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The Flash (1987-2009) #1-2 – Happy Birthday, Wally!/Hearts… of Stone (Review)

So, I’m considering reviewing this season of The Flash, because the pilot looks interesting and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Scarlet Speedster. I’m also considering taking a storyline-by-storyline trek through the 1987-2009 Flash on-going series as a companion piece. If you are interested in reading either of these, please share the link love and let me know in the comments.

Like the rest of the comic book industry, DC comics went through some serious changes in the late eighties. Books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had re-shaped expectations of the comic book world. There was a sense that things had to change. DC was worried about its own expansive and increasingly convoluted continuity. In order to streamline that continuity, DC decided to stage a massive crossover event. Crisis on Infinite Earths was a truly epic comic that reshaped the shared universe.

It made quite the impression, providing the opportunity for a clean start for many of the characters. George Perez gave Wonder Woman a new origin and back story. John Byrne reinvented The Man of Steel, making several additions to the Superman mythos that have remained in place through to today. Frank Miller offered one of the defining Batman origin stories with Year One. There were obvious continuity issues around certain characters and franchises, but Crisis on Infinite Earths was a new beginning.

If the suit fits...

If the suit fits…

This was arguably most true for The Flash. Cary Bates had finished up a decade-long run on the title with the mammoth storyline The Trial of the Flash, where Barry Allen was accused of murdering his arch-nemesis in cold blood. Although the arc ended with Barry retiring to the distant future (comics!), the character went straight from that extended arc into Crisis on Infinite Earths, where he eventually gave his life to save the multiverse in what became an iconic death sequence.

More than that, Barry Allen stayed dead for twenty years; a phenomenal amount of time for a comic book character. In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC offered a fresh new beginning for the Flash. Wally West, the former “Kid Flash” and sidekick, stepped into the iconic role and headlined a monthly series for over two decades.

His heart might not be in it, yet...

His heart might not be in it, yet…

According to Crisis on Infinite Earths writer Marv Wolfman, the reason that DC’s editors decided to kill off Barry Allen as part of the crossover was because they perceived the character to be “dull.” In fact, Wolfman disagreed with the decision:

Please note that I didn’t think it was a good idea to kill The Flash but those were my marching orders, so I did the best I could to make his death as moving as I could. Here is the given I worked from: Much of the reason the people in charge didn’t care for Barry Allen was that he was considered dull. I felt if I could come up with a way of making him vital again while keeping him alive, then perhaps Barry would be given a second lease on life.

This perception was widespread in the eighties. The broad feeling was that DC’s characters (with the exception of Batman) were too archetypal and generic, too powerful and godlike. This position still carries weight, and has even been articulated by Joss Whedon.

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

So Crisis on Infinite Earths was very consciously an attempt to reinvent and re-work certain aspects of DC comics’ mythology. Marv Wolfman has suggested that Crisis on Infinite Earths was just one example of the way that DC perpetually reinvents itself:

But as for how it fits into DC Continuity, it’s always been my belief that every generation needs the comics recreated for them. This happened by accident in the past: Comics were created in 1938 with Superman. About 25 years later, between 1956-1961, the Silver age was created with no direct regard for what happened before. About 25 years after that, I did Crisis with George Perez and that once again updated the DCU. And now, 25 years after Crisis the New 52 has been launched.

This would seem to be a fair appraisal of DC’c creative decisions over the decades, even if it glosses over some of the massive headaches caused by the pseudo-reboots in Crisis on Infinite Earths and Flashpoint.

Everybody dance now...

Everybody dance now…

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that The Flash was being conscious retooled with an eye on making the character more relevant for the eighties. Given the frequent criticisms that DC characters are “too powerful”, it makes sense that so many of the comic books launched in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths would try to tone down their power levels. John Byrne’s Man of Steel could no longer jungle planets or casually travel back in time, to give one obvious example.

The first two issues of the new Flash comic work hard to establish limits and boundaries on Wally West’s abilities as the Flash. When he explains that it will take him three hours to deliver a heart transplant, the doctors are astonished. “Three?” one asks. “We thought you could travel at light speed.” Wally replies, rather simply, “No more. I have a top speed of 705mph. It isn’t easy to sustain.” It feels like a rather conscious and forced attempt to impose an arbitrary limit on what the Flash could do.

