WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Heroes in Crisis #8, by Tom King, Mich Gerads, Travis Moore and Clayton Cowles, on sale now.
I never cared much for Hal Jordan.
Here was a guy, famously "without fear," who as a Green Lantern had near infinite power, who traveled the spaceways to protect not only Earth but all of Sector 2814 from whatever galactic evil sought to do us harm. Hell, Hal was a hero in his day job, flying test planes and looking tough in that bomber jacket.
But who is he, really? What does Hal care about? What does he talk about with his friends? What does he feel when he looks at Carol Ferris, and how does it affect him when they break up again?
There's not much to Hal other than "Hero" with a capital H. So when he fell to darkness in 1994's "Emerald Twilight" story arc, I felt like that was the first time he'd ever been interesting. Plenty of fans disagreed, vehemently. Violently. They saw Hal's heel turn as a betrayal of everything the character stood for. They said Hal would never "go mad and kill the Corps." What's often overlooked, though, is that even as Parallax Hal was not the mustache-twirling villain, at least in the pages of Green Lantern -- he very much was in the Zero Hour event and in other appearances, but not in the book where his drama was truly playing out. A reader could follow Hal's murderous logic, how, like Magneto, he believed he was committing evil acts for noble reasons. And when the break came, when he executed his friend Kilowog because he'd already "gone too far," his anguish was clear. We felt it with him.
Hal eventually found redemption, sacrificing himself to save the universe during the Final Night story arc. But for fans who felt betrayed, this wasn't enough. They wanted Hal back so much that, with 2004's Green Lantern Rebirth, they were happy to wave away Hal's responsibility for his actions with the reveal that their emerald hero was possessed by a yellow dinosaur.
But I never much cared for Hal Jordan.
Wally West, on the other hand…
Wally West was "my" Flash, but that's not quite the best way to describe why he meant something to me. Because, if we're honest, the concept of the Flash -- the "Fastest Man Alive" -- is not inherently all that exciting. Wally existed for decades before I found him, and I don't get much out of those back issues. But I started reading during Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo's run on The Flash, and they were doing something really, really special. Waid's device of beginning each issue -- "My name is Wally West. I'm the Flash. The Fastest Man Alive" -- drew readers directly into the hero's persona. He and Wieringo had turned a book about a guy who runs really fast into a comic about family, and romance, and legacy, and responsibility. It's something that took incredible groundwork -- really, Waid and Wieringo's version of The Flash could not work without everything that had gone before -- and it's something that has never been meaningfully duplicated. Readers came to know Wally, his girlfriend (later wife) Linda, the fatherly original Flash Jay Garrick, cousin from the future Impulse, and a host of other friends and speedsters on a personal, almost intimate level. There was a supervillain threat every issue, but that was never the point. We strove with Wally, we grew with Wally, we felt the joy of his accomplishments, the weight of his responsibility to his uncle and mentor Barry Allen -- and the conflict Wally experienced when he surpassed his hero.
There's a reason Wally's return in DC Comics Rebirth was framed as a return of hope.
Heroes in Crisis #8 throws all of this away with a "losing control of your powers" gimmick, followed by a deeply grim, needlessly cruel, and fundamentally nonsensical coverup, in service of a story that often feels like it can't make up its mind what it wants to be.
Look. There is a way to make "The Fall of Wally West" work. Good people go bad all the time; it's tragic, but tragedy is a genre, and the best are deeply moving. Hal's fall in Emerald Twilight, I would argue, is tragedy. Wally's fall in Heroes in Crisis, though, is farce.
Through the first half of the issue, we hear Wally describe his struggles to find peace at Sanctuary, how he felt that the whole thing may be a ruse to make him feel like he's not alone, that other heroes struggle, too. But when he pieces together the deleted intake interviews and learns the full scope of his community's pain, he says, "It broke me."
This set off a chain of events in which Wally loses control of the Speed Force within him and accidentally kills all of the other heroes at Sanctuary -- all but Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, whom Wally then manipulates into blaming each other for the massacre.
Don't worry, though! He's going to use the five days this scheme has bought him, five days until he kills his future self and brings him back to the scene of the crime, to "do something as good as what I'd done bad."
There's a lot to unpack here, and I'm not even going to try to get to all of it. But let's start at the top.
Heroes in Crisis was initially framed as an act of senseless violence within the superhero community. In pre-publication interviews, it was explicitly framed as an analog for mass shootings:
“It starts with something we see everyday in America,” King told reporters in San Diego, “Something I saw when I was overseas and I never thought would come here, but it’s here and it’s fucking everywhere. And it starts with a massacre at Sanctuary — in this space, in this safe place, in this place that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman dedicated their lives to keeping safe — a dozen heroes are killed and they don’t know who killed them.”
Polygon asked King how the idea of using a mass shooting in the story came about, and his answer was simple. His youngest child was about to enter kindergarten, and he’d realized that among all the usual fears about how his son would fit in with his classmates, was the fear that he’d be harmed by a school shooter.
