THE FLASH #175 – published last week -- is another great issue. THE FLASH series, as a whole, has been a series to watch since Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, and Doug Hazlewood jumped on board at the beginning of the year. How it's managed to stay so hidden since then is mystifying to me. Well, not entirely. If this book were produced by Marvel today or had Kevin Smith's name on it, it would be a Top Ten book. And it's my contention that this book is just as good as anything Marvel is printing right now and more interesting than any comic Smith has ever written. It's a crying shame that it's not getting more attention than it is.
This issue is the first part of "Birth Right." It's a perfect jumping on spot. While there's one holdover sub-plot from previous issues, it's quickly and neatly explained without being heavily expository or resorting to a forced flashback. I really hope DC puts together some sort of fast collection of the issues leading up to this one. Something like they did for WONDER WOMAN with "Gods of Gotham" would be ideal. Issues #170 through #173 would fit the bill perfectly. You could even put in issue #174 without ruining the story. FLASH deserves the attention and the ease of entry that such a book would create.
With Kolins and Hazlewood on the art, the book has developed a unique style and feel, something comparable to the likes of Rob Haynes's art over in DAREDEVIL: NINJA or in the SUPERBOY chapter of "Sins of Youth." Geoff Johns' story remains reverential of all that has gone on before, and has paid particular attention to the pre-Mark Waid era when Wally West was portrayed as young and full of himself and a bit of the ladies man. It doesn't, however, require your knowledge to jam-packed full of continuity. You can start right with this issue, just knowing that The Flash is Wally West and everyone knows it and he's married to Linda Park.
Give THE FLASH #175 a chance. It's a worthy and entertaining book. It's only two and a quarter. And shouldn't you give something new a chance every now and again, anyway?
I know lots of people give a new series an issue or two and then drop them. Heck, I've done it fairly often. But comics can be like network television. The pilot episode and the next couple aren't necessarily the most entertaining. In writing the BBC sit-com BLACK ADDER, Richard Curtis said that he and writing partner Ben Elton would write a series finale and then five other episodes. There was no definitive first episode. They'd show first whatever they happened to think was the best one. To create a definitive first episode meant spending a half hour setting up the situation that they think will be funny, and you risk losing people due to that half hour. It's a brilliant idea. Dispense with the origin story. It's not what your series is about. Just put the characters where you want them to be and go. If the interest is there later on and there's a valid story idea, then you can go back and do the origin. If you have a finite amount of space, though, you shouldn't waste it with the curiosity.
It's another trick of strong storytelling, actually. You should start your story as late as possible. If your story is one of a bank robbery, don't begin the day by showing the branch manager waking up, hitting the shower, and having breakfast.
So it should be, I think, with more comics. I think DEFENDERS has fallen into the setup trap. While the first couple of issues were entertaining, I worry that they might have sent the wrong message about the series. And the book is definitely getting better. You can see it progressing from month to month. The sixth issue – out last week -- is leaps beyond the previous five for sheer entertainment value.
The first shining bright spot is that Klaus Janson is no longer inking. Al Gordon is inking over Erik Larsen now and the difference is immeasurable. The artwork is much tighter and more refined. Larsen's art looks more like his usual stuff now. Yes, it's different from his original days on the Spider-Man titles, but those were nearly ten years ago. I should hope his art style has changed since then. The layouts are still there, though. Larsen's storytelling hasn't lost an inch. He excels at the type of over the top brutal fight scenes he's been known to pull off in SAVAGE DRAGON and idolize in his fan days of reading THE HULK and others. Along with co-writer Kurt Busiek, he keeps the book playing to his strengths.
The second strength is the Hulk. That's really no surprise, given Erik Larsen's long-held love for the character and his desire to work on him. But let me just backtrack just a bit, and be brutally honest about this book.
THE DEFENDERS has some inherent limitations. The team only sticks together because of a magical curse that keeps them together. They don't want to work together and must be forced to do so. They seem to always be plucked out of their day-to-day lives to one location at the worst possible times. It is forced, but it's the only way to keep the gang together at this point. With the sixth issue now, this is changing. The enforced magical spell doesn't affect Silver Surfer this time around. Doctor Strange's attempts to understand and beat the spell now have something new and interesting to work with.
