Writer: Peter Tomasi
Artist: Doug Mahnke
Mild spoilers ahead.
The phrase “metatextual” is tossed around a lot in comics lately. Essentially, “metatext” refers to a story which reflects upon itself as a story. Grant Morrison does this well, with The Multiversity in part being a giant reflection on the nature of DC Comics as a story. These self-reflective stories may be becoming a larger trend at the company, as there was definitely something self-referential about last week’s DC Rebirth. Beneath the basic story about DC’s history being altered by a specific comics character, the story had an undercurrent that something’s gone wrong with DC as a company itself.
It’s not clear if “metatextuality” is going to be a larger theme of the “Rebirth” period, but this week’s Superman Rebirth #1 seems to have a similar thing going – even if the focus is different. If DC Rebirth was self-reflecting on change for the worse at the company, then Superman Rebirth is decidedly smaller in scope. The story has Superman himself asking the same question the reader is asking: if Superman dies, then he has to come back, right?
Here’s where things get complicated for the new or returning reader–an unfortunate aspect of the frequently-rebooted DC. “Superman” has been around since 1938, but he’s undergone several iterations in those decades. 1986 saw a “rebooted” Superman debut under the pen of John Byrne, and that version of the character continued until 2011 when DC reset its continuity in the Flashpoint event. 2011 introduced a “new” Superman, similar to the last guy (he’s still Clark Kent and works at the Daily Planet) but with enough tweaks to make him a different character.
However, the 1986-2011 Superman returned in last year’s Convergence event, and the follow-on series Lois & Clark revealed that after the Convergence, he, his wife, and their son managed to hide in the post-2011 DC Universe to do good in secret, but to otherwise let the post-Flashpoint Superman be the hero of this world. The problem is, the 2011-2016 Superman died last week, right on the eve of DC’s plans to restore a lot of what it’s been missing.
So Superman Rebirth uses the death of post-Flashpoint‘s Superman as a zero-issue starting point: what does the world do without a Superman? The pre-Flashpoint Superman thinks the same thing as we readers would: Superman can’t stay dead, because he’s Superman and comics abhor his absence. So this issue naturally reflects on the only story that comes to mind: 1992’s “Death of Superman” and the ensuing stories that led to his resurrection. Both we readers and the pre-Flashpoint Superman know that when Superman dies, he comes back, so it’s only a matter of time, right?
Except that it’s not. This “Rebirth” story raises the uneasy question for characters and readers alike as to what we’re supposed to do in Superman’s death is permanent. The impression I have is that while most readers like the pre-Flashpoint Superman and hated the 2011 rebooting, it is palpably awkward having “classic” Superman around in a world that belongs to a different iteration. This Superman doesn’t belong in the current DC Universe, and yet the “right” Superman is missing. The solution is obvious, but it’s weird all the same.
Tomasi and Mahnke’s story is quiet and introspective (the action is contained to flashbacks), but perhaps that’s appropriate for a story dealing with a situation as awkward in having Superman-A stuck in Universe-B where Superman-B is apparently gone for good. Tomasi’s the logical choice to set up this situation, having closed out the post-Flashpoint Superman’s story last month, and he captures well the tone of a seasoned, gentler Superman trying to figure out whether he should replace his counterpart. Mahnke’s a good choice for the art, having drawn a host of Superman stories over the last 15 years (including on both sides of the Flashpoint divide)–although Patrick Gleason takes over with Superman #1 in two weeks, so be prepared for a post-“Rebirth” artistic shift.
Superman Rebirth #1 is a decent read for a reader looking to get back into Superman, keeping in mind that it’s heavily weighed down by Superman continuity that literally links 1992’s “Death of Superman” to last week’s equivalent to the same event. Read as a straight story of one Superman coming out of retirement because of the absence of another, it’s a fine story. In light of the larger issues of the comics industry–reboots, major events, and the death of one character leading to the return of an earlier iteration–the story suffers a little, because there’s much deeper issues going on here beyond a simple alien messiah who wants to better his adopted planet.
Rating: Four duplicates out of five.