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The Flash (1987-2009) #5-6 – Speed McGee/Super Nature (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 let me know in the comments.

Half-way through its first year, The Flash is still a mess.

It’s easy enough to see what writer Mike Baron is trying to do, but nothing is really gelling together. In theory, The Flash is the story of a twenty-year-old kid who is trying to fill his mentor’s shoes. It’s about a hero who has only just passed from his teenage years into adulthood, and trying to navigate all the problems that come with that. The intent is quite obvious here – to draw in readers who had been alienated by the somewhat generic (and perhaps even “dull”) perception of Barry Allen.

"Hm. This is always much more atmospheric when Batman does it."

“Hm. This is always much more atmospheric when Batman does it.”

This is an approach that clearly owes a lot to Marvel’s reinvention of the superhero genre, and it’s fairly easy to read Mike Baron’s Wally West as an attempt to update the superhero archetype established by Peter Parker for the eighties. Wally is a bit more grounded and real than his predecessor, with a bit of an edge. He finds himself navigating issues and personal problems that Barry Allen never had to worry about.

Unfortunately, the series can’t quite make this work. For every step forwards, there is an awkward step backwards. Every time it seems like The Flash might have a good personal hook into the world of Wally West, it falls back on generic superhero clichés that seem to have been ad-libbed into the script.

"Talk about an explosive relationship."

“Talk about an explosive relationship.”

The idea of a romance between Wally West and Tina McGee is fascinating on paper. He is twenty years of age. Tina is thirty-one. It is a nice inversion of norms in that sort of relationship – pop culture seems infinitely fonder of older men with younger women than younger men with older women. More than that, Tina McGee is married. She’s not divorced; she is legally still married. However, as far as she is concerned, the marriage is over.

This is a rather complex interpersonal dynamic. There are a rake of interesting stories to be told here. Why hasn’t Tina sought a divorce to officially end the relationship? Is she still hopeful it can be salvaged? Does her refusal to pursue a divorce say something about her relationship with Wally? Does Wally have the emotional maturity to involve himself in a situation this complex and multifaceted? These are all intriguing questions, but The Flash avoids most of them.

Not quite mellow yellow...

Not quite mellow yellow…

It turns out that Tina’s husband, Jerry, is a super villain. Because of course he is. This is a revelation that makes the rest of the plot a lot easier to write. It means that Wally can get involved in a knock-down brawl with Jerry McGee without seeming like a bully. It also means that there are personal stakes in this battle between the Flash and the so-called “Speed Demon.” It is a plot development that immediately cuts off a whole host of more interesting alternatives.

To be fair, Jerry McGee is not a super villain when the issue opens. Instead, he is just a researcher on “Project Ubermensch.” That seems like a very loaded name to give any genetic research project. One imagines the shareholders would love that leaking out to the public. As with Baron’s previous stories, it feels like Speed McGee is the result of a contrived coincidence. In Happy Birthday, Wally! and The Kilg%re, Wally just happened to randomly run into trouble. Now he happens to date trouble’s wife.

Sensitive.

Sensitive.

Just in case we aren’t sure how we should feel about Jerry McGee, it turns out that he is a domestic abuser. “I should have done this years ago,” he remarks before beating his wife in the opening scene. (We then cut outside the house to a collection of ill-judged sound effects: “bam pow thud crash.”) There is a sense that Baron is trying to be edgy, and to touch on a subject that is often overlooked or ignored. However, it just feels crass and condescending.

This isn’t a harrowing tale of an abusive marriage. This isn’t an exploration of the culture that tolerates and ignores this sort of violence, enabling abusers. This isn’t the story of the realities of domestic abuse. Instead, it’s a very cheap way of making the audience hate Jerry McGee, of signposting that he is the bad guy. Tina McGee is just a female character victimised so that the audience knows who Wally is supposed to hit and why. It’s a wonderful example of how tone-deaf Mike Baron’s work on The Flash could be.

We all have our demons...

We all have our demons…

What is interesting is the design of the Speed Demon. The character is a super-speedster who dresses primarily in yellow. Indeed, he even arms himself with mustard gas so as to maintain the colour theme. Of course, this is just superhero colour theory in action. The Flash, being a hero, should have a primary colour theme – his colour is red. His enemies, being villains, should have secondary colour themes – and the opposite of red on the colour wheel is yellow. So it makes sense for the Speed Demon to dress in yellow.

However, the costume cannot help but evoke the iconic design of the Reverse Flash. To be fair, the Speed Demon has lots of blue on his costume, but the visual connection between the Reverse Flash and the Speed Demon is quite clear. Both are characters that can move very quickly, and both are predominantly yellow. Both are primarily motivated by their own insane hatred of the Flash, rather than by any sense of material gain.

Bane finds it much easier to do this sort of thing over the knee...

Bane finds it much easier to do this sort of thing over the knee…

Mike Baron made a conscious effort to stay away from the traditional trappings of The Flash. The Rogues did not appear; Grodd did not appear; the Reverse Flash did not appear. These characters would all work themselves back into rotation during later runs on the title, but there is a sense that Baron is trying to give Wally West a fresh start and a new beginning, one quite distinct from his costumed legacy. It’s not a bad decision, but it feels weird to avoid direct comparison and then invite it through character designs.

To be fair, Baron is trying to anchor Wally West in his own supporting cast, as distinct from inheriting Barry’s allies and enemies. Much has been made of the fact that Wally is a former member of the Teen Titans. The supporting cast of The Flash seems to be comprised of the cast of The New Teen Titans. The fact that Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s run on that book was a massive hit probably contributed to the decision to emphasise Wally’s time on the team.

Taking a run at him...

Taking a run at him…

The Titans popped up to wish Wally a happy birthday in Happy Birthday, Wally!, while Cyborg guest-starred in Kill the Kilg%re! and Donna Troy and Gar appear in Super Nature. Despite Wally’s insistence that he is no longer a member of the Titans, The Flash stresses the connection. While it does occasionally feel a little contrived – if they are so close, how come they are seldom around to help when he really needs it? – it is a decision that emphasises the differences between Wally and his predecessor.

As with Baron’s other plots, there is a sense that this is all being made up on the fly. There’s no real attempt to foreshadow plot reveals or to offer information before it is necessary for the story to advance. For example, the character of Conrad Bortz is only mentioned when the plot needs another confrontation between Wally West and Jerry McGee. He is not introduced beforehand, or mentioned. The story’s logic is transparent: Wally needs to fight Jerry, so we need an obvious target for Jerry to attack.

Changed in a flash...

Changed in a flash…

Never mind that this creates some strange plot holes. Jerry McGee is not only able to visit his lab in Speed McGee, but he is also able to run his experiment. It isn’t as if he breaks in. The guard acknowledges him, and the readout confirms, “Identity confirmed; access permitted.” However, in his conversation with Wally during Super Nature, Bortz suggests that he had suspended Jerry and locked him out of the project for his erratic behaviour. “Finally, I had to bar him from the labs. Had all the locks changed.” It doesn’t fit.

Speed McGee and Super Nature are very much in keeping with the mood and tone of The Flash series around them. They demonstrate that Baron has some solid ideas, but no idea where to take them.

You might be interested in our reviews of The Flash:

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