Earlier this month the first issue of The Flash: Rebirth finally saw print, attempting to redress those omissions. I didn’t write about it at the time, although I was more than a little disappointed in the book. Whilst awaiting the second issue, though (due next week), I’ve had the opportunity to collect my thoughts.
I’m still disappointed. Dejected, even.
Flash: Rebirth is courtesy of writer Geoff Johns and artist Ethan Van Sciver, the same team that brought us Green Lantern: Rebirth four years ago, bringing back (and redeeming) Green Lantern Hal Jordan. There’s a key difference between that project and this one, though: there was never a big faction of fandom clamoring for Barry’s return. Barry’s demise in Crisis on Infinite Earths, all the way back in 1985, was one of the most noble and dramatic deaths in comics history (in marked contrast to how Hal was treated a few years later). Moreover, his yellow boots have subsequently been ably filled by his long-time protégé Wally West, to the general approval of readers.
Barry Allen’s Flash was one of my favorite characters as a kid. But his heroic career achieved a suitable climax, and while there’s been the occasional coda since then in the form of flashbacks or time-shifting cameos, nothing has really tarnished it or created any dramatically compelling need to revisit or undo it. On the contrary, it was always fairly clear that a full-scale return would run the very real risk of being an exercise in anticlimax, merely diminishing the memory of what had gone before.
That’s exactly the risk this book runs… and to which it falls prey.
I would have loved to like this book. I just can’t. On the basis of the first issue (of five), its has major problems both in the overall tone of the story and in the little details that flesh it out.
To start with, it dodges the obvious question hanging over the proceedings: no explanation of Barry’s return is presented or even begun in this issue. That’s the elephant in the room, but the characters barely talk about it. To the extent that any clues at all are dropped, they seem to hinge on vagaries of the “Speed Force,” a nebulous plot device that was IMHO one of the worst inventions of Mark Waid’s generally excellent ’90s run on Wally West’s title.
Then there’s the matter of Barry’s personality. For all my complaints about Final Crisis, that’s one thing Grant Morrison seemed to capture fairly well: the resurrected Barry conveyed the same sense of optimism, camaraderie, and freewheeling inventiveness that characterized his best stories from the ’60s and ’70s. Here? Not so much. Johns’ version of Barry hardly smiles; he’s curt even to his best friend Hal; and his reaction to a second chance at life seems to be that every second is so precious he can’t stop to enjoy them, not even to celebrate with his friends, family, and fans. (And this is despite the fact that no actual criminal threat crosses his path until the very end of the first issue.) His overall emotional tone, in a word, is “dour.”
How this will will affect relations with his one-time widow Iris remains to be seen. The two seemed to have a warm (if brief) reunion in FC, but they don’t even talk in this issue. Moreover, and annoyingly, the issue of Iris’s age is completely elided. While Barry’s back at the same age he died at, Iris spent two decades or more in the future raising their children to adulthood, and then returned to the present several years ago as a grandmother. It’s been a consistent aspect of her character in every appearance since that point, and Johns himself reiterated the basic backstory in Legion of Three Worlds #3 only weeks ago. Exploring that changed relationship could certainly be an unique and bittersweet hinge for future stories. Instead, it’s not even mentioned in this comic, and she’s drawn to look about 25.
(The art, in fact, is a problem throughout: Van Sciver’s style is stiff, over-rendered, and awkward, not at all suited to conveying the grace of fast-moving characters. But that remains secondary to my complaints about the story itself.)
Adding to the characterization problems, much as Johns redefined Hal Jordan on his return as an impulsive “Air Force jock” and jettisoned his more introspective, anti-authoritarian side, here he seems to have grabbed onto Barry’s role as a “cop,” backgrounding his more meaningful identity as a scientist (and just as importantly, an unselfconscious “everyman”). From page one the story drives home the point that Barry’s worldview is a black-and-white one, dividing people into “guilty” and “not guilty.” This is something that would get old really fast on almost any hero, and on Barry in particular it’s unsettlingly judgmental. (Especially given the distinctive fact that Barry was one of the few heroes who’d managed to rehabilitate several of his villains over the years… something else Johns has largely undone.)
On top of all that, Johns has saddled Barry with a guilt-inducing childhood trauma involving his mother’s gruesome death, something never before mentioned in the character’s 50+ year history, yet now retconned into being the “one open case” he could never solve. The Flash needs this kind of grim motivation like the Batman needs a bright red-and-yellow costume. More than any other hero short of Superman, Barry always did what he did because it was right. Simple as that.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of Geoff Johns’ writing, including his recent work on the Legion. But this story was a downright unpleasant experience. It seems to have brought out all his worst habits as a writer, and in the process it tarnishes fond memories of a great character. It’s really not clear to me who the book is meant for: anyone old enough to remember the character is liable to be put off by the tone, and anyone younger simply won’t care about the revival. It’s no surprise that the critical reaction, to judge by other reviews so far, is decidedly mixed. A bad first issue doesn’t always doom a book, and I’m sure I’ll read the issues to come… but I can’t say I’m looking forward to them.Tags: Barry Allen, Dan DiDio, DC Comics, Final Crisis, Geoff Johns, Legion, super-heroes, The Flash