Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Scott Kolins
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Publisher: DC Comics
This is an open letter to Geoff Johns. I realize that sounds presumptuous, but Irvin Kershner once said that Pauline Kael helped him see his own films, and I think criticism’s invaluable for that reason. It’s not just to help the reader understand the work – it’s a perspective on a work that any author, no matter how successful or talented, absolutely needs. So in that spirit, should Geoff Johns ever see this, I think it’s important enough to address him directly.
Geoff Johns, Rogues’ Revenge is your best work. As someone who has followed you for a long time, I think it’s well within my understanding of your output to say that. This series is the reason I’ve dutifully read your books for years, even during those moments I’ve found certain idiosyncracies of your style or themes to be offputting or occasionally insufferable. Despite your forays into tonally-incoherent gore and brutality, chaotic plot structures, anticlimactic resolutions, rigid conservatism buried within intractable nostalgia, and a nearly autistic obsession with revising and streamlining continuity, you’ve written books that have forecast a potential for greatness. The fact that your strongest work prior to this has been found in The Flash is no surprise; you almost hit this mark with Rogue War, but The Top’s status as deus ex machina of that storyline undermined the characters you had built. Rogues’ Revenge rewrites that story in a way that rectifies the prior work’s mistakes.
As a point of comparison, I’d like to bring up a much-lauded work of yours that indulges in the aforementioned flaws, Infinite Crisis. I believe there are two scenes that stand in that book as powerful enough to overshadow the rest of the work: 1) Batman rejecting Earth-2 Superman’s offer to remake the world by asking whether the Dick Grayson of that Earth was better than the one he knows, and 2) Batman asking Dick Grayson whether his time as Robin was satisfying. This latter scene is nothing less than a father asking his son for reassurance that he’s been the guardian his son needed, and it aches. It aches because Batman and Robin are synonymous with “team,” it aches because a basic fact of humanity is the gradual disconnect between parent and child, and it aches because the previous scene showed us that Batman doesn’t just see Dick Grayson as a son, but as everything in humanity that’s worth placing faith in. It’s a sign that Batman has fully matured as a character, that he no longer fights crime because of what he lost as a child, but because he believes that there are people worth protecting. That might as well be the end of the Batman story, because it resolves his fundamental motivation in a satisfying way that leads us to his successor in his role. It’s a shame a sequential medium doesn’t allow for that with certain characters.
I bring up these two scenes to prove a point – they’re part of a strong, moving character arc in the midst of a book that was full of dismemberment and continuity-driven multiversal nonsense. And it uses the context of the multiverse to convey something enlightening about Batman’s character, rendering the unimaginably huge thoroughly human. Rogues’ Revenge has done this consistently as a series, and in doing so questions the very nature of Final Crisis, the book to which it almost spitefully connects. The key scene in this issue is one that feels like a parallel to and inversion of the Batman/Earth-2 Superman debate in Infinite Crisis: Libra wants the help of Mark Mardon, the Weather Wizard, to remake the world, and threatens to sacrifice his son if refused. This is further paralleled with two earlier scenes in the work, Captain Cold’s confrontation with his abusive father in the second issue, which ended with him allowing his father’s murder, and a flashback to Weather Wizard’s ambiguous murder of his brother, an incident that proves the source of his superpower and villainous identity. Mardon owns up to this murder, despite its occurrence out of desperation and the suggestion that it may have been accidental; “my brother was the only good thing in this world,” he asserts, but “if I killed my brother, Libra, if I electrocuted the only person who ever cared about me – what makes you think I care anything about that child?” The tightening viewpoint on Mardon’s face as each successive panel moves in while he restates his life to Libra makes for one of the more frightening villainous moments in any comic in recent memory, a scene more shocking than any arbitrary murder of a superhero.. The series has so insistently built itself on the idea that the decay of family has made the Flash Rogues the villains that they are, and that their makeshift family is the only grounding for their unique dysfunctions, that before Mardon even makes a decision this scene immediately registers as his betrayal of what the group and the book stand for. The ragged mania of Scott Kolins’ artwork, along with Mardon’s speech, portray a character who is summoning momentous willpower and falling apart in the same moment – it’s a delicate balance that creates a superbly ambiguous moment. We don’t know what decision he’ll make, and thanks to a surprising, effective narrative choice, we never will.
