Aug 14, 2015

On the Run: Mark Waid’s The Flash - Part 2 - Finding His Footing

It rarely fails that when one builds up a particular thing in memory, the reality of that thing cannot live up to the building. We call this nostalgia. I’ll admit that part of my love for Waid’s Flash is nostalgic. The early parts of his run are not quite the superlative superhero comics that I fondly cast them as in memory. What we’re seeing here is a writer beginning his first immersive, ongoing title, his first extended take on what it means to be a superhero. We give much credit to comics writers like Kurt Busiek and Grant Morrison for their explorations (though in very different directions) of what it means to be superhuman, and unfortunately not much to Mark Waid. Where Busiek tries to find the human in the superhuman, and Morrison the god, Waid does something different yet again, though something also intrinsically connected to those two other vectors: he tries to find the person in the superhuman. By the end of the run, we don’t think of the character as “The Flash,” we think of him as Wally West. Or more properly, we cease to see a divide between the two. Waid explores the impact of superherodom on a person, and also the impact on a person of having a public identity. Where Clark and Superman, Bruce and Batman, are treated, by the characters themselves, as separate, Wally and the Flash never have that divide. An illustration of the progression of that amalgamation can be seen in the opening lines of this run of comics, the earlier of which read "I'm the Flash, and I'm the fastest man alive," and later which say ""I'm Wally West, and I'm the fastest man alive."

But it takes a while for us to get there. I start off this second part of my analysis with Flash Annual #5, a part of the “Eclipso: The Darkness Within” crossover. It was fashionable, both at DC and Marvel, during this era to have extended storylines run through the annuals published each year. In some ways this was a good idea, in that it kept crossovers from impacting too much on the ongoing series, something that can be frustrating when a crossover interrupts a writer’s flow. However, it seems that the crossovers in the annuals, at least in the nineties, were places where substandard storylines were utilized. Far from something intriguing and sinister like “Secret Invasion,” or universe-spanning like Marvel’s 2015 “Secret Wars,” the annual storylines were bland, lacking in suspense or intrigue. The reason for this is simple: much as the stories did not impact the main series, the stories did not impact the main series. I’m not just repeating myself there. Since the ongoing titles were, well, ongoing, it was fairly obvious that any repercussions of the annual crossover were going to be temporary at best, and completely non-invasive to the main series. This annual is a perfect example. Eclipso is a strange god/demi-god character in the DCU who possesses people through a black gem within which he is trapped. Every now and again he’ll somehow break free and jump from character to character for some nefarious purpose. For example, at the end of this issue, he jumps into the Flash and speeds away into the subsequent issues of the crossover. But as far as I can tell, this incident is completely unacknowledged in the main title. At the same time that this crossover was going on in the annuals, Wally is also facing Abra Kadabra in the main title. While this is not an uncommon occurrence, nor would it be a problem if the story had simply taken place in a regular issue and continued either in the next issue or elsewhere, the fact of its being presented in an annual, as part of a major crossover, intimates that it is an important, perhaps even fundamental, moment in the character’s life. Surely that’s the point of large-scale crossovers, to shake things up. Well, that’s the theory, at least. The troubles with non-impacting crossover series is something we’ll have to consider elsewhere, another time. 
What this annual does do well is give us Waid’s first look at the Rogues, the villains of Central City who have antagonized the Flash, both Barry and Wally, for years. There are some nice moments where the rogues (Trickster, Weather Wizard, and Captain Boomerang, in this case) discuss the differences between Wally and Barry, an interesting perspective to have on these heroes. The inclusion of these characters also reinforces the hauntedness of the title by Barry Allen. These criminals all debuted during his tenure as the Flash, and though their opinion may matter little to Wally, they still hold him up and contrast him to Barry. The criminals wax nostalgic for a simpler time, a simpler hero. Thus this annual, though a bit of a throwaway, engages nicely with the nostalgia and haunting that is coming to be a major motif in Waid’s work.

The subsequent issues, numbers 67 and 68, continue the trend of re-introducing canonical, and traditional, Flash villains, with the reappearance of Abra Kadabra. The typical superheroic fisticuffs are an interesting backdrop to a couple of far more interesting things that go on in these comics. First and foremost, in issue 67, faced with the prospect that he cannot stop Kadabra from killing a stadium full of people, Wally ponders whether he has it in him to kill the mad magician. This is a moral conundrum that we often see explored in superhero comics, but for the thoughts to come to someone who is, traditionally, as light-hearted as Wally West throws into sharp relief the kinds of thought processes that a superhero, be they grim or merry, must deal with on a regular basis. He is fortunately saved the choice by the last minute appearance of a Peregrine, a hunter, from the future from which Kadabra hails. As is usual with The Flash (as we’ll see), Wally is sent hurtling, along with Kadabra, into the 64th century, a time when the movements and activities of all human beings are regulated by the “central clockworks.” Here we see two of the fundamental themes of the series being played out. Of all of the major DC heroes, Wally West, specifically in this era of the title, is the most likely to have time travel adventures. Really, it comes of his powers. Theories about time travel revolve around the ability to move faster than light, so a character who channels the universal force of speed is a likely candidate for these sorts of adventures. In this one he’s a little unsettled, but, trust me, Wally will become accustomed to such travels. However, while he’s here, he commits a crime, though from his relative moral standpoint, it’s an act of liberation. 2400 years into the future, the Flash decides that the way society is running is wrong, and goes out of his way to upset things completely. In doing so he realizes that Abra Kadabra, in his own context, is a hero, fighting against a mechanized clockworks that controls all of humanity. This kind of relativity with regard to temporal morals will be explored further down the line in this run, but here it offers us a couple of interesting perspectives on the superhero. From one point of view, there is an arrogance attached to this character, in that he believes his way is the better way, regardless of how society has evolved over the course of almost 2.5 millennia. It’s kind of a reverse of the ways in which colonial powers considered the “primitives” that they tried to “civilize” from the 17th to early 20th centuries. As such, Wally engages in an act of colonialism, in that he privileges the way he sees things over the way the natives of the era see things. From another perspective, however, Wally engages in the kind of decision that these demi-gods of the twentieth century are often expected to make. If we consider the superheroes from the Morrisonian stance taken in the JLA series, these characters, both as characters we read about and as people inhabiting a fictional world, are avatars of the big ideas we crystallize in our gods. And this, in some ways, places them on a moral level that is neither place nor time dependent. We could consider this as Wally utilizing the eternal morality of the divine. Though I’m not sure he’d necessarily see it that way.

