Aug 7, 2015

On the Run: Mark Waid’s The Flash - Part 1: Pasts, Presents, and Futures

Originally, I had envisioned my “On the Run” columns to be standalone pieces that commented on a particular writer or artist’s extended tenure on a particular title. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, or Alan Moore’s W.I.L.D.Cats, or Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch. Or, to represent the artists a bit more, Chris Sprouse’s Supreme or Frank Quitely’s New X-Men. That may still be how the columns end up, but having just finished another go through the current The Flash television series, I was inspired to read through one of my favourite runs on any superhero comic ever: Mark Waid’s The Flash. I’ll add a caveat to that appellation, in that it was certainly not solely Waid who produced this comic. He’s ably assisted by numerous talented artists, and joined by Brian Augustyn as a co-writer for a large part of the series. But Waid is the fulcrum about whom this run rotates. I’ll give credit where credit is due, of course, when the time comes.

The problem is that this particular sustained run on The Flash (and, yes, the use of the term “run” is intentionally punned) is just over eight years long. It stretches from The Flash Annual #4 in 1991 to The Flash v.2 #159 in 2000, plus a little addendum of six issues in 2007 – 2008. How does one cover such a vast number of comics in a single post? I don’t even think such a thing would be possible, not if I wanted to do justice to what has to rank as one of the great stretches of superhero writing in the genre’s history. Thus, over the course of a number of columns, I’ll look at discrete portions of the run, at the themes that Waid and company touch upon, and at the reasons why I think this is one of the great superhero narratives.

That raises an interesting question. A couple of them actually. First, what is literature, or what makes writing great? When going over with my supervisor the changes I wished to make to my major field reading list in American Literature, we talked about this, about what distinguishes the literary from the non-literary. It was offered to me that the literary is something that stands out from the crowd, that does something different, and does it with grace and facility. I’m not sure I completely buy that that’s all that literature is, but it is a place to begin thinking about how we can define a literary portion of an ongoing superhero series. This is the second question. As an academic, I am trained to look for self-contained imaginative works that can have one or more theoretical paradigms applied to them, all in the service of saying something new and novel about the work and what it represents for our culture. How does one do this with an ongoing comic book series? The answer, I think, is to isolate particular stretches of those comics and demonstrate how they are literary, how they stand out from the rest of the series and from the genre they inhabit. Which is what I hope to do with this particular stretch of The Flash.

That said, I’m going to start in a strange place. Slightly before finishing his 8 years on the title, Waid and fellow scribe Tom Peyer, along with artists Barry Kitson and Tom Grindberg produced Flash & Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold. Taking their title from a Silver Age team-up comic, this six-issue series tells stories of Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Flash Barry Allen. At the time of its writing, both of these characters were dead (or evil. I can never get Hal Jordan’s chronology straight). The series looks back nostalgically to these two seminal characters, but paints them in the rose-coloured hues of memory. I’ve had conversations with fellow fans about this, especially following Geoff Johns’ reintroduction of both characters into the DCU, pre-New 52. Were these characters really the paragons of virtue and, more importantly, good story-telling that they are often hailed as? I think the answer is no. I think, really, that these are two characters who became far more important to their shared universe after they died, in that they ascended from the incarnated demi-gods that the superheroes are to revered ancestors that could no longer be faulted. I’ll add yet another caveat here, in that I can hardly claim to have comprehensively read the 30 or so years of accumulated tales these characters were a part of before their deaths in the eighties or nineties. I’ve got the last chunk of the Barry Allen The Flash, and it’s actually quite gripping, telling the tale of the Flash being on trial for the murder of the Reverse-Flash. But the issues I have that predate that story are middling, at best. I think the same would have to go for most of the pre-Crisis Green Lantern stories I’ve read. At the time that this series was published, Wally West was, of course, the Flash, and Kyle Rayner had taken over as Green Lantern. They lived in the shadows of the “giants” that came before them, but that shadow is cast solely as a narrative device. My feeling is that Wally and Kyle were far better at their superheroic roles than either of their predecessors.

This is, of course, a matter of taste, and if the history of philosophy has taught us anything, it’s that taste is virtually impossible to quantify. As such, feel free to completely disagree with what I’ve written above. However, the preference of Barry over Wally, or vice versa, has little to do with the presentation of The Brave and the Bold series, which is absolutely presented as a series of memories of times gone by. Issue six even features a narrative frame from Hal Jordan’s mechanic Pie, and the use of this device begs the question of the reliability of the narrative voice of the whole series, be it Waid and Peyer’s, or the unseen narrative construction that exists within the shared universe. The series acts as a foil to the reverence with which Allen and Jordan are held in their successors’ series, a demonstration of how these characters are remembered in the shared universe, if not in the reality that we call home.

Before moving on to The Flash series proper, there are two more brief things to mention about The Brave and the Bold. First, it makes a lovely companion to the Waid/Augustyn/Kitson JLA: Year One series from a few years prior. Year One is a brilliant retelling of the Justice League’s origins, and is well worth a read. Waid’s JLA work may well show up in an “On the Run” one of these days, and Year One is definitely its high point. The second thing is the reason that I placed this series at the beginning of my read-through: Barry Allen haunts the Wally West Flash palpably. A shadow, a ghost, a reminder, an inspiration, barely two or three issues go by without a mention of the revered second Flash. This is one of the major themes of Waid’s run on the title, the ways in which we acknowledge and integrate the past into our present identities, and the ways that those integrations can go well or ill. Of course, because this is The Flash, there’s a lot of work on how we integrate our futures as well. Case in point is Waid’s earliest work on The Flash volume 2, the 1991 “Armageddon 2001” crossover annual.

