It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
Before Watchmen failed. It had proved to be a disaster that nobody seemed to really want more of. DC’s hopes and dreams of winning hearts and minds whilst exploiting the Watchmen IP had come crashing down. Nobody, it seemed, cared about what came ‘before’ Watchmen, much like they weren’t dying for a sequel about what happened ‘after it’. It turned out they just liked Watchmen, on its own.
And so the enterprise of Watchmen exploitation had to be rested…for a while at least.
Enter: DC Universe Rebirth #1
But before we get to that, we need to take a few steps back, in order to really illustrate what Rebirth was and how it came to be, and what all surrounded it. Let us return to the times before it, to reconstruct what it was all like, way back when, all those years ago.
A Different Time
For much of its long, storied history, DC Comics had always been in New York City. While their comics weren’t exactly set in The Big Apple, but rather fictionalized versions of it, the actual DC offices were always in New York, like their rivals over at Marvel.
But that was about to change. DC Comics was now part of the larger DC Entertainment entity and division at Warner Brothers, who were located all the way in Burbank, California. And given the evolution of superhero comics from being largely their own entities to mostly being IP-Farms for big-budget Hollywood productions and Cinematic Universes, it was thought that everything should be under one roof and umbrella- at Burbank. DC Comics had long been tied to Hollywood, but it was now to officially move to Hollywood, departing their long storied home in New York.
This, of course, meant that many people working for DC Comics who lived in New York could not make the move to Hollywood, and thus would be let go. This also meant, of course, that tons of new people would have to hired to replace them and keep the machine running. And more than anything, it meant things were to be absolute goddamn chaos while this move occurred.
DC needed to kill time. They needed to publish something that would cover this span of time, because they couldn’t not publish something, because that would massively hurt both DC and the comics Direct Market. But also, they couldn’t just publish and do what they usually did during this absurd and chaotic move. So they had to find something, some kind of thing to publish to fill up time for 2 months. What could take up 2 months of DC comics and give them the time to move and settle and get things back in order and shape again?
An event, of course.
And this event was to be…Convergence.
DC comics had rebooted with The New 52 initiative, and had largely stayed away from doing anything too much or too steeped in what had come before said reboot. DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio would often talk about how he would actively have to give notes telling writers to write and do something else that was new and different rather than work back in the old stuff from before the reboot. But DC was in a tight spot here. They needed a safe bet. They needed a reliable seller that would work and tide them over for the 2 months. They were desperate.
And so DC did what superhero comics always do when they’re desperate- they turned to nostalgia.
Suddenly, the gates had been burst open, as DC and Didio pitched a ‘Well, you asked for it, and so we’re going to give it to you. We’re going to revisit our past and satisfy you all!’. It was sold as a big ‘We hear you, we hear you, the fans!’.
The premise was simple. A new character named Telos, the herald of Brainiac, the collector-of-worlds, would take many of this now-multiversal Brainiac’s ‘bottled cities’ which involved all the past worlds or timelines and cities across DC’s long history…and he would create a whole patch-work planet off it. And so you had Pre-Crisis worlds and characters right next to Post-Zero Hour or Infinite Crisis figures. It was a hodgepodge of all things DC across their past, with a bit of a ‘versus’ flair thrown on it.
Much was said of how certain characters would finally ‘get their due’ or old unwrapped or dangling storylines or plot-threads due to various reboots or story-pivots could now be re-addressed, concluded and closure could be achieved. It was pitched as a win for all, and it was to be written by a new-to-comics TV writer Jeff King. And his co-writer and the man helping him navigate comics and steer the event ship would be the much reviled sex pest Scott Lobdell, who was also among the worst writers to ever touch the pages of a DC comic.
The event was, as you can guess, terrible, though it had some good tie-ins by some select talented teams. But the whole enterprise had served its purpose, which was to buy DC some time. And in that time, the existing creative teams of the regular ongoings had been told of a big new relaunch initiative that would kick off after DC’s big move to Hollywood. They would continue the books’ numbering but relaunch under the banner of a new era, and to fit with that, many of the books needed a new ‘hook’ or a jumping on-point, like a new #1. In fact, many new #1s would even be launched alongside existing books.