Here’s the part where I have to make a bit of a confession. There are two comics that I am missing that constitute a re-reading of the Waid era. They are both issues of Green Lantern, numbers 31 and 96. It’s 31 we’ll unfortunately be missing today, though with the early nineties propensity for recaps at the issue’s beginning, we’re not missing that much. Green Lantern 30 and 31 and Flash 69 and 70 constitute the “Gorilla Warfare” crossover, in which Gorilla Grodd and Hector Hammond team up to destroy humanity. It’s best not to ask why. It’s just a thing supervillains do. There’s a few interesting moments in these crossovers. We really begin to see Waid’s take on the idea of the DCU as a generational place in these issues. Green Lantern Hal Jordan was Barry Allen’s “best friend...both noble...brave...and hopelessly, tragically unhip.” In an interesting assessment, even Wally notes how uncool the two were, perhaps a nod by Waid toward the nostalgia with which we view these characters. Jordan is portrayed here with silver hair at his temples, and is probably in his early forties (take it from someone in his early 40s – the silver hair is there). Wally, by contrast, is in his mid-twenties, representative of the coming new wave of heroes exemplified by Kyle Rayner Green Lantern and Jack Knight Starman. Further resonances to Allen’s pervasive presence come in the history Grodd shares with the Flashes. In fact, since the beginning of this run of Flash, I don’t think Wally has faced anyone his Uncle didn’t face before him. With the return of each of these villains, we see that Wally doesn’t simply live in the shadow of Barry’s successes, but also his failures.

As a bit of a call back to the series that began this read through, Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold, the “Gorilla Warfare” storyline functions to show the allegiances that can surmount generational divides in superhero storytelling. Wally, simply by being The Flash, has an ally in Green Lantern. And when Hal is no longer Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, simply by being Green Lantern, has an ally in The Flash. Well. Almost. It takes them a bit of time.

So just when it seems that poor Wally West is doomed to simply face Barry Allen’s prodigious rogues gallery, a brand new one shows up. Well. Sort of. A villain sharing all the hallmarks of classic Flash villain Dr. Alchemy shows up and the Flash is tasked with protecting a state’s witness from him. Interestingly, on the cover the new villain is called “Doctor Alchemy,” but inside the comic he himself calls himself “The Alchemist.” It’s something that I wondered about in the first season of The Flash television shows, the nicknames that Cisco gives to each of the metahumans. Who claims the right to name a hero or a villain? Lois Lane is famous for having coined the term “Superman.” In the TV series, Barry Allen names himself, via Iris West. What happens in the case of a villain? Do we accept what they call themselves, afford them the respect of acknowledging their choice of names, or do we name them, in order to demonstrate how they stand outside of “civilized” society?

This story doesn’t answer any of those questions, but it does give yet another perspective on the generations of metahumans that populate this universe. Here we have a descendant of an old Flash villain, rather than Wally, the descendant of a hero. final issue of today’s column, #73, is the first one that starts to read and feel like the Flash comics I associate with the Mark Waid years. Wally and Linda sit down for a Christmas celebration with Jay and Joan Garrick. Jay “the original Flash” Garrick, that is. With Hal Jordan, we saw the generation of heroes that emerge in the Silver Age, the father and mother-figures, so to speak, of the latter generation of which Wally is something of a herald. The heroes of the Modern Age, perhaps. Jay Garrick, however, represents the “grandparent-ly” generation, the ones who, ostensibly, did it all before anyone else. This generational framework places Waid’s story into an interesting position with regard to its consideration of families. As we’ve been introduced to Wally’s biological family in the Year One stories, over the course of the last few issues we’ve been introduced to his “superherological” family. There are generations of Flashes, stretching back into history, generations of Green Lanterns, the bachelor uncles of the Flash family. There are wives in the persons of Joan Garrick and Iris Allen, who haunts the series only slightly-less than Barry. The clashes, both between and within these families, provide Waid and his co-writers with a way of considering the families we are born into and those that we choose. That this particular story also involves the Flashes saving a family from making a terrible mistake simply underlines the focus of the issue, and in many ways the series.

I should have mentioned earlier that one of the “The (Dr.) Alchem(y)ist” stories featured another Waid-esque moment, as a mysterious figure appears in the background in a flash of electricity caused by the storm through which the Flash fights his elemental foe. The figure is given two panels and then staggers off into the shadows. We’re not sure who he is, yet, but a massive clue appears at the end of this issue, just as everything is wrapping up in a Christmas-y moment to rival the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, in the person of Barry Allen.

What happens when a ghost ceases to be a ghost, ceases to haunt a location or a person, and comes back to resume life instead? We’ll find out next time.

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