The Legacy of Mike Wieringo: The Flash Years

It stands as definitive of 90’s nostalgia comics, Mike Wieringo’s hyperreal cartooning. The slick, stylistic artwork provides a sharp contrast to the major vectors of the 90’s’ much-hyped search for a comics of cultural authenticity. Audiences will not find the brutal ultraviolence of early Image comics, nor the self-loathing of DC’s disavowal of its central characters nor the neuroses of confessional indy comics. Ringo’s (as he would later come to sign his work) style is a politics of hope. Lantern-jawed heroes appear in stalwart poses, villains appear exaggerated and threatening. Threats are threatening, but just by the right amount, heroes pull through in the end.

Mike Wieringo made his debut on Flash issue #80 cover-dated ‘Early September 1993’. On a bi-weekly schedule until the conclusion of the ‘Back on Track’ storyarc, Flash would prove to be an effective and lucid vehicle for Wieringo refining his classic style. The first few issues of ‘Back on Track’ however, depict clearly an inner struggle in Wieringo’s art. The artwork is Ringo, but just not classic Ringo. Or at least not yet. Wieringo’s character studies appear slightly more elongated, slightly skinnier. His panels reads as just a tiny amount too static, too sedate. Possibly, a visual style influenced strongly by Ty Templeton, cover artist to the preceding Flash storyarc, ‘The Return of Barry Allen’.

But by issue #83’s ‘Out with a Bang’, Wieringo’s art just pops. Here are the lantern-jawed, steely-eyed defenders against incomprehensible threats. Here are the tilts and the outlandish viewing angles. Here are the goofball caricatures up against impossible odds. And the pure emotion etched into every panel. Suddenly, with a single comic, Mike Wieringo stands as having perfected the nostalgia comics of the 90’s. The world and its dangers never seemed more real than when articulated through exaggeration, in hyperreal cartooning.

While visually reminiscent of Disney’s Silly Symphonies or Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, Wieringo’s characteristic style provides an eloquent and passionate counterpoint to the major thematic trends of the 90’s. In popular terms, the 90’s stands as a decade of self-definition for the comics industry. Perpetually confronting its ‘death throes’, the comics publishing industry was forced into a period of self-evaluation. Landmark events like the rise of self-publishing, the founding of Image comics and DC’s disavowal of Superman and Batman would form the crucible for Wieringo’s almost countercultural visual style. By presenting his audience with an ostensibly nostalgic stylization, Wieringo would contend fiercely with the cultural logic of ultraviolence and realist musculature.

If Wieringo’s artwork seems to recall the élan of yesteryear, it is because his work taps a deeper vein. More than any other modern artist, Wieringo’s visualizations recall and, in a certain sense perfect, the work of comics giant Winsor McCay. McCay’s magnum opus, Little Nemo in Slumberland was originally published from 1905 until 1914. First serialized in the New York Herald as Little Nemo in Slumberland, McCay’s cartoon strip eventually moved to Hearst syndication in September of 1911, there to be re-titled In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. McCay brought the design sensibilities of a master animator to Little Nemo. Each panel would have a clearly defined reading line, backgrounds were replete with elaborate, ornate architecture. But if anything, McCay was almost directly responsible for assigning a visual logic to comics. It would be this refined craftsmanship that would lead editor Bill Blackbeard to dub the Little Nemo Strips ‘The Greatest Cartoon Strip to Ever Flop’ in his 2000 volume Little Nemo 1905-1914.

Nearly a century later, Wieringo would tread the same ground as McCay. Wieringo’s skill as a draftsman would lend a flair to the Flash comics that became his first home. Impossible, but logically consistent, viewing angles would become the order of the day. Individual panels would once again have to be read as a single narrative, the pacing controlled by the Flash as he sped through. For all the zigzagging across the page, readers’ eyes would grow strangely accustomed to energy and the vibrancy of Wieringo’s visual eclecticism. Paradoxically, there is a strange and unexpected comfort in the rapid and jarring transitions between panels. If anything, Wieringo continues and perfects the ‘immobile’ animation first pioneered by McCay.

But there is a deeper connection between the work of Winsor McCay and the creative project of the Flash. Critics have commonly cited the richly-textured backgrounds being at odds with the apparent absence of character in the titular Nemo. While the backgrounds and the visual depth are spectacularly audacious even by today’s standards, the story often fails to connect emotionally with its audience, has been the common complaint. But the 1905 opus must be read more closely than simple entertainment.

Nemo appearing as a floating signifier, nearly devoid of emotional appeal is perhaps one of the most profound acts of cultural analysis in the early part of the twentieth century. Latin for ‘nobody’, Nemo becomes McCay’s conceptual tool for interrogating the project begun in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz the latter both published five years prior in 1900. As somnambulist, Nemo is an explorer of the unconscious, not at all unlike Dorothy in Baum’s Wizard.

This project is resumed with Waid and Wieringo’s Flash. Only the third regular writer on the series begun in 1987, Waid would find himself scripting a generational hero. The central conceit of the 1987 Flash series was to establish Wally West, the former Kid Flash, as a superhero legacy inductee, now wearing the mantle of his fallen mentor Barry Allen. With Barry having sacrificed his life to save the universe, Wally now stepped in honor the legacy.

Waid’s masterstroke was to recognize and fully explore the repressed conflict between Wally in his role as Flash and the long shadow his mentor cast over him. In Waid’s hands, Flash became a story of deep psychological underpinnings, skillfully brought to the fore in ‘The Return of Barry Allen’ storyarc. Waid’s Flash thus, treaded the same ground as Nemo in exploring the human unconscious. But moreover, Waid’s Flash was a superhero story, not about superheroes, but about the fans of superheroes. The story of a child growing into not only superpowers, but into the role of superhero was a crucial story for the 90’s. This tale would provide a cultural riposte to the grim, overwrought, ultraviolent tales found in other mainstream superheroes of the time.

For this project to succeed, it would require a breakaway new form of visualization. This visual style would need to avoid the highly detailed realism of such artists as Rob Leifeld and Marc Silvestri. Without Wieringo at the helming the art, it is conceivable that Waid’s project would not have been fully realized. Charitably, even the most diligent guest pencillers’ work seem somehow to miss the beats regularly hit by Wieringo. In the era of 90’s self-definition of the comics industry, Wieringo’s art is redemptive of fan culture.

Mike Wieringo passed away unexpectedly on August 12, 2007. While his passing is both a personal and artistic loss, his legacy remains as one of the era-defining works. His project for Flash not only reaches back in time to innovate on one of comics’ master storytellers, but also redefines a culturally-receding era as one shining bright with optimism.

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