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Wednesday Comics: The Flash

Earlier this week I reviewed Wednesday Comics, a rather spanking anthology from DC Comics. I kinda figured, however, it might be worth my while to break out some of those fifteen stories on their own (but not all of them) and discuss them, as it’s easy to lose sight of a particular writer/artist’s work in an anthology. So I figured I’d start with the best of the bunch, The Flash.

I think it’s safe to say that the Flash is on a road to reinvention. Writer Geoff Johns, who pioneered the resurrection of Green Lantern as one of the company’s most successful properties (and one of the most impressively consistent books), is currently working on a relaunched Flash series, that looks to follow the pattern set by Green Lantern. There are rumours of Warner Brothers greenlighting a movie. The scarlet speedster is definitely in an upswing. Still, one of the best things to happen to the character in… quite a while, actually, is this twelve-page comic in Wednesday Comics, written and illustrated by Karl Kerschl, with some help from Brenden Fletcher. It’s easily the best comic of the collection, but it also stands as a proud testament to the possibilities of the character, one of the original Silver Age heroes.

Quit monkeyin' around...

I remarked in my initial review of the hardcover that not all the strips were as experimental with the format as they might have been, and I singled The Flash out as an example of one of the stories which took full advantage of this unique printing. From the very first page, with two strips (“The Flash” and “Iris West”), the layout seems immediately designed to call to mind the funny papers, where – rather than having a single strip per page, as here – you would have several strips on each page. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that these aren’t two different narratives, but one narrative out of step with itself.

And then things get wild.

Flash sideways...

Kerschl shrewdly uses the comic strip itself to illustrate the warping of reality. The almost romantic Iris West strip is replaced with a “Gorilla Grodd” strip. And then both “The Flash” and “Iris West” strips merge, condensed down into one another. On the penultimate page, the panels are structured like ripples in pool as reality distorts and bends and contorts. And then there’s the ninth page, which is Barry Allen’s trip through the history of newspaper comic strips, as he’s rendered as everything from Charlie Brown (he even utters “good grief”)  to Blondie (he even gets a Dagwood sandwich). That single page may battle with Neil Gaiman and Michael Allred’s trip across the periodic table in Metamorpho as my favourite page of the entire project.

It’s absolutely stunning to look at and it’s perhaps the one comic of the whole piece which simply wouldn’t work in any other format. While other writers and artists (particularly Dave Gibbons on Kamandi and Paul Pope on Strange Adventures) were willing to adopt the storytelling styles of the eras of these original strips, The Flash is the story most anchored in its format. It’s shrewdly aware that it’s a newspaper comic (even before the finale). But the story doesn’t ape (if you’ll pardon the pun) one particular niche of the old strips – many of the stories collected in the volume offer variations on the hokey science-fiction theme. Instead, Kershl constructs his story as a sort of a whirlwind tours of the genres one would associate with the medium. There’s obviously superheroics and pseudo-science (emphasis on the “pseudo-“), but there’s also romance in the “Iris West” segments, a shoutout to Tarzan in the “Gorilla Grodd” half-page and, of course, a race against time.

The twelve pages speed by...

It’s perhaps fitting that the story is constructed in such a self-aware fashion, because it suits Barry Allen to the ground. The iconic image of the hero is him bursting out of a comic strip and it’s fair to say that he played with the fourth wall a lot earlier than most characters – hell, he was familiar with the Golden Age Flash (and picked the name for himself) because he read it in a comic book. If one of the characters collected here lends himself to this sort of reflexive exploration, it’s Barry Allen. And it’s to Kerschl’s credit that even while the story is all these different things, it still feels like a Flash story, rather than simply a pastiche featuring the Flash.

