Patrick: Because I spend a fair amount of my time writing about superhero comics, I end up having a lot of conversations about reboots and continuity and “fixing” timelines. You’ll notice that we tend not to dwell on those sorts of things in the actual content of these pieces — we always try to focus on the 20 pages in front of us, and not the uncountable pages that came before — but I’m of the opinion that retcons don’t actually work. If DC were to wipe out the New 52 with the Anti-Monitor next week and launch the old DCU the week following, writers, artists, press and fans would all have the last 3 years of storytelling informing their views on the characters. It’s just like how Aquaman may not have a mini-trident for a hand right now, but that will always be part of who the character “is,” even if it’s not part of who the character “is right now.” But we’re all fascinated with those universe changing mechanics, which is how The Flash 31 upstages itself with a history-altering Future Flash, when the more important character work is happening right now.
Because I think it’s do damn important, let’s start there: present-day Barry Allen is putting in some extra hours to help solve what appears to be an open-and-shut murder case. Turns out that someone has been using weapons pilfered from the Central City Police evidence room to murder criminals that used to do some jobs together. Barry sees a connection (because obviously) while Singh sees only coincidence. Working on his own as the Flash, Barry continues the investigation on his free time, the big problem being that he’s already over-committed his free time to mentoring Wally. Naturally, he sucks at it — showing up late and taking it personally when a twelve-year old lashes out at him for arresting him.
The interaction between Barry and Wally is heartbreakingly shitty. The kid is twelve years old, without his parents and his aunt is talking about him like he’s not even there. The onus is on the adults to be understanding and patient, not the kid. I’ve become a pretty big fan of Barry in the last couple years, but one of the constant criticisms I’m encountered about his character is that he’s effectively been canonized — ever since his saintly sacrifice in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barry has been the noblest hero in the DC Universe. But no nice guy is a nice guy all the time. I find Barry’s reaction here genuinely upsetting, he’s showing neither the patience nor the compassion I expect from him. Of course, this is also an alarmingly effective application of the trope whereby work drives the protagonist to be a dick to his loved ones. It might be because I’m a heartless jerk, but I usually empathize with the hero in those situations: family is important, but the work is saving the world! I am decidedly flipped on this one, and not because Barry’s work with the police is unimportant, but because he’s too harshly letting down someone who genuinely needs him.
And then there’s the other half of this issue: a story set 16 years in the future where a Flash from the even-further-future comes back to lessen the tragedy surrounding a Mirror Master heist. If Future Barry hadn’t intervened, the mirror-themed robbery would have turned into a mini-mass-murder when an earthquake shatters the mirrors (evidently killing the hostages inside Mirror World). Taken on its own, this is a neat tale, with a clear and unique perspective: Barry uses his knowledge of the future and his super speed to save the day. Simple. It becomes less simple when Barry tries to explain what’s happening to him:
“The Speed Force is ruptured, and I’ve been slipping time for decades. The more I run, the more I lose. So I’m running back to fix it all. And to make sure — succeed or fail — idiots like you never hurt anyone again.”
That’s borderline incoherent. I’m not sure what that “succeed or fail” is doing in the middle of that last sentence, and I’m pretty sure the world “through” is missing from the first sentence (“slipping through time” instead of “slipping time”). I can’t tell if writers Robert Venditti and Van Jensen are presenting this sloppy explanation as a comment on the fact that there is no way to adequately explain what’s happening there. The Flash is a vehicle for retcons — what was Flashpoint if not a series of retcons collapsing on themselves? — and the mechanics of such are explained away with some handwaving and “blah blah blah cosmic treadmill.” As a comment on the narrative gymnastics required to change the past (or the future-past or whatever), this line could be dead-on parody.
But it could also be sincere. There’s so much copy in this issue that I think Venditti and Jensen are stuck in full-on explain-mode. It’s a shame too, because artist Brett Booth shines when he’s allowed to do the bulk of the storytelling. There’s a panel where he draws Flash doing an entire crime scene investigation in the blink of an eye and with no text. It’s a marvelous mini-story and a testament to what Booth is capable of.
My favorite detail is Barry under the desk — what’s he looking at down there?
But, like I said, there’s just way too much chatter in this issue, and Booth cannot find an interesting way to stage talking-heads sequences without sacrificing clarity. There are multiple panels where I have a hard time determining who is speaking because the characters are so far off in the background. There are also three panels that are half-filled with Barry’s big head, and the other half filled with Barry’s big words.
