Hello, Whatnauts! Given the complete lack of promotion for it — I’m being sarcastic, I hope you notice that — it might have escaped your notice that DC released the DC Universe: Rebirth oneshot this week, intended to re-orient the superhero line in a new, more hopeful and more-palatable-to-longtime-fans direction. Written by Geoff Johns with art by Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis and Phil Jiminez, it’s an issue that features all kinds of fan service to those who grew up reading DC, as well as the opposite of fan service to those who love Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Guess which we end up focusing on when we talked about it this week? (Spoilers for those who somehow haven’t been utterly spoiled on this just yet.)
GRAEME: So, I’ve been thinking a lot about spoilers lately. It all started with Captain America: Civil War falling flat for me, and my thinking it was because I knew all the big moments were coming before I went into the theater, but after reading DC Universe: Rebirth, I had the opposite reaction. I read it unspoiled — I got an early copy for work, and read it a week before release, and loved it, in large part because there was a continual sense of “Is that…? Could they be about to…?” uncertainty that fueled my enthusiasm throughout the entire thing.
Rebirth is, in many ways, comfort food for the long term DC fanboy (Guilty as charged), and there’s something particularly effective about that when you don’t know what’s coming, I think: after the initial “Is that Wally? Like, old Wally? It is!” reveal excitement, I spent the entire issue buying into Johns’ fake-outs that he was there to disappear — especially when the new Wally was introduced, with a “Well, I guess he’s Kid Flash now” message. That he gets to stick around was… “emotional” isn’t really the right word, but I did get verklempt, I confess. I wouldn’t have had that if I’d known, going in, that he was back for good.
All of Rebirth feels like that to me; I really, really enjoyed the book, but I can’t imagine feeling even a half as enthusiastic about it if I’d known everything about it beforehand. Not just the Watchmen thing — which, you know, I will be far less bothered about than either of you two largely because I don’t really like Watchmen — but all of it. Justice Society reveal? Legion reveal? Superman stuff? All of it felt better as a surprise. (Well, I saw the Superman stuff coming, to be fair.) If I’d gone into it thinking, “Oh, this is the book that will undo X, Y and Z and is leading up to a Watchmen riff, I would’ve been far more cynical and, probably, dreaded it, which would have changed the way I feel about it significantly.
So, with that out the way, I have to ask: what was Rebirth like to read when you guys knew it was coming? Jeff, I know you were totally spoiled (Spoilers: I spoiled it for Jeff, because I wanted to hear his reaction — it was everything I’d hoped for), but Matt, you didn’t know exactly what was coming, right? How did you enjoy it?
MATT: I didn’t know what was coming but I knew something was coming. I had also been seeing random mentions of Alan Moore in my Twitter timeline, but didn’t know why…but as soon as I opened the book, literally, I had a pretty good guess. That first page is amazingly forthright about what’s going to happen: Flash-colored narration over a nine-panel grid featuring the inner workings of a watch is as good a summary of this comic as any.
So my reaction was something like “They cannot POSSIBLY be doing this, can they?”
But that distracted me, this vague anticipation / dread / car-crash thrill of watching for the Watchmen, and when I hit that full-page splash of Wally West with the iconic “My name is Wally West. I’m the fastest man alive,” the nostalgia adrenaline rush came in from the blindside. When my kids ask me who my favorite superhero is, I say Flash probably 80% of the time, and when I say that I mean Wally, specifically Wally as written by Mark Waid. That one was right in my wheelhouse.
The Superman stuff wasn’t entirely surprising, as I had read the “We’re killing Superman for REALS” story over in his non-team books, and I’m not as much of a mark for Legion or Justice Society. So I enjoyed those bits, because Johns is good at this kind of thing, but they didn’t hit me like I’m sure they hit you.
My reaction to the ending, though, was a little more complicated. By the time you get to the ending, Johns has signposted it so strongly, with so many clear indications of what the implications of this are supposed to be, that I was more struck by the sheer audacity of the whole thing than by the actual reveal, if you see what I mean.
GRAEME: Actually, let’s talk about the audacity of the whole thing for a second. Because, once I got over my initial response of laughing while thinking, “Holy shit, I can’t believe they’re actually doing this,” I got to thinking about how this is kind of a wonderful reveal. I mean, sure — I can imagine Jeff melting down even as I type this about the moral implications of using Watchmen considering DC’s relationship with Alan Moore, and Alan Moore’s relationship with Watchmen, but… essentially crafting a meta-narrative that says “Watchmen sucked the joy out of the DC Universe” feels… spot on?
