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Geoff Johns’ Run on The Flash – Ignition, The Secret of Barry Allen, Rogue War

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…

Superman soars above everyone. Batman hides from everyone. Wonder Woman preaches to everyone.

Me? I run right alongside everyone. My name’s Wally West. You probably know the rest.

– The Flash reintroduces himself, The Secret of Barry Allen

Geoff Johns’ run on The Flash can really be split into two distinct sub-runs. The first saw him working with artist Scott Kolins, defining Keystone and building up a supporting cast. The second, following the climax of Blitz, is something of a revised origin for the character – an attempt by Johns to tell his own particular version of an origin story for the character. Of course, it isn’t a literal origin like his own Green Lantern: Secret Origin or Superman: Secret Origin, rather a rediscovery. Although I do have a slight preference for the earlier half the run, there’s no denying that Johns has put together quite a wonderful story during his tenure on The Flash.

What a run...

I don’t need tragedy to make me stronger. That’s not what the Flash is about. It’s not what makes me who I am.

– Wally West, Rogue War

Much like Mark Waid before him, Johns has taken great pride in defining Wally West by what he isn’t. The world of Keystone as illustrated by artists like Scott Kolins and Howard Porter is bright and buzzing with strong colours. Wally isn’t a dark or tragic hero, but rather one defined by what he has instead of what he’s lost. “It’s people that make me stronger,” he explains at one point, and it certainly feels apt given the supporting cast that Johns has skilfully built up around the character.

Indeed, Ignition – illustrated by Alberto Dose – consciously feels like a darker tale than the rest of Johns’ run. It’s somewhat fitting, as it’s a world where everyone (even Wally) as forgotten that Wally was the Flash. I’m not really convinced that Johns needed to restore Wally’s secret identity – given how old the trope is (and how frequently it’s used), it was nice to have one major superhero who didn’t really use one. Still, Johns paints the world without a Flash as a consciously darker place – it’s all shadows and silhouettes. So much so that when Howard Porter takes over the art duties at the end of the arc, Wally himself remarks, “I almost forget how bright the city is during the day.”

If the superhero costume fits...

Ignition is a belated origin for the character – somewhat ironic coming more than 200 issues into the series (“It’s all going in reverse,” to quote Wally). It’s the story of a hero learning of consequences of his powers (at one point Wally unconsciously “created a sonic boom” which brought down a building) and discovering (or rediscovering) himself. It also provides an opportunity to contrast the Flash against the more cynical modern approach to heroes. On finding the suit inside his ring (an admittedly ridiculous concept), he wonders, “How the hell does that fit in there?” On putting on his cowl, he remarks that it has “weird ear pieces too”. Looking at the Flash objectively, he seems quite a ridiculous construct – particularly given modern trends in comics – but, when you pick it up again, it just works.

Johns uses this sort of comparison again and again during his run. “I’m not going to be like Batman,” Wally swears on re-assuming his mantle, pledging not to become a brooding avenger of the night.  Batman himself concedes that the Flash is based around “protecting the innocent rather than damning the guilty”. Dick Grayson (former Robin) suggests that the Flash is closer to the Dark Knight than most would concede, though. Remarking on the Rogues, Dick suggests Wally is “working it like Batman”. After all, the Caped Crusader “wants them focused on him and not the public”. In fact, there are quite a few comparisons made between the Flash’s Rogues and Batman’s adversaries – though I suppose that’s somewhat reasonable. Batman’s iconic bad guys are the gold standard of comic book villains.

Quit monkeyin' around...

In fairness, perhaps the defining aspect of Johns’ run – as much as he did great work for Wally as a character – is his work on the Rogues. It’s very risky for a writer to present his villains as steeped in moral uncertainty rather than out-and-out villainry. Captain Cold, the leader of the Rogues, believes in “shades of grey” (a belief that Johns justaposes against Wally’s more simplistic world view – “you’re born good or bad”). Most of the great hero-villain dynamics are defined by the way they hold a mirror to each other: Batman sees his own insanity reflected in the Joker (and they oppose each other as champions of order and chaos respectively); Superman and Lex Luthor are both the paradigms of accomplishment (one is just an alien). Johns suggests – befitting the more intimate themes of the Flash as opposed to Batman or Superman – that the Flash and the Rogues are linked by personal circumstance.

Blitz saw Wally lose his children to a crazed opponent – his wife, Linda, leaves him here for a while. His family is destroyed. “It’s a common trait among the Rogues,” Heat Wave narrates at one point. “We all lost family. Gettin’ ’em back is all we ever wanted.” It’s hard not to feel the connection – in fact, when neither are aware of each other’s identity in Ignition, Wally and Captain Cold strike up something of a common bond; perhaps they are more alike than either will concede. Indeed, without the strong paternal influence his uncle Barry offered (and given his biological father’s failings), it’s easy to imagine the Wally could easily have become a bad guy. The link is made explicit at the climax of Rogue War, as the Pied Piper asks Wally, “Do you know how hard it is to lose a family?” He certainly does.