This was to be called DCYou.
Superman was back to T-Shirt and Jeans, like at the start of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics, and powered down, to return him to Golden Age roots. Batman was a Mecha-Bunny-suit with a full on Judge Dredd bike that Jim Gordon operated with. Wonder Woman had a new outfit as the God Of War. Hal Jordan was now a rogue agent and wanderer of the universe having abandoned the Green Lanterns, taking the blame for everything they ever did wrong, to help save them. Cyborg got a solo title. Tom King did his first ever 12-issue maxi-series in The Omega Men. You had comedy books like Bizarro, Bat-Mite, Justice League 3001 and Starfire, you had the continuing successes like Gotham Academy and Grayson, whilst titles like Steve Orlando and ACO’s Midnighter launched.
You had the debut of a new Doctor Fate, whose legacy now still continues in the pages of DC Comics. You had David Walker doing a Cyborg series. You had solo books for Black Canary, Martian Manhunter, Robin, and wholly new ideas like We Are Robin, and more. You had Garth Ennis coming back to DC to do All-Star Section Eight. You had Mark Russell’s debut at DC with the satirical Prez reboot. You even had Dan Abnett doing ‘Titans Hunt’ to revamp the Teen Titans and their history in the New 52 continuity to salvage them from the trash heap they’d been left in by Scott Lobdell. You even had the Dan Jurgens/Lee Weeks doing the Lois and Clark mini-series, the root of Jon Kent, who is now everywhere, spinning out of the Convergence event tie-ins. You had Gene Yang and Greg Pak across the two Superman titles and Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo continuing on the main Batman title, whilst Geoff Johns/Jason Fabok continued on with Justice League.
There was, strictly speaking, something for everybody. It didn’t all work, and there were a lot of misses, but there were a number of hits as well. It was a varied line and the most interesting the comics line-up had been in years. There was only one hurdle:
DC had abandoned the rigid, strict continuity and pretense of the connective shared universe. They published things side by side that didn’t take place at the same time, nor did they ‘fit’, or even openly contradicted one another. That was the idea of ‘DCYou,’ afterall. You get to decide. You get to decide what matters to you, and curate your own DC. See, the conclusion of Convergence saw the culmination of a desire Didio had long had- to undo the impact and effect of Crisis On Infinite Earths. The event is undone at the end of Convergence, meaning now everything to ever happen across DC exists, and now everything, even in contradictory ways is out there. And they could do anything they wanted, eschewing any kind of the ‘clean’ or tidy Post-Crisis continuity.
Didio just wanted to publish good books that stood on their own, good stories. His favorite book was Prez, which had little to do with DC or the DC Universe. But to the meat-and-potatoes Direct Market superhero reader, eschewing and not caring about this shared connective continuity was tantamount to heresy. Despite a number of the books being strong, after a few months, things were not looking pretty commercially.
It had become evident that Convergence and its 2-month break had served as a ‘jumping off’ point for many readers, helping them break the floppy habit. And those that chose to stick it out and return seemed to be detached and largely apathetic to the whole of DC’s whole publishing line. Didio tells a story of an NYCC panel wherein he, his co-Publisher Jim Lee and then CCO Geoff Johns all could feel the apathy of the audience towards their line and books. They were freaked out by it. They realized they had a problem. And they had to solve it…fast.
And being the CCO and their go-to ‘fixer,’ Geoff Johns had an idea.
Geoff Johns had done Green Lantern: Rebirth. He had done The Flash: Rebirth. Both had come after a period of failing or dwindling status of those titles and ideas. And Johns’ core pitch in both cases was simple:
Get back to basics, or at the very least, what he felt were the basics.
Enough with the trying all kinds of shit. No. It was time to get back to meat and potatoes. The comfort food, the basic food, that everybody knew and liked.
In case of Green Lantern, this meant bringing Hal Jordan back to the center of the mythology and reorienting everything around him. In case of The Flash, this meant bringing Barry Allen back to the center of the mythology and reorienting everything around him.
