The first page of DC Universe Rebirth bears the familiar nine-panel grid that every lover of the medium should be intimately familiar with. The last time I saw such a structure utilized was in Morrison’s Multiversity: Pax Americana #1, done with the same intention and achieving the same effect. Panel structure has always been one of the unique devices of sequential art. Film and television contain a sequence of images as well, but their structure is fixed, one frame followed by the other, at the fixed rate of twenty-four frames per second. But in comics, the arrangement of images is not merely variable, but truly significant – regardless of their content, panel structure can itself convey information to the reader. In this case, the nine-panel grid is an allusion, and an immediately obvious one at that.As if there was any doubt in the reader’s mind regarding the reference, the first panel all but confirms one’s suspicions. It is a close up of an analog timepiece, viewed straight on so that the face is perfectly circular. An unseen narrator is talking about a watch, and over the course of the remaining eight panels, most of which show increasingly closer images of the working (and malfunction) of the clock’s gears, the narrator muses on family, legacy, time, and brokenness.
It’s a bold move. The last time Johns rebooted the DC Universe in Justice League #1 the aim was the broadest appeal possible, specifically seeking to bring in new readers unfamiliar with the medium. That first issue centered on the character most popular with the public, Batman, and focused on his first meeting with DC’s next best seller at the time, Green Lantern, with a cameo from the iconic Superman at the end. It was decompressed storytelling in the style of Ultimate Spider-man, taking time to introduce readers to each and every character over the course of several issues. It was an excellent issue, and an excellent arc, and ultimately an excellent series, but it started safe, almost overly so.
There’s nothing safe about DC Universe Rebirth #1. From the first page inviting comparison to the most beloved graphic novel of all time to the epilogue going boldly beyond even the most divisive event series in comics history to the meaty middle which layers on fan service in the form of familiar character thought forgotten and extensive exposition dumps recounting the meta-story of the DC multiverse in full, Rebirth is unapologetic about aiming squarely at the small but devout audience of core comic readers.
And what better way to do so than what amounts to essentially another Crisis, a with a Flash once again at the center? At this point, DC comics are about DC Comics, the multiverse and the crises it causes acknowledged analogs for the publisher’s own publishing history and the various versions of its characters under different writers and eras. Those who read DC regularly don’t merely tolerate these self-referential and self-aggrandizing stories; they’re fans of DC precisely because these are the species of stories they most enjoy.
It’s those same fans who’ll take delight in Ethan van Sciver channelling George Perez in the way the Earth bobs in a breathtakingly busy blackness of space, or how he references artists of all eras in his different depictions of the Joker(s). But those same fans will also endlessly supply the fuel for the outrage machines that are internet comment boards, screaming in all caps about the three last words – “Nothing ever ends” – and everything which they imply, with an almost fundamentalist fervor.
The reason is simple; despite what I said yesterday about superheroes being the pantheon of a modern mythology sans the religious reverence, even without being worshipped on a literal level such characters carry still a certain sacredness, igniting the same devotion, the same passions. In that sense, referencing past works like Infinite Earths or The Killing Joke is seen as an act of reverence, such as stain glass depicting the stations of the cross, whereas picking up from the end of Watchmen is seen as sacrilege, like a modern day heretic adding his own books to the Bible.
My own reaction to the revelations in Rebirth are far more reserved. About two weeks ago, I submitted my application to the DC Writers’ Workshop with the hopes of eventually being given the opportunity to write these characters myself. As such, just as I wouldn’t want any topic to be too taboo to touch, I wouldn’t want any story seen as so sacred that such was off-limits for me to add on to. Johns, especially given his pedigree with Green Lantern: Rebirth, Flash: Rebirth, and the New 52 Justice League, has certainly earned the right to play with any toys he wants in DC’s box of characters, even those created by Moore*. Even at eighty pages, he’s barely begun to pick up any in particular in Rebirth, yet the promise alone is tantalizing. For now, I’ll give Johns more than the benefit of the doubt. Because minus the angry internet comments, I am that hardcore, longtime fan described above, exactly who Rebirth is aimed at. As such, it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from DC over the decades (minus the one truly shocking surprise), but that’s also exactly what I wanted. And I know I’m not alone.
*Except Promethea. Please don’t touch Promethea!