(Note: this next section draws heavily from my “40 Years of Comics Project” review of the annual.)
The Flash Annual #4 is the earliest Flash story in Waid's run, as far as I know. Anyone who knows better, please let me know. I'm always excited to add something to my hunting list. It's a part of the "Armageddon 2001" crossover, a story about a time traveller trying to uncover which of Earth's greatest heroes becomes the deadly despot Monarch in the futuristic time of...2001. Apparently the whole thing was supposed to (SPOILER ALERT) culminate in Captain Atom being the big bad, but they decided against that at the last minute and made it Hawk. Of Hawk and Dove? Angry red and white guy? My understanding is that this was a last-minute decision, flew in the face of everything that had been set up, and basically made the whole crossover a bit silly.
But let's leave that behind, and consider it in the context of Waid's run on The Flash. What's remarkable about this story, though in many ways it's a pretty unremarkable tale, is that it presages so many of the themes Waid would take on in his run, about a year later, on Wally West's life. Alternate timelines, the Flash's children, his future spouse, the ramifications of his public identity. The framing sequence is frankly quite sinister, ending with a young lady probably about to be rubbed out by organized crime, and the Flash standing oblivious. The story of the year 2001 is a pretty standard piece, a bit sentimental, about a future that the Flash could have had (married to said soon-to-be-no more young lady, and hiding in witness protection), one seemingly averted on the very last page by the interference of the time travelling Waverider. From a particular perspective, this makes the whole story seem a bit pointless, as the timeline ceases to exist.

Or does it?

Rather famously, about a decade after this story, Waid and a number of co-conspirators introduced the concept of "Hypertime" to the DCU, a concept that restored, in some ways, what were perceived as the losses that surrounded the demolishing of the Multiverse in Crisis on Infinite Earths. In essence, Waid et al suggested a framework in which all possibilities happened, from thrown out continuities to Elseworlds stories, possibilities that made up the fabric of a far-less-traversable extra-dimensional medium called Hypertime.  Waid explored Hypertime in some detail in the end days of his Flash run, which we’ll come to eventually. The concept is now pretty standard in superhero universes, as evidenced in Wildstorm’s “Bleed,” and Marvel’s (now-deceased) Multiverse. Yet 10 years earlier, here's an alternate timeline flaring briefly into existence, offering the possibility of an array of futures, pasts, and presents. The story is a bit sloppy, in terms of the crossover. Waverider nullifies the future he glimpses, the future that apparently convinces him that the Flash does not become Monarch in the future. But if that future no longer exists, doesn’t the possibility still stand that Wally becomes a despot? Again, though, this brings us back to another of the major themes of the Waid years: possibility and probability.

I'm not claiming Waid had a giant master plan before embarking on The Flash. But I've had it suggested to me that all great writers pick a theme, or a story, and come at it from every possible angle, figuring out all the possible ways to ask a single question. I think Waid's a writer who does this. What he writes in one Annual here he dissects completely over the course of eight years on the main title. But before we get to that masterful dissection, there’s the little matter of an origin to address. Issues 62 – 65, cover-dated May and June of 1992, represent the real first steps in Waid’s run, a retelling of Wally’s origins that will resonate through the entirety of the series: “Year One.”

I don’t think I’m going to say a lot about the four issue origin story. It’s well done, covers all the pertinent details of Wally’s back story, the kind-of-insane coincidence of his gaining his powers (Flash Barry Allen arranges the chemicals in his lab to precisely mirror how they were when he got his powers, and then lightning coincidentally strikes Wally), and his first days as Kid Flash. It’s a competent superhero origin story, and out of context of the rest of the run would be fairly unremarkable. In context, however, the story lays the same kind of groundwork that Waid’s earlier annual does. We are introduced to Wally’s family, both those he likes and those he doesn’t, a family that plays a fundamental role in the development of the character over the course of Waid’s tenure. We’re shown Wally’s origin, its, even in a superhero story, highly unlikely nature, an origin that Waid explores fully through this run. And, as with most of the series, we’re given the spectre of Barry Allen. Please forgive a Wikipedia quotation now, but with Barry Allen in this run, I’m put in mind of Derrida’s notion of hauntology, in which "the priority of being and presence [is replaced by] the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive" (Gallix, 2011). I’ll be looking more closely at this idea as we move further through the series. It’s a smart move on Waid’s part to retell the origin, not simply to remind people or to start, literally, at the beginning, but also to point out, albeit subtly, the aspects of Wally’s story that trouble him, that have been present from the very beginning, and that are going to overwhelmingly inform the superheroic tales he’ll be telling with this character.

Which brings us to the final issue I’ll look at this time around, #66, “Fish Story.” This is a weird issue. After the promise of the origin retelling, this one is a fairly typical, and perhaps even subpar, team-up story between the Flash and Aquaman. Revolving around a telepathic villain whose powers work on Aquaman, the story tells, quite simply, of the Flash’s triumph over the villain. What I think we can take from this issue is that it’s a reminder that the Flash exists in a superheroic universe, in which he works with other heroes and in which ridiculous things often happen. Ridiculous to we readers, that is. The situation in this comic is quite serious for the characters involved, so it reminds us that Wally inhabits a world very different from ours. This counterpoints the angst presented in the origin issues with regard to family and one’s place in it, a feeling and problem that many of us in “the real world” deal with frequently. Wally, at the same time, deals with telepathic aquatic villains searching for magical ocean control crowns.

I did not make that up.

So that concludes the first section of The Flash, the Mark Waid era. I’m excited to get into the meat of the series, and I hope you’ll follow along. Fair warning, though, I’ll be moving at a slightly slower pace than the titular character.

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