Okay, not EVERYBODY dance now...

Okay, not EVERYBODY dance now…

Writer Mike Baron has explained that this was a conscious attempt to ground the character, to make him feel more realistic. There were other attempts made to underscore this point:

One of the things we’ve done, in dealing with his power, is tried to show the cost in energy. He just can’t go running off at the speed of sound all day and not pay for it. He has to eat enormous quantities of food, carbohydrates in particular. He drinks huge amounts. And when he really exerts himself, he’ll end up sleeping for 16 hours at a stretch.

This feels more than a little bit trite, and even like it misunderstands the problem that people had relating to the Flash as a character.

No rest for the not-quite-wicked...

No rest for the not-quite-wicked…

While there are pretty significant physics-related differences between travelling 705mph and the speed of light, it isn’t as if a person moving 705mph is proportionally more relatable to the reader. Besides, it isn’t really a limit, because all that a writer or artist has to do is show a panel of Wally eating lots of burgers after doing a massive stunt. It can also be used for cheap drama, like having Spider-Man run out of webbing fluid at an important point.

Super powers often have little direct correlation on a character’s relative popularity. Batman is just a billionaire dressed as a flying rodent, and he might be the most popular superhero in the world, but Wolverine is almost as popular despite having the ability to regrown himself from a single cell when the plot demands it. Superhero characters resonate with audiences for reasons beyond their power sets. Baron’s immediate fixation on stressing how much weaker Wally West is feels like a misplaced priority.

All fired up...

All fired up…

It’s no wonder that Mark Waid would work hard to push back against these limitations during his run on the title. With Born to Run and The Return of Barry Allen, Waid would effectively throw out a lot of the “groundwork” that was established in these early issues – aggressively tackling the elephants in the room. At once, Waid would brush aside many of the miscalculations made by Baron and would also do a much better job of helping Wally West to make the role his own.

Quite a significant amount of Happy Birthday, Wally West and Hearts… of Stone seem to put the reader at odds with Wally West. There’s a sense that Baron is trying to position Wally West as a hero for the eighties, but in a way that feels tone deaf and awkward. West is preoccupied with the idea of money and income. This isn’t a bad idea of itself. After all, Peter Parker spent much of his publication history struggling to make ends meet. The problem is how Baron tackles this issue.

Vandal almost dealt the Flash a crushing defeat...

Vandal almost dealt the Flash a crushing defeat…

Asked to ferry a heart transplant across the country, West informs the medical staff, “But you should know I’m not a member of the Titans and receive no funding from them. If I have to do two thousand miles flat out, there’s a cost to me. You are not asking a casual favour.” He sounds almost like a yuppie superhero. After he has outlined his position, he continues with a very capitalist, “The question is, what can you do for me?”

To be fair, West has a point here. He notes that Barry Allen died bankrupt, up to his ears in legal costs. It is interesting to wonder how a superhero pays the bills. It is nice to see Baron putting thought into how the Flash acquires medical coverage. However, the scene itself is tone-deaf. West doesn’t wait until after he has delivered the heart to make his point. He pushes the issue before he agrees to help carry the heart transplant to the woman waiting.

A Savage opponent...

A Savage opponent…

West even treats the the heart transplant and his speed limitations as a ticking clock to help him leverage his position. “Give me the heart and I’ll leave,” he explains. “It will take me at least three hours to reach Seattle.” He stops just short of making a “tick tock tick tock” to emphasis his point. To be fair, West has a point that this is a “non-profit operation”, but that scene is a horrible misjudged way of introducing the new character wearing the mantle of the Flash.

It feels like a conscious effort to give Wally West “an edge”, to help keep him in line with the anti-heroes that were popular during the late eighties. After all, Mike Baron was writing The Punisher at the same time that he was writing The Flash, which gives a nice sense of how the industry was working in the late eighties. There is a sense that Baron is trying very hard to make Wally West seem a little more hardcore than his predecessor.

Running wild...

Running wild…

Of course, all of this stuff about Wally West’s income is undercut by having the character win the lottery at the end of the first issue. Suddenly, West goes from a character ransoming organ transplants to nouveau riche. There is an interesting story to tell here, but it feels a little dissonant, as if Mike Baron isn’t sure of the direction in which he wishes to take Wally West. Is West a hard-edged working class hero to whom younger audiences can relate? Or is he a wealthy male fantasy figure? It’s tough to be both at the same time.

