Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Scott Kolins
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Publisher: DC Comics
Recently, I was reading an interview done several years back with film critic Armond White, and one particular comment struck me: a dismissal of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the films it inspired for co-opting the attitude and violence of film noir while understanding none of its disillusioned-idealist, existentialist basis. He’s right about that point, I believe, as the revival of the antihero in popular culture, thanks to a decade-long underlying dread and anxiety in America and the recent ascendence of darker geek culture to the mainstream (Think movies are depressing now? Wait until Zack Snyder misinterprets Watchmen) has been accompanied by a lack of the incessant moral questioning that the antihero usually represents. Mifune’s Sanjuro Kuwabatake, Eastwood’s Man With No Name, and Russell’s Snake Plissken all used deception for higher moral purposes and reacted harshly to harsh worlds and landscapes; the struggle for each was keeping their moral compass in sight while having to outmaneuver or equal the violence aimed at them. Superhero comics too have indulged in antihero fiction for several decades now, with both illuminating (Suicide Squad) and despondent (too many to list) results, but in his Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge series, Geoff Johns reintegrates the antihero’s noir basis into the superhero genre, and in doing so expands the comic book antihero into a more complex realm.
One of the predominant themes running throughout noir and crime fiction is a loss of identity, a focus established by the post-World War I disillusionment running throughout the noir of the 20s and 30s. Noir protagonists like Raymond Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe explored fractured societies that subverted their idea of America and made them question their place in it. Johns echoes this by centering the book around a fight scene between the Rogues and the New Rogues from the recent Gotham Underground miniseries. The New Rogues – agents of the spurned Libra that have kidnapped Captain Cold’s dad in response to the events of the first issue – are such poor imitations of the mainstay villains that it develops into a parody of legacy characters in comic books. They’re what happens when characters are reduced to an attitude and an aesthetic without larger preoccupations expressed through them, and as such, their destruction is more about the Rogues reclaiming their individual identities in the face of Libra’s psychological attack. Of course, this being the Rogues, they go too far in reasserting themselves and push themselves that much closer to complete disaster. Captain Cold’s jaded bitterness, Heat Wave’s pyromania, and Weather Wizard’s arrogance all punctuate the scene’s action, and the tone creates a nice divide between exhilaration at their potency and dread at the group’s inevitable breakdown. The elitism and intellectual posturing of Weather Wizard is particularly compelling, as are the frightening and awe-inspiring uses he finds for his powers, and the book foreshadows a welcome focus on him in the third issue. Scott Kolins’ exaggerated, off-kilter artwork shines during these scenes, as do his fragmented panel layouts (which grow more discordant as the scene wears on), both of which work in concord to create a sense of imbalance that conveys the recklessness and fury of the Rogues. Dave McCaig’s colors during the fight scene are intense and vivid without becoming cartoonish, striking the right balance between gravity and energy for the book, and his work on the fight between Heat Wave and his imitator is startlingly gorgeous in its fury.
The other central moment of the book is a confrontation between Captain Cold and his father, whose alcoholism and abuse caused Cold to leave home and his sister to follow. The conversation between them is tense and rough, fraught with anger and moments of underlying plaintiveness as Cold accuses his father of setting them on the path that led to the death of his sister Lisa, a Flash villain known as the Golden Glider. In depicting the argument, Kolins utilizes a variety of cramped panels, often superimposed over a large background image, that are composed of close-up shots that never quite show all of a character’s face; in fact, the face of Cold’s father is at times depicted with a strange shading technique that blanks out his eyes and mouth, and this dehumanization of the character effectively conveys Cold’s hatred of him and struggle to keep his own emotional distance. The fragmented layout excellently conveys Cold’s emotional turmoil and keeps the reader off-balance during the scene, while McCaig’s coloring, with its heavy use of blues and greys, complicates this with the pervasive melancholy it evokes. The scene ends on an appropriate note; Cold can’t bring himself to kill his father, so he lets Heat Wave do it. It’s a nice bit of symbolism, as Cold’s aloofness and leadership has always been juxtaposed with Heat Wave’s destructive, rampant id, and the latter taking over the scene with Cold’s blessings is an understated way of showing just how much devastating the moment is for Cold. His entire identity has been subverted.
That kind of subversion is on display in the entire book, as it becomes clear that one of its central concerns is the Rogues as a makeshift, dysfunctional, but entirely necessary family unit. Mirror Master cautions Axel Walker, the younger Trickster, that the only way to be part of the Rogues is prove why you need, not just want, to be part of the group, and it’s a more poignant moment than one would expect. The Rogues are a group of damaged, lost individuals who congregate not only because it’s more effective, but because they keep each other’s worst impulses in check. In the work of Raymond Chandler, one of the recurring themes was Phillip Marlowe acting on sympathies for other downtrodden male characters – the idea at work was that masculine identity in America was shattered in the postwar era, and Marlowe’s attempts at fraternization stood for a larger attempt at reconstructing male agency after the trauma of World War I. The Rogues’ dilemma is both more understandable and less sympathetic. Their lives have been persistently traumatic and desperate, but so have the existences of many heroic figures in the DC canon; even the Flash mythos have been defined by moments of loss and sacrifice, and the character’s very concept is an allegory for mortality. It’s interesting, then, that the Flash mythology is also defined by rebirth, through its focus on a generational legacy, its evolved sense of the passage of time, and now the resurrection of Barry Allen. The Rogues mimic this in their reluctant acceptance of legacy, but their focus on their own past is born of obsession and regret, not pride. The absence of a Flash from the book thus far brings this point into an even greater light. They’re being forced to confront their own past without a Flash there to remind them of the possibility of future renewal. When it’s revealed that Inertia taking up the Kid Flash mantle is a plot by Libra aimed at forcing the Rogues to kill a Kid Flash yet again, it becomes clear that the attack on the Rogues isn’t just personal, but existential. Not only are they being made to own up to their pasts, but they’re being steered towards the destruction of a character who serves as an avatar of the kind of youthful potential and idealism that they still mourn. This is an inspired use of noir concepts and themes in a superheroic context – it’s the use of characters’ pasts and identities against them in order to put them through intense moral and existential questioning, and the book’s inquiries into the nature of family, masculinity, and legacy represent some of the most compelling, insightful work done in a superhero comic all year.
Tags: Flash (Barry Allen)