Really, there’s no reason to buy The Flash: Secret Files and Origins. No reason at all. It’s just a sales gimmick prompting an impulse buy. A warm-up lap for the real show coming later this month with the ongoing series. Why put yourself out of pocket for the four bucks? Except of course, for the fact that this is singularly the finest standalone issue featuring the Flash that has yet been published in the character’s four decade-plus history.
The definitive story of any character is always particularly hard to master. Moreover it is a genre that is rarely attempted. Characters that have enjoyed a long publication history often suffer at the hands of mediocrity and usualness. Everybody knows the Flash and everybody already loves him. No need reinvent the wheel. But it is precisely these kinds of characters that are in need of rejuvenation. The characters that have become less than what they were, that have become ubiquitous, are most likely to become devalued.
Yet these characters mean something. New fans who find themselves drawn to a character are always eager to discover the reason for reading these characters. And longtime fans will always try to recapture that original magic. The definitive character story is one of the most necessary genre. It reminds readers of a time when there was possibility of the world being larger than the collective decisions of people. Simultaneously however, the definitive character story is also the most daunting to script.
When done properly, this genre opens the power of the superhero genre. Iron Man was never about the armor, but the story of a billionaire driven to excel by his secret fear that beneath all the success, he might be a failure. And it took a Matt Fraction to remind readers of this fact. Just as it would require a Frank Miller to remind readers that Daredevil was a story about plunging headlong into danger. And an Andy Diggle to remind readers that Hellblazer was really a story about grifting out a better destiny from supernatural forces. Or a Garth Ennis for a Punisher which would be the answer to the failure of social institutions.
When writer Geoff Johns originally began writing the character, it would be a different Flash. Wally West, Barry Allen’s protégé who had adopted his mentor’s mantle, was put through a trial by fire. Trapped in a mirrorworld, with no powers to speak of, Wally would ultimately have to reclaim his stolen city from a storybook villain. Within the next few years, Johns would pen a definitive story for Wally with “Blitz”. Tormented by his own Reverse-Flash, Wally would need to walk the same path of being pushed into using lethal force to resolve the threat to his loved ones.
“Blitz” would prove to be a legacy statement for both Johns and the character of Wally West. But in many senses, “Blitz” would come too late. It would be a statement about Wally West at the height of Johns’ run, rather than at the beginning. With the recent reversal of Barry Allen’s death in the pages of Final Crisis, Johns would be presented with an opportunity to make his definitive character statement at the very front. With the phenomenal Flash Rebirth already under his belt, Johns is turning up the volume on his legacy statement for the Barry Allen character.
In the space of just a single 18-page story (an additional 19 pages of character- and setting-profiles fill out the remainder of the 33-page book), Johns is able to craft a singular vision of what the character of Barry Allen is really about. And in a single caption, Barry Allen is haunted by the very palpable loss of his mother, while being a source of strength for his Flash Family.
Family First: Activated by the Speed Force generated by Barry, generations of Flash appear
Taken from him at a critical point in his childhood by a violent, unsolved murder, Barry’s mother (and her murder) prove to be formative for the speedster. Barry would go on to learn forensic science. He would become slow, thorough, meticulous. His journey is very much the same as that of writer James Ellroy as detailed in his moving biography, My Dark Places. Yet, for whatever the future might bring, Barry has become the uncompromising symbol of fortitude. The one thing that will always look to the future with optimism.
With this profound statement about the character, Geoff Johns seems to have reinvented the genre of comics specials. These books that have so often through the ‘90s been viewed as ‘necessary’, now stand on the cusp of being remade into an opportunity to define the scope of a writer’s vision. The Flash: Secret Files and Origins may not need to be read, but it deserves to be. And the simple act of reading this book, will be definitive of readers themselves; by reading it comics elevates from entertainment to become art.