SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1, on sale today, following select midnight sales at participating stores last night.
First, if you’re made it this far without yet being spoiled on the events of “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1, congratulations — that couldn’t have been easy, as a leak late Friday led to details quickly circulating around the Internet, prompting DC Comics itself to reveal some of the surprises via official channels.
As to the book itself: You didn’t see that coming, did you? For the first time ever, there is acknowledged contact between the characters of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ seminal 1986-1987 series, “Watchmen” and the DC Universe that’s home to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — a completely unexpected move that will likely not sit well with some fans, given the sacrosanct status the story has long held.
A lot of the major surprises in “DC Universe: Rebirth” — a one-shot meant to kick-start the “Rebirth” relaunch of the DC Universe comics with a stated focus on hope, optimism and legacy — were easy enough to guess. Geoff Johns — the writer of the issue and DC’s Chief Creative Officer — stressed the importance of legacy in early promotion for the book, so the returns of Wally West, Ryan Choi and Ted Kord all fit nicely into that theme. But then there’s the end of the book.
During the course of the 80-page (counting house ads in the back) issue, Wally West’s narration reveals that the rebooted history of the New 52 was not caused by the time-altering events of 2011’s Johns-helmed crossover “Flashpoint,” but rather an outside force that took 10 years away from DC Universe history. Wally explains this to the current Flash, Barry Allen, stating, “Whoever they are, they did this for a reason. I think they took years from us to weaken us.” Barry guesses that it might be the Reverse-Flash, but Wally tells him it’s someone else, someone even more powerful than Darkseid — which, within the DC Universe, doesn’t leave a lot of contenders.
Of course, no one said the options were limited to the DC Universe.
As Wally and Barry’s conversation continues, the scene shifts to Batman in the Batcave, glancing at the letter from his father that Barry gave to him at the end of “Flashpoint” (in “Flashpoint,” Thomas Wayne became Batman, with Bruce dying in Crime Alley). Batman’s attention is then drawn to something shiny in the walls of the Batcave, and he chips away to find — insert dramatic pause — the Comedian’s blood-stained badge, the most iconic image from “Watchmen” and something that doesn’t seem to make any sense at this point to be hanging out in the Batcave. Wally’s dialogue on that page puts a finer point on it: “We’re being watched.”
And that’s not it: A four-page epilogue also by Johns and Gary Frank shifts the narrative from Earth to Mars, where Wally West’s missing watch — seen on the first page of the issue — is telekinetically disassembled and reassembled by an unseen presence; depicted in a nine-panel grid reminiscent of Gibbons’ “Watchmen” storytelling. The narration is dialogue direct from the end of “Watchmen,” with Ozymandias asking Doctor Manhattan, “I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” Doctor Manhattan answers, “In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
So, yes: Somehow, Doctor Manhattan — the only superpowered character in “Watchmen,” who possesses seemingly limitless godlike abilities — is responsible for the creation of the New 52, and for changing DC Universe history as fans knew it. The two pages following the epilogue are issue credits in the distinct black-and-yellow palette of “Watchmen,” along with a watch face — indicating 15 minutes to midnight — adorned with the iconic blood splatter from Comedian’s badge, accompanied by the text, “the clock is ticking across the DC Universe.”
Like much of “Rebirth,” the use of Doctor Manhattan feels like meta-commentary on the direction of DC Comics. A commentary by Devin Faraci on Birth Movies Death argues that the use of Doctor Manhattan is drawing a straight, metaphorical line between “Watchmen” and some of the drearier comics of the New 52, as the more realistic and adult tone of Moore and Gibbons’ deconstructionist work has led to conventional superheroes being affected in a negative way by similar approaches. Doctor Manhattan literally made a fictional superhero universe a darker place, much like “Watchmen” did to real-life comic book series.
This marks the first-ever crossover between “Watchmen” characters and the DC Universe proper. “Watchmen” took place in its own, separate fictional universe, one with superheroes inspired by the Charlton Comics characters DC had acquired in 1983. It’s also only the second time “Watchmen” has been revisited with new comics material since the original 12-issue series. The first time was “Before Watchmen,” a controversial initiative that saw eight miniseries and a one-shot published between 2012 and 2013, acting as a series of prequels to the initial story.
As “Watchmen” is one of the most celebrated works in comic book history, attempts to revisit the story in any form has been met with scrutiny from critics and observers. Additionally, Moore himself has made his disapproval of any “Watchmen” follow-up extremely clear over the years, completely disavowing “Before Watchmen” or any similar efforts — he was once quoted as saying he’d be “spitting venom all over” the 2009 Zack Snyder-directed live-action film.
“It seems a bit desperate to go after a book famous for its artistic integrity,” Moore said of “Before Watchmen” in 2012. “It’s a finite series. ‘Watchmen’ was said to actually provide an alternative to the superhero story as an endless soap opera. To turn that into just another superhero comic that goes on forever demonstrates exactly why I feel the way I do about the comics industry. It’s mostly about franchises.”
Gibbons was measured in his approval of “Before Watchmen” — in DC’s official press release announcing the event, he stated, “The original series of ‘Watchmen’ is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.” Neither Moore nor Gibbons are credited in the “Rebirth” one-shot.
It’s not clear exactly how much of an uproar will be caused by the use of “Watchmen” characters and concepts in the DC Universe. It’s probable that the existence of “Before Watchmen” has lessened the potential controversy of this move, as the seal has already been broken. It’s also possible, fair or not, that Moore’s increasingly ambivalent reputation among comics readers will impact public reaction; given comments like calling superhero fans “emotionally subnormal” and renewed criticism of a perceived over-reliance on sexual violence as a trope in his stories.
It’s also not clear when DC plans to follow up on Doctor Manhattan’s connection to the DC Universe. While plenty of future stories are teased in the “Rebirth” one-shot, with house ads in the back of the book directing readers to the Rebirth series set to continue those plot lines, it’s not yet evident where the “Watchmen” of it all fits in going forward (though the cover for “Titans” #1, featuring the just-returned original Wally West does feature a blue-hued, apparently cosmically-powered individual in the background). An interview with Johns in USA Today indicates the rest of the story won’t come anytime soon, with the paper’s Brian Truitt writing, “How ‘Watchmen’ is involved in the DC Universe is a mystery that will unfold in the background over the course of a couple years.”
No matter what direction this story may take, it’s still one of the most legitimately surprising developments in a superhero comic in years — though maybe readers should have seen it coming, given that it now seems fairly obvious that it’s Doctor Manhattan’s hand on the cover of the “Rebirth” one-shot, an image that was released back in March:
“DC Universe: Rebirth” #1, from Johns, Frank, Ivan Reis, Phil Jimenez and Ethan Van Sciver is on sale now.
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