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Flash: Rebirth (Review/Retrospective)

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…

From the outset, Flash: Rebirth was going to be an infinitely more complex endeavour for writer Geoff Johns than Green Lantern: Rebirth had been. Both miniseries aimed to firmly establish an older legacy character (in both cases, the iteration of the character active in the late fifties/early sixties) as the core of that particular franchise, replacing their replacements, as it were. However, Hal Jordan had been absent for about ten years, and had been hovering around the DC Universe in various guises during his absence from the role of Green Lantern. Barry Allen, on the other hand, had been gone twenty years and his appearances had been far scarcer. There had been a whole generation of fans (including the author of this miniseries) who grew up with Wally West as the Flash. Bringing Barry back was always going to be tricky, but here it becomes evident just how tricky.

A darker shade of red?

It’s somewhat ironic, but I think the reintroduction of Barry Allen as “the Scarlet Speedster” and “the Fastest Man Alive” suffered from a loss of momentum. We’ll discuss the somewhat hectic scheduling of the on-going when we come to it, but Rebirth was a miniseries plagued with delays. Unlike Hal, who assumed his old mantle in the pages of Green Lantern: Rebirth, Barry Allen had literally been resurrected in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, and spent a significant period of time in comic book limbo waiting for his Rebirth series to finish. Indeed, DC’s mega-event Blackest Night, which seemed to be something of a passing of the torch between the Green Lantern and Flash franchises, ended up overlapping significantly with Flash: Rebirth. The fact is compounded by the sensation that, again ironically, there’s no real momentum here.

This doesn’t feel like the beginning of Barry’s story. It feels like we’re joining Barry in media res. To be honest, Green Lantern: Rebirth isn’t nearly as accessible as the series that followed, but it’s a walk in the park compared to this particular comic book. I’ve talked before about how I feel it’s important for a comic book series to stand on its own two feet, but Flash: Rebirth ends up leaning heavily on Final Crisis (for Barry’s resurrection) and Blackest Night (for his foe’s). The text tries to explain these things, but it does so rather ham-fistedly. Far smoother, is the insertion of Barry’s origin story as flashbacks within the book, which tell us just enough about Barry to make him interesting (although they don’t really sketch a fully-formed character).

The start of a great run?

In fairness, a great deal of Johns’ writing here, as in Green Lantern: Rebirth, sets up potential future stories – giving us a sense that Johns has planned an epic saga ahead. Elements of the mythos like Gorilla City and the time-travelling magician/puppeteer Abra Kadabra add a sense of depth. Unfortunately, none of these points were ever really developed, and the recent reboot makes it seem quite unlikely that they ever will be followed up on. Which is a shame, because some of them were quite interesting.

Another problem faced in trying to restore the Silver Age version of the character is the fact that it means replacing (or, at least, displacing) a rather large cast. Green Lantern is a strange franchise, in that it’s possible for various characters to carry the mantle at the same time. Hal being a Green Lantern doesn’t mean that Guy Gardner isn’t a Green Lantern, nor Kyle Rayner, nor John Stewart. They each have the identity. Those character continue to hold their positions in the mythos, and (in fact) have become even more prominent as a result of the reintroduction of Hal. However, the Flash doesn’t work that way, as a franchise. It’s a saga with one character at its core. Even though, for example, Jay Garrick might use the name in Justice Society of America, there has only ever really been one Flash in the core Flash title at a time.

DC is trying to give Barry a bit of a push...

So, as a result of Barry’s return, that core Flash is going to be Barry. This means that Wally’s place in the mythos has to be altered and, to be honest, so does Barry’s (because there was never another Flash, again, barring Jay, while Barry was in the cowl). There are multiple ways to deal with the potential upset this causes. You could for example, do what Grant Morrison did with Batman on Bruce Wayne’s return and let both Barry and Wally be the Flash, in separate books. You could emulate the Green Lantern titles and space his supporting characters out amongst another book or two. Or, like the vast majority of returning legacy characters, you could completely ignore the vast majority of what happened since Barry left and get on with telling his story. All are valid approaches.

Reading Rebirth, it becomes clear that Johns isn’t adopting any of the above approaches, and is seeking to integrate Barry into the mythos of his supporting cast. Compare the involvement of Kyle Rayner in Green Lantern: Rebirth to that of Wally West here. Both replacement heroes play a key part in confronting their predecessor’s arch-foe, and both are shown to be essential parts of the mytharc. However, Kyle’s use is much more restrained and, I’d argue, much more effective. The Flash’s expansive supporting cast seem to be putting in what feel like obligatory appearances here, with everyone from Linda and the Tornado Twins through to the Justice Society of America popping up. The story might have been much more effective with a stronger, tighter focus on Barry.

Hey, it's Jay!