(Cue a million people telling me that Watchmen didn’t do anything, it was people taking all the wrong lessons from Watchmen, and sure, yes, that’s true, but I still think the meta-narrative holds up under that reading.)
And to just outright say, “That’s right, the DC Universe was ruined by Watchmen” is audacious as fuck, in a way that adore. It’s Morrisonian in a way that I feel that Geoff Johns has worked his way around in the past — Superboy Prime as Internet troll with powers is still kind of great, let’s be honest — but it really lands, for me: it’s bold, it’s blunt and it’s right. And also, I find there to be something thrilling about someone finally essentially saying in the comics themselves, “by chasing Watchmen for the last three decades, we’ve lost track of what made the DCU work all along.”
It really does feel like an almost-perfect reveal to me… with the glaring problem of, everyone who thought that Before Watchmen was a terrible thing will think that this is much, much worse. (I remain on the ideological fence on this, for reasons that essentially come down to, “Meh, Alan Moore.” It’s terrible, I know; I know I should feel anything other than apathy considering the facts, but I just can’t bring myself to. I can pretend…)
Jeff Lester! I am dying to know what you made of this book.
JEFF: Well, ya know, it’s funny. I feel like on the podcast I’ve been spending a lot of time whingeing about how the New 52 DC doesn’t really interest me, and how much I felt Geoff Johns’ scripts had grown increasingly moribund…and so I really enjoyed the ride to those final pages because it felt like the focused Geoff Johns dopery I really dig. This is something like sixty-odd pages of teases and set-up, but that’s always been where Johns has excelled. Even when the hook is something pretty damn dumb—three Jokers, Geoff? Really?—he and his collaborators manage to carry it off.
And the return of “our” Wally West to the DCU carried a lot of punch for me, and painting Wally as a guy inspired by the heroes of the DCU and talking about how things had gone wrong in the New 52 was gloriously unsubtle and enjoyable. If this really is Johns’ last comic for a while, I really appreciate how much of it was packed with the stuff I like about his DC work—Wally West, the JSA, his collaborations with Gary Frank and Ethan Van Sciver. And I find it entertainingly brash of Johns to take DC’s combination Hail Mary/Mea Culpa and turn it into the Geoff Johns Farewell Tour, packed with all his greatest hits. It takes a helluva guy to pay tribute to himself…but even weirder, at least on a superficial level, it works?
But then we get to that ending and…bleah, you guys. Just: BLEAH.
As Graeme puts it, saying, “That’s right, the DC Universe was ruined by Watchmen” is audacious as fuck, but it’s also, let’s face it, wrong.
After Watchmen, did DC overflow with psychopathic heroes who were also pitiable and heart-wrenching? Were the books of the New 52 jammed with omnipotent beings stymied by their inability to understand the humanity they’d now lost? Did anyone introduce a whole bunch of superhero analogs, work their asses off to turn them into their own characters, and then show them get chewed up by their own failings?
No. There was lots and lots of Batman being cool as shit. There were lots of scenes of heroes being misunderstood by the police and the public, lots of scenes of superheroes punching the shit out of one another because of vaguely defined (but somehow still fundamental) differences. There were hints and glimpses of tragedies and loss with DC’s regular rank and file.
Because it wasn’t Watchmen that ruined the DC Universe, it was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. And Johns and Didio know it, but they’re not going to say it because (a) they can still get Frank Miller to pick up the phone, and (b) whatever juice they can get out of Miller’s Dark Knight they’re already trying to extract it from the pulper of the current miniseries.
There’s a lot that’s very, very clever with the Watchmen tie-in, right down to that blue hand on the cover. But it’s incorrect, ethically risible, and just flat-out gross. If you want a nifty encapsulation of what’s wrong with the comics industry, you could do worse than having a comic book writer rhapsodizing about the need for heroes while his story juice comes from exploiting the company’s screwing of a comic book luminary.
At first, when told about it by Graeme, I was like, “oh yeah, that is audacious,” thought it was pretty funny, and knew I’d hate myself at least a little for reading it and liking it. But considering DC Universe: Rebirth #1 came out on the day a whole slew of comic book publishers went in on Comixology Unlimited without even telling the talent on their creative-owned titles, much less consulting them, I just find myself getting a little angrier about it every time I consider the fucking thing.
