I’m tempted to refer to DC Rebirth #1 as Abed Nadir #1, because it has so many layers and is so full of meta commentary that it might be the greatest comic I’ve ever read. Or the worst. Because regardless of the insanity that’s on the pages of Abed Nadir #1, the insanity that’s going on behind them appears to be even greater.
First and foremost, let’s deal with the main issue that most people seem to have with this comic, the inclusion of Dr. Manhattan (and possibly more characters from Watchmen). It would be possible, as DC has already started doing, to claim there are story reasons to include the good doctor. He’s an all-powerful character that could easily manipulate an entire multiverse. The problem is that DC has no shortage of such characters; they even went so far as to suggest Pandora was behind it all when the New 52 first started. It would have been very easy for Johns to have picked up that thread (regardless of what has happened since) and closed the circle of the New 52. But he didn’t.
That’s because using Dr. Manhattan has meaning beyond the page of DC Rebirth #1.
DC has spent the last 30 years being defined by Watchmen. It is not happy about that fact.
Watchmen, in this case, doesn’t just represent the endless attempts at imitating it that sent comics into a dark and horrible spiral, it also represents the DCU after Crisis on Infinite Earths, after it rebooted for the very first time. Crisis ended in December of 1985, but its impact wouldn’t be felt for months; many of DC’s titles continued on as normal for months after Crisis. Watchmen went on sale in June, of 1986, before the rebooted Superman and Wonder Woman had even appeared. The new DCU was still struggling to find itself and the impact that Watchmen had on all superhero comics, let alone just DC, would be huge.
DC isn’t just tackling Watchmen in DC Rebirth #1, they’re decrying the post-Crisis DCU as a whole. When they say they want to embrace their history, they mean it, to the point of attacking what they perceive to be a roadblock on their drive back.
Beyond symbolism, there’s a tangible reason why DC feels the need to pull Watchmen kicking and screaming into the DC multiverse: it has caused them nothing but problems. Watchmen is, without a doubt, the most controversial book DC has ever published, not because of its contents, but because of its publishing agreement. It’s the focal point of a never ending debate regarding creators’ rights and corporate comics. And it is an albatross hanging around DC’s neck, more so than any of the horrible comics they’ve published, more so, even, than the behavior of any of their employees. Watchmen is the issue that has legs, that has stuck around, that will never leave. And it drives them crazy.
They aren’t just attempting to exorcise Watchmen‘s influence in this issue, they are trying to exorcise the comic all together.
Just think about the fact that they are synonymous with a comic that everyone loves, yet everyone hates them for.
Rebirth #1 is DC claiming their independence from Watchmen…by using the characters. No longer will they allow people to view Watchmen as sacrosanct. They can’t afford to be the publisher that shit all over the creators of what is widely portrayed as the most important comic book ever. It’s time for Watchmen to toe the line.
In some ways, this is an even more New 52 move than the New 52. The more DC uses the Watchmen characters, the more ubiquitous they become, the less they will be placed upon a pedestal — in theory, anyway. DC is hoping that readers will look forward, not back, and eventually forget what came before, which was basically the goal of the New 52. And yet Rebirth is only happening because fans didn’t fall for that line of reasoning, so why would they with Watchmen?
The use of Dr. Manhattan seems to have a more specific purpose than just getting DC over their Watchmen hang-ups. It also seems to be about Geoff Johns.
In the comics, Dr. Manhattan is responsible for the creation of the New 52. In reality, it’s Geoff Johns who wrote Flashpoint, which created the New 52.
Geoff Johns is Dr. Manhattan, but he doesn’t want to be.
And I think he knows that. I think we’re seeing a writer seek absolution for his part in the New 52 right there on the page. This isn’t just a matter of DC trying to wash their hands of the Watchmen influence that has weighed them down for decades, it’s Johns doing the same thing. Johns doesn’t want to be yet another writer constantly trying to emulate Alan Moore; he wants to be Wally West, perhaps the first character that Johns was ever synonymous with.
Look at the incredible timing of DC Rebirth #1: spoilers were released the same week as it was announced that Johns would play a bigger role in the future of the DC movies. He even used similar terminology regarding the films. DC needed more optimism; it needed to be brighter. Those are not terms anyone would use to describe Watchmen.
They’re also not terms anyone would use to describe the DC movies that Zach Snyder has made so far and Snyder was, in part, hired because of his adaptation of…wait for it…Watchmen. And if Johns is Dr. Manhattan against his will, then Snyder is Ozymandias, manipulating Johns so he can save the world by destroying it, and ultimately pushing him away from his own universe. You could even make the case that the pre-New 52 DCU was Rorschach, destroyed by Johns/Manhattan to keep Snyder/Ozymandias’ salvation (movie ticket sales) through mass destruction (any Snyder movie) a secret. Interestingly enough, this would make Watchmen the kidnapping of Blair Roche, but I’m being sucked down a rabbit hole now.
Regardless, it’s not just the comics that Watchmen has infected, it’s the DC movies as well, and Johns has been tasked to fight against it on both fronts.
And while it might seem petty, Moore’s swipes at the creative output of the modern comic book industry have always been fairly general, it’s hard to deny that one set of comments were about a specific writer:
“I was noticing that DC seems to have based one of its latest crossovers in Green Lantern based on a couple of eight-page stories that I did 25 or 30 years ago. I would have thought that would seem kind of desperate and humiliating, When I have said in interviews that it doesn’t look like the American comic book industry has had an idea of its own in the past 20 or 30 years, I was just being mean. I didn’t expect the companies concerned to more or less say, “Yeah, he’s right. Let’s see if we can find another one of his stories from 30 years ago to turn into some spectacular saga.” It’s tragic. The comics that I read as a kid that inspired me were full of ideas. They didn’t need some upstart from England to come over there and tell them how to do comics. They’d got plenty of ideas of their own. But these days, I increasingly get a sense of the comics industry going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night.”
There’s no doubt who Moore is referring to in that quote. I also have no doubt that at least one person brought that to Johns attention. Given the kind of influence Moore has had on so many of the writers and artists working today, it would be easy to imagine Johns being at least a little annoyed by this.
But the quote from Moore is minor; the inclusion of Dr. Manhattan wasn’t an act of revenge, but a desire to purge. DC — and Johns — wants their legacy to be Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, not Watchmen.
And Johns, who did, in fact, use old ideas from Moore to create an epic sci-fi saga in Green Lantern, has no doubt been put in a position where he needed to rethink the direction of both the comic book and cinematic versions of DC, which in turn would force him to rethink his own work. As I said, he was responsible (though not solely) for the New 52. The DCU needed to change, but so did its architect.
I don’t know how that is going to work. But if DC, via Johns or not, continues to air out their dirty laundry in the not-so-sub-text of their comics, it will at least be entertaining to watch.