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Grant Morrison and Mark Millar’s Run on the Flash – Emergency Stop & the Human Race

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” I’ll be starting with the most recent one, Flashpoint, but – in the spirit of the character – we’re going to have a marathon run through Flash stories before we get there. Check back daily this week for more Flash-ified goodness… We’ll start with a tie-in to last month’s theme, with the time Grant Morrison wrote The Flash.

Wally, you are definitely spending too much time around Scottish people!

– Linda bends the fourth wall. Quite frankly (or should that be “Frank Quitely”, referencing Morrison’s long-term collaborator?), I’m surprised it’s still standing by the end of the run.

If you believe everything you read, it was actually Mark Waid’s landmark run on The Flash that inspired Grant Morrison to write Justice League in the first place, a run currently being collected in nice deluxe hardbacks. So, when Mark Waid took a year off from the title to pursue his own interests – including the graphic novel The Life Story of the Flash and JLA: Year One – perhaps comics’ most mind-bending Scotsman would make a logical choice to replace him on a character who has always had a bit of a surrealist bent. And Grant Morrison brought a friend with him – Mark Millar, now better known as the writer of Kick-Ass and The Ultimates, but who originally started out with a string of partnerships with Morrison through the nineties involving a prologue to Justice League and Aztek, along with many others. Their collaborations aren’t exactly looked back upon as comic book gold – despite the fact that the two of them, working separately, have redefined the superhero genre – but their year-long fill-in gap on The Flash is irrelevant and charmingly fun. Nothing more (unless you’re a continuity nut – in which case the pair tease several essential Flash concepts) and certainly nothing less (unless your comic book tastes don’t run towards the “wacky” end of the spectrum).

Chased by a shadow...

It’s interesting to note how quickly DC have been to publish this run since its authors have become almost household names (well, in very, very geeky households). Mark Waid’s run is even now largely uncollected, and the subsequent Geoff Johns’ run is very gradually Starman-esque omnibus treatment, but this twelve-issue fill-in run is made readily available? I’m not complaining – it’s not a bad run (in fact, it’s a very fun run). It’s just disappointing that more of Wally West’s tenure as the Flash isn’t available these days, let alone in stylish hardcover volumes – especially considering the generally high opinion in which the series is held.

Of course, it’s time for me to confess something. I am not quite as blindly in love with Morrison’s Justice League run as everyone else is. Yep, it’s pure popcorn fun, packed with wonderful high concept, but I always felt it moved too fast. Nothing was ever really given enough space to breath, and the meta-commentary always hit me as a bit heavy handed. That said, it’s a fun breezy run. At one point the Flash refers to in The Human Race as “one of my weird days”, but it seems that this run is only really made up of weird days. And I wouldn’t really have it any other way.

Making a run of it...

My uncle Barry, the second and, in my humble opinion, the greatest Flash, gave me some advice — “Wally,” he said, “with powers like ours, you’ve got to learn to fight the way a science fiction writer writes.”

– Wally West

And pretty much the same observations can be made about this run here. It’s pure Silver Age fun, repackaged in modern continuity. Much as Morrison reestablished the Justice League as potent franchise by restoring its core membership to the “big seven” characters, here Morrison and Millar simply take what has always worked about the character – particularly in his early stories – and repackaging it for a modern audience. Of course, this involves time-travel for Wally’s corpse (“I just saved my own life, but I may have killed myself doing it,” he narrates at one point), a flirtation between technology gone wild and an old-fashioned ghost story (as Jay asks of the Suit from Emergency Stop“I mean, was this a ghost story or…?”), and the merging of fantasy and “mad physics” in Through the Looking Glass (which involves a mad Scot with a flair for mind-bending surrealism… hmmm).

Wacky concepts are a dime-a-dozen in this run. Really, I could spend this entire review listing all the crazy ideas that Morrison and Millar throw out there (my personal favourite is a prism which splits the character into seven different versions – each reflecting one of the primary colours and an emotion that perhaps will seem familiar to readers Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern run (yellow is fear, red is rage, etc)). That said, not all the ideas hit as well – and can sometimes seem overwhelming or gimmicky. There’s also the simply fact that – while most of them work in the context of the narrative – not too many of these ideas hold up to much thought after the fact. That doesn’t stop stories like Through The Looking Glass – perhaps the zaniest Mirror Master story that I’ve ever read – from being great fun to read, it’s just something to note.

