Thursday, February 12, 2009

Godspeed, Wally West

With the recent conclusion of DC's Final Crisis series and the fact that Barry Allen is still alive and kicking despite being on the bad business end of my most favorite death scene in comics over two decades ago, I can no longer delude myself into thinking he is not going to be THE Flash moving forward.

Now lest you think I'm in some sort of fanboy uproar because a character's death was overturned, I assure you I'm not. Yes, I think Barry's death was amazing and probably the coolest thing he did in nearly 30 years of being the Flash, but this is comics, and if a good story can be told by resurrecting anybody, I think Ed Brubaker has proven it's at least worth a shot.

And I've still got two separate editions of Crisis On Infinite Earth on my bookshelf plus the novelization, so I guess he can still be dead to me.

No, my issue is not so much with the return of Barry Allen, it's about what this means for my favorite DC character, THE Flash for those aforementioned past two decades plus (allowing for the occasional pit stop), one Wally West.

Any regular reader of this blog knows that Nova is my favorite Marvel character (and probably favorite comics character period when push comes to shove). I've also mentioned my childhood fondness for the core concepts of the Flash (super speed, rad costume, etc.). But once I was old enough to discern that there was more than one Flash and they were very different, I gravitated to Wally and he rose above the Nightwings and Kyle Rayners of the DC Universe to become my number one good guy.

Why Wally and not Barry (Bart Allen wasn't the Flash when I was making these crucial life decisions and my sole exposure to Jay Garrick was seeing Extant kick his ass during Zero Hour)? Well, the fact that I was a teenager and Wally was closer to my age certainly helped. To me, Barry was the stodgy old conservative dude and Wally was the wisecracking kid.

(Wally is, of course, one of comics' most noted Republicans, but teenage Ben and his gnarly acid-washed jean jacket was not aware of this)

But over time, it became more than just a closer proximity in age that made me appreciate Wally. Here are few of the reasons that stand out and some of the stories that highighted them.

The Man
Wally West's most inherent likable quality to me, the thing most at the heart of my fandom for him, is basically the same thing that makes Rich "Nova" Rider my favorite Marvel character: he's just a dude.

Barry Allen is a forensic scientist, Jay Garrick is some sorta physicist (and was also a football star), but Wally West is just a guy. Clark Kent is a highly successful reporter, Bruce Wayne is a millionaire, Peter Parker is a science nerd, Tony Stark is a millionaire, Hal Jordan is a hotshot pilot, and so on and so on. They've all got these ridiculous jobs or talents that are cool bits of escapism, but I will never be any of those things, so hey, on some level I can't relate to any of those characters.

But Wally West is just a dude.

He's not super smart, but, again same as Nova, he's not an idiot. He's an average fella. He's not a genius or a dummy. He can think on his feet, but he needs Jay to do his science stuff. In other words: I feel like he could be me.

As a corollary, I've also always dug that Wally grew up basically wanting to be a super hero. I'm not sure if that was so much there pre-Crisis (I think it was to some degree), but Mark Waid really hammered it home in one of my all-time favorite stories, Born to Run. As a kid, Wally thought super heroes were cool as all get out and wanted to be one...much like most comic fans. He didn't swear vengeance because his parents were killed, he wasn't caught in a gamma explosion, he was just a guy with a good heart who wanted to make the world a better place (by dressing up in a rad costume and running super fast).

Grant Morrison had a bit in one of the Secret Files around when he first took over JLA about how Wally was the guy every other member of the League felt most comfortable around and who they most enjoyed talking to and hanging out with. Of course they did! He's awesome!

The Legacy
What makes Wally West wholly unique (for the most part...which I guess renders the "wholly unique" thing moot...never mind) among comic book characters is that he is the one and only sidekick/protege who "grew up" and filled the role of his mentor. Yeah, Dick Grayson was Batman for five minutes, and yes, Bucky is currently Captain America, but the former didn't last and the latter is only a year old at the moment. Wally has been THE Flash since 1986. That is a situation there was no precedent for at the time (and there really still isn't). And it made for some great stories.