The book also feels like an older Marvel book. This one isn't pushing the limits of the medium or reinventing anything. It's a throwback. That's intentional. Erik Larsen and Kurt Busiek have done everything they can to make this book look like the original Defenders, right down to getting the supporting characters back in their old costumes. Nevertheless, in a day and age where Marvel is taking its second-string characters and trying to revive them, one can only wonder why this book is still around. (I'm not complaining mind you. I'm just mildly surprised.) Hopefully, it's there to fill that hole of the good, old-fashioned Marvel team title. It's great for the kids of all ages. It's easy to jump onto. And it does feature some easily recognizable characters, most especially the Hulk.
The story structure hasn't helped the book, either. While the first issue was neatly self-contained, the second story took three issues to complete, and this new story is in its second issue and is still going. The overall affect is that little is happening, which is unfortunate. A lot has gone on. However, it gets lost because of the sheer number of characters.
The secondary characters are pretty stiff. Nighthawk, Hellcat, and Valkyrie are all rather new to me and so far haven't done all that much to endear themselves to me. Thankfully, that's starting to change, though, particularly as the mystery of Valkyrie's true identity is raised in the sixth issue. Still, I'd like to see additional work done to make these characters more interesting or more relevant. Just having them there for fun and to be more like the original series won't help anything. You have to wonder if there just aren't too many characters in the book. With the supporting Defenders, you have a cast of about eight characters. With only 22 pages an issue, it can be tough to do too many things with too many of them.
The relationships between all of the characters are limited. They're just there to bicker and fight. It's an easy routine to fall into. Show the four characters -- Namor, Doctor Strange, Hulk, and Silver Surfer -- doing their normal things. Show them get zapped out of their natural environments and placed together somewhere else entirely. Watch them find out what they're there to stop, bickering and fighting all the way. There's a big fight, usually with a villain of mythical or magical proportions, just to keep it fair to the gathered assemblage of powers arrayed against him. Heroes win and everyone goes their separate ways. If the formula is followed without hesitation, it becomes easy to write and boring to read.
With the sixth issue, though, things seem to be breaking free and the characters seem to be getting familiar to the point of enjoyment. The art is fixed now. The characters on the team are growing used to each other. Instead of complacency and boredom, this is leading to a better interaction amongst the characters. Maybe when Doctor Strange lifts the curse, the four will come to some begrudging truce that will still allow the Defenders to carry on. That would be different. With all of these secondary characters, you could do a storyline with only two or three – or even one – of the original Defenders present. I'm getting ahead of myself, though, as well as Busiek and Larsen, I suspect.
Getting back to where I started, this sixth issue is all about the dumb Hulk. The dumb Hulk is growing more familiar to the audience and gets the chance to shine, in particular, in this issue. If Busiek and Larsen were to take over the Hulk monthly book to write this character more regularly, I'd be there. This is hilarious. Hulk is reduced to the dim little child prone to temper tantrums and quick actions without thought. As he is also the narrator in this issue, you get scads of quotable quotes for your. sigs. It might be something you just have to be naturally inclined to enjoy. It's the cheesiness factor for the sake of it. It's a throwback to another time with a slightly more intentionally funny dumb Hulk. When Strange confines Hulk inside a big red ball to keep him out of action for a moment, for example, the Hulk is indignant. "Let Hulk out of stupid ball, dumb magician! Or Hulk will smash!" Upon the arrival of Nighthawk, Valkyrie, and Hellcat, Hulk thinks, "Hulk could hear Sword-Girl, Bird-Nose and Cat-Girl, but Hulk couldn't see Sword-Girl, Bird-Nose or Cat-Girl… Stupid ball."
Upon punching out Bi-Beast, "Leave Hulk alone, fish-man-Hulk is fighting funny-head now!" Then, to himself, "Hulk smashed funny head's friend."
It's all just so gloriously preposterous and insane that you can't help but laugh.
It just scares me that as this book finds its legs and gets on track, it becomes subject to rumors of cancellation. The book ain't cancelled folks. (I mean, sure, it debuted in January and books from that month have a poor track record, but that's coincidence.) If you gave it a shot but didn't like it, I think the sixth issue might answer some of your concerns. If you haven't tried it yet, this issue is as great a place as any to sample the series. While it is the second part of an on-going storyline, everything is explained quickly and the set-up isn't complicated at all.
Go read Hulk. Laugh at Hulk. Enjoy Hulk. Hulk smash.
Then come back here tomorrow for some comic book writing tips and resources.
More than 250 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.
This year, you can still catch me at the Chicago Comicon (i.e. WizardWorld) and the San Diego Comicon (i.e. the Comic Con International: San Diego). I'm also tentatively scheduled for a day at the Small Press Expo in Maryland this September.