Heroic Legends of the Modern Age: The Flash

Hello again, everyone!

So, at first I thought of doing the opposite of what Farla’s been doing: instead of presenting all the awful things that comic book writers and artists do, I’d present good comics. But then I realized that was a silly proposition – I could present good comics (or good things by bad comics), but that doesn’t negate the fact that the comics industry as a whole has some deeply ingrained issues regarding gender, race, a general fear and hatred of changes and, well, a whole lot of things.

However, while re-reading The Flash, volume 2, I was struck by lightning (appropriately enough) and decided to go on a different direction: a brief discussion on how the characterisation of super-heroes and the genre as a whole has changed over the years. To help keep things brief, I’ll focus solely on the Flash, specifically the aforementioned second volume, but much of what I’ll be addressing can be applied to other characters.

First, let me provide some context for those who aren’t into DC Comics comics (yes, that was intentional. Want to know the best part? “DC” stands for “Detective Comics”): the Flash is THE speedster of super-hero comics. Oh, there were superfast heroes before him, of course; by the time the character was created, Superman was already “faster than a speeding bullet”, after all, and so were others (like Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, for instance). But when we talk about heroes whose main superpower is their superspeed and all the myriad ways in which it’s applied, the Flash was one of the first (if not the first), and definitely the most popular throughout the decades: he had a short-lived TV show in the nineties, was one of the main characters in both of Bruce Timm’s Justice League animated series (the regular one and Justice League Unlimited) and, these days, he also has a new TV series, spun-off from Arrow.

There have actually been four characters who bore the moniker of Flash: Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Wally West and Bart Allen. Jay Garrick was created by Gardner Fox (writer) and Harry Lampert (artist) in 1940 during what is now called the Golden Age of super-hero comics; Barry Allen was created by Robert Kanigher (writer), John Broome (writer) and Carmine Infantino (artist) in 1956 during the Silver Age (and indeed, he’s taken by many to be the poster boy of the Silver Age, since he was the first reinvention of an earlier superhero); Wally West was created by Broome and Infantino in 1959 as Kid Flash, the Flash’s kid sidekick (“No duh, Spoony!”), and became the Flash in 1987, after Barry’s death during the mega-crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths; and finally, Bart Allen was created by Mark Waid (writer) and Mike Wieringo (artist) in 1994 as Impulse, before becoming the new Kid Flash in 2003 and, after coming back as an adult thanks to time travel, the new Flash in 2006.

(For those interested, the Flash character from the nineties’ series was Barry Allen with some elements [such as his increased appetite and the character Tina McGee] taken from the Wally West Flash; the animated Flash had Wally West’s personality from his early days with his egotism and general jerkishness toned down or even eliminated, although he worked as a police lab scientist like Barry Allen; and the new series’ Flash seems to be mostly a new character, even if there are many elements from the New 52’s Barry Allen. It’s the nature of the beast: comic book adaptations often have to try and condense different elements from various depictions of the character into a single, coherent whole.)

For the curious, here’s Jay Garrick, both as he looked in the original stories and as the older gentleman he looks like in modern stories:

Here’s Barry Allen:

Here’s Wally West as an adult Kid Flash (left), using the same Flash uniform as Barry Allen (middle), and using his own variation of it (right):

And finally, here’s Bart as Impulse (left) and the new Kid Flash (right; as the Flash, he wore the same costume as Barry Allen):

 

Now, in spite of the Flash’s long history, I’ve decided to focus on Wally West for this post for the simple reason that he’s the Flash I know best and whose series lasted long enough to provide plenty of material for discussion – Bart Allen was barely a blip on the radar as the Flash, and both Barry Allen and Jay Garrick were from before my time. Besides, for the purposes of this post, Wally’s run as the Flash is more than enough.

I think that was enough of an introduction. Let’s move on to the main topic: the characterisation of super-heroes and the genre as a whole, and how that’s exemplified in The Flash, volume 2 (which ran from 1987 to 2009, with a brief intermission during 2007-2008, a period during which Bart was the Flash). To sum it up in a single sentence: during that series, super-heroes changed from modern-day demigods to superpowered police officers.