David Steinberger’s impressively spineless interview on Comic Book Resources, where he trumpets how great the service will be for “the readers” and “the industry” but refuses to even discuss the plight of creators on the service, is a perfect bit of news to accompany this book. DC Universe: Rebirth #1 is really good for the readers and for DC—and it’s even good for Geoff Johns, who managed to wrangle one last entertaining book while riding his company man pony right up to the highest positions in Hollywood—but it only highlights what a cynical sham DC’s talk about learning its lesson really is. That ending is admittedly entertaining, but it’s also the gleeful fucking over of a creator who was dumb enough to believe DC’s promises way back when, which shows you how much Johns and DC really believe in decency and heroism.
Um, but I’m glad Ryan Choi is back?
MATT: I didn’t even know Ryan Choi was gone, because I have no idea what the Atom’s status quo is in the New 52/DC YOU lineup, so that’s another reveal that was totally lost on me. Welcome back, Ryan!
But, yeah, I’d go even further in on the audacity and point it at Geoff Johns specifically. Johns built his reputation on, fundamentally, strip-mining Alan Moore’s ideas and extrapolating them to the entire DCU. The most successful parts of his Green Lantern run –the parts that would lead to multiple line-wide, universe-driving crossovers–are based almost entirely on throwaway ideas from an eight-page Alan Moore story. (A backup story, no less, from an annual released in September of 1986 — the same month and year as the cover date on Watchmen #1.) Johns fleshed out every line of Alan Moore’s Green Lantern writing that didn’t involve the F-Sharp Bell.
If “old Alan Moore ideas” are one pillar of Johns’ stint at DC, the other is “needless and excessive violence marring otherwise entertaining superhero stories.” I’m sure it wasn’t this way, but in my mind it’s just an endless montage of people’s arms getting ripped off while Superman pontificates.
And what’s most ironic is that, in my mind, it’s the Geoff Johns severing of arms and using the entire buffalo of Alan Moore that darkened and grimmed up DC Comics. My metafictional version of the same story has “Hal Jordan as the Spectre” responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in that universe.
I read a lot more DC in the late 1990s than I did once Johns got in there, and the books that I remember liking and loving–from the bright-colored “Super Friends for the ‘90s” of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA to the legacy-focused James Robinson Starman to the weird, exciting curios like Young Heroes in Love and XerØ and Chronos and Resurrection Man and Chase–exhibited very few of the sins that would come to characterize the DC universe in the era of Johns. The ones that were nostalgia-drenched tended to spin that nostalgia forward, like Starman; the ones that were targeted slightly older didn’t rely on grim and gritty tropes that were tired even then.
Hell, Wally West — the avatar of bright-colored, happy DC in this book — didn’t establish himself in that role until well after Watchmen. He continued on that way under Waid’s direction … and the writer who started sliding him grimmer was Geoff Johns. (Remember the Mirror Master’s cocaine addiction?)
If, I dunno, Jeff Parker or Margeurite Bennett or someone had written this same book, I might’ve found it incrementally less preposterous, but … I mean, do I sound crazy here? Is there any way Geoff Johns can possibly believe in the overall concept he seems to be putting forth?
GRAEME: I think so, but I have the advantage (perhaps?) of having spoken with Johns about this for work, so that feels somewhat out-of-bounds, somehow; nonetheless, it’s certainly true that this isn’t the first time he’s approached the idea that the DCU is too dark — the opening of Infinite Crisis goes to exactly the same place, although the rest of the series takes it in very different directions. (Thinking about that story is particularly fascinating in light of the meta-idea that Watchmen has corrupted everything since, considering Superboy Prime went from “Why isn’t everyone happy!” to “I have ripped off the arms and turned into a bad guy!” But then, that was pre-Flashpoint, so Dr. Manhattan hadn’t “stolen any time” yet.)
But yeah, Johns is guilty of a lot of the grimming that he’s addressing here, although I admit that the prime suspect in this at least where DC is concerned is Brad Meltzer, and Identity Crisis. And while that’s a book that doesn’t replicate the exact Watchmen formula for success as per Jeff’s logic, I think it’s a book that’s undeniably greatly influenced by the “realism” and “hidden secrets” of Watchmen. In a weird way, it’s the success of that series that really pushed DC into the grim dark of the last decade, so while there’s a remove, it’s still something I lay more at Watchmen‘s feet than Dark Knight.
Indeed, Jeff, your “it wasn’t Watchmen, it was Dark Knight” argument made me so mad — no, there was no point-by-point slavish recreation of Watchmen’s plot points, but neither did the post-Dark Knight DC overflow with meta-commentary offered by TV talking heads or bald mutants who formed armies on horseback and were balls nasty; in both cases, it was (the wrong) lessons about tone and what made the books work in the first place that were taken, as you well know.
