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The Flash (1987-2009) #12-14 – Velocity 9/Savage Vandalism/Wipe Out (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.

Does anything date a mainstream superhero comic worse than the almost obligatory anti-drug issue?

In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC made a rather conscious effort to engage with younger readers. Some of these worked, but quite a few were cringe-induncing in execution. On paper, introducing more diversity into the shared universe via New Guardians was a good idea; in practice, these diverse characters were little more than stereotypes. On paper, killing Barry Allen and replacing him with the younger Wally West was worth doing; in practice, it seemed like the company had no idea how to make him relatable.

Drugs are bad, m'kay?

Drugs are bad, m’kay?

Quite a few of the comics published around this time have dated poorly. They seem like awkward attempts to reengage with the cultural zietgeist, without understanding that zietgeist at all. Mike Baron had given fans a younger and more grounded version of the Flash, but immediately had the character win the lottery and move to the Hamptons. There was a sense that the comic wanted to dispel criticisms that DC was old-fashioned or stuffy, but had no idea of how to actually go about that.

This leads to stories like Velocity 9, the obligatory “winners don’t use drugs” story that tries to be timely and cutting edge, but simply doesn’t work.

Tripping himself up...

Tripping himself up…

Anti-drug messages in comic books are nothing new. After all, Stan Lee had made waves when he decided to publish Green Goblin Reborn! in The Amazing Spider-Man back in 1971. The Department of Health had asked Lee to include an anti-drugs message, and the writer was glad to help. The decision to feature drug use was so provocative that the “Comics Code Authority” would not sign off on it:

That was the only big issue that we had. I could understand them; they were like lawyers, people who take things literally and technically. The Code mentioned that you mustn’t mention drugs and, according to their rules, they were right. So I didn’t even get mad at them then. I said, “Screw it” and just took the Code seal off for those three issues. Then we went back to the Code again. I never thought about the Code when I was writing a story, because basically I never wanted to do anything that was to my mind too violent or too sexy. I was aware that young people were reading these books, and had there not been a Code, I don’t think that I would have done the stories any differently.

The three-part story was massively controversial and iconic. A few months later, DC comics published Snowbirds Don’t Fly in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, a story which revealed that Green Arrow’s teenage sidekick – unironically named “Speedy” – is a heroin addict. (“My ward is a junkie!” Green Arrow observes, with typical tact, on the cover.)

Injecting a little excitement...

Injecting a little excitement…

These stories dealing with drug addiction and drug use were cutting edge at the time. In hindsight, they can feel a little heavy-handed in an “after school special” sort of way, but their hearts were in the right places and they were genuinely doing something novel and exciting for mainstream superhero comics. However, that novelty had worn off by the late eighties. That sort of overly earnest and generic approach to issues of addiction and abuse felt very generic and simplistic.

Velocity 9 is very much a comic for the “just say no” era of the eighties, the very straightforward approach to tacking the drug problem that never looked under the hood or examined the surrounding circumstances. Abbie Hoffman once quipped that Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign was merely “the equivalent of telling manic depressives to ‘just cheer up’.” It was not an attitude interested in the various complexities surrounding the problem.

On the run again...

On the run again…

In many respects, the simplicity of the anti-drugs message in Velocity 9 calls to mind the “winners don’t use drugs” initiative that the Bush administration would launch the following year. Recognising children as being at risk of addiction, the goal was to infiltrate media used by children with a clear anti-drug message. So it was decided that arcade games would now feature a screen advising players that “winners don’t use drugs” as part of their stand-by “attract” mode.

It’s all a little trite and generic, as if Velocity 9 is being written solely based on the details of old anti-drug fliers. The intravenous drug here is super-powerful and super-harmful. “One hit and you are addicted forever,” Vandal Savage boasts, to the point where addicts are immediately mind-controlled slaves. Slaves who apparently have an irresistible compulsion to do something evil. After his hit, one henchman muses, “Man, I’m burning up with energy! I have to do something… something evil.”

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

Velocity 9 almost immediately exhausts and disfigured its victim, making them look like a stereotypical meth or crack addict. The problem is that there’s no real attempt to engage with the larger context. Drugs don’t make people evil; they make them desperate. Savage plans to use the drugs to target the upper class. “The key, you see, is selective addiction,” he boasts. “Young stockbrokers and lawyers are highly motivated, highly intelligent.” However the iconography of Velocity 9 is very much that of street-level drugs.

Similarly, Vandal Savage seems a little muddled about the way that various drugs work. At one point, he goes into business with a stereotypical Italian-American gangster named Bassaglia. He boasts, “I will use your heroine distribution network to sell Velocity 9 to lawyers and stockbrokers…” However, it seems odd that savage would use Bassaglia’s heroin network rather than his cocaine network – after all, Wall Street has historically favoured stimulants over opiates.

Naked ambition...

Naked ambition…

Velocity 9 seems to suggest – with a surreal earnestness – that drug dealing is the worst possible form of evil. Confronting Vandal Savage, Wally West remarks, “Savage! I knew you were a maggot, but I never thought you’d stoop to pushing drugs.” Really? Vandal Savage is a genocidal immortal who has schemed to conquer (or even destroy) the world. It seems surreal to think that he would draw the line at drug-dealing.

There is a sense that Velocity 9 wants to be cutting edge – that it thinks it is tackling an important issue in many young people’s lives. Even aside from writer Mike Baron’s contemporaneous cocaine addiction, this feels somewhat ill-judged. This is an example of the sort of awkward “mature” sensibility popularised books like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, imitated by writers who simply were not up to the task.

