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Grant Morrison loves the Flash. That’s a fact. In fact it’s a Flash Fact.

He’s on record as saying that the Scarlet speedster is his favourite spandex-ite, and he never fails to include at least one major Flash-related sub-plot to the various super-epics he has crafted over the years. Final Crisis included yet another love letter to the Flashes in all their incarnations, as they literally outran Death.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the Flash’s scientific background allows for a more playful and imaginative take on superheroing – he rarely uses his fists alone to solve a problem. He’s more likely to hop on the Cosmic Treadmill. The character’s colourful and bizarre Rogue’s Gallery also provide a rich source for interesting story ideas. The Mirror Master, Gorilla Grodd and the Weather Wizard must be pure candy to Morrison’s boundless imagination. Plus John Broome’s hallucinatory run on the character in the 60′s clearly informed Morrison’s own Doom Patrol and Animal Man. Part of the appeal of the character has to be the polymorphous permutations the character was continually  forced through. The Silver Age was a notoriously weird time for superheroes in general - Batman was regularly marooned on Mars and Superman spent nearly all his time in imaginary stories. No-one had it weirder than the Flash though. He was constantly being transmogrified into bizarre new shapes, often ending up transformed into a puppet, turned into a mirror or being aged 100 years.

He was also a notorious 4th wall breaker waaaay before it was cool:

(Morrison seems to have been riffing on this particular moment for the last twenty years – think Buddy Baker’s “I can see you!”, Mr Six reaching out of the comics page toward the reader in the Invisibles, or Zatanna’s spellcast in Seven Soldiers...)

So when it was announced that he and Mark Millar would be writing a year long run on the title in 1998 it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. For the most part it was – they produced a fun run, packed with imagination, wit and a smattering of the bend-bending psychedelia that one would expect from such a pairing. At the time, pumped up on the Invisibles and JLA I was a little underwhelmed by the Flash, but re-reading I was pleasantly surprised by the satisfying, almost old-school take on the character. Indeed these are some of the most purely enjoyable superhero comics the two have produced. These stories are much warmer hearted than Millar’s current work, and are much tighter and more focused than some of Morrison’s. The pairing of Morrison and Millar yielded some mixed comics, from the flawed but fun Aztek to the lurid exploitation splatter of their Vampirella, but the Flash seems to be the happiest product of their collaboration. They nail the intrinsic oddness of the character’s world whilst retaining Wally’s basic decency. The comics are colourful, fun and often just plain bizarre. The ‘Human Race’ storyline wherein Wally has to battle a cosmic Sonic The Hedgehog analogue for the fate of Earth is pure gonzo storytelling, and one feels it could only work with a character as elastic as the Flash. The Black Flash story also took Kirby’s Black Racer of Death (Gawd bless you Jack…), and flipped it for the Flash mythos, whilst continuing a long line of bad guys who represent some twisted aspect of the character himself (Professor Zoom, the reverse Flash, being the most notable). But for the purposes of this review I’m going to focus on a single issue from the run, no.134, which features a Jay Garrick solo story and is to my mind one of the single finest superhero stories that either writer has produced.

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It’s simply one of the best single comics they’ve written, and if you wanted to give someone a ‘superhero 101′ class, you could do a lot worse than this. Both a love letter and a wry commentary on the genre, it is most importantly a joy to read from start to finish. It’s celebration of the excitement, silliness, romance and melodrama of the 4 colour world.

The basic premise is that Wally has to rest up, having broken both legs in his traumatic battle with the Suit in the previous arc. Keystone city needs a Flash however, so Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash steps up to safeguard the city. The story is effectively a day in the life of Jay. (One of the strongest aspects of the Flash’s mythos is the ‘Flash-family’ which includes Jay, Impulse, Iris Allen, Max Mercury the zen speedster, Johnny and Jesse Quick, and even John Fox the future Flash. A good deal of credit for the re-invigoration of this supporting cast must lie with Mark Waid, the premier Flash creator of the 90′s and one of the best writers that the title has ever had. His landmark run on the title revitalised it, and brought a sense of energy, colour and high drama to the world of superhero comics, at a time when Image-style characters with blades, guns and shoulder pads, and morally blank sadists ruled the racks. Really Waid’s run is one of the key pillars of the renaissance of fun, thrilling supercomics that happened at the turn of the Millennium). Positing Jay as the protagonist allows the comic to riff on the generational gap between the Golden Age and Prismatic (yep!) Age heroes. Jay’s old-school sensibility and matinee idol charm make him the perfect host for this warm-hearted reflection on superheroics As he himself states: “My name is Jay Garrick. Old people call me the Flash.” 

