Friday, July 29, 2011

I found a Barry Allen story I liked

On my plane ride back from Comic-Con International in San Diego on Sunday night, I re-read Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn and Mark Waid’s 12-issue JLA: Year One from 1998 in its entirety. It’s not the first time I’ve done this; JLA: Year One is one of my favorite trades I own and a story I like to revisit at least once a year for various reasons.

First, it’s wonderfully written as Waid doesn’t just turn in great work per usual, but is wonderfully complimented by Augustyn, who also helped steer his awesome Flash run as both an editor and co-writer. You won’t find many stories that better balance varied action with heartfelt character development while also throwing in resolutions and twists both clever and perfectly “comic book-y” in their fun goofiness.

Second, it’s Barry Kitson at his finest, and that’s saying a lot as I love Barry Kitson. He’s an artist who seems equally comfortable with Silver Age square-chinned heroism and bizarre sci fi flourishes as he is with modern dynamic storytelling and effects, so he’s the ideal choice to bring the tales of the original Justice League from the 1960’s into the present.

(At this point I guess I should note that JLA: Year One is the then-definitive and expanded telling of the Justice League’s first 12 months together with the post-Crisis On Infinite Earths, pre-Infinite Crisis/Final Crisis/New 52 continuity of Black Canary replacing Wonder Woman as a founding member as well as Superman and Batman’s roles having been minimized)

Third, it’s a giant Easter Egg fest with all my favorites from around the DC Universe dropping by in guest roles or cameos so Kitson can draw them, Waid and Augustyn can shoot them some dialogue, and you can get a sense where everything fits. The Justice Society, Superman, Doom Patrol and Green Arrow all get significant screen time—particularly the DP in an awesome two-parter—but there’s also nice bits for everybody from Batman to the original Blue Beetle, plus a funny little subplot with the Blackhawks and little in-jokes involving Ted Kord, Maxwell Lord and others.

Fourth and foremost (so I guess it should have been first), I love stories about super heroes coming together as allies and becoming friends along the way, putting the concept of a shared universe to full use. The five member JLA—Aquaman, Black Canary, Flash, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter—start the series as tentative associates, but have their bonds forged, tested, broken and solidified several times over. I’ve always had a soft spot for team books in comics because I love camaraderie, and I’m a sucker for series like this or Joe Casey and Scott Kolins’ Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes where they take legendary groups that initially had pretty cut and dry “we’re teaming up to fight” origins back in the day and inject some heart and pathos.

However, this time around, I discovered yet another reason this is a great piece of work: It made me really like Barry Allen.

I think my negative feelings toward Barry Allen have become exaggerated over time, both by myself and others. I don’t hate Barry Allen, he’s just obviously not my Flash and as such I’m somewhat predisposed to look at him a bit negatively. I’m not against Barry Allen so much as I’m against anything that prevents Wally West from being the A-1 Fastest Man Alive and thus his flaws stand out to me.

My biggest knocks against Barry have always been that he was kind of bland and his heyday and also that his death was an amazing story but one that rendered him such an untouchable beacon of heroism that as a living character he becomes tough to relate to.

The first note is really a product of the period he was created in more than anything else; as the very first major hero of the Silver Age, Barry predated the more three-dimensional characters that would fill the next couple decades and thus emerged as a weird hybrid of stoic Golden Age champion and nerdy 50’s era science protagonist. He remained this way up through the 80’s and then missed out on getting reinvented the way most of his contemporaries did because he was the big Crisis sacrifice. Geoff Johns has already made inroads in updating Barry with a personality more compelling to a modern reader, but he had an uphill battle; I’m actually thinking the upcoming reboot will helps Barry perhaps more than many as being a couple years younger and having a cleaner slate could really benefit his development.

Then there’s that big Crisis sacrifice I mentioned. Barry Allen literally gave his life to save the multiverse by running so fast he destroyed the Anti-Monitor’s big ass weapon. You can’t really top that as a final act. He was perfectly cast from that point forward as the patron saint of the DC Universe; the role model Wally West can never really live up to and the hero of heroes everybody else speaks of in glowing reverential tones. It’s hard to pull a guy like that down from the heavens and have everybody treat him as just a dude again.

