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Friday at lightspeed

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday at lightspeed

I’m endlessly fascinated with the various controversies that erupt in our little pop-culture backwater. I admit it. Especially since they seem so… inconsistent.

Last week, there was this giant freak-out over DC Universe #0. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that if you are reading a CBR comics column, you know what I’m talking about. If not, well, there are spoilers lurking below the fold, okay?

Oddly enough, it was the lack of a “spoilers” tag that got so many people’s knickers in a twist to begin with. I’m referring to the New York Daily News blowing the whistle on the shock ending of the book a full… what? Sixteen, seventeen hours before the end of business Wednesday? (How is that worse than some guy with a name like “NinjaFart23” blabbing it all over CBR or Newsarama or whatever? For crying out loud, this happens every Wednesday.)

The point being, okay, yeah, the Daily News spoiled it, but… come on. How many of us read the New York Daily News? It was every blogger in and around comics complaining about it that really broke the news of the Barry Allen Flash returning, spreading that spoiler far and wide…. several hours ahead of schedule. Usually the Wednesday internet spoilers show up everywhere on comics sites at about ten AM, but apparently the News broke the story at four AM east coast time. (Insert sarcastic “Oooooooooo, that’s BAD!”)

I’d already read the book by the time I got home and turned on the computer, because truthfully I tend to not look at comics sites until after I’ve read the week’s haul… I know better.

The odd thing is that left to myself I’m not at all sure I’d have concluded it was, in fact, “the Return of Barry Allen!” There’s no picture. There’s a first-person narrative caption with a lightning-bolt logo. To me, that only says “Flash.”

(And the logo was so tiny I had to really squint at it. Personally, I am not terribly fond of this newest replacement for the thought balloon. Yeah, I know, I’m old, our regular commenters are probably already muttering “Oh, quitcher crabbing about how they did it in your day, Hatcher, jeez.” But in my defense, allow me to point out that we never had to wonder who a thought balloon was attributed to, unlike these Meltzer-esque color-coded captions.)

My first thought, sans rumors? Probably would have been, “Is this some kind of callback to that Lightning Saga crap? Wally saw something before the Legion re-integrated his atoms or whatever the hell?”

No, strike that. My first thought, upon finishing the book, would have been exactly what it was: “Jesus, I don’t understand half of this and I have a houseful of DC books.” Normally when one of the Big Two puts out one of these loss-leader books, 10-Cent Adventure or whatever, I look at it with an eye towards getting another fifteen or twenty for my students or for next Halloween’s trick-or-treaters, or something. (We like having a pile of disposable kid-friendly funnybooks on hand in the Hatcher household; my wife Julie usually spends time at conventions cleaning out quarter boxes for just this reason.) But I didn’t do it for the last DC one, where Max Lord blew Ted Kord away, and I won’t do it this time either. Last time it was because I thought the book was a downer. This time? Too obscure. The kids wouldn’t be into it.

Hell, it was too obscure for me, really.

But I’ve already done a bunch of columns about obscure continuity, there’s no need to go over it all again.

No, this week I wanted to talk a little bit about Barry Allen. Saint Barry of the DCU, as some people call him. I’ve seen a lot of people foaming at the mouth over the idea of bringing Barry back, but let’s think it through. (As, one hopes, DC Editorial thought it through.)

I’ve always had a soft spot for Barry. He was the star of my first real comic book, and you never forget your first.

But objectively, looking at his published oeuvre, he’s not really an A-lister in today’s market. Even I moved on from his adventures to other things pretty quickly when I first dug into comics…. you know, in the Long-Ago Times.

So I’m wondering what the point is. There’s hardly anyone out there in fandom, is there, that’s really been pining for the return of Barry? Certainly not the way the Hal Jordan people were foaming at the mouth for a decade.

In that fine old tradition of internet-blogger idle speculation, though, I thought I’d make the case pro and con and see what you all think.

Pro-Barry:

DC needs a Flash. One in the red suit, that is, the one that’s licensed for toys and cartoons and so on.