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After the breakneck pace of the initial few issues of the run, hanging out with Jay is a well needed breather. The story is by no means slow – we skip from a hotel bedside conversation between a terminally ill Thinker and Jay, to a silent panel of him taking in the vista of Everest before darting back to a breakfast with his beloved wife Joan in a mtter of pages. It’s a series of quiet, almost domestic moments performed at the speed of light. The ‘day in the life’ format allows for a broad portrait of superheroing filled with some of the smaller details that usually happen between panels. Jay has three square meals in this comic – I  bet Youngblood didn’t stop flexing their muscles and polishing their claws long enough to ingest a fucking Nutriment shake let alone break bread together. There’s the aforementioned breakfast with Joan, a lunchtime meet with Wally and Dick Grayson (which allows the writers to indulge in some playful post-modern banter about the various ‘ages’ of superheroes – loved the nod to Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones), and finally a candlelit romantic dinner for two with Joan again (did I mention it’s their anniversary?)

In between Jay saves Keystone city from Captain Boomerang and Captain Cold without breaking a sweat. His main mission is to try and locate the Thinker’s Thinking Cap in order to give his one time foe a fighting chance at beating the cancer that’s killing him. There’s also time for a quick tussle with a Reverse Golden Age Flash – come on, did you think we could get through a Morrison/Millar comic without encountering at least one alternate version of the main character did you?

There’s also a brilliant downbeat scene with Johnny Thunder (he of the pet-genie ‘Thunderbolt’ – did you know he was the seventh son of a seventh son? How cool is that?). Always a character played more for laughs than pathos, here Morrison and Millar paint a picture of an aged superhero wiling away his twilight years with a failing memory for company. It’s a tragic little sequence that reminds us that not all heroes live forever. His situation is in stark contrast to Jay, whose active life has kept him vital, and the static nature of the scene only reinforces this; you can almost see the whorls of dust in the late afternoon light of the room. In a comic full of tonal swerves it’s a melancholy moment that brings a lump to the throat. Despite all this Johnny is still the vital clue in the mystery of locating the Thinker’s cap. It’s as though the writers can’t bare to simply discard another character to limbo. Everyone serves a purpose. Heroism comes in different shapes. It’s a theme that Morrison has returned to again and again in recent years.

One of the best things about the issue is that it’s a perfectly constructed 22 page story. It literally doesn’t miss a beat. Someone with absolutely no knowledge of the Flash could get a kick out of it, whilst  there’s enough nods to continuity to keep the hardcore fans happy. This kind of tightly constructed story is something that has eluded both writers for a while now. I loved Final Crisis in all it’s sprawling glory, but there was no doubting it was a bit of a mess. (Compare it to Zenith, one of the most tightly plotted and brilliantly devised superhero stories of all time). Millar is also capable of writing well plotted, succinct stories – check his absolutely excellent run on Superman Adventures for proof – but in recent years has resorted to high concepts and lazy execution. This issue is brilliantly paced and expertly delivered and maybe one reason it’s so successful is because it doesn’t try and reinvent the wheel. Rather it recognises that the wheel’s a classic, but a few tweaks could make it really go. Jay is the perfect  tour guide on a nostalgic but thoroughly modern superhero adventure. No universes die – it’s essentially the story of one old friend trying his damnedest to save another. The coda of the issue is perfect:

“Here’s to life sweetheart. Enjoy it before it forget who you are.”

It’s also worth noting that Paul Ryan’s restrained artwork does a very nice job throughout. Again, when I first read these comics I was a tad dissappointed that someone so vanilla, so old school, was drawing them. I didn’t feel he was kinetic enough, and compared to the pneumatic artwork Howard Porter was pumping out on JLA it seemed doubly disappointing.

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Yet Ryan’s art holds up really well, and his classical touch is perfect for the tone of the comic. It has roots in the past without being beholden to it. It’s perhaps best suited to this specific issue. He was later replaced by Pop Mhan’s angular anime style. Mhan brought energy and verve to the title but lacked the storytelling of Ryan.

In the end the 12 issue run on the Flash is quite a rare thing; a comic that the two writers took on and didn’t introduce momentous changes to. Best known for legendary re-make/re-modelling jobs on any character who wandered into their sights, here they adopt a slightly more reverential, playful tone and it produces some nice work. Sure they break both Wally’s legs in the first issue, create a new Flash costume made of pure speed force and announce Linda and Wally’s engagement, but compared to the radical overhauls performed on Doom Patrol or Kid Eternity it’s pretty restrained. Perhaps it’s because their run was essentially a stop gap while Waid was on hiatus, and they wanted to leave the toy box nice for their pal. Or it could just be that their fondness for the character meant they simply didn’t want to fuck up his shit unnecessarily.  Either way they produced a set of stories that nod to the Silver Age without resorting to pastiche, and infuse a healthy dose of colourful creativity and  silliness to the comic. The Jay solo story alone is good enough to justify picking up the trade, and remains one of the most honestly affecting love letters to the genre that I’ve read.

