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Location: Lancashire
Member Since: Sat May 17, 2008
Subj: The Flash #26 - Tradition Lives.
Posted: Sun Jan 05, 2014 at 04:12:19 pm GMT (Viewed 426 times)

"But, I mean, no offense... what's a guy who can run really fast gonna do in the Air?"

"The best I can." - The Flash

My relationship with The Flash over the course of my comicbook reading life is a strained one. Wally West is my preferred Flash, a multi-faceted and imperfect hero who had to rise above his own selfishness and relearn how to emulate the heroism and courage of his deceased mentor Barry Allen. Over two decades since inheriting the mantle Wally's carreer took some wrong turns, poor creative decisions were made and a loss of strong clear direction for him to head in led to him being retired from the role... several times. The last one three/four years ago being decidedly the most final of them.
In his place DC comics have ressurected Barry Allen, history is duly reset in the DC universe, and he is now the only Flash there has ever been. And there can be little doubt that this is DCs preffered status Quo, Barry after all was an important figure in their history and carried the standard of the Silver-Age revival, being considered the most important figurehead of the new wave of revived heroes which editor Julius Schwartz shepherded to form the explosion that would lead to the creation of the Justice League of America and more broadly the formation of Marvel Comics. What we consider as Comicbook Pop culture arguably began with Barry Allen's very first appearance back in 1956.
But is he popular?
That is the question. Certainly since the book relaunched with the New 52 initiative the Book has been a consistent top seller, but this I believe has much to do with the remarkable art and colouring, artist Francis Manapul is an excellent visual storyteller, though the strength of the actual plots and scripts has been on average mediocre thus far.

Evaluating The Flash as a read is, for me, always going to be bound in my own preconceptions of Barry Allen's Flash. My first exposure to Barry's adventures was in the early 80s, an exciting time when I was new to the wonder of comics and read and enjoyed everything. Well, no. Not everything. I certainly had no time at all for the final two years of Wonder Woman, a vacuous read with insipid whimsy from Dan Mishkin and Don Heck, and the Flash was a similar turn-off, though the reasons for my antipathy were more complex. The Flash in the early 80s was defined by the highly stylised art of longtime artist on the book Carmine Infantino, and the writing of Cary Bates. Understand that Cary Bates worked on The Flash for what turned out to be an incredible 15 years, a near continual run between issue #209 right through till its end with #350. An incredible achievement, one that is universally forgotten today. But this creator stability was, in hindsight, a part of the problem with DC comics at the time - they had allowed their iconic older guard to become set in stone, directed by safe hands these titles had been starved of any fresh talent for too long and as such were inured to taking any risk whatsoever on a fresh take or brand new direction. Indeed there was an ingrained inability (and apparent unwillingness to change at the publisher.
As fresh characters represented the change in times and appealed directly to a modern audience we marvelled at more modern storytelling and presentation. The arrival of the New Teen Titans, Firestorm, Blue Devil, a reinvigorated Legion of Super-heroes, the formation of The Outsiders and Infinity Inc, all of these brought youth and enourmous energy to the DC Universe. And meantime as this revolution was occurring over in The Flash we were served with 'great' new adversaries such as Captain Invincible! Colonel Computron, The Eradicator, The Top, and to cap it all... Big Sir.

A snapshot of life with The Flash in the early 1980s...

No, The Flash was different to other books. To me as a new reader It wasn't just the presentation that was off, it was the feeling of weight crushing down on Barry Allen. The weight not just of his own longevity, but the weight of... desperation? Fatigue? Perhaps it was also some fear too. Despite his being a headline star and comics icon Barry Allen's was not an a happy lot in his final years, and the fate of the Flash's book was ultimately signposted the moment he was made to unequivocally kill his most hated nemesis The Reverse-Flash in #324, but this was also compounded by the death of Iris Allen back in #275. Killing off significant others was by no means unique, DC had bumped off Steve Trevor at least twice, but as with The Flash Wonder Woman never seemed able to move past this event. Like a lead weight is seemed to drag the character down in the years after in a way that Gwen Stacy was never allowed to do so with Spider-man. DC had problems. But in regards to The Flash it was really a combination of two factors that were the turn-off, firstly there was the Trial, surely one of the great misjudgements of comics in the 80s. And then there was the work of Carmine Infantino.