Why do I say that? Well, let’s take a look at the issues running from #1 (1987) to, say, the last issue written by Mark Waid, #162 (2000). During that time, the Flash had to face many dangers: Vandal Savage, an immortal caveman who is one of the DC Universe’s greatest criminal masterminds and military tacticians; the Manhunters, extraterrestrial androids who led a global conspiracy; a team-up between Abra Kadabra (a techno-wizard from the 64th-century) and Dr. Polaris (basically, DC Comics’ Magneto) that threatened to cause a new Ice Age; and many, many others, from world-spanning threats to the comparatively minor ones, like muggings, robberies, etc. But all of those threats had something in common: innocent bystanders rarely died. And when they did, the story and the characters ALWAYS treated it as noteworthy; in fact, during the “Hell to Pay” storyline, Flash is horrified when he sees the casualties must number in the thousands – and not in a self-centered “Oh, man, this is all my fault for not being a good enough hero, I must now angst about it for ten issues straight” way, but in a normal “My God, all those people, dead! That’s awful!” one.

Now let’s compare it to Geoff Johns’ run on the book, from issue #164 to #225. One of the first villains Johns introduced was Cicada, an immortal with apparently sorcerous powers who hypnotized people into forming a cult and killing people who had been saved by the Flash, all in an attempt to drain the energies that power the Scarled Speedster and resurrect the wife Cicada himself had murdered so long ago. And he succeeded – not in his main goal of resurrecting his wife for good, no, but he and his cult killed a great many people. Cicada wasn’t an exception, either: another villain created by Johns, the serial killer Murmur, killed several people before finally being caught. And when Johns reintroduced Gorilla Grodd (a genius gorilla with superstrength and psychic powers) in issue #178, the story reads more like destruction porn than a super-hero romp, all to play up just how terrifying of a villain Grodd is (seriously, Flash’s internal narration is focused on Grodd and how dangerous he can be, not on his victims).

The difference in tone between both runs should be obvious, I think. But is that a bad thing? No, not necessarily. I mean, I prefer Waid’s style to Johns’, myself, but the latter’s is a lot more realistic – unless a super-hero has some kind of clairvoyant powers AND can be in more than one place at the same time, it’s practically impossible to stop a serial killer from murdering at least one or two people, and when you take into account the powers of some villains (for instance, Weather Wizard, as his moniker implies, can control the weather) and their lack of care for innocent bystanders, it’s obvious that casualties are almost a given (unless the hero is also pretty powerful himself). Besides, it IS a way to heighten the tension for a story, even if I think it’s a cheap one. No, I don’t want to turn this into a rant about how “comics were so much better in my days, dagnabbit!”, or even bring up the matter of quality at all; the issue is about characterisation, nothing more.

Now, some of you might say that yes, it’s true that the tone of the Flash’s stories changed over time, but that doesn’t mean it reflects a change in the super-hero genre as a whole; and I’d say that on the contrary, not even series starring heroes from the more grim’n’gritty side of comics took such glee in the villains’ rampage. Batman only arriving at the scene after someone had been murdered has always been one of the character’s staples, but the comics took care to show him saving the innocent bystanders, or at least emphasising how powerless he was when he couldn’t do so, as opposed to playing up those deaths to shill the villain.

Hence my original comparison: super-heroes originally were like the demigods of Classical mythology – facing impossible odds, but ultimately overcoming -, but nowadays, they’re more like superpowered police officers – limited to taking down the bad guys and cleaning things up, as opposed to clearly, unambiguously saving the day.

Why is that, I wonder? Why did things change? I think it’s because super-hero comics limited themselves to mostly escapist fantasies for so long (thanks in large part to the Comics Code – did you know that before it, Superman was actually quite the subversive?), the writers and editors felt they had to bring the characters down to Earth so that readers could better connect with them. A laudable goal, but I think that they went too far and actually diminished the characters and stories. After all, what’s more thrilling and inspiring, to see if the hero can stop a villain who’s murdered dozens of people, or to see if the hero can stop a villain from murdering dozens of people?

17 Comments

  1. Falconix says:
    This is coming from someone whose only exposure to Flash comics (as opposed to his being in JLA) was his part of the “Three of a Kind” crossover with Green Lantern and Green Arrow, plus whatever buzz Wizard did on the title, but…

    From what I remember DC adhered to the Comics Code for longer than Marvel (who had finally ditched it in 2001, a full year after Johns began his Flash run), so while that may have been a factor in the shift of presentations, it can’t have been the main one.

    It might have been a matter of Geoff Johns’ background – he used to work on Hollywood, so he may have chosen to throw some bits of the action flick in to establish the stakes; “these many people have already died, and more will unless the Flash saves the day!” Couple that with his work on establishing the more traditional Rogues as thieves with an honor code, and that might have led to bringing in more lethal foes to emphasize the difference.

