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The Flash (1987-2009) #7-8 – Red Trinity/Purple Haze (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.

Red Trinity and Purple Haze are at least plotted a bit more tightly than Mike Baron’s earlier issues of The Flash.

Baron’s first two two-part stories on The Flash had seen Wally West literally running into trouble – encountering both Vandal Savage and the Kilg%re by chance while running across the country. Speed McGee was only slightly more subtle, revealing that Wally was now dating a woman whose husband just happened to be working on attempts to generate super-speed. Wally seemed to spend the first six months of The Flash randomly bumping into trouble that seemed tailor-made for him.

... And we're off!

… And we’re off!

While the plotting of Red Trinity is hardly elegant, it at least makes a bit more sense. Baron builds off the events of Speed McGee to present a story that flows relatively logically – well, according to comic book logic. Instead of conveniently crossing paths with a problem tailored to his abilities, Wally instead sets out specifically to find the problem at the heart of this issue. His encounter with the eponymous trio is as part of his attempts to help find a cure for the self-titled “Speed Demon”, Jerry McGee.

Inevitably, this brings him into conflict with more new opponents perfectly suited to do battle with The Flash.

Trio of terror?

Trio of terror?

The central drive of the two-part story is Wally’s attempts to find a cure – or a treatment – for Jerry McGee. The abusive husband of Tina McGee, Jerry McGee had checked off super villain origin clichés. He was a scientist working in a lab, deliberately dabbling in genetic engineering; he had a personal problem with our hero; he had decided to forgo anything resembling good practice and just injected himself with some straight-up monster serum. Super Nature had gone even further, and had him threaten revenge against his employer.

Following a thread that had at least been foreshadowed one issue earlier – another example of how Baron’s plotting is improving – Wally tries to find the noted Russian scientist Orloff. In true comic book fashion, Orloff is the only person who could possibly cure Jerry McGee. He has develop “a chemical that reverses effects caused by steroids.” This seems like a rather generic course of treatment for Jerry McGee’s situation, but… sure, let’s go with that.

Bounding ahead...

Bounding ahead…

Inevitably – although somewhat logically – it turns out that Orloff has been conducting his own speed experiments. This leads to Wally crossing paths with six different speedsters. One of the more interesting aspects of Baron’s run was his conscious attempt to get away from the stock Flash villains. “Flash will probably never tackle many of the other Flash’s Rogues Gallery villains,” Baron offered during one contemporary interview.

Baron tried to compensate in a number of ways. He drafted in Vandal Savage as the big bad of his run – his appearances book-ending Baron’s run on the character. He also created a number of new villains. Chunk was probably the most successful character introduced by Baron, popping up relatively frequently in the years ahead. The Kilg%re also made a couple of appearances both in The Flash and elsewhere.

Jumping on in...

Jumping on in…

However, there is a sense that it’s hard to create new villains for the Flash. Given Wally West’s skillset, there are certain requirements in a credible adversary – particularly one who doesn’t have the weight of continuity and history behind them. Keeping up with the Flash is a fairly rudimentary requirement. After all, the story’s over if the Flash can take the other guy out before he blinks. The problem is that there are only so many times you can use the came skill sets.

The Red Trinity and the Blue Trinity are all speedsters, just like Speed Demon was a speedster. Given that there is nothing particularly elaborate about any of the set pieces, it seems like Wally has done nothing but fight people who can run fast across two stories (and four issues). The Red and Blue Trinities and Speed Demon feel like stock characters, with little interesting outside the fact that they can run fast. This means that they will inevitably end up overshadowed by the Reverse Flash, the Flash’s definitive speedster adversary.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

Diversity is a big part of any superhero rogues gallery. Having multiple adversaries who can do the same thing or fulfill the same function feels redundant. Inevitably, one of those characters will come to tower over the others, and the others will generally scrape by if the writers can figure out another hook for them. The Cluemaster will never be an a-list Batman villain, because almost everything he can do is done by the more popular Riddler. So this fixation on speedster adversaries feels a little clumsy and misguided.

