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Geoff Johns’ Run on The Flash – The Dastardly Death of the Rogues & The Road to Flashpoint (Review)

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, following a week full of Flash stories.

It’s hard not to look at Geoff Johns’ return to The Flash and wonder what might have been. After all, his original run solidified Johns as a talent to watch in the superhero field, fed into his iconic Green Lantern run and paved the way to his ascent up the DC food chain. And it’s quite clear that DC were putting a lot of energy into pushing The Flash as the next “breakout franchise”, clearly hoping that Johns could find an angle on the character and mythos that would push the book up the sales charts to match the Batman and Green Lantern franchises. That obviously didn’t happen, but it feels like a shame because it very nearly could have happened, had things gone a little differently.

Flash! A-ha! He saves every one of us!

It’s ironic for a book about “the Fastest Man Alive”, but the biggest problem with The Flash was timing. If you look at the gap between Barry Allen’s reintroduction to the DC universe in Final Crisis and the climax of Geoff Johns’ Flash relaunch in Flashpoint, there’s clearly enough space to allow the character to gain the necessary momentum. If you can make the character’s return an event, and establish their universe, then building up to a major event should seem logical and structured – it should build a sense of movement around the series and create the impression that it is “gearing up.” That sense of momentum is not really present here.

Barry Allen returned to the DC universe in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis. The last issue of Final Crisis shipped in March 2009. The first issue of this series shipped in April 2010. Between the launch of the series in April 2010 and the first issue of Flashpoint in May 2011, there were twelve issues – but they were horribly spaced out, leading to a considerable rush on the final issues in the Road to Flashpoint collection, with Francis Manapul and Scott Kolins teaming up to offer some very disjointed artwork that really knocks the reader out of the book.

The Loneliest Man Alive?

Personally, I think that a year between the relaunch and the first event was a massive mistake, particularly since Flashpoint was intended to be an event on the scale of Blackest Night, rather than something relatively self-contained like Sinestro Corps War. That small crossover, isolated to the Green Lantern books, came over a year-and-a-half into the relaunched Green Lantern, and managed to attract attention because of its high quality. After that, the Green Lantern books spent over a year to build to another even bigger event.

I can’t help but think that such an approach might have worked with The Flash. After all, those early Green Lantern stories were arguably the weakest part of Johns’ run on the title, but he did get to build on them later. Unfortunately, we have the same set-up period here, but with with no pay-off and less time. It’s a wonder that any of this worked, in hindsight, and a miracle that The Dastardly Death of the Rogues is arguably Johns’ best Flash story since Blitz years ago. Still, the problem is that the story feels cut off by the lead-in to Flashpoint, and that all the time and energy spent setting up plot threads ended up going nowhere.

It all comes apart...

I wanted some more character work. I wanted to see Geoff Johns writing Flash: Secret Origin, establishing Barry’s character and telling us everything we needed to know about who he was. I wanted to read Murder in Gorilla City, or really any of those crazy Silver Age concepts brought to life by a fan of that sort of thing. Indeed, in the entire collection, we get one panel of Grodd. And it’s a cutaway revealing how Barry spent his morning. Personally, Grodd at the zoo sounds a lot more fun that a lot of the stuff we ended up with. I’d even have settled for finding out what that Abra Kadabra hint in Flash: Rebirth was about. It feels like Johns set up all these long-term threads, and then just ignored them.

I feel sorry for Manapul. The artist does an absolutely tremendous job. I mean, look at the screenshots here! His artwork is fantastic with its soft colours and its great sense of movement. Manapul took a lot of flack for the delays on the title, and I’ve come to suspect that the problems were with the scripts themselves. I don’t know if it was all the obligations on Johns’ time, or if it was editorially mandated re-writes, but I suspect that the scripts weren’t ready on time, which had a knock-on effect with the art. Indeed, as you get towards the end of the collection, both writing and art begin to deteriorate rather quickly. The final two or three issues are almost completely devoid of any excitement or energy, and seem to be ticking down the seconds until the big event can begin. The wonderful Colin Smith has a great piece on the problems with them, which is well worth a read.

Blade Runner!

I can’t help thinking that the form of this collection is wrong. The twelve issues are perhaps best seen as a miniseries rather than an on-going, although many books would be lucky to see twelve consecutive issues these days. The collection breaks down into two arcs – The Dastardly Death of the Rogues and Road to Flashpoint – as well as two single-issue “Rogue Profiles.” While the six-part Dastardly Death reads quite well on its own, I can’t help but feel the pacing is off. In effect, we spend two stories with Barry – both apparently unfolding in a relatively short amount of time – before we see history re-write itself.

