Updated May 15, 2017: With the announcement of Doomsday Clock, the ideas Geoff Johns had behind "Rebirth" has come more into focus. Given the parellels between the newly-revealed plans and some speculation Newsarama had when DC Universe: Rebirth #1 debuted in May 2016, we're re-printing this article.
“I used to be an optimist too. Until the day the watch broke. And I lost it. I lost time.
If you subscribe as we do to the theory that everything in a story – every line of dialogue, every line of exposition, every image – is deliberate, that the writer put it in to serve a specific purpose, it’s hard not to spend time dissecting and trying to interpret the meta-meaning of writer and DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns’ DC Universe: Rebirth #1.
Seemingly wearing his own fan’s heart on his Wally … his Wally West that is … Johns has one of his self-described favorite characters, the former Kid Flash (also standing in for the POV of many long-time DC readers) deliver narration and dialogue throughout the special that not only signals the new/old direction the DC Universe is headed in with the Rebirth initiative, but also laments the past and surprisingly lays some blame down at some unexpected feet.
“My life was better than I ever imagined it would be. But it was all ripped away.
“…Someone stole 10 years from us.”
The surprise of Rebirth isn’t its prevalent theme of hope and optimism. The publisher has made it abundantly clear in marketing the one-shot title and the subsequent initiative that hope and optimism, along with restoring some former aspects of the DCU, is what Rebirth is all about. What is a little bit surprising, however, is that Johns treats the loss of those things like a tragedy … and as a crime. And more than that, he seemingly identifies the culprits.
Johns’ first surprise suspect is DC’s last big relaunch publishing initiative, the “New 52.” Launched in September 2011, the DC Universe relaunch-reboot used Johns’ own Flash-centric Flashpoint as its impetus to reset the DCU erasing much of its post-Crisis history, offering younger heroes who hadn’t lived through all the years and events their predecessors did.
But according to Rebirth #1’s thesis, it also “stole” an essential element of what makes the DCU tick ('watch' pun, intended) – legacy and relationships.
“Barry, it wasn’t just me that was forgotten,” Wally tells the elder Flash, explaining the post-Flashpoint reality to his mentor. “There were others. There were friendships. There were relationships.”
The “who” of who “stole” … who “ripped” those things away can be answered in two ways: In-story it appears to be Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, and we’ll get to him in a few moments. But meta-textually (and this is coming from a publisher and a writer who once had Superboy Prime punch a continuity wall) doesn’t it have to be the powers-that-be of DC themselves, including every single party responsible for the “New 52” and therefore the ‘theft’? From DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson, to co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, to Editor-in-Chief and Senior VP Bob Harras, to CCO and writer Johns himself, every party responsible for the “New 52” caper is back to undo what they did. It’s like if the Ocean’s 11 crew tried to return Andy Garcia’s money in the sequel…
…Oh wait, that was Ocean’s 12, wasn’t it?
“Seeing everything… I realize it wasn’t 10 years stolen from us. It was love.”
Again, the surprise isn’t so much what reads like an admission, but the directness of the self-indictment, and it's unexpected and refreshing in its honesty. The marketing office of DC Entertainment no doubt wants to stay focused on the forward-looking aspect of the Rebirth initiative and won’t directly re-litigate the past, but those DC powers deserve some credit for what’s hard not to interpret as accepting a public self-flogging. And fans seem to be responding. There is no apology per se in Rebirth #1, but the intense self-examination is likely going a long way this week.
“And when history was coming back together, they attacked.”
“A darkness from somewhere infected us. It has for a long time now, I think. Even before the Flashpoint.”
Johns’ apparent second suspect, being indicted for a different crime, is of course Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen, arguably recognized as the greatest graphic novel in the history of the art form.
Watchmen’s (along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns’) influence on DC and comic books in general is a matter of empirical fact (which we examined in more detail earlier), but Rebirth #1 is striking for how directly Johns’ seemingly makes a villain out of the work, labeling its effect an “infection” rather than an influence.
“Skepticism. Doubt. Corruption. All things your cold heart believes in. But in the end there was hope. And the heroes of this universe embody it. Their hope, their devotion, their love for one another will vanquish what you’ve done. It may be over for me but they will prove you wrong. They will prove you are nothing but a lonely, cruel monst—”
– Pandora, before being unceremoniously zapped out of existence presumed by Dr. Manhattan.
Yowza. Now that’s going down swingin’.
While Alan Moore cut ties with DC years ago and has been open for his disregard for DC’s handling of the Watchmen franchise, it is still big business for the publisher, ranking as 2015’s 35th bestselling graphic novel in the Direct Market alone 30 years after its original publication. Not even mentioning merchandise and the Before Watchmen event of a few years ago.
While there is no reason to think Johns doesn’t recognize and appreciate the merit of the original work, he does seem to be arguing its pervasive influence on DC has been at worst a corruption and at best a misapplication, with again the seeming directness of the salvo the surprise of it given its importance to DC.
Will Watchmen ever really be “vanquished” by DC? While probably not the case, the final image of Rebirth #1 could be interpreted as a metaphor. Wally’s watch evolves in the final pages from showing 4:52 in the iconic Watchmen yellow with a bloody bullet hole, to showing 11:45, with only the 9 through 12 hands left with the copy “The Clock is Ticking Across the DC Universe!”
This differs slightly from the original image that only showed the 9 and 12.
That Watchmen’s 15 minutes are almost up can’t be the intended meaning, can it?
Again, that seems unlikely, but the ‘Watchmen v DC’ fictional and meta dynamic may be small potatoes in comparison to the other conflict Rebirth might be signaling.
“There’s going to be a war between hope and despair. Love and apathy. Faith and disbelief.”
Obviously here Johns is talking about the inevitable ‘DCU v Watchmen’ comic book event months or years down the line, but given the players and recent events it’s hard not to carry over the ‘war’ metaphor to what’s happening within Warner Bros. right about now.
On one front you have the newly-installed co-head of the newly created DC Films banner - or in other words and in comic book terms, DC’s Kevin Feige analogue with an optimistic bent.
On the other front, you have a currently filming Justice League director who entered the comic book movie radar adapting a Frank Miller graphic novel, then moving to a quite faithful film adaptation of Watchmen before helming Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, the latter heavily influenced by Miller and both regarded by many fans as dark, dour, angsty and joyless.
Johns’ hopeful and optimistic superhero sensibilities are as plain (and longstanding) as the influence Moore and Miller had on Snyder. From the outside looking, it does seem like diametrically opposed viewpoints. Reports are, machinations are underway to “course-correct Warners' comic book movies” in the wake of the critical drubbing and solid but underwhelming box office performance of BvS, including adding and removing producers. But what Warner Bros. may have on its hands is a ‘can a Tawky Tawny change its stripes’ equation.
It’s hard to believe Warner Bros. pulled Johns away from DC Comics for what he’s described as at least two years for any other reason but to liberally apply the “hope and optimism” sensibility to their DC Cinematic Universe that Rebirth now serves as his calling card to. The question is, does Snyder have a “hope and optimism” tool in his utility belt?
Who is going to win the “war” between “hope and despair” when a newly-minted executive meets a film already in production? If DC Universe: Rebirth #1 is any indication, fans may be justified to have a little “hope and optimism” for Justice League Part One when it rolls into theaters in 18 months.