Everyone Is Hawkman Now: The ComicsAlliance ‘DC Universe: Rebirth’ #1 Roundtable
DC Comics kicked off the start of its next new era and its next pseudo reboot with DC Universe: Rebirth #1 by Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Sciver, Gary Frank and Ivan Reis this week. The issue contains a lot of shocking revelations that will have far-reaching consequences for all DC Universe titles in the coming months, but was it a good comic, and does it fill its readers with the hope and optimism that writer Geoff Johns had promised?
ComicsAlliance convened a roundtable of critics Elle Collins, Katie Schenkel, Kieran Shiach, and Andrew Wheeler to break it all down and give their unvarnished opinions of DC's new direction. Spoilers follow.
Andrew: DC Universe: Rebirth #1 is a real curiosity. Because it sets up or hints at the new status quo of the Rebirth-era DC Universe, it feels kind of like a press conference or a Previews catalog in comics form. It's not just a comic, it's a statement of intent. But is it a promise or a threat? How did you guys feel after reading DC Universe: Rebirth #1?
Katie: I'll say off the bat that the comic in itself, outside the context of it leading the way for the new universe/current continuity/whatever, was fine. There were some good emotional beats there and I like Wally West as an overall character, so having him at the core of those emotional beats was a smart idea. But within the context of this book as a statement about the future of DC Comics, I found it frustrating.
Elle: I'm a lifelong fan of DC superheroes, going back to my childhood in the 80's. And in fact the first comic I read on a monthly basis was the Wally West Flash. And yet I mostly found myself annoyed by Rebirth #1.
Kieran: I think I'm the person that liked it the most, and I fit in the audience it's trying to reach, but I'm still struggling with my feeling that rebooting again --- or whatever they want to call it --- is a bad move.
Andrew: How do you define that audience, Kieran? Because I should say up front; I am not the audience. I'm not much of a DC guy. My investment is not in the success or failure of DC Comics, but in the success or failure of comics.
Kieran: I love the DC Universe, and I specifically love the legacy aspect of the DC Universe. I love that it starts with the JSA, and goes through to the Justice League, and the Teen Titans, and the legacy heroes of the '90s, and then again in the 2000s with characters like Jaime Reyes and Ryan Choi. This comic, I feel, is for me.
And I don't think I want it.
With the New 52, I feel like they took away my favorite toy, and replaced it with a new one. It wasn't as good in many ways, but it had some cool stuff going for it. Now, five years later, they've thrown away the new toy and told me the original one was the best one after all, but I just got used to the new one!
Katie: Something that has been brought up among my comic reviewer circles today is the fact that the very first page has an editor's note telling the reader that they should definitely read the newest Justice League and Superman issues first to understand what's going on. That's maybe not a good sign, you know?
Elle: And aren't those issues the culminations of ongoing storylines? It's like a sign on the book that says, "Not a jumping on point." But on the other hand, I didn't read those comics, and I don't think it affected my experience of Rebirth.
Katie: True, Elle, except for a couple characters I didn't recognize, there was nothing that confused me about the issue, mostly because I have the general knowledge of the DC canon and could guess at the rest. But not a lot excited me. And it didn't help that, as Kieran said, they're pulling away the flawed but still good-in-parts canon that newer readers jumped into... and now DC is telling us that it was a tainted, wrong universe all along.
Kieran: I'm still wrapping my head around how it works in canon, and as far as I can tell they're telling us the last five years was an Age of Apocalypse style alt-timeline, which is kinda insulting?
Katie: It's very insulting.
Andrew: Let's talk specifically about what this book does. It's a response, in large part, to the New 52 linewide reboot of five years ago, which established a new timeline, a new continuity for the DC Universe, and jettisoned a lot of characters' backstories and relationships.
This book attempts to restore a lot of that by suggesting that the New 52 was the work of some nefarious agent within the fictional DC universe (as opposed to some nefarious agent at the DC offices), and that we're going to see a restoration of those stories, those relationships, and a sense of hope and optimism. Are you buying this pitch?
Kieran: Absolutely not. This is at least the third time they've tried to sell us on this new hopeful, optimistic DC Universe, and you can't cry wolf twice and expect anyone to show up the third time.
Elle: I find it very confusing. Is every character going to revert back to where they were in 2011? That seems unlikely. Is it going to be the same sort of confusing mess as the New 52 was in the first place, where it takes ages to figure out what's still canon and what's not? I'm guessing that's more likely.
Katie: I'm not convinced the higher-ups at DC get how to do hope and optimism right. I think individual creators and editorial teams do, but whether or not the higher ups will allow them to actually tell those stories? I'm skeptical.