The well-aimed narrative choice is to have Inertia intervene, snapping his fingers and sending Mardon’s son to somewhere unspecified (death or the timestream? We don’t know). This is an excellent use of anticlimax, a difficult narrative trick to utilize properly. It’s built off of Inertia’s frustration at being forced into Zoom’s plans for him, as well as the natural extension of Zoom’s strength-through-tragedy philosophy as viewed through Inertia’s sociopathy. Not only this, but by leaving Weather Wizard’s eventual choice in doubt, it preserves his ambiguity and status within the Rogues, creating an excellent foundation for future development of the character. Kolins’ artwork is as kinetic in portraying Mardon’s stunned reaction as it is while displaying Inertia’s destructive potential, and his exaggerated facial expressions feel right for the audacious and unhinged tone of the book – in a different work the style might seem absurd. And the scene works well for the structure of the final act, as its indefinite delay of Mardon’s choice and Intertia’s interruption make for a devastating scene that still carries the book’s tension to the eventual climactic fight between the Rogues and Intertia. This scene is so well-considered and strongly crafted that it stands as a prime example of how to structure a comic book, and even in its chaos it works far more subtly than most superhero comics.
I’ve probably written enough about the thematic and structural qualities of the book; it builds itself through juxtaposition and parallels, by rexamining its major themes through a variety of key events, and it’s an excellent example of how a limited series can fit within the constraints of continuity while still telling a complete story with full character arcs. What further interests me is how thoroughly the book rebels against Final Crisis, and even against some of your prior work. Captain Cold’s insolent reaction to Libra at the end of the book is not only consistent with his character, and with the Rogues’ working-class distrust of the more elitist supervillains, would-be conquerers like Luthor and Vandal Savage, but it reads like a commentary on Final Crisis itself. Cold’s rejection of Libra’s offer is a wonderful antidote to the “Day Evil Won” hype machine and the perceived importance of that event. Anyone disappointed with that book’s quaint depiction of evil will probably get a laugh from Cold’s incredulity that “that’s what THIS is about? You’re a disciple of DARKSEID?” The Rogues react with their long-held, noirish weariness, and it’s pitch-perfect; they’ve seen evil come and go, and nothing’s shocking to them anymore. This is a far better representation of the mood in American society over the past few years than Final Crisis has managed.
The book further damns the pretention of worldchanging mega-events while expanding its existential concerns with Cold’s assertion that “I don’t believe in ‘EVIL.’ Different shades of gray is all.” This is not only the most concise, cogent explanation of the Rogues’ philosophy and mindset ever given, but it also works well to explain why it’s possible to sympathize with them. The Rogues, unlike many villains, have a level of virtue and a set of principles, however confused those may be, and given the choice they have no desire to be tyrants. That’s downright humanistic in a medium where even the heroes can lean towards totalitarianism when an ideologically dubious or cynical writer is in command of them. And contrasted with Libra’s Manichean attempt to remake the world in evil’s image, it’s a rebuttal to those who would shape the DC Universe in their own – continuity mavens who fixate on storytelling quirks to such an extent that crossovers are perceived necessary to fix the past; merchants disguised as editors and executives who, lacking the ability to adapt to a changing market or develop a brand or grow a fanbase, demand events to stay competitive; adolescent misanthropes aroused by blood and angst disguised as realism; misty-eyed nostalgics pining for a return to the past to escape their fear of the future. Rogues’ Revenge stands alongside Brian Azzarello’s Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality as a supremely subversive work of modern superhero fiction, and it’s the best thing DC has produced all year. Geoff Johns, from this point on, anything less rebellious or less powerful than this will be cheating.
Tags: Flash (Barry Allen)