Note: This review does not contain major spoilers, though it does discuss the presence of some key characters who appear in the issue.
It’s easy to flip to the epilogue of “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1 to find out which old character has been dusted off and set up for a conflict with the heroes of DC Comics, but doing so is a great disservice to both the story and you as a reader. That’s because Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis and Phil Jimenez use the rest of this issue to lay out an important path for DC’s line of superhero comics to follow, and it’s one made very clear with a single four letter word: hope. Ignoring the first 60 pages of “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1 is about the biggest mistake a reader could make.
Johns’ script does not, as many people had speculated, wipe the slate clean or restart the company’s continuity. Instead, we get a tour of the modern DC Universe through the eyes of someone who had been more or less erased from continuity with the start of the New 52: Wally West. It’s a logical choice for Johns; having written the character for many years, Johns not only founded his early reputation as a comic book writer on Wally, but Wally’s small presence over the last four years of DC Comics has been notable. Placed outside of continuity, Wally bounces from character to character in “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1, trying to re-establish what was lost.
Sometimes, this process is as simple as showing the reader a character’s missing motivation; other times, it requires an entire team of characters that have been MIA. What’s nice is that Johns doesn’t zero in on a single era throughout this early part of the comic. Characters from the dawn of DC Comics get as much of a push as ones that were created only a few years ago. Some of these characters had been excised from continuity; others, just mothballed after the first year of the reboot. In each case, Johns shows us they’re still around and quickly points out what we’ve been missing. Circumstances have changed for some, but what’s familiar is the overall emotion attached to them; for instance, the sequence with Jaime Reyes and Ted Kord has so much fun at its core that it’s hard to keep from getting interested. Jaime comes across likable and grounded, while Ted is so excited about the possibilities surrounding the scarab that Johns and Frank make the emotion just radiate off of the page.
“DC Universe: Rebirth” #1 reads like both a manifesto and a map for moving forward. When Johns writes about a darkness that’s infected the DC Universe in recent years, one can’t help but feel that it’s a pointed commentary on the trend of the company’s superhero comics as a whole. While there have certainly been exceptions to that rule, this is a rallying cry to try and reverse that trend. The issue also recognizes character decisions that may have been a bad idea and slowly updates them. Sometimes, it’s a hint of what could be around the corner, as shown by a sequence where Green Arrow and Black Canary are subconsciously pulled together. Sometimes, it’s more blatant, as seen in the two pages spotlighting Aquaman and Mera or the removal of a character introduced at the start of the New 52 that never quite clicked with readers.
There are parts of “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1 that are little more than plugs for other titles and their new storylines and directions, which makes sense. Considering this is 66 pages of story and art for $2.99, a little cross-pollination was almost a given. While some plugs are stronger than others, it works well enough; it helps that Johns never loses sight of the central viewpoint character, and including a scene like Wally finally being able to see his wife Linda Park again is the perfect way to pull it all together. Reis draws the scene between Wally and Linda, and his rendering of Wally’s hopeful half-smile and the love in his eyes as he extends his hand to her in order to escape the Speed Force is a beautiful moment. Even if you’d never read any of Johns’ comics with Wally and Linda, both the words and the art bring home how much love existed between the pair in that era of DC Comics.
Over and over again, Johns and all of the artists on the book raise the specter of hope, but it’s never more apparent than the scene where the old Wally West meets the modern Wally West (as it turns out, the two characters would be cousins, both named after the same great-grandfather). It starts a sequence in which we’re reminded of how Wally learned to love his role as Kid Flash, before he moves on to visit Barry Allen. Both of these present-day Flashes exult in the joy of their roles; Jimenez gives modern-Wally a sense of wonder as he activates his power and is able to see the rain slowing to a stop around him, and then the big grin on Barry’s face as he not only stops an initial problem but goes above and beyond to make all parties involved comfortable. Once again, hope is propped up here as what’s needed in order to make these characters heroes.
Strictly from a storytelling perspective, the character revealed in the epilogue — who is also the force attempting to eradicate hope from the DC Universe — is a logical choice. In many ways, it’s a figure who brought in a darker, grimmer take on the superhero genre, both within the story as well as in the medium as a whole. It’s a little unfortunate that so much attention will be attached to this character’s return — and, to be fair, I suspect all parties involved understood that this would be a polarizing choice — but it feels like a careful decision to use this character in this role.
Artistic big guns like Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis and Phil Jimenez illustrate “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1 to great effect. Each of them bring their own style to the book, but they all bring the same overall look, with varying degrees of detail in the fine lines carving out their characters. At the same time, it’s fun to enjoy the slight differences as we jump from one artist to the next. Van Sciver’s flashbacks for Wally West’s time as Kid Flash remind me almost of Greg LaRoque’s work on “The Flash,” albeit with a slightly cleaner and more rounded feel to the figures. Frank adds a wrinkled, craggy look to older characters like Johnny Thunder or Dean Plumm, even as they serve as a contrast to younger faces like Captain Maggie Sawyer a page or two away. Reis and Joe Prado’s smooth figures are great, reminding readers of his time on “Aquaman” with a lithe Arthur and Mera as they move through the sea in a way that proves they were literally born to do just that. Jimenez and Matt Santorelli’s particularly fine lines are able to bring entire scenes to life in a single panel without ever feeling cramped or too small. At the same time, they also know when to use empty space to tell a tale; the moment where modern-Wally raises his hands up is dramatic because of the absence of rain around him, even as it fills other panels.
If we’re lucky, “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1 will truly herald what the title suggests. It’s a very loud, almost forceful attempt at a course correction; as readers, we’re told in no uncertain terms that the path of dark superheroes is detrimental. Based solely on the effort seen here, though, the future looks genuinely bright. Over the last few years, so many of DC Comics’ big events comics have signaled doom and gloom; here, however, we’re told that the only way to defeat a character known to personify dark and gritty storytelling is for everyone else to rediscover a brighter, more hopeful attitude. Here’s to hoping it sticks, but — judged solely on what we get here — Johns, Frank, Van Sciver, Reis, Jimenez, Prado and Santorelli have done a good job of making that point. Fingers crossed, but this could really be the rebirth readers have wanted for years now.