Grumpy Old Fan | Origins, history and the Flash

When I heard the big Spider-Man news over the weekend, I really did wonder whether that would spur DC Comics into bringing back Wally West.

Naturally, now I'm having reservations. My wellspring of fannish entitlement tells me that Wally comes with certain Implications. It may not be enough simply to reintroduce some guy who happens to have the same name, because Wally has his own 50-plus years of history.

And that’s a perfect segue into another recent announcement: An ongoing Secret Origins series sounds like it could serve much the same purpose as the last SO ongoing (1986-90). That series ran for 50 issues, plus various annuals and specials, and it helped organize various bits of continuity in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. For example, 1986's Secret Origins debut spotlighted the Golden Age Superman, in a story by Roy Thomas, veteran Super-artist Wayne Boring and inker Jerry Ordway; and the first New 52 issue will feature Superman, Supergirl and Dick Grayson’s Robin origin.

I am cautiously optimistic about both of these announcements, but on balance I am a bit more excited for Secret Origins.

My first reaction to the Secret Origins news was, “Didn’t they just do that with ‘Zero Month’ in 2012?” And, yes, they did, sort of. However, a) those issues weren’t all origin stories, and b) not all of the New 52's characters/series got the zero-issue treatment. The New 52's Secret Origins won’t be able to draw on as many characters as its predecessor could, but it’s not like there’s a shortage.

To be sure, the New 52 launched with an ongoing anthology series, DC Universe Presents. It got a zero issue, spotlighting three features whose own series didn’t make it past the first wave of cancellations -- and it too was cancelled not long afterwards. Although anthologies can introduce readers to characters and storytelling styles they might not otherwise have encountered, the market doesn’t seem to like them much, probably because they aren’t very predictable. DCUP tried to get around this by serializing multi-issue arcs, basically making it a series of miniseries. If the first solicit is any indication, Secret Origins will have multiple stories in each issue, thereby increasing the chances a given reader will find each issue worthwhile. (Shortly after its launch, the old SO did this as well.)

Moreover, where DCUP’s arcs may have been relatively “unimportant,” Secret Origins has the opportunity to patch up the New 52's already-confusing continuity.

For those of us who care about such things, this is a great and terrible responsibility, because every issue will be establishing What You Need To Know about these folks. Sure, this may involve retelling stories from as far back as September 2011, but by the same token, that should allow the rest of the superhero line to not worry so much about origins.

See, one of the great things about the typical origin story is that while it's open-ended, it still has an ending, or at least a stopping point, at which the character is ready for more regular adventures. Indeed, DC’s most marketable character started without an origin story. As much as the Bat-books dwell on the Wayne murders, the character’s debut was an ordinary mystery. Not until six issues later did Bill Finger and Bob Kane show readers “who he is and how he came to be,” and they did it in two pages before going immediately into another unrelated adventure (November 1939's “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom,” in Detective Comics #33). The old TV show never mentioned the origin other than one sentence in the first episode, and the first Tim Burton movie covered it with a brief flashback.

The problems start, I think, when an origin is considered as Chapter One of a mega-story. Batman Begins is a perfect example of an open-ended origin that still has an ending. By the end of the film, Bruce has had his first “Batman” adventure, established a good relationship with Jim Gordon, reclaimed his family’s company, and basically gotten rid of the bad elements that cropped up in Gotham during his absence. The Dark Knight was then about “escalation,” culminating in Batman capturing the Joker, but taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death; and The Dark Knight Rises brought Bruce’s story to a close by revisiting themes from the first two movies. Therefore, the Nolan films ultimately used “Batman” as a vehicle for Bruce to resolve the emotional fallout from his parents’ deaths. .

For the most part, however, DC hasn't been in the habit of telling such mega-stories. Rather, it's more interested in keeping all these characters going as long as possible. Superman fights a “never-ending battle,” remember? However, over the years we’ve seen various landmark events visited upon these characters, and after a while it starts to look like DC wants to keep these characters going by bouncing them through various changes. The problem with this approach is that the bigger those changes are, the more they become part of the backstory, such that they might even expand the idea of an “origin.” For example, when the Trinity miniseries literally mythologized the lives of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Superman’s death and Wonder Woman’s execution of Max Lord became part of those myths.

Even better as examples are Dick Grayson and Wally West. Their Robin and Kid Flash origins are pretty straightforward. Dick became Robin to avenge his parents’ deaths, by helping Batman take down the gangsters who murdered them. (It all happened in April 1940's Detective #38.) Wally’s origin (from December 1959-January 1960's Flash #110) was even briefer: He was in the right place at the right time to get doused with the same set of lightning-infused chemicals that gave Barry Allen super-speed. Barry made Wally his sidekick, even without a preexisting set of criminals to fight.

There’s more, of course: Dick eventually got tired of being in Batman’s shadow, and at age 18-ish, struck out on his own as Nightwing. Wally actually retired twice from superheroing -- once after high school and then after puberty turned his speed against him -- but his uncle’s death, plus a curative cosmic blast during Crisis on Infinite Earths, inspired him to become the third Flash. We’d expect later retellings to cover these developments, and so they did. Furthermore, Wally’s Secret Origins story (in 1988's Secret Origins Annual #2) was literally therapeutic, because it showed him that self-esteem issues, even from his Kid Flash days, were affecting his speed.

However, I can understand why DC would want to jettison Wally for the New 52 relaunch. DC needs a Flash, and it might as well be Barry Allen. Wally’s origin depends too heavily on Barry’s, and if you try to cut Barry out, you run the risk of undercutting Wally’s innate appeal. Let’s say police-scientist Barry is never struck by lightning, but Wally is; and Wally is then inspired to become the Flash after his uncle’s heroic (but otherwise mundane) sacrifice. That makes Wally more like Spider-Man, doesn’t it? The thing about Wally-as-Flash wasn’t that he was trying to live up to Barry’s example, it’s that he was trying to live up to the Flash’s example. It may be splitting hairs, but I’d say following your heroic uncle is one thing; and following your heroic uncle, who fought all manner of supervillains, who endured being tried for murder, and who died saving all of creation, seems a bit harder.

Put another way, DC wants to tell stories about the Flash, and it wants to tell stories about Kid Flash. It’s easiest for the Flash to be Barry Allen, and it’s easiest for Kid Flash to be Bart Allen. Making Wally Kid Flash ties him too closely to Barry. Better to have Bart as Kid Flash in Teen Titans than to have to coordinate Wally as Kid Flash in Titans and Flash. More to the point, better to have Teen Titans as a discrete team, than to establish a “sidekick subculture” (as in the Silver Age) from which the various Titans could be drawn.

So what does all that mean for Wally in the New 52? Well, I doubt he’ll be reintroduced as an adolescent. There’s no room for him as Kid Flash as long as Bart’s around, and DC has no incentive (beyond tradition, and/or consistency with Smallville) to rename Bart “Impulse.” There’s definitely no incentive to push Barry aside so that Wally can be the new Flash. However, I could see the New 52's Wally coming back from the not-too-distant future, where he’s the Flash and Barry is no longer signing autographs. While it might sound somewhat derivative of Bart’s origin, it would add a little suspense to Barry’s adventures without giving them an expiration date.

Nevertheless, by now Wally’s mere existence implies that he’s Barry’s successor. That’s as much of a given as it is that Dick will grow up to be Nightwing, and not stay Robin forever. By now both of them have been pretty well locked into those career paths. We might say “oh, but Wally can be someone else” or “Wally doesn’t need to idolize Barry” -- but then he wouldn’t exactly be Wally West, would he? Honestly, Wally’s origin practically guaranteed that he’d be the Flash someday. You don’t duplicate that lightning strike just on a whim.

Therefore, whichever version of Wally shows up in Flash Annual #3, I’m not counting on him stepping into the original’s yellow treads. DC didn’t want him at the start of the New 52, and I’m not sure it has room for him now. At the risk of being too sappy, Wally’s superheroic career spotlighted his potential, first as a sidekick, then as a Titan, and finally unlocking the mysteries of the Speed Force. Like Barry, Wally even had a fairly complete mega-story, because he was the first sidekick not just to succeed his mentor, but to go farther. One might even say that Wally fulfilled the promise of his own origin, and a new version would have to work pretty hard to do the same.

Wally/Flash symbolized the legacy structure of post-Crisis, pre-New 52 DC as much as his uncle symbolized the sleek revamps of the Silver Age. Both those ages are gone, and I think I’m OK with Wally being gone with them.

Of course, his new origin could always convince me otherwise ...

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