Sunday, June 5, 2016

Don't Call It A Comeback... (because they're calling it "Rebirth", dummy)

I have not been this into a DC comic in a long, long time.

I've read through rebirth three times completely, and flipped through it at least a dozen times since, just marveling at it (no pun intended).

This is a brilliant, brilliant work.  It has behind it the weight of years of fan disappointment, years of lagging sales, years of questionable creative decisions, years of wrong directions and years of character (and universe) mismanagement that it aims to address and course correct, all in one shot.  And that's just the metatext.

Beyond that, writer (and Chief Creative Officer at DC) Geoff Johns had to craft a story that will not only resonate as something meaningful to the characters, but also excite the lapsed and new fan base alike.

He nailed it.
Gary Frank cover

As frustrated as one can get with him, one can also forget Johns is a good writer, in fact a great writer of characters in a superhero universe.  It's easy to get frustrated with him, for his most notorious achievements were also spitting in the faces of fans who grew up in a post-Crisis DCU.  The charges laid against him are that he only wants to play with what he knew as a kid, and that he always wants to reset things back to the Silver Age in the DCU, hence Green Lantern Rebirth and Flash Rebirth.  This makes sense. Though Johns' is only 3 years older than I am,  Wally West and Kyle Rayner and Barry Allen's death and Hal Jordan's insanity...these are things that he should have equally grown up with in the DCU.  As he became a teenager, these character's (as well as the universe's) evolution should have happened alongside his own.

But then we tend to look upon the things we liked as teenagers with a jaded eye.  There's a pureness to what we like as a child, but when we're teenagers our emotions run rampant and it's hard to see the forest for the boobs or the sky for the violence.  Especially as boys we tend to like more extremes in sex and violence as we process the world with our expanding brain, a better sense of the way things work but also a reluctance to discarding childhood naivety or a rejection of adult responsibilities. We do a lot of stupid things as teens and the things we like at the time can, later on, sometimes be seen as an extension of those stupid things.  Johns may have thought Wally and Kyle, and Zero Hour and the like to be some of those stupid things, and Hal and Barry were the purity from his childhood that needed to be restored.

For a great many of us, though, Wally became our guide for growing up.  He was just a kid superhero, though after 20-ish years as a Teen Titan, he was starting to outgrow the "Kid" part of his Kid Flash moniker.  Taking over as Flash meant he had to grow up... he had a legacy to fulfill.  But in fulfilling his legacy, he also forged his own path.  Suddenly super-villains became friends.  He accepted a role in the Justice League Europe where he was class clown, but eventually he had to grow into a truly reliable teammate. He discovered things about his powers even Barry never new, thus exceeding him in the role, running out of his shadow.  Wally quit chasing girls and found true love.  He became a mentor and then a father.  For over 20 years Wally was the Flash, almost as long as Barry was, or as Jay was before him.  He went from being a kid to defining the role.  (Barry was a very milquetoast character, quite dull in fact.  Wally-as-Flash is the benchmark for the character.  Even today, much of Grant Gustin's character of Barry Allen owes more to Wally than traditional Barry)
Ugh, Barry and his dull-ass crew cut

Bringing back Barry was a slap in the face to all of those who grew up alongside Wally (of course we can't forget that the Flash had been kind of broken as a title for a couple years, with writers not knowing how to deal with Wally's family life, or making Bart the Flash).  Like when you finally feel like you've grown up, only for something to happen at work that makes you feel small or shamed.  An authority figure can put you in a place sometimes, a place which you thought you outgrew.  And Barry's return meant Wally was being put in his place.  Or, rather, he didn't really have a place anymore.  All seemingly because Geoff Johns wanted his childhood back.

But the charge laid against Johns, about wanting the DCU to be exactly like it was when he was a kid rings false.  Even bringing Barry and Hal back were just the first steps in massive thrusts forward, such as the amazing Lantern Spectrum cycle, starting with the "Sinestro Corps War" and ending with "Blackest Night".  Even working with his old boss Richard Donner on Action Comics, Johns introduced a young Kryptonian refugee, born in the Phantom Zone to Zod and Ursa, whom Lois and Clark were set to adopt since the logistics of them having a child of their own were ...complex (see Mallrats).  But it seemed DC didn't want Lois and Clark to have a child and that story was dropped.