Arguing that DC wasn’t influenced by Watchmen because they didn’t come up with their own omnipotent blue guy is just insane — although that last Captain Atom series should’ve been renamed “Dr. Brooklyn? Dr. Staten Island? That’ll Work, Right?” — feels utterly dishonest, especially considering that, even if we did judge it purely on the basis of the “did they try and recreate Watchmen‘s specific character base” questions you posed, the facts are still pretty damning:
- “Did DC overflow with psychopathic heroes who were also pitiable and heart-wrenching?” You could argue that they tried (and failed) to make that happen with Batman, Rise of Arsenal and other “fallen hero” storylines over the last decade. (Remember when Green Arrow was living in a forest because of his shame over the end of Cry For Justice?) Take out the “psychopathic” part of the equation, and you have Jeff Lemire’s entire New 52 solo book career.
- “Were the books of the New 52 jammed with omnipotent beings stymied by their inability to understand the humanity they’d now lost?” Off the top of my head, I can think of two: Captain Atom and Futures’ End‘s Fifty-Sue. So, no, not crammed, but then, two versions in less than five years feels like something to me.
- “Did anyone introduce a whole bunch of superhero analogs, work their asses off to turn them into their own characters, and then show them get chewed up by their own failings?” Analogs? No, because they had access to the big toys — but they were certainly trying to do the other two parts of that question, to varying degrees of success.
(And don’t get me started on the “Be mad at ComiXology all you want, but I think the publishers are waaaaay more at fault when it comes to fucking over creators” ComiXology Unlimited. Man, I am ranty first thing in the morning.)
I’m trying to think of a throughline to get away from railing against Jeff, as comfortable as that always is. Uh… yes, I think Johns is certainly complicit in the grimness and cynicism he’s fighting back against, but that doesn’t mean that he also can’t be sincere in wanting to move away from it…? One of the biggest unknowns about Rebirth moving forward from this one-shot, though, is that he’s not the one who has to move away from it: he is, after all, not writing any ongoing series after this. But now I am really, really wanting to read Jeff Parker’s version of this now that you mentioned it, Matt.
JEFF: I do, too! Maybe it’s time for the scepter to be passed from Geoff to Jeff!
Graeme, I’d be willing to split the difference with you on Watchmen/Dark Knight and concede The Killing Joke, maybe? And I think there’s a very good case to be made that Identity Crisis deliberately copped stuff from Watchmen and IC‘s success really helped launch Didio as a force within DC that led to the New 52? And so therefore…?
But otherwise, we are at amazingly opposite poles on this one. DC swiped more over the years from Moore’s unused Twilight pitch than it did from Watchmen. To the extent it did cop from Watchmen, it missed what Moore was going for (something he’s complained about publicly).
Whereas with Dark Knight, for DC (and, admittedly, a huge chunk of the entire industry), it wasn’t particularly possible to miss the message since Miller muddled the use of his own fascist imagery and basically missed it himself. (Maybe part of the reason Miller’s successful at all as a satirist is his own inability to stay on message unless his target is blisteringly obvious.) Moore thought Rorschach was a monster; Miller thinks Batman is pretty damn cool. There’s a lot more Joker saying “darling!” in the New52 than there are “Dan, I’m not a Republic serial villain” moments, alas.
(Also, Graeme, you apparently missed the onslaught of TV talking heads in your comic books although they were usually used to offer exposition instead of commentary and maybe we can just act like everyone was cribbing it from Chaykin’s American Flagg?)
GRAEME: Ah, American Flagg, the forgotten touchstone of so many 1980s comics. But TV as Greek Chorus is different from TV as expositionary device, Jeff! And where are the mutants? I’m going to have to agree to disagree with you on this; I really think that there’s as much Watchmen in DC post, say, 2004, 2004 as there is Dark Knight, if not more. Sorry! And now I am wondering about the parallels between Ozymandius’ end reveal and the Outsider’s reveal in “Trinity War,” which was written by one Geoff Johns. But I digress.
JEFF: Two weird things about this: one, I’m not nearly as upset about Watchmen being pegged as the source of DC’s missteps (though I am obviously being annoyingly pedantic and apparently wrong about it?) as I am about the ultra-cynical cynicism of Johns/DC mouthing platitudes about the importance of heroes while cashing in on the reneging of DC’s promise to do right by the creators of Watchmen all those years ago.
