It’s become obvious at this point that Geoff Johns’ comics in recent years have a clear meta-element, and unfortunately not in that transcendent Grant Morrison “We have 4-D vision that allows us to gaze into an entire fictional universe” sense. It’s closer to a banal Russell T. Davies “You fans are scum and make me sick and I can’t get over it” kind of way. Flashpoint, DC’s newest crossover event, seems no different.
To go over Johns’ track record: Infinite Crisis was essentially about an angry fanboy lashing out against the state of DC comics continuity, right down to Superboy Prime’s final fate in the pages of Legion of Three Worlds — he’s relegated to complaining on the DC Message Boards in a pocket universe. More recently, Blackest Night had DC’s own necrotic continuity poisoning the DC Universe. Comics books about DC comic books, the snake eating its own tail.
Now we have Flashpoint #1, a comic about how DC’s own vast pantheon of superheroes and their ensuing interrelations are impenetrable and confusing.
Our point of identification is Barry Allen, a fanboy who drop names like The Flash and the Justice League in front of his mom, who’s really only heard of Batman — “Who hasn’t?” she asks. When he tries to visit the woman he thinks he’s entitled to as his girlfriend, he sees that she’s with another man, one who has probably never said the name “Booster Gold” in his entire life. Also, Barry has to borrow his mom’s car to get his fix of Batman — literally, as he drives to Gotham and breaks into Wayne Manor, a place as decrepit and unwelcoming as the worst comic shops in America.
In the middle of the book, we get the obligatory expository superhero meeting where character relations play out like a pitch-perfect parody of any DC superhero crossover where, like a party in which everybody but you knows one another, there’s a slew of characters to keep track of.
Batman’s the other big focus of the book and will be easily recognized by the casual reader, though his costume’s different from what we’re used to in the movies and stuff. Then there’s Cyborg, the obligatory minor character given a surprising amount of spotlight in the crossover. (I think I might have had a toy of him as a kid? Wasn’t he in the Teen Titans cartoon? He’s certainly not a teen here.)
Otherwise, there’s a betrenchcoated robot (I think) who’s never named and a resident Green Lantern that’s only ever addressed as “Abin.” Citizen Cold and the Pied Piper have some kind of ongoing feud going on — one we could probably read about in the pages of their own respective books. More curiously, we have a kid in a ski mask called Blackout, the lower-tier superhero whose fledgling book could use a sales boost from taking part in a crossover. As for the Secret Seven, they’re the kind of superhero team you only know if you’re into comics (see: the Thunderbolts).
It’s a lot to take in as a reader of DC Comics, as Johns seems to be simulating for readers the experience of being a newbie and opening up the first issue of any regular DC crossover. But imagine you’re a newbie to the DCU — say, someone who’s seen a few direct-to-DVD cartoons on Netflix and wants to get into comics — and decided to pick up Flashpoint #1. You will not be picking up Flashpoint #2.
If nothing else, I appreciate the basic idea behind Flashpoint — instead of writing a crossover where years of DC continuity resurface like bile up from comics’ collective throat and onto the comics page, we have a crossover where the characters, while remixes of established DC properties, are tweaked just enough to be relatively new. There’s no real continuity to speak of, but the illusion of continuity. Despite the tremendous amount of exposition that wouldn’t have if it were the regular DCU characters having a big superhero meeting, Johns tries to make the alternate universe we’re visiting look a bit more lived-in than the average ’90s Elseworlds story.
Here’s the thing, though — you still have to know DC continuity to appreciate Flashpoint. For example, Green Lantern’s a purple guy, but that’s only notable if you’re used to Green Lantern being a white guy. Captain Thunder — being a group of kids who all combine to form one superhero — while a cool idea, is only appreciable if you know that it’s a cute twist on the regular Captain Marvel character. Same deal with the robotic Sandman. Even the big reveal at the end of this issue involves the secret identity of this universe’s Batman — one that’s only a shocking cliffhanger ending if the history of the character is already in a reader’s DNA. In other words, the DC Comics fan gets enough bones thrown his or her way to make this universe intriguing while locking out any potential casual reader.
With Flashpoint, Geoff Johns has turned the dense impenetrability of DC Comics continuity against its own readers, putting them, like Barry Allen, into a nightmare world where comics just don’t make any sense to them — all told, an amusing intellectual game that Flashpoint pulls the company’s already fantastical line of books into a fantasy-within-a-fantasy. But no matter how effective Johns’ metatextual game may be, a big question lingers, like a kid you forgot on the bus: why should a normal reader care about Flashpoint?