And enough about the stylistic touches or the homages within the structure of the story. After all, structure is nothing if the story isn’t worth telling. Twelve pages aren’t a lot if you think about it. Even twelve giant pages, because you can’t simply put twice as many panels on them and expect them to work. The tendency and the instinct is to boil your characters down to their core and offer a fairly superficial version of the character. That’s not an insult – Adam Strange is rightly defined by his jetpack, as Hawkman is perhaps best known for hitting things with his mace, so perhaps its most efficient to offer those versions of the character. However, Kerschl manages to offer a fairly convincing and enduring sampling of the character, even if he only has a dozen pages to work with.

Grodd's got his finger on the button...

Writer Geoff Johns, who really cut his teeth writing for The Flash (a franchise he’s recently returned to), reportedly once remarked that “The Flash is to time as Green Lantern is to space”. It’s perhaps an apt description. Indeed, Busiek’s Green Lantern script for the collection really doesn’t feel like a Green Lantern story because it doesn’t really bother too much with space. In contrast, Kerschl has anchored his Flash tale in the sort of time travel shenanigans that the character is associated with (even owning a “cosmic treadmill” to facilitate his time travel). Here there’s time travel, predestination paradoxes, alternate universes and pocket dimensions, all within a handful of pages. Indeed, Grodd sets his own plot in motion, receiving the plans from his future self who has drafted “a message to be broadcast from his tower to the stars, ensuring his eventual return”. It took me a moment to wrap my head around that one, but it’s ingenious.

However, while the science fiction elements lend the narrative a classic charm, what’s more remarkable is that Kerschl finds room to work with the character in the midst of all that’s going on. Time is – despite his adventures in it – the one thing that the Flash never has. Indeed, in the opening line, Grodd ponders “what is a moment to the fastest man alive?” It’s a running gag that Barry is always late, but isn’t that an example of how he’s always running out of time? Here, we learn that maybe living at superspeed had led Barry to forget the value of the moment he’s living in – to lose track of what really matters in the midst of his hurry to and fro. Grodd himself offers Barry some sincere advice, “we cannot live outside the present”.

A Flash of insight...

And yet the story manages a wonderful emotional connection between Iris and Barry. It’s too easy to take his lover for granted. Indeed, as her story gives way to his time travel worries, she protests “I gave up my story for you.” Indeed, the story suggests that the real value in the lives of these characters is not spent on plans for universal domination (“So much time lost to the broken tower,” Grodd laments as reality collapses around him, “My poor, dear Mvua. Forgive me, my love.”) and the final lines of the strip are genuinely heartwarming, offering a lovely little bit of pay off, particularly if you accept that the walls of reality itself falling down don’t matter when measured against the romantic troubles of Barry and Iris. It’s worth considering that although the story opens with Gorilla Grodd’s latest plot for world domination, events are set in motion by Barry’s accidental time slipping, which is an involuntary response to Iris’ departure note.

Hell, even with all this going on, there’s still time to make Gorilla Grodd the most fascinating bad guy of the anthology. Other stories settle for generic opponents, one-dimensional foils or mustache-twirling clichés, but Kerschl gives us a world where Grodd is the hero of his own strip – where he gets to create his own version of utopia, “a new age of reason”. Sure, he’s a genocidal mad man, but even in this upside down topsy-turvy world there’s room for shading and exploration. Plus, let’s face it, this is nearly the only time you’ll ever read a story where Grodd is the hero.

Don't worry, Iris, he'll be back in a Flash...

The Flash is the best strip in the book and the one that does the most with the format. But, more than that, it’s an exceptionally good story of itself. As in, were this a regular arc in a Flash book, it would still be absolutely brilliant and essential. It’s a classic Flash story, and it’s really wonderful that such a wonderful little story can be told about the speedster in so short a space. Maybe that’s just more of the metafiction at work there – the narrative moves as fast as the title character. I’m going to wait to collect Johns’ on-going work on the character, but I’m sincerely hoping that it’s even half-way as fascinating as this unique take.

If you need proof of the ingenious concept and execution of Wednesday Comics, look no further. Karl Kerschl’s The Flash is a bona fides classic.

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