Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Ethan Van Sciver
Colorist: Brian Miller
Publisher: DC Comics
Some time ago during those heady days of Final Crisis, I wrote that Rogues’ Revenge (still Geoff Johns’ best work by my reckoning) was the first part of an emergency plan to rescue the Flash franchise from several years of mismanagement, with Barry Allen being a panic button set under glass for just such an occasion. Three issues into the series that both resurrects Allen and provides a spiritual successor to Johns’ earlier Green Lantern: Rebirth, Barry’s return is still more of a construction project than a narrative. There’s certainly a compelling story to be found in Barry Allen’s return to the living, but it just hasn’t come through in this book.
For a series that recently had to be extended by an extra issue, the presumed end of its first act contains a lot of padding. The plot summary is concise: Barry is processing the Speed Force, the mystical-scientific conflux energy that bestows speed powers and serves as a Valhalla for speedsters, in such a way as to literally drain the life from other speedsters. Barry’s previous anxiety about his return is confirmed, but the other heroes still see his resurrection as a sign of hope, so they plan to sever his connection to the Speed Force, which would keep him on the mortal plane, albeit powerless. Fearing his presence alone is a danger, Barry runs back to the Speed Force, outpacing an importunate Superman. While there he somehow manages to cause the death of Johnny Quick, who is already dead, and the Reverse Flash stands revealed as the villain of the work.
The reveal suggests that the book’s real plot is about to kick in, but that’s far too long for the character that’s supposed to be the embodiment of speed. Everything we’ve seen in this series could’ve easily fit into one compelling issue, with all redundancies eliminated. Instead, we’ve got the backmasking of Johns’ earlier Rebirth, with Barry’s despair substituted for Hal’s redemption.
Johns’ primary strength is the liveliness of his plotting. It’s not usually elegant (Rogues Revenge #3 being a rare example), but enough simply happens in his books to keep them entertaining. He falls apart when he has to write internal narratives; his most resonant moments are his most active ones. When he lapses into books full of conversations and pesky feelings, his dialogue becomes overwrought and laden with clumsy emotional exposition and bad metaphors centered around the gimmick of his lead character. Here, Barry’s wife Iris, attempting to ground him emotionally, tells him that he has always “lived for running across the roads of America, racing into parallel worlds, and sprinting from the past into the future,” but “always took a breath…always slowed down long enough to spend time with…friends and family.” Nobody talks like this. Comics are allowed a certain level of bombast, but this is just a lousy speech, recapitulating what we already know in feigning profound insight into a character.
Compare this to the central scene of the issue, Superman’s attempt to keep Barry from running back to the Speed Force and a presumed death, a moment that works so much better than anything in the series thus far. It takes an old (but easy to relate!) Flash convention, the race with Superman, and lets it proceed naturally from the plot, because it acts as a visual metaphor for the conflict between Barry’s despair and Clark’s optimism, and for the gap in time since Barry’s death and all of the changes that have occurred therein. And the dialogue is terse and pitch-perfect; when Superman in his urgency and hopefulness reminds him that they’ve raced before, that he’s even won before, Barry’s response that “those were for charity, Clark,” followed by a sonic boom and a sudden, torrential increase in his speed, is the most powerful, compelling moment in the series. It evokes a sense of awe for the elemental nature of the character’s speed while finally giving his dilemma in this series emotional heft. The Flash racing his closest friends to protect the world from his own existence is a fantastic concept for a story, and it’s a shame that it took three issues to convey it in such a thunderous manner.
Ethan Van Sciver puts in his typically solid work, and his style is an appropriate match for Geoff Johns; his art is busy and packed with detail, but inclines towards stiffness. Scenes with a great deal of motion and action are conveyed well, particularly Van Sciver’s consistently varied and interesting ways of representing speed. The red speed lines connected to the detailing in Barry’s Black Flash costume are notably persuasive, as they evoke a sense of Barry being tethered to a life he doesn’t want. There’s also a nice moment where a flashback to Barry on a first date with his wife Iris is given a much more orderly panel layout than the rest of the book. The effect is a bit jarring, but it does give some grounding to a book full of chaos.
The scene itself, though, with its continued focus (carried over from last issue) on Barry Allen’s bowtie as a symbol of Silver Age innocence, evinces a museum quality that’s on display throughout this series. Mythologizing a great character is one thing, and hell, the Flash even has an in-story museum, but focusing on every miniscule detail of a character’s past out of misguided reverence isn’t creating a compelling personal narrative, it’s carving a wax dummy. Sometimes a bowtie is just a bowtie, and sometimes the nerdiness of days past is just a yearbook photo. It’s a bittersweet memory, at once charming and embarrassing, and doesn’t need elaboration. Johns conjures up interesting theological questions by comparing the Speed Force to Brahman, the transpersonal, infinite afterlife found in Hinduism – how is the kitsch of our fathers’ generation going to supercede an idea like that?
Tags: DC Comics, Flash (Barry Allen), Geoff Johns, review