Bart Allen… well, that just didn’t work. Geoff Johns started by sucking a lot of the joy out of his character in Teen Titans — honest to God, am I the only one left that thinks it’s okay for a superhero to be light and fun? Impulse wasn’t exactly aimed at my demographic but the few times I picked it up it made me smile, and sometimes even laugh out loud.

Then Geoff Johns put him in the Titans, changed the name and the suit, and started riffing on the idea that Bart wanted to be taken seriously. Fair enough, it was a hook to hang his character on, but Johns was already doing it so much better in JSA with Stargirl. Then Bilson and DeMeo took him and made him even more morose and bitter. By the time it was decided to generate some quick buzz by killing the kid, it was almost euthanasia.

Now we have Wally West back. Wally, it has to be said, is probably my favorite iteration of the red-suit Flash, especially once Mark Waid got hold of him.

The trouble is, I’m afraid Wally suffers from the fact that his entire history takes place in an era where the superhero audience has never really turned over. He’s died and come back, he’s married, he’s had kids, he’s had the wife and kids killed, he’s got the wife and kids back, he’s gone public, he’s gone back to the secret ID, etc., etc…. and we remember all of it. Most of this is available in trade paperback. I look at Wally and think, geez, what’s left to do with the poor guy? You’d have to go back and un-do stuff. They’d probably start by killing the family again, because we all know how comics writers feel about married heroes with families…

And I really don’t like that idea. I suspect that was the thinking behind aging Bart and putting him in the suit in the first place. So you give Wally his happy ending and pass the mantle on to someone else.

Why not Barry? First of all, he’s a lot easier to doubletalk back to life than people think. He didn’t die of a gunshot or a beating. He was zapped by some sort of cosmic widget that sent his atoms careening across time. Batman and Wally saw him sort of disintegrate, but for a guy that had conscious control over his molecules, as Barry did, it’s not unreasonable to posit that maybe he could eventually pull himself together.

And, more to the point, creatively it’s an attractive notion. The Barry Allen stories took place in the Silver Age, in an era where fans tend to dismiss the stuff as corny or being for kids. There are hardly any modern stories about him. In that sense, he’s a blank slate, almost.

In fact, Barry never really had a fair shot with modern comics fans. I mean the generation that came and stayed, back when comics shops were getting going. At the time those fans were entering the superhero readership, the Barry Allen murder trial was in its second or third year. Carmine Infantino was phoning in the art, and the book was mired in a storyline that no one but its writer seemed to be enjoying. And there didn’t look to be any end in sight. Sales on the book were in the toilet. The only reason the book wasn’t canceled sooner was the desire to tie it in with the original Crisis, and run out the clock to #350. (A nice even number. For some reason everyone has OCD about this. I think condensing the story and ending with #341 would have been fine, but no, it has to be a round number.)

…But I digress. The point is, a new Barry Allen book could work, especially using a Steve Rogers riff — the man out of time, adjusting to a changing world. The Fastest Man Alive discovering that time has passed him by. We’ve seen characters dealing with losing decades, even centuries, but no one’s done a story where a superhero has to adjust to the idea that he’s lost ten or twelve years of his personal life.

And Barry, unlike, say, Batman or Green Arrow, was very much about his personal life. There are lots of stories that can spin out of that premise. I especially like the idea of playing him off some of the other younger JLA folks like Hawkgirl or Red Arrow, who probably would think he’s too old-school for them. “You know Barry looked totally horrified when he saw me coming out of your room this morning… Geez, Wally was never this much of a stiff.”

(And then those same old-school smarts would come through in a crisis situation: “He was gloating. Luthor was always a gloater, and when he laughs his head goes back. Plus, he tends to focus on Clark and Bruce. I knew if he was taunting them he’d be distracted from his monitor long enough for me to disable the device at superspeed, even with the molecular safeguards.”)

And so on. You get the idea.

Also, Barry’s a really smart science guy, a forensic analyst, and that’s a skill the League could use. I think Batman has ended up doing most of the science and forensics by default, the last couple of years, and they draft Michael Holt for the rest. The JLA should have their own resident scientist, and the thought of a chipper, up-with-people guy like Barry chitchatting with Bruce over lab work is another scene that makes me smile. It practically writes itself — Barry would take the position that Bruce’s demeanor isn’t scary, it’s unhealthy, and he would be compelled to try and cheer him up.

