Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Scott Kolins
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Publisher: DC Comics
Is there a single DC franchise that’s undergone such a hit in popularity over the past two years than The Flash? Once one of the hottest books in comics, not to mention one of the most consistently strong, the character has been marginalized, neglected, and mishandled ever since the departure of writer Geoff Johns and the temporary departure of protagonist Wally West. Since then, the book has seen a much-maligned thirteen issue run of a new series that featured the promotion and death of Wally’s former sidekick Bart Allen; a return to the previous volume’s numbering and a brief run by earlier scribe Mark Waid; and a new status quo featuring a superheroic West family that’s been coldly received, despite energetic artwork by Freddie Williams II and some clever stories by the underrated Tom Peyer. I could make an argument for the story potential of this setup, not to mention that it’s a viable dynamic to bring in a wider audience if The Incredibles is any indication, but given that DC has finally punched the bright red panic button that is Barry Allen, it’s no longer an issue. The situation is now this: Johns, DC’s fallback guy in terms of building cohesive worlds and streamlining history, is here to play cleanup and prepare The Flash franchise for its next iteration.
With the mission thus briefed, Johns, having to tie together disparate plot threads from the past two years of DC books, has an overwhelming job ahead of him. As the series begins, the Rogues (the main cadre of Flash villains comprising Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, Heat Wave, and Mirror Master) are finally returning to their old hideout after their prison planet trials in Salvation Run, still fugitives thanks to their somewhat inadvertent part in the murder of fourth Flash Bart Allen. One of the standout facets of Johns’ Flash work has always been his portrayals of the Rogues, and the book finds them in an even darker place than usual. They’re bitter and exhausted, and very obviously making enormously self-destructive decisions based on their misanthropy and vengefulness. Hence, one of the best set-ups for a Flash story we’ve seen in a long while, and Johns uses Captain Cold’s world-weary narration to set the tone for the story effectively and compellingly. Cold is consistently the best part of any Flash book he’s in, and here his bitterness is tempered with a sense of regret that humanizes the character and evokes the best noir fiction. Lesser writers should take note: this is how you create an anti-hero. You can throw all the amoral mercenaries you want onto a page, but the most interesting grey areas come from the kind of frustrated masculinity that Cold evinces.
The fear I have for the book is that Johns links a pretty elemental anti-hero vengeance story, and one with the attendant melancholy of a fragmenting group of friends realizing life’s moved past them, with numerous plot convolutions that require a background in other DC titles to understand. The main drive for the Rogues, killing Inertia – the rival of Bart Allen who engendered the hero’s murder – is easy enough to understand with the background given in this issue, but other plotlines intersect and complicate this. Inertia, last seen frozen in place in the Flash Museum by Wally West as a punishment for Bart’s death, is freed from stasis by Zoom, the anti-Flash whose warped view of heroism compels him to make Inertia the new Kid Flash in Bart’s absence. Zoom’s off-kilter perspective and theory of symbiosis between hero and villain makes him a fascinating character, and his presence tends to breed some interesting tension with the Rogues, so I can at least see a justification for this. It’s also a fine note of suspense, knowing that the Rogues are walking into a larger fight than they could’ve possibly expected.
Further complicating the already crowded storyline are two other Rogues: Pied Piper and the second Trickster, Axel Walker. It’s hard for me to talk about Axel objectively, because he’s on my short list of characters I’d love to see stricken from the DCU, but here he at least provides a narrative service: in tagging along with the main group of Rogues, despite their distrust of him, his preening amorality becomes the obvious counterbalance to their unique pathologies. While the main Rogues all struggle with personal tragedies, emotional instability, and loose ethical codes, Axel’s sociopathy obviously unnerves the group, another source of narrative tension. His delight in his own murderous impulses also makes him a direct parallel to Inertia’s vicious portrayal here, but there’s little thematic satisfaction to be gained from this: the interesting facet of the Inertia character has always been his attempt to replace Bart Allen, and the fact that he’s accomplished this makes him a fairly unique case in the realm of comic book villains. By making the choice to have Zoom force Inertia to be Kid Flash, and by portraying Inertia as a one-dimensional, seething, gritted-teeth villain, Johns has undermined the character’s natural development. Instead of asking how Inertia might react to the void he’s created and the fulfillment of his ambitions, Johns has him kill some random security guards. It’s a misguided narrative choice, one I suspect Johns probably went with because he liked the idea of a subverted Flash/Kid Flash team.
Pied Piper’s plan to take down the Rogues for good – in order to atone for his failure to save Bart and to memorialize the fallen Trickster, James Jesse – is a natural element to bring in, but it’s underdeveloped here, especially considering that he was once part of the group. The short scene with Piper is impeded by a long expository passage detailing the backgrounds of the main four Rogues, an unnecessary touch when we’ve already been well-acquainted with their personalities earlier in the book. There’s also a subplot detailing the primary Rogues’ refusal to join up with Libra’s society of villains, which gives us a great Captain Cold speech but seems superfluous in an already cluttered narrative, especially one that’s so deeply invested in the intricacies of the Flash universe. It does add to the sense of impending disaster in the book, but it’s curiously underplayed for something that seems like it should be a main thrust of the work.
I’ve probably been pretty harsh on this book in a lot of the points I’ve made, but that’s only because there’s a great potential here that’s diminished by an engorged narrative and a few bad character decisions. However, there are plenty of smart choices and adept moves, particularly in the characterization and dialogue of the Rogues, and the rough, world-weary tone that Johns meticulously constructs. Scott Kolins’ coarse, moody artwork aids in developing the book’s atmosphere, particularly in his fine use of establishing shots, but sometimes his anatomy becomes too exaggerated for the jaded disposition of the work. There’s a nice use of fluctuation between tight close-ups and full-page shots that creates an effective imbalance in the feel of the book, but the overuse of close-ups sometimes renders them melodramatic. The structure of the book can make it hard to feel the manner in which everything begins to escalate, but my instinct is that it’ll be more pronounced when the series is completed and the story’s read as a whole.
You’ll note that after even after a lengthly plot summary, there’s no mention of an active Flash in the book. There’s hints towards Barry Allen’s return, and references to Jay Garrick and Wally, but it seems like the time jump of Final Crisis #3 is going to leave us with a Flash series lacking a single Flash. It’s a bold move, and with it comes the underlying suggestion that the Rogues need a Flash as a stabilizing influence in their lives. Not that hero/villain symbiosis is an entirely new concept in comics, but with the Rogues, the working class antiheroes of the supervillain world, it feels less like a grandiose, Killing Joke allegory and more of a personal insight. Our worst impulses can be tempered by our frustrations, ultimately making our disappointment necessary. It might not make us better, but it’s at least enough to make us smarter. Without The Flash around as a begrudging reminder of what they could be, the Rogues face the potential of deteriorating in ways that they’ve always feared (and probably desired). If this series comes together well enough to expand this idea, then we’re potentially looking at the definitive Rogues story.
Tags: Flash (Barry Allen)