That just isn’t enough to seed and develop the necessary plot threads. In Road to Flashpoint, Iris organises an “intervention” to try to pull Barry back to reality, and remind him of the people around him. Everybody is completely serious, which feels strange. After all, we’ve only witnessed Barry skipping one family picnic. He might have brushed Bart off, but he was kinda busy. These alone don’t merit an intervention. It might have been better to do a number of shorter arcs and even one-shots to establish these plot points. Compare Barry’s isolation to that of Hal Jordan in Green Lantern, where Johns seeds the idea that Hal hasn’t been relaxing over several issues and throughout War of the Green Lanterns, before paying it all off. That development feels organic and natural. In contrast, this plot point feels rather choppy and almost random.

Reverse course!

Another problem is the characterisation of Barry Allen himself. Since the return of the character, the internet seems to have exploded with fans trying to decide between their favourite Flash. Many fans feel shortchanged by the lack of coverage given to Wally West, the character who held the mantle for twenty years. Personally, I don’t mind who is under the cowl – I just want good stories, and good stories require good characterisation. I need to believe in Barry Allen as a person to invest in his adventures. Given the skill Mark Waid and Geoff Johns demonstrated with Wally West, it should be easy, but it isn’t.

Part of the issue is the irritating way that Johns tries to convince us that Barry is important. I know he’s the star of the series, and so should be the most important person in it, but: show, don’t tell. I don’t need to hear how awesome a forensics expert Barry is; show me him cracking a case. I don’t need the Rogues commenting on how awesome it is to face him again; show me how incredible their skirmishes are. However, I do think that it’s quite difficult for a character to top “saved an entire fictional universe” on their personal list of accomplishments – it’s hard to come up with a grander accomplishment than Barry’s sacrifice at the climax of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Under the Top...

So it feels odd to see Johns trying, but continuing to force the issue. I understand that Barry Allen is now the source of the speed force, everywhere and everywhen. I accept that. However, it feels like Johns keeps shoehorning that plot point in as if to assert that the character is important because of it. Not only is Barry Allen the source of every speed force ever, but this Barry Allen is the source of the speed force for every other Barry Allen in any other multiverse ever.

“You’re the generator of the speed force,” an alternate Barry Allen states, as if he’s come face-to-face with the almighty. I don’t mind the development, it’s just the way it is constantly repeated, for no purpose other than to assure us Barry is “important.” I don’t read The Flash because he’s “important”, I read it because it should be interesting. Make it interesting by tying it to the plot itself, rather than taking time out from the plot to discuss it.

An old case...

It’s a shame, because you can see the chalk outline of interesting character forming, especially in The Dastardly Death of the Rogues. He’s not sophisticated, but we can see enough of Barry Allen to like him. The “CSI Superhero” premise is inherently interesting, but the most interesting observation about Barry’s character comes from a line in a coffee shop. As the Renegades are trying to arrest him, Iris wonders why he’s reading up on an unrelated cold case.

“This kid may have been wrongly convicted of murder,” he states. “I’ll get back to the Renegades later.”It’s an interesting set of priorities for a spandex-wearing superhero, and I like it. We get a sense of what’s more important to Barry, and an inate sense of justice is far more critical than some massive superhero battle. It’s the point in the story when Barry comes closest to seeming like a real person, rather than a plot device. Sadly, there’s very little else going on of interest with Barry himself.

Rogue Warriors...

It’s especially disappointing because Johns has some good ideas otherwise. In particular, I think he found an angle that could have worked for The Flash as a book, something that might even have transitioned to film: the idea that the pace of our lives has accelerated dramatically in recent years, to the point where the Flash himself is perfectly suited to the modern urban environment. I love the little touches in Manapul’s art, like having Barry rearrange background objects or catch a falling cup, illustrating how on-top of the situation he is. “Remember Central City’s motto: the faster, the better!”

And, in contrast, the idea of Barry Allen being slow, or “emotionally standing still”, is a clever one. The Flash’s abilities might be perfectly suited to this brave new world, but Barry himself isn’t. It’s a nice dramatic angle, but the execution feels clunky and forced, as it competes for space with all the other plot points and thematic notes Johns has to hit before the clock strikes midnight and he’s suddenly writing a gigantic “event” comic book. He gets points for the idea, even if the follow-through isn’t nearly as skilful.

Monkey business...

