DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Patrick Ehlers and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Patrick’s Blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of The Flash, while Patrick is hosting the discussion of Wonder Woman.
Drew: Barry Allen is, in many ways, at the heart of the most convoluted parts of DC’s history. He played an integral role in Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC’s first universe-spanning event, sacrificing himself so he can stop the Anti-Monitor’s anti-matter cannon from destroying Earth. This act apparently both turned him into the very lightning bolt that gave him his abilities as well as saving his spirit in the very speed force from which he draws his powers. As if this isn’t convoluted enough, Barry had spent much of the silver age chasing villains through time on a self-powered time-travel device called the “cosmic treadmill,” which meant there was the potential for his past self to show up in stories after his death. Being uninitiated in the Flash universe, that’s about as far as I can trace the history, but I know it goes on to include something called the god-bullet, as well as dealing with Superman-Prime before he PUNCHED REALITY. Needless to say, the Flash was very much in need of a reboot if there was ever going to be hope of gaining new fans.
Cue the Flash #1. After a brief introduction showing Barry on a date with coworker Patty Spivot at a science center (Barry sure knows how to show a girl a good time), we get a classic title page, replete with a brief paragraph summarizing the character’s origin. The Flash snaps into action to stop a group of masked commandoes from stealing a portable genome re-coder. When the dust clears, one of the commandos is dead, and when his mask is removed, he’s revealed to be Barry’s old friend, Manuel Lago…or is he? Barry sets to utilizing his skills as a police scientist to reveal that the body’s DNA had been altered. Sure enough, Manuel shows up at Barry’s apartment, and leads him on a chase that ends in the reveal that all of those masked commandos are Manuel clones.
The commandos (calling themselves “Mob Rule”) make off with Manuel, leaving Barry no solid leads. The Flash visits with Dr. Darwin Elias (inventor of the genome re-coder), who, after performing some tests, tells the Flash that he’s not utilizing the speed force with his mind; that the Flash isn’t thinking as fast as he could be. This leads to a virtuosic sequence where Barry prevents a number of calamities by predicting and preparing for them, all without anyone noticing. Barry isn’t able to savor this victory, however, as he finally gets a lead in the case: Manuel’s “unofficial” CIA passport, which sends Barry around the globe, ending in a pig farm. Just as Barry is starting to connect the dots, an EMP throws the Gem Cities into a blackout, forcing him to deal with an array of issues, ranging from a crashing airliner to reuniting some kids at a carnival with their parents.
The next morning, Patty lets Barry know that she thinks she has a lead in Manuel’s case: a list of doctors who were involved in some kind of cell regeneration testing for the military. Sure enough, this clue leads them right to Manuel, but they are not able to escape before Mob Rule discovers them. Barry distracts the baddies while Patty and Manuel make a getaway. Barry is using his rapid cognition skills to plan the best course of action, but something goes wrong, and he’s shot in the head.
Meanwhile, Mob Rule has captured Dr. Elias in hopes that he might be able to save them. As it turns out, Manuel was involved in that cell regeneration test, and in fact can regenerate limbs. This made him an unstoppable operative for the CIA, but he went rogue to hunt down the terrorists that killed his father. These terrorists take him prisoner, and torture him for information, cutting off his hands and feet as quickly as he can re-grow them. The pile of disembodied limbs grow, gremlins-style, into full-sized Manuel clones, who rescue Manuel from his captors. Unfortunately, these clones seem to have a strict expiration date, and they are looking for a way to stay alive, a solution they suspect relies on having access to Manuel. Sure enough, Mob Rule recaptures Manuel, but an only-grazed-by-the-bullet-after-all Barry recovers and begins the hunt to save his friends.
Wow. It’s a credit to writers Fancis Manapul and Brian Buccellato that I thought that synopsis would be easier to write. The story is dense and rich with detail, but feels as light and breezy as any of the titles we’re reading. I didn’t even mention the subplot with Iris West, or the numerous flashbacks to Barry and Manuel’s memories of each other, all of which is peppered throughout the title, lending the story a sizable helping of thematic resonance. In rereading these issues, all kinds of connections reveal themselves. Flash’s monologue at the end of the fourth issue recalls his monologue from the end of issue #1, and even Dr. Eilas’s distinctive tie, which Barry finds, cuing him into the good doctor’s whereabouts, is introduced in the first issue (not to mention the fact that issue #4 had more editor’s notes filling us in on previous issues than any comic I’ve ever read). These connections tie in perfectly with a story that is operating as much in the past as it does the present, which hearkens thematically to the Flash stories of old without actually utilizing time-travel as a gimmick (although Manapul and Buccellato can’t resist name-dropping the cosmic treadmill in issue #2).