Now, the entirety of the DC Universe? Doing a Rebirth on that scale? It would be a lot harder. It would be a lot trickier, and far, far bigger.
But Johns thought he could do it.
And so came the teases, posted on Instagram and elsewhere, with small vague snippets, and the hashtag of #Rebirth attached to it. And speculation began immediately, given the history and impact of the two prior rebirths Johns had done. Everyone got to guessing who he would Rebirth this time around. I myself at the time, being a wee teenager, had bet on it being a Blue Beetle: Rebirth. Others bet on JSA, given their long-absence in the DCU. Others had far more obscure picks. But as the guessing games and the rumor press progressed, building buzz, the actual details of the initiative began to roll out.
And it all kicked off with this:
In what can only be called apologia, and was back then widely considered, apologia, this would kick off what was essentially An Apology Tour. As Johns puts it above, ‘I love this world…but there’s something missing.’ It was the first open acknowledgement of a problem and flaw and a hole in The New 52 and DC, that there was something to be remedied and addressed. It spoke to the sense that something was broken about the DCU after The New 52, and it needed to be pieced back together to even begin to get ‘fixed’.
To the many alienated by The New 52, this was a siren song calling them back, feeling like a ‘We’re sorry, guys. You had a point actually,’ as Johns did interview after interview playing to the song of admitting that there was mess to clean up, and that he was here to do so himself personally. He would also adamantly repeat constantly that Rebirth was NOT another reboot, but a re-focusing and a continuing story of the DCU that began from Action Comics #1. Continuity would be tight and clear and clean across the line, and would be a key focus and point to ‘get right’ for the big story they were going to be telling.
Geoff Johns had the reputation of being The Fanboy King, The Fanman, the ultimate super-fan in the role all the DC nerds dreamed of. And he had done a lot of JSA and Green Lantern and Flash comics that people had really liked. So there was a great amount of trust afforded to him. And as he said ‘The whole point of Rebirth for us is to get back to the essence of the characters’, it was an evident admissal that they’d strayed from the proper path, and that Johns would restore things As They Were Meant To Be. Geoff Johns would make DC Comics Great Again.
That was the campaign promise.
Dan Didio and his presence and press seemed to be minimized, as he was still largely the reviled and hated Publisher figure and the lightning rod of fan rage and grievance. He was seen as the man responsible for the whole New 52 fiasco, and the man whose mess Johns was going to clean up, despite the fact that Geoff Johns had an active hand and was involved in The New 52 as well.
Following this February launch of marketing with the Geoff Johns video above, in March, DC would hold an unprecedented WonderCon event, which would announce all their upcoming Rebirth titles, with all of their creative teams and talent, and they’d specially live-stream it for free on their official Youtube.
Geoff Johns had for a good month been going on and on about how he was personally overseeing everything DC Rebirth, how he was effectively ‘The Showrunner’ of DC and its story now, and how the whole thing was an event and an initiative with a story he would oversee and payoff. That he was sitting down with the writers of every single book and team and ensuring ‘it would be done right.’ That each and every one of the books coming out would be Geoff ‘The Fanboy’ Johns approved.
And the live-stream was a show of that, as the entire event was rehearsed with all of the creators involved prior, to prep for the actual event day. And when it kicked off, the vibe was clear. When Dan Didio walked on stage to talk Rebirth and noted how The New 52 was ‘still one of the most exciting periods in DC Comics’ but followed that up with:
‘Sometimes, what happens, and you can feel it now, you lose your way a little bit. Sometimes we get a little lost. And sometimes we lose our connection inside of our fans. And the whole purpose of Rebirth today, what we’re here to do is show our re-commitment to you, the fans, and our dedication to our ideas and our characters. And what this is about is to show you that we care as much as you do about these characters.
