It’s the worst ending for a comicbook, this epilogue to the last issue of The Flash, and the best. It’s nothing really, no superheroics, no spandex, no villain suddenly appearing from nowhere threatening the cities we’ve grown to love again over this last half-year. It’s just Barry Allen, in his alter ego the Flash, talking with Dr. Darwin Elias. It’s the best kind of drama, every bit the equal of a season finale of Breaking Bad or House, when House was good. Dr. Elias has been traveling the Badlands that surround Keystone, and he’s discovered, strange out-of-place, out-of-time artifacts. A Soviet tank from the 60s that’s rusting for what carbon dating confirms is the past 70 years. A roman statue from 2,000 years back. How could such things have come to be?
And that’s the sublime drama of the moment, the drama that writers (and artists, penciler and colorist) Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato have mastered so flawlessly, and harnessed to take the Flash in a bold new direction. When the moment turns, Dr. Elias gives the Flash the worst kind of news possible, and gives a cliffhanger that couldn’t possibly be any better. It’s you Flash, it’s you who’s the cause of this, Dr. Elias goes on to explain. It’s Barry’s tapping of the extra-dimensional Speed Force that cause eruptions in the fabric of spacetime. Every time Barry runs he saves the world, but every time he runs he rips a tear into spacetime, and things from the past come back to haunt us all.
We haven’t read a Flash with this vivid energy in years. A new kind of Flash story, suddenly, as if from nothing, presents itself. This is the Flash caught in the classical dilemma of hubris—a Flash attempting to change the world, to save it, only to find his actions result in compromising the very thing he hopes to save. This is no longer the Flash facing inhuman odds, and winning by redefining the situation. This is no longer the Flash trapped in a hero-villain dynamic of needing to protect his city from criminals with no greater aspiration than pulling off a bank heist. This is a Flash of simultaneous hope, and danger. And in a 21st-century world of hypertext and social media, of 24-hour news and paparazzi, this is the perfect kind of Flash.
But how do you craft this kind of story? How do you hurl the Flash into this kind of danger? How do you expect him to escape? Where will he land? It’s the question I cannot ask of Francis and Brian at first, it’s the question we need to build up to over the course of the whole interview. Because it’s the one question that really matters.
Instead we begin steadily, and build steam. By the end of the conversation, Francis will have a handful of minutes before he’s in transit, and we would have lost Brian completely before being able to properly say goodbye. There’s already an urgency propelling us forward, something great and magnificent and entirely too subtle to notice at first. So we begin with the easy questions. Who is Flash, how do Francis and Brian see him, especially after Flashpoint, DC’s megaevent for last summer that saw the Flash rewrite DC history by simply erasing continuity.
“With Geoff, I had a great collaboration with him”, Francis begins by answering my question about his evolved role in this new volume of the Flash. In the wake of Final Crisis and Blackest Night, DC megaevents that spanned the summers from 2008 through 2009, Barry Allen had returned to assume the mantle of the Flash after years of existing as a blizzard of faster-than-light particles. The summer-2010 launch of the new Flash series where Barry once again wore the lightning (taking over from his former sidekick Wally West), saw Francis placed as series regular artist, with DC Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns as series regular writer.
“He’s a fantastic cinematic storyteller”, Francis continues, “and I took a bit of that. But then also, being there from the beginning, I’m able to push and experiment with certain things. Knowing truly what the subtext of the story is, allows me a certain flexibility of pushing my art and pushing the layouts. Going back to the Manuel Lagos scene where we find out how his organs were used for the clones, I was able to create a multi-layer storytelling within a double-pager. In which you can read the story going on within in the panels, but then you can look at the panels themselves, and just the shapes of them also tell another story as well. It enhances the way the story’s being to.
“Just being able to do that, because a lot of the time Brian and I have the luxury to really push and expand the way we can tell stories besides the really very typical panel layout. So it’s been fantastic to be able to experiment in that way”.
Speaking about it, Francis is really humble about the enormous contribution he’s already made to Flashlore already with just these handful of issues on the New 52. It’s been a return to the science-fiction hero of Flash comics long gone. Not the impoverished science fiction of Star Trek or Flash Gordon, but the first glimpse of a true science fiction, where the hero himself is powered by science fiction. This was the charm of those old Carmine Infantino Flashes, that the science fiction is the hero, rather than simply an environment the hero finds himself in.
