I can recall the coda to World Without Heroes clear as a bell. In the final chapter to DC’s Invasion mega-event, superhumans found their powers corrupted by an alien engineered gene-bomb. After the action of the book, Perry White, editor of the fictive Daily Planet, walks by a newsstand where the vendor had the Planet turned headline-down. Perry and Mac (Moe?) the Vendor got into that kind of rapid-fire debate that seems to color the city streets of every one of the major metropolises the world over.
Perry liked headlines, they caught people’s eye, he felt. Moe (Mac?) liked to promote curiosity, a headline-down paper might get people curious enough to turn over the newspaper and check the headline for themselves. And at that point you’re invested. When you finally turned the World Without Heroes page, musing on the exchange that just took place, you held in your hand the front page to the next morning’s Daily Planet. It’s headline read “Superheroes Cured!”, closing off the story of the gene-bomb that targeted humans with the so-called “meta-gene”. Targeted superhumans in other words.
I remember thinking that the title promised a little more than what I’d actually read. It was a wonderful adventure story in space sure, the kind you’d hoped Lost In Space or Star Trek would have in store for you each week. But just the phrase World Without Heroes held a kind of promise that wasn’t entirely fulfilled by something so small as superheroes having their power go awry. Why hadn’t the concept of a hero been undermined in a way that it had in the previous year’s Legends mega-event? Why weren’t we faced with the idea of heroism being broken? That would have been well worth my 99 cents.
But Keith Giffen did introduce something with World Without Heroes and more broadly with Invasion, the idea of the “meta-human” and with it, the separation in concept of “superhero” from “superhuman”. It’s this separation in concept that lies at the heart of DC’s most recent mega-event, Flashpoint. At its heart Flashpoint is a story driven by the passions of super-speedster Barry Allen; the story of Barry needing to un-break history.
Superficially Flashpoint reads like Geoff Johns’ first foray in Flash country with erstwhile Flash Wally West all the way back in the late summer of 2000. Again a scarlet speedster finds themselves in a world where heroes never came into existence. At first blush it hardly seems necessary to tell Flashpoint over some 60 issues. A five-issue core series following on the heels of the “Road to Flashpoint” storyarc in the pages of The Flash, followed by four one-shots and 16 three-issue limited series seems a little OTT.
The storylines and character however, arcs certainly are intriguing enough. The major conceit of the world of the Flashpoint is marked by a return to Giffen’s idea of conceptually separating superhuman from superhero. Aquaman and Wonder Woman appear as major players in the world of the Flashpoint. They are a new breed of superhuman royalty fighting a war which throws the world into turmoil. Amazons have captured the United Kingdom making it their own, while Emperor Aquaman has retaliated by sinking Western Europe. There’s no more Germany, no more France or Spain or Portugal or Greece or Italy, and Gorilla Grodd has marched out of the Hidden City to murder all humans in Africa. Japan is safe under the watchful eyes of Tornado, an AI that occupies an army of robotic bodies. H.I.V.E. plan humanity’s last stand in the form of a satellite strike against both the Amazons and Atlantis. Captain Cold, now Citizen Cold has become the “hero” of Central City.
At this point however, the core of the story, and the rationale behind DC’s decision to award Flashpoint so much attention still eludes me. It’s helpful that 16 limited series are grouped in elegiacally named cantos (like the halcyon “Whatever Happened to Gotham City” which groups Batman: Knight of Vengeance with Deadman & the Flying Graysons or the poetic “He Never Got the Ring” which incorporates Flashpoint: Hal Jordan). Is Flashpoint going to be another lesson in the promise of a name, like World Without Heroes? It’s not until I read “This is the World We Made”, the second issue of The World of Flashpoint, grouped under “Everything You Know Will Change in a Flash” that I get a glimmer of the meaningfulness of Flashpoint.
On freeing an imprisoned Amazon warrior (ironically, the Wonder Woman villain Circe), Traci Thirteen is offered a broader glimpse into the world of Flashpoint. Writer Rex Ogle captures perfectly the spirit of Flashpoint in a single, beautiful concept; Flashpoint is the story of a world where key players attempt to reshape the world as they demand it to be. Batman wants a world where his son wasn’t murdered before his eyes (forcing him to take the Mantle of the Bat, and transfiguring his wife Martha into the Joker), while Aquaman and Wonder Woman both vie to assert the rights of their peoples. And even Barry Allen, last vestige of the DC we remember from childhoods, wants nothing different.
Flashpoint isn’t simply a neat and compact epic to be bought, read and forgotten. It isn’t a cheap segue into the Bright New DC premiering in the last days of August. Ogle’s words make of Flashpoint the core philosophical engagement of our time. And it becomes hard to dismiss DC, dismiss the superhero genre, and hard to dismiss the connection between these and the times we currently face.
In probably the most important book of 2009, Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks, Bryant Simon writes, “What’s new, and what makes our world both more alienating and more susceptible to the seductions of buying, is the withering of nonmarket relationships and the public institutions that in the past had pushed back against the market and brands to challenge them for people’s allegiances and identities”. Simon goes on to describe “the postneed society”, and how consumption culture allows us to make statements about ourselves in a time when civic institutions like Church and State continue to recede from public life.
Flashpoint is a parable. Just as we find ourselves dwarfed by the consumption culture of the postneed society, superheroes finds themselves dwarfed by the political machinations of superhumans. If anything, Johns is articulate and passionate enough to offer Flashpoint as a fierce defense of the Silver Age of Superheroes. This is not the story of a world without Superman serving as inspiration for a generation of superheroes. Rather, Flashpoint is the story of a world broken by the absence of those heroes, the Flash and the Green Lantern, who first answered that call to arms. World without heroes, indeed.