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Geoff Johns’ Run on The Flash – Wonderland, Blood Will Run & Iron Heights

Geoff Johns is pretty much on top of the world. He’s a renowned comic book writer, who has got to work on all his favourite childhood properties – in many cases making them as popular as they’ve been in decades. He’s in charge of DC’s multimedia approach – he’s the guy in charge of the movies and television shows based around the iconic properties. Without his work on the character, next year’s Green Lantern movie wouldn’t be happening. And yet he had to begin somewhere. Although it doesn’t represent his earliest work in comics by a long stretch, in 2000 he took over as writer on The Flash. Despite a string of solid work behind him – and a really successful run for Mark Waid on the title – it was this creative pairing which would arguably propel both writer and character into the spotlight like never before. A decade later, Johns has returned to the book which made him famous, so I think it’s time to begin a trip down memory lane.

Wally's going to have to think fast...

The Flash is a legacy hero. That means that – unlike Superman or Spider-Man, for example – there have been multiple characters serving long periods of time with the iconic lightening bolt and the superspeed. There was Jay Garrick of the 1940s, with his Mercury-inspired helmet, but the really iconic interpretation was Barry Allen – the police scientist hit by a bolt of lightening, bathed in chemicals and given the power to movie at (quite frankly) ridiculous speeds. However, Barry sacrificed himself in the original super comic book crossover Crisis on Infinite Worlds way back in 1985. And – although Barry would eventually return in 2008 with the event Final Crisis – Wally West stepped up to take the mantle in the absence of the scientist.

So, for two decades, Wally was the Flash, “the fastest man alive”. Along the way he was handled by a wide variety of writers, although the run from Mark Waid comes to mind as one of the strongest comic book runs of the nineties. He took the character and moved him in all these different directions – he actually allowed him to grow into his own character. And, after Waid left, Detroit native Geoff Johns took over, inheriting the title for a five-year run which would be regarded as some of the most consistently high-quality storytelling from a mainstream comic book publisher this decade (although the same could be said of his Green Lantern run).

I was blown away...

Throughout his time as the Flash, Wally was always wrestling with the ghost of his predecessor – it’s a hell of a burden to succeed the guy who literally saved the entire universe, after all. Waid had him address this conflict straight on in the iconic The Return of Barry Allen arc, which say Barry Allen seemingly return from the dead to reclaim his mantle. Obviously, that didn’t quite work out. Johns has Barry permeate the book in other ways.

The first story here, Wonderland (apparently considered more of a prologue to Johns’ series than the start of it, but it seems quite relevant on reading it), features a mirror doppleganger of Barry who confronts Wally. He also later appears (in stark black-and-white) in the prologue to Iron Heights, the graphic novel. Wally claims, “I’ve made peace with him a long time ago.” However, the book is populated with similar legacy characters uncertain of their place in the world – from the second Mirror Master to the villain of the first story, spawned for the advice that Wally gave to another kid years ago, “You have to be your own man.” Somewhat ironic from a guy parading around in his uncle’s longjohns. Indeed, Wally considers that the whole thing might have been avoided if only that kid “hadn’t turned his back on his legacy”.

Flash: The "fistest" man alive...

Legacy permeates the story that Johns is trying to tell here. His very first issue offers a multi-page history of the Flash universe, steeped in the history and the supporting characters – determined to place this story in context. Of course, this wouldn’t be the work of Geoff Johns if he wasn’t willing to shed a new perspective on past events – he even offers a retroactive reason why Barry wore “a circle around the lightening bolt” in his uniform’s emblem. The villain of Wonderland is a character with a long history with the Flash, even though Johns just invented him for this story. In fairness, his style would become a lot more fluid over the years – in later times he would make a conscious effort to tie his retcons to actually published materials (for example, during his tenure on Action Comics, his reworkings of Zod and Brainiac would reference what came before, even as it reinvented it).

Still, here John demonstrates his finest skill as an author on these types of characters. Although he has one eye on the past, there’s another on the future. Indeed, from the first issue of Blood Will Run (his second arc on the title) he’s rebuilding the world of the Flash from the ground up. Keystone City is given a character distinct from the futuristic Metropolis or distopian Gotham – perhaps drawing on his experiences growing up in Detroit, Johns paints Keystone as a city with a “blue collar mystique”, focusing on the beat cops (and distinguishing his “ivy league” detective) and union difficulties. Hell, a former supervillain is playing leader to the city’s labour guilds.

It's a vicious circle...

