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Sunday Slugfest: Flash: Rebirth #1

Posted: Sunday, April 5, 2009
By: Thom Young

Geoff Johns
Ethan Van Sciver (with Alex Sinclair, colors)
DC Comics
"Lightning Strikes Twice"

Following Barry Allen’s return in the pages of Final Crisis, The Flash: Rebirth #1 sees Geoff Johns kick off a brand new miniseries that seeks to explore the character’s place in the present-day DC Universe.

Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:
Chris Murman:
Bill Frye:

Dave Wallace:

After a real-time absence of more than two decades, there’s a lot for Barry Allen to catch up on--whilst at the same time he must deal with the disturbing sense that he shouldn’t have returned from his “death” at all. Yet, the potential of these plot points isn’t fully realised with this first issue, which recaps the current status quo of the Flash family of characters and introduces a couple of new elements that will probably become important over the course of this miniseries (and beyond?)--but these new elements fail to provide much of a reason for anyone to care about this story who isn’t already invested in the Flash franchise.

The main problem with the book is that it fails to make Barry Allen compelling as a character. The concept of being brought back from the dead and feeling driven to make the most of every moment is an interesting one--especially for a superhero--and it gives the book a certain sense of urgency that befits the “fastest man alive” concept. However, Barry’s personality is so flat as to be virtually non-existent. Other than a vague sense that something is wrong with the Speed Force, and that he shouldn’t still be alive, we’re given very little information in this issue that can be used to intrigue non-Flash readers to keep reading.

In order to make Barry’s return feel relevant, Johns surrounds him with characters that are, frankly, more interesting than he is. The current Flash (Wally West), the petulant Bart Allen, and the experienced Jay Garrick are all more fully fleshed-out than is Barry--and each of them is given a similar introductory page in which they voice their respective feelings about Barry’s return.

Though they all have a lot to say about Barry Allen, there’s a big difference between describing a character’s personality and actually demonstrating it. I’m guessing that, as with Johns’s earlier Green Lantern: Rebirth series, the purpose of Flash: Rebirth is to reinstate the Silver Age Flash as the current holder of the title. However, if this book represents Johns’s attempt to convince readers that Barry Allen is the most important and interesting Flash in the DCU, it’s not off to a great start.

To his credit, Johns comes up with some fairly interesting ways to tell the story of Barry’s return: The Flash Museum idea is a fun one, even if it’s a little familiar by now (Johns even made use of a similar expository device in the first issue of his Legion of Three Worlds miniseries with the 31st century’s Superman Museum).

There’s also an intriguing opening scene in which somebody attempts to recreate the experiment that turned Barry into the Flash, and a compelling cliffhanger that suggests that something is amiss with Barry’s Speed Force-related powers. However, Johns’s writing also suffers from a certain bluntness that takes the edge off some fairly strong ideas.

The scene in which various characters discuss the positive influence of Barry Allen on their lives is a nice idea, but the execution is so over-the-top as to be almost laughable. I understand that Barry is a revered figure in the DCU (especially since his death in Crisis on Infinite Earths), but to have the original Golden Age Flash claim that Barry is responsible for his motivation to be a hero--and for that to have in turn inspired the JSA to get back together after they had retired--seems like over-egging the pudding slightly.

Additionally, a later scene in which Barry is clearly taken aback by the fast pace of modern life is capped with Hal Jordan’s clunky and unnecessary observation, “The world get too fast for you?” It’s as though Johns is so pleased with the idea that he wants to make sure that no one misses it. However, in doing so, he erodes any sense of subtlety that it might have carried.

As for the artwork, Ethan van Sciver’s illustrations serve the story well. At first, I felt his linework bore a resemblance to Jim Lee’s in All-Star Batman, but I then realised that it was Alex Sinclair’s colours that were responsible for the similarity, not Van Sciver’s work.

Sinclair’s colours lend depth and weight to linework that is clear and consistent, but that is not as well defined as it might be. There’s a high level of detail in most panels, but there’s often not enough variation in line weight to make the key elements really pop off the page and distinguish themselves against the backdrops. Moreover, some of the hatching is so fine that it starts to become lost--perhaps due to the printing process in which the art is reduced from the size of page that comic book illustrators normally work on.

It’s not the most elegant-looking book in the world, but perhaps that’s not entirely Van Sciver’s fault as the story demands a certain level of visual crowdedness. As with his Legion of Three Worlds series, Johns is throwing a lot of different characters--both heroes and villains--into this book, and he is trusting his artist to keep up. Overall, it’s a solid job by Van Sciver even if it’s not a book that I could recommend on the basis of its artwork alone.