If you were there for The Flash #341 as an example, the same months worth of comics offered similarly unconventional and unique forms of art - Keith Giffen on Action Comics (#563), Gil Kane on Green Lantern, John Romita Jr on Uncanny X-Men (#189), and Walt Simonson was at the height of his Thor success with #351. This was also the era of Gene Colan and Roy Thomas' Wonder Woman, a title which had much in common with the Flash in terms of it's old fashioned values and the sense of history's weight on the character. Thomas & Colan marvellously breathed new life into the book, in much the same way Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane briefly did with their work on Superman at around the same time, and while those remarkable efforts were successful, for whatever reason they did not last. At this time there was a frustrating and ingrained resistance from DC comics to actually do anything radical or fresh with its old guard, and so the characters inevitably calcified. Became unyielding to even the slightest signs of natural evolution. But at least they did try. With The Flash however there never was that attempt at a fresh take, instead the pitch and tone was set at a constant and set level that never promised anything fresh or exciting for either reader or character, and somewhere along the line there is the tangible sense that Cary Bates forgot how to make this a happy character, and a pleasant fun book.

All of this reflection is well and good, but what does it have to do with assessing the content of The Flash #26?
Recently, while attending a local Thought Bubble event I found myself picking up a cheap selection of those 80s Flash issues. This isn't a title I have ever had much of an interest in, but as one gets older one gets more nostalgic, and yes, curious, about the books that were around in your early years of comicbook reading. I never had any time for The Flash in the early 80s, and yet over the years I have picked up the odd issue and accumulated a reasonable run of sorts, with this latest batch the time was right to sit down and read it all in order, I am much more forgiving today about books like this as after all these are very much products of their time and my tastes today have changed somewhat.
Rereading these books turned out to be a pleasant experience. I can now trace my original distaste for the book to the moment Carmine Infantino switched to finishing his own work, around issue #336, before that Dennis Jensen and Frank McLaughlin had managed to just about reign in his scribbles and even add some polish to them. As you read The Flash from #310 thereabouts you can follow the gradual slide into gross self indulgence that Infantino surrendered himself to, up until the Trial hit there is actually a fair bit about The Flash as a read that is commendable, there is certainly a formula to Bates' writing of the book and it is often cozy and secure as a read, but even through the final years of misery and chaos Barry Allen stays true to his roots and never stops fighting, playing the good samaritian. As the Trial progresses the book gets noticeably poorer as a package, the dialogue ever more atrocious, and the plot twists ever more absurd. It's a curious thing to experience the death of a book like this, to feel it slipping away and the character being led to his execution in the Crisis. Marvel were coincidentally doing a very similar progression with the Incredible Hulk in the run-up to his 300th issue, as we see Bruce Banners world disintegrate and the book spiral into a point where the character is beyond the point of any return. But as with him I do now wonder if Barry Allen was salvageable, was the format played out or was there a way to revitalise him? We can only speculate.

But rereading those books from that era, and picking up the latest from DC comics, has much changed in terms of Barry Allen and The Flash...? Let's take a look,

Solving the impossible, by doing the impossible, that was always The Flash's trademark.