Interestingly, Purple Haze takes place during DC’s big Millennium crossover. Written by Steve Englehart and illustrated by Joe Staton, Millennium tends to wind up forgotten in the discussion of DC’s event comics; it falls into the crossover lacuna that exists between Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour, along with Legends or Armageddon 2001 or War of the Gods. The six issue miniseries was published weekly across the line, with various books officially and unofficially tying into it.

A diplomatic run-around...

A diplomatic run-around…

While Crisis on Infinite Earths was a massive crossover that spanned the entire line, the following crossovers tended to be a bit smaller and more character-focused. Legends was built around the return of the New Gods to DC continuity. War of the Gods served as the culmination of George Perez’s extended run on Wonder Woman. Given that Millennium was overseen by Steve Englehart, it makes sense that the crossover would be focused on the Green Lantern line. It built off Englehart’s work with mythos and helped to launch New Guardians.

The basic plot of the crossover featured an attack on the DC universe by the Manhunters – the evil robots that had originally helped to keep order in a chaotic universe, as the forerunners of the Green Lantern Corps. Englehart was quite fond of the Manhunters, featuring them as antagonists during his Justice League of America run, in a story that would be (loosely) adapted as the first episode of Bruce Timm’s Justice League to focus on the character of Green Lantern.

He's always Russian...

He’s always Russian…

Over the course of Millennium, it was revealed that the Manhunters had placed “sleeper” agents on Earth in key positions to help them launch a devastating attack upon the assembled superheroes. Over the course of the event, the Guardians recruit a team of new heroes to help fight off the Manhunters. These “New Guardians” were assembled from around the world, clearly intended to diversify DC’s still predominantly white line-up. Englehart and Staton’s spin-off New Guardians comic only lasted twelve issues.

Englehart oversaw the crossover, helping to coordinate with the creative teams on the various books. “I worked out with every other writer what needed to be done,” Engelhart explained in an interview. “They then proceeded to do or not do their part.” Wally West remains somewhat at the periphery of the story, and Baron seems to use the involvement in the crossover to just tell the story that he wants to tell anyway.

Party on, Wally...

Party on, Wally…

Indeed, the narration suggests that Baron is less-than-thrilled at having to tie into the larger story. “I hate this,” Wally laments. “I can never finish anything before something else pops up.” He should try writing for a major comic book company, eh? He cynically assesses the situation as “some kind of world-threat … everybody’s in on this. I’ll have to go.” He rather blithely summarises the big Crisis-on-Infinite-Earths-inspired superhero assemblage scene, “Then Supes gets up on his soapbox. That’s all she wrote. We have to do it.”

(That said, it looks like the Guardians are a lot less successful at assembling the masses than the Monitor was. While there are obviously logical in-story reasons for this – the Monitor was drawing heroes from across space and time and dimensions, while the Guardians have to make do with what they have – it does offer a darkly humourous assessment of just how important this Manhunter invasion must be in the scheme of things. It looks like the Guardians should have booked a smaller venue.)

"I knew we should have promised refreshments!"

“I knew we should have promised refreshments!”

Interestingly, Baron actively lobbied for Wally West to have a bigger part in the event miniseries itself, perhaps hoping for more exposure for his comic. He explains that he petitioned Englehart to give Wally something to do as part of the main six-issue story:

There’s this Millenium series that Steve Englehart is writing in which the Flash is called upon to rescue Cregorio, a prisoner in South America who happens to be gay. And the Flash is real uptight with this guy, because he keeps putting his hand on the Flash’s ass and saying, “My, what a lovely costume.” So the Flash is going to be a little upset. 

Is this a fill-in issue of The Flash that Englehart is writing?

He’s writing Millenium as a mini-series and the Flash is going to appear in that. Originally Booster Gold was going to go after Gregorio, but Steve and I talked about it and figured the Flash would be better. It seemed to fit Flash’s character. Wally is aggressively heterosexual, possibly because he fears the latent homosexual feelings that most young men experience. Most of our readers should be able to relate to it. If not, they should seek counseling!