Andrew: Here's what I find confusing. They're selling us "hope", but what I'm seeing is nostalgia, and for anyone for whom the good old days weren't very good, nostalgia is the opposite of hope. Nostalgia is a sort of withering death. And if writer Geoff Johns wants to write hopeful stories, hasn't he been a lead writer and a DC executive since long before the New 52? What was stopping him writing hope in Justice League, or Green Lantern?
Elle: Yeah, he writes in this book about how friendship and optimism were removed from the DC Universe by a sinister force, but that was him. He wrote the Justice League book that launched the New 52 with a team made up of strangers who yelled at each other and postured like jerks.
Kieran: He can do it. I'm a big fan of his first Flash run, and he does it really well there. I don't know why he hasn't been doing it, but he can. He wrote Stars and STRIPE! He knows what hopeful and optimistic looks like.
I think the problem with DC Comics and a lot of Johns' recent writing is that they work on the defensive. They worry that Superman's shorts are dumb, so they take them away. They don't want people to make Aquaman jokes, so you have surly "I don't talk to fish" Aquaman.
Katie: The New 52 was that defensiveness across fifty-two comics. It was a child's understanding of what it means to tell "grown-up" stories.
Elle: That makes a lot of sense. People thought the Amazons were lesbians, so in the New 52 they became sexual predators who assault male sailors.
Kieran: There's a panel of child Bruce Wayne in an issue of Johns' Justice League where he's painting his room all black and he turns to Alfred and says, "I don't have a favorite color."
Andrew: Poor Bruce.
Katie: And Rebirth feels like more defensiveness. "Oh, you thought the New 52 was bad? Well haha, we've meant for it to be a flawed universe needing to be fixed all along! See, we're totally fixing things for you. You're welcome."
Which makes me think more and more that the DC You was set up to fail because DC knew that it was going to do a soft reboot after the main books hit issue #52 anyway. And as someone who loved a lot of the DC You, it does make me mad to think really good books are getting lumped into what the company is officially branding as the wrong universe.
Andrew: I think that defensiveness is what poisons the exercise, because you can do nostalgia in a positive and upbeat way, and marry it to some forward-facing storytelling. Evan Shaner's Shazam or Future Quest are great examples, or the late Darwyn Cooke's celebrated New Frontier. Those comics aren't trying to win a fight with you, they're just celebrations.
Elle: Oh totally. And by the way, it's frustrating to me as a Shazam fan that we've still got the poorly designed and grim New 52 versions of those characters in that Rebirth group shot, when this would have been the perfect excuse to embrace that particular bit of sunny nostalgia.
Kieran: I was surprised to see them on that spread because, well, where are they going to show up? Are you just reminding me that they're around?
Katie: For all the problems with Convergence, it at least got the optimism of the Marvel/Shazaam family.
Andrew: What DC does with Shazam will be an interesting test case for whether the commitment here really is to hope and optimism, or if the real focus is more... demographic.
There were two big controversies in this Rebirth one-shot, I think. First of all, we have the return of the pre-New 52 Wally West, who is white, co-existing alongside the New 52 Wally West, who is black. Second, we have the apparent integration of the Watchmen characters into the DC Universe, which is both a big reveal and something that hangs over the structure and themes of the whole issue. So... where to begin with those?
Kieran: I'd like to start with Wally, because if Superman is #1, then Wally West is #2 for me. This issue did a lot for me, viscerally. The bit where he shows up and says "My name is Wally West. I'm the fastest man alive" sent shivers up my spine. I'd missed that. The scene where he tries to get back by tethering to Linda and she doesn't recognize him broke my heart, because that happens successfully so many times in Mark Waid's run.
But, I don't think Wally West should have come back. We have a Wally West now. He's not my Wally West, but not everything needs to be for me. I think it's important to stop yourself in situations like this before you become Alex Ross.
Katie: As its own comic I did really like the writing for Wally throughout this issue. If this was it's own thing just to be read as a one-shot, I would be fine with how it was all presented. But it's not its own thing, is it?
Kieran: The comic jumps through so many hoops to explain how the old Wally West and the new Wally West are two different characters, as opposed to alt reality versions of each other. They knew this was going to be a problem.
Katie: Wheeler said it earlier that there's a real problem when a company thinks optimism = nostalgia and nostalgia = mostly white heroes. So we end up with a company going, "We're bringing back optimism so we better bring back white Wally West!"
Elle: I think this story could work without having the same negative impact if it led to pre-Flashpoint Wally sacrificing himself to fix the timeline. But the fact that they've already designed him a new costume and put him on the cover of Titans #1 pretty clearly conveys that that's not what's happening.