And as Matt points out, having the guy who strip-mined Moore’s concepts be the guy to deliver that refutation feels genuinely repellent to me every time I sit down and think about it. I know you’ve had interactions with Geoff Johns, Graeme, and I guess you think this is his Road To Damascus moment? But I just can’t buy it…in part because it’s not tucked into the pages of his last issue of Aquaman or something. Instead it’s in DC’s enormous “OMFG, THIS IS OUR BIG ONE!” issue.
And what I mentioned above is the other weird thing: whenever I’m away from the keyboard doing my day job stuff or spacing out on the bus or whatever, I kinda don’t care about the Watchmen characters popping up here. (Maybe because Before Watchmen already inflicted that wound?) But whenever I sit down to talk about it here, I feel like I start slipping into profoundly angry (and dull) proselytizing about what is and isn’t right?
And I’m trying to figure out how much of this is just the internet having trained me to troll and be trolled, and how much DC Universe: Rebirth #1 has managed to really resurrect the idea of the guilty pleasure for me…in that as long as I don’t think about it too closely I’m completely fine with it and can confess to enjoying it, but when I do think about it closely I feel like I’m supporting and participating in the more toxic aspects of the industry.
So my question for you guys is: do you feel like your buttons are being pushed by this comic? And if so, is it an all-around “this is great/this is terrible” or is it only when we try and talk about it here?
MATT: You know what keeps bugging me? That stupid smiley-face badge. I think I could deal with the Dr. Manhattan ending, because that’s honestly kind of charming, like a kid living through his big brother’s reflected glory. “No, it wasn’t us who made these changes to DC, it was the other side of that scene from that comic you respect!”
But the smiley-face badge that Batman uncovers — seriously, what the hell is that? Unless I’m badly misremembering Watchmen, the splattered smiley isn’t an actual logo withIN the book, because the splatter is the Comedian’s blood. It’s the logo of the book. Did Batman uncover one of those Before Watchmen promo pins? It makes no sense, and it’s making me needlessly pedantic.
I think, like you, the whole thing pushes my buttons whenever I sit down to think about it, because it’s so goddamned blatant. The opening page, the button, the addition of the Watchmen color-scheme to the final pages … it’s all a bit much.
But the worst part is that they clearly want to push buttons. They want to elicit this reaction. They could’ve just as easily used the characters from Grant Morrison’s Pax Americana to achieve a comparable effect (not identical on the meta level, but certainly comparable), but no, someone sat down at the top levels of DC editorial and decided, “That’s it, the bridges are long since burned, let’s just go ahead and nuke the whole goddamned river.”
What about you, Graeme?
GRAEME: I like it because of its blatantness, which is probably no surprise. It’s big and brash and unapologetic, and coming from the person who thought that Batman v Superman was actually kind of interesting and not a cinematic car crash, surely it’s no surprise to anyone that I dig that. But you’re right, Matt: this is a comic entirely designed to push buttons — the nostalgia of bringing Wally back or seeing Ted Kord and Jaime Reyes interact, the emotional beats of Aquaman proposing to Mera and so on — but this roundtable demonstrates the biggest flaw of the book: one of those buttons is way more hot than any of the rest, and it just dominates discussion of the issue.
In my mind, using Pax Americana in place of Watchmen wouldn’t significantly change the actual issue that much — you’d lose the “thrill,” such as it is, of oh, they’re actually going there, but the Watchmen metatext would still be front and center because it’s implicit in Pax Americana — but it would change the conversation around the book immeasurably. If nothing else, Jeff’s pleasure around the rest of the book wouldn’t have been soured so much, which would’ve been… a good thing?
And yet, I like that it goes there, still. I like the comic! And you guys can’t ruin that for me with your goddamn “morals.” I don’t want to think about weighty issues like “good” and “bad” and living up to your promises when I’m reading about superheroes, that’d just be ridiculous!
I’m tempted to finish with a “Hail, Hydra” joke, but that’s the other company and the other comic, with the most bitter punchline of the entire Rebirth joke: that DC’s big comic, relaunching its entire line and going all-in by bringing Watchmen into DC continuity, ends up utterly overshadowed by one of the least interesting, most used plot twists in the entire superhero genre. Playing to people’s sense of hope versus people’s sense of fear? Well, we know how that always goes.
Next! Jeff Lester: Rebirth #1, where he stops worrying and learns to love the bomb. The atomic bomb that will explode and turn him blue and give him godlike powers which he’ll use to steal 10 years from Matt, causing Terlpoint…
JEFF: Graeme, I’m not a Republic serial villain. I didn’t steal ten years from Matt; I stole six years from you, and I did it back when we started the podcast Mwa-ha-ha-ha!