This week saw the launch of DC Comics’ “Rebirth” with DC Universe – Rebirth #1. Spearheaded by Geoff Johns, and with art by Gary Frank, Ethan Van Scriver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez, it sets the DC Comics Universe on a whole new path. It’s largely a course-correction on everything DC has been doing since the early ’90s, and most certainly since 2011’s unpopular “New 52” reboot. It makes strong criticisms of the modern comics industry, and by extension the DC Extended Universe, while carefully pointing the way ahead. What impact will it have?
The Watchmen Effect
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To truly understood DC’s “Rebirth”, you have to know a little about the history of comics. In 1986 and 1987, writer Alan Moore headed up Watchmen, a comic like no other at its time. Working with artist Dave Gibbons, Moore offered a deconstruction of modern comics, setting a dark and dangerous tone that would be mimicked by the comic book industry as a whole. In 2009, Moore told Mania.com he regretted this.
“Can I just say I’m sorry?… It seemed to me that people basically took from it what they were able to take from it—mostly a slightly depressing atmosphere and the idea that everybody had to be a grim, ruthless psychopath… It was never intended as a blanket approach for all comic books. It was just an experiment that I was trying, and it worked better in some cases than it did in others.”
The dark themes of Watchmen increasingly characterised DC’s Comic Universe. Their superheroes became gods walking among men, distanced from the world. The “New 52” even abandoned the idea of Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane, an aspect of the character that had always humanised him; instead, he was given a relationship with fellow superhero Wonder Woman. Meanwhile, Batman became increasingly dark and brooding, an almost spiritual force whose presence pervaded Gotham.
Director Zack Snyder began his relationship with superhero films with 2009’s Watchmen, adapting Moore’s script for the big screen. The comic had a profound impact on him; as he told Entertainment Weekly:
“Watchmen is like the music you feel is written just for you. ”That’s my song, no one else gets that but me.” That’s why the fan base is so rabid, because they feel personal about it. The difference between Watchmen and a normal comic book is this: With Batman’s Gotham City, you are transported to another world where that superhero makes sense; Watchmen comes at it in a different way, it almost superimposes its heroes on your world, which then changes how you view your world through its prism. That’s the genius of this book.”
It’s no coincidence that DC Film put Zack Snyder in an influential position in the DC Extended Universe. The goal was to tap into the same zeitgeist as Watchmen, which DC Film believed was critical to DC’s modern comics. As a result, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice present mythic takes on the superheroes we know and love. Superman is a brooding Christ figure who ultimately gives his life; Batman is a near-spiritual being whose introductory dream-sequences include Bruce Wayne descending into a pit of despair, to be raised up on the wings of the bats.
The popular reaction has hardly been what DC Film had hoped for. Man of Steel received mixed responses; Batman v Superman has had an even harder time of it. Critics slated the film, and fans were divided, with a heated debate beginning that shows no sign of ending. Although the film easily made a profit, and merchandising will have been strong, DC Film can only have been disappointed by the popular reaction. Since then, DC Film has been in a constant state of restructure, with Zack Snyder’s influence lessening by the day.
The Response of DC’s “Rebirth”
This week, we effectively saw the end of DC’s “New 52”, with Geoff Johns penning both Justice League #50 and DC Universe – Rebirth #1. Both Justice League #50 and Superman #52 are essential reading before you pick up Rebirth #1, but that’s particularly the case for Justice League #50. It begins Geoff Johns’ criticism of the post-Watchmen DC Comics.
Over the course of an arc entitled “Darkseid War”, Johns has imbued the iconic members of the Justice League with the power of gods. This final issue, though, strips them of it; and then, in a powerful scene, the League assemble against a cosmic threat. Notice Superman’s words:
“We were never gods.”
Although part of the narrative, Superman’s words are an implicit criticism of the idea of superheroes as gods. They’re followed by Wonder Woman’s reflections, as she becomes Johns’ mouthpiece:
“Clark’s right. We were never gods. Gods watch the world from above. Gods don’t intervene. Gods don’t bleed. Or cry. Or laugh. Or love. Not like us. We struggle. We fight. We fail.”
But DC Universe – Rebirth #1 puts the criticism even more strongly. Taking the perspective of fan-favorite Wally West, Rebirth reveals that Wally has been lost in the timestream. As such, he’s become aware that something has gone terribly wrong with the wider DC Universe. Take a look:
As the issue continues, we learn that a cosmic force stole ten years of comic book time. As Wally continues to look, though, he realizes something else:
All that was good, and positive, and exciting has been ripped away. Relationships and friendships have been torn apart. Bereft of love and hope, the DC Universe has become a dark and doom-filled place. We soon just who the villains of the piece are.
The deed was done by the cast of Watchmen.
From a meta-narrative perspective, this is a powerful criticism of everything DC’s comics have been since Watchmen. The narrative of Rebirth argues that Watchmen has led to the creation of a universe with no hope, no joy, no love. Legacies have been lost, friendships have been broken, all as a result of Watchmen‘s influence on the comics.
Rebirth, then, posits Watchmen as an enemy to be defeated. In scenes running through the comic, it’s pretty clear that the direction of Rebirth is a rejection of everything DC Comics has become since Watchmen. In triumphing, the heroes will regain their joy once again. Take the teaser poster for the Rebirth reality – and notice the smiles.
Watchmen transformed the comics, and has gone on to transform the films. Now, the comics are systematically rejecting Watchmen‘s influence. In the year when Watchmen‘s influence pervaded the DC Extended Universe, that’s pretty startling.
But this is only a change in the comics, right? It won’t have any impact on the films?
Actually, it will. This is Geoff Johns’ last comic book project for DC for quite some time. He’s now become overseer of DC Film, with responsibility for managing the fledgeling DC Extended Universe. A lot of sites are describing him as DC’s answer to Kevin Feige, although I suspect they’re overstating the case.
The fact remains, though, that Rebirth is Geoff Johns’ vision. Talking to THR, Johns explained the process for deciding what needed to change:
“We have a writers room here with a whiteboard that covers the entire wall, and I spent hours in there listing out all the things I love about DC and the things that I thought were not in the books right now. I sat down and I read everything, and I thought, I don’t feel any sense of history, legacy, hope, optimism, a cohesive universe — and by that, I don’t mean crossovers every week — emotional bonds was a huge one. Over the years, some of this stuff had been lost. Not just characters, but smaller things too, tonal things that are really hard to nail.”
For Geoff Johns, optimism should be at the core of everything DC Comics stands for. If this is the case, that logically extends to the film universe as well. I think we’ll see Johns exerting a similar influence on DC Film, ensuring hope and optimism become core to the film franchise. I don’t think that means an end to darker stories; but I do think the overall tone of DC Film is about to dramatically change, and Rebirth shows the way.
It’s no coincidence that Ben Affleck – Batman star and director of the forthcoming Batman film – has said he’s excited about Rebirth. It shows the film staff have a level of awareness of what Johns has just done for the comics.
Rebirth is a milestone for DC Comics. It marks a transition between the DC Comics Universe as it has become, and the restoration of the DC Comics Universe as it was (when I grew up with it). I for one couldn’t be more excited – Wally was Flash when I got into the comics, for one thing! But it also looks set to have a dramatic impact on the direction of the DC Extended Universe, and I think that’s a good thing.
Do you think this is a step in the right direction? Let me know in the comments!