Kieran: I could go on a tangent as to why Bart Allen would have been the better candidate in every way, but I don't think anyone wants that.
Andrew: I find the Wally West situation just extraordinarly tone deaf. Surely the point of introducing a black Wally West in the new continuity was to make a bold statement about the need for greater representation? That was a big moment with real consequences; at the very same time that character was being conceived of for the page, black actors were being cast as the West family on the Flash TV show. It mattered that this wasn't a Wally West but the Wally West. Not the "black version," but the guy himself.
Elle: That's the other thing. I always liked Wally West, but I didn't think of him as gone. I thought we'd just gone back to an earlier point in his timeline, and changed him a little, in a positive way. It's only by bringing the original version back that you establish him as previously missing.
Andrew: Saying that New 52 Wally is just a version, and in fact a product of this miserable broken universe, and having two white men tearfully embrace over the truth that the "real" and white Wally West is still out there, that sends a message that ain't hope, no sir. We're being told very clearly and plainly that the priority here isn't growth or change, it's pandering to the childhoods of middle-aged men.
Elle: That's the thing. That right there.
Katie: Whether co-publisher Dan DiDio and Johns want to admit it or not, the ending to Rebirth #1 is sending the message to bigots that, "Don't worry, your white heroes are still the real heroes here."
Kieran: See, I did feel like Wally was missing in a way, because Wally was always The Flash to me. However, I like to think I'm not selfish enough to demand that comics always pander to me, and I was more than ready to welcome the new incarnation into the fold.
There is a part of me that is, selfishly, glad that he's back, and I'd be lying if I said otherwise.
Elle: I see your point, Kieran. But Wally not being the Flash anymore wasn't a New 52 thing. It was a previous Geoff Johns thing.
Katie: If Wally had never shown up in the New 52 and this issue had him return, that would be one thing, but Wally was there. And he's just as valid a Wally West as the pre-New 52 version... and while the issue tries to have it both ways and show New 52 Wally being a hero, the message is still that there's one main Wally and he's back and we should all be super happy to have the genuine article back safe and sound.
Kieran: Yeah, that's exactly my problem with it. I wanted to learn to love this new character, because I am all about the speedsters. Now, they've cut his legs out from under him before he got off the starting block.
Andrew: How many old cishet white men are there that need to be brought back anyway? The same pattern is repeated in the comic's presentation of both Blue Beetle and The Atom, where the new hero is a less-brilliant apprentice to a gifted elder statesman who apparently still needs to be present for roll-call.
Kieran: Man, don't get me started about Ryan Choi. We were promised Ryan Choi as The Atom when they announced The New 52.
Andrew: I get that there are people who care about Wally and Ted and... I'm gonna say... Bob... but hoo boy, don't they have enough heroes already?
Kieran: Also, Jaime Reyes is the first and only Blue Beetle in this reality. I don't know what advice Ted can give him?
Elle: Ted Kord as Blue Beetle was one of my favorite characters growing up. But a Ted who's telling a younger more powerful hero, "Hey look, I built a cool bug! I'm going to be a superhero too, it'll be awesome!" is never going to be the Ted Kord I loved. It's literally the worst of both worlds.
Kieran: I think now is the time to talk about Jackson Hyde, right?
Andrew: Yeah. Very excited to have a new gay teen hero in the world --- having specifically teen heroes who are LGBTQ is hugely important to young queer audiences. But his absence from all the promotional material to-date, including the big Ivan Reis double-page spread, is alarming.
Kieran: El Diablo made it onto that double-page spread, but there was no room for Jackson.
Andrew: Well, Jackson ain't in a movie.
Katie: As much as Aqualad being gay makes me happy --- Greg Weisman wanted to include that in the Young Justice cartoon, but never got to --- it's so easy to include a queer hero in your universe and then never actually focus on them. I don't know that I trust DC to actually put Jackson/Kaldur in the spotlight of their stories.
Andrew: Yeah, I don't remember my Tumblr feed ever getting overcrowded with "great Bunker moments" in the last five years.
Katie: Are we allowed to call him Kaldur? He is Kaldur, right?
Elle: I'm all about having this version of Aqualad around, but I hope he actually is around. I hope he's in Teen Titans, and he's just missing from the promo art... for some reason I don't understand... but I'll feel better about the whole thing when that's confirmed.
Of course, you still have straight white Aqualad running around in Titans with White Wally, but I guess that's just how things work now.
Andrew: Maybe we'll have Teen Titans and Minoriteen Titans?
Kieran: DC Universe: Rebirth also features its only LGBT character getting yelled at by his mother his claims his sexuality is "not natural." It seems a very early-2000s approach to introducing a new queer character.