Freeze!

Still, Johns’ portrayal of the rogues as a group is wonderful – much as he did for Green Lantern, Johns took a second-tier bunch of bad guys and made them wonderfully unique and yet appropriate for the world they populate. The Rogues are, in their own twisted way, like a family – with Captain Cold as the patriarch. When the young Trickster plans to ruin the Flash’s parade, all he gets is a “say hello for us” from Captain Cold and “we’re busy” from Weather Wizard, acting like disinterested parents. Indeed, Captain Cold is a strong paternal figure for his colleagues (although he seems quite fond of “tough love”, perhaps inherited from his scumbag father) – he gets Mirror Master to quit cocaine, straightens out some of the younger Trickster’s more sociopathic tendencies and provides a shoulder for the Weather Wizard to cry on.

Indeed, the Rogues are presented as the epitome of organised supercrime (with Ashley Zolomon remarking that the cast of Gotham Central won’t know how to handle Doctor Alchemy in Gotham, for example). Throughout the run, we’ve been presented with the notion that everyone wants to be a Rogue – so much so that Cold and his crew spend quite some time auditioning and interviewing people like Abra Kadabra and Doctor Alchemy. “The Rogues will call you, don’t call us,” Cold informs the Top at one point. Although the young Captain Boomerang is less-than-thrilled at his invitation, Mirror Master insists, “He doesn’ ask just anybody.” Being a Rogue is a privilege – hell, even to the Flash, who observes that the Turtle doesn’t “even qualify as a Rogue”.

Sometimes you have to deal with Fallout...

“We take care of our own,” Cold reminds the Weather Wizard at one point, and it’s clear that they do – from Mirror Master bailing the Trickster out of jail to the respectful funerals that the Rogues give to the original Captain Boomerang or even the Top. Indeed, Cold is almost paternal to the young Owen Mercer – who he believes is his nephew, offering a counterpart to the relationship between Wally West and Barry Allen.  The Rogues are not necessarily evil – they have “an unspoken code”. On hearing of the death of Sue Dibney, Cold commands, “Send flowers to Mr. Dibny.”

Of course, times change. As Heat Wave remarks on the serial killer Murmur, “You never would’ve been able to imagine this guy back in the day.” He suggests to Captain Cold that “the new breeds are giving the Rogues a bad name.” Even Cold himself is shown to be uncomfortable with them. On witnessing the carnage that they reap across Keystone, he remarks, “Crossin’ that line… ya only do it on special occasions.”

Hm... statue's the wrong colour...

The Rogues are perhaps the finest illustration of what Johns appears to have been trying to do with this run. They are a throwback to simpler times, but one that should still be treated seriously. While touring his reconstructed museum, the Flash observes that villainous team-ups were a staple of the Silver Age. “Not so much any more,” he remarks, clearly not noting his authors fondness for the trope (hell, Rogue War even teams up the two Zooms). and then he adds the caveat, “Excluding the Rogues, of course.” The Rogues don’t want to destroy or conquer the world. “He didn’t want to take over the world, he wanted a little respect,” Captain Cold eulogises Captain Boomerang. However, the fact that they are old-fashioned doesn’t mean they should be dismissed or taken lightly. “They may have goofy names and wear bright colours,” the Flash warns Batman, “but that doesn’t mean they’re idiots.” That’s a pretty good observation for all of Johns’ run – it may be bright and colourful, but it should be respected.

Indeed, the fact that Johns’ tie-in to Identity Crisis (The Secret of Barry Allen) doesn’t feel in anyway out of place perhaps indicates how similar his themes are. In fact The Secret of Barry Allen could almost have been told without the connection to Identity Crisis, which was a conscious reframing of some of the classic Silver Age stories, giving them a far darker twist in retrospect. “You turned my uncle into a liar,” Wally accuses the Justice League, perhaps reflecting the same feelings of betrayal that many fans had at the retroactive twist.

Johns is on fire with this run...

In fact, Johns takes great pleasure in pulling back the layers, revealing that the world of comic book superheroes might not be as simple as it might have seemed – just a few issues previous, it was hinted that the low-rent themed-gimmick villain the Turtle was quite possibly a pedophile (Johns suggests that the Rogues are all masking severe psychological issues with their costumes and gear – as Heat Wave says of his pyromania, “It wasn’t an illness anymore. It was a gimmick.”).

