fewer lines of dialogue as the film’s co-headliner than Spider-Man did in his extended Captain America: Civil War cameo.  (47 lines to 43. I know Peter tends to blab, but come on!)

And in the comics?  It gave us the New 52, a new version of the DC Universe where our heroes were now younger, “edgier,” and had lost so much of what made them special.  Suddenly the history between characters was gone.  So was the concept of legacy.  And the relationships between heroes grounded in decades of storytelling.  Some, seeing this, chose to walk away from DC.  The rest of us hoped that these threads would be rewoven in this new universe in new and fascinating ways.  Despite that fact that the last five years of DC’s output has given us many very good books, as a rule, the new DC Universe never quite stuck the landing.  In Rebirth, Geoff Johns admits the mistakes of the New 52 though a character that was lost in the relaunch five years ago and who longtime fans will be excited to see return: Wally West.

“I think they took years from us to weaken us,” Wally, standing in for Johns, tells his uncle, “they struck deep at our hearts, Barry.”  Johns, as one of the architects of the last five years of stories, is admitting to readers that in trying to revive interest in their heroes, DC Comics had done away with many of the things that made them special.  Throughout the special, Wally tries to return to a world that has forgotten him and its own history and laments the loss of relationships, connections, and the concept of legacy.  The meta-commentary gets into the longer history that I was referring to earlier as, from the first page, it becomes clear that there is a threat to this universe from another, that they are being watched.

And here our troubles begin.  I’ve seen, in the last few days, a backlash against this comic from people who read leaked copies online or had read the spoilers.  Specifically, people seem to be upset by the fact that the threat to the DC Universe is coming from the Watchmen universe.  It is heavily implied that Dr. Manhattan is the threat that brought about the more cynical universe of the New 52 in an effort to weaken it.  And I can see why some people might be upset about this, but frankly it is a brilliant bit of comics criticism.  Watchmen is a story about pessimism and determinism.  By contrast, the Rebirth special is setting up the DC Universe as a place of hope.  “There’s going to be a war between hope and despair,” Wally tells us, “Love and apathy.  Faith and disbelief.”

This war, however, has been raging in comics for decades.  What Johns and a fantastic assortment of artists have done with this comic is to declare that DC is back on the side of hope and light.  We’ve seen something similar from Geoff Johns in Infinite Crisis, but this book is a less an event comic, like IC was, than a statement of purpose for an entire line.  And its influence goes beyond.  Those paying attention to news coming out of Warner Brothers in the last week know that Johns now has a role similar to Marvel’s Kevin Feige in a new entity called DC Films.  Hope and optimism may be coming to a theater near you, folks.

Meta-commentary aside, there is a lot to love in this comic.  Longtime DC fans will spot other characters who have been missing for too long.  New fans will quickly be brought up to speed on everything that has been going on and introduced to characters whose adventures they can follow in all the new Rebirth branded books.  The special teases many of the coming conflicts and status quos for DC’s characters and I, for one, could not be more excited.  DC is showing us that their heroes can face dark threats without giving into that darkness themselves.  This promises good storytelling without falling into what are now tired tropes of darkness and pessimism.

My advice?  Pick this book up.  The writing is Geoff Johns at his best.  The art from Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Phil Jimenez, and company is crisp, clear, and dynamic.  And it’s an 80 page comic for $2.99.  I’m excited about DC bringing its heroes back to their core and shedding decades of baggage.

Who’s with me?

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