With the Rebirth era of DC Comics approaching its first anniversary, recent issues of Superman and Action Comics seem to have reset the playing field. This seemed like a good time to discuss the new status quo for Superman, how it reflects the greater DC Universe, and some wild speculation as to what’s really happening in the larger Rebirth mystery. Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Superman Reborn story arc, as well as other stories across the DC Universe.
A Reborn Man of Steel
As promised, the four-part Superman Reborn storyline has answered some major questions. We know now that the false Clark Kent was, in reality, Mr. Mxyzptlk, having recently escaped the clutches of the enigmatic Mr. Oz. We also know what Mr. Oz meant in DC Universe Rebirth #1 when he told the Pre-Flashpoint Superman that neither he nor the New 52 Superman were what he thought. In fact, they and their respective Lois Lanes were two halves of the same whole, split in Superman Red/Superman Blue fashion. Now the halves have been rejoined, and all is well in Metropolis. Except, of course, for the new question raised here: who split them and why? Not to mention, of course, how this impacts the rest of the DCU.
Action Comics #976 reveals that not only the characters, but also their respective histories have been merged. Presumably, this means that when they return to the Daily Planet they’ll encounter a Perry White who remembers attending their wedding, a Metropolis that knows all too well the destruction of Doomsday, and a Supergirl who once again recognizes her cousin in this man. But what about some of the elements that are harder to reconcile? Wonder Woman has already moved past her romance with Superman, but will those characters still remember it? Will the Teen Titans have memories of their former teammate, the time-tossed Superboy cloned from Lois and Clark’s son? And what about Martha Kent? In the Post-Flashpoint New 52 Universe she was dead; in the DCU that existed prior to Flashpoint she was still alive. If Clark goes back to the family farm now, will she be waiting for him?
Not all of these questions can simply be handwaved away, but more and more it’s feeling like this is by design. DC has been attacking discrepancies head-on in books like the Superman titles or Wonder Woman. Diana has learned that she’s been manipulated for years, sent to a false Paradise Island whenever she attempted to return home, and as a result her entire history is suspect (Wonder Woman #11). In another huge contradiction, the original Wally West has returned. Rather than attempting to eliminate the New 52 Wally West, a solution was found to keep them both. And all of this, of course, seems to connect back to the central mystery revealed in the first DC Rebirth issue: someone has “stolen” ten years of time from the DC Universe, and as a result, everything is off-kilter. Now, the Rebirth story appears to be accelerating. Superman Reborn was the first part of that. The next part, the Batman/Flash crossover “The Button,” begins in April.
Put a Little Love In Your Heart
After the two Superman families merged, Mr. Oz ponders, “That family has done the impossible. Proven that true love really can conquer all… Is it over? Or is there more?” The question here seems to be if “love” truly can repair the damage done to the DC Universe when whoever did whatever it was they did. I would argue that this is already happening, both literally within the DCU and in a more metafictional way. Rebirth has largely been about restoring the lost sense of hope and love to the DC Universe. DC Universe Rebirth #1 began with the return of Wally West, a character who literally uses his love for others as the anchor to keep him in reality. Immediately the romances between Aquaman and Mera, Green Arrow and Black Canary, and Barry Allen and Iris West were all pushed to the forefront of those respective books. We’ve also seen Batman working with his “family” in a much closer, less secretive way, even revealing his identity to his cousin, Batwoman (in Detective Comics #934. She already knew, it turned out, but the moment it creates between the two of them is both funny and inspiring.) That’s not all, though: he’s taking an active role in the rehabilitation of several criminals and killers: Clayface, Killer Frost, and Lobo (the former in Detective Comics, the latter two in Justice League of America). He refused to believe it when Catwoman was convicted of murdering hundreds of people and finally, after decades of dancing around it, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle professed their love for one another (Batman #15).
Love – or at least mutual admiration – is also in the air in Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps. If you thought Batman was a mensch for trying to rehab three bad guys, the Green Lantern Corps has actually partnered up with the entire Sinestro Corps, trying to turn the yellow Lanterns into partners in policing the universe. Meanwhile, Hal Jordan has told Kyle Rayner that he sees Kyle as the greatest Lantern of all, just before Kyle dropped his New 52 Status Quo as the White Lantern and rejoined the Green Lantern Corps (Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps #17). Oh, and did I mention all of this is set against the search for Saint Walker and the restoration of the Blue Lantern Corps – the DCU’s embodiment of hope?
It can’t be a coincidence that all this is happening now. One of the most consistent and justifiable criticisms of the New 52 era was that the world had grown too dark. A pre-merger Superman even pointed this out when comparing notes with Nightwing, declaring the villains of this world to be far grimmer than the ones he remembers (Nightwing #9).
Who’s Watching the Watchmen?
