Comics has an accessibility problem. After decades of existence some books can be really hard to ease into. That’s why the infamous “jumping on point” was created — single issues designed to garner new readers and lure back old fans. Each week brave surveyors Luke Miller and Jamil Scalese will venture into the comics abyss and let you, the consumer, know just which series are worth JUMPING ON, and which are better left to be revisited at a later date.
DC Universe Rebirth #1
(Geoff Johns; Gary Frank; Ethan Van Sciver; Ivan Reis; Phil Jimenez; Brad Anderson; Jason Wright; Joe Prado; Hi-Fi)
Jamil: Like a bolt of lightning I remembered.
Bam! This week of comics reminded of the unadulterated mystic joy of comic books. After a couple lowkey weeks across the industry the internet is afire with news out of both major camps. If you haven’t heard yet: DC completely restructured their universe in dramatic ways, and Marvel, not to be outdone by their rival, flipped Steve Rogers to the side of evil in brash fashion. So much wackiness is going on that no one seems to have noticed that Mephisto is now trolling Peter Parker about “One More Day” in the newest Spider-Man/Deadpool. Comicdom proved its volatility and vitality this Wednesday previous, that’s for certain.
We’re here to discuss the first topic I mentioned, the fresh configuring of the DC universe. This 80-page one shot, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank and a host of others, is one of the most densely packed pieces of graphic literature I’ve encountered, throwing a stack of fictional history at the reader with glee and fury. There’s a lot to unpack here, some of it fascinating, layered and emotionally ambitious, other parts worthy of the quality of cheap paper it’s printed on. With its soulful madness DC Universe Rebirth is likely the only time I’ve felt that I was reading pivotal, history-making comics as it was happening.
In the couple months we’ve discussed the openness and attractiveness of comic books here at Jumping On we’ve looked at all types of stuff, however this represents the granddaddy of all “jumping on” points. Not just because of the levy of number ones coming our way over the summer but because of the context of the last five, ten, twenty five (or more) years and the content of the issue at hand.
It might prudent to leap backwards to 2011, yeah? The New 52 is a fascinating beast, and I feel happy and privileged to have bee reading and covering comics as it unfolded. The move to effectively erase the glorious histories of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Batgirl, Green Arrow, Amanda Waller, Catman, Bat Lash and other legendary characters shocked me when it was announced, yet, oddly, I understood it. DC Comics’ ornate continuity isn’t friendly to even established readers and the company has wrestled with that for a long, long time. In a global market ecstatic to eat up anything superheros it was time for a strong move and five years ago I was all set to take on the new wave of refreshed heroes. Good stories are good stories, right?
Well…the good stories rarely came. There were problems almost from the outset — too many individual ones to count (remember that patch of months when creators like Gail Simone were pushed out by editorial?). The biggest riddle was the question of history and what counted. The eventual, de facto solution resided somewhere between “everything has happened unless a story contradicts it” and “nothing has happened unless a story references it”. It unraveled from there. While not all bad the New 52 era felt hollowed out, a remake of a once great thing. I don’t blame DC for trying, but damn did they foul up.
Luke: Everything about this has just a touch of weirdness to it. Can I just say how weird it is to be doing a Jumping On column on a one-shot, except that that one-shot is a jumping on point for an entire company’s line of comic books. I also can’t quite decide the level of adorableness that nothing can ever just be a clean reboot – there always has to be an in-universe, in-continuity reason for things. If DC had just come out and said, “we’re changing things up, our last way wasn’t working, so here’s something new,” I think we all would have understood the real world forces behind such a decision. Instead, they have (spoiler alert, like right now) Dr. Manhattan of all characters be responsible for the New 52. And this happens every time. (See: Crisis on Infinite Earths, Flashpoint, “One More Day”, Secret Wars, et al.)
That, by the way, is how you know you’re dealing with some super-duper-ultra fans. Stuff in the new Star Trek is different from the original series? Well, that’s because Spock went back in time and created a parallel universe to the one we’re familiar with. The Doctor of Doctor Who fame keeps changing faces? Well, of course, he’s an alien who regenerates into a new body to stave off death. James Bond looks different? Eh… fuck it. We didn’t want to pay Sean Connery and then Roger Moore got old, what do you want from us?
See, James Bond fans are obviously not super-duper-ultra fans. Except for me, who has seen every film, and doesn’t understand why they don’t just make “James Bond” be part of the code name. Every actor can play a different man, they just all go by the code name “James Bond, 007.” It makes so much sense! Connery Bond retires, Lazenby Bond comes in but his wife gets killed, so they have to pull Connery Bond back in for a final emergency mission before they can recruit/finish training Moore Bond. Then he just gets super old and hangs it up after the cold war. Dalton Bond sees his friend brutally tortured and hangs it up. Brosnan Bond has PTSD from the torture and whatever was going on in Die Another Day. It’s as simple as saying “a new guy got promoted to M.” Why won’t you return my calls, MGM?!?