In the same way that the similarly themed Green Lantern: Rebirth series did, I’m fully expecting this series to improve over the course of the next few issues. As with that earlier “rebirth” series, this opening issue kicks things off by embracing every aspect of the Flash mythos and attempting to reconcile them all into a single whole--rather than starting from scratch with a single core character and gradually introducing the world of the Scarlet Speedster to readers.

The result is an opening issue that isn’t the most interesting or accessible for newcomers to the character, and one that relies on the good faith of readers to come back next month to see where it’s all leading. However, at $3.99 a pop in a tight economy, that might be asking a little too much of casual buyers.

Let’s hope that the week in which Flash: Rebirth #2 is released is an otherwise quiet one for comics because there are plenty of other series that would get my money ahead of this one.

Thom Young:

While I began my “comic book collecting” at the age of 11 by only buying books in which Batman appeared, one of my earliest comic book memories is of The Flash--aka, Barry Allen--when I was six years old. I first encountered the idea of the character, though not really The Flash himself, in Detective Comics #353 (July 1966).

Of course, I didn’t have my mom buy the issue for me because of The Flash. I wanted it because the book starred Batman, who had become my favorite hero of all-time by virtue of the Adam West television series that had debuted in January of that year.

Whenever I went with my mom to the grocery store, I would park myself in front of the spinner rack and look for Batman comics while she shopped. Often, I’d be able to leave the store with one Batman comic, and that week in June of 1966 it was Detective #353. I haven’t read that story since at least 1968, but I recall it unsettled me as a youngster--and I thought it was odd that Batman and Robin were taking on another hero’s villain.

Other than the house ads for Flash comics that I would see in my issues of Batman and Detective, I didn’t encounter Barry Allen for about another year or so. I still recall with fear the cover of Flash #172 (August 1967) that shows Gorilla Grodd holding up the Flash’s empty costume and claiming, “this uniform is all that’s left of the Flash.”

I wanted to get that issue, but I could never find it at the grocery store. I was convinced it was a story about Grodd eating The Flash--a thought that terrified me to the point where I was sort of glad that I wasn’t able to find the issue at the store.

Anyway, back then, the Saturday morning cartoon known as The Superman-Aquaman Hour of Adventure would have a special guest star each week in which a different National Comics characters would have his or her own eight-minute story. You could try to figure out who the guest star would be for the following week by decoding the clue in the current week’s episode.

Even now, after 42 years, I still recall the episode in which the decoded clue was, “Flash lights, bug bites.” I guessed that the guest star for the next was going to be The Flash. I don’t recall the story for the episode in which The Flash appeared, but I remember being disappointed that it had nothing to do with bugs biting people (or lights, for that matter).

That cartoon episode was really my first encounter with The Flash and his amazing powers. I instantly loved the idea of a character who could run so fast that he was a blur. In fact, after that cartoon, I used to run around the house as fast as I could and I truly believed that I was a blur just like The Flash.

Now my six-year-old daughter does the same thing. It must be something that registers in the psyches of young kids (or at least Young kids).

After that cartoon, my next trip to the grocery store resulted in having my mom buy Superman #199--my first-ever non-Batman comic book. It not only had Batman in it as a guest star, but it was a great story (for a seven-year-old kid anyway) of Superman and Flash racing around the world to determine who was the fastest. Unfortunately, it was a story that continued into the next issue of The Flash, which I was never able to get. To this day, I still don’t know how that story ended.

About six months later I finally got my first issue of The Flash--an 80-page giant that reprinted three stories and that introduced me to the Golden Age Flash of Earth-2 and Kid Flash. I suddenly dreamed of being Kid Flash, Wally West. However, shortly after that issue came out, my mom stopped buying comic books for me and threw away all the ones I had stashed in my closet.

Still, I have never forgotten my first Flash comic--especially the story titled “Land of Golden Giants” in which Flash and Kid Flash ended up being transported back in time to the era where the Earth had one giant super-continent, Pangaea. Kid Flash still wore his uniform that was identical to Barry Allen’s Flash uniform, and I learned some interesting information about Earth’s ancient history.

My mom threw away those comics because she (and probably my father had a voice in this, too) believed that they were interfering with my schoolwork. However, I always thought comic books enhanced my education when I was a kid--especially the “Flash Facts” text sections that would be mini expository essays on a science subject that was relevant to that particular issue’s Flash story.

Ah well, I eventually started collecting The Flash with issue #208 when I was 11 years old and could buy the comics myself with my allowance (though I believe I may have gotten my mom to subscribe to the series for me, now that I think about it). From that point on, The Flash became my second-favorite comic book character after Batman (and just beating out Green Lantern, whose series was canceled shortly after that).

