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?