Today’s topic is The Flash: Rebirth #1, discussed at length already but hey, I'm on a schedule.
Because I’ve talked about the second coming of Barry Allen a fair amount, and because I haven’t exactly been a fan of the idea, you might be able to guess how I feel about the new miniseries. In fact, it’s been harder than I expected to pull together my thoughts.
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I don’t consider myself a real Barry/Flash scholar, but I did read a lot of Cary Bates/Irv Novick (and, later, Cary Bates/Don Heck) Flash stories back in the day. In fact, one of the first superhero comics I ever read was The Flash vol. 1 #241 (May 1976), which featured a decent variation on the old “villain makes Flash look like a crook” plot. (Full disclosure: I also read Flash for the Green Lantern and Firestorm backups.)
Anyway, while going through my back issues over the weekend, out came The Flash vol. 1 #223 (September-October 1973), with a 13-page lead story (!) by Bates and Novick (and inked by Dick Giordano) called “Make Way For The Speed-Demons!” The story’s hook, as described both on the cover and in virtually the same manner on the first page, is that Flash keeps losing races to things he should beat: a salt-flats jet car, a super-fast speedboat, and a supersonic fighter plane. Seems the closer he comes to passing them, the faster they get. Each race ends with the victorious machine (and its world-record-holding driver) vanishing in a burst of light, with the light-burst itself announcing the next challenge.
Now raise your hands, boys and girls, if you think you know how each of these vehicles outpaced the Fastest Man Alive. Yep, it was the old “steal Flash’s speed” gimmick, this time used by a pre-icky Dr. Light. In fact, Light was counting on Flash figuring out his scheme, because when Flash inevitably charged into his bunker for the collar, it would set off “warp bombs” which (we’re never told exactly how) would kill the rest of the Justice League. However, the Flash is so fast that he outraced Light (who was beaming back to his hideout!), and in the “milliseconds” before Light could finish setting up the booby-trap, read Light’s notes and opted to destroy the bunker from the outside.
To be sure, “Make Way For The Speed-Demons!” is, by itself, inconsequential. Its main mystery isn’t that hard to figure out. Its climax depends on the reader accepting both that the Flash is just that fast, and that Dr. Light is just that overconfident. Nevertheless, it is built around super-speed set pieces. Flash stops a dangerously-fast sedan by whirling his arm to create suction. He keeps pace with a jet-car while saving an old prospector (and his mule Maude) on the side. Likewise, while racing the speedboat he has to stop a missile from going off-course. There’s no distraction in the race against the plane, but Flash has to vibrate through solid ground in order to save himself.
None of these sequences takes more than two pages, and Novick’s depiction of Flash’s speed (helped by the uncredited colorist) was simple and clean. In the days before lightning-trails crackled in a Flash’s wake, Novick and others used speed lines (duh) and hints of “after-images” to show the character’s perpetual motion. This was a comic book about a guy who could run really fast (and control his molecules and do other related things), and by God, it was going to deliver.
As for Flash: Rebirth #1 ....
I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you: despite all the festivities, I didn't find much fun in F:R #1. There is the glimmer of an intriguing story, since it looks like Barry has succeeded the Black Flash as a speedster’s personal angel of death, but good grief there’s a lot of --let’s say “flair” instead -- obscuring that story.
In Legion Of Three Worlds (itself a titular Flash reference), Geoff Johns and artist George Perez also had to re-acquaint readers with a series not seen (practically speaking) since the mid-1980s. They did this efficiently, and with great zeal, in part by using a twisted origin re-enactment and a trip through the local superhero museum.* Those two elements are also present in F:R #1, but artist Ethan Van Sciver is no Perez, either in pacing or organization. (Tucker Stone says it more succinctly than I could.) Staging Barry’s lightning-and-chemical bath as a shamanistic ritual is rather clever, but Van Sciver plays it out in fits and starts over seven pages, lingering on details instead of moving the scene forward. It doesn’t read as suspenseful, especially since the first couple of pages are bogged down in exposition hinting that Barry was the Only Squeaky-Clean Cop. (This last was also a detail in 1997’s The Life Story Of The Flash, written by Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn, so Johns didn’t invent such grittiness out of whole cloth.)
The museum scenes flow a little better, mostly because Van Sciver simply follows Barry and Hal Jordan around. Still, the backgrounds are given about as much attention as the characters, because OMFG! it’s a giant Impulse statue, or covers from Wally’s series reproduced as massive portraits, or … a random picture of the Earth and Moon…? Obviously we are meant to see these things, and remember if we are capable, or seek out helpful fans if we are not.
