Explaining the DC Universe: Rebirth Ending and Controversy

DC Universe: Rebirth uses familiar characters to explore some problems with the comics industry, and not everyone is happy about it.

This article contains major DC Universe: Rebirth spoilers. 

Well, DC Universe: Rebirth sure ruffled some feathers when its major spoilers leaked early this week, didn’t it? And I can understand why. Reading those spoilers completely out of context from a comic that has a lot of work to do within its pages was bound to set the internet on fire, especially when you consider that it involves two things guaranteed to drive fans to their keyboards: it involves messing with DC Comics continuity (again), and it brings in one of comicdom’s sacred cows in order to do it.

The thing is, DC Universe: Rebirth is a remarkably efficient comic, and one of the best single issues of anything published by the struggling DC Comics in the last 5 years or more. It’s beautifully illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank, and Ivan Reis, and written by Geoff Johns, a man with a deep and abiding love of DC Comics (and the newly appointed co-chair of DC Films), who intended this comic to bring back words like “hope, legacy, love, and optimism” to a publishing line that has been sorely lacking in those very things since they rebooted their entire line in 2011 as “The New 52.”

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As I’ve outlined elsewhere, The New 52 was an attempt by DC Comics to appeal to new readers by jettisoning extraneous continuity in favor of a more movie and TV friendly approach. The DC Universe, which had long been defined by its long history of characters marrying off, having kids, and passing their heroic names and powers to younger generations, found itself suddenly constrained to a timeline in which superheroes had only been active for five years, thereby jettisoning the long-standing relationships and the vast majority of their legacy characters.

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The reset was explained by an event known as Flashpoint, in which Barry Allen’s attempts to prevent his mother’s murder unmade the timeline, and when it was all being put back together, everything was condensed. And while continuity resets are nothing new at DC (the joke is that they happen every five years or so…and that’s becoming less and less of a joke), DC Universe: Rebirth is not another reset of DC’s timeline. Instead, it says that while continuity did change in the wake of Flashpoint (which was the catalyst for the last five years of DC’s publishing strategy), it didn’t change how or why we thought. Instead it was altered by an outside force with godlike power.

It just happens to be that they chose to use Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ creation Dr. Manhattan, from the often imitated but never duplicated Watchmen, as the force behind this change. And that, more than anything else, is the source of the controversy.

I’ll let Wally West, the narrator of Rebirth and a key legacy character who was eliminated from the “reality” of the New 52, take it from here:

“But someone outside of time watched it all happen…as our timelines reformed, someone stole ten years from us. A decade was removed like a Jenga piece…it changed everything. Heroes that were legends became novices. Bonds between them were weakened and erased. Legacies were destroyed.” 

Considering that this is likely to be the last comic that Geoff Johns writes for quite some time, as his duties with DC Films are going to take up the bulk of his time over the next few years, I don’t think there’s any danger of Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver (or Gary Frank, or Ivan Reis, or anyone else for that matter) foisting a Justice League vs. Watchmen monstrosity on the reading public. While speaking to representatives from several websites (including Den of Geek) last week, Johns was cautious about the entire thing, although he wouldn’t rule it out entirely. “That would be a future conversation,” he said. “I will say that’s a story that would not involve a double page spread with superheroes smashing their fists into Dr. Manhattan. You’d have to treat that very, very carefully. I think that’s an intellectual and emotional story. It’s definitely not a 10-part crossover.”

I’m a reader with little use for anyone playing around in the Watchmen sandbox, but reading Rebirth for the first time, completely spoiler free, as the big reveal became more apparent as the story unfolded, it never really occurred to me that “they’re putting Watchmen in continuity.” Dr. Manhattan may or may not “really” be gazing down at the DC Universe’s primary Earth from Mars, and button or no button (and to be honest, this is perhaps the only genuine misstep in the entire comic), you’re not going to see Batman fight Ozymandias any time soon. 

* As a disclaimer, though, I also have to remind everyone that DC is the same company that thought creating a series of Watchmen prequels was a good idea, so I wouldn’t put anything past some of the top brass there. But I would still be surprised if we see any kind of immediate follow-up on this in the wake of Rebirth. * 

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It’s also probably unwise to read this as Geoff Johns and the rest of the creative team “blaming Watchmen” for the struggles of DC Comics over the last decade. But it does very much feel like they’re saying what many readers have known for a long time: if all you got out of enormously impactful books like Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen or Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley’s Dark Knight Returns was that superheroes need to be damaged and cynical and that violence must be realistic and bone shattering at every turn, you missed the point of the books entirely. 