GO!

16 Responses to “Flashback: Morrison and Millar’s FLASH”

  1. captain trips Says:

    did you catch flash:rebirth? possibly the most depressing comic about the flash i’ve ever read. its like they sucked the fun out of barry allen with a straw.

  2. Papers Says:

    Speaking of the Jay Garrick issue–and I LOVE having it immediately at hand, but then I do move at the speed of light–and it’s also the secret origin of Jakeem Thunder, isn’t it just? Jay borrows Johnny Thunder’s pen to sign some autographs and Jakeem gets the pen. Johnny’s not happy with the replacement, and Jakeem walks off into CRISIS IN THE FIFTH DIMENSION or whatever the JLA arc was called. The War of Colours.

    It’s a small little thing but it’s a nice use of detail to further story. Jay’s relationship with the Thinker! What happens to nemeses who get old. Joan! One of the sad things about FINAL CRISIS was the way that Joan, Linda, and Iris (suddenly looking about thirty years younger than when she returned with Bart in tow) all seemed suddenly so interchangeable–a real shame for Morrison, because they were such finely characterized people before that, particularly Joan in this one story.

    I’m eagerly awaiting the Black Flash story and the “Human Race” being collected, but Wally’s fight with The Suit and his GLORIOUS faux-Silver Age apparent murder time-travel hijinx with nano-panels spent being PRISMATIZED into the glorious epitome of his heroic era…yes. Yes yes yes.

    Barry’s return makes me a little sad, yeah. I liked Wally, he was the one I grew up with (along with Impulse! I still remember picking up FLASH with Bart on the cover and I fell. In. Love. Here was a Kid Flash for me!). FLASH is all about legacy so it seems like such a back-pedal to resurrect Barry instead of finding someone new. Imagine a series devoted to John Fox, with bursts of JLA ONE MILLION action in the background!

  3. Bob Temuka Says:

    My favourite little moment in an issue packed full of neat tiny touches is the bit where the Thinker asks the Flash for a decent drink and Jay zips out to get him a good bottle of something, giving the dying man a little dignity by not lecturing him about the dangers of alcohol like many other super-comics would.

    Considering the shitstorm that erupted recently when there was a possibility that Superman could be seen enjoying a beer with his Dad, this was an honestly refreshing moment.

  4. Zom Says:

    Such a shame that the recent TPB doesn’t contain the Human Race. That and the Jay Garrick story, and to a lesser extent the Mirror Master arc are pretty much my Flash touchstones.

  5. Zom Says:

    Also, I completely agree that the Jay issue could be given to someone who wasn’t familiar with the characters or indeed particularly familiar with Superhero comics and that there would be a good chance that they would come away happy. It’s a rare superhero comic indeed that can boast that.

    It’s a little jem

  6. The Beast Must Die Says:

    I saw Rebirth in the shops and just thought, I couldn’t possibly give a fuck about a Geoff Johns written grim and gritty Flash. I don’t want that element of sadism and bore-core angst in my Flash comics. Add to that art by Ethan Van Sciver, one of the least kinetic artists in the business and you have something to avoid.

    I like Wally. he’s my Flash. Barry Allen was only really interesting because if the post-mortem work done on him after his death.

    Didio’s continual desire to turn back the clock and get all the old guard together again is just so damn dull. I personally like Connor Hawke, Kyle Rayner and Wally just fine. In fact I’ve got a possible post brewing about that very fact. Working title ‘the kids are alright’. Or ‘Hey, Dan Didio, LEAVE THEM KIDS ALONE!’

  7. Zom Says:

    Write that fucker, Beast Boy. I love them youngsters.

    Personally I hope Grayson or whoever it is gets to stay as Batman for a good long time. Bucky donning the head-wings gave the Cap book a real jolt to the system – I want more of that sort of thing

  8. Andy G Says:

    Rebirth didn’t just suck the fun out with a straw, it did it slowly.

    And Johns illustration of a speeded up world that’s finally caught up with the Flash is people bumping into one another. And not apologising. Thrilling!

  9. Papers Says:

    Of course it is, Andy–Barry Allen always was a fuddy-duddy. “Uh, Barry,” Hal will say, “I can’t be sure of the timeline but I think we’re still in our early thirties. Could you maybe, I don’t know, not try to sound like Jay Garrick? The youngsters, you know. They’re not getting off your ‘damn’ lawn. Now excuse me, I have to give the waitress my number.”