You knew what was up. This was a plea. This was explicitly admitting of a screw-up by the man most accused of screw-ups by the fans. This was about as close to a corporately scripted falling-on-the-knees apology and fan plea as you could probably find. ‘We messed up guys, we’re sorry, come back to us, please,’ they seemed to say, in chorus. And when Geoff Johns hit the stage, the script was clear. Dan Didio would play the character of the ‘I was wrong, man, Geoff was right’ corporate publisher, and Geoff Johns would play the fan-pleasing people’s champion fighting for everything the people truly wanted. Tall tales were recounted of how Johns and Didio had an argument about Nightwing’s costume, and how Didio insisted it ought to be red, but Johns insisted it ought to be blue, and how Johns won that argument. Didio would simply laugh and shrug, as if to say ‘Hey, see? I’m amenable. I may be wrong, but I’m okay with that. We’re gonna correct all the mistakes now. We’re listening to you, the people. And Geoff is your voice here!’
Much was said about legacy, and the generational aspect of the DCU and how those are core, central things that had gone missing and were now absent. And how much they cared about that and planned to rectify that. That legacy was central and key to DC Comics, echoing a million fan arguments had since 2011 when The New 52 launched.
The apology tour and fan-pleasing script went so far that the announcement of the Wonder Woman writer was built up to with the tenor of a big splash page stinger of an event book, as Greg Rucka would finally show up on stage. Rucka was the ultimate face and symbol of the Disillusioned With DC Comics crowd. The once star writer of DC had been tricked, swindled, and abused with broken promises and manipulation for ages until he finally quit, tired of Didio and DC editorial. He’d been away for almost a decade, and was happily doing Creator-Owned work with a smattering of Marvel fare. He had no intentions of ever stepping back into DC.
And he’d been brought back. They’d convinced him to return. Tales were told of how this deeply broken relationship mended. Massive hugs were conducted on stage as if at a political rally to really sell the newly reforged camaraderie amongst old allies who’d split apart. The entire sales pitch was ‘DC is getting its shit back together, guys!’ because now you had two of ‘The Big Four’ writers of 2000s DC, one half of the legendary 52 weekly series. Mark Waid hated Didio with the spite of an unrivaled hater, and it was said that Waid was banned from DC offices, so he was never returning. Grant Morrison had just wrapped up their Multiversity series and was now out of ongoings, set to only work on their stand-alone Wonder Woman Graphic Novel. So Rucka was really the only one they could bring back to win people over, and so they did, right back to the title and character people most loved Rucka for.
Rucka had been so disillusioned a figure that he’d even been on podcasts wherein people would talk about how dreadful and terrible Geoff Johns’ New 52 Wonder Woman was in Justice League, and Rucka would just sigh deeply and manage ‘I-I do not know what Geoff is doing there,’ like a disappointed sibling. So to see Rucka really back and doing Wonder Woman, the character whom he wanted a big crack at the origin of, but was denied the chance, which became his final straw after years of nonsense? It felt like a big deal.
This was what DC Rebirth was about.
Mistakes were made, but we’re now gonna address them guys!
And so then came the one-shot, which would launch Rebirth into the world.
Who Watches The Universe?
If the Rebirth press tour had felt like one long apology tour, the comic certainly read like it. Centered around the original classic Wally West, the very embodiment and symbol of legacy and Pre-Flashpoint DCU who’d been sacrificed and discarded, the book was about connection. Wally West, lost in the Speed Force, was effectively a stand-in for the disconnected and disillusioned DC comics reader. A man who firmly once belonged to this world, but felt he no longer had any place in it. And the whole comic was about him trying to find that spark, that small connection, that way ‘in’ to DC again. It was Johnsian Literalism at its most dopey yet sincere. And it was also Johns at his most calculated, playing to and writing to his readership in order to press very specific buttons.
The thesis of the Rebirth one-shot is that the DCU is broken, that it lost much, it’s lost relationships, bonds, connections, generations, characters, teams, legacy, its very essence and heart…but these weren’t just the end result of numerous terrible and poor creative and editorial decisions, which Geoff Johns also had his hand in. Oh no, dear reader! This whole mess of the DCU, the reason it’s all so broken? Why it all goes back to Watchmen!
DCU is Hope, it is Optimism, it is Heart, and it is Humor. Watchmen is Despair, it is Cynicism, it is Intellect, and it is Serious!