Katie: I guess we're "lucky" it wasn't revealed by him being called a slur?
Andrew: Speaking of retro, let's get into it. Watchmen. I knew "After Watchmen" had to happen eventually, but I never expected it to take this form.
Elle: I haven't read Watchmen in a while, but didn't it end with Dr. Manhattan deciding that people and relationships matter after all? This seems like a weird direction for him to go from there.
Katie: I seriously read the last pages of the comic with the smiley pin and the Watchmen dialogue and immediately did the Milhouse Jimicky Jillikers line in my head; "But we did it. It took 30 years but we did it. It's done."
Kieran: Johns referred to Doctor Manhattan as pessimistic in his USA Today interview, and that's certainly an interpretation.
Katie: For a comic that promised to bring back optimism and positive relationships, ending with the graphic novel best known for taking dynamite to the concept of nostalgic optimism is bizarre to me.
Andrew: Johns seems to want to directly attriibute the darker tone of modern superheroes to Watchmen, which is not a new idea, but the nuanced take is surely that it wasn't Watchmen that was to blame so much as people's responses to it as the new hotness.
I have my own theories that the actual blame for superhero comics' grim 'n gritty phase has more to do with them passing into the hands of a generation of creators who didn't grow up with the existential threat of a holocaust hanging over their heads, which made them comfortable sneering at the idea of virtuous champions of the underdog. I don't know that Geoff Johns is the writer I want to turn to in order to correct that imbalance. Making Watchmen/Dr Manhattan the enemy/antagonist is a pretty shameless abdication of responsibility for the past five years of comics. But maybe those were all written by John Geoffs from the evil mirror universe.
Katie: Wait, is that what they're saying? That Dr. Manhattan is to blame for the New 52 Because I seriously thought the ending was, "Oh also, do you guys still like Watchmen? Because we still have the IP!"
Kieran: Yeah, they're saying he pinched ten years of time from the Earth.
Andrew: And then presumably buried a button in the wall of Batman's cave, because that's how clues happen, and he am a detective.
Elle: Like Pandora's Box, this door will never be closed now that it's open. However the Watchmen characters fit into Rebirth, there's no way it's the last DC Universe story they appear in.
Katie: Luckily there's room for all the properties DC owns! How's Milestone coming along, by the way?
Elle: My biggest fear for this story is that the twist will be that the villain is actually the Comedian, who was somehow resurrected with Dr. Manhattan's powers. Or at least, that's tied for my biggest fear with Jackson Hyde being the one who sacrifices himself at the end of the story.
Kieran: It's gonna be Adrian, right? Johns will try and just do Watchmen again.
Andrew: Ozymandias is surely Mr Oz, the mysterious figure who approaches Lumbersexual Superman in this issue. Or else we're surely expected to think that. Maybe he's also The Comedian. Maybe we're the Comedian.
Elle: The real Comedian was the friends we made along the way.
Andrew: We should talk about the three Jokers thing, which is at least a swerve on the expected and dreaded revelation of a real name. Thank God that's not happening, but what the what is this now? Have there secretly always been three Jokers? Because Batman might be a really bad detective, youse guys.
Elle: My least favorite part is where Batman hears that one Joker is committing a crime right after another was captured. Because it took Metron's chair to tell him there's three Jokers, but as soon as he knows, it magically becomes really obvious? That's not how anything works.
Andrew: There's a Brian Bolland Joker, a Greg Capullo Joker, and a Jerry Robinson Joker, which maybe allows DC to disentangle the different types of Joker story, but there are also different types of Batman story, so are there three of that dude as well? I mean, discounting all the other ones we know about?
Kieran: They said read Justice League #50 to find out about the Joker's identity, but there's actually slightly more information in DC Universe: Rebirth #1.
Katie: The chances of DC just flat out redoing The Killing Joke went up times three today and I don't like it.
Katie: Has anyone seen that Whitest Kids You Know skit from years ago where a kid comes up with the 7th Star Wars movie and it includes "Two Chewbaccas!?" That's what I thought of with that page. "Three Jokers?!"
Elle: Also has the funny non-mass-murdering Robinson Joker been in a coma for thirty years? I feel like I haven't heard of him doing much.
Andrew: Maybe he's been the Comedian?
Kieran: The Capullo Joker references stuff the Bolland Joker does though. There's a whole story with Batgirl in Death of the Family.
Elle: The idea of a Bolland Joker really bugs me too, because Bolland's really only known for one Joker story. Why isn't there a Jim Aparo Joker? Oh yeah, it's because we have to keep reminding the most misogynistic DC fans that the one story they love so much totally definitely happened.