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      Huh. That was a research failure on my part, I’ll admit; I thought the Code had been abandoned earlier.

      Hm, that might explain why Johns does it, but I see it as a trend in the industry, not something just one writer (or artist) does. Time was, if people died in a Batman story, you could count the number of deaths on one hand (except maybe if the Joker was involved, but even then that wasn’t a certainty); these days, ever since Grant Morrison started writing for the character (probably even before him), it’s not a high-stakes Batman story unless we start with dozens of corpses, and Batman is a lot more callous to the number of dead.

      Maybe you’ve got something there, though – I’ve noticed some comic book writers were originally writers for TV shows and movies. Maybe this shift is influenced by Hollywood’s traditionally callous approach to anyone who isn’t a named character in their movies and series?

      1. Falconix says:
        Oh, I definitely agree it’s more of a trend (and again, while most of my comic knowledge comes from Wizard and Scans Daily, I think Batman stories had their “too many deaths” issues since before Morrison’s run). Granted, Johns is in a position to have turned it into a trend, what with having parlayed his runs on Flash and JSA into architect of the DC Universe.

        Comics companies often want to bring in TV or book writers to make themselves seem respectable. Sometimes they get someone who brings fresh ideas while respecting the original material, like Greg Rucka (who also had the bonus of originally writing indie comics). Other times, you get… well… the writer behind Identity Crisis. And sometimes you luck out and get someone who keeps delaying the book because he’s more focused on writing for TV, like Allan Heinberg, or Joss Whedon, or that Lost writer who was commissioned for the Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine mini.

        1. SpoonyViking says:
          Rucka is the one who wrote “The Incredible Hercules”, right? That was an excellent read, indeed!
          1. Falconix says:
            Had to recheck before replying, but no. Greg Pak wrote “The Incredible Hercules”. Rucka is mostly known for working on Batman comics (he created the new Batwoman), co-writing 52 and for his run on Wonder Woman: he’s the one who put the focus on Diana as ambassador, and who had some of the Greek gods “expand the portfolio”.

            Geoff Johns took one look at all the heady stuff Greg was doing and decided Diana was too aloof and needed to get brought down a peg, which may be part of why Rucka eventually left DC to focus on creator-owned stuff.

            1. SpoonyViking says:
              Damn, I gotta stop relying only on my memory. Yeah, I read that run. I liked the focus on Diana’s role as an ambassador, and I think it was an interesting idea to have Athena replace Zeus, but overall, I didn’t much like the way he handled the gods.

              I haven’t read it, but I’ve been told Gail Simone’s WW run was good.

              As for Johns, my main gripe with him as a writer is that he always ditches everything that had been previously done with a character in order to impose his vision of said character – which leads to things like “Well, I think it’s unrealistic for a teenager to be heroic and idealistic, so the new Captain Marvel – sorry, ‘Shazam’ – is an egotistical jerk”, or “You know, I’ve always thought Superboy should have been Superman and Luthor’s clone, so now he is, and now he’ll spend all his time angsting about it in a complete reversal of his personality”.

              Reply
  2. Farla says:
    as Impulse, before becoming the new Kid Flash in 2003 and, after coming back as an adult thanks to time travel, the new Flash in 2006.

    Bart Allen was barely a blip on the radar as the Flash,

    Still so bitter about that entire affair. “Wow, I sure wish they could remove everything interesting about one beloved character, then murder another beloved character and have the now cardboard set piece replace him!” said no comic book fan ever.

    but nowadays, they’re more like superpowered police officers – restricted to taking down the bad guys and cleaning things up, as opposed to clearly, unambiguously saving the day.

    Worse, they’re unsanctioned, outnumbered, irreplaceable police officers. Even if the hero is better than any of the villains, it’s really easy to kill a bunch of people and really hard to stop a person from doing that.

    And it’s not like it’s really a realistic take, just a grimshit one. Police officers don’t practice catch-and-release with genocidal murderers. (KILL THE JOKER ALREADY) Society doesn’t make police officers work alone, let alone when that’s all that stands between them and superpowered city-destroyers. It’s taking a couple realistic elements and mashing them thoughtlessly into the rest of the unrealistic superhero framework, so the whole thing actually makes less sense.

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      said no comic book fan ever.

      But Farla, the writers know better than the fans! So what if they’re taking pre-existing characters and using their ideas on them instead of being bold and creating new ones? They know what’s best!
      Seriously, I’ve been talking specifically about Johns because the main topic of the essay was the Flash, but a lot of big-name comic writers do that, like Bendis and Millar.

