Sorry I’m Late: The Real Return of Barry Allen

Perhaps Time/Warner, the owners of comics publisher DC, should invest some of their considerable influence and resources in finding a way to clone writer Geoff Johns. Johns is genuinely one of the hardest working people in the superhero genre currently. Along with scripting core-limited series of the current DC mega-event, “Blackest Night”, and regular writer duties on the monthly magazines Green Lantern and JSA, Johns is a lead writer for the CW TV show Smallville. He is the historiographer’s intellect behind that show’s landmark 188th episode, ‘Absolute Justice’, which draws the legendary Justice Society of America into the frayed world of Clark Kent’s Smallville.

Johns’ contribution to the ongoing definition of superheroes as icons at play in the mainstream of popular culture remains undaunted. Added into his current workload, is the limited series meant to reintegrate Silver Age Flash Barry Allen into the updated DC Universe. Following close on the heels of Grant Morrison’s reintroduction of Barry Allen in the 2008 mega-event “Final Crisis”, Flash Rebirth examines the reintegration of Barry Allen into a world that in many ways has clearly moved on since his death.

With his formidable workload questions around Johns’ readiness might appear to be well-placed, if pointed. With the final two issues of the 6-issue limited series pushed back into the 2010 calendar, could Johns have bitten off more than he can chew? Rather than finding themselves caught in a media maelstrom of delays and disaffection, new fans and old will find the proof of Johns readiness for this project in the series as a whole. With ‘Fastest Man Alive’ the closing issue of Flash Rebirth, the question quickly becomes, should anyone else ever be allowed to write Flash?

What makes Johns work so continually engaging is unerring capacity to find the emotional core of any work. A clear example of this can be seen with the two very different projects revolving around the same character–limited comicbook series Superman: Secret Origins and TV Show Smallville. The underlying narrative for both projects is exactly the same; Superman learns becomes an inspiration to an entirely new generation of heroes, while moving from rural Smallville to the great urban expanse of Metropolis. But while Secret Origins is about the immense danger, and the thrilling hope of those very first steps Clark Kent took into understanding his powers, Smallville presents a broken world in which Clark Kent has not yet adopted the Superman identity. The narratives may tread the same story path, but their conflicts are entirely contrasted. While Secret Origins is a story about the hope and terror that arises from taking those first steps into a new world, Smallville is the picture of a world awash in remorseless self-defeat, just waiting to be redeemed in a certain sense.

Johns’ consummate skill in being able to rework known tales to very different emotional impacts (and in this way produce radically new stories from the same tales) is a talent that is in some senses reversed in Flash Rebirth. Having already resurrected a fallen Silver Age character in Green Lantern Reborn, Johns had the unenviable task of defining the narrative distinctions between the two resurrections. The Rebirths of the Flash and the Green Lantern are by no means the same tale, but capturing these differences in an engaging way might prove difficult. And to be fair, Johns does rely on many of the same narrative tropes (like the pursuit of justice for the murder of a loved one) between the Flash and Green Lantern. But these superficial similarities are nothing more than the opening gambit in the long game of a diligent writer.

Fully one third of Flash Rebirth, the two opening issues, are dedicated to Johns’ wrestlings with the variances between the resurrections of the Flash and Green Lantern. The characters are a potent fire-and-ice combination (the basis for their strong friendship) with Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern having a devil-may-care recklessness compared with Barry Allen’s slow, methodical, meticulous nature. But in addition, Johns takes care to open a vista for the readers that shows how the character resurrections have a very nature also. With Green Lantern’s return, a kind of healing began. With the Green Lantern Corps reformed, the Guardians once again established on Oa and the fear-creature Parallax finally defeated, Hal Jordan’s return heralded a redemption of sorts.

Barry Allen however, faced an entirely different set of challenges with his return. In the years since Barry had sacrificed himself to save the universe, his protégé Wally West had matured and adopted the mantle of the Flash. What is more, Wally’s protégé, Bart Allen, had himself matured and adopted the role of the new Kid Flash. Barry’s return threatened to disrupt a stable set of relationships. And something far worse, Barry’s return threatened to render obsolete not only his own sacrifice, but also to negate the genuine growth experienced by his loved ones in his absence. While Hal Jordan’s resurrection meant a renewal of good things, Barry’s return might shatter the entire world.

Johns’ handling of the thematic variances between the two resurrections is slow and methodical and meticulous, not at all unlike Barry Allen’s own work-process. Explaining the need for a return of Barry Allen, is one of the secret triumphs of Johns’ flawless vision for the character, and the series as a whole. But distinguishing between two of his projects is just one part of Johns’ masterful tapestry. His use of recognizable Flash genre (like the idea of the Flash ‘Family’, and Barry’s almost comical use of the phrase ‘Flash Fact’) and his work to produce these in radical new forms of the Flash mythos provides one of the most engaging character reboot in decades. Professor Eobard Thawne, the Reverse-Flash and primary villain of the series, is made genuinely a threat again. And the speedsters themselves are genuinely a family again. In Johns’ vision there is real danger, and real meaning. And a clear need for Barry Allen.

But the true victory for Flash Rebirth lies in the history of the character’s publication. Since the launch of the series’ second volume (with Wally West now adopting the scarlet and gold mantle of the Flash), Barry Allen’s death became a consistent problem. How could Wally grow into his own as the man who carried forward a heroic tradition, without disavowing the legacy of Barry’s sacrifice?

It was writer Mark Waid’s 1993 storyarc “The Return of Barry Allen”, that seemed to finally settle the matter of Wally’s ascendance. With the Reverse-Flash posing as Barry Allen, Wally was forced to confront a renegade Flash hell-bent on decimating Barry Allen’s legacy. But Waid’s resolution of the theme seemed to deal Barry Allen himself a violent blow. Would Barry forever be recalled as the ghost that limited Wally from reaching his full potential? A decade subsequent would see Johns himself address the theme of Wally’s self-doubt, and Barry’s role in the Flash Family. In a moving scene where Wally and Barry meet no longer as mentor and student but as Flash and Flash, Barry makes an inspirational plea for Wally to continue leading the life he has built for himself. Flash Rebirth continues that tradition and provides a kind of rescue for Barry from the ignominy of a ghost-presence that will linger and simply haunt the Flash Family long past its usefulness.

But secretly, the most rewarding element of the limited series has been the delays. To misdirect attention from his super-powers, Barry Allen would make a point of always arriving late. True to form, the publication delays add a hint of Barry Allen charm, making his public wait, just that little while longer.