Watchmen didn’t spring fully-formed from the minds of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It was a commentary on what was, in 1985, still generally a children’s medium, back when kids still actually bought mainstream superhero comics on a regular basis. It was never intended as the kind of comic you give to someone and say, “you want to know what superheroes are all about? Read Watchmen.” Watchmen‘s characters and plot are so heavily steeped in the conventions of comic book storytelling history (albeit their own, thinly disguised version of it) that it was intended as a comic book for adults who had once been children reading comics, with the middle-aged anxiety and Cold War paranoia of the age perfectly timed for them. Similarly, Dark Knight Returns played with Batman’s history and iconography to tell a story steeped in the urban and political anxieties of the 1980s to return Batman to his vigilante roots, but it was also created to combat the prevailing pop culture perception of Batman as the Adam West TV series, which was inescapable in syndicated re-runs at the time.

But as the reputation and influence of Watchmen (and Dark Knight Returns, which was released at virtually the same time) grew, so did everyone’s collective desire to create “another Watchmen,” despite the fact that these are the kinds of generational works that aren’t easily duplicated. You can read Watchmen as a “realistic” take on superheroes with plenty of sex, violence, and soul searching and as a work of genuine literature with all of the weighty themes it brings with it just as easily as you can dismiss the satirical elements in The Dark Knight Returns and simply read it as a brutally violent Batman story (and without that keen edge of satire, DKR would become a disturbingly authoritarian work). 

But virtually the entire superhero comic industry (and several misguided movie efforts) have spent the last 30 years trying to duplicate these two works, bringing all of the violence and cynicism and often little else to the party. We have been treated to an endless procession of increasingly cynical and graphically violent narratives involving any number of mainstream superheroes, each one more watered-down than the last and more transparent in its attempts to “deconstruct” their characters in an attempt to ride on Rorschach’s coattails.

I’ll let Wally West, Rebirth‘s surrogate for both writer Geoff Johns (who got his start in comics writing Wally’s adventures in The Flash) and frustrated DC Comics fans, take over again:

“A darkness from somewhere has infected us. It has for a long time now, I think. Even before the Flashpoint.” 

If you want to continue on with a “literal” take on Rebirth, then this “darkness” that has “infected” the DCU happened before Flashpoint, and thus, before Dr. Manhattan interfered in the timeline. In other words, it’s not important how it fits into the story, any more than it matters which stories from your comic book collection still “happened” in continuity.

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The closest Dr. Manhattan comes to manifesting in this “reality” is to eliminate Pandora, a character who was originally thought to be responsible for the formation of the New 52, but has barely “existed” since then. Manhattan actually affects nothing in the story, even the death of Pandora (which is like a plot device getting murdered by another plot device) is laid out like the death of Rorschach from the end of Watchmen. Even when Dr. Manhattan “speaks” later, it’s just quotes of old dialogue, echoes from an earlier work, nothing new, strangely devoid of context, perhaps indicating that there’s no actual place for it here in the DCU.

“There’s a force out there we’ve never met. There’s going to be a war between hope and despair. Love and apathy. Faith and disbelief. When I was outside of time, I felt their presence…we’re being watched.”

This isn’t Dr. Manhattan or some cosmic apotheosis of Adrian Veidt or Edward Blake. The problem with the DC Universe is external, and it’s a problem with writers, artists, editors, filmmakers, and audiences who have continued to chase the ever-shrinking shadow of two brilliant, but irreplicable works of comic art. These is the presence Wally felt while he was “outside of time.” And yes, this includes some of the work written by Geoff Johns during his career, although that’s not what I would consider a defining characteristic of his DC legacy. Rebirth feels like an attempt to set things right.

Over the course of its twelve chapters, Watchmen had a representation of the Doomsday Clock as a recurring motif. Instituted at the start of the Atomic Age in 1947 by scientists, the real Doomsday Clock advanced or retracted based on how close to the end of the world they felt we were at any given moment. The real clock was first set at 7 minutes to midnight, and has never been closer than 2 or further than 17. Watchmen‘s symbolic Doomsday Clock began at 12 minutes to midnight, and got as close as 1 minute.

But the clock hands visible in the final image of Rebirth are a solid 15 minutes away from doomsday. This places them further back than they ever were in Watchmen, indicating that the current DCU is no longer constantly on the brink of existential annihilation or terminal realism. Incidentally, the real Doomsday Clock currently sits at 3 minutes to midnight. Maybe we need to take some cues from the heroes of the DC Universe to do something about that.