The problem with drawing in a large supporting cast to Barry’s big return story is that you need to relate them to Barry, while making the story clearly about Barry. So most of what the other characters do is talking about how awesome Barry is. “Barry Allen made me the Flash,” Jay Garrick comments. He goes on to explain that Barry gave him a newfound enthusiasm with a role he’d given up, and – in a way – reflects on the fact that (outside the narrative) Barry’s popularity helped restore the franchise in the fifties and sixties, but it ignores the fact that (as early as Barry’s first appearance) his creators has Barry model himself on Jay. Even Wildcat, a character who isn’t a core part of the Flash mythos, explains, “Barry brought us all back inta the ring, even if he didn’t know it.”

It’s not really too much praise, to be honest. Barry Allen as a character gave birth to the Silver Age of modern comic books. Without him, most modern characters wouldn’t exist, and most older ones would remain in obscurity. This is why Barry Allen works so well as a symbolic personification of Silver Age comic books. That’s why his death in Crisis on Infinite Earths carried so much weight. That’s why his return in Final Crisis was so powerful. However, symbols aren’t necessarily especially interesting to read about as lead characters. Barry Allen doesn’t need to be built up as a legend – most readers already know that, and it can be imparted much more efficiently than through the seemingly endless gushing of everybody. The real trick is giving Barry a personality.

DC always had an inflated opinion of Barry...

The Flash is fundamentally about movement. Indeed, one of the better things that Johns does here is to suggest why this is the perfect time for the Flash to shine (“everyone’s doing six things at once”), but the series and Barry seem focused on the past. Johns teases us with potential future plotlines, but Barry’s whole character arc is regressive. He’s defined by what he has already done, rather than by what he’s doing. He’s preoccupied with what has already happened, instead of what is going on around him.

There’s a wonderful little moment where Barry declares he’s going to track down and arrest the Rogues, a little surprised that they are still active. He decides to take them down, which is about as proactive as a superhero can be. It would be a more effective character moment if he actually followed through, and if he hadn’t just emerged from a Flash Museum – a rather obvious metaphor for the type of nostalgia hanging around the series’ neck. “I may be from the future,” Zoom confesses, at one point, “but the past is so much more fascinating.” I can’t help but feel the series finds the past a little too fascinating.

Barry goes for gold...

I get what Johns is trying to do. There’s something poetic about the Fastest Man Alive being unable to escape his past. Some of the nicer elements of the story play up the ironic nature of his predicament – Barry Allen working the cold cases, or the fact that he’s living through a retconned version of his own life. These are clever little touches, which hint at facets of a complex character who is more than just a superhero skill-set, but are somewhat overwhelmed by the story’s fixation on nostalgia, and the memetic mutation of “Barry the martyr” or “Barry the saint.”

In fairness, I actually really love the retcon element of Johns’ story. I have always like Johns’ ability to update hokey old villains, and he does a wonderful job on Zoom. There’s nice comparison Johns works in comparing Zoom to the Joker (which is a nice way to make any villain seem threatening, no matter how old), but he also develops a nice “hook” for the time-traveling character. Basically, the guy is a living retcon.

A race against time?

One of the elements of Johns’ earlier Flash run that I genuinely adored was making Hunter Zolomon the personification of “angst-as-character-development”, preaching a philosophy that real superheroes suffer and become dark and edgy. Indeed, that iteration of the character makes a small appearance here, promising to make his predecessor “better.” The classic Professor Zoom, returning here, becomes the living embodiment of the “character developing retcon”, where an early trauma is retroactively inserted into a character’s backstory to make them more interesting or compelling. Examples that come to mind include Kevin Smith’s handling of the Black Cat’s origin, Ed Brubaker’s somewhat darker take on Bucky’s role during the Second World War and even Geoff Johns’ reworking of Superboy’s origin to generate more angst.

It’s a clever little addition to the Flash mythos, a comic book saga that has always been more meta-aware than most. After all, the cover to Barry’s very first appearance had him running out of a comic book, and he named himself after Jay Garrick’s version of the Flash, a comic book character to him. So the franchise is the perfect home to a character who uses retcons as weapons. Indeed, there’s something amusingly petty about how Zoom tries to introduce darkness and angst to his opponent – first by pushing him down some steps and then by killing his dog, before settling on the classic “dead parent”trope. There’s a sense Zoom would make a terrible comic book writer, peppering his work with clichés.

Retcons? You've got to be kidding me!

I do like some of the stuff Johns does with time, suggesting that time isn’t linear to the Flash. While I don’t appreciate putting Barry and Zoom’s resurrections (two cornerstones of the series) in separate events (Final Crisis and Blackest Night, respectively), I appreciate the way the characters are literally caught between the past and the future. Zoom is able to pull Barry out of the Speed Force, despite not being resurrected yet. It’s a nice touch, as is the suggestion that the lightning that hit Barry was actually himself, from the future. It’s a nice touch, which hints that Johns’ saga won’t necessarily follow the most linear of roadmaps. I like time travel stories, and they’re fun to wrap your head around.

