Drew: I’ve always seen postmodernism as inevitable. As someone who likes art, consuming art about art just makes sense to me. It’s quite easy to take commentary too far — forcing the art to far up its own ass to really be relatable — and while I have a special place in my heart for stories that do that, it’s much more satisfying when they can support a compelling narrative, as well. Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul nail that type of just-right meta-text time and time again, as Barry grapples with his relationship to his own identity, history, and even time itself. Their pacing and narrative style have remained fluid enough to accommodate all of these ideas, tying them back to Barry’s own experience of the world. Issue 14 continues the recent trend of expanding the scope beyond Barry’s subjectivity, revealing a rewarding complexity to the world he lives in.
The issue finds Barry struggling against a super-powered Grodd. Meanwhile, we discover that Patty, Frye, and Turbine survived last month’s issue, after all. Turbine assures them that he can help find Barry Allen, but asks to be taken to see the gorilla we saw nearly attack young Barry back in issue 9. It turns out, that Gorilla, Solovar, is the time-travelling, foreseeing first wielder of the Speed Force, who is here to help Barry defeat Grodd. Sure enough, they arrive just as Grodd is about to impale Barry (did I mention Barry was struggling?), and Solovar sacrifices himself to shield Barry from the blow. Elsewhere, the Rogues begin to formulate a plan, Dr. Elias is sped to the hospital, Daniel West discovers that his sister is missing, the Gorilla City elder needs more humans to power the machine disguising Central City, and — in the Speed Force — Iris and the others take refuge in that tank we saw back in issue 3…perhaps they’ve been back all along?
All told, that’s seven stories (eight, if you count Solovar’s origin) that are advanced incrementally this issue. Last month saw almost as many plates spinning, which I complained was too much. Here, however, the almost scrapbook quality of these short, generally discrete scenes creates a sense of the simultaneity of time — a concept central to understanding Solovar’s character.
Solovar isn’t tied to the linear experience of time we are. Time to him is a crystal he can examine from all angles, a machine whose moving parts he’s duly familiar with. Experiencing this issue that way — as a solid, homogenous mass of time — rather than as a linear-but-schizophrenic narrative enhances its contents immensely. I know it sounds like I’m going off of the deep end here, but I think there’s a lot of moments in this issue that support this reading.
The issue opens with Solovar’s voiceover, long before we meet him. We’re never given a context for this voiceover — who is he speaking to? — which creates a strange familiarity with the audience. In turn, this aligns us most closely with his point of view (we also get a lot of Barry v.o., but I’d argue that — since that happens in every issue — it’s not as notable).
Many sequences also rely on multiple moments simultaneously for them to make any sense. This is probably always true of comics, but check out the bizarre cause-and-effect relationships in this sequence:
There are many ways an artist can depict Flash phasing through things (and indeed, Manapul has shown a lot of variety in the ways he chooses to represent this phenomenon), but setting it up as a takeout, such that you don’t know he’s done it until the next panel, separates the event into two discrete bits of information: Grodd smashes Barry AND Barry phases through the car. Indeed the gutters line up to make those two panels feel like one panel — those events are happening simultaneously. That same trick is repeated at the bottom of the page, where Barry’s punch is divided into three simultaneous panels. There are a number of reasons to do this — to direct our attention, to create surprise — to break a single image into panels, but the most common one — to depict motion through time — is distinctly not happening here. Indeed, seeing the destination of the punch before its origin actually inverts what I might expect of this setup.
My absolute favorite example of the simultaneity of time in this issue is Manapul’s patented in-scene title page. Those title pages are a trick we’ve seen a few times at this point, but Manapul takes it in a new direction by allowing us to see a number of closeups simultaneously.
The effect is a kind of narrative cubism, one that allows us to see many facets of a story simultaneously, and kind of necessarily calls our attention to the artifice of comics and storytelling in general. It’s a risky move, but one that promises to create a uniquely rewarding experience.
Scott, I’m curious if this reading holds any water for you. Last month’s issue — which was significantly less busy than this one — left me feeling a little overwhelmed, and I could absolutely see how this issue might be even worse in that regard. Still, the number of connections here (possibly extending back to issue 3) turns the narrative into a fascinatingly tangled web, and I found the prospect of following all of the threads — even for just a short time — to be incredibly exciting. Were you as mesmerized by this issue as I was?
Scott: Fittingly, I suppose, I had trouble keeping up with this issue of The Flash. There were so many shifts in time, location and storylines that I eventually lost track of where and when each scene was taking place. If I had to sum up my general reaction to this issue using a quote from one of the characters, it would be “I need more mental energy…much more,” with a little bit of “How many monkeys are there?” tossed in.
But that’s not to say I wasn’t mesmerized. Drew, I think your analysis of how we are meant to experience time in this issue is interesting. The idea of time as a solid object we can remove ourselves from and examine from all angles does seem to fit with the jumbled timeline of the issue. If we accept this reading as the truth, then I guess the utter confusion I experienced should be considered a thematic victory.
The Flash is a great venue for an artist to play with our perception of time, since depicting speed is often such an important visual component of the story. It’s common for Flash to appear multiple times in a single panel, to show how much space he is covering in just a split second. This draws a great parallel to the idea of time as a crystal- a panel in a comic book can’t show the passage of time, only a snapshot, and yet we can still see the Flash from every angle, as if he is removed from the traditional concept of time.
It’s always a tricky act trying to juggle so many different stories in one issue, and I’m sure most of the problems I had with this issue stem from the fact that I’m not all that familiar with The Flash as a series. Obviously, that’s more my fault than it is the writers’- there’s no reason for Manapul and Buccellato to cater to newcomers in issue 14. Still, I appreciate moments that require no prior knowledge, like Solovar’s beautifully sad origin story. One of the great things about comic books is the way that words and images can come together to create something greater than the sum of those parts.
Taken without context, you can extract a lot out of an image of a man with a gun standing over a gorilla with three darts sticking out of his chest while people cower in the background. But knowing what we do about Solovar’s gifts and the decisions he made to get him to that place, it takes on a new significance. The choice of words is very interesting. From the zookeeper’s perspective, Solovar is just a gorilla, less important than those humans in the background. But to the reader who has just heard Solovar’s story, he is much more than that. You can’t look at that image and think “no one got hurt.”
There were several other snippets of stories that we didn’t really touch on, but I’m curious to know what I should make of them, considering I’m new to the series. I was particularly intrigued by the gorilla elder’s machine and his need for additional human minds from which to siphon energy. Basically, I as drawn to anything involving gorillas; I think monkeys I don’t recognize are inherently more interesting to me than humans I don’t recognize.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?