Yes, marginalizing Wally (and turning Impulse into Kid Flash) had vilified Johns in many people's eyes. In some ways, DC Universe Rebirth can be seen as an apology.  From the opening panel we're provided a narrator, the text box yellow with red border.  If it's not immediately clear page 6 spells it out, a full page showing our narrator is Wally West, emerging from the Speed Force where he's been trapped for 10 years, the memories of his existence erased from everyone's memories but our own. (He emerges in the Batcave...not unlike a similar scene from Dawn of Justice, which itself is a nod to Crisis on Infinite Earths)
I love that man right there.

This whole issue is Wally's cry to be remembered, but it's not just about remembering him, but remembering what it was he brought to the DCU over his 20 years as Flash: legacy, love, and life.  Mike Wieringo was the first to prominently bring the lightning to Flash comics (in conjunction with the arrival of the Speed Force) a visual symbol of the crackling vitality Wally brought to comics.

Johns breaks the book up into four thematic chapters, the first "Lost", then "Legacy", "Love" and "Life" follow.  He's identifying first that DC had lost its way with "The New 52" and that the key components that were missing were the latter 3-Ls.

In the first chapter, Wally is a reminder of what was lost but also reminds us what the DCU lost when they rebooted after Flashpoint.  Through Wally, Johns delivers a fairly concise recap of 80 years in the DCU prior to the reboot, all through the eyes of what was most important to Wally.  Rebirth really is a character-driven epic.

In the second chapter, legacies are reintroduced.  Wally is pulled towards Johnny Thunder (because of his pet lightningbolt...?  Clever choice on Johns' part if so), while the Legion (looks like Saturn Girl..but should have been Lightning Lass or Lightning Lad if the theme were being stuck to), a few years dormant in the DCU, are paying the past a visit once more.  The Atoms Ray Palmer and Ryan Choi are both back as professor and student, Ted Kord plays mentor to Jaime Reyes, Damian Wayne turns 13, there's a new Green Lantern on Earth (finally, a woman) and Aqualad (sadly not Kaldur from Young Justice) are shown.

The chapter ends with Pandora, one of Johns' "Trinity of Sin" characters, whom he wanted to make a major cosmic player in the New 52, like the Phantom Stranger and Spectre have been in decades past.  Pandora represents the idea of setting the evil free, and one of the major events of the modern DCU was "Forever Evil" where the bad guys take over.  That's just case-in-point of how far off the path DC has strayed.  Pandora speaks, but there's no one around her.  We're to think that she's talking to the mysterious orchestrator of the DCU's darkening in the New 52, whom we're led to believe by the touches of blue and the cosmic reach and Watchmen imagery, is Dr. Manhattan...and yet, I think Johns is having Pandora speaking directly to him.
Though I'm not sure if Johns truly represents the statement, "Skepticism, doubt, corrpution.  All things your cold heart believes in", he at the very least feels responsible for how dark things got.  Just look at the wholesale slaughter in Infinite Crisis and the imagery of a crazed Superboy ripping people apart.  If there's a mea culpa in this book, this would be it.  Johns blows up his agent of darkness, his desire to explore evil above hope and good manifest in a single character.  He obliterates the cause of evils, disintegrated into pink smoke.  It's an extreme gesture, signifying that she's no longer needed, perhaps even a bad idea to begin with.

The "love" chapter starts by dropping a bomb in two panels, more explicitly a word balloon and a text box.  Diana has a twin brother.  One panel later, we see a baby with glowing red eyes (and Kirby crackle), Darkseid is reborn (by his own daughter it would seem...ick).

Turn the page, a two page spread, Superman is dead, and yet no one really seems to be mourning.  Wonder Woman and Supergirl look sad, but Mari McCabe seems to be flirting with Steve Trevor, and Oliver Queen locks eyes with Dinah Drake for the first time in this DCU.  Lois and Clark from the pre-Flashpoint DCU have been living in hiding on a world not their own, but also not completely unfamiliar.  Lois asks Clark "is he going to return from the grave like you did?"  Clark kisses Lois sweetly on the forehead, "Let's hope so."


It takes the pre-Flashpoint Superman to return hope.