Anyway, where were we, the new 52? I’m with you, Jamil. It started out as this great idea full of hope and promise, and then every book I read felt like the same exact book with the same exact “house style” of grim-and-gritty-ness that I just didn’t want to read them anymore. Those books were jumping off points for me more than I think they were jumping on points for anyone else. Honestly, I read Batman all the way through, but otherwise, I gave everything else up within a year.
Well, Jamil, should we dive right into the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of this 80-page behemoth, or is there more backgroundy stuff to go over first? Watchmen maybe? Or can we just assume everyone knows Watchmen at this point that we can skip it?
Jamil: What’s funny about Rebirth is that it’s all background. Seriously, every page is a boulder of continuity. I couldn’t imagine giving this to a casual fan let alone a novice, aka those ‘tweener fans who wear the shirts and watch the movies but don’t buy the books. That’s because this reboot isn’t for them, its for the die hard, the cataloger, the romantic, the day dreamer. It’s the grandest, most honest gesture I’ve ever read in the medium. People have described it as an apology, but it’s more than that, it’s a big ol’ hug and a promise to do better.
I really gotta consider this a supernova of Geoff Johns. He’s a writer I’ve liked and respected over the years, versatile in style and savvy in terms of what makes these icons work. He dips into zones of fan service a little too much, and I’ve rarely been impressed with his plotting, but in the end he’s a creator I trust. There’s a true argument that this one shot is his seminal work as it applies his talents perfectly and represents something grandiose for the future of DC.
Centering this around Wally West is brilliant touch, both an obvious and startling move at the same time. DC via Johns acknowledge the New 52 misstep in a single, electrified panel producing Wally in the Batcave. Representing the Flash at the center of all multiverse-shattering events he tries to escape the Speed Force by getting one of his former acquaintances to remember him but fails again and again. The story immediately nods to Flashpoint, the precursor and supposed cause of the unfortunate reboot in September 2011, and reminds the reader that Johns has was there at the break and the band-aid. Somehow that makes the “gesture” all the more meaningful. The fix was both easy and hard. I mean it takes a human, or a few humans, to admit the mistake, which can be impossible for some of us, and after that it’s single one shot to turn it all around.
I thought this was superbly structured, built with a huge mystery at the center and million different threads hanging from it. What ignites my inner kid, and also my adult(ish) brain, is what you pointed to, Luke, the idea that a powerful force caused the New 52. Even though I don’t get the how and especially the why of it, the Manhattan reveal melted my cynicism for a solid minute. I love it. Keep comics crazy. The sanctity of the franchise ended with Before Watchmen so I have little problem with this.
Luke: The Watchmen reveal was probably the most interesting to me despite the fact that it didn’t really play into things until the last handful of pages. It intrigues me just because of the outrage I know it’s going to cause. In most corners of our nerd-dom, Watchmen is a sacred cow – to be read and revered, but never criticized, and certainly never to be “played with.” But I see thee nay. Take that thing off its pedestal and let’s get weird with it. This isn’t a case of George Lucas “updating” the original Star Wars trilogy and messing with our collective memories of who shot first. Watchmen will always still be there, waiting to be read in its original form; nobody is changing that. This is a case of making more Star Wars movies – they might suck or they might be awesome, but getting more should in no way hinder your past experience or the memories of you experienced the original.
Plotwise, I’m not entirely sure on the how and the why, either, Jamil. I get the what – that Dr. Manhattan changed things. That’s a simple enough plot device: the most powerful being in the medium messed with the fabric of reality. Why he did it though, I’m less clear on. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve actually read Watchmen, but I feel like the crux of that story was whether or not someone was allowed to commit evil acts in the service of the greater good. Rorschach is trying to stop Ozymandias from carrying out a plan with a lot of collateral damage even though that plan is intended to bring humanity together for the greater good. It seems like the “why” here could be Dr. Manhattan was trying to help the heroes by giving them a “reset” for their own good, freeing them from all their past baggage, but it ended up hurting everything more than it helped by destroying all the relationships that had built up over the years. That seems like a pretty good analogy for what DC did with the New 52. Everything got a fresh start to get rid of continuity baggage, but it ruined all the fan relationships they’d built along the way, so let’s undo that and get back to the relationships, which are what really matter.
