A layman's guide to why people are flipping out over DC Comics' Rebirth #1

Comics shenanigans of the highest order

It's been a wild week for superhero comics. DC Comics' promised Rebirth reboot is finally here, and its first big reveals have hit comics shelves, even as Marvel did its darnedest to one up its competitor.

Marvel's big reveal is relatively easy to explain, both as a plot twist and as something that would rile up fans (or bystanders, or basically anybody). But DC's takes a little more digging.

The buzz on DC Universe: Rebirth #1, the 80-page one-shot that sets the stage for DC's line-wide meta-narrative going into its Rebirth initiative, has been going since this past weekend, when the entire book leaked online. Now, it's finally in the hands of readers through legitimate means.

here are your watercooler discussion points for DC Universe: Rebirth #1

But let's be realistic about this. Paradoxically, even though they are the story arcs that are often most talked about in non-comics news media, crossover events are not for new readers. They often rest heavily on taking disparate plot threads from past comics (sometimes very past comics) and bringing them together to a continuity-shattering climax, and usually assume that the reader is familiar with those threads before opening the first issue. As Rebirth helpfully explains on its first page, "This tale takes place after Justice League #50 and Superman #52, so read those first!"

Reboots are only for new readers when they are actually an excuse for new stories, and Rebirth is promising a good number of those! But in the meantime, DC Comics is kicking off their reboot with a book with an entire scene that's only exciting if you can recognize the crest of the Legion of Superheroes.

New readers, innocent bystanders and folks who just want to know why Twitter is blowing up, here are your watercooler discussion points for DC Universe: Rebirth #1. Naturally, they will contain spoilers for the comic.

The whole comic kind of reads like a textual apology for the New 52

DC Rebirth Gary Frank/DC Comics

Rebirth #1 stars a member of the Flash Family, not an uncommon characteristic for a major continuity event of the DC Universe, as the dimension hopping and time travel hijinks that the Flashes get up to with their speed powers have often been the catalyst for shaking up what's considered canon. Our central hero and narrator is Wally West, once Kid Flash, then the Flash. His childhood as a sidekick and eventual growth into fully embodying his mentor's role was rendered out of existence when the New 52 reset the DC Comics timeline to a mere five years from the first appearance of Superman.

The in-universe event that kickstarted the changes of the New 52 was contained in an arc called Flashpoint. And as Wally tells the reader in Rebirth, it turns out that when Flashpoint was wrapping up its crazy time travel shenanigans and everything was being restored to the way it was, a mysterious entity attacked our timeline.

"As our timelines reformed, someone stole ten years from us," Wally says. "A decade was removed like a Jenga piece. I don't know exactly how or why, but it changed everything. Heroes that were legends became novices. Bonds between them were weakened and erased. Legacies were destroyed."

Wally, the Kid Flash who became the Flash, is one of those legacies. He's been lost outside of reality since Flashpoint, and only just now is risking his life to make contact with the folks who used to know him well — his wife, Batman, the Flash and members of the original Teen Titans, who were never a part of that group with him in the New 52.

Wally's journey is fundamentally, unavoidably, about confronting all the ways in which the New 52's timeline is different — and sadder — than the one he's familiar with. For one thing, the New 52 didn't just wipe away the history of a number of sidekicks, it also divorced, de-aged, retconned or benched nearly all of the happily married couples of the pre-New 52 universe and injected conflict and fundamental disagreement into the ones left over. Seriously, No Happy Romantic Relationships was an editorial mandate.

and the entity that stole a decade from the DC Universe is ...

Rebirth literally paints many of the editorial decisions of the New 52 as the work of an antagonistic cosmic force — if not a supervillain, than something otherwise indistinguishable. It's clever, and it would even be funny if the New 52 hadn't been around for five years now. That's both far too long a period for a company to have been carrying through with bad choices, and not long enough for readers to have forgotten how excited the same company expected us to get about the prospect of a very controversial reboot in the first place. The editorial lineup that gave us the New 52 is the same one that's giving us Rebirth.

For readers looking forward to the return of many of those benched or retconned legacy characters, for the return of an in-universe DC superhero community that spans three generations, Rebirth creates a very mixed feeling. Wally realizes he must warn a world that has forgotten him about the intentions of the mysterious entity that stole his life in the first place. He spends the book on borrowed time, pleading with his loved ones to remember him so that their emotional connection can serve as a literal lifeline for him to reenter reality — and for them to do it before he's torn apart by the forces he must summon just to momentarily appear to them. It's genuinely poignant, even as it is Only In Comics Shenanigans of the highest order.

But this isn't the first time that DC has tried to walk back the New 52, though it's definitely their most emphatic yet. The proof of intentions will be in the content of their books going forward, not in one 80-page one-shot. We'll be waiting until next month for those books to come out, and for months after that to get a sense of whether the hints in Rebirth are cosmetic changes or a sign of a real understanding of how to pilot something as narratively unique and logistically complicated as the world's oldest superhero universe.

Rebirth had some major reveals

For one, the comic concludes with Barry Allen remembering Wally West despite the very force of reality itself, providing the link Wally needs to reenter the DC Universe for good. DC Comics co-pulishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, and chief creative officer Geoff Johns, promised that Rebirth events would see the reveal of the Joker's true identity, and while Rebirth #1 doesn't outright state it, it does vaguely hint towards the idea that the Joker has been three separate people over the years.