A Savage beating...

A Savage beating…

Velocity 9 even contains a reference to superhero pornography, with Bassaglia the mobster conspiring to have his lover seduce Wally West so that he can film it, kinky mobster that he is. “I should think a blue movie featuring the Flash would do very well in the foreign market,” he boasts. This is around the same time that John Byrne decided to cast a mind-controlled Superman in a porn film with Big Barda during his run on Action Comics. This interest in pornography staring iconic superheroes is something that actually happened.

It serves to illustrate how much trouble late-eighties DC was having with the concept of “adult.” Of course, it should be pointed out that there were books that were mature and sophisticated being published. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was contemporaneous. Vertigo would publish Hellblazer and Sandman, which would deal better with “adult” material. Even within the DC universe, Green Arrow and Suicide Squad were quite successfully doing what books like The Flash and New Guardians were attempting.

Somic boom, boom, boom shake the room...

Somic boom, boom, boom shake the room…

This doesn’t excuse all the issues with The Flash, which seems to be a book that desperately wants to be taken seriously while never getting past stock clichés. Bassaglia himself is more of an Italian-American stereotype than a character. Wally is shocked to discover this gangster is his neighbour. “That’s Bassaglia the mobster?!” he demands. “The realtor told me he was a retired olive oil importer!” Ah, ethnic stereotyping! It’s as funny as the sexism or the tired psychiatrist jokes in The Chunk.

As if to reinforce all the problems that Baron is having making The Flash seem timely and mature, Vandal Savage has a weird fixation on yuppies. “Yuppies!” he protests. “I despise your twisted tinsel culture so…” It feels weird that Savage would plan to take over the world using just yuppies. What about politicians? What about law enforcement? There might be an interesting story here, but Savage never really leaves rundown crack houses or basements. There’s no scale or nuance to his plot. He just hates young rich people.

The changing face of evil...

The changing face of evil…

Savage plans to conquer the world by turning all yuppies into his mind-control slaves, capitalising on the fictitious “Rubinstein-Barre Syndrome” which is apparently “that so-called Yuppie Disease.” While it is possible that Baron is referencing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (the infamous “yuppie flu”), it also seems like he borrowed the name from the real-life Rubinstein–Taybi syndrome, which is a very real disease that affects real people in profound ways. Using it in this manner seems a little tasteless.

There is also the issue of Wally West. Mike Baron has really struggled with characterising Wally. Having the character win the lottery at the end of the first issue seems to have been a mistake, because Baron has never known what to do with a newly minted twenty-year-old superhero. It has been a background detail that has led to boring insurance adjustment subplots. That is not why anybody buys The Flash.

Shadow play...

Shadow play…

Baron has struggled with giving Wally a suitable “edge.” The character frequently seems cynical or snarky, but it often comes across as entitled whining. While it is nice to have a character point out that heroes do not get compensated for their work, that argument feels hypocritical coming from a multi-millionaire. While it’s okay for a hero like the Flash not to get along with the police, Wally occasionally seems downright petulant and obstructive. His willingness to completely forgive Chunk for eating people is questionable.

And then there’s the love life of Wally West. The romantic playboy is an archetype that is very popular in fiction. There is a sense that the flirtatious ladies’ man is a male fantasy figure, albeit a rather shallow and generic one. So Wally West has enjoyed any number of potential love interests over this run. However, Baron has also made a point to keep Wally West in relationships with other women; potentially to raise the stakes or generate melodrama.

Limbering up...

Limbering up…

The result is not “cute” or “charming” or “mature.” The result is to present Wally West as a selfish and entitled young man with no concept of fidelity or trust. In Velocity 9, he repeatedly flirts with Trudy despite the fact that he is in a long-term relationship with Tine. He almost kisses her at one point, before a robbery interrupts their special moment. It seems quite clear that Wally was interested in going further. “Do you do everything at hyper-speed?” she asks. “Not everything,” he replies.

Maybe Baron is trying to make Wally seem “roguish”, trying to make him seem like the stereotypical male “player.” However, it just seems sleazy and uncomfortable. Velocity 9 never problematicises Wally’s attempts to hook up with Trudy. The problem is that she is trying to seduce him and possibly manufacture and distribute pornography starring him; the book seems to have little problem with the fact that Wally West is in a long-term relationship with another woman. It feels awkward.

Love is not the drug, it turns out...

Love is not the drug, it turns out…

Velocity 9 is Mike Baron’s last story on The Flash. Indeed, it ends with the writer putting back the toys – Wally is informed that he is now broke, as if to underscore that this particular phase of the character’s history is coming to close. Hopefully the future holds brighter tidings.

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3 Responses

  1. I’ve been enjoying your reviews of the Flash television series largely because I’ve also been watching with interest as the show works to find its voice and footing and it’s interesting to read another person’s opinion. Even when I disagree with your overall assessment you usually make some interesting points that I find provide food for thought. I admit that having never read the 80’s Flash comics I don’t follow these reviews as thoroughly though I find your background information regarding DC comics trying to find a new voice in the 80’s and connect with the public to be interesting.

    • Thanks!

      I’m on the fence about whether to continue with the reviews of The Flash, to be honest. I am against the clock on other stuff, so I may rest them for a while and – depending on enthusiasm – circle back around to them. It is cool to do a weekly television show in real-time, but my schedule really makes it difficult to do it for more than one show in a given year.

  2. I cant beilbe u hat the flesh

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