I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that the Speed Force was created when Barry became the Flash, spreading out in all directions and making the character the source of power for all speedsters – including those created before him. It makes sense from a story point of view, but it feels a little too much like a conscious attempt to elevate Barry above those around him. I understand that Barry needs to be the most important character in stories about him, but this feels perhaps a little too strong, a little too insecure. As if to suggest that not only was the most important character in the fifties and sixties, or even today, but he was always the most important character.

It's electric!

Of course, Johns does provide some space to addressing the fact that Barry’s return may have upset a few fans. Being honest, I don’t mind one way or another. I just want interesting Flash stories with a compelling protagonist – it doesn’t matter who. So I have no bias, to be frank. I just wish that the book could be clear on what it plans to do with its cast. Bart Allen, recently returned to life in Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, speaks for those fans upset at Wally West being usurped by Barry. “Wally West is the Flash, Wonder Girl,” Bart protests. “I came here from the future so that everything could go back to the way it used to be. Wally’s the Flash and I’m Kid Flash.”

Johns makes a very subtle, but very clever observation there. Despite fans upset at change and wanting a return to the status quo, Barry Allen as the Flash was “the way it used to be.” Indeed, Wally West had already retired from the mantle (to be replaced by Bart), but returned to it when his successor was retired (a euphemism for “killed”). So it was a bit hypocritical of fans to accuse DC of being regressive by demanding Barry doesn’t replace Wally, after Wally had already replaced Bart. Of course, such an argument is logical, but comic book fans are seldom logical individuals.

The time has Zoomed by...

The series does struggle to give us any personality for Barry beyond “he’s a nice guy.” The character hasn’t been around for two decades, and his era of mainstream superhero comic books wasn’t exactly renowned for its smooth characterisation. So he’s a blank slate. The problem is that Johns doesn’t really add to much too it. I like that the character doesn’t wear bowties as a fashion statement (he simple owns a lot of them), but that’s the extent of his personality beyond the stereotypical “good guy trying to prove his loved one’s innocence and solve another loved one’s murder.”

In fairness, Johns seems to concede this, as Barry hints that he may have lost something in merging with the Speed Force. “It was like shedding my identity,” he explains. “I completely lost any concept of who I was.”Still, it might be nice to get something more. On the upside, though, I do like the fact that Johns seems to be suggesting that the Flash is static. That, despite the character’s speed, he’s the one constant in the world. Zoom tries to alter Barry’s past in horrible ways, but Barry endures and survives, without even knowing he’s under attack. Zoom wants to break Barry, by murdering his mother and dissolving his family, but Barry still goes on to live pretty much the exact same life (to the point the reader doesn’t notice anything’s amiss until they see the flashback of the murder).

Flash facts...

It’s a nice irony, and one that I suspect plays into Flashpoint. Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman may change and alter and radically morph every few years, but the Flash is always steady and reliable. He’s never dark, always heroic – no matter what. Even if you give Barry Allen the same backstory as Bruce Wayne, he’s still Barry Allen. That’s a powerful comment on the nature of the character, and perhaps what Johns finds so appealing. It’s a nice touch, and one I genuinely appreciate. But I really want more.

The artwork is fantastic. Ethan Van Sciver works extremely well with motion, and there’s a genuine sense that all the characters involved in the story are moving at breakneck speed. Like Ivan Reis on Blackest Night, Barry seems to be moving at tremendous speed even when standing still – often blurry or generating static. The Speed Force is a bit too abstract at times, although I can’t imagine it was an easy concept to illustrate. Still, blobs of red and motion lines seem a bit… trite, almost. Still, Van Sciver’s character work is among the best in the business, and it’s nice to read without worrying about the numerous delays which faced the miniseries.

A breakout hit?

Flash: Rebirth isn’t the success that Green Lantern: Rebirth was, if only because it seems to be a little bit too busy. It’s pulled in so many directions at once, referencing Final Crisis and Blackest Night and the various supporting characters, that it never seems as tight and focused as its spiritual predecessor. It struggles to make us care about Barry Allen as a person, instead focusing on the same old martyrdom myths we have heard filtered down since his “death” decades ago. That said, there are some great ideas in here, and Johns is a skilled enough storyteller to make it interesting and worthwhile.

To be entirely honest, I think Green Lantern: Rebirth was actually defined by the success of the Green Lantern renaissance that followed. It’s not entirely fair, but I think that the miniseries would not have achieved its highly-regarded status if the series it launched had not been successful. So, in that regard, the jury is still out on Flash: Rebirth – but, with Johns departing the title after relatively few issues on a poorly-received and oft-delayed run – it doesn’t necessarily look the brightest.

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

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

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