Gregario de la Vega was a homosexual hispanic character who would become the hero Extraño and would feature as part of Englehart and Staton’s New Guardians. The character’s portrayal was every bit as painful as Baron’s description would make it sound – not for nothing has Extraño been described as “every stereotype of a gay man you could think of.”

Running circles around the enemy...

Running circles around the enemy…

In a way, New Guardians was the perfect microcosm of DC’s late-eighties attempts to keep up with the times. The book’s ensemble was international and multi-racial, confronting issues associated with race and sexuality. Demonstrating just how in tune with times it was: white South African Janwillem Kroef refused to join the team because it had non-white members; the villain Snowflame was powered by cocaine; Extraño was eventually attacked by an “AIDs vampire” named Hemo-Goblin and died after he was identified as HIV-positive.

It is all as terrible as it sounds, a demonstration of how desperately DC comics wanted to appear relevant in the era of the late eighties. These clumsy (and occasionally offensive) attempts at reflecting contemporary concerns explain a lot of the strange creative decisions that Mike Baron was making on The Flash. Wally West’s jerkish streak, his strange family issues, his economic insecurity – they all seem to be designed to speak to young readers looking for a little more “edge” in their comic books.

Chewing it over...

Chewing it over…

The problem is that none of these elements quite work. For example, it seems a little much to have Wally worry about his finances when he won the lottery at the end of the first issue. Complaining about being drafted in to help save the planet, Wally laments, “And we’re supposed to do all this for the greater glory of the human race. But do we get financial assistance? Do we get tax breaks?” This is a legitimate point for somebody like Spider-Man, but quite hypocritical coming from a multimillionaire.

Similarly, Baron seems to have trouble figuring out what exactly he is trying to do with Wally’s father, who guest-stars in the issue. Rather clumsily, Baron tries to tie Wally’s lottery victory into his superspeed, explaining how they both serve to put a barrier between Wally and his parents. “I feel guilty about my parents,” he admits. “I hardly know them. Ever since I got the speed… they’re like peasants whose son is inexplicably elevated beyond them.” It’s not innovative or elegant, but it comes close to working.

Gotta dash!

Gotta dash!

(Baron even manages to tie the family issues into the subplot featuring Orloff. Introducing Wally to the Red Trinity, he explains, “Not the children of my marriage — these are the children of my genius. And the state. I suppose that’s a marriage.” Given Wally’s own family issues, there’s a lot of room for development or exploration there. Baron never quite gets to explore that as well he might, but at least he is trying to tie everything together.)

Then again, the subplot involving Wally and his father is sabotaged by the issue’s second big tie-in to Millennium. It turns out that Wally’s parents are going through a rough patch, which is something that a lot of readers might have been able to relate to. However, his father then casually drops a bit of a bomb-shell. “I’m a manhunter, Wally.” It’s a completely ridiculous out-of-left-field twist that isn’t developed enough to work as any sort of metaphor for a strained father-son relationship. (To say nothing of the fact that is comes out of nowhere.)

Similarly, Baron then reveals that Wally’s father is working with Blue Trinity, the evil Russian speedsters for some reason. “These Russians are good kids — smart, obedient.” That seems rather strange. How did they meet up? Why do they trust him? What are their working arrangements like? Is the Russian government on-board? Are Blue Trinity working with the Manhunter invasion as a whole, or jsut Wally’s father? The issue never really answers any of these questions – instead offering a convenient fight scene to close the issue.

To be fair, Red Trinity and Purple Haze come closer to working than any of Baron’s earlier scripts. The point of intersection with Millennium also provides some measure of context for the (many) issues with how Baron is approaching The Flash. That said, the comic is still struggling more than half-a-year into its life, still searching for its own voice and identity. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a comic about a young man wearing his mentor’s mantle, but it doesn’t make the series any more satisfying.

You might be interested in our reviews of The Flash:

 

3 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on tboyk.

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