THE CLOCK IS TICKING
Released: May 2016
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Phil Jimenez, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Matt Santorelli, Brad Anderson, Jason Wright, Hi-Fi and Gabe Eltae
80-page one-shot special in which Wally West returns to the DC Universe to reveal that someone - clearly Dr Manhattan - has been altering history following Flashpoint.
Re-reading DC Universe: Rebirth #1 now at the end of 2019 after the final issue of Doomsday Clock has shipped is an unsettling experience. In the three years since Rebirth's publication in May 2016 there have been seismic political and cultural changes that appear to invalidate the optimism and hope Geoff Johns was hoping to restore to DC comics. Rebirth was published before Trump's election, before the wave of reactionary (often xenophobic) populism that has spread across Western countries - expressed here in the UK as Brexit and the election of Boris Johnson's Conservative Party to government.
Rebirth was a response to New-52 which was itself a product of the febrile atmosphere of post-911, reflected in comics through grim and gritty, often despairing storylines (though this has an earlier genesis in the "dark" comics of the 1980s, themselves an expression of the staggering cultural impact of neoliberalism).
Commercially, New-52 was a corporate reaction to fears about declining sales. DC's 2009 Brightest Day event - essentially resurrecting a dozen characters who'd been killed off - seemed to be an instrument to make relatively minor changes to the DCU without having another "Crisis" or needing a hard reset. At the time, Johns was clear that he sought a "balance" in comics:
For me, I like the dichotomy between the lightness and darkness. I don't want all my comics to be marshmallows. On the same token, I don't want my comic books to be depressing and futile. There's a balance, as there is in all drama and in life. People like to put everything in a box. If you say Blackest Night is just a zombie book, then you haven't read it. I think it's a hell of a lot of fun.
Rumours of power struggles behind the scenes at DC aren't new. Those claiming knowledge, reduce it to two competing visions of the DCU: Johns' and Dan Didio's. Decades in the future we may get a history of DC that reveals what went on in the lead up to New-52. Was there a tipping point where "legacy" creators and editors were over-ruled and the entire line relaunched? Was a full-blown reboot prevented? At the time, Dan Didio was using the term "Rebirth" when speaking about the changes that were to be introduced and it seems to have been a word that has hung around for a long time (and used by Johns when he wanted to restore the links with legacy).
In 2011 - as if suddenly and from nowhere - Flashpoint happened. Flashpoint presented a nightmarish world where everything was distorted and broken. Only Flash realised. It seemed the culmination of the darkness that had infected superhero comics. Grotesque versions of much-loved heroes battled or hid themselves away as the DC Universe itself was destroyed. It was replaced by the New-52.
New-52 actually generated some (short-lived) fan optimism. I'd been drawn back into regularly reading comics by John's Superman comic and then by his Green Lantern/Blackest Night event. I was bemused by (though enjoyed) Flashpoint but was certainly galvanised by the energy of the New-52 launch. Morrison's Action Comics and Rucka's Wonder Woman were standouts: genuinely engaging takes on established characters. Scott Snyder's Batman built on Morrison's work with the Court of Owls.
There were some fundamental issues, though, with New-52. After DC acquired Wildstorm in 1998, Image's aggressively gritty tone seemed to be increasingly folded into the regular superhero comics. By 2010, when the re-launch was decided, Jim Lee seemed central in generating the "look" and tone which had a decidedly Ninties character. To a certain extent, Lee's influence was somewhat mitigated by Geoff John's who has a more legacy-based, character-driven approach. Their Justice League collaboration was the centrepiece and - for the first, Lee-drawn issues anyway, was an exciting comic to read.
One of the biggest problems, though, was that It wasn't a full relaunch: some better-selling comics - like Batman and Green Lantern - retained a damaged, inconsistent chronology. Characters were "de-aged" by 10 years but had histories that were too extensive for their youthful ages. It didn't add up. Stuff like that matters to harcore fans. Some of the plotlines were erratic. Stories about heavy-handed editorial decisions were regularly leaked to social media and the company gained the impression of trampling over talent whom they undervalued. Storylines dragged on and frequently involved massive cross-overs with other titles - presumably to encourage readers to purchase as many issues as possible. Plus there was an obsession with publishing 52 titles which seemed to saturate the comic shelves. Soon, existing fans realised that the New-52 often felt "depressing and futile" and the takes on characters tended towards grim. DC refused to bring back much-loved characters (like Wally West), teams (like the JSA and Legion) and made odd decisions about the characters it did keep (multiple Robins, Lobo, Nightwing). Within five years, decline in sales showed that the New-52 approach wasn't attracting new readers and actually appeared to be alienating existing ones.