This, of course, leads us back to the biggest question of Rebirth: who, exactly, is responsible for the 10 missing years of the DC Universe? For the first year of the storyline, the evidence has overwhelmingly pointed in the direction of the characters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen invading the DCU. Both the Rebirth special and Superman Reborn ended with knowing glances towards the planet Mars, which played a large part in that story. Also in the special, Batman found the Comedian’s blood-stained smiley face button embedded in the wall of the Batcave. The Titans even located their new headquarters in New York because Omen received a psychic impression of the word “Manhattan” (Titans #6).
Then there’s the mysterious Mr. Oz, he whom the comic book media has declared to be Watchmen’s Ozymandias. He’s been watching Superman for some time, he seems to know who’s really behind everything, and he’s taken some major players “off the table.” Red Robin, for instance, was captured early on in Rebirth (Detective Comics #940, specifically), leaving Batman and the others to believe he’s dead. Why Red Robin? Because he somehow was helping other people make connections that Mr. Oz didn’t want made.
This is where I think the wheels start to fall off the Ozymandias theory. Ozymandias was, of course, the smartest man in his world, but that was a world where only one person had super powers, and it wasn’t him. I can believe Ozymandias would be able to imprison Tim Drake. I can even believe he could think of a way to contain an ultra-powerful tank like Doomsday (as in Action Comics #962). But how could a man with no powers capture a fifth-dimensional imp like Mr. Mxyzptlk?
(Yes, I know that this is a comic book, and therefore some nonsense technobabble ass-pull is always a possibility, but I’m building towards a point here, so bear with me.)
This feeds a nagging doubt I’ve had for a while regarding Watchmen and its involvement in Rebirth. It feels… well… too easy. Too well-constructed, especially for a story that is ostensibly only approaching the halfway point. And it doesn’t exactly work, in my opinion, with DC’s meta-message here. The Rebirth special was, in many ways, DC’s mea culpa. Through the characters, writer Geoff Johns basically told the reader that DC understood where things went wrong and that this is the story that’s going to fix it. However, by capping this special with the reveal of the button, Johns essentially seemed to make the statement that DC’s problems weren’t recent (true), that the roots of the darkness Superman would later comment on go back well before Flashpoint (also true), and that in a way, you can trace it all back to when Watchmen changed the comic book landscape in 1987.
Sort of true.
The thing about Watchmen is that it was the book that proved to countless people comics could tell deeper, more sophisticated stories. But like any success in entertainment, it spawned a wealth of imitators. It never should have become the template for other comics that it did, but it’s not the fault of Watchmen itself that so many subsequent writers treated it as such.
So the notion that the meta-message of Rebirth is “It’s all Watchmen’s fault” has three problems:
- It’s only partially and indirectly responsible, if at all.
- I think Geoff Johns is far too good a writer to cast that aspersion in such a simplistic way.
- Even from a business standpoint, it’s hard to picture DC devoting two years of publishing towards denigrating their best-selling graphic novel of all time.
All of this is to say that, while the Watchmen characters are almost certainly involved in the rebirth mystery, I’m almost equally certain that things are more layered than “Dr. Manhattan messed with the world.”
We’re about to get into some wild and almost totally unsupportable theories here, friends, so buckle up. The last major element we haven’t discussed yet is the DC Multiverse, which is still following the rules established in Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity and was central to the most recent pre-Reborn storyline in Superman. That multiverse contains 52 worlds and a hell of a lot of metatextual commentary, including a world where the former Charlton characters are more like their Watchmen counterparts. (Watchmen, for the three people who didn’t know it, began as a pitch to DC utilizing the recently-acquired Charlton Comics superheroes. Alan Moore reworked them into original characters at DC’s request.) One may wonder if it’s those characters from The Multiversity: Pax Americana– and not Dr. Manhattan and company – responsible for the missing decade. However, I think we can throw that out as it doesn’t account for the presence of Watchmen’s most iconic image: the smiley face button.
There’s an aspect of Multiversity, though, that has rarely been brushed upon since. The DC Multiverse has 52 worlds, that’s true, but it’s also true that there is more than one multiverse, each with its own Orrery of Worlds. In fact, DC even announced stories from the “other” multiverses would be told in a series of yet-unproduced original graphic novels by Grant Morrison.
Here’s how, metatextually, DC can have its cake and eat it too. Let’s say the Watchmen Earth is in one of those other multiverses where the worlds (as in “our” multiverse) are to some degree or another derivative of each other. If – in the real world – it’s Watchmen’s influence that tainted everything that came after, what if in-story the true threat comes from a Watchmen derivative world that drew on the original world in the wrong way, just like so many writers did?
Or, in simpler terms, if Watchmen is its multiverse’s Earth-1, what if the real bad guys of Rebirth are from their multiverse’s Earth-3?
It’s just a theory, of course, and probably completely wrong, but it’s awfully nice to be pondering and analyzing DC Comics again, and to a degree that hasn’t been possible for years. And if nothing else, we can look forward to “The Button” next month in the hopes that the clues it gives us will keep us going into Rebirth Year Two.