DC Universe: Rebirth #1
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Phil Jimenez, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Matt Santorelli, Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Hi-Fi and Gabe Eltaeb
Lettering by Nick J. Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
“Everything’s going to be all right.”
“Yeah? And how do you know that?”
“Because I’ve seen the future.”
DC Comics has called Geoff Johns’ 80-page showcase a Rebirth, but that’s not the right word for this potent, optimistic work. Rebirth is a reclamation, not just of the DC Universe’s history, but of its heart and soul. It’s a repudiation, a first step towards casting out the darkness and cynicism that has infected the DC Universe for decades. It’s a return to form for one of the industry’s most prolific writers, and a recognition of all the things that DC Comics needs to change… and a reminder of all the things about DC we need to remember most. With its stirring characterization serving as the launchpad for a salvo of new comics, DC Rebirth Special is a love letter to DC’s past that will leave current and lapsed fans alike feeling optimistic about the future to come.
Over the course of his career, Geoff Johns has had a tailor’s sensibility when it comes to characterization and high concept — a waste-not, want-not attitude that used the scraps of the stories that can before and transformed them into new and fantastic concepts. But since the New 52 has begun, that history has been lost — and Johns aims to get it back here. Using the return of the pre-New 52 Wally West as both his narrator and his authorial proxy, Johns makes some fairly pointed commentary about DC’s shortcomings over the years: “He doesn’t remember me,” Wally says, trying in vain to get someone, anyone from this brave new DC Universe to listen to him. “The connection isn’t strong enough.” It’s a statement many skeptical readers might find themselves nodding with. DC Comics has always used its history to establish a connection with its readership, and without it, the characters aren’t the ones we know — despite decades in the public eye, these American icons have become largely unrecognizable.
But not for long — not if Johns has anything to say about it.
Through his deft reintroduction and recontexualization of dozens of superheroes, Johns gives a much-needed injection of optimism back to the DC Universe in DC Rebirth Special. While some the bigger, more immutable characters of the DCU like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman do rest on their latest plot twists, many more returning characters will engage readers based simply on relatable human behaviors. Whether it’s watching awkward T.A. Ryan Choi get pulled into the big leagues of superheroing as he’s called upon to pursue Ray Palmer into the Microverse, witnessing Aquaman offer a tender proposal to his longtime consort Mera (“It’s a surface custom,” he says while on one knee), or even watching Barry Allen cheerfully bring pizzas to a building full of people he just saved, Johns recognizes that these heroes haven’t endured for decades because of over-the-top action sequences and high concepts — these properties have endured because underneath all the superpowers and resurrections and crossovers, these comic books are about real human characters. Zeroing in on the most likable qualities of these characters, Johns reminds us why our hearts break when a hero finds their long-lost love and is cast aside, why we cheer when a character is brought back from the edge of the abyss. It’s like Barry says when Wally makes his triumphant — and permanent — return to the DCU. “I’m so sorry, Wally,” Barry says, with tears in his eyes. “How could I ever forget you?” With these sorts of moments, Johns is reminding us what readers and creators alike have forgotten about the wonder and heart of DC Comics — and that realization is going to pull at even the most jaded reader’s heartstrings.
Even on the basis of sheer execution, Johns’ script feels as precise as a Swiss timepiece. He bounces from hero to hero, from high concept to new high concept with a brisk pace, economically establishing all of his characters and structuring his overarching story by balancing heartfelt slice-of-life scenes with big, fist pump-inducing reveals that are sure to get commenters chatting, including hints pointing towards the return of the Justice Society and the Legion of Super-Heroes. But in a comic full of big moments, there’s one that will stand out above the rest — namely, that the malevolent force that has stolen 10 years from the DC Universe (and murdered Pandora, the symbol of the New 52, in a particularly subversive jab) is none other than Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. When you read it, you might feel the air leave you, and it might be one of the smartest bits Johns has come up with since Sinestro Corps War. Of course the cynicism of the DC Universe began here — and the only way to counteract that is to call out the “world’s greatest graphic novel” for its sins. It serves to both heighten the stakes tremendously, as Johns taps into DC’s final frontier, but also serves as a great bit of metacommentary.
And in keeping with that optimism, Johns has also surrounded himself with a team of some of the biggest and brightest artists in the DC lineup. One early frontrunner for MVP might be Ethan Van Sciver, who shows a surprising versatility in style here, shifting from his trademark shadowy style to something much cleaner, almost in the vein of George Perez in the span of a couple pages. (Honestly, at first glance, the resemblance was so uncanny I had thought Phil Jimenez had taken over a few pages.) But having Van Sciver and Jimenez in this book ultimately evokes that feeling of nostalgia, that sort of Crisis-level cachet that makes DC Rebirth feel like an event more than just a one-shot. Gary Frank, meanwhile, adds a level of consistency throughout the book, as he’s stretched across three chapters — through most of this book, Frank’s characters feel wide-eyed and innocent, unafraid to smile or tense up or emote, and it’s a great way to carry out Johns’ newer, more optimistic mission statement. It’s very telling when Ivan Reis — a clean, reliable meat-and-potatoes superhero artist if DC has ever seen one — winds up becoming the runt of the litter here. It’s not even a case of Reis being a good artist amongst greats — it’s about Reis being a great artist amongst a trio of classics.
After reading DC Rebirth Special, it only feels appropriate to paraphrase a line from The Dark Knight: Geoff Johns is the hero we need, but not the one we deserve right now. It’s easy to be a booster for a winning team — but it’s much harder to generate the kind of enthusiasm and thoughtfulness Johns has when you know something’s not right. This book in many ways is almost a kind of authorial activism against the perceived wrongs of an entire industry — if Johns has given his oversight over the rest of Rebirth the same level of care that he’s given this special, this might finally achieve the potential of DC Comics that even the New 52 failed to deliver. There’s something missing in the DCU, but Johns and company have undertaken one Herculean Hail Mary to bring it back. “I can’t give up. I have to get back…” his narrator tells us. “So I can deliver a message… it’s not over.” This isn’t a comic — this is a call to arms. This isn’t just a Rebirth — it’s a much-needed redemption.