It was a book that talked about how ‘cynicism’ and ‘darkness’ had infected and plagued the DCU for years, even before The New 52 really, a classic Johnsian thematic idea and the central focus of his 2000’s Infinite Crisis series– another diatribe about ‘hope/light/optimism’ vs ‘despair/darkness/cynicism’ in DC comics. And the thing to blame? It had to do with a smiley faced button, with a smidge of blood on it.
If Wally West had been the disillusioned reader stand-in, the symbol of the fan who grew up with and loving DC comics who now struggled to connect with them, then the implications with Doctor Manhattan and Watchmen were obvious. Doctor Manhattan was positioned as The Cold Creator. The Apathetic Creator who ‘didn’t get’ DC Comics and was happy to just change or even ‘break’ things about it for the sake of it. Doctor Manhattan was The Deconstructionist Creator whose influence had supposedly plagued and brought the DCU to its broken ruin.
Much like Hal Jordan’s many actions and history got retconned into being about possession by a space bug of fear named Parallax in the first Rebirth, Johns would retcon Flashpoint and absolve his Barry Allen, with Manhattan being the super puppet-master pulling the strings behind everything. The story of Rebirth was such that it suggested that what had happened, how things turned out for DC comics, were rather inevitable, really. ‘It was always going to turn out this way’ it seemed to say, because everything goes back to Watchmen in 1986. If Green Lantern: Rebirth defined Green Lantern against the likes of Parallax The Space Bug and Sinestro The Terrorist, and The Flash: Rebirth defined The Flash against Eobard Thawne the crazed fanboy monster, then this latest DCU Rebirth defined the very idea of DC itself against its supposed ideological opposite- Watchmen.
Alan Moore and his influence, it seems, were The Antagonistic Force for the DCU to wrestle with, a take and a perspective so calculatedly constructed and engineered that it felt like the most perfectly focus-tested angle to use on the average Big Two comics reader. It was a view that played hard into every single basic baby fanboy talking points such as ‘Alan Moore is an angry jerk and bitter old man who just doesn’t get superheroes!!‘ ‘Watchmen and its influence ruined superhero and DC comics forever!‘ ‘Cynicism and Darkness are bad! Deconstruction sucks! Where’s the optimism??‘. It was every bad faith, reductive and simplistic read and poor upheld assumption defensive diehard superhero nerds had…turned into big, grand story.
Johns had struck gold. It was a rousing success. Rebirth was a massive hit. It seemed that trying to sell people on stand-alone Watchmen prequels or spin-offs was a fool’s errand. Nobody wanted that. But instead if you packaged in Watchmen with all the actual stuff they wanted, the stuff you’d taken away from them and deprived them of for years? They’d buy it. They’d like it. It was a classic DC trick. Break or take away a toy or a character or a team. Then tease and dangle the promise of bringing them back and giving them A Big Story for years, stringing people along, to sell and push something else. And so everything from Wally West and Jay Garrick and Alan Scott and the JSA or The Legion Of Super-Heroes were dangled like carrots, to lead the readership through a whole cavalcade of Watchmen teases and content. That’s what this was. It was Watchmen Content™.
And all the fanboys who had absolutely bought in proclaimed it was genius, that it was brilliant. Doctor Manhattan as the Poor Creator Who Misunderstands DC Comics? And who must then face and confront Superman and learn the meaning and true worth and nature of DC? Clearly, this was brilliant, it was said over and over. And being a foolish teen at the time, even I was momentarily sold on such a cheap and hollow gimmick. DC had now a sure-fire way to make more Watchmen material while having people’s keen interest and commercial success. And it’s the road that would inevitably lead to Doomsday Clock, the 12-issue maxi-series sequel/crossover/response work by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank taking on Watchmen.
