DC Universe: Rebirth Brings Hope and Optimism Back for Fans

What is DC Universe: Rebirth? It's something that DC Comics fans have wanted for a long time...but it's not a reboot.

This article contains NO DC Universe: Rebirth spoilers. 

Legacy. Hope. Optimism. Heart. Relationships. Epic storytelling. Cohesion. Love.”

These were the words DC Entertainment CCO Geoff Johns used to describe “the DNA of the DC Universe” in a meeting with journalists on May 18th, less than 24 hours after news broke that he had just been appointed as co-chair of Warner Bros.’ DC Films. DC Universe: Rebirth is an attempt by Johns (with a murderer’s row of artists that includes Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez) to bring those words back to the forefront of DC Comics.

In fact, Rebirth is the publisher’s reaction to an increasing indifference from its core audience. It’s been five years since the attention grabbing success of 2011’s New 52 relaunch, which compressed DC’s timeline to five years and reset all of their books to issue one, in an attempt to lure new readers into comics shops and (presumably) make its properties more attractive to casual fans more familiar with superheroic exploits on TV or the big screen. And while that initial wave of new first issues brought fans back into comic shops in tremendous numbers, they didn’t hold, and DC has seen diminishing creative returns and sales since. 

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The problems with the New 52 were seemingly endless: a confusing chronology that gave some characters fresh starts while allowing others (like Batman and Green Lantern) to carry over long running storylines, a bizarrely downbeat worldview, inconsistent art (much of which felt like relics from the excesses of the 1990s), and a general feeling that the heart and soul of the DC Universe was missing. With a handful of exceptions, like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s spectacular run on Batman or Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr’s reinvention of Batgirl, much of DC’s line has felt stilted, isolated, and strangely ashamed of its 80-year publishing legacy.

One of the key identifiers of DC Comics over the last 30 or 40 years was the concept of legacy characters. Legacy characters are by no means unique to DC anymore, but at one point, they were a defining feature. Dick Grayson, the most famous Robin of all, grew up and adopted a new costumed identity and even filled in for Batman from time to time (something that seemed impractical in DC’s compressed timeline). Wally West, who spent nearly the first 30 years of his publishing history as Kid Flash and a member in good standing of the Teen Titans, replaced his mentor Barry Allen as The Flash. The Justice Society of America, a team of superheroes active during World War II passed their names on to younger heroes and acted as elder statesmen, providing inspiration and knowledge to every hero who came after. These are only three examples of countless casualties of the New 52 reboot. Referring to that loss of DC history, Johns said with a smile, “I wrote JSA for 9 years. Of course I’m upset they ‘don’t exist!'”

But that’s where Rebirth comes in. DC Universe: Rebirth is an 80-page special, while Rebirth itself is a linewide relaunch of titles rolling out throughout the summer, as DC Comics attempts to reestablish its identity and win back fans frustrated with the generally poor quality of their books over the last few years. It’s a good start. The only spoiler I’m going to reveal here is one to clear up an important misconception: Rebirth is not (yet another) reboot of the DC Universe. It’s not another fresh start. It doesn’t pretend the last five years of comics didn’t happen.

Instead, it’s an attempt to make DC Comics feel like DC Comics again. And while I’ve only read the special and not any of the titles that will follow, these 80 pages feel like a success in that regard. Some fan favorite characters return, long ignored relationships are rekindled, and forgotten history is uncovered. Johns described the creative process behind Rebirth as getting creative teams together in a room and asking them, “Why do we love Birds of Prey? Why are they so great?” and then using that as a guide for how they should be portrayed.

The closest thing I can think of here is to compare it to The Force Awakens, another project designed as a statement of intent to show fans that the bad old days were behind them and that there are still reasons to love the franchise. And much like The Force Awakens, Rebirth is a little overt in its attempt to win back loyal readers, but it’s equally difficult to deny its appealing familiarity.

“Hopefully DCU people will feel something,” Mr. Johns said. “They’ll feel hope and optimism and love and care and heart and humor. I hope what people take away from this is the DNA, because really it’s the DNA more than anything else. Plotlines and things like that will continue on, but it’s the tone that’s so hard to nail that I think it’s really important to take away. This is the tone of the DC Universe that I always loved, and that I think most people really respond to and I hope it’s evident in the read.”

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But while previous DC Comics initiatives like the New 52 and the ill-fated DC You were intended to bring in new readers, Rebirth instead feels like an apology to folks already steeped in DC lore. And make no mistake, it’s a comic that knows exactly where to hit fans of classic DC Comics. I have several friends (and probably a few readers) who can probably guess which pages in Rebirth made me punch the air in triumph.

New readers might not have it so easy. This isn’t a square one guide to the DC Universe, but Johns has a reputation for making convoluted continuity palatable for novices. “I don’t think you need an origin story in order to make it your first book,” he said. “I try to make it as new reader friendly as possible. There’s a reason there’s so much history there. I wanted to lay it out hopefully in an emotional way.”

I could read Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 as a kid [the legendary comic that featured the death of Barry Allen]. I didn’t read the first one, and just think ‘this is great!'” he said. “Flash was my favorite character, and then he died. But as a kid, I didn’t miss a beat, I just thought ‘cool, there’s a new Flash.'”

He’s got a point, and Rebirth shares something in common with Crisis #8: it’s beautifully illustrated. One of the things that made something like Crisis on Infinite Earths so appealing to new readers despite being incredibly dense with history was George Perez’s incredible artwork, which made every character, familiar and unfamiliar, look like someone you’d want to know more about. Rebirth is one of the best looking books DC has published in recent memory. When you get 80 pages of art by Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez, it’s tough to not at least enjoy the pictures, and that might be enough to get new readers to follow certain characters into their ongoing titles.

And while the in-story reasoning behind what has happened is questionable (and sure to generate controversy…avoid the spoilers if you intend to read this), it’s a means to an end that DC Comics, and perhaps by extension DC Films, desperately needs. DC Universe: Rebirth, at least on its surface (and without those controversial elements) is going to feel like coming home for long time fans. Here’s hoping that DC gives them reason to stick around.

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Look for my complete and spoiler filled guide to Rebirth on Wednesday, May 25th. We’ll have more from Geoff Johns before then, too. Until then, talk comics with me on Twitter!