My interest in DC comics was beginning to wane about the point when Rebirth happened. I was buying too many issues and struggling to keep up with sprawling storylines. Rebirth caught me at exactly the right time. Like other readers, the implication that Dr Manhattan, one of the characters from Watchmen, was responsible for the worst aspects of the New-52 was both engaging and alarming. Yes, part of me wanted to see new Watchmen comics. No, part of me knew that without Alan Moore (or at least his input in some way) it would be terrible.
DC Universe: Rebirth #1 begins with Wally West, a fan-favourite former Flash who hadn't been brought back in the New-52 continuity which caused a great deal of consternation and dismay among fandom. In the course of the 80-page issue, Wally attempts to escape the speed force and return to the DCU. The comic is a series of scenes in which Wally tries to communicate with DC characters or observe what they are doing. Much of the issue acts as a series of teasers for what would follow in subsequent Rebirth comics. In many respects, it's a critique of New-52, pointing out what's missing and showing how quickly the problems can be solved: a change of motivation here, an unlikely pairing there, the return of a missing team, the removal of a character. It's all done positively, with an emphasis on hope as New-52's missing ingredient.
In 2016 I would have told you that Rebirth was probably the most important DC comic since 1985's Crisis on Infinte Earths. Now I'm not so sure.
Aside from Wally's return and the clear message that the New-52 was a manipulated version of the DC Universe that needed correcting, there were a number of interesting changes presented in Rebirth that would be followed up in the relaunched titles. For some reason, Wally's hope-inspiring return gets ruined. He returns as a damaged, tragic figure in Dan Abnett's Titans comic then becomes the murderous villain in Tom King's Heroes in Crisis (2019). It may be that the current Flash Forward (2019) redresses some of this.
The most important change was that the New-52 Superman had been killed off and the pre-Flashpoint Superman, Lois and Jonathan Kent existed and were in hiding. The older, more hopeful version of Superman would return. After Rebirth, in Doomsday Clock, Johns maintains that Superman is the lynchpin of the DC Universe and when the character is wrong then it subverts the other heroes (and comics). There's no mistaking that Johns' vision of Superman is the 1970s movie version: hopeful, honest, inspirational. That's why Gary Franks draws Superman looking like Christpher Reeves. That's why Johns alters the New-52 timeline to ensure that Ma and Pa Kent are not killed in a car accident. They enable Clark Kent to become the Superman from our childhood.
New-52 undoubtedly shifted the focus of DC Comics to Batman (rather than Superman). After all, Batman comics outsell everything else. The trouble is that Batman increasingly assumed the pivotal Superman role and became virtually invincible (Batman can't even die, it seems). In Rebirth, Johns sets up The Button (2017) storyline that has Batman distracted.
A third change is that Johns prepares the way for the reintroduction of the The Justice Society of America and The Legion of Superheroes. Both "legacy" teams have not been in New-52 continuity. In Rebirth #1, Johnny Thunder and Saturn Girl appear and remember the two teams. Both have now - as of 2019 - returned but, perhaps, not in the way that Johns had imagined. We shall see.
In 2016, Rebirth seemed to herald a compelling, optimistic change to the DC Comics line. The dour, dark and doom-ridden storylines were to be countered by a brighter, more hopeful attitude. Back then it looked like the Democrats would win the US presidency and that a wave of hopeful, progressivism would spread through the Western world. In the UK there was for a time a palpable sense of optimism after years of government-imposed austerity. It even looked for a time like we could have a progressive Labour government. By the time the final issue of Doomsday Clock appeared - which struggled to assert hope against all odds - it seems both our (real) world and the DC Universe continue to fall into darkness, cyncism and despair. Time seems to have run out. It's unnerving how quickly things change.