So what is the ultimate legacy of Watchmen? Well, if Rebirth teaches us anything, it’s that anything can be reduced to cheap Content™. Watchmen was now flattened into being a symbol of everything ‘broken’ and ‘wrong’ about DC Comics, like a broken black mirror, a black hole sucking away at the very soul of the DC Universe, which was the one true beautiful vision being hurt by this horror. And so Watchmen became something to be ‘countered’ and ‘put in its place’, beneath the rest of the glorious DC Universe, reduced to the role of Superboy Prime in Infinite Crisis. It didn’t matter that Geoff Johns was one of the key figures behind the true broken nature of DC as it stood, that he was one of the biggest perpetuators and peddlers of all the ‘darkness, cynicism, tragedy’ that he supposedly hailed as Bad. Nobody forced Johns, for instance, to rewrite all of Flash mythology to be centered and built around tragedy. Nobody made him rewrite Barry Allen, the symbol of silver age selfless heroics and decency, into a tragedy-mired man who could not get over his mother’s death, with all the parodic ‘darkness’ of Eobard Thawne. Nobody made Johns write those endless bloody, head-smashing and arm-ripping spreads with Teen Titans getting brutally killed by Superboy Prime. But now it was all being laid at the feet of Alan Moore, Watchmen, and Doctor Manhattan.
It seemed it wasn’t the actual poor creators and editorial and their poor choices. It was all the inevitable dominant influence of Watchmen. That was the real problem to be dealt with, for DC to move forward.
I suppose, in a sense, it was inevitable for Geoff Johns to do this, given his sensibilities. He’s long wanted to and tried to do work such that he and his stamp on the DCU become inextricable from the very idea of DC itself. More than anyone, Geoff Johns’ work reveals a figure who wants to be The Definitive DC Creator. And he’d already done his big official sequel/response-book to the seminal 1980’s 12-issue maxi-series classic of Crisis On Infinite Earths. He’d sequelized the biggest DC Story ever in Infinite Crisis. That left only Watchmen on the table, the other big 80’s 12-issue classic of DC. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would want to do a sequel to that, too. This was, after all, a man who would go onto pen an official sequel to the infamous 1980’s Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story of The Killing Joke. This was the man who built a great deal of his Green Lantern off Alan Moore short-stories and prophecies in 80’s Green Lantern comics.
But then again, maybe it was inevitable for Geoff Johns, given his career. For before there was a Flash: Rebirth or a Green Lantern: Rebirth, there was Marvelman/Miracleman’s “Rebirth” under Alan Moore. The deconstructionist masterpiece by Moore changed comics for good, coming out before his seminal Watchmen, and being a key influence for everyone from Grant Morrison to Neil Gaiman to Warren Ellis to Mark Millar and plenty more, including one Geoffrey Johns.
So perhaps it was inevitable that Watchmen would become reduced into a dumb thing by which he could confront his own anxiety of influence. Perhaps it was inevitable that under him as CCO and ‘The Showrunner’ of DC, the company would essentially say ‘Hey guys! Buy our long-form Watchmen content and teases! If you do, then you might actually get to see and buy characters or titles you actually want! Buy our Watchmen tease comic to get a snapshot of Jay Garrick, people!! If you do, you might get to read a JSA comic again some day!’
Could they have just published a really terrific Wally West: The Flash book or a really great Alan Scott ongoing or a great JSA team with a strong creative team? Sure they could’ve! Of course they could have. But then if they actually gave that to you, then they wouldn’t have anything big to bait you with, would they? You wouldn’t exactly be as keen then on buying some Watchmen-DCU nonsense to get your fix of characters you liked now, would you? They needed stuff people cared about to use in carefully manipulative, cynical ways. They needed something to weaponize nostalgia with. For that’s what Rebirth was about.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Rebirth would just be another case of tiresome and insular fan diatribes and arguments about DC Comics and what it should be, with comics made all about that circular screaming argument, as opposed to just making comics that embodied that possibility. It was tantamount to repeatedly saying ‘Hey here’s what DC should be, amirite?’ as opposed to just making DC Comics that already were like that. A lot of talk and promises, with no bark and no delivery.
And the thing is, it was successful. It sold. It all sold. It was a commercial hit, and it proved to DC that this was a bankable, solid strategy to turn to. That they could, afterall, exploit the hell out of Watchmen as IP. They just had to bait and trick fans foolish enough to buy into the scam.