Arthur Curry is the reluctant king, and not "the terror of the oceans" which legend have made of the lord of Atlantis.  He hopes to take a warrior for his queen.  It's all about setting up love, even amidst loss.  So it's all the more heartbreaking when the love of Wally West's life, the woman who has saved him, the hero, multiple times, no longer recognizes him, and cannot save him this time.  The DC directive for the New 52 was no weddings (causing Greg Rucka to leave writing Batwoman as he was planning Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer's nuptials) and no kids.  Happy families make for boring stories, apparently, and yet, family was what the DCU was about for such a long time, most prominently with Barry and Wally

Life.  Life is finite.  Wally's life is fading.  He's desperate, reluctant, a fighter.  He sees old enemies, colleagues, friends... all have forgotten him.  He sees his replacement, another Wally West with superspeed destined to become Flash's sidekick and a Teen Titan. But he's also family, and a hero.  The world could use two Wally Wests, but it doesn't have to have them.

And then there's his uncle.  Barry Allen.  His mentor.  A better father figure than his own.  Here Wally sees a man who reflects his ideal, he reflects who Wally ultimately became, a hero with a smile on his face, a compassionate man with a sense of justice and honesty.

Here we see a Wally who's seen the world change before his eyes, the light is returning to the DC Universe.  He's ready to give in, but with every last ounce of effort he needs to see his own hero again, to let him know what it all meant to live the life he did.  Even if it didn't matter anymore, even if no one remembered, Wally was still grateful.

Can I give you a hug, Wallace? You look like you need a hug.
Those pages (and this whole chapter) so masterfully illustrated by Phil Jimenez, inked by Matt Santorelli and vibrantly colored by Gabe Eltaeb as the lightning erupts around Wally, electrifying Barry, shocking him with the memories of a forgotten lifetime... they're beautiful.  Barry pulls Wally from the Speed Force at the last second ("every second is a gift"), and Jimenez conveys perfectly, with one panel of Wally's reaction just how grateful, and yet shocked, he is.  The expression of incredulity is so palpable on his face.  And Barry's reaction, as a flood of memories return, the guilt he feels for not just forgetting Wally but ultimately letting him down for so a flash, it's forgiven.  Wally is a hero, he knows this world of heroes and what happens.  There's no grudges, just a lot of losses to accept and lost time to make up for.

I shed genuine tears...of both happiness and pain.  With each reread, or even just staring in to Wally and Barry's faces on those pages, I well up.  Comic books excite me and make me laugh, even horrify and disgust me.  They're potent, more than capable of eliciting a reaction.  But, I don't remember the last time one made me cry.

The book starts and ends with Watchmen iconography.  A happy face pin with blood spatter.  A watch's inner workings messed up by a missing tooth on a rusting cog.  The watch taken apart and repaired.  Mars.  Dialogue between, supposedly, Adrian Veidt and Dr. Manhattan.  I don't have a problem with this.

I like the meta commentary here, that the Watchmen and its contemporaries unintentionally ushered in a dark wave into comics.  I don't get the sense that Manhattan is a villain here, but at best an experimenter.  The fact that Adrian Viedt (and a "Mr. Oz"..short for Ozymandias?) is at play, a man who considers himself the world's smartest without any humility, could he be the manipulator, and Manhattan the one trying to set things right?  Adrian seems to be taking ownership, "I did the right thing, didn't I?"   There's plenty of possibilities.  The Watchmen are welcome in the DCU, so long as their exposure within it is kept to a minimum.

Also, that missing tooth in the cog on Page 1, it's repaired on the third last page.  The tooth is Wally, and the watch is restored...but... the problem with the watch on page one seems to be time is going backwards, and yet it's still moving backwards even after the tooth is repaired.  It's moving backwards from 5:00 (or "V").  Is this to indicate moving back in time, away from "V" (for Vendetta) and other misinterpreted lessons from Alan Moore?  Did Alan Moore unintentionally break the DCU, not personally but through the influence of his works?

But when the watch flips to a Watchmen-style clock face, time is at midnight, with the blood spatter on the inverse side from where it is on the button Batman finds.  Why?

Every panel in this book has intent, meaning and/or purpose.  Even if it doesn't make complete sense to everyone, the tone, in its entirety, feels meaningful.  Even if you don't know DC's rich past, or even if you're not going to follow along in the future, you can feel it all change here.  You can feel the rich past colliding with a brighter future.  You can feel a heavy world get lighter, the darkness turned vibrant.

Somehow the fact that Gary Frank can't not make smiles
look goofy only makes it work better for Ted Kord
Smiles, how many smiles.  Once we get past lost (where the only smiles are of Evil and in the past, w get a Legionnaire's smile, Ted Kord's smile, Damien Wayne's smile all up close and personal, followed by Green Arrow and Black Canary, wry and hesitant, Aquaman and Mera, Wally and Barry...the pleasure of another's company.