Manapul and Buccellato put a nice bow on all of this thematic unity with gorgeous and distinctive artwork. The most striking aspect for me is Buccellato’s color work. I tend to associate watercolors with gentle pastoral scenes, but here, they lend the Flash a jazzy fluidity that fits the character in ways that are as beautiful as they are surprising. The flashbacks are rendered in near-monochromes, washing each memory in its own color, highlighting the underlying emotions of those scenes. Praise rests equally with Manapul, who manages to convey all of the Flash’s actions with an unparalleled level of clarity. Moreover, his layouts are as inventive as any I’ve seen in the New 52. Particular favorites of mine are the “augmented cognition” sequences, where panels overlap and flow into one another in a way that communicates exactly how the flash is experiencing the world. I’m also LOVING the retro title pages; every single one feels like the title card of a classic 60’s film.
I suppose one could make the case that this title is borrowing pretty heavily from other comics. The EMP blast in particular, replete with a (near) plane crash and the hero on horseback can’t help but stir images of The Dark Knight Returns, and the “augcog” scenes remind me a bit of the way Daredevil’s abilities are often illustrated. I don’t see these echoes as a problem, though. This title is both classic and modern, and where would anything that fits that description be without a little post-modernism? Anyway, I’m easily having the most fun with this title, and I know fun is a big factor in how much you enjoy a comic book, so what do you think, Patrick, is this one as good as I think it is?
Patrick: That’s not how Gremlins work, Drew. You cut the hand off a Gremlin, it’s going to have lost that hand. You create more Gremlins by getting them wet. Doesn’t anyone read anymore!?
A little bit more on the history of Barry Allen, if you don’t mind. Barry did sacrifice himself to prevent the Anti-Monitor from destroying yet another universe. But Barry did something interesting when he died – he stayed dead for a long fucking time. The events of the Crisis wrapped up in 1986 and while many others have taken up the mantle, Barry Allen’s The Flash wouldn’t return until 2009. You and I (and basically all our peers) grew up in a world where Wally West was the Flash, so his return was handled by mythology-miester Geoff Johns and there was another HUGE DAMN REVEAL: the speed force is created by Barry Allen as he runs. The speed force exists beyond time and space, but it’s there because Barry powers it with each step he takes. It’s a cool idea and dovetails nicely with Barry’s explanation that his powers didn’t come with an instruction manual. I like the idea of Barry discovering the speed force as he’s creating it – there’s a palpable sense that nearly anything could happen.
But to finally address your question: yes I do believe this is an amazing series. While there are many strong aspects to this book, I think the art is a clear standout. I find it interesting that there’s no writer credit, but the stories are credited to Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, who happen to be the penciler and the colorist, respectively. I get the sense that the script is written to facilitate the art and it shows on every kinetic, dynamic page. The layouts are incredible – usually as they depict Flash’s predictive skills, but really any time he snaps into action. Hell, the inventive paneling isn’t even exclusive to the Flash in action – check out this business with Manny trying to escape a couple of his clones.
That’s the characters falling out of the frame. How cool is that? In a lot of ways, this series seems like it’s intent on delivering thrilling images and bright fun characters. It’s so stimulating and so refreshingly light (even considering there’s a fair amount of discussion about torture) that I can’t wait to get lost in the next issue.
Like many of the others titles we’ve been celebrating, this one focuses on a new villain. Which is a fine choice, as it allows us to focus on Barry and his relationships – especially important because his relationship with Iris was a casualty of the reboot. But we’re starting to see Central City’s Rouges at play on the periphery. Iris has a run-in with Captain Cold at Iron Heights prison and I’m pretty sure the kid sitting on the tank in issue #3 (bad pants, worse haircut) is The Trickster. I imagine that this business with Mob Rule will wrap up in another issue or two and then the next set of villains is already waiting in the wings – at which point, I look forward to a healthy and fun exploration of what makes Captain Cold such a mainstay of Flash’s rouges gallery.
I really think these guys are the best art team I’ve ever seen in action on a comic series. I know I haven’t been hip to the scene for very long, but I can’t think of a single comic I’ve ever read that’s been more visually compelling. This is an easy title to recommend and the perfect way to re-reintroduce Barry Allen to the world.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Action Comics, Aquaman, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Swamp Thing