What Francis and Brian have done, is return to that idea in a dramatic new way. And evolved it. The “experimenting with page layouts” that Francis speaks about in that unassuming way, has really been the most amazing visualization of this science-fictional reality that Barry now finds himself living through. We’ve panels pop-out from nowhere, we’ve seen two-page spreads where panels become words, words become pictures. But most of all, and most importantly, we’ve seen the Flash slide, in the capable hands of Francis and Brian, into the same evolution that science-fiction giant William Gibson has, this last decade gone.
In the shadow of the 911 bombings, William Gibson surprised everyone with Pattern Recognition, the first in his new trilogy. Unlike his 80s trilogy that began with Neuromancer (and established the genre of cyberpunk), or his 90s trilogy that ended with All Tomorrow’s Parties and put this trademark-Gibson cyber-future tantalizing closer in reach, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History would be set in the present. Similarly, Francis and Brian pulled the Flash away from the imaginative science fiction of the impossible, to a scifi rooted solidly in speculative science. This is a new feeling for the Flash. A sense of, not-yet-but-soon (that mimics the experience of reading a comicbook) fuels the Flash’s sojourn through scifi.
“Well really just the process of it has been getting the balance just right”, Francis says when I ask about this new hard-scifi trope that he and Brian are developing. “We have certain goals in terms of where we want to take Barry Allen, and the Flash. And what ends up happening usually is we’d kinda just look around the internet and do some research and see what science we can incorporate into our story. There’s been certain instances where the science has dictated more where we’re going. But for the most part the story has always been pretty clear, and it just so happens that certain science fits and falls right into what we’re doing. It’s pretty amazing what’s out there, what’s real and what’s happening and what’s about to happen. And what we’re able to do is even take speculative science and bring it a little further as if it was real. So that’s what we have in this medium.”
Brian picks up immediately where Francis ends. Already the work dynamic is pretty clear. And for a moment I wonder whether they even bother talking to each other when they work. Talking might just be the thing that slows everything, all the way down. “I don’t think we’re scientific geniuses or anything”, Brian picks up, “but we have some vision for the character, and we’re inquisitive and we’re able to find scientific explanations to justify the stories we want to tell.”
“In the case of Mob Rule”, Brian continues, referencing the new series’ first villain, and a unique addition to Flashlore courtesy of Francis and Brian, “he’s exactly the opposite of what Barry Allen wanted to be. Barry wanted to be so fast that he could be more places than one. And the thing is, he’s only one man. And it felt like the physical manifestation of an antagonist that would work perfectly for this situation is a person that can be in multiple places at once. And what made it more difficult is his personal connection to Manuel and Mob Rule. And the science sorta fell into it…”, Brian refers to the close friendship while growing up between Barry and Manuel, the progenitor of the Mob Rule clones. He continues “And we knew we wanted them to be clones. But we went about it in a very different way. The thing is you get a DNA strand and you recreate another version of the original being.
“Whereas in this case, we tied it in directly, emotionally to Manuel and what he was going through. The way our cloning works is that it all stems from this regenerative science with pig’s bladders. What happens is that certain aspects and properties of those things are able to regenerate certain body parts. And from there we thought, let’s push this a little further. After regenerating body parts, only seems like for science the next step would be regenerating whole bodies. And with Manuel, in issue #4, he is being tortured to the extent that he himself is starting to give up. He himself is not sure whether he wants to live. And the thing is, the physical body will always will itself to survive.
“And what happened is, in the pieces that were cut off from him, the body thought that, well, if the host is giving up, I need to regenerate on the other side. So from a small finger regenerated an entire body. And then from there it just kept occurring and occurring. It stems back from Manuel Lagos’ instinctual will to survive. Even though the host was ready to give up. It’s combining a lot of emotional aspects we’re trying to hit, but then also having science to support that”.
It’s a short jump from there to talk about the villains of the piece. Mob Rule was seductive, a villain who could literally be in more places than one at any single moment was deeply the conceptual opposite of the Flash. But what of the other, more recognizable Flash villains? What about Captain Cold, the leader of the Rogues, or the Trickster, played with brio by former Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill on the 90s TV show. Or better yet, what about Gorilla Grodd, the renegade super-intelligent ape who would lead us to Gorilla City, a lost African technopolis where super-advanced Gorillas receded from the world for fear that barbaric humans might exploit their technology and damage their culture.
Well, this issue that releases today is the first of a two-parter that deals with an evolved Captain Cold, Francis and Brian tell me. And Gorilla Grodd will appear almost immediately after that. They go into details at great length. But not before I’m lost in something of a quiet reverie.
