[25 October 2011]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Before The Flash comics were pretty much just standalone adventures for me. Sure some of these adventures would bleed from one issue into the next, but that just meant shilling out another 50 cents to read adventure’s conclusion. The Flash was wildly different. Here was a character in the midst of a murder trial (this should never happen), betrayed on the stand by his kid sidekick (this really should never happen) and still found time to do scifi superhero things like fight villains (like Big Sir and Gorilla Grodd) and visit a super-advanced Gorilla City hidden deep in the African jungle. In its closing stages, the original series of the Flash was amazing. But it too would be swept away by DC’s megaevent, “Crisis on Infinite Earths”.
Not that a changing of the guard left me behind at all. I really only got into the Flash with volume two, when erstwhile Kid Flash adopted the mantle (and costume) of his mentor, Barry Allen. Barry Allen had died saving the universe during the Crisis (he’d be resurrected for unknown reasons during the final part of the Crisis Trilogy, 2008’s “Final Crisis”). And the few years prior’s confusion around “the Trial of the Flash” evaporated when Wally West (formerly Kid Flash) assumed the role.
Not to say that I was a Wally West fan. I became a Wally West fan. Wally had the same kinds of adventures that I could vaguely remember Barry having (I was younger than five when I first brushed up against them, so the last years of Barry Allen’s run remain unclear during my childhood). But the real reason I became a Wally fan was that I didn’t need to battle through the high-stakes emotional drama of “the Trial of the Flash”. I had been too young at the time and I understood that I was losing as much of half the weight of each issue. By age seven, I was just about ready for the social complexity of a superhero who had adopted the mantle of his mentor (and hero) but still lived with his mom.
Wally’s skirmishes with Vandal Savage, his battles with street thugs hopped-up on Velocity 9, his encounters with Cold War Russian speed-trio Red Troika (later Kapitalist Kouriers) his licensing as an INS agent, and his friendship with former villain, Pied Piper would prove to be endearing adventures. But writer-at-the-helm, William Messner-Loebs would often describe the limitations of Wally’s powers, rather than the pure wonder of them. The aspirational elements of envisioning yourself in the hero’s shoes were often lost.
I really became a Wally fan during Mark Waid’s run, many, many years later in 1993. Not to mark himself as too ambitious, Waid did hit on the number one problem with Wally as a character—he still lingered in the shadow of his mentor Barry Allen. And Waid’s solution to the problem? Bring Barry Allen back from the dead. The Return of Barry Allen is worth reading, even if you could simply google for the plot. The narrative itself, however, is richly rewarding. But the book did set the tone for Waid’s run on the Flash. Waid’s Wally West would be about the emotional reality of being the Flash.
The hard scifi (science fiction that was rooted in science fact) that Bill Messner-Loebs crafted so finely into the Flash mythos was often lost. Take the storyarc “Dead Heat”, for example. When Wally encounters the villainous self-proclaimed God of Speed Savitar, the issue of exactly what Savitar has learned while vampirically leeching speed is often skirted. For Waid, the emotional reality is the core.
But Francis Manapul writer-artist behind the New 52 Flash and co-writer Brian Buccellato, simply streak ahead of any previous limitations in storytelling. What Manapul and Buccellato have produced with the Flash is a rich, textured drama that hinges on both the emotional core and hard scifi.
Once again, the Flash is as much the story of a hero discovering his powers, as of the nature of those powers themselves. Manapul and Buccellato conduct readers to a wonderland of augmented cognition and rapid cell development. But the real joy is linking beyond the ideas the writers express, and finding science theories for ourselves like the neuroscience of prediction and quantum entanglement and bringing these to bear on our reading of the book.
In a moving passage from Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative comics evangelist Will Eisner bemoans the loss of the kind of comics that represent the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. He writes: “There is a major structural difference between newspaper storytelling strips and comic books. In comic books, stories come to a definite conclusion, a tradition that began when the early comic books advertised that each story was complete. A book is free-standing whereas newspapers are connected to the pattern of daily life. In a daily continuity, therefore, the storyteller need only segue into the next adventure. [Milton] Caniff understood that the story had to emulate the seamless flow of life’s experiences and that the human adventure doesn’t have neat endings. His work shows us how to tell a story that could make itself part of the reader’s daily life”.
And yet, with Manapul and Buccellato’s the Flash here is finally a comicbook that once again emulates the pattern of our daily lives. The Flash is simply comics at its finest.