Van Sciver does use the crowds to reinforce the story’s “society is faster now” message, by filling the museum backgrounds with people on cell phones (or texting, or doing whatever the kids do today). I will also note the many images of both Reverse-Flashes, the cumulative effect of which bolsters my theory that the original Professor Zoom is our evil re-enacter. Van Sciver also produces a nice two-page sequence revealing the “dead” Black Flash, who has carved a Kryptonian-rocket-style trench across an Iowa corn field. Most of the issue is very dense, though, and not in a good way. Even the panels with only Barry and Hal in them feel crowded, as if the characters were being packed into an unnecessarily small space like all those statues in the cluttered Rogues’ Gallery wax museum. Van Sciver’s better when he doesn’t have a lot to draw, but I get the feeling he likes to draw a lot.
Both the “evil origin” and the museum scenes illustrate what Tim O’Neil calls “momentism,” which he defines as “a style of writing predicted on the singular iconic ‘moment’ as the indissoluble element of superhero writing.” Momentism isn’t necessarily bad: O’Neil talks about it in the context of Kingdom Come, noting that there, “the creators’ understanding of the characters is good enough that many of the moments are good [and] a few of the Superman moments are very good.” Flash: Rebirth #1 has its share of “moments” as well, not just frozen and studied in the Flash Museum but revisited through the memories of other speedsters. (The familiar stereo “I’m coming!” from “Flash Of Two Worlds” turns up twice, first as a float in the Flash parade and then in Jay Garrick’s memory.) Of course Barry and Hal compare notes on their particular revivals; of course Barry pops his costume out of its hidden compartment in his ring; of course the Rogues get their moments, including one with the venerable Flash puppet. These are things we longtime fans expect, and they are things we longtime fans feel like the newcomers should see.
Regardless, there are other elements, having to do with tone and style, which newcomers should see as well. The Barry Allen of the ‘70s wasn’t quite the humble saint history has made him. After he destroys Light’s concrete bunker, with Dr. Light still inside, the “Speed-Demons” story ends with the Flash lecturing Light (in equal parts narration and rubbing it in) about “under-estimating [his] speed.” In the last panel, he whisks Dr. Light away in his super-speed wake, holding onto the villain’s cape for good measure and saying “…never try to out-Flash the Flash!” Not quite Flashdickery, but getting there. Bland and domestic though he may have been, Barry didn’t downplay his powers.
In Flash: Rebirth, Johns turns that on its head, reframing Barry in light of his afterlife experience as wary, almost paranoid about what the future holds. While it’s not a bad choice (Barry has always been pretty methodical), in combination with Van Sciver’s deadly-serious art, it kinda sucks the joy out of super-speed. Johns told Graeme McMillan that “[i]f you've ever wished you had more time to do everything you wanted to do, here's a story about a guy who has that ability;” but when Barry pops into the red longjohns, it’s almost out of a sense of duty, of somber inevitability. It feels like a head-fake, so that the miniseries can end with its hero in a familiar laconic mood; and I hope that’s what it turns out to be.
Certainly there will be a new Flash ongoing series after Flash: Rebirth concludes. If history (i.e., Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern work) is any guide, it will kick off with a few standalone stories. While “Make Way For The Speed-Demons!” isn’t the ne plus ultra of Flash yarns, I’d like to think that the new series would similarly seek to showcase the character’s powers. Indeed, F:R still has time for plenty of super-speed action. It’s not a “process” story in the way that Green Lantern: Rebirth was, because it doesn’t have to “reassemble” all the parts of the old status quo. They’re there already -- Barry, Wally, Jay, Bart, Iris, the Rogues, even Dexter Myles and Captain Frye -- just waiting for their familiar cues.
Flash: Rebirth #1 was a frustrating read, though, mostly because it seemed like Johns and Van Sciver felt compelled to dress up a decent story with diversions and minutiae. The Flash, and perhaps especially the Barry Allen Flash, is a pretty simple character: he’s a criminologist with no hang-ups, who runs fast and has a great extended family. It’s not nostalgia to think that should be enough.
* [Also, Lo3W and F:R each have a character who appears to be Johns’ designated stand-in for the stereotypically jaded comics fan. This character gives voice to the kinds of arguments one might find on message boards and comic-book blogs. Normally, as in Lo3W, it’s the Superboy of Earth-Prime. Here, ironically enough, it appears to be ‘Prime’s nemesis Bart Allen, asking what’s so great about Barry and why shouldn’t Wally be “the” Flash.]