'Rebirth is the DNA of DC Comics': Geoff Johns offers in-depth breakdown of epic new comic

Contributed by
May 25, 2016

Spoiler alert: The following contains detailed spoilers about DC Universe Rebirth #1. Do not read ahead unless you’ve already read the comic or don’t mind having major plot points revealed.

So now DC Universe Rebirth #1 is in your hot little hands, after Wednesday’s midnight release. You’ve already pored through 80 pages of story. Maybe you’ve even read it twice, soaking up the familiar faces, the teases and that big shocker.

But what does it all mean?

I have already told you what I think of Rebirth (I really, really dug it), and yet it seems like there is even more to say about all the moments and emotional beats.

Enter Rebirth writer Geoff Johns. Along with a small group of journalists, I was able to speak with Johns at length about the giant-sized book that points the DCU in a new direction. And based on my conversation with the Chief Creative Officer, it is abundantly clear that Rebirth was not only a challenge of heavylifting storytelling – it does, after all, set the tone for the publisher moving forward – but also a personal project for him.

In case you missed it, Johns is stepping away from writing for a bit after nearly two decades of continually having a comic on the shelves. But before he headed off to his new gig as co-head of DC Films, he decided to return “hope and optimism” to the DNA of DC Comics.

What follows is an in-depth breakdown of his mission and favorite moments from DC Universe Rebirth #1. There is a lot of information about the book, and discussions about future DC Comics plots. And, of course, we talk about who will be watching the Watchmen, now that they’ve been introduced to the DCU.

On facing the challenges of the New 52 universe:

“I think it’s good to be honest about what the problems are in the DC Universe, and go straight at them. That’s what I did. Whenever I do a book, that’s just what I go to. For this, it was a different kind of exercise and creative outlet, but that’s what everyone trying to do.”

How he found the emotional core of Rebirth:

“I was like, ‘Wow, I have to do a lot.’ I set up a whiteboard and wrote ‘DC.’ Legacy, that was a big one. It’s gone! I wrote the JSA for nine years. Of course I’m upset they don’t exist. That’s nine years of my life that’s gone! I am proud of that run. And to see the JSA wiped out? The same thing with the Teen Titans. I am completely open to change, but I also don’t like the slash and burn of history. But legacy, hope, optimism, heart, relationships, epic storytelling, cohesion, a big story, a plan. I looked at all that, and had to craft a story that addresses these 10 things. How do I do all this without being scattershot? Then I did this big parenthesis with an arrow and put ‘Love.’ I feel love and passion for this stuff so much. I have loved these characters for as long as I’ve lived. And I was like, ‘That’s what I’m not feeling.’ There’s something among the characters, something that’s missing. I didn’t feel like people were excited about this universe right now. And I looked at that objectively, and went through that with all the editors and writers.

Regarding the tone of the book, the DC Comics DNA, and what he hopes people will be talking about:

“Hopefully the takeaway is people will feel something. They’ll feel hope and optimism, and care, and heart, and humor. I hope people take away it’s the DNA [of the DCU]."

Really, it’s the DNA more than anything else. Plotlines will continue on, but it’s the tone that’s so hard to nail with this stuff. This is the tone of the DC Universe I always, and I think most people, really respond to. I hope it is evident in the read. Obviously the last reveal is going to momentarily overpower it as far as conversation goes, but I think there is enough in that book that I hope that will be a big part of the conversation … This is the DNA of DC Comics.”

About stepping away from comics for a while, and the pride he has for this book:

“You’re always nervous about a big book you’re doing, and since this is the last one I’ll be doing for a little while, my hope is people will feel something. But I am really proud of it. It is why I’ll fly to New York just to talk about it. It is because I care desperately about the book and characters. I find talking about it is just great. I put so much … a lot of this is conversations with friends. This is all that pent up energy I can direct into a book. If I am going to step back for a little while, I can step back with this one.”

His favorite page in the book:

“I love that hug between Barry and Wally. To me, that’s the best page in the book. Everyone will talk about the button or this or that, but that, to me, represents everything this book is about. And it doesn’t work unless you have that build up. You want to see him face death. I can’t remember the last time I saw a character face death like that in a book. I wanted to see him go, ‘Everything’s great, and we’ve had a moment.’ And Barry says, ‘We’re going to have more.’”

Why he chose to tell the story through Wally’s viewpoint:

“He’s my favorite character! … I love Wally West, I grew up with him as the Flash, I think he’s a great character. But more importantly, for everybody, he represents the DC ideal in such a wonderful way. He embodies legacy, he embodies hope, optimism, family, heart. And he’s been missing. He sees everything for how we see it. I felt like he’s the perfect character to be an entry point.”

Will Flash, or other characters, feel guilt about forgetting those from their pre-Flashpoint pasts?

“I will give you an example. I am going to spoil a book. Dan Abnett won’t kill me; it’s Titans: Rebirth #1. It is not about guilt. When Wally comes back and connects with Dick and Donna and Roy, Garth, it is a joyful reunion. It is not guilt-ridden. Wally would not let them feel guilt-ridden. And also, it’s a gift to have him back. It is glass half-full, and that’s the attitude they have to have, in my opinion. It is a reunion of friends.”

Will Shazam be getting his own book? What about Justice Society and Legion of Super Heroes? And what’s the strategy to rolling it out?