I also thought it was interesting that the clock at the end was moving backwards. In Watchmen, it continually moves forward with each issue – one minute closer to midnight/doomsday. In this, the hand moves farther away from midnight, giving us more time. Although that doesn’t really make sense to me with the final words “the clock is ticking on the DC Universe.” I’m probably reading too much into that and that it just means, “things were going badly, now we’re resetting things,” and I’m just reading too much into it.
But I’m burying the lede a bit here… Wally West is back! My favorite character ever is now back in the DCU. There were tears in my eyes when I thought he was going to fade into nothingness, and then tears of joy when Barry pulled him back. (It seems like he should’ve just gone to Barry in the first place, but, hey, we had to get all those “here’s what’s happening around the DCU” scenes in there somehow. Plus the cool Crisis/Flashpoint throwback art/poses.)
I’m still trying to decide whether you could give this to a newbie or not. I think you could – they’d have to be willing to work at it a lot and just accept they’re not going to get everything. But this certainly wouldn’t mean as much to a newcomer as it would to diehards like us. And by “mean as much” I mean “hit those heartstrings hard.” This thing is rife with emotional attachment, and I can’t even imagine how it would read for someone emotionally divorced from all these characters.
Jamil: In an era when legacy is shunned in order to garner new readers and surprises are as rare as a $2.99 price point I have to show this comic mad love. Still, there’s some flaws.
The aforementioned complaint regarding the Dr. Manhattan twist is on record, and the last page, while a rad surprise, didn’t make a ton sense to me. Why is Comedian’s pin in the Batcave? The vignettes were modified teasers, at best, but I really appreciate that we got time with undercard characters like Blue Beetle, Johnny Thunder and that one Aqualad from right before the New 52. You also gotta feel pretty bad about the New 52 Superman. Poor guy never had a chance.
Couple more questions — So is everything fixed now? I’m guessing no, Where does this story continue? That last question is a very good one for DC. I get the feeling that fans are genuinely excited to see what’s next for their line. It’s been a while since that’s been the case, right?
There’s a lot of art in DC Universe Rebirth #1 so let’s start with the good. The Gibbons homages at the start and end of the story are wonderful. I’ll admit that I definitely thought “This reminds me of Watchmen” after reading that first page, but all the stuff with Wally threw me off the scent. The other homages to the 80’s comics literature were well done too, like the blue lightning bolt crashing down one of the pages, and the sly reference in the way Pandora’s death was portrayed (poor girl was finally put out of her misery). I enjoyed the depiction of the Speed Force throughout, the artists, inkers and colorists of this book truly toss the electricity around the page.
I had some problems with the anatomy and expression, from oddly contorting bodies, to banal reactions and too-buff speedsters. There were spots of the comic that looked off, or the inverse, too plain. DC’s house style is extremely angular and edgy. Then again after Batman v. Superman I’m getting the feeling that’s beyond purposeful and is now somewhere in the range of mission statement.
Luke: I have as many questions left as you do, Jamil. Most of them are the same. For all the scenes and characters visited in the vignettes in here, not a whole lot happened. “Teasers” is a very apt way to describe them. For all that though, I can’t tell you how excited I am – merely at the prospect of these books resembling the ones I fell in love with again and not whatever the New 52 was going for. We talked briefly (off-panel) about closing this with the books we’re looking forward to reading in the Rebirth line, and I gotta say, it’s easier for me to pick the ones I’m not looking forward to. Next week is Batman, Green Arrow, Green Lanterns, and Superman, so put me down for all. The week after, Aquaman, Flash, and Wonder Woman. Check, check, and check. The last June offering is Titans, which I would’ve passed on in years past, but if that’s how I get my Wally West fix these days, I’ll take it.
As for the mission statement of this column, and whether someone should jump on here or not, I say go for it if you’re at all interested. It’s only $2.99 and you can Wikipedia the hell out of this thing if you’re so inclined and have a couple hours to spare. I’m not sure how much someone would really need to though. Like you said, this is full of teasers and trailers, which are designed to be jumping on points. People would probably be better served just checking out the Rebirth issues of the characters they’re interested in, but reading this issue certainly won’t be a waste of their time.
Jamil: You’re right about the incoming slate, a lot looks pretty sweet, and I could very well throw my dollars are franchises I’d normally never fuss with. Right now I’m most amped for books boasting creators I like or trust — King on Batman, Snyder and a host of killer artists on All-Star Batman, Priest on Deathstroke, Jurgens and Zircher on Action Comics, Williamson on Flash, Lee on Suicide Squad. I’m going to be pretty busy reading comics for the remainder of 2016.
What we’re saying is this: yes, it’s true, you can give DC a chance again. DC Universe Rebirth #1 is an amazing pivot, crucial and unexpected, and the company is finally playing with a few yards of slack. It seems like they finally “get it”, but the books will bear the ultimate proof.