A Flash of seven colours...

Millar and Morrison seem actively disinterested in telling what might be deemed ‘conventional’ Flash stories. Indeed, they are so bored with these sorts of straightforward hero-against-villain antics that – whenever Wally encounters them, whether by editorial mandate (as would seem to be the case in the Three of a Kind crossover) or not – the Flash dismisses their stereotypical motive rants with a “blah blah”. Been there, done that, bought the shirt. With the exception of the Mirror Master (who justifies his own surrealist credentials by threatening to “turn this whole city into something out of Salvador Dali”), the Rogues only make tiny cameos over the course of the run, all of which are easily foiled (and even the Mirror Master’s scheme in Through the Looking Glass takes only a single issue to crack – no pun intended). “What is it about meta-criminals these days?” Wally laments at one point during the volume, “Talk about lack of imagination.”

Indeed, there’s a strong tip-of-the-hat to Star Trek and popular sci-fi during this run. A young Wally West is revealed as a Star Trek fan, and Wally dismisses an evil duplicate created by the Mirror Master as very “Next Generation”. At one point he’s “hurtling through what looks like every stargate scene in every movie from 2001 to Contact. Of course, Morrison and Millar (and Wally himself) are conscious of the pratfalls of playing their science fantasy too seriously (“Too much jargon,” Wally chastises himself at one point), the logic seemingly being that if you’re going to do something ridiculous, no point pretending it’s realistic.

It's quite a stretch...

Indeed, the bulk of the run seems to be about getting in touch with your inner child – a nostalgic look back at the early years of the comic when something absolutely insane would happen in a twenty-four page story, and you’d just go along with it because it was zany and entertaining enough. There’s a moment in The Human Race, which arguably serves as the climax of the run (though The Black Flash follows) when Wally meets his childhood imaginary friend, a blue radio signal. It’s a piece of his childhood he’d dismissed as a figment of his mind, and one he let go of. Wally “grew up” “until the radio was just a radio” and not a gateway to impossible worlds. However, in Morrison’s and Millar’s run, the imagination and reality are one. Your inner eight-year-old would have a ball. Particularly at the cliffhanger splash page which ends with Wally West pointing at the audience, explaining “Here’s what you have to do.”

However, as much time as the series spends on these wacky incredible high concepts (which are admittedly pretty take-it or leave-it), there’s still a strong sense of character. Arguably not to the extent that we’d see during Mark Waid’s or Geoff Johns’ runs (at least not with Wally), but there’s still some lovely moments here none-the-less. “Yeah, I’ve got a plan,” Wally observes in his trademark upbeat fashion, “All it involves is a headlong rush towards certain death.”

He's got the whole world in his hands...

Unfortunately, the run ends on something of a bum note. Although The Black Flash introduces an aspect of the mythos that has become quite important in recent years (even turning up in Geoff Johns’ more recent Flash: Rebirth), the story itself isn’t up to much. Whether by accident or design, Millar is the only author to receive credit for his work on the collection’s final arc, and unfortunately it ends up feeling rather “Mark Millar-ish”, which is a new adjective I’m trying out. It’s basically “cynical and edgy”. The problem is that “Mark Millar-ish” touches don’t really work in the context of the Flash and result in moments which don’t feel quite right.

For example, Millar writes Wally as incredibly bitchy after the death of his girlfriend. “None of these adults were sincere enough to take off their play suits to say goodbye,” he remarks of the mourners – ignoring the fact that this is the same sort of goodbye that Superman himself got. I get that he’s mourning, but his remarks don’t come across as grieving, but just bitchy as he dismissively talks about “my little friends with their Halloween costumes.” I can understand his desire to stop being the Flash after such a loss, but his narration just so ridiculously bitter for what was a freak accident (as opposed to anything to do with his job). And there are other smaller moments as well – for example, Captain Cold’s attempt to hold the city hostage with anthrax bacilli seems completely out of character.

Mellow yellow...

Which is a shame, because the story is essentially an interesting one – can the Flash outrun death? Sure, the pencil work by Mhan and Hood makes the story look a lot more dated than the rest of the collection (it’s a consciously “nineties” style, while the rest of the collection has mostly aged well), but Millar’s scripting is the weakest aspect. It seems that Morrison himself provided a lot of the levity of the first three-quarters of the run, and it’s somewhat ironic to see the final chapters become so emo when the writers themselves have consciously criticised such writing during their earlier stories.