      Police officers don’t practice catch-and-release with genocidal murderers.

      To be fair, we also don’t want them to just execute criminals without trial (notice I’m making a distinction between “killing in the line of duty” and “executing”). But you’re absolutely right, it’s still almost as unrealistic as ever and only creates a weird dissonance.
      I remember seeing a site criticizing comic books specifically for their overreliance on the “the criminal system doesn’t work, heroes must kill the bad guys” trope when comic books tend to portray said system in an almost as laughable manner as Hollywood, but I can’t recall it’s name. It had some very interesting discussions on the subject. If I remember the name, I’ll post it here.

      1. Farla says:
        So what if they’re taking pre-existing characters and using their ideas on them instead of being bold and creating new ones?

        I think what was most galling was it wasn’t even new ideas but about making Bart into a clone of Wally. But they took happy-go-lucky Impulse, totally ignored the fact his powers work differently from Wally’s and reacts to threats differently because they’re not actually dangerous to him most of the time, shot off his knee despite him reflexively vibrating out of the way of bullets only a billion times because that’ll teach him for being stupid by thinking his superpowers can protect him from danger just because of the minor fact they do, then had him speedread all books ever despite the comics repeatedly explaining Bart is not Wally, Bart does not have speedread powers, Bart just speeds his entire self up and I think sometime around year five of Read All The Books Because I Suck For Getting Kneecapped he’d have realized the entire thing was stupid, and then somehow this meant he realized he was wrong for not calling himself Kid Flash and wearing the Kid Flash outfit and talking like Kid Flash.

        And then after all that setup and character assassination just so they could have Kid Flash Wally back, they killed actual Flash Wally and shoved Bart after anything not Wally had been sandpapered off so all he was was a less interesting Wally.

        WHY

        To be fair, we also don’t want them to just execute criminals without trial (notice I’m making a distinction between “killing in the line of duty” and “executing”).

        But they’re allowed to use lethal force to take down those criminals – they’re not even trained for disabling shots. And they’re absolutely supposed to execute if someone’s holding a gun to a hostage and they can make the shot. Superheroes often have enough power to turn their opponents into red mist, so they have to pull their punches every time, and they do this even when people are currently dying because they can’t take the guy down fast enough.

        Even assuming just minimum realism, a Joker-type threat is one you shoot on sight because they’re a mass murderer and probably covered in horrible traps for anyone who gets into range.

        This is mostly a problem with recurring villains – there’s a big difference between red misting John Doe of unknown motivation and power and red misting the mass murdering guy who always has several containers of face-melting acid and insanity mist on his person he uses at every possible opportunity.

        1. SpoonyViking says:
          Quite true. The writers basically create a situation where lethal force is justifiable, but then have the heroes not act on it – and they don’t make it into a plot point or a reason for character development.
    2. SpoonyViking says:
      I found it! Bob Ingersoll’s “The Law is an Ass” column, right here: http://www.comicmix.com/tag/the-law-is-a-ass/.
      1. Farla says:
        Oh my god that is just beautiful.
  3. Ezequiel Ayoroa says:
    I thought of doing the opposite of what Farla’s been doing: instead of presenting all the awful things that comic book writers and artists do, I’d present good comics. But then I realized that was a silly proposition – I could present good comics (…) but that doesn’t negate the fact that the comics industry as a whole has some deeply ingrained issues

    You’ve lost me.

    I mean, how taking a new, positive, approach to the main topic of this blog would ‘negate the fact’ that those issues exist in the first place? If you were the only one talking about it maybe, but you certainly aren’t.

    However, while re-reading The Flash, (I) decided to go on a different direction: a brief discussion on how the characterization of superheroes and the genre as a whole has changed over the years

    Oh well, this is very good too. I’m anxious to see which Hero do you pick next.

    1. Falconix says:
      I think the sentiment is that the deeply ingrained issues are present even in most of the good comics Spoony could write about, so it wouldn’t serve as a proper counterpoint to Farla’s comics-related posts.
    2. SpoonyViking says:
      Glad you liked it! :-)

      My main reason is that there are plenty of positive approaches I can take that wouldn’t be taken as counterpoints to the very real issues with comics Farla tends to point out. :-) Basically, I want to avoid a “Not all comics” excuse. :-P

      I’m actually thinking of covering a few Dark Ages series next, but that will probably wait a bit – I still have Prydain to do, and I’ve been thinking of doing something on the “Legacy of Kain” video game series.

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