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Geoff Johns’ Run on The Flash – Rogues, Crossfire & Blitz

What with Geoff Johns returning to write The Flash, I figured I’d dig out some of the old collections of his first run on the title – arguably the run which brought the writer to the attention of comic book readers everywhere. In a run spanning five years, Johns managed to not only offer a suitably impressive successor to Mark Waid’s run on the title, but also tell his own boldly unique story. In a way, the writer’s time on the title can be broken down into two distinct halves – in fact, the final issue collected here is consciously a transition, with the universe being massively re-written and the status quo irrevocably altered. This collection represents the end of that first half, in which Johns was paired with artist Scott Kolins. I think it’s fair to say that the pair made magic on the title.

The Rogues take the opportunity to chill out...

Let’s talk about the feel of this run, because that’s perhaps what makes it so special. There’s a wonderful fusion between Kolins’ style and Johns’ writing voice that it just meshes perfectly. The illustrations are rough and rugged, but the colours bright and clear. Looking at the colour pallet and the designs, one could be forgiven for considering this a call back to the decidedly bright and chirpy Silver Age – but if you look close you’ll see that it’s somehow a lot tougher. The shadows are sometimes hard to spot amid the brightness, but they are definitely there.

Kolins is a wonderful asset for the series, offering – as he does – beautiful splash pages and city panoramas. He manages to make Grodd – a talking psychic gorilla – seem truly menacing in his illustrations (partially by showing the consequences of his rampage, but also in his depiction of the creature himself). There’s plenty of wonderful sights here, many of which flirt between “cartoon-y” and “amazing”. Take, for example, the depiction of the Flash “skipping like a stone” across the Atlantic Ocean or dueling on a stormy sea with his latest adversary. And yet, even in all these light colours, there’s a hint of beating darkness – as the gorillas point out, even the Flash’s bright red uniform is the colour of blood.

Going the distance...

Of course, anyone who is familiar with Johns’ work as a writer knows that the above contrast brilliantly suits him. He is, after all, one of the writers who has consciously rejected the Dark Age of nineties comic book publishing, sticking to the Silver Age appeal of various characters – while certainly not afraid to get his hands dirty. Here he gives us the Flash in the same way that his predecessor, Mark Waid, did – a conscious rejection of the “darker and edgier” hero. “I don’t wear this uniform to frighten anyone,” he points out, “and I don’t fight for vengeance.”

Indeed, the most powerful arc of this collection – and perhaps of Johns’ run on the title – Blitz is based around what Johns sees as a flawed criticism of the Wally West character. Wally is, for all intents and purposes, a character who lived without a major tragedy in his life. Sure, there have been a few hiccups, but his parents didn’t die in front of him and he’s not the last child of a dead planet or some such. When his close friend, Hunter Zolomon, is crippled by Gorilla Grodd and becomes unstuck in time, he decides that the Flash can’t be a true hero because he hasn’t endured with an “unbelievable tragedy” which would allow him to “understand why it must be prevented”.

Zoom zoom zoom...

Zolomon, taking on the powers of superspeed, adopts the name Zoom and decides that “in order for him to be stronger, he must face the ultimate tragedy”. He proceeds to launch an incredibly personal attack on the hero so Wally can “learn from it”“I’m making you a better hero, Flash,” he suggests, as if he deserves a thank you for providing the Flash with a more tragic backstory. Because all the cool heroes have one.

This logic, Johns argues correctly, is fundamentally flawed. In a brief scene with a returned Barry Allen, Wally’s uncle explains, “It’s about taking the gifts we’ve been given and helping as many people as we can”. In the end, Wally finally accepts that he is no longer taking the mantle of the Flash as a way of honouring his long departed uncle – he sacrifices the legacy in order to be afforded the opportunity to keep giving. It’s somewhat ironic that Johns himself would retcon the death of his parents into Barry Allen’s origin, but I’ll probably discuss that a bit more in my inevitable review of Flash: Rebirth.

Crowd control...

In many ways, these collections are as close as Johns can come to laying Barry Allen’s memory to rest – at least for Wally (admittedly Mark Waid’s The Return of Barry Allen offered some closure, but the way comic books are the legacy of the Silver Age Flash would likely have played in the background forever – had he not returned in Final Crisis). The collection is populated with characters who come to respect Wally as much as they did his predecessor. “Kid’s as good as Barry ever was,” Weather Wizard grudgingly concedes. When asked what “they” say about the Flash, Hawkman suggests, “They say you’d make your uncle very proud.” According to Vic Stone, Wally is a hero of “average intelligence” and “average education” – though Goldface would call him “the people’s hero”. In Wally’s own words, he’s “just a regular guy” and – as he observes – “sometimes that’s enough”.

Indeed it’s Wally’s lack of tragedy which defines him – he’s not defined by what he’s lost but rather by what he has. “Wally West is known for his virtues.” He’s truly a hero with a giant heart. Rogues essentially collects a series of one shots which offer insight into the characters populating Wally’s world. In fact, it’s telling how frequently in these collections villains target Wally through his supporting cast, be it to isolate him (as in Crossfire) or hurt him (as in Run Riot) or to improve him in some twisted way (as in Blitz). As Grodd observes, “You humans get hurt more through your friends.” And Wally certainly gets hurt a lot.