    Part of the problem with THE FLASH as a series is that the last two attempts were lackluster horrorshows of boredom. Bart Allen as Flash was terribly written and pretty stupid to begin with (rapid aging! We already did that when he showed up so we’re doing that again! Bart’s a grown-up now! and otherwise indistinguishable). Wally and the Wests suffered dubious artwork and some mistaken belief that Waid could recapture his earlier magic (did he? Not really) so many years after the fact. So Didio has these two failures he can hold up and say, “Well, shit, we should bring Barry Allen back!” Ignoring the fact that Barry was a bit dullsville as a character and ignoring the fact that the trademark weirdness that made the series shine back during his day is something a lot of the current crop of writers are incapable of (or, when they fake it, produce zombified talking ape ennui, never figuring out that you have to throw *all* the shit at the wall and see what sticks, not just copying the same at this point tired “Silver Age” cliches.)

    Bart should have been great and simple as a legacy Flash to follow Wally, one that brings back the Allen bloodline and incorporates random kinetic manga elements, time-travel, and some of his old IMPULSE supporting cast.

    BUT ENOUGH WHINING this morning! I should reread EMERGENCY STOP.

  10. Botswana Beast Says:

    Here is my negatorio review of Fluhsh:Ruhbuth -

    Wally’s son Jai looks like that really upsetting bodybuilder kid. He and sister fight. Wally isn’t in this issue much, Barry seems kind of a driven douchebag, something fucked up is going on with the Speed Force probably connected to the mysterious stabby Flashpole guy (his dad) who claims to have brought Barry back and, like, Savitar(?) and the Black Flash are dead or some shit. Um. Bart suspects the world is awry or something.

    I’m kind of pissed off I paid cash money for this comic.

    Look, I’m not totally anti-Johns as once I was, but frankly, I thought it was a tone-deaf comic which managed to be simultaneously gory and tepid. This isn’t some ‘oh, Wally’ thing, because I was totally cool with Barry Allen returning in Final Crisis, so much so I went and – against my better judgment – paid for my first Johns book since Infinite Crisis and the most positive thing I can say is: the guy, the guy who does like the lighting and transparencies on Van Sciver’s energy effects, who I assume is the same colourist on GL: Rebirth? Moose Baumann, I guess? That guy does some fucking awesome work. It is an exciting piece of cover art.

  11. Print Banners Says:

    I have to agree with Captain trip, Flash:rebirth did seem rather sad and out of character for the flash. I always see “Wally” as a sort of hyper-trickster.
    Nice one on the strength-sapping straw. Maybe someday a comic book will be based on our comments. That would be soooo cooool!

  12. Botswana Beast Says:

    Ah yeah, I see two colourist credits. Possibly for the first time ever. Weird. Baumann did some (all?) of Morrison’s Batman, too, eh?

  13. David Uzumeri Says:

    Baumann went nowhere near Morrison’s Batman, actually, and the two color credits are confusingly placed – Baumann is credited only for the regular cover; everything inside is very, very noticeably Sinclair, since it looks like watercolor where it should be oil paint. I mean, Flash is the one book where you SHOULD have an overabundance of Photoshop effects and lens flares.

  14. Justin Says:

    Y’know, Waid took some criticism for building up the Flash-family like you mentioned. “The supporting cast is nothing but superheroes!” cried the opponents. “Where are all the *normal* people?”

    But Wally West has been a superhero since he was like ten years old. Of *course* all his friends are going to be superheroes too. To him, they’re normal!

    Anyway, wonderful post, and it brings up the point, astonishing as it may seem today, that these guys did a well-remembered 12-issue run on a classic superhero without a.) shaking up the status quo in some loud, obvious way to get attention, or b.) just doing a “greatest hits” story a la “Hush” and Millar’s Spider-Man run.

  15. Jeff C Says:

    Great post about an awesome book. Doesn’t the Human Race come out this summer? Anyway, I also wasn’t taken with the art at the time, but when this book hit the stands and I picked it up, I immediately came to appreciate it. It very much reminds me of old-school comics, and that’s what Morrison was clearly going for here.

    The Golden Age Reverse Flash? One panel is all it took, but he seemed like he’d been around for ages.

  16. Speed Reading: Morrison/Millar, Rebirth Reactions, Signings and More « Speed Force Says:

    [...] Ones takes an extensive look at the Morrison/Millar Flash run, focusing on the excellent Jay Garrick spotlight issue, Flash v.2 [...]

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