About a year ago, DC Comics made good on its pledge to reform its comics universe by revealing a metatextually shocking twist: the implication that everything readers didn’t like about the company’s New 52 continuity reboot had been caused by a character from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ blockbuster graphic novel, Watchmen.
It’s taken a year for our first significant return to the idea that Doctor Manhattan “stole” a decade of continuity from the DC Universe — an act that spawned the New 52’s version of continuity. A short, four-issue crossover between Batman and The Flash, The Button, released its final issue today, having picked up several threads from DC’s Rebirth issue and run with them through time and space.
The Button features the death of a major villain, an epic family reunion as only the DC Universe can provide and still manages to raise more questions than it answers. But if you don’t mind a few spoilers, here’s the broad strokes of The Button.
The Reverse Flash is dead
As a story, The Button’s inciting incident is a murder mystery — who killed Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash?
Thawne is a criminal scientist from the future who is fatally obsessed with the Flash. He’s exactly the person you don’t want to have the power to travel through time at will — in this story alone he calls himself a “living paradox.” Thawne’s power comes with a solid ironic twist, though — his origin is so tied up in the existence of Barry Allen that murdering his nemesis would undo Thawne as well. Instead, he settled for destroying Barry’s family by murdering his mother and framing his father for the deed.
Thawne appears just as Batman and the Flash are about to put their heads together to finally discover the origin of a strange object that mysteriously appeared in the Batcave months ago: a yellow smiley face button, stained with a drop of blood, that gives off some literally out of this world radiation. Thawne seizes the button and absconds with it through the timestream to discover its origin for himself, only to reappear in the Batcave a moment later with half his body seared away by some kind of terrible energy.
He is only able to gasp “God ... God ... I saw ... God,” before dying.
In this week’s final issue, The Flash #22, we see the moment that Thawne came face to face with the entity “who the power of the button belongs to.” We don’t see its full form, just blue-white, ghostly swirls.
“Wait, I didn’t know!” Thawne protests fearfully upon getting a good look at it, “Please! I don’t want to d—” are his last words before it blasts him with a column of energy, as it appears to attract the button in its own direction.
The Flash #22 closes by experimenting with the 9-panel grid, a characteristic Watchmen motif. It shows the button, being picked up by a glowing blue hand — just like Doctor Manhattan’s — accompanied by a quote from Watchmen in which Doctor Manhattan explains his perception of time as a fixed causality. “Everything is preordained. Even my responses.”
In that respect, at least, Thawne is an interesting character to contrast against the nearly omnipotent “Superman” analogue of Watchmen’s Manhattan. Thawne’s claim to fame is altering the timeline, while Doctor Manhattan’s perception of all time as a single unchangeable moment is a major theme in Watchmen, and a major hook of its plot.
Oddly, outside of being blue-white, the ghostly, obscured pieces of the entity that kills Thawne do not bear a strong resemblance to Doctor Manhattan. It’s the sort of framing that could easily be later revealed to belong to another character entirely — or it could just be artistic license.
The rest of DC Continuity still exists ... somewhere
But back to Thawne’s dead body in the Batcave: the Flash and Batman decide to follow his trail through the timestream in an effort to find what killed him and possibly the origin of the button. In order to do this, the book resurrects one of the weirder bits of Flash lore: the cosmic treadmill.
It’s what it says on the tin: it’s a treadmill. When the Flash runs on it, it allows him to travel through time and dimensions.
Flash and Batman try to use it to follow Thawne but mostly just wind up getting knocked off course by a violent storm in space time. Most notably, they wind up in the Batcave of another timeline, one in which young Bruce Wayne was killed by a mugger, and his father Thomas became Batman instead.
This timeline featured prominently in Flashpoint, the Flash miniseries that prominently featured Eobard Thawne’s efforts to mess with the Flash’s past and that set the stage for the New 52 reboot. At the end of the story, Barry thought he’d set the timeline back the way it was supposed to be.
