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Flashpoint

After spending the tail end of last year looking at the tangled inter-continuity crossovers at Marvel, I thought I’d spend January looking at some of the looser “out of continuity” tales at the major companies.

Flashpoint is the first big event of Geoff Johns’ relaunched run on The Flash. If Flash: Rebirth was intended to echo Green Lantern: Rebirth, fan anticipation and speculation suggest that his Flashpoint – a five-part miniseries – will serve as a counterpart to Sinestro Corps War on his Green Lantern run. However, the title Flashpoint has connotations for the character – it was the title of a relatively recent story featuring the character, one of DC Comic’s Elseworlds. I figured, with the big event coming it up, it might be worth a bit of a retroactive review of the title which perhaps inspired the event.

He moves like lightening...

For those unfamiliar with the concept of Elseworlds, it’s a line of “reimaginings” of their iconic characters that DC published fairly frequently in the nineties. The line is often retroactively stated to have begun with Gotham by Gaslight, a Victorian reimagining of the Dark Knight, although it was the success of Mike Mignola on that book which led to the founding of the line. The publisher has also, from time to time, attempted to coopt Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns into the line – featuring as it did, a possibly depiction of Batman’s future as a renegade crime fighter in a nation that had forgotten its heroes. Still, perhaps the best example of an Elseworlds book is Mark Millar’s superb Red Son, which is based around the rather simple idea that Superman’s ship is delayed by a few hours, and the hero ends up growing up in Russia instead of America.

At their best, Elseworlds can find something interesting and exciting to say about their character by placing them in a new role or a new setting. Unfortunately, most Elseworlds failed to do that. Instead of exploring fascinating new possibilities, the line became populated with fodder like “what if Batman got a Green Lantern ring?” or “what if Superman was Batman?” It was this trend towards stagnation which led to the line’s eventual cancellation.

Losing the run of himself...

It’s with some relief that I report that Flashpoint isn’t a terrible Elseworlds tale. It isn’t exactly a classic either, but it’s certainly not terrible. It was published in 2000, which is just about the time that The Flash itself was moving between writers Mark Waid and Geoff Johns, authors of two of the most highly celebrated runs on the title and arguably two runs which helped shape the direction of DC as they entered the new millennium. Indeed, no series rejected the “darker and edgier” sensibilities of the nineties with the same skill and power as The Flash.

The series has a fascinating concept. It offers the first appearance of Barry Allen as the Flash in 1956 – the year the character first appeared in Showcase. According to an exposition-laden newsreel, Barry came to represent the boundless enthusiasm of the Kennedy era, stopping crime, fighting the Soviets and even nipping the Vietnam War in the bud. It’s not exactly a particularly subtly established image, but it plays well off a wonderful and basic metaphor (New Frontier would arguably go on to hit the same notes, better).

Gorilla warfare...

However, even a basic knowledge of American history will tell you that the “new frontier” proposed by Kennedy came to a rather sudden end in Dallas, in a moment that arguably defined modern America more than any other. Here, those bullets still fly through the air, but Barry Allen is there to save Kennedy – at a horrible cost. One of the bullets hits him, leaving him confined to a wheelchair, reflecting the loss of vitality that the country arguably suffered as the Kennedy administration gave way to the Johnston administration and later the Nixon administration.

The experience understandably leaves Barry somewhat jaded, confined to a wheelchair and running a large international corporation. Reading it, I could understand if the novel appealed to Johns, a writer who has shown a remarkable affinity to the Silver Age. Barry, once the boundless optimist, here allows him to become a clichéd introspective nihilist, arguably not too far from the angst-filled writing which threatened to smother comics during the nineties. “The universe doesn’t give a damn,” he assures his wife at one point. Staring at the stars, what should be a source of wonder, he remarks that all life does is fill the hours as “we mark time until oblivion.”

A grave matter...

And yet Barry, here the jaded cynic, is haunted by dreams. “Sometimes I dream of things that never were.” We recognise the figures in the dreams – this is the mainstream DC universe he is somehow seeing. When confronted by the sight of costumed adventurers working for the greater good, he’s dismissive. “What nonsense.” He won’t even allow himself to feel what he once so loved doing, he’s so caught up in his own sense of self-pity.

The plot is rather pedestrian – Barry has organised a dig on Mars which has discovered a mysterious object of great power and there’s a conspiracy afoot to steal it from under him. The script doesn’t exactly pull off the rather conventional story with much aplomp, but its strength lies in its themes, which are certainly in line with the character – and perfectly in tune with Geoff Johns’ depiction of him. Here Barry Allen, dead in the DC universe, is the last beacon of light – the only person who is aware that this Watchmen-lite universe (except this time it’s Kennedy exceeding term limits and it’s a lot less fascist) isn’t the way that things should be, let alone how they need to be.

I think I'm having a Flash-back...

As he is reborn, he confessed that he feels new again. “Renewed. Strong. Confident. I can do anything.” That is hardly a sentiment that Johns would deny his own revived iteration of Barry Allen. Johns brought Barry Allen back from the dead to express that very idea – to embrace the idea that being jaded and cynical was not a necessary skill set for a modern superhero.

However, there’s also a rather interesting bit of monologuing from the story’s villain about the eponymous “flashpoint”, scattered amidst his plans to end the universe. If the series syncs up perfectly thematically with what Johns is attempting, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him coopt some (or all) of this into his mega crossover event:

I figured it all out… The equations, if you only had time to look them, you’d… you’d see. Your studies of the big bang? A waste. At the end of time and space, at that final instant before the universe folds in on itself… That’s where heaven lies. It’s the point where all consciousness, all living intelligence, recollects itself from death as a perfect quantum emulation. It’s a force…

… The force that made you the Flash, a force of acceleration, a speed force. It’s there, always and forever, perched eternally at the end of time… resurrecting all of us… And not only us. Any people and histories that could exist. The flashpoint will resurrect them as well, the ones who never lived.

Johns has repeatedly stated that The Flash is to “time” as his Green Lantern run was to “space”. Since Blackest Night was a threat to all the universe, perhaps Flashpoint will see the characters face the end of the universe. I don’t know. It’s fun to speculate.

Flashpoint isn’t essential reading, but you could do a lot worse. I have a sneaking suspicion that – even if it isn’t explicitly tied to the big event coming down the line – I might end up rereading this Elseworlds story after Johns’ epic has concluded. You never know. Maybe by then DC will have brung themselves to republish it in a nice hardcover version to accompany the miniseries.

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