Another example of where the limited run of the series undermines it is in the world-building that Johns does. His original run on The Flash and his current run on Green Lantern have demonstrated that the writer does a superb job of building and populating a fictional world for his characters to inhabit, complete with a supporting cast, recurring images, dramatic set-ups and so forth. Here, Johns actually gives us a fairly expansive new supporting cast for Barry, including co-workers and Iris. He gives Barry a fascinating job and an interesting hook for his secret identity. Hell, he even establishes an antagonistic relationship between Barry and the detectives accused of rushing to close cases. All of these are great potential plot points for future stories, ultimately reduced to nothing more than a tease.

There’s also a lot of potential in the way the Manapul and Johns portray the Flash himself. I think Manpul has a fantastic gift at displaying motion, the same wonderful skill that Kolins had during his tenure on the title, and Johns and Manapul manage to display the potential power of the superhero without veering too far off into “super mass punches” or any of those other eccentric powers. This is a series about a guy running really fast, and I think that the creators do an excellent job demonstrating the potential of that without veering too far into the geeky quirks of the skill set. There’s a great moment that opens the run, as Barry dismantles a falling car in midair to save a construction crew beneath, while one of my favourite sequences of the run has Barry rebuilding a destroyed apartment block in a few seconds. Here, Johns’ ideas and Manapul’s art seem to be in perfect synch, and it’s a shame we didn’t get more of this as the series went on.

Build him up...

Of course, if one looks at the run, it seems more like a twelve-issue miniseries leading into Flashpoint, 2011’s obligatory “big event” for DC comics. So, understandably, it sees Johns devoting quite a bit of time setting up the gigantic crossover. I honestly don’t mind that set-up in theory, as it’s not really that different than setting up plot points to pick up down the road – Flashpoint could arguably have been issues #13-17 of the run, rather than their own series. I think The Dastardly Death of the Rogues actually does a superb job setting up some key plot points, most of which only become visible in hindsight.

In particular, we get the rather wonderful mirror deployed by the Rogues, designed by Sam Scudder – a villain of Barry’s generation. Looking back, as Flashpoint sees Barry construct a world similar to that he saw in the mirror, we find ourselves asking if the mirror somehow infected and corrupted him. Mirror Master explains, “It might jus’ seem like a show — but it’s a slow workin’ poison.” Later, he elaborates, “From what Scudder’s notes said, th’ looking glass plants a seed in its target. All we have to do now is wait a wee bit for it grow.” It’s a nice little bit of foreshadowing, and something that appears relatively innocuous amid all the other stuff going on around it. I also really dug the artwork – it seemed like Manapul was channeling the superb Wednesday Comics: Flash in illustrating the sequence.

Through the looking glass...

There are other interesting elements of foreshadowing, including the presence of the Renegades – heroes using the iconography of the Flash’s villains. Perhaps they were designed to contrast against Barry Allen’s psychological break in Flashpoint, a hero responsible for untold damage and destruction. The future Top is presented as a law man who distorts history to create a happier world for himself, similar to what Barry himself ultimately does – it’s interesting to hear Barry argue against such reckless interference, given how the plot point would pay off down the line.

Road to Flashpoint also features some element of hinting, with a renegade Barry Allen demonstrating that our protagonist might not be the paragon of virtue we assume him to be. This version of Barry is capable of violence towards Bart, which is something we’d never fathom “our” Barry doing. It suggests that it is possible to push the hero past a breaking point, and suggests that Barry is perfectly capable of rationalising reckless and poorly-considered courses of action, with little thought as to the consequences. After all, this might not be “the” Barry Allen, but it is “a” Barry Allen.

A flash of inspiration...

The problem is, quite simply, that Road to Flashpoint is mostly red herrings. It makes it particularly frustrating to read, because it feels rushed. You might be able to forgive the rushed writing and rushed artwork if it was necessary to the plot or the characters – if it provided some nugget of information that would have been cheap to withhold from the audience. Unfortunately, there’s none of that in Road to Flashpoint, which is just misdirection. However, it’s not entertaining misdirection – it’s handled in a hurried state, as if to assure us the information is vital or important. I would rather have had a single well-written and carefully-illustrated chapter in the story than this selection of rushed and forced issues.

Road to Flashpoint reveals a strange new power for the Reverse-Flash – the ability to steal time. It’s a clever concept, and one that should work well with the villain, if the writer took the time to connect it to the fact that’s actually been stealing Barry Allen’s time for quite a while. After all, he stole Barry Allen’s childhood by murdering his mother, and he stole his name and his appearance. There’s something to be said about the parasitic nature of a villain who literally draws his power from the hero. However, Road to Flashpoint doesn’t do any of that. It’s too busy trying to hit plot points to develop the themes. This wouldn’t be so frustrating if the plot points were necessary to begin with. However, what does Hot Pursuit offer to this run, except another counterpart to Barry Allen? What was the point of the Patty Spivot interlude? I don’t know.