Wally trying to fill Barry's boots and being told by everybody from his friends to his foes that he can't made for great stories. Wally doubting himself made for great stories. Wally realizing wait, he could do it made for great stories. Wally coming into his own and proving to be arguably the greatest Flash of them all made for great stories.

It was a two decade super story that in many ways can't be rivaled. You won't find a hero's journey that epic anywhere else in comics.

And even as recently as a couple years ago when Wally was firmly entrenched as his own Flash, there was still material to be mined from the fact that he had picked up the baton and was finishing the race for somebody else. Waid's The Return of Barry Allen was the definitive "Wally stepping up and taking his destiny by the horns" story and in many ways put the Barry comparisons to rest, but even in 2004, Geoff Johns found a way to milk the Flash legacy for another fantastic tale in The Secret of Barry Allen.

Because he was a sidekick and because he did grow out of it and fill the role he was meant to fill, there are stories you can tell with Wally West that you can't tell with any other character.

The Powers
Yeah, Barry ran like a bajillion laps around the Anti-Monitor's antimatter cannon (well done, worthy of at least a golf clap), but he totally died in the process, withering away to nothing. Wally would have done that shit and then stopped for cheeseburgers.

As time marched on and theoretical science followed, writers like Waid, Grant Morrison and others were forced to adapt Wally's powers so he always remained on the cutting edge. Whereas we saw Barry run around a lot, make tornados and do other Silver Age-y stuff, Wally learned how to vibrate his molecules and shift through solid surfaces, lend or borrow speed from other objects and race all the way around the planet to build up momentum for his punches (thank you, "Justice League Unlimited").

And he could run to heaven.

No doubt Waid's introduction of the Speed Force concept changed the Flash franchise forever and made Wally even more special. His ability to tap into the source of all speed helped him whip up his own costume, travel through time (without a treadmill) and achieve all other sorts of neat feats. The concept of super speed became much more groundbreaking and wonderfully visual during Wally's tenure as the Flash, and the cool part was that we got to learn along with him.

Plus, that moment when he's in the midst of fighting Savitar and yells out, "You want to see God? I'll drive!" during Dead Heat and then races into the Speed Force, bad guy in tow? Legendary.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention William Messner-Loebs' inestimable contribution of Wally's crazy metabolism and his need to scarf down seven course meals daily to keep his energy up. Jay Garrick would never do that.

The Rogues
Ok, admittedly, Barry's bad guys are leagues better than Wally's. Waid tried his best, but with all due respect to him (and to Rickey, who loves these guys), Cobalt Blue and Savitar were at the least awful names and you can only use Abra Kadabra so many times before he becomes obvious.

However, once Johns hopped on the book and made it his mission to restore Captain Cold and company to prominence with stuff like Rogues and Crossfire, those dudes came out better off than they probably ever had been. Obviously a big part of that can be attributed to Geoff's skill in getting into villains' heads and telling their stories, but I also think the different dynamic they shared with Wally than with Barry brought out the best in them. With Barry, it was always a game and they never fully took their calling as rogues seriously. With Wally, they took some degree of defense that he would dare intrude on the legacy of their archenemy and took him to task for it. Whereas Barry had their full respect, Wally had to earn that through periods of disdain.

The more contentious Rogues-Wally dynamic took goofy Silver Age villains and helped make them multifaceted and fascinating modern portraits of evil tinged with honor.

And Zoom is just so much cooler than Professor Zoom.

No offense to the Prof, but good buddy with a sordid past turned sociopath obsessed with teaching heroics through tragedy trumps whackjob from the future. And Scott Kolins just drew the shit out of him.

The Love
The first Wally West as the Flash story I ever really read was Waid's Terminal Velocity. It was a helluva way to start. I am now gonna spoil the crap out of it, so run out and buy it right the heck now and read it first because it owns.