But if Barry set the timeline straight, how can he and Batman even visit the alternate history of Flashpoint? Something has “put the world on life support,” for reasons unknown. And if the Flashpoint timeline has been put on life support, it stands to reason that the other worlds Flash and Batman glimpsed in the time space storm — clear references to major past DC events that are no longer canonical, like the formation of the Silver Age Justice League, Identity Crisis and Crisis on Infinite Earths — might also be on life support as well.
The Justice Society hasn’t returned ... yet
One of the largest changes the New 52 made to DC Continuity was the writing out of the Justice Society, the generation of superheroes who came before Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League. Metatextually, the Justice Society represented the Golden Age version of many of DC’s prominent heroes, including the original incarnations of the Atom and Green Lantern.
And it really seemed like The Button was hinting at the return of the Society’s most famous member: Jay Garrick, the original incarnation of the Flash. Rebirth, the last book to dive into the plot line, reunited Barry Allen with another member of the Flash family who was written out of the New 52 Universe. Within The Button, Barry Allen confides in Batman that he’s been having visions of Garrick’s helmet, and the final issue of the crossover features an homage to the image of Garrick on the very first issue of The Flash.
But while Garrick appears in The Button — he saves Batman and the Flash when they are about to be lost in time and space — he doesn’t manage to stick around. Like Wally West in Rebirth #1, he needs someone to remember him, or cosmic pressure will force him out of our universe once again. Before Barry can do that, the older hero is blasted by a column of the same blue-white energy that hit Thawne, and disappears.
The Flash theorizes that perhaps he wasn’t the “lightning rod” of belief that Jay needed, a likely reference to Johnny Thunder (pictured above), a bumbling member Justice Society member who appears to be the last of the group to exist in the modern DC Universe.
Something wants to sew doubt within Batman
As previously mentioned, after they get knocked off course by a blue-white storm in the timestream, Batman and the Flash wind up in the Batcave of the Flashpoint timeline and meet Thomas Wayne, the Batman of the Flashpoint timeline.
All of the heroes are confused as to why Flashpoint still exists — it isn’t a parallel earth, just a different timeline, one that the Flash should have wiped from existence when he restored the normal DC Universe. Something “is holding it together,” for some reason, which the characters can only speculate on.
But just after Thomas reminds Bruce of a time when he told him “Waynes always rise,” the Flashpoint reality begins to fade into a blinding blue-white light. And just before Batman and Flash make their escape from the collapsing world, Thomas Wayne gives his final message to Bruce.
“Don’t be Batman.”
One of the crossover’s final scenes shows Bruce mulling over Thomas’ last words to him, perhaps hinting that this is exactly why the Flashpoint universe was put on life support and why he and the Flash were drawn there. Someone wanted Bruce Wayne to meet this version of his father, and it seems like what Bruce got out of the interaction was the idea of quitting the superhero life, an unlikely perspective for the obsessive crimefighter.
In an unusual move in our modern comics landscape, DC editorial has promised that the fallout from Rebirth #1, the overarching “plot” of their Rebirth reboot, wouldn’t be explored in a massive line-wide crossover. Instead, we’ve gotten bits and bobs and tiny hints at this larger picture, while most books have otherwise gone about their usual business undisturbed — barring the occasional short crossover like The Button.
In a year where Marvel is addressing retailer concerns of event fatigue in their readership, DC’s Rebirth strategy is refreshing. We’ll be waiting for a while to get a follow up to The Button, but not as long as we waited between The Button and Rebirth #1. DC announced the follow up arc, Doomsday Clock, this week, written by DC’s chief creative officer, Geoff Johns, and drawn by Gary Frank and Brad Anderson. The story will hit shelves this November, and all indications point to the arc heavily involving Superman, one of the DC Universe’s most optimistic characters, and Doctor Manhattan, one of Watchmen’s most cynical.