He’d certainly work in the Justice League, anyway. But could Barry carry his own book?

I think so. The key to doing the man-out-of-time riff would be to hang on to Barry’s positive outlook, but challenge it. We’ve seen lots of superheroic whiners deal with personal trauma. What about a non-whiner? Barry Allen was a guy who really believed in the American ideal, and achieved it — even more than Steve Rogers did, in terms of creating a fulfilling personal life for himself (happy marriage, good job) — how would he find his place in the world after it’s all taken away?

He’d shake it off and grimly start from scratch again, I imagine. And show real heroism doing it.

I think that would be an interesting book to read. Your mileage may vary. But certainly, I think the example shows that it’s possible to do a Flash book starring Barry Allen that modern audiences would be into.

*

Anti-Barry:

First of all, it’s yet another resurrection. Which means that none of the Gigantic Event Deaths from the original Crisis will have stuck. (Sorry, you don’t get to count the Don Hall Dove.)

My inner nerd balks at this. For one thing, Barry’s original sacrifice really was well-done, it had a nice build, and somewhat redeemed his character after all that turgid “Trial” stuff. I don’t like to see that undone, even though rationally I know it doesn’t actually affect the original story that sits on my shelf. But it’s annoying.

Secondly, the Event Resurrection seems to be replacing the Event Death as a sales stunt. Every time a writer does this, it adds to the readership’s jaded belief that death in a superhero comic is about as threatening as a bad cold. It is a terrible handicap if you are in the business of creating adventures that depend on building suspense. Why add to the already-prevalent audience cynicism?

Thirdly, and this is, I think, the most compelling reason — Barry Allen works better as a dead martyr than a live hero. All the best stories about him happened after he was dead.

The riff that Barry was one of the Great Ones, the Example We Must Live Up To, has led to some really good stuff. One of the reasons Wally West’s adventures were so interesting was watching him struggle with carrying on the legacy.

And all the stuff that’s been layered on to that legacy over the last twenty years makes it problematic… there’s the time-travel things with Iris and Bart, etc., etc. And we have an audience that remembers all of it. You can’t just say, “everybody out of the pool, it’s a do-over!” (Although I’m amazed DC’s gotten away with that once, with the new Supergirl. I suppose it’s because there was a totally different Supergirl ongoing monthly book in the decades between the original Kara dying and the new Kara showing up. I don’t think that kind of sleight-of-hand will work with Barry Allen, though.)

Even the non-legacy, flashback stories starring Barry have a kind of power because we know his eventual end; it gives them a gravitas that helps them work.

Although I’ve often said that if Barry Allen and Hal Jordan had been written with the kind of snap Mark Waid gave them in JLA: Year One and The Brave And The Bold, there’d have been no need to get rid of them in the first place, I have to admit that the idea that these are ‘historical’ stories kind of helps sell them. It adds to the illusion that time really does pass in the DCU, things happen that matter, people pass on.

Event deaths are often cheap stunts. I don’t think Barry Allen’s was one, though, and it would be a shame to devalue it. If we’re to have a new Flash, let’s get a genuinely new one. Create a new character. DC already spends way too much time looking back at its own history, it’s getting branded as the superhero nostalgia publisher. They should try looking forward for once, just to show the readers they’re capable of it.

*

And that’s the case, pro and con, as it has played out in my head the last week or so. I honestly can’t decide.

Of course none of us know what DC actually is going to do. Certainly, I don’t. But I do know that never even slows us down when it comes to talking about what should happen.

So let the opinionated speculation begin!

See you next week.

NOTE: If you are in Seattle, come see me and my students at the Emerald City Comic-Con this weekend! We’ll be in Artist’s Alley, tables E-5 and E-6. The kids will be signing, doing sketches, and I think Tiffany and Lindon are going to have some of their original art pages for sale at VERY reasonable prices. (And they’re pretty good.) It’s going to be a lot of fun.

If not, we’ll have a full report here next week, with lots of pictures. We are determined this year to get good ones.

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