Katie: Elle, you have to include the Hawaiian shirt and camera, or else people might forget for five minutes that the Joker is a bad guy!
I'm still shaking my head that DC thinks including Watchmen in their main continuity is a good idea.
Kieran: They're making everything more complicated. Stop making everyone Hawkman!
Andrew: Speaking of Hawkman; we have not one, but two great destined male-female romances in this comic. White Wally and Linda are meant to be together, and Black Canary and Green Arrow are meant to be together. Because when a man loves a woman, the whole universe will conspire to make it happen. I assume Wonder Woman's predestined girlfriend is being held in a pocket universe somewhere, just banging her fists futilely against the walls of reality.
Kieran: I don't think Wally and Linda counts under the pre-destined love thing, because if it was, it would have worked.
Andrew: Oh, but it will work. Of course it will. This was just the first obstacle.
Katie: Someone pointed out that even the speedforce bending familial/platonic love between Barry and Wally still included an embrace where their hips didn't touch.
Elle: I love Black Canary, and I used to love Green Arrow just as much, and when I was a kid I loved them being a couple. But there are so many other stories to tell with them, and I don't understand why everything has to be like it was when 40-year-olds were kids! Also, I really, really hate the "heteronormative romance as immutable cosmic force" trope that's so common to superhero comics. If you have to hook them back up, can't they just be attracted to each other? Why does it have to be "we know something's missing, but we don't know what?"
Kieran: I thought that's exactly what it was going to be, and it was exciting. "Ollie and Dinah, together again for the first time!" That's enough, that's fine.
Andrew: We know for a fact that there are parallel realities where Green Arrow and Black Canary don't have any chemistry, because we've seen Arrow.
Elle: Also technically, if I can talk about continuity for a minute, this Black Canary isn't a reboot of the one who was in love with Green Arrow. She's a reboot of that character's mother. I don't know how much Watchmen-related handwaving it takes to get out from under that. You can't do that without making the Dinah who just had her own series into someone who never really existed, or at least didn't know who she was.
Kieran: They'll probably bring back Black Canary the elder as part of the JSA, I imagine. That's something I think we can be happy about, I think. The DC Universe has been missing both the JSA and the Legion.
Elle: I mean, I guess they'll try, but it's bound to be a mess. Everyone really is Hawkman.
Katie: I'm really worried Rebirth is going to mean, "Oh, nothing mattered, everything was fake," and basically have it be a punch in the face to readers who really loved particular series within the New 52.
Kieran: I'm not sure how the two Supermen thing works, if this is the timeline as it was supposed to be, but I don't want to confuse us more than we already are.
Andrew: The New 52 had a lot of problems that needed to be fixed, but I think a more elegant solution could be found. I always say if you want to change something in superhero comics, just change it and blame a wizard.
Katie: I'm back where I was before reading Rebirth #1 --- there are individual series within this initiative that I am definitely giving a try, because I like the creative teams and the characters themselves, but Rebirth as a whole isn't made for me, and it's not going to be made with newer readers in mind. I'm not sure we matter to DC the way the "old guard" does, and that mindset will end up being a mistake for them in the long run.
Elle: I was excited about Greg Rucka's return to Wonder Woman, but I'm immediately less excited now that she has a twin brother. Funny how that works.
Andrew: Rebirth really feels like a comic that's designed for people inside the gates of old school DC fandom to love, and that appeal to a core base is actually the exact same problem that brought the New 52 down. I am not filled with hope or optimism.
Elle: Me neither. It doesn't sound like any of us are.
Andrew: I am mostly filled with a sort of boiling rage at the marginalization of Wally West in favor of White Wally West.
Kieran: I think I'm the most hopeful and optimistic, but like I said, DC Rebirth was made for me.
Andrew: Do we think this continuity will last the next five years? Geoff Johns loves a reboot like he loves Hal Jordan.
Kieran: I'm waiting for the next reboot to come in the next round of solicits. Gotta one-up Marvel NOW!
Elle: I think continuity as a driving force of comics is on its way out. The DC Universe --- and probably the Marvel U too, although at a less accelerated speed --- is going to wither into something very niche for nostalgic old men, while books like the ones Katie named that exist in their own worlds, and that anybody can enjoy, are going to attract bigger audiences as more people are alienated from what these companies want us to think of as "the mainstream."
Katie: We can only hope, Elle.
Andrew: I think that's a great vision. Continuity is so overrated. Reboot everything! Except Watchmen and The Killing Joke. Just boot them.
Elle: It's not like Superman won't be able to hang out with Batman anymore, you just won't have to worry how one story fits into the other's book.
Andrew: And we'll finally get that gay pirate Batman book I wanted.