This New 52 Flash has been nothing short of astounding in every single panel. And that ending to issue #5, it’s just completely crafted an entirely new kind of Flash story. I’m lost in this moment of a thousand disapproving echoes. The Flash is about tomorrow, the Flash is about the future. The Flash has never been so simple, so abstract a thing as that. What kind of tomorrow? What kind of future will come?
When the original creative team held sway on the Flash, back in the 80s (already the book had by then hit its #300s), Flash was about the far-fetched, about travel to different dimensions by altering your vibrational rate, about thwarting villains that presented non-rational challenges. In those days, the Flash was effective in being a police procedural with scifi elements wired in. Barry’s cases wouldn’t involve merely a bank heist, some as yet unknown villain would have masterminded the Rogues future-selves into a trap that led them into their own past, a trap that could only be escaped from by concocting an undisciplined bank heist that would ensure they get caught.
The stories turned, of course. The tone grew a lot darker after Barry was forced into using terminal force to stop Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash, from killing his bride (Barry’s first wife had already died at Zoom’s hands).
After the Crisis on Infinite Earths, a DC megaevent that saw Barry sacrifice his life to save the universe, writer Bill Messner-Loebs chartered new course for Wally West, erstwhile Kid Flash, who adopted Barry’s mantle as much to honor Barry as to carry on his good work. It began slowly at first, but Messner-Loebs really did know what he was doing. While Barry’s Flash, the Flash executed by industry legend Carmine Infantino, was all about a scifi police procedural, and thereafter about a Barry fighting through the slings and arrows of “the Trial of the Flash”, Messner-Loebs’ Flash would be about family.
Wally West would unmask, allowing his secret identity to become public knowledge. The drama of this new Flash for a more caring, more sensitive 90s would be the drama of the extended family, the drama of Wally’s relationship with his mother, with his girlfriend Linda, with the deep ties he had with S.T.A.R. Labs researchers Tina and Speed McGee. By the time Mark Waid took over as series regular writer in the mid-90s, he evolved this drama of connectedness to include other speedsters. Jay Garrick, the original Flash, and predecessor to Barry Allen. Johnny Quick, a wartime speedster, and his daughter Jesse. Max Mercury, the zen guru of speed that first taught Wally and the others about the Speed Force. And Bart Allen, Wally’s cousin, Barry’s grandson, brought from the distant future by his grandmother, Iris, to be taught by Wally. As Impulse, Bart was every bit as hyperactive, quick-to-react, look-before-you-leap as Wally himself had been just a few years earlier.
The Flash always been the hub around which we imagine ourselves catching up to a future we didn’t really think possible. Carmine Infantino did it with a mix of scifi and the police procedural. Bill Messner-Loebs and then Mark Waid did it with family. And now Francis and Brian. It takes a while to notice. But Francis and Brian have really evolved the genre in a wholly unexpected way.
At once, the New 52 Flash is a Western, and a work of hard scifi. When danger threatens, when villains show up, Barry’s the Sheriff of a small town that just wants to keep things safe. Except that Central City is a massive 21st-century city, and the threats are never really as simple as bandits come into town looking for a good time. The dynamics however are just the same. There’s a clear sense of morality that guides Barry’s actions, that brushes up against the failings of villains who can no longer find that morality clarity for themselves. There’s a sense of striving against phenomenal odds, of pushing the Self far beyond the limits of endurance and on to excellence. There’s the idea, that in the hands of a good man like Barry, the law can work.
But of course there’s the hard scifi, the drama of ideas and inventions that may be just around the corner. And the magic is there, in that strange marriage that I didn’t think was really possible—a scifi western that doesn’t simply rely on the external props and paraphernalia of dressing starship pilots in cowboy dusters, or having laser-pistols styled to look like oldtimey six shooters. This is the real work of genre-splicing, of genre-bending. To take the themes that are crucial to the success of these genre, to take a drama of integrity key to Westerns, to take a drama of aspirational technologies that’s crucial to scifi, and to blend those together in an unexpected way.
In a certain sense, with already six months of history, we’re only at the very beginning of this New 52 Flash. I can’t wait to read the evolved Captain Cold appearing in today’s Flash #6, a story jocularly titled “Best Served Cold”. And I can’t wait to get to the tomorrows. But for right now, half way through this interview, I can’t wait to launch into Gorilla Grodd.