The Flash #26 is the first from new writer Christos Gage, along with the pleasant artwork of Neil he delivers a done-in-one tale of The Flash's pursuit of an airborne pirate called Spitfire. Spitfire specialises in raids on biohazard facilities and air transport, her most recent being an assault on a facility that led to the death of what turns out to be one of Barry Allen's old teachers (Comics cliché #2). As we open up we see the Flash chasing down a runway into the blazing firepower of madwoman spitfire, racing into this he ruminates on his own abilities and limitations, comparing his abilities with Superman's. It's a neat little insight into Barry's innate humility as surely no one would expect him to accomplish deeds with the degree of ease Superman does with all his invulnerability. Christos Gagos reminds us of Barry's ability to vibrate himself through matter and this is a point which will prove key to the Flash's pursuit and capture of the airborne Spitfire as she gets away.
So straight away we have the concept issue, the gimmick - How would the Flash deal with an airborne opponent and an emergency in the air? This isn't as novel a problem as you might think as Wally West dealt with a similar issue early in his run, but this is a problem for Barry Allen to solve. In much the same way as he would daily be handed impossible problems to solve back in his original run. Solving the impossible, by doing the impossible that' was The Flash's trademark as hero.
But now that we know who the villain is, how did we end up here tearing down a runway in pursuit? We flip back to the start of events in Blue Valley as Barry in his role as forensics officer attends a scene at a research facility, Barry knows the victim as Dr Carlson, an old teacher of his and he feels a duty to find out what happened here. Carlsons body is locked in an airtight lab as he was researching deadly poisons, what no one is sure of is whether he accidentally fell into a shelf of these contaminants or whether something more sinister occurred.
As Barry gauges the scene with partner Patty they pull together the clues... stood at the window looking into the lab at the body of Carlson they note among other things that the horrifically bloated corps has bruising on his neck, this is a very odd scene given the body is face down. We see that Carlson is now laid down headfirst towards the window, when previously he was laid the opposite direction, facing away! So has the hazardous lab been entered and the remains inspected? If so why move Carlson's body 360 degrees? I'm inclined to think this is purely artist error, but it's really very endearing and fits the context of the story - this is a very old fashioned style of story Christos Gage is delivering, very traditional with Barry Allen's roots.

Outside Barry & Patty note tire treads, unusual tire treads. Once again this is a highly convenient clue, seemingly plucked from the ether, but in line with classic comicbook storytelling. Off races The Flash to investigate the possibilities. Flash works on a hunch and heads to Blue Valley airport, where control confirm his suspicion and with the aid of his Justice League computers access he deduces the murder to be one Esther Bryant: Spitfire. As we switch scenes we catch up with Spitfire raiding an air cargo for its hazardous cargo of toxins. As she and her crew make their escape they note to their incredulity and unexpected pursuer closing in, The Flash, running on... clouds?!!

As an explanation the idea of him using his speed and vibrationary techniques to attract the ice particles for footing and velocity is not all that far fetched, not when put into context of what we have seen him previously capable of. We know he can run on water for example, and we have seen him use thrown rocks as a 'bridge' to reach airborne targets more than once (Flash #340, Wally did it again in #69 of his own book), so as described here running on clouds is not all that improbable a sight when put into an overall context, as this manner of 'impossible' feats is what Barry was always known for accomplishing.
Faced with such an impossible pursuer Spitfire goes for a panic move and throws the stolen poisons out of the door, lethal pathogens that could kill hundreds below, the Flash unhesitatingly dive after them. As he shifts through the air in free fall he manages to use experience gained through practice with Green Lantern to snatch the vials, and uses his updraft techniques to slow his fall to make a safe landing.
As Spitfire rids herself of her now truculent gang the plane she is in has taken damage and is now heading to the ground out of any control. As she abandons it using her rocket pack she disbelievingly notices a speeding Flash arriving to attend the falling plane, and in a spectacularly outrageous sequence... that's just what he does!

The impossible man.

The Flash #26 is a reasonably entertaining read, Neil Googe's art is uncomplicated but visually very satisfying and easy on the eye. The yellow lines that now spatter Flash's uniform though are a poor distraction, seen at their worst on this issues cover these are totally unnecessary to what has always been one of the great superhero designs. Christos Gagos impresses with a simple and fun tale, with a great last page punchline, and delivers a read that is extremely reader friendly. Over and done in one issue. In this and every way this book is a call back to the Flash's original run, where until the final three years the story was for anybody and the emphasis was on an uncomplicated well adjusted superhero who performed outrageous feats and saved the day for nearly everybody. In these regards todays Flash is a book that is indeed out of its time. Barry Allen is not a very interesting or deep character to follow, he never has been, and so my own indifference to the character, while mellowed with age, is one that remains to this day.
The Flash #26 is the sort of book you will enjoy for what it is but feel no need to keep ahold of. It entertains, but is an entirely disposable read; and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing... is entirely down to the individual to judge.
With the loss of star attraction Francis Manapul the future of this book will be interesting to watch, if as I suspect he was the chief reason for the books exceptional sales then this book has a real hole to fill in terms of appealing to the greater audience, but as a book in its own right it is certainly unusual in today's superhero 'event' saturated market that's for sure. Breezy, Self contained, and delivering simple and entertaining done in one yarns, this book feels like a product from a bygone age. \(yes\)

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