“There will be a Shazam book. Not by me, but they’re definitely doing a Shazam book. One of the reasons they’re double shipping, the advantage to double-ship, is to take the number of titles and contract it, and the number of characters. Get these characters right. Then, slowly, when you’ve made sure everything’s working in a great way, then Shazam comes out. Legion of Super-Heroes comes out. Justice Society comes out. Atom comes out. All the other books can come out. But it’s important to get them done right first. It is hard to launch 52 books, and make them all great. I think it’s better to focus on fewer characters, then expand it as the emotional base is back.”

“When the right time, and the right story, when there’s stuff happening -- when that happens, the JSA will come back. There’s plans for JSA. Same with Legion."

Some of it is long-term plans. Some of this stuff you’ll see in a week, some of it you’ll see months and months from now. You don’t want to dump everything out. You want it to breathe, and live organically. But there is a story to be told. The JSA is one of the casualties of a reboot; you lose some of that history. This is to say, there was this secret team and only Johnny Thunder knows what happened. And seeing those characters come back … This is probably getting ahead of myself, and you can read between the lines, but if Wally represents individual legacy, the JSA represent team legacy.”

[And yes, he confirms that that is Saturn Girl on Page 19]

On the Black Canary/Green Arrow “almost reunion”:

“That is one of the first pages I wrote. That page to me, embodies, again, what I think is lost. But why you don’t have to reboot anything. Just give those two characters those last two panels of feeling something. And what Ben Percy does in his book, which is great, is they meet and go, ‘Like I think I know you.’ They literally say, ‘There’s something about you,’ and you see that fun dynamic pick back up again. It is real hearty. And she says one of the best Green Arrow lines I’ve ever read, and it couldn’t happen if Black Canary and him weren’t re-meeting each other. He is showing his huge apartment, and he has got all this money, and she says, ‘How can you fight the man if you are the man?’ That’s a great Green Arrow line, and shows the relationship in a wonderful way. And Ben’s first story he’s planned out is about Green Arrow exploring that. It is more character driven than it is, ‘Hey look, there’s a Blue Archer now, and he’s a bad guy.’”

What the scene with Constantine and Swamp Thing means:

“We sat down with Constantine and went, ‘Swamp Thing doesn’t have a book, and he’s got to be in here.’ If it’s about reconnecting with loved ones, the first thing he’s going to do … Why hasn’t he gone after [his love Abby Arcane]? I asked that question arbitrarily and they were just like [shrugs sheepishly]. If we’re all about reconnecting characters? Constantine and Swamp Thing make a deal, and that plays out in Constantine: Rebirth. They go off on a quest to save Abby.”

The meaning of the Aquaman and Mera proposal scene:

“That scene, and the prior scene, are all about love. Wally is being drawn to moments of love. That is going to help him get to Linda, which he is not realizing. The culmination of -- if Doctor Manhattan removed the moment where Arthur and Mera fell in love, and the marriage and all that stuff happened – Wally is seeing that stuff coming back. True love cannot be denied, and it’s back. When he feels that, he feels the tether and the pull to Linda. Also, they’re going to be married! That’s what characters who evolve do.”

On bringing back Aqualad, and revealing his sexuality:

“He’s a character I introduced in Brightest Day, and is on the Young Justice cartoon. I think he’s a great character. There’s a lot of characters who weren’t around in the New 52: Wally West, Ryan Choi, Jackson Hyde (who is Aqualad), Ted Kord. But Jackson is revealed to be gay in this issue. That’s the first time he’s said that. He’s a great character, and I love him.”

The Superman mystery and death of New 52 Superman:

“The way he goes out is very interesting. In Superman #52, he explodes with energy, and there’s just ash. You’re not sure what happened to him. There is a mystery to what Superman of New 52, and Superman of Lois & Clark are. We picked that up and said, there’s no difference between pre-Flashpoint and post-Flashpoint, so there has to be a new mystery between these characters. That plays out in the Superman books.”

About Pandora’s death, and her place in New 52 (and about those Watchmen hints):

“By the way, that’s laid out exactly like the death or Rorschach. That’s the first hint that Doctor Manhattan is the antagonist. That’s why the first page is nine panels with clocks [a nod to Dave Gibbons’ signature artwork from Watchmen]. My commentary on that character is she obviously came out of the New 52 and had some kind of perspective on it.

"The thing I like about Pandora's demise is she dies saying [to Manhattan], 'I let all these horrible things out there, but hope is out there, too; they’re going to prove you wrong.'"

That’s the premise of the entire book. She goes out upset, but knowing the heroes are going to save the day. That’s what I want to see.”

On Batman’s expression when he finds the Comedian’s button, and what it means:

“One of, ‘What is this? Why did I find a button with a smiley face in my cave? Where did this come from?’ Pensive and curious. How about this: A mystery is afoot. There is a cool bit in Flash: Rebirth, and you see all this from Barry’s point of view. You have Barry’s narration, and Wally shows up, and they make this pact. Then Wally goes off to the Titans book, and you see a last scene with Barry and Batman, and they are talking. You don’t really hear everything, but they are talking about Wally, what happened, and the next step. And they need to find out what this is and talk to everybody about it.’”

Which storyline will continue the plotline with Doctor Manhattan:

“That will be a future conversation! That would be a good story to tell. And I will say, it would be a story that would not involve double-page spreads of super heroes smashing their fists into Doctor Manhattan. You have to treat that very carefully. It is an intellectual and emotional story. It is definitely not a 10-part crossover. That story is a special, special story to tell.

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