Nov 18, 2015

On the Run: Mark Waid’s The Flash - Part 4 - Pasts and Futures


I've been struggling with this particular section of this series for some time now. As is totally obvious from the horrendous delay between sections. What I've been struggling with is trying to define this particular run of comics. We're coming off Wally's realization that he is every bit as capable as Barry Allen of being a legendary hero, off his having discovered a lineage of speedsters, something that Waid is very carefully setting up in this run. One of the portions of my dissertation is going to deal with the building of a coherent physical and historical universe in DC comics, and though it's not the top of my list, this particular aspect of Waid's run on the title will definitely come into the conversation.

None of which says much about this bit of Waid's run. Wally has his revelation about Barry, and then immediately leaps into action with Nightwing and Starfire, two colleagues from his days on the Teen Titans. The story arc that features these two is called "Back on Track," which I admit I don't really get. I suppose from a psychic perspective, Wally is back on track, but my understanding of the prior storyline was that the track he was on was not necessarily the right one. The previous "Return of Barry Allen" story was all about Wally dealing with self-imposed limitations that come about because of his past relationship with Barry, and then immediately he takes up with old friends who are, through no fault of their own, emblematic of the era he has ostensibly just escaped.

Why would Waid take us immediately into yet another of Wally's cul-de-sac pasts, when he's just spent a fair bit of the preceding issues telling us that, in order that he be the best Flash he possibly can be, Wally needs to escape his past?

Well, perhaps it's because Wally doesn't just have one past he needs to escape. The Barry one is obviously the big one, but Starfire and Nightwing are reminders not of the man that Wally has always measured himself against, but of his time as a sidekick, and as a Titan, reminders of a time when he was not among the A-list heroes of the DCU. Remember, as of this comic's publication date, Barry Allen had only been dead about 6 years. For about 25 years before that, Wally was a B-list sidekick on the Teen Titans. In order that we understand why this adventure comes immediately after the Professor Zoom one, we should take note of the specific characters who are featured. Starfire is from the Wolfman/Perez era of the Teen Titans, a team that transcended their status as B-list and rocketed to popular and critical acclaim during that team's tenure. I remember when these comics were coming out, and it was a big deal that they were matching Marvel's X-Men in terms of sales. So Starfire gives us that notion of the B-list heroes breaking the glass ceiling (note that cover) and moving into territory usually reserved for the Big Three and their hangers-on. Nightwing, on the other hand, represents the earliest of Wally's teammates, and the earliest time as a superhero. The original Teen Titans were Kid Flash, Robin, Wonder Girl, and Aqualad. Of course, Robin grows up and becomes Nightwing. He carries on his mentor's legacy, but is not trapped within it, which is basically the story we've just witnessed in the previous section of comics. So one hero represents transcendence of status, and one represents transcendence of origin, both of which Wally desperately needs to do in order to move forward as a character. Thus, by the end of this storyline, Wally has witnessed what it means to become a hero in one's own right, as well as putting to rest an old love story from the pre-Waid issues. That's the pasts of the title of this post. But what of the futures?

Waid takes things in a few different directions to get Wally into the future he needs to be in. The first is to team him with another hero in Central City: Argus. Argus comes from the "Bloodlines" crossover, specifically Flash Annual #6, which would have been part of the previous post had I not become bogged down in Derridean literary theory. Wally does not like Argus, a fact that really demonstrates his movement into being an A-list superhero - they never seem to like having someone else on their turf. It's a problem that Marvel Universe superheroes have made peace with, but it often seems that in the DCU, each superhero stakes out a claim and everyone else respects it. But Argus is also an attempt at the grim and gritty superheroes that were all the rage at the time of his appearance, so we're witnessing a character from the Silver Age of comics moving, ironically, very slowly into the Modern Age. But I don't want anyone to make the mistake of thinking that Waid makes the Flash into a Leifeld-esque angst-machine with poorly-drawn feet. Rather, he takes the character and demonstrates how this sort of superhero can co-exist with the other kind, and that they bring interesting nuances to each others' stories by virtue of the type of superheroes that they are. Waid really lays the groundwork for Morrison's JLA here, in that the stories are unquestionably modern (or postmodern, as the case may be), but not grim purely by dint of their modernity.

However...

The next story line, which runs almost to the end of this particular chunk of the series, is grim. Waid and company do something seldom seen in comics - they show what happens when a superhero is not able to save the day. There's an interesting argument to be made about these particular issues that they demonstrate a sort of post-traumatic stress in Wally's reaction to failing to save a woman from a burning store in a shopping mall. The woman survives, though is quite terribly disfigured, and Wally goes on what can only be termed a rampage of heroic acts, trying to prove to everyone, but mostly to himself, that he's fast enough to save everyone. There is a slight problem here, in that Waid's treatment of Wally's behaviour significantly takes away from the trauma suffered by the young woman he fails to rescue - we can write this off on the fact that the comic is called Flash, but it's still a bit troubling that it is Wally whose pain and suffering we witness, rather than the person who was actually the victim of the accident. There are early shades of the sorts of tropes from which grow "Women in Refrigerators," and while it is certainly problematic, I'm going to have to take the other perspective here, and note that the story is about Wally, and that there are always going to be secondary characters in stories whose sufferings or triumphs are simply not the subject matter of the narrative. Part of Wally's growing up over the course of these comics is realizing that he can't save everyone, and that punishing himself is not going to make him a better hero. We are often told that all we need to do in life is try our best, but it is usually ourselves who are the hardest to convince that we have done. Wally is no exception, though by the end of this story line, he's getting there.

So you'd think that at this point, Waid would cut poor Wally some slack, give the guy a holiday or something. He's just come out from under his mentor's shadow, witnessed the growing up of his childhood compatriots, and come to the realization that, superhero or no, he's still just a fallible human being. But instead, our hero is thrust into yet another "adult" role, and is given a sidekick in the form of Impulse - a speedster from the future, grandson of Barry Allen, and all around obnoxious kid. Almost immediately after having realized that he did not have to be Barry Allen, he takes on a role for which he only has one model - Allen himself. How Wally will deal with Impulse will be the focus of the next few bits of the run, I'd imagine.

One last thing I'll say about Impulse's introduction into the story line is that it casts our perspective in a direction, speedster-wise, that we haven't yet: the future. So far we've seen numerous super-fast heroes from the past in the forms of Jay Garrick, Johnny Quick, and Max Mercury, but here we see where that line goes. The DCU is remarkable for its attention to lineages, and nowhere is that more evident than in Mark Waid's Flash comics. But before we can really get into how Wally deals with Bart Allen, there's another crossover to come. We'll have a quick look at Wally's Zero Hour experience next time, and then jump back into his mentoring, and the shenanigans that ensue.

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