For an industry in which revamps and reboots come all too often, and individual comic series seem to start from their first issue again every year or so, hearing about DC’s most recent rebirthing of its Universe, especially given the birth of the New 52 just a few years back, didn’t seem to inspire too much confidence among fans. Given the tendency for comics to be revised so as to more closely reflect their film counterparts, fans seemed to fear that the new DC Universe might be making the same mistakes the DC Cinematic Universe has made in its first two films: primarily, an overemphasis on dark and brooding tones and characterizations.
Which is why fans have been pleasantly surprised by DC Universe Rebirth #1: a comic event unlike anything DC comics has produced in years. Penned by DC creative pioneer, Geoff Johns, DC Universe Rebirth seeks to analyze and correct the mistakes DC readers have seen not just for the past few years, but going back even decades.
The issue begins with a scene that should prove familiar to any longtime reader of DC comics: the inner workings of a watch.
“The day I graduated high school, my uncle gave me a watch,” says an unidentified voice. “The watch had been handed down generation after generation with an inscription on the back…’every second is a gift.’
My uncle was an optimist. I used to be an optimist, too. Until the day the watch broke. And I lost it. I lost time.”
The voice is revealed to be a teenage Wally West, a character who’s been noticeably absent since the New 52. This younger Wally somehow bears the memories of his older self pre-Flashpoint, one who has been the Flash and married Linda Park. Wally explains that he and the rest of the DC Universe have lost ten years of their lives (explaining the revamping of the New 52 to earlier in the heroes’ careers), and that some unknown entity is responsible.
The comic retells Wally’s origin: of a lonely kid who met his hero, the Flash, then miraculously gained his powers and became his partner; only to then watch him disappear into the Speed Force during the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Taking on the mantle of the Flash for himself, Wally then saw his hero return during the Final Crisis. And not long after, with the advent of Flashpoint, Wally himself seemed lost to history.
Now trapped within the speed force, Wally is searching for a way to return to reality by establishing a connection with old friends, for someone who will “ground” and free him. The problem is: nobody he reaches out to can remember him. He appears to Batman, Johnny Thunder, even Linda herself, but he’s a stranger to them all. With no connection, Wally seems doomed to be absorbed by the Speed Force forever.
As Wally travels through the Speed Force, he feels the presence of other heroes he’s drawn to. He observes heroes who slowly seem to be regaining what they’ve lost post-Flashpoint. Oliver Queen and Dinah Lance catch each other’s eye at the scene of the New 52 Superman’s death, and feel a pull towards each other. The pre-Flashpoint Superman investigates the young Superman’s death, with Lois Lane and their son Chris by his side. And Arthur Curry brings Mera to the place they first met, and asks for her hand in marriage.
Wally passes by younger heroes, such as Saturn Girl of the Legion of Superheroes, Ray Palmer’s lab assistant, Ryan, who he’s left with his own miniaturization belt, and Jaimie Hernandez, the new Blue Beetle, being mentored by Ted Kord. He passes by Damian Wayne, Jessica Cruz (the newest Green Lantern and Hal Jordan’s protege), and Jackson Hyde (Aqualad). Despite not knowing any of them personally, Wally understands why he’s drawn to them: because of the burden of responsibility they all bear.
“Legacy isn’t forgotten,” Wally comments.
The scene illustrates what makes Wally West such an appropriate choice for this breaching and reconnection between the pre and post-New 52 Universes: his status as perhaps the preeminent symbol of legacy within the DC Universe. As such a symbol, Wally stands in a unique position of representing the transition of one age to another. If the “death” of Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths signaled the end of one era, Wally’s donning of the role ushered in another (his taking of the mantle was even referred to at the time as his “rebirth”). As the DC Universe takes on a new face, and reflects on the legacy of decades of stories that have brought it to its present, Wally’s return again ushers in both a new generation of heroes and a new era of the DC Universe.
With new faces taking on old roles, and continuing the good fight into the future, Johns reminds the reader of one of the DC Universe’s most enduring themes: legacy, and the enduring power of identity, symbolism, and message from one generation to the next. With the comic’s restoration of a certain optimism and companionship to the New 52, seen here in the restoration of old, defining relationships, Wally operates as an enduring symbol of certain qualities that remain vital to the characters and world of the DC Universe.
