Originally Published January 27, 2012
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of The Flash while Drew is hosting the discussion of Justice League.
Patrick: More than just about any other series we’re reading, I believe that The Flash is excited about being part of a “relaunch.” Everything about the character seems so new and unexpected, which is remarkable considering versions of the Flash have been around since the Golden Age. Barry can do some incredible stuff by tapping into the Speed Force, but he’s constantly learning the limits and consequences of using this amazing powers. Both Iris and Patty are active players in Barry’s life, but neither has settled into the roll of “The Flash’s Girl.” There are frequent teases of obscure villains (like The Folded Man, Girder and Tar Pit), terrifying assertions of old villains’ power (Captain Cold laid Iron Heights to waste), and still the most sinister moment belongs to the brand new villain invented for this run. It’s like there are limitless possibilities in all directions when it comes to this run of The Flash.
Issue 5 opens with Dr. Elias leading Manny and Mob Rule down to his SECRET MACHINE in the basement. Flash stops by Iron Heights to rescue Iris from the escapees that have run amok during the power outage and then squeezes in a quick run halfway across the country to escort some supply ships from Gotham to the crippled Gem Cities. Barry wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull off that last feat – dragging two 600-ton barges by a Speed Force leash is pretty impressive, I don’t care what your powers are supposed to be. Certain that the cops can put the city back together and keep the populace from rioting, Flash goes toward the mysterious green light pouring from Dr. Elias’ lab. After some whiz-bang fighting against the disposable infantry-men of Mob Rule, Barry gains access to the basement, where Dr. Elias’ machine is attempting to fix the genetic aberration that’s causing Manny’s clones to drop dead. The machine – we are told – alters DNA by targeting it with electromagnetism. CLUE. Flash is about to make peace with Dr. Elias and Mob Rule’s plan (after all, they’re not really doing anything wrong) until the machine starts to go nuts. It’s an old lesson that comic book characters never seem to learn: don’t trust the machine, especially if you have to hook it up to a human being to make it work.
Apparently, being plugged into the machine is no picnic and Manny FLIPS OUT.
The whole thing is set to blow, so the Flash does what he does best: he runs. Running in circles and creating a vortex, Barry expels the force of the electromagnetic explosion into the night sky. Unfortunately, this means none of the Mob Rule guys are spared. It’s hard to get a grasp on just how many clones there were, but the scene gives the impression that they all keeled over – dead. Enraged, Manny lands a cheap punch on the Flash – who is exhausted from all that running – and escapes. When he comes to and debriefs with Dr. Elias, Flash gets some distressing news: the E.M.P that knocked out power in the Gem Cities was sent back in time from that catastrophic moment the Flash just caused. In a move that further establishes the newness of this series, Barry casually responds “I don’t do time travel.” But Dr. Elias is insistent; he’s been tracking the seemingly random appearance of anachronistic vehicles in the Badlands. He offers the explanation that any time Barry gets too close to the speed of light, he causes time rifts, displacing objects in time.
Fuck. Yes. You had mentioned to me previously that you liked the idea of The Flash because it seems like any given issue has the potential to become Back to the Future II. By the conclusion of this first arc (and I think Manny retreating constitutes the end of the first arc), we’ve already had our concept of cause and effect monkeyed with. My absolute favorite applications of time travel involve the travelers themselves being totally unable to control what point in time they travel to. Also, sending an E.M.P back in time suggests a “whatever happened, happened” method of time travel, which is also my preferred time travel narrative style. Not only am I excited for the possibilities that time travel implies, I really like that Barry’s speed is damaging the universe. The Speed Force is such a mysterious thing, and comic book writers are free to invent their own rules as to how it behaves and how it affects everyone around it. And “catastrophe-causing” is a really fun approach.
Manapul’s art continues to impress, but there are fewer show-stopping moments in this issue. Don’t get me wrong, the grace and energy with which he and colorist Brian Buccellato depict the Flash in motion is more than enough to satisfy me – I get a big stupid smile on my face every time I see that character running. The colors really pop in this issue as the city is consumed in a blackout and Flash’s yellows and reds stand out boldly among the washed-out blues and greens.
But the strongest moment this month comes from the way that final sinister moment with Manny is played. Though he escaped, Manny is left without his army of clones – clones that he had begun to think of as the only family he has left. Alone in what appears to be a box car, he makes some new friends the only way he knows how:
Everything about this works for me. Particularly that last panel, which has both the determined-yet-sad look in Manny’s eyes as he cuts his own flesh, and the reflection in the blade of fresh clones. Really, really cool.