“And because I have a fucked up job, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea for a story,’” King said. “That’s how I was thinking of Sanctuary. It’s a safe zone; it is someplace that you can’t violate. And that would happen there, there would be a massacre in the one place that that shouldn’t happen. That’s where the idea came from.”
But the event that leads to the deaths of Arsenal, Poison Ivy, a generation of Teen Titans and the rest is accidental. To maintain the frame, we would have to accept that Wally's ill-defined "break" and loss of control is equivalent to the rationale given by real-life killers for their actions -- that they are not entirely responsible, that there is some relatable "reason" like they were bullied, or their advances rejected, and so forth. He wouldn't have done it, but he was just pushed so far. The Sanctuary heroes approached him, and he let the Speed Force loose to get them away. But if we throw away the frame, and say, no, actually Heroes in Crisis is not about that at all, then we're left with a deeply unsatisfying "powers of out of control" disaster that makes Wally an accidental killer but -- crucially -- not a murderer.
And if this is the case, why the cover-up?
Because Wally doesn't simply manipulate the crime scene to hide his responsibility. He literally frames two vulnerable patients for the crime -- which, again, may not have even been a "crime" in the way we had anticipated. This is not only not the action of a hero, it is the choice of a psychopath. This isn't Hal Jordan destroying the Guardians because he needed to see his path through to the very end; this isn't even Jean Loring burning Sue Dibny's body to cover her tracks. This is gaslighting two people already struggling with acute mental health challenges, all in an effort to do -- what?
"Something as good as what I'd done bad."
So it's all about you, Wally. Ok.
I have some idea, or some guesses, as to what that might be. There is one issue left of Heroes in Crisis, and I will be very surprised if we don't see the return of Wally's children, Jai and Iris. That is, almost, the bare minimum. But even if Wally can achieve some equivalent "good," his character is essentially done -- unless he's been possessed by a yellow dinosaur or some other absurdity that would absolve him of, not necessarily the deaths, but his senselessly cruel actions toward Harley and Booster. And for what? A nine-issue series with lofty ambitions but deeply confused about its own themes.
Growing up, I didn't want to be the Flash. I wanted to be Wally West. I wanted to be the hero who was part of something bigger, who looked up to the trailblazers who had gone before and worked to inspire those who would come after him. With a family that wasn't all related by blood, that didn't always get along, but which would always be there in your moment of need. With a love that could bring you back from the very brink, that could help you defeat impossible odds. Wally West is a character literally like none other -- not even the other speedster in the DC Universe who shares his name.
If he was going to fall, he should have fallen better.
But, moreover, perhaps he should not have fallen at all. In the real world, good people go bad, in ways that are both impressive and mundane. We do not all, as Frank Miller's Dark Knight muses, get "a good death." The DC Universe is not the real world -- everything these characters do is a choice by the creative team and the editors. A character like Wally West, a truly aspirational hero, should be cherished, should be nurtured. In the '90s, I fully expected that eventually Wally would die, that Impulse or (even better) Jessie Quick or (eventually) Iris West would take over the mantle of the Flash. That would've been all right. I would not have mourned Wally West.
Not as I do now.
Because Wally West's treatment in Heroes in Crisis is a betrayal not only of one character, but of all that that character represents -- the best of superheroes and superhero fiction, the reason we read these comics at all. The idea that good can win against impossible odds, that all of our struggles are worth it in the end. In this series we learn, improbably, that Wally was regarded as a symbol of hope even within the DC Universe; why, in this or any other world, would you choose to throw that away so lightly?
In the real world, our heroes disappoint us all the time; their falls take a number of shapes, with varying degrees of severity. Some can be redeemed, while others are lost forever. But superhero comics offer us a better way. There need to be comics where the heroes come up short, yes, and where they make unforgivable errors. But when you've built something irreplaceable like the character of Wally West, that needs to be protected. We need heroes who remain heroes, who represent the best of us, who give us something we can truly aspire to.
For some, that may have been Hal Jordan. For me, it was Wally West. I think I get it now.
Again, there is one issue left of Heroes in Crisis. I'd like to trust writer Tom King and artists Clay Mann, Mitch Gerads and Travis Moore to pull it off -- King and Gerads' Mister Miracle was superb, and King's Vision and Omega Men were also extraordinary. But those series were all consistently excellent, whereas Heroes in Crisis inches closer to the abyss with each issue. It's hard to see how it might be saved. It's harder to see how Wally might be saved. A dino ex machina won't be enough.
But what would be? What are my hopes for Heroes in Crisis #9? I think there needs to be a reckoning. There should be an honest, thoughtful account of the trauma Wally has experienced, and the specific ways that led to this particular course of events. We need to truly see him accomplish "something as good as what I'd done bad." And then we need to put Wally to rest, and mourn the hero he was. That's a lot for one issue, doubly so if King and Gerads also aim to actually tell an engaging story and wrap up Harley and Booster's arcs -- and, whoa, yes, also deal with their trauma, as well. If the creators can do all that, that would be enough, or just about.
That would have to be enough.