The superheroes who are always going to be in demand in this business are the ones who know how to adapt to the mood of the times. A few years ago, for example, everyone wanted someone with claws and a telescopic sight on their team. Now those guys are complaining that noone returns their calls anymore. Times change.

The new Justice League.

Right. People want heroes again. Wally and Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. We’ve been through the darkness. Now let’s see a little light.

– Jay Garrick and Wally West have a “meta” conversation at a superhero-themed restaurant

Indeed, Morrison’s and Millar’s run pokes a bit of fun at the genre conventions of “Dark Age” of comic books (which is a term even Wally himself uses during the above conversation), but never in a way that’s quite as on-the-nose as some of the heavier-handed moments during Morrison’s Justice League stories. Remarking on the expectations of modern audiences, Mirror Master comments, “We’re second-generation superpeople. We’re supposed to have a bad attitude.” Though, given that he targets the Flash’s girlfriend to trap in a backwards world rather than killing her or anything else more sinister, he seems almost tame by the standards of the time (this is when Green Lantern’s enemies were shoving his girlfriends into fridges, as a frame of reference).

Tell me something: all those supercriminals you fought back then — always tying you to giant boomerangs or enormous floating darts… why didn’t they just kill you?

I don’t know. That was a different Flash. Happier times, I suppose.

– The Suit and the Flash get nostalgic


That said, this collection does have one ace-in-the-hole and one standalone story which makes it worthwhile at least checking out. The Flash is frequently defined by his supporting cast of speedsters – in fact, he remarks here, “Funny, I always surround myself with teams. Must be an only-child thing.” The run features a great many of them, and the best issue of the two volumes belongs to Jay Garrick. Jay Garrick is the version of the character which first appeared in the forties, or – as he puts it himself – “Old people call me the Flash.”

Still Life in the Fast Lane is essentially a day-in-the-life of an iconic old-age comic book legend. And it beautifully captures the essence of just how wonderful super-speed is as a superpower (particularly when life is so short). This is a man who takes in Mount Everest on his morning runs, signs autographs, foils supervillains, has lunch with two close friends discussing the metaphysical quandaries of superheroes, checks in on several former colleague and takes his wife to dinner in “that great little Italian place in Rome”. It’s a beautiful little story, one well told and with a lot of heart. “Man, that’s who I want to be when I grow up,” Dick Grayson remarks at one point, and it’s genuinely touching to see a seventy-year-old fictional character taken out for a spin. Sure, the rest of the run flirts with being abstract and is arguably more concerned with cool concepts than core characters, but Still Life in the Fast Lane has a lot of heart in it.

Here’s to life sweetheart. … Enjoy it before it forgets who you are.

– Jay toasts his wife

The gambling aliens have the Flash running through hoops...

Much like all of Morrison’s writing, his brief run on The Flash is not for everyone. It’s essentially an attempt to tell Silver Age stories in a modern context (fitting, then, that DC have included his reimagining of A Flash of Two Worlds, – the quintessential Silver Age crossover – in these volumes). Whether that’s humanity running to help the Flash in The Human Race or the manner in which Emergency Stop plays with both time travel and a technology/ghost story, there’s a whole host of awkward storytelling devices that Millar and  Morrison use for their saga. How much you enjoy them will come down to your capacity to willingly suspend your disbelief, and how willing you are to be entertained even by goofy ideas straight from hokey fifties sci-fi.

Still, if you can roll with it, it’s an idea bristling with high concepts which suit the character perfect. After all, what’s the point writing the Flash like every other generic superhero out there? Put him in his element, and his element is funky science fantasy. And – if it’s too much for you – there’s always Still Life in the Fast Lane. The Black Flash might make for a disappointing ending to the run, but – taken as a whole – it’s a fun and diverting collection.

God, why does everyone think it’s so easy for us? How many times have they said that we’re too powerful and we never face real challenges like Batman does? I’m running with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I feel like Atlas, y’know? How much longer can I keep this up?

– The Flash perhaps explains why this run is so damn odd… because Batman never has to race for the fate of humanity

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