And I like that there’s a little bit of that thematic continuity concerning one’s perception of family. Barry feels that he let Manny down because “We’re family…” But Patty tackles him with a hug, “No, we’re your family.” This exchange is poignantly staged on the page just opposite Manny’s desperate cutting. Barry’s lucky to have a support structure in place – let’s hope he doesn’t bounce one of them through a time rift. Otherwise we might have some kick-ass adventures through time!
Here’s a good example of everything this issue does well all rolled into one image. Three fun, sorta campy villains of a single color palette being beaten by a vibrant red Flash using some extended-technique Speed Force moves:
Drew: Man, between the electromagnetism, the sky turning bright colors, and the strict time-loop causing rules regarding time travel, this title is seemingly tailored to fit into the sci-fi aspects of our LOST fandom. Let’s talk about that time loop: the EMP forced Dr. Elias to use his experimental power source to power his genetic re-coder to help Mob Rule, that power source becomes unstable, forcing the flash to contain the explosion in a vortex which simultaneously sends it back in time, causing the EMP. Like Locke’s compass, it doesn’t exactly make sense how this loop was started, but it makes perfect sense that it is perpetuated by its effects. That all of those vehicles we saw in the desert were brought there by Barry’s time ripping is a nice touch that grounds the time-travel element into something that has been happening for a while, even if nobody was aware of it.
As much as I love Back to the Future II, I have mixed feelings about the prospects of introducing time travel to these stories. On the one hand, expanding the repercussions of Barry’s actions just as he’s mastering simple cause and effect makes perfect sense, and may provide a workable limit on his abilities (that is, until Barry and Dr. Elias figure out how to channel this power safely). I also love time travel stories that fold in on themselves, creating wrinkles of cause and effect you would never have known the first time around (a la Back to the Future II). On the other hand, time-travel runs the risk of making Barry a god-like figure, meaning bad things only happen by his will (I’ll quibble with you a bit about your claim that we’re operating under “whatever happened, happened,” since I’m not sure we’ve seen enough to draw that conclusion). It also runs the risk of becoming too reliant on its own history, which is something all super hero stories are in danger of doing, even when they won’t be revisiting the same events (Back to the Future II isn’t nearly as impressive, or followable, if you haven’t seen part I). I was kind of digging that we were working with a Barry Allen who couldn’t travel through time.
It may still be a while before we get any full-throttle time travel stories, but it seems clear that time travel is going to be a big part of the new Flash mythology. I’m really hoping we don’t get anything as elegant or precise as the cosmic treadmill anytime soon. “Barry Allen, Time Crusader” is not a character I’m nearly as interested in reading as I am the misunderstood protector of the Gem Cities we saw in the first few issues.
But enough about what I do and don’t want and what the time travel development may or may not mean; we’ve got a great issue of a great comic in front of us. I’d say your assessment of the art this issue is spot-on; it’s fantastic, but there aren’t as many points where I had to scoop my jaw off the floor as there were in the previous issues. You know you’re spoiled when an issue that looks this good isn’t meeting your standards. The list of gorgeous titles we’re reading has grown a bit, but I’m still loving the distinctive style Manapul has established here. Flash’s costume really does pop against the colder palate being used this issue, effectively isolating him from the various groups he’s interacting with, from the crowd at the bridge to Mob Rule to the rogues.
Speaking of the rogues, I don’t know these guys, but I’m excited to meet them. It’s good to know there’s a rogues gallery as robust and colorful as the one I know and love from Batman (okay, maybe not as robust and colorful, but still a deep bench). I’m looking forward to the next adventure with Captain Cold, and I think a new foe followed by an old favorite is a good way to cement the New 52 into the history of the character (even if they are kind of starting from scratch).
One thing that’s interesting about the approach Manapul and Buccellato (and probably the Editors at DC) have taken to Barry’s history is this strange element of dramatic irony. Most of the other titles we’re reading have retained much of their pre-relaunch histories, but we’ve hit more of a reset button with Barry. His history with time travel and Iris West (not to mention Wally) haven’t happened yet, though it’s clear that they will, eventually. That makes this a kind of extended origin story (even if they aren’t talking about the origin, explicitly) in that we know where things are going, at least for a while. I normally gripe about those kinds of things, but I’m really liking that here. I guess that’s another flattering comparison I can make to Back to the Future II.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, Batwoman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin