Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing The Flash 36, originally released November 26th, 2014.
Drew: There’s a lot of weirdness we accept in our comics — radioactive spider-bites, a dude who dresses up like a bat to scare bad guys, even dudes who dress up like birds to support the dude who dresses up like a bat to scare bad guys — but we tend to think of the morality as fairly straightforward. Oftentimes it is — Superman fights for good, Dr. Doom fights for bad — but the weirdness can also raise some bizarre moral questions. Is time-travel inherently immoral? Exactly how icky is the prospect of a body-snatched romantic relationship? Somehow, writers Robert Venditti and Van Jensen manage to find the overlap between these inherently comic-booky ideas in The Flash 36.
Barry finds himself trapped in the Nexus, an out-of-time construct of the Speed Force filled with objects sucked from all time — past and present. It’s basically Terra Nova (which I’m only pointing out so that Patrick can regale us with stories of being the only person on Earth to have watched more than two episodes). Meanwhile, Old, Evil Barry (OE Barry, if I may borrow our handy nomenclature developed for exactly this situation) has somehow become young again, and has decided to just pick up our Barry’s life where he left it, smooching Patty, mentoring Wally, and going in to work. It almost seems like we could just forget that this whole thing ever happened, only OE Barry isn’t content to play by the rules anymore — he’s seen the future, and he’s going deliver justice, even if it’s for crimes that haven’t been committed yet.
Oh, did I call it justice? I meant cold blooded murder. That may feel a bit heavy-handed, but it’s a simple, clear-cut way of establishing that OE Barry won’t be the same — or even a Superior — Flash.
Venditti and Jensen aren’t wasting any time here — this issue equates to the first several of Superior Spider-Man — and while there’s a (thematically appropriate) charm to that speed, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for subtlety. OE Barry is returning to a life he hasn’t seen in decades, which Venditti and Jensen illustrate by having Barry forget his plans to watch Wally.
It makes sense — who would remember off-the-cuff plans years after they made them? — but unfortunately, it’s only the first of MANY reminders that Barry is from the future. Over the next two pages, Barry needs to be reminded of how to get to the garage, the name of the guy who works in the garage, even the fact that his own boss doesn’t like him. The reminders are laid on just a little too thick for an issue that begins and ends with reminders that this Barry is an evil future version of the Flash we know and love.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find the art any subtler. Brett Booth and Andre Coelho share duties here, and while I’ve become a bit desensitized to Booth’s affect of slanting panels seemingly at random, I wasn’t quite prepared for Coelho’s directorial style. An abundance of extreme closeups and bizarrely canted camera angles gives his sections a very distinct feel, but I question whether it is a good fit for the story. The effect is less that OE Barry’s presence is wrong, and more that he’s somehow walked into a David Lynch dream sequence.
I feel bad being so hard on this issue. I love The Superior Spider-Man and All-New X-Men, and think combining the two has a lot of potential, even if it is clearly designed for a much shorter lifespan. Unfortunately, the results here are decidedly lumpy, leaving me at a loss for anything positive to say.
I don’t know, Spencer, am I being unfair? I was intrigued by the presence of dinosaurs at the end of issue 35, and was excited when I realized OE Barry was going to be taking over Barry’s life, but I feel like this issue missed the mark a bit on both of those. Were you able to find more to like here?
Spencer: I am definitely bummed that there weren’t more dinosaurs here, Drew, but I still found some moments from that section of the issue that I enjoyed.
“Random” though they may be, Drew, I’ve always liked the sense of energy Booth’s jagged panels provide — in this scene, though, they also prove to be a vital part of the layout, showing the path Selkirk’s attack on the Sentry takes. Booth’s work is generally always solid anyway, but his reduced workload this month seems to have amped up the quality of the pages he does put in — besides the above gem, there’s also a really funny facial expression from Barry on the previous page that’s definitely some of the best acting Booth’s done on this title so far.
It hit me funny, anyway. I’m also interested in the implication that Selkirk is either a speedster or knows speedsters — be he a new character or a new take on an old friend, I’m always up for more speedsters! I will admit that I’ve never quite taken to the bit of the New 52 mythology that has established the Speed Force as a place with a physical presence — it’s an energy field! — but there’s enough pseudo-science being thrown around here that I can work around it.
As for OE Barry’s portion of the issue, I can agree with you, Drew, that it could stand to be more subtle. OE Barry is being awfully suspicious, and is probably only saved by the fact that Barry Allen is rather eccentric even when he’s the genuine article — so maybe his behavior isn’t as suspicious as it could’ve been. Still, there’s more I liked about this plot than stuff I didn’t; take, for example, OE Barry’s claim that he just saw a friend that he knows will die in a year? Who? Patty, Singh, Forrest? Having knowledge of the future obviously has a profound effect on OE Barry’s actions (something I’ll circle back to soon), but it also allows Venditti and Jensen to foreshadow upcoming events, hopefully piquing the readers’ interest in the process (it worked for me!).
What I appreciate the most about this plot, though, is the fact that the creative team makes it so clear just where OE Barry’s morality falls. Drew’s comparisons of this issue to The Superior Spider-Man are apt, but Superior was a series that meant to keep us guessing about Otto’s moral compass, about whether Otto’s brand of justice was truly superior to Peter’s or not. While Venditti and Jensen do an excellent job of laying OE Barry’s motivations and reasoning on the table, they have no such illusions about his morality being anything less than horrific, as that shocking last page (the first image Drew posted) testifies to.
Of course, we don’t have to wait till that last page to see how scary OE Barry can be. The pose in the panel above is one I’ve seen a million times before in past Flash comics — usually it’s Wally sweeping Linda off her feet in some grand romantic gesture, and while that’s OE Barry’s intention here, too, Coehlo turns it into something far more sinister. Really, it’s Barry’s facial expression that changes the context of the entire interaction.
It isn’t just the shock of OE Barry’s cold-blooded murder that makes that last page so effective, though; it’s the fact that he’s executing that young man before he even commits a crime. Sure, OE Barry has knowledge of what the kid will become, but he also has proof that the past can be changed. The fact that Barry doesn’t attempt to reform the kid, or even swoop in at the last second to stop the rampage, but instead executes him well-ahead of any crime being committed is perhaps a more powerful sign than anything else of how Barry has changed — our optimistic present-day Barry could never even consider such an act!
Having two versions of Barry Allen in this issue practically begs us to compare and contrast them, and while the issue of their morality is the obvious first choice to investigate, there’s also something far subtler about their differences that caught my attention. A major theme of Venditti, Jensen, and Booth’s entire run has been the trouble Barry has prioritizing: he’s trying to be the Flash, be CSI Barry Allen, be a boyfriend to Patty, a mentor to Wally, and a friend to Iris, but he’s trying to do so much that he ends up doing none of it well. Sure, up to this point Barry could blame the tear in the Speed Force for his losing time, but that was always just a metaphor for how the more Barry tried to do, the less time he had — just because the rupture’s sealed doesn’t mean his problems are fixed.
I bring this up because OE Barry does not have this problem at all. His knowledge of future events has allowed him to realize exactly what is most important to him, and he has no trouble making time for it all. I’m not sure where this observation will lead — when he returns Barry will no doubt be too justifiably angry to learn from how his evil future counterpart schedules his day — but it seemed worth noting.
So yeah, this issue isn’t perfect, but I appreciate the fact that it’s clear about what it wants to say. It’s a strong premise to kick off a storyline with, but I’d definitely be up for more dinosaurs next month.
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