Of course, the real star of the run is Wally West. Johns continues to perfect draw his protagonist, clearly defining him. “My feet are always on the ground,” Wally remarks. Indeed, the climax of Blitz featured Wally finally accepting that he was no longer the Flash simply to honour his uncle’s memory. Instead, he concedes, “I’m the Flash because I know helping people is the right thing to do.” There’s something of an almost rustic appeal to the character, one who is always grounded. At one point, a young Robin asks a young Wally, “Where do you and the Flash hang out?” Wally sheepishly admits, “My aunt’s house.” That just about sums up the character – no Batcave or Fortess of Solitude, but a family house. Wally isn’t a member of the pantheon of the gods like Batman or Superman. “I’m not the perfect hero I want to be. But I try.”

Kneel before Grodd!

However, Wally has difficulty separating the man from the myth. He is initially skeptical of Keystone’s decision to honour him with a “Flash Day” and a reopened Flash Museum (which he dismisses as a “temple” and Grodd snears upon it as a “wretched church”). He’s uncomfortable that the people of Keystone City treat him as “a symbol to humanity who makes them believe they are worth something”, but he also romanticised his uncle as a figure larger than life. Even after Barry’s mistake is revealed in The Secret of Barry Allen, Wally still treats him as almost a divine figure. “I’ve got a temper,” he admits, ashamed, “Barry never had a temper.”

Although Johns’ commentary on Keystone as a blue collar city seems to have been dramatically toned down, but the notions of class running through the series remain. Wally finds himself a job fixing cop cars in Ignition, playing “the low man on the totem pole” to the police officers, despite his suggestion that “those cops wouldn’t even be able to do their jobs if it wasn’t for people like Wheeler and me”. As he remarks of working stiffs like himself, “We make this city run.” That notion of class struggle is even expressed among the Rogues, with this sort of divide given as one of the many reasons that Captain Cold never really liked the Top. “Just because you can taste the difference in red wines don’t mean you’re better than anyone else,” he remarks.

Light entertainment...

By the way, Johns has done a great job with his version of Zoom – the Reverse Flash. He manages to create a damaged counterpart to Wally who has let the losses in his life define him. “I’m fueled by tragedy,” he explains at one point. His motivation bends around the fourth wall in a way that reflects the more modern comics – he believes that he can use tragedy to construct a better hero, the notion that the Flash should learn about loss in order to remain relevent. It’s fitting that an archnemesis of the Flash plays with the fourth wall so well – the Flash has historically crashed through the wall repeatedly (that iconic first image of him breaking through the strip, or the fact he took the name from a comic book). “Your story is over,” Zoom warns Cold at one point, suggesting he’s aware of his fictional surroundings. Or, he’s – y’know – nuts.

I must concede that, while I have no problem with Porter’s work on the latter half of Johns’ run, I do miss Kolins. There’s just something “missing” (most notably in the portrayal of Gorilla Grodd). Don’t get me wrong, Porter does a fantastic job – Keystone feels just about right and the design fits the character well – but it feels like something small has been lost. It is great to see Kolins reuniting with Johns on projects like Rogues’ Revenge or Blackest Night: Flash after this. And, again, that is with no offense intended to Porter. The entirety of Johns’ run is never difficult to look at, thanks to the phenomenal talents he worked with.

The run just zoomed by...

It’s been a heck of a run, with a wonderful texturing of the world according to Wally West. Along the way, we’ve been treated to answers to questions such as why Batman dislikes Hal Jordan so much or where the Penguin’s umbrella gimmick comes from (since the bird thing can be explained easily enough – it turns out the umbrella thing is a bit of an offshoot). It helps that Geoff Johns is just a superb writer who clearly loves working with these people and on this particular story. In fact, there’s a touching little note on the last page of the last issue where Johns thanks his artists for the ride. It’s clear that he has loved every moment (although the fact he has returned to the franchise would hint in that direction anyway). It’s been a great ride, and Johns deserves a very sincere thank you for taking his audience on it.

That’s a Flash fact.

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:

2 Responses

  1. My favorite part of Johns’s comics (which have many virtues) are the little things that he details about superheroes’ lives, like in Rebirth where he talks about Barry and Batman comparing notes on villains or whenever he uses Nightwing in the “everybody’s friend” role. Which probably explains why I love “Identity Crisis” so much, in spite of the awful way it treated Sue Dibny. Grounding heroes as people, showing their lives when not superheroing. Little touches like that are what makes me think Alan Moore’s influence hasn’t been entirely negative.

    • Johns gets a lot of flack, but I think he really captures the joy of being a superhero in his solo runs, the sense that these people are actually people rather than just interchangeable power sets. I like Wally as a blue collar hero, or Hal as a hotshot, or Clark as a country bumpkin, all existing with lives beyond the demands of the immediate plot.

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