His take on Wally was similarly progressive. Mark Waid offered some wonderfully strong characterisation, and Johns respects that, even as he clearly has his own direction to go with the hero. This is a character who wears his local hockey team’s jersey when off duty, and who decides to move to the centre of the city again, “back with the other regular people of Keystone”. He offers us a character just beginning to come into his own – a villain suggests that he has “no idea of where you are or where you’re going”, but Johns suggests that he’s learning. He’ll figure it out.

However, arguably the most defining trait of Johns’ run (and one which seems to be a sustaining thread connecting his early work with Wally to his later work with Barry) is his work on the Rogues. The Flash doesn’t have an a-list selection of villains – indeed, in Wonderland, the leader of his selection of foes, Captain Cold, takes umbridge for being confused with Mr. Freeze (a third-rate Batman villain) – but they are distinctive for the way they operate. They are a team. They are practically unionised. They work together, consult each other, bail each other out – hell, in some stories they even have a dental plan. It’s an absolutely fascinating arrangement and one which helps to prevent them being “just crooks with gimmicks”. Although Blood Will Run features a new villain, Wonderland and Birth Right both feature a heavy focus on the rogues – as does the graphic novel Iron Heights.

On reflection, that might not have been the best idea...

It’s interesting to see so much love for these old characters and foes. Even in this – amongst the writer’s earliest high-profile work – you can still spot the familiar mind at work. As Wally prepares to venture into Iron Heights with the Pied Piper, remarks on his relationship with Linda and of his “problems”, “we just lock ’em away and forget about ’em”. In a way, he’s talking about some of the residents of the prison – locked away and forgotten: not just by Keystone, but by the reader and writer too. Talking about the frequent jailbreaks, Piper observes,  “Not everyone escapes, Wally. Some of them have been here for years.” The long-forgotten villain Girder (who is exactly as you’d imagine, laments being forgotten, “feeling yourself rust away”.

Not on Johns’ watch. Indeed, his plotting sees these forgotten villains re-enter the world. For example, in Wonderland, The Thinker literally escapes a collapsing forgotten reality, escaping into “the real world” with Wally. To Johns, comic books are “a fairy tale come true”. And yet he blends these classic figures with his own creations – the new villain Murmur, for example – effortlessly, creating a new piece of fabric which effortlessly sits as part of a gigantic tapestry woven over decades.

No wonder Johns has a cult following...

It’s fun to spot foreshadowing of his later work even this far back – there’s the wonderful suggestion that (in a world without the Flash) Hal Jordan would have sacrificed his life during Crisis on Infinite Earths instead of Barry. He could just as easily have died a hero – in fact Johns writes Barry as dismissive of Captain Cold’s remarks about Jordan’s ultimate fate (becoming a destroyer of worlds and killer of Green Lanterns). This would, of course, be a part of DC history rewritten by Johns in Green Lantern: Rebirth, and it’s clearly one that was weighing heavy on his mind.

That said, there’s a feeling in these early issues that Johns is still finding his feet – both with the character and with the wider DC universe. There are some awkward beats and some strange storytelling choices – such as the random appearance of the new villain “Tarpit” or the fact that Iron Heights doesn’t really tell a story so much as it adds shading and foreshadows things to come (as well as seemingly having a bit of fun at the expense of superhero prisons everywhere – I thought it was hilarious to read the warden declare, “This prison is not a revolving door”). Still, he’s also consciously building to something and offering wonderful character moments as he does so.

Building something here...

The art here is provided by a variety of artists. Scott Kolins would provide the art for most of the run (starting with Blood Will Run) while artist Ethan Van Sciver (who would reteam with Johns on the Flash in Flash: Rebirth) provides the artwork for Iron Heights. Angel Unzueta provides pencils on the first arc – Wonderland. All the art is great, rather bright and colourful, exactly what you would expect for the Scarlet Speedster, though I can see how Kolins’ artwork in particular would compliment Johns’ style.

This is a seminal run in modern comics, and the moment that one of the great comic book writers caught his true big break. It’s also a pretty big step on the roadmap towards the state of Silver Age nostalgia which currently grips the two main publishers. More than that, it’s just a really well-told story, with great characterisation and a few sharp observations about superhero comics. I had to scrounge together second hand paperbacks – there’s no reason that DC should allow this run to go out of print. Indeed, with Johns returning to the character, there’s every reason to return to the run with a set of deluxe hardbacks. After all, they’re almost finished with James Robinson’s Starman.

If this of interest, you might like to take a look at our other reviews of Geoff Johns’ first Flash run:

It might also be worth taking a look at our reviews of Geoff Johns’ work on the title and characters since that initial run:

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