The most awesome moment in a story full of awesome moments comes in the final chapter.

The entire arc (and even before), Wally has known he's inching closer and closer to disappearing into the Speed Force. Throughout Waid's run to that point, he had been playing up the idea that the more powerful a speedster gets, the closer they get to the Force, and eventually it draws them in because it is essentially nirvana. Outside of Wally's buddy Max Mercury, no other speedster had ever touched the Force and escaped (and him just barely). Wally was getting more and more powerful and had already brushed up against the Force once during Zero Hour, so it was just a matter of time.

At the crucial point of this story, the terrorist Kobra has taken over Keystone City, and Wally, in trying to stop him, expends so much energy that he vanishes, presumably forever. With Keystone sealed off from the rest of the world, a group of Wally's allies, including his non-powered girlfriend Linda Park, go after Kobra in his memory. With more or less her bare hands, Linda is the last one standing and continues to defy the villain. As he has her by the throat, a miraculous bolt of lightning strikes and Wally reappears, composed of pure energy, in one of my favorite splash pages ever. He beats the ever-loving shit out of Kobra, saves the day, and then vanishes once again.

As Max and the rest of the speedsters mourn Wally's passing (again), Linda wanders off over a hill where she is reunited with Wally and they embrace in another of my favorite splash pages ever.

Even though countless other more powerful and more disciplined speedsters had become trapped in the Speed Force over the millenia, Wally West escaped because he had the anchor none of them had: a love so powerful it could defy the laws of nature itself.

Through the ensuing years, Wally and Linda would grow even closer, get married, and time and again their love would reunite them despite Wally getting lost in time, Linda getting erased from existence, and so on and so forth.

I'll go ahead and admit that I once wrote out Wally's speech to Linda from Flash #100 and gave it to a girl I liked. And I'm pretty sure it worked.

Wally West and Linda Park have my favorite relationship in comics ever, bar none. No secrets, no drama, just two people who love one another very much and support each other in all things.

So I'm begging you, DC Comics: don't let your best Flash run off and become deputy commander of the Flash Corps or whatever. Don't waste this amazing character.

His name is Wally West and he's the Flash, the fastest man alive--don't forget it.


Chris Hall said...

Best. Post. Ever.

ErikSternberger said...

Dead on.

Anonymous said...

You summed it up better than I ever could. I'm going to miss Wally, and I wish that I didn't have to.

Nightwing said...

"It was a two decade super story that in many ways can't be rivaled. You won't find a hero's journey that epic anywhere else in comics."

That, sir, deserves more than a golf clap. It deserves thuderous applause. THIS is why Barry Allen should NOT return! Most super-heroes prove their worth as a hero within their first story. But Wally EARNED his worth many times over, and through a number of years.

I remember Waid once saying "Wally fulfilled the drea (of the sidekick)" by actually graduating to the role of his mentor.

And that, to me, is more "iconic" than 20 Barry Allens.

Small note: I think it was Mike Baron that introduced Wally's super-speed metabolism...

Martin Gray said...

Wonderful post sir, and great to hear the speech worked. And yes, it was Mike Baron who brought in the burgers, but Bill Loebs deserves huge praise anyway, for his wonderful characterisation of Wally, the cast (I loved the convivial relationship with the villains)and one of the most original stories ever, Freefall in issue 54.

Ben Morse said...

Oops, sorry, Mike Baron!

Jesse Richards said...

I was going to mention Messner-Loebs too, but someone beat me to it. Those stories were the epitome of "Wally as regular guy" and were beautifully written. Re-read Flash #1-61 (the end of his run) and it reads like one long coherent story of Wally earning his place as the Flash. Or read through to #79 (LaRocque's run) which is amazing, too. Long Live Wally!

Anonymous said...

Wally will always be my flash, no doubt about it. Awesome post.