My point for this retrospective on “The Flash and I” is that I have been a longtime fan of Barry Allen and his super-powered alter ego. I knew Barry Allen; he was a friend of mine that I passed many hours with as I moved from school to school four times over the course of six years of my childhood.

I hated to see him get killed off in Crisis on Infinite Earths--a series that I didn’t mind at the time but have come to dislike due to Marv Wolfman’s bad ear for dialog and poor knowledge of astronomy. Thus, I should be exactly the type of nostalgic fan to whom Barry Allen’s resurrection should appeal.

However, as with Johns’s “rebirth” of Hal Jordan as Green Lantern (my third favorite comic book character when I was a kid), I’m not overly enthusiastic by what I read in Flash: Rebirth #1. In his review just above mine, Dave Wallace detailed many of the same faults that I saw in this first issue so I won’t repeat them. However, there is one that Dave didn’t address because he is not a longtime fan of the character the way I am.

Before I get to that additional problem, though, I want to paraphrase something that I recall reading (or watching) in an interview with DC Comics president Dan Didio. I recall him saying something along the lines that he wants to return The Flash to the characters most iconic version (i.e., Barry Allen) and that there are a lot of Barry Allen stories that are worth telling.

I couldn’t agree more. I always thought the idea that Barry Allen had become passé was simply not true--though, I’ll also admit that back in the mid 1980s I was also intrigued by the idea of Kid Flash becoming the new Flash (just as the Teen Titans concept in the 1960s promised that Dick Grayson would one day become Batman, Roy Harper would become Green Arrow, Donna Troy would become Wonder Woman, and Aqualad would become Aquaman).

The problem with that idea that there are still a lot of “Barry Allen stories” left to tell is that most comic books nowadays do not bother to address the private lives of the superheroes. At DC, aside from some scenes between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, we really aren’t shown any of the characters’ private lives with their supporting cast.

It doesn’t matter if, in the future of the Flash franchise, there are more Barry Allen stories to tell if the stories will primarily focus on a man in the Flash costume running around at super speed while stopping whatever threat he is facing in any particular five-issue arc. If the stories are going to just be “Flash” stories, then it doesn’t really matter if Barry Allen, Wally West, Bart Allen, Johnny Quick, Max Crandall, or Jay Garrick is wearing the costume.

However, that’s not the problem that I have with this issue--in which we see a character named “Barry Allen” quite a lot. The thing is that while this character looks like Barry Allen (blond crew cut) and is named Barry Allen, he really isn’t Barry Allen at all.

I’m not suggesting that Geoff Johns and/or DC will eventually reveal that the “real Barry Allen” was never resurrected and that this character will be exposed as a phony. Rather, I’m suggesting that this character does not act like the Barry Allen of my childhood. That Barry Allen was a laid back sort who was forever procrastinating and running late for appointments long before he was bathed in a flood of electrified chemical.

The irony of his origin story was that constantly tardy Barry had become the Fastest Man Alive, but in his Barry Allen persona he was still always running late. However, far from being the laid back Barry who has time to relax with his friends and who approaches his private life with a great deal of dawdling, the Barry Allen in this story seems very stuck up and tells his one-time best friend, Hal Jordan, that he can’t be late “For whatever the rest of the world needs me for.”

He seems to be saying that he can’t be Barry Allen and that he will spend most of his time as The Flash (poor Iris). Of course, other readers who enjoy the return of a character named “Barry Allen” (even if it’s really not the same “character”) might point out that being dead changed the man. He realized that there’s no time to waste in one’s life (a lesson I still need to learn despite my own brushes with death in recent years).

Yes, I understand that the point of Geoff Johns’s characterization in this story is that being dead has changed Barry Allen. I can only hope that the story will eventually lead “Barry” to truly becoming Barry again. Otherwise, what difference will it make what the secret identity of the man is who runs around in a red Flash uniform?

One final indication that this character named "Barry Allen" is different from the one that I recall is that Johns has the character refer to himself as having been a "detective." However, as far as I know, Barry Allen was always a "police scientist" (or a forensic scientist working in the crime lab).

In Showcase #4 back in 1956, Barry Allen would have had a job somewhat similar to that of lab technician David Hodges on the TV show CSI. By the time of his death in Crisis on Infinite Earths, he might have climbed up to the rank that Gil Grissom held before that character retired from "police scientist" work on CSI.

Uptight Detective rather than laid back forensic scientist? No, that's clearly not the Barry Allen I knew all those years ago.

Chris Murman:

What a year this is going to be for Geoff Johns. This week begins what should be quite a journey for the writer who has been tasked with restoring the luster to the DC army of characters. Fortunately, he will see his titles jump back into the top ten in sales many times between this series and Blackest Night.

