April 2nd, 2009
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.
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.”
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.
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.