Spoilers ahead for Heroes in Crisis #1.
In the space of one week, DC comic books have featured Dick Grayson being shot in the head and a dozen superheroes apparently dying in a mass murder that included Wally West and Roy Harper.
Suddenly, the “hope” and “optimism” promised by the “Rebirth” initiative — and the renewed relationships it ushered back into the DCU — have taken a major hit.
As DC Entertainment was introducing its “Rebirth” initiative in 2016, the word “hope” was emphasized by executives as a guiding force for the new direction. As writers were tasked with returning DC characters to their “core” and re-establishing fan-favorite relationships, “Rebirth” architect Geoff Johns was touting how the DCU would be injected with a sense of “optimism” again.
“It felt like there were things that had gone missing [after the New 52 reboot of 2011] — not the characters but an overall feeling of hope and optimism,” Johns said after his DC Universe: Rebirth special was released.
"The pervasive attitude in the DNA of DC is optimism," Johns said in another interview.
Those words from Johns weren’t surprising to DC readers familiar with his work. Ten years earlier, the writer’s Infinite Crisis event had dealt with some of the same issues.
The villain in Infinite Crisis, who had been watching the DC Universe from outside of time, tried to reboot the DCU because, he said, it had become too dark. By the end of Infinite Crisis, Johns had made DC’s characters more unified and optimistic.
Hope vs. Despair
But what did throw readers for a loop when DC Universe: Rebirth #1 was released in May 2016 was the source of the New 52 and the dark turn in the DCU.
It was seemingly blamed on Dr. Manhattan of the Watchmen universe. Whomever the culprit ultimately winds up being, he or she or it was described as “a darkness from somewhere” that had “infected” the DCU for “a long time.”
At the time, there seemed to be a meta-textual element to DC Universe: Rebirth #1. The one-shot issue not only deliberately pointed towards Dr. Manhattan as the culprit within its story (claiming that he’d stolen 10 years), but the sense was that DC executives were admitting they erred when the New 52 was created … that they had mistakenly thrown out the proverbial (and hope-filled) baby with the bathwater.
Even more directly, Johns was setting up a great battle to come that would see the hope of the DCU (championed specifically by Superman, we would soon learn) fighting against the cynicism and despair of again the presumed Dr. Manhattan.
“Skepticism. Doubt. Corruption. All things your cold heart believes in,” Pandora said seemingly to Dr. Manhattan before he vaporized her in Rebirth. “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.”
And who was the character who ushered a sense of hope back into the DCU with DC Universe: Rebirth?
Wally West. The character broke through a barrier in DC Universe: Rebirth that had kept forgotten characters away from their long-established friends and family, stating unequivocally that it “wasn’t 10 years stolen” from the DCU — “it was love.”
“Love was lost, and the ongoing mission of ‘Rebirth’ is to have that love return and have the characters connect again,” Johns said.
Wally West was a cornerstone of The New Teen Titans, a title whose launch pre-dated the dark and gritty turn of the post-Watchmen DCU. And Wally’s return was immediately followed by a reunion of many Titans characters and a hope by DC readers that the destruction of so many relationships they held dear was at an end.
Not long after “Rebirth” launched, there were teases that more hope-filled would be coming soon. When Barry Allen saw the helmet worn by Jay Garrick of the Justice Society, he was “filled with hope,” and readers began to expect a return of the JSA and other characters who had been hidden since the New 52 reboot.
With the publication of Heroes in Crisis #1, the death of Wally West and other heroes doesn’t seem to fit with the promises of a more hopeful turn in the DCU.
Yet it’s important to note that the plot of Doomsday Clock, which is set in the future of the DCU and is the culmination of Johns’ “hope versus despair” story, begins with a less hopeful DCU.
In fact, the DCU of Doomsday Clock is so filled with anger and despair that the superhero community is despised and feared by the public. And as Doomsday Clock opens, nations are on the brink of war.
So if that story is set in the future, it indicates the DCU will become less hopeful before the battle.
There’s definitely going to be a darkness before the storm.
Perhaps the events in Heroes in Crisis are part of that darkness that leads into Doomsday Clock?
The shocking deaths of Heroes in Crisis #1 have already been referenced in Doomsday Clock as part of the trend toward darkness that pervades the story. In July’s issue #6, a group of supervillains are featured in a scene addressing the angry turn the world has taken.
“You all heard what happened to the first Tattooed Man at that Sanctuary place?” one of the villains says in issue #6. “It’s screwed up.”
So there’s evidence that the events of today’s DCU, including the deaths in Heroes in Crisis, are meant to contribute to the mayhem at the beginning of Doomsday Clock.
Looking for Meaning
Yet the death of Wally West, and with him the death of Rebirth’s metaphorical hope, doesn’t feel like it fits in the “Rebirth” narrative. The 2016 release of Rebirth seemed to portend a return to a more bright style of storytelling.
And although readers have seen plenty of darkness invading stories in recent months (and even the addition of a “Dark” Multiverse), the overall sense among fans since 2016 was that the universe was moving toward a more hopeful foundation — to bring back the type of optimism that was missing during the New 52 (and along with it some optimistic characters like Captain Marvel and the JSA).
Even the invention of Sanctuary itself and the hope it promised to provide for patients could be perceived as a move toward optimism.
But this mass murder and the sudden death of two Titans — and the shooting of another in the head last week — feels like a move in the opposite direction.
So which is it?
Has the “ongoing mission” of hope and love that Johns described for the “Rebirth era” been abandoned and, symbolically, killed with Wally’s demise and the fate of other characters this past week?
Or is the death and darkness that just smacked readers in the face merely a move toward darkness that leads into hope’s triumph when Doomsday Clock ends?