Flash of Two Times?

I also wonder a bit about the Reverse-Flash himself. Johns has done great work with villains. I’d argue that his “Rogue Profile” issues, two of which are included here, are among his best Flash writing. I think that promoting Sinestro as a villain with an understandable philosophy was one of the major successes of Johns’ Green Lantern. And, to be frank, I think Johns has a good hook on Professor Zoom, a character who was dead when he started writing comic books. I like the idea of a dystopian future, a psychotic fan, and a nutjob in a silly yellow suit. The Reverse-Flash seems threatening here.

However, the character’s impact has been somewhat undermined by the sheer frequency of his appearances. Sure, Sinestro is now a key player in Johns’ Green Lantern mythos, but the build up to Sinestro Corps War was so effective because the character’s influence was felt rather than seen. He showed up in Green Lantern: Rebirth and then hid in the shadows until the first issue of Sinestro Corps War. Despite that fact that Johns’ run on The Flash is much shorter, Zoom has played a significant part in Flash: Rebirth, Blackest Night: Flash and Road to Flashpoint, while getting his own “Rogue Profile” issue and playing a major part in Captain Boomerang’s. As fascinating as Johns’ take on the character might be, that feels like pretty heavy saturation for a character who turns out to be a minor player in Flashpoint.

Run with it...

Still, I like the way that John seeds the involvement of the 25th century as a major part of the Flash’s world. It has always been the Reverse-Flash’s home, but I like the idea of “time cops” and Barry’s potential long-term involvement with the future. “Green Lantern is to Space as the Flash is to Time,” Johns has been quoted as saying, and I like the idea. After all, it reinforces the spiritual connection between the two titles that launched DC’s Silver Age revolution. It also gives the Flash a rather unique niche, allowing him to do regular superheroics, while allowing a larger world to be built five centuries into the future. Unfortunately, this idea was also cut short by Flashpoint and Johns’ departure from the title, which is a damn shame.

That’s the real tragedy of this twelve-issue run. There are so many clever ideas and great concepts introduced, but there’s no room to develop them. Instead, they serve to add to the weight of the series, bogging down a book that should be zipping along faster than we can even see it. There are enough core concepts here to sustain a series for years, and they’re forced into a narrative that’s already trying to be more sweeping than efficient. There’s no room for any of these concepts to breath, which is a major pain, because we know that there’s going to be a reboot at the end of it. It isn’t even as if Johns’ successor can pick up the discarded toys and play with them, not that we should expect them to – adhering to Johns’ plan would prevent the future writer from telling their own story. It’s a lose-lose situation with regard to these clever little ideas.

Got a nice ring to it...

It’s a shame, because the art is mostly quite nice, as you can see. Francis Manapul has a wonderful eye that is perfectly suited to this book, with an approach that effortlessly creates the illusion of speed. Scott Kolins has shifted his style, so his work here feels quite differentiated from his defining tenure on the book years ago. It fits quite nicely with Manapul’s own style, which works quite well. I think that the book was competing with Batwoman as the best-drawn book in the DC canon in recent years.

On the other hand, the artists are ill-served by the rush job on the last few chapters, swapping pages seemingly at random. While the styles are similar, the transitions are jarring – not least because these issues don’t show either talent working at their creative peak. As noted above, I don’t think the artists were to blame for the delay on the book, as Manapul has proven he’s able to hold a monthly schedule on the relaunched Flash book. Still, The Dastardly Death of the Rogues looks quite beautiful, and I think that Manapul’s art is a major factor in making it the most consistently entertaining Flash story since the end of the long-running partnership between Johns and Kolins.

One cold commander...

Francis Manapul has taken over writing duties on the book as part of “the new 52” or the “DCnU”, along with Brian Buccellato. Early word on the title is that the pair are knocking it out of the park in terms of writing and artwork, so I am very much looking forward to digging into the book. I know there won’t be much continuity carried over between this short run and their new tenure on the title, but I wouldn’t object to seeing one or two of the concepts here included in their work. I wish them the best of luck, and will be picking up the collection.

I really wish that this had been better. The talent involved in producing the book was fairly impressive, and all the right elements are present. However, it seems like the book didn’t know how to hit them, or at least how to hit them fast enough. There were great ideas, but they fought for space with narrative dead-ends. As good as the first arc was, it meant that the second half of the run was dedicated to crossing off plot points on a checklist. It felt like Johns was plotting this twelve-issue run more out of a sense of obligation than out of fun. And that’s a shame.

Over in a Flash...

If there’s one comic that deserves to be fast-paced and exciting fun, The Flash is it.

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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