DC's execs -- Didio, Lee, and Johns -- said this wasn't another reboot, this was a shift in philosophy.  A return to form.  An acknowledgement of what was done wrong, and a path forward for a better, more engaging, more meaningful stories.

What makes a shared universe great is not that every event affects everyone, but that every event could affect everyone... and not just today.  A shared universe allows for a building of history, a sharing of history, and the changing of history.  It provides a framework that's rigid enough to withstand pieces being removed or moved around without it all falling apart.  Flashpoint and The New 52 took the whole thing down and started again, and attempted to rebuild it without a plan.  And as such their design started to take shape like the structure before it, but warped and twisted, sometimes in interesting ways, but mostly in not good, fragile ways.  With 80 very carefully crafted pages, Rebirth moves the new structure onto the old foundation, instead of the soft ground beside it.  Rebirth has found some of the pieces of the old left in tact and is using those to brace a creaky design.  There's still a lot of work to be done but this is an excellent start.

This is, to me, Johns' best work to date.  It's honest and personal , yet grand and sweeping, full of easter eggs and devilish clues around his intentions.  It's past, present and future colliding, allowing for new possibilities for all.  It's not trying to be provocative, or change things just for change's sake as he's so often done in the past.

As a standalone work it's wondrous.  As a turning point, it's like hitting five bullseyes with one shot: not just skill but a miracle.  Johns has reinvigorated the DCU, restoring it to a point where it can legitimately challenge Marvel once again as a place you want to spend your time (and money).  With 80 pages it's gone from being a barely familiar place I once cared about to an exciting and revitalized venue to which I wish to return.

Thrilled about Wally, not so thrilled
about Brett Booth
When I first read about Rebirth, I was jaded.  I couldn't believe Didio, Lee and Johns would steer the ship right after colliding with icebergs so long.  For the first time I want to know where things are going, I want to follow Superman as a father and as a stranger on another planet (yet again).  I want to see my Superman integrate into the heroes of this DC Universe. I want to go wherever Wally West is willing to take me.  He looks younger but has the weight of a lost life riding on his shoulders.  Even with his spark of light returning, there's still some heavy clouds that follow.  (And I want to see Wally and Superman meet again, the last remaining survivors who remember a whole other universe).

I want to know what happened to Ray Palmer, and I want to accompany Ryan Choi on his journey as he finds out.  I want to see my two favourite Blue Beetles occupy the same air.   I want more Supergirl, more Legion, more Vixen and Batwoman and Stephanie Brown.  I want the history, the legacy, the Justice Society to return.  I want my comics to be better than the TV shows they spawned.

The electricity is back.  It's not the same world I grew up with, but it doesn't have to be.  It just needs to be true to where it came from in order to mean something going forward.


- I'm not so sure about this Spectrum version of the Shazam Family

- What's up with the letter from Thomas Wayne, is that a Flashpoint remnant?  I didn't read Flashpoint.  Did Flashpoint Batman send Barry back with a letter for Bruce?

- That the Comedian's button wound up in the Batcave makes ZERO sense, though, right?

- I love the story as it played out, but if Wally went to Clark and Lois White, problem solved, right?  I look forward to their reuinion.

- What was the "help against the capes" that Swamp Thing speaks of to Constantine.  Is that past tense?  I'm intrigued.

- Poor Linda.  Hopefully Wally doesn't go all Carter Hall-like stalker on her, talking about destinies and junk.

- Mr. Oz apparently trained New 52 Superman (showing up in a Johns-written issue of Superman).  He kind of sucks, visually. A cloak and a scythe?

-  Ivan Reis' lazy scale on Aquaman's tunic really annoys me.

- I love Ray Palmer's very Lost-like video, particularly how it cuts off at the most important point.  So cliche, yet so effective.

- Johnny Thunder's pained "I didn't mean to throw you away!"  That's a gut punch of a scene.  He'll always seem like the kid who screws everything up, even as an old man.

- I'm not sure how I feel about three Jokers.  Is the Comedian supposed to be one of them?  That would be bad. 

- Wait.  Thomas Wayne in Batman v. Superman was played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played the Comedian in The Watchmen.  Is that supposed to be part of the connection here between Thomas Wayne's letter and the Comedian's blood-stained pin?  If it's just an easter-egg, then it's fun, but if it's supposed to be something more meaningful than that, it's kinda dumb... like the Comedian is Thomas Wayne on Earth 41 or something.

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