But the return of Wally West and Batman chin-stroking in his cave are dwarfed by the book's epilogue, which boldly hints — if not outright states — that the entity that stole a decade from the DC Universe in order to "weaken" its heroes, the entity that is beginning the "war between hope and despair, love and apathy, faith and disbelief" that Wally needed to warn everyone about ...

You might want to take a deep breath.

That entity is Doctor Manhattan from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen.

Why is this a big, controversial deal? Well, for one thing, Watchmen characters have never directly interacted with the main DC Universe before. Though the Watchmen universe was very deliberately based on characters that DC Comics owned or had just acquired when it was written — and it has occasionally been shown as one of the numerous parallel earths that make up the DC Multiverse — Owlman has never met the Blue Beetle, Rorschach has never met the Question and Silk Spectre has never met Black Canary.

But the real answer only lies partially in the text, and primarily in the metatext.

There are many, many discussions to be had about Watchmen as a literary text, but regardless of their outcome it is difficult to understate the affect that it has had on the history of superhero comics. Along with The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke (another Moore-penned story), Watchmen was a "superhero" story that reached a broad audience outside of regular superhero comics readers for the first time, and it has never stopped reaching them. And, along with those texts, it laid the groundwork for the superhero comics industry's long contemporary love affair with the anti-hero.

A shiny splat crosses a black oval on a bright background: The zoomed in look of blood splatter on the eye of a smiley-face button on the cover of Watchmen. Image: DC Comics

And Watchmen was dark, yes, but it was smart — perhaps too smart for many of its biggest fans. It was early and indelible proof that superhero stories could speak to complex political and philosophical issues, and not simply in the tone of the after-school special. Ironically, it was penned as a deconstruction — and condemnation — of the glossed over and normalized violence at the heart of many superhero stories. It called into question the assumption that those who can should take the law into their own hands, and the idea that any single person or entity could be responsibly trusted with the power to bend the course of human history to their will. Ultimately, Watchmen is a story about how people cannot wield nearly limitless power and remain recognizably human.

Given that alone, the main DC Comics universe and the Watchmen universe are strange bedfellows. If Doctor Manhattan's limitless power led him to move beyond humanity, what encounter can there be between that character and one like Superman, an outsider with a fundamentally different perspective granted by his immense power whose entire conceit is that despite all that he has a boundless love for humanity and considers himself one of them? Watchmen is best read not as a superhero story, but as a story about flawed, dangerous people. What happens when that world and the deliberately bombastic, emotional suspension-of-belief-requiring main DC Universe collide?

But there's even more metatext here, and it lies in the decades and decades of ill will between DC Comics and Watchmen creator Alan Moore.

Watchmen didn't just usher in a new era of tone for superhero comics, it was also one of the earliest comics to be wildly successful as a collected book. It's hard to remember, in this modern time of trade paperback collections of every DC and Marvel title, but it used to be that getting a single collected print run of any comic at all was a rarity. The audience for comics was folks who bought monthly issues, not folks who bought books (vastly more so than it is today).

DC's attempts to make nice with Moore can be considered mercantile at best and insulting at worst

So the contract that DC Comics signed with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons over the rights to Watchmen — a book full of original characters the company had asked him to create rather than explicitly use its own, as he'd initially intended — was designed to hand rights to the story and characters back to them as soon as the book was no longer in print and the merchandise was no longer selling. It was not unreasonable for Moore and Gibbons to expect to get those rights within a few years.

Of course, DC has never allowed Watchmen (or V for Vendetta, Moore's other runaway DC Comics success about original characters whose rights rest under a similar agreement) to go out of print. Moore's rightful anger over his subsequent treatment by DC editorial is the stuff of comic books legend — DC's attempts to make nice with the creator of many of their most lauded and successful comics can be considered mercantile at best and insulting at worst.

So, indeed, it's an interesting meta-commentary on the history of tone in superhero comics for a story to be about how hostile machinations from Watchmen characters made the New 52 dark and sad.

Geoff Johns — DC Comics' chief creative officer and the writer on Rebirth #1 — "stressed" to the Wall Street Journal that Doctor Manhattan's role is as an "antagonist — not a supervillain." And while that may bear out in Rebirth's repercussions in later comics, here's what a character monologues in Rebirth #1 just before she is mysteriously, violently disintegrated in a way that's quite reminiscent of Rorschach's death at the hands of Doctor Manhattan.

That's pretty supervillain-y stuff right there. And it's ballsy for a DC Comics story to say that Doctor Manhattan is bad for making all the changes that made the New 52 dark and sad, when DC Comics editorial is responsible for them.

And also when the company itself was cannily returning to make more Watchmen stories, against the express wishes of its creator, a mere year after the New 52 began. And when DC as a company still leans heavily on a stable of thirty-year-old stories like The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke or Watchmen that kicked off the anti-hero trend.

Mixed feelings

What comes next for DC Comics? Well, there's a whole slew of books — some more promising than others — that will be premiering in the next few months. Those titles are where casual and new readers should really be focusing their attention — and they're where we'll see whether all of Rebirth #1's hints and teases about DC Comics' renewed focus on love, hope and legacy in their books bears out.