Ultimately, however, failing to establish a connection, Wally gives up hope and resigns himself to his fate. In desperation, he seeks out Barry to give him one last farewell.
Wally finds Barry on a country road. Flickering in and out of the Speed Force, Wally uses his last breaths to thank Barry for changing his life.
“That’s why I won’t die in anguish,” Wally says. “I’ll die with love in my heart.”
An incredulous Barry can’t comprehend what he’s seeing.
“I don’t understand.” Barry says.
“I hope one day you will.” Wally replies.
Yet, just as before, it’s Barry himself who manages to save Wally, as he suddenly remembers his long lost partner. Barry pulls Wally from the Speed Force and tearfully embraces him.
This beautifully written scene exemplifies Wally as an insightful symbol of the mutual influence of legacy: the former generation on the next, and the next generation on the former, and the continuous cycle of influence and inspiration this creates. Despite physically being Barry’s younger, Wally is in the moment mentally his elder (chronologically), informing Barry of the capacity for inspiration he once had, and still has. It’s a scene that evokes the famous line from Richard Donner’s Superman II: “The son becomes the father, the father becomes the son.”
As Wally explains to Barry how reality has been altered by an unknown force, the comic’s ultimate reveal arrives: Batman searches through his cave in the aftermath of Wally’s dimensional rift, finding something embedded in the cave wall. Pulling it out, he holds up a very familiar looking smiley face pin streaked with blood.
And far away on Mars, Wally’s lost broken watch begins to reassemble itself, while familiar dialogue echoes.
“I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out, in the end.”
“In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
The use of Dr. Manhattan serves as a very clever commentary on the comic business post-Watchmen, the book that defined the tragic, brooding superhero story, and that has debatably influenced DC comics’ stories and characters ever since. In this sense, Dr. Manhattan has swayed the characters of the DC Universe. As Dr. Manhattan has infected the characters of the DC Universe with a certain “darkness,” so too did Watchmen seem to infect writers for years to come with an imitated outlook that then influenced their own “creations.” It serves as clever criticism on post-Watchmen comics storytelling within the DC Universe. Whether Dr. Manhattan as an antagonist will work from a narrative standpoint and beyond his figurative use remains to be seen, especially given the common conception of Watchmen as a standalone, sacrosanct text.
DC Universe Rebirth #1 succeeds where DC has struggled so often in its recent products, both in comics and in film: a proper balance between light and dark tone. While the core narrative of the issue is a tragic scenario: Wally West trying and failing to connect with the world, it is not dark or trying extensively for shock value, the precipice for excessively gloomy superhero stories.
Johns’ writing corrects what has been a fundamental thinking for years in superhero narratives: the use of dark, gritty themes as a counterpoint to overshadow the inherently campy nature of the superhero concept. This more often than not, however, results in a reverse campiness: stories and characters so indulgently dark and brooding they take on a cheesiness all their own in the jarring disjunction between dark themes and inherently colorful characters. Johns strikes the perfect balance, demonstrating a common human tragedy (the fear of being forgotten) with inspiring, hopeful qualities and characters. It’s proof that an industry famously defined in its early years by its melodrama can still be tonally faithful to the themes that defined it.
The passing of identity the story emphasizes mirrors the responsibility in continuing the narratives of any iconic characters: progressing with the times, yet remaining true to the human ideals and strengths that remain at the core of a timeless creation. It’s the kind of thinking that invalidates a Superman in Batman V. Superman who says something as defeatist as “no one stays good in this world.” The enduring appeal of DC’s characters in their philosophy lies not in how their view of goodness and decency dies in the modern day: it’s how, despite struggle and hardship, it manages to survive. Johns recognizes the importance of balancing realism and idealism, not letting the former infringe upon and cripple the latter.
Johns’ work seems to be inspired by a desire for a return to the publisher’s roots: as stories, at their heart, about hope and inspiration. This tonal conflict is reflected as Wally tells Barry of what’s to come:
“There’s going to be a war. Between hope and despair. Love and apathy. Faith and disbelief.
As a new era dawns for the DC Universe, fans should feel free to hope again.