Guttergeek Review: THE FLASH: REBIRTH

Posted by on May 6th, 2010 at 5:37 PM

Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver, The Flash: Rebirth (DC, 2009-10). Six-Issue Miniseries, $2.99-3.99.

 As a guy who grew up reading superhero comics in the 1980s, my reaction to the news that Barry Allen would resume his role as the Flash was conflicted. On the one hand, I almost felt obligated to want Barry back in the DC Universe. Blind nostalgia dictates that I root for the guy who ran into a blur in the Super Friends cartoons and the Satellite JLA comics of my youth, right? But his sacrificial death in Crisis on Infinite Earths actually meant something back in 1985, and Barry’s return risked diluting—no, erasing—one of the DCU’s greatest heroic acts. And what of Wally West, who (as Barry’s replacement) grew to be one of the very few well-written and intriguing superheroes of the 1990s? Now that Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver’s The Flash: Rebirth has concluded and the deed is done, I’m not sure I’m any closer to resolving these conflicts. But the story was told competently enough that I have to grudgingly admit I’m glad Barry is back.

Given the ramifications and potential fandom controversy of Barry Allen’s return, The Flash: Rebirth actually felt like a muted affair. This may in part be due to the fact that the book was plagued by delays after the third issue. This is nothing new (especially given modern mainstream comics’ disdain for schedules), but it felt especially wrong for a book about speed to be so late—even if it’s a book about Barry, who’s notoriously late for everything. Rebirth was also overshadowed by Johns’ other big event book of 2009-10 (Blackest Night), but this disconnect should probably be seen as more of a blessing than a curse. While Blackest Night exposed many of Johns’ weaknesses and limitations, Flash: Rebirth serves as a pleasant reminder of what Johns does best.

Rebirth is not a grand space epic, but instead a focused, grounded story about an alienated human trying to figure out who he is after a long period of literal and figurative detachment. In the 1960s and 1970s, Barry Allen epitomized the cardboard cut-out DC superhero type. Characters like the Flash and Green Lantern were the reason why Marvel eclipsed DC during that time. Though the Flash had a great costume and fantastic powers, he didn’t have much personality to speak of. After Barry’s death, Wally West became the Flash people actually cared about.

Thanks to writers like William Messner-Loebs, Mark Waid, and Geoff Johns, Wally actually grew and developed in convincing ways—as a man, as a husband, and as a father. But even that growth had its limits. As much as I still enjoy and admire Mark Waid’s extended initial run on The Flash, his most recent run (Flash #231-236) ran Wally up against a wall he couldn’t just vibrate through. The character had become difficult and overly complicated, especially given his cast of supporting characters (including superpowered children).

Flash: Rebirth, then, is more than simply a revival of a dead character. Several writers flirted with the “return of Barry Allen” over the years, but Barry was technically reanimated by Grant Morrison in Final Crisis #2. Johns’ principle tasks in Rebirth were to untangle the knotted and stagnant legacy of the Flash and to reassert Barry as the prime Flash of the DC Universe. To these ends, Johns also had to make Barry a character that (for the first time) is interesting enough for modern readers to care about. For the most part, Johns pulled this off.

Part of what made Green Lantern: Rebirth work so well in 2004 is that Geoff Johns made Hal Jordan edgy and cool again. Johns didn’t have this option with the Flash. Barry Allen is a quiet, meticulous police scientist who works hard, fights fair, and enjoys going home to his wife. That’s the essence of his character, and (to his credit) Johns doesn’t change this core in Flash: Rebirth. But as Johns has done effectively before with other characters, he adds layers of tragedy and pathos that makes Barry more human and relatable. Barry’s quest to solve his mother’s death, which still haunts him, sets up an intriguing mystery-structure that makes the usual superhero action theatrics seem less absurd and more urgent. Granted, the absurd theatrics and obligatory bad superhero dialogue are here, too. Rebirth #4 is so boring and cliché-riddled that I considered stopping there. But the affecting twists and plot revelations of the last issue were worth the frustration of the second act. Van Sciver’s art helped accomplish this. His hyper-kinetic visual energy is a good fit for a book so reliant on motion and energy.

While Flash: Rebirth is generally an entertaining read, I’m not sure where the new Flash series goes from here. More specifically, I’m not sure if I’ll be coming along for the ride. The Flash: Secret Files and Origins 2010 features a quiet and touching—if emotionally forced—short story that provides a coda to the Rebirth plot involving Barry’s mother:

The first issue of the recently-launched ongoing Flash series started off well. Johns picked up and elaborated on several of the threads he left hanging in Rebirth. Francis Manapul’s art isn’t as tactile as Van Sciver’s, but it’s more balanced and the page layouts are more creative. The unnecessary complications of the last page of The Flash #1, however, left me so irritated that it will probably be a while before I check back in. (Really, is a time-travel story necessary when perfectly suitable plot directions have already been set up in the miniseries I just finished reading? This just doesn’t make sense on any level—creative or marketing.)

Ultimately, I guess I’m just glad that the character I read and watched as a kid is worth my attention again (even amid the frustrations). I felt the same way about Hal Jordan a few years ago, but for different reasons. Hal is an arrogant hotshot with superpowered jewelry who flies in space and bangs hot pilots nicknamed “Cowgirl.” Barry Allen is a smart, centered guy who runs fast, does everything else slow, and loves his wife. Barry is clearly less exciting, but he embodies more of where I am in my life right now (or at least who I’d like to be). I have a two year old son, and I’m thankful that not all of the heroes he’ll be exposed to as he grows older will be broken, tortured, miserable, and dysfunctional. Barry Allen may be as bland as vanilla sometimes, but Johns has provided at least a little more flavor (homemade? French? bean?) to the mix.

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