Unfortunately, he’s stuck with me the entire way. Like it or not, I’m going to be forced to purchase his books because I want to find out just exactly how he’s next going to upset me. Yes that is my right, I paid my four bucks.

Speaking of an “army of characters,” we have quite the gaggle of red and yellow costumes on our hands with this series, don’t we? Even before I read the last page, I think we all suspect that not all of the Flashes are going to make it out of this story. Part of me believes that after the past years of characters wearing the scarlet costumes yo-yoing back and forth, editorial doesn’t really know which one of the fictional speedsters fans want to see at the forefront of this family.

So what do we do? Put every freaking one of them back between the covers! That’s exactly how to solve the problem, saturate us with electricity bolts and we won’t really notice the continued lack of direction for the Flash franchise. Well done, chaps.

That aside, it appears in this first issue that there is something amiss with the Speed Force. I certainly agree, as there aren’t many Flash writers who agree on what exactly it can and can’t do. The Speed Force can be equated to the Island on Lost, an ancillary character that gets dusted off every once in a while that nobody can exactly define. Actually, I better stop talking about it or someone will appear out of nowhere to touch me on the shoulder and reduce my body to a pile of teeth and dust, which is what happened to Savitar in this issue.

While I’m questioning things that could get me strung up, was it just me, or did we finally see a character Ethan van Sciver doesn’t excel at drawing? I am still a huge fan of his work, I just feel that his illustrations on this issue aren’t nearly as good as his work on Green Lantern where he adds nuances to the space saga with the different amalgams of ring blasts and projections of the Lantern logo.

Anyone can use a series of lines to form a cape or cowl, but to actually take a decades-old character and reinvent how readers look at him is something wonderous indeed. The difference with his work on Flash: Rebirth is that there really isn’t any vision involved with what we are given. For example, the cover is simply a man bending over to pull up his boot while surrounded by a lot of lightning bolts.

Maybe I’m too dull to tell the difference in the electricity surrounding Barry, Wally, or Bart. However, it’s more likely that what was once a nuance has simply become space filler.

In addition, the lightning projection on the chest of all those encompassed by the Speed Force is inconsistent and rarely presents itself with the ferocity Van Schiver most likely intended. In space, the Green logo presented itself as a badge the space cops flashed when entering a crime scene. Here, it is simply a manifestation of what happens when you go really fast. It’s a concept that sounds better in scripts and convention discussion than it actually looks.

Hopefully, we’ll see more of a differentiation as the series moves forward. In the same vein, I want nothing more than to have Johns present the seminal work that years from now will be seen as the defining work describing the Speed Force. Not that this team knows me from a hole in the ground, but readers on this site know how I chewed up Geoff and Ethan in their previous run together. I keep buying because I’ve seen moments of genius in their work, and it’s always nice to see it when genuine friends can collaborate on quality work. All of that to say, I want the best out of this series and this creative team in 2009.

I just hope this issue isn’t a harbinger of what’s to come of my use of four dollars.

Bill Frye:

With the opening issue of Flash: Rebirth, I think I can say without reservation that it’s safe to return to the Flash. The family of speedsters appears to be getting a much-needed lift with Geoff Johns returning to the franchise after a long absence.

I have never read much, if any, of Barry Allen's time as the Flash. I am aware of his importance and influence in Wally West's life, and his honorable death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The issue opens with an unknown assailant of two corrupt Central City police lab scientists attempting to recreate the accident that gave Barry Allen his powers. Johns then takes us on a tour of the Flash family as they prepare to welcome Barry Allen back to the land of the living.

As the issue progresses, we are treated to gradual bits and pieces of events happening with the Flash family all revolving around the characters welcoming back not just Barry Allen, but another Flash family member as well, which turns out to be one of the books’ biggest surprises (I certainly didn’t see it coming).

Johns also gives readers some insight into Barry Allen's past, not a retelling of the event that gave him his powers, but events in Barry's life that helped shape the man he would become--such as the fate of his parents.

It is good to see that the title of this book doesn’t only reflect the return of Barry Allen, but also the “rebirth” to greatness of the entire Flash family. Johns sets up the status quo in this issue as several subplots are introduced along with the main storyline, Allen’s return from death.

Van Sciver's art is solid, bringing the kinetic energy of the Flashes to life on the printed page. His pencils create a great sense of emotion amongst the characters, and the story flows easily from panel to panel. Van Sciver is also able to pack an awful lot of detail in each panel from the characters’ faces, costumes, and actions.

All in all this is a solid opening chapter to a much anticipated storyline. Johns does what he does best and revitalizes a family of characters that have been fallen on hard times, since, well since Johns was last on the title. Any Flash fans, who felt jilted by the series since Johns departed, can come back and feel like he never left.

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