Spencer, were you shocked to see Barry treat Wally so badly? Also, that’s not how Mirror World works, right?
It’s discouraging that Barry and Wally are failing so utterly to hit it off, but I’m not exactly shocked. I can actually sympathize with all three characters in this scenario; Wally’s lashing out but has every reason to be angry, Iris wants to help Wally but obviously doesn’t know much about kids and knows even less about this kid in particular, and Barry certainly overreacts to the harsh words of an angry twelve-year-old, but even he’s basically been pushed into a situation he doesn’t understand with no chance to adjust. It’s not “nice” or ideal — it certainly isn’t what “Saint Barry” would do — but it does strike me as a realistic reaction from all three characters considering the situation.
Actually, I think it’s significant that neither Barry nor Iris understand kids all that well, as it’s likely that neither one had much of a childhood themselves. It appears that Iris essentially raised not only herself, but her brother Daniel as well, and Barry lost his parents at a young age — and while he may not be Bruce Wayne or anything, that’s obviously going to affect his perspective on childhood.
I wonder what it means that Iris roped Barry into this mentor role, though? Does she really think he’s the best man for the job, does she simply have nobody else she can go to, or is she somehow — if only at a subconscious level — hoping this will bring her and Barry closer? Patty certainly seems threatened, and it’s not hard to see why, as, if this little mentor thing actually works out, these three would make a rather adorable little family unit.
Anyway Patrick, while there were a few moments in this issue I found hard to follow, I think you’re a little off-base about Barry’s “slipping time” statement. Yeah, “slipping” time is a poor choice of words on Venditti and Jensen’s part — “losing time” probably would have worked much better — but I’m pretty sure they’re referring to how Barry’s somehow been losing time every time he runs.
Something’s happening to Barry every time he runs that’s making his watch lose so much time, and it seems pretty likely to me that it ties into the explanation Blue-Flash gives. This is also a very literal way of representing just how much stuff Barry has on his plate: no matter how fast he runs, he can never catch up, in fact, he’ll only get more behind. Even the fastest man alive can’t be everywhere, helping everyone all the time, and the fact that Barry tries to do this is probably both one of his greatest strengths and one of his greatest weaknesses.
While the sequence with Blue-Flash and Mirror Master is a lot of fun — and dynamically illustrated by Booth to boot — I did find it a little hard to follow. Specifically, I had trouble with Flash’s instructions to Fyre to open up a two-way portal and lead the crowd out of the mirror world. Ignore the fact that Frye should have no idea how to use Scudder’s mirror gun; Barry never says where to lead them to. I assumed that Barry meant to lead them back into the museum, especially after Mirror Master specifically mentioned how the mirrors were sealed on the inside, but that would have caused them to die in the earthquake. In retrospect, it’s obvious that Frye opened up a portal to somewhere outside the museum, but I definitely spent a few minutes trying to figure that out. Booth’s art only further muddies the scene.
The civilians just vanish from the mirrors! I know that any amount of time can pass in the gutters between panels, and I know that Frye simply led the civilians out through another portal, but it’s still incredibly jarring — Frye would have had to herd them out like Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea, which would have taken time, but instead they just abruptly disappear. I guess I’m saying that I understand what happened now, but that the flow of this whole scene doesn’t work that well, and I spent a decent little chunk of time trying to parse this sequence of events out on my first read.
I’m pretty happy with Booth’s pencils though, even in the talking head scenes. Booth’s work relies heavily on momentum, which is why he’s such a great fit for The Flash, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the skills to tackle slower scenes. Booth throws out a variety of layouts and camera angles in these scenes that keeps things interesting, and he’s obviously having fun dressing the characters (Barry’s in three different outfits throughout the issue — not counting his Flash uniform — and I’m particularly fond of his Blue Lantern shirt).
Still, it’s those action scenes where Booth really gets to cut loose. I love the strange angular layouts he uses throughout this issue, which create a sense of movement and chaos; this is especially appropriate during the Mirror Master segment, where the way the panels scatter and even the shape of the panels seems to mimic the way mirrors spew from Scudder’s gun.
Overall, I still think Venditti and Jensen have a strong handle on Barry’s personality — both his strengths and his weaknesses — and I like the grand scope of the narrative they’re laying, which, much like their work over in the Green Lantern universe, seems like it could play out for quite a while yet. This might be a weaker issue than usual, but I’m still pretty excited to see what they have in store for the future of the Flash (and the past of the Future-Flash!).
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?