It certainly doesn't drag-on...

And yet his virtue surrounds him with allies, even of the most unlikely sort. During Grodd’s riot in Run Riot, the Flash finds himself defended by Fallout, the superhuman criminal that is used to power Iron Heights – with the villain observing that “he helped me when no one else would”. In the pantheon of DC superheroes, the Flash is perhaps the most truly human of them all.

Johns’ run would arguably be defined by the supporting cast he brought to comic – a cast so strong that, even when the Flash comics were in what might be termed a “transitional state” a few years back, could still support their own miniseries Rogues’ Revenge. His work on the Rogues would be particularly defining – it’s fun to hear characters talking about “a spot with the Rogues” as if they’d landed a supporting gig with an iconic rock band. Johns infused his run with a “blue collar” feel (perhaps to remind himself of his home city of Detroit, which gets named here as the home to the best square pizza in the world), and – in a way – the Rogues represent a union of sorts. The “network” as established by Blacksmith has all the trappings of a closed shop for supervillains.

Johns puts a new spin on things...

Johns peppers his runs with one-issue retrospectives of various bad guys. Here, for example, we have issues focusing on Captain Cold, Pied Piper, the Top and Zoom. They add a lovely sense of texture to the world, and help create the impression of the Rogues as more than just a random selection of gimmick-wielding bad guys. “We’re… friends,” Mirror Master pleads with Captain Cold, and it isn’t too much of a stretch. The bond between these characters never really goes away – even amongst the reformed Rogues, Pied Piper can ask the former Trickster a favour “one Rogue to another”. “It’s high time you started taking the rogues seriously,” Blacksmith suggests at one point, but it could just as easily be Johns speaking to the audience. This all fuses together quite beautifully – in fact, the whole of Johns’ saga fuses together beautifully, like a tapestry that has been carefully planned from the beginning.

Pied Piper was always a bit of a Joker...

Very few of Johns’ creations – save maybe Grodd – are complete monsters. Chance is, after all, a cruel mistress. Hell, Wally is a hero by chance – “What do you think you would have done,” one character begins before Wally cuts him off, “… if I hadn’t been hit by a bolt of lightning?” Johns’ story is peppered with tragic villains like Fallout who wants to visit his wife’s grave or Peek-a-Boo who wants to save her father. “Why do I feel like a bad guy?” Wally laments after stopping one such villain simply trying to do the best they can for a loved one. “I was going to be a hero,” Peek-a-boo protests at one point, reflecting on cruel fate.

At the same time, Johns juxtaposes a more modern approach to comic book storytelling with an appeal to classic sensibilities. The new Trickster with his slippery marbles and sticky bubble gum is about as Silver Age as a villain can come. “The past is as important as the present,” hokey magic-themed supervillain Abra Kadabra suggests at one point as he uses his power to present us with – yet another – Flash/Superman race. Perhaps he’s hoping to return the staple to “its former glory”, in much the same way that Johns can take villains as outmoded as Abra-Kadabra and make them fresh again. This is, after all, a comic which features a giant beanstalk in the centre of town and flying dragons as much as mobsters and machine guns.

The Central City Police deal with a plant...

Ultimately, Johns’ and Kolins’ run works so well because it so stunningly succeeds at demonstrating that modern comic book storytelling can work with the hokey and nostalgic values of times past. There is no way that the drama or tension that Johns creates in these pages is diminished by the fact that there are dragons or exploding bubble gum or any number of concepts which wouldn’t have seemed out of place had Adam West encountered them. It’s a stunningly well composed saga which finds something new to say about the superhero simply by meshing together various aspects of the iterations that we’ve seen through the decades.

In my last review of the run, I remarked that I was a bit ticked off that DC had let the run fall mostly out of print. So I’m delighted that it’s being reissued in lovely omnibus editions (like Starman), starting later this year. It’s definitely a run which will suit the format, and one which richly deserves it. Now, if only we could get some Mark Waid Flash or Grant Morrison Animal Man omnibuses in the works.

The Flash gets driven up the wall...

By the way, it’s nice to see Johns foreshadowing his run on Green Lantern, with Barry Allen remarking to his old colleague, “You’re well on your way, Hal.” And the observation that, like Hal, “we’ll all have our second chance.” It’s nice to know that, even that far back, Johns had a plan for the DC universe.

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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2 Responses

  1. I think the death of Barry Allen’s parents was a predictably horrible thing for the revived Professor Zoom to do.

    I think of it as Zoom retconning The Flash’s death, not John’s.

    It seems that John’s Zoom is becoming the in-universe personification of ret-conning.

    • In fairness, that was what I loved about Johns’ Hunter Zolomon – he was the very embodiment of executive meddling, a genuine threat to comic book characters. I need to revisit Flash: Rebirth sometime soon. I hope I’m right to wait for the absolute edition.

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