It is weird that Happy Birthday, Wally West puts such emphasis on Wally West’s money issues before throwing them out the window completely. He insists on flights to fly him home. When he buys civilian clothes, he makes a point to “save all the receipts for St. Mary’s.” There’s a sense that Baron is trying to position West as one superhero archetype transforming into another – the luckless money-starved Peter Parker becoming the wealthy Bruce Wayne.

Dead stop...

Dead stop…

The problem is that neither is developed and that the latter seems at odds with attempts to make Wally West seem more grounded and realistic to audience members. After all, it is hard to argue that the suddenly rich twenty-year-old who can afford to buy a new house for himself and his girlfriend on an impulse is that much more relatable or interesting than “dull” old Barry Allen. These introductory issues have to sell the audience on an entirely new person behind the cowl, but they make it tough to like Wally West.

There is also a sense that Mike Baron is trying a little too hard to make The Flash a grim and gritty comic, reflecting contemporary tastes. At one point, Vandal Savage presents Wally with a box containing a human heart. When Wally asks Savage why he is so brutal and violent, Savage responds with pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo. “I cannot die, therefore I kill.” What does that even mean? That’s just gibberish trying to sound deep.

Available from all good book stores.

Available from all good book stores.

This fascination with darkness and violence reflects the worst of the influence that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had on mainstream superhero comics. It’s not for nothing that Vandal Savage makes this observation in a panel with an advertisement referencing Watchmen. The advertisement asks, “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Perhaps the more relevant question might be, “Who Understands the Watchmen?”

The plot of the opening two-issue story arc is also particularly flimsy. While running an organ transplant to Seattle, Wally West just happens to run across Vandal Savage in the middle of a murder. This then spurs the rest of the plot to action, although it seems pretty contrived. What are the odds of Wally passing right through a crime scene like that? It feels quite contrived, even by the standards of superhero comics – and that’s before you get into the vagaries of why Vandal Savage does what he does.

No time for reflection...

No time for reflection…

Vandal Savage is an interesting choice of antagonist here. Baron would bring him back at the end of his short run on The Flash. Given the goal here is to establish Wally West as the Flash, it might have made more sense to pit Wally against a more established antagonist more closely associated with Barry Allen – throwing him into conflict with the Rogues or with Gorilla Grodd. Vandal Savage seems like a rather strange choice on the surface.

Although, there is a certain amount of logic to his appearance here. Vandal Savage is an immortal; he is a man who cannot die. He is a constant, an absolute. He has always been and he always will be. In contrast, the Flash is a character based around movement and dynamism. Wally West first appeared as a teen sidekick and then took over the mantle of his mentor after Barry Allen died in battle. The Flash is about change and evolution in a way that stands diametrically opposed to Vandal Savage.

Post-teenage wasteland...

Post-teenage wasteland…

Baron never quite articulates this point. Instead, he wallows in the darkness and brutality that Vandal Savage brings to the comic. It goes almost without saying that this is precisely the wrong direction for The Flash as a comic or a character. Barry Allen helped to herald in the Silver Age. His red-and-yellow costume is a superhero classic. Trying to do a dark and grounded take on the character feels like a misunderstanding of the concept.

You might be interested in our reviews of The Flash:

  • City of Heroes
    • Flashback: (1987-2009) #1-2 – Happy Birthday, Wally!/Hearts… of Stone
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2 Responses

  1. “Trying to do a dark and grounded take on the character feels like a misunderstanding of the concept.”

    As a Supergirl fan I might utter an ‘amen’ to that.

    Nice review. I’m only really familiar with Wally from the Justice League cartoon but it is fascinating to see the early days of him as the Flash.

    • Yep. West is fascinating because he really is one of the great “replacement” heroes. Coupled with the fact that Barry Allen wasn’t even the first Flash, it really cemented the idea that the Flash was a legacy that passed forward.

      That said, if you want to start reading Wally West, I’d skip Baron and the Messner-Loebs, and go straight into Waid or Johns. Most people prefer Waid, but I think Johns’ first Flash run is one of the two best runs he ever wrote. (Green Lanetern is the other.)

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