But in JLA: Year One, Barry Allen is years away from saving the multiverse and also anything but bland.

The cast in JLA: Year One is roughly analogous to the cast of a high school movie/TV show; Green Lantern is the cocky jock, Black Canary is the hot girl with an attitude, and Aquaman and Martian Manhunter represent the two stereotypes of foreign exchange student: brooding loner and well-meaning outcast. Barry Allen is the nice guy who lacks the bluster of GL, but is more confident than J’onn and more comfortable than Aquaman; Black Canary shows a romantic interest in him because he’s clearly the most well-adjusted and likeable of her options. If JLA: Year One were The Breakfast Club, Barry would be about halfway between Emilio Estevez and Anthony Michael Hall, which happens to be exactly where I think most readers—certainly myself—would identify themselves (Hal Jordan is halfway between Estevez and Judd Nelson).

Waid and Augustyn retain the heart of Barry’s Silver Age incarnation by showing his work life and having him display his scientific knowledge, but they don’t let his—for lack of a better term—nerd side define him. It’s not hard to figure out why a bombshell like Iris West is interested in him as while he may be chronically tardy, he is demonstratively caring and considerate toward her, not closed off and cerebral with a love interest just because the formula dictated it. Likewise, the dynamic between Barry and Hal makes sense; they may have different personalities, but they also have a starting commonality in this super hero life and look out for one another. I like the scene where Barry super speed paints a machine Hal needs to move yellow to blue so GL won’t be embarrassed that his ring won’t work on it, not because he’s trying to win the cool guy’s affection but because he’s a nice guy and they’re genuinely becoming friends; it’s a little thing, but it makes him more human.

The romantic subplot between Flash and Black Canary is one I enjoy as well. For one, the cool girl gravitating towards the soft spoken gentleman as opposed to the bombastic loudmouth will always be a winner with the geek crowd. But Barry’s end does a lot to flesh him out as well. Of course he’s attracted to the gorgeous girl he can talk to about the things he needs to hide from his fiancée and who is expressing interest in him over the more obvious choices; again, he’s only human. That he weakens, that they share a kiss, builds the drama but also adds a layer of vulnerability and flaw to him that he never had in his original incarnation; that he ultimately chooses Iris makes him a guy we still look up to.

But without a doubt my favorite scene really in the entire series is when the entire team is on the verge of breaking up despite the threat of an alien invasion looming because they feel like they can’t trust each other, as they’re going their separate ways Flash pulls off his mask and then it flips to a full splash page close-up of his face with him saying “My name is Barry Allen. I’m a forensic scientist with the Central City Police Department.” The rest follow suit, revealing their identities, and then the Justice League charge off to save the day.

It’s not running to his death on a treadmill of doom to save countless universes, but it’s still the turning point moment and it’s still The Flash who gets it done.

Barry steps up in that moment because he is the leader of the team, though that’s a fact they’ve only just acknowledged. He’s the leader not because he’s the loudest, the most confident or the most powerful, but because they trust him. Because he’s a good guy. He’s not the token scientist or the guy who gives his life to save reality; he’s just a good, solid guy doing his best.

That’s a Barry Allen I’m very interested in reading more about.

Upcoming in September, a new era begins for The Flash and there’s great potential we could be following the adventures of a Barry Allen more along these lines. He’s going to be younger. Hopefully he’ll be a bit more at ease with himself as he was in this series. Hopefully he won’t have the Crisis sacrifice hanging over his head like a Sword of Damocles forcing everybody around to walk on eggshells around him. Francis Manapul seems like he’s got great enthusiasm for the character so I’m excited to see where he takes him.

And I implore him to check out JLA: Year One.


Zach said...

I'm looking forward to it too. Francis Manupal and his co-writer who no one has ever heard of will definitely do as good a job as writers as Mark Waid did.

WD said...

Really strong piece. A shame that this story will be so completely written out of the DCnU now. Although I guess we'll get to see Cyborg fight the Apellaxians now? said...

Really effective data, thanks so much for this article.

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