Monday, August 25, 2008

Flash v. 2 #5 and Flash v. 2 #6

Writer: Mike Baron
Artists: Jackson Guice, Larry Mahlstedt, & Jack Torrance

I use "On the one hand/On the other" formulations a lot in my writing not so much because I'm trying to see all sides of a work of art, but because I want my writing to convey the sense I have of working through art instead of passing judgment on it. If that makes me seem wishy-washy, well, then, so be it.

Anyway, the "On the one hand" operating here: it's in these two issues that everything Baron and Guice have been trying to do finally clicks into place. Wally goes up against Speeds McGee - a ragin', 'roid abusin' bad guy who seems like he could have come out of the darkest issues of Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme. There are quite a few good "spectacle" scenes that revolve around Speeds' lack of control of his super powers. Baron and Guice don't play this as slapstick, but rather as more sci-fi-ish detail.

The "On the other hand" is that the whole thing is kicked off by having Speeds beat up his wife, who is also Flash's girlfriend. That kind of thing usually strikes me as a bit of a cheap trick: an artificial way to ramp up the emotional stakes and an easy way to come off as serious.

Baron is on much firmer footing with his throwaway realistic details, like the idea that the town Wally just moved to can no longer afford liability insurance because of the fear that a super-hero's presence will attract attacks from super-villains.

And, though Speeds McGee isn't that original of an idea - he's another "Rival" Flash - Baron uses him pretty effectively. His 'roid rage and his lack of control make him a good foil for Wally.

It all leads to the best fight scene we've had yet, but, interestingly enough, it is, once again, somewhat anticlimactic: Flash doesn't defeat Speeds - Speeds just wears himself out through 'roid abuse.

These two issues definitely fit into the wave of "realistic" leaning super-hero stories from that time - Watchmen, the New Universe, the Wild Card stories, the Mike Grell's Longbow Hunters version of Green Arrow, and probably a bunch more. (I'll also mention Squadron Supreme, because even though it came out a year or two earlier, it's my favorite). Though Baron's work on Nexus and Badger probably helped to originate this trend, here he seems to be just riding the wave.

One of the reasons I started going back through my old issues of Flash is that I wanted to see what specific benefits creators have when working within the DC Mythos, especially since there are a lot of costs involved. However, so far, I don't get the sense that Baron is able to actualize much of that potential benefit. He obviously knows how to write super-hero comics, but, based on this series, it doesn't seem that he has a particular affinity for writing DC super-hero comics.


James said...

I'll take your word that Baron isn't able to articulate the benefits of the "DC Mythos" very well.

But why isn't this the result of the more "realistic" approach? I've never been a big DC fan, but the way you talk about it, the chief feature is that over 70 years it's become an incredibly gnarly and convoluted imaginary world, where you can't walk 5 steps without tripping over some guy who used to be Captain Comet of Earth-3.

But I can't really see how to showcase this feature in the "gritty" world of late-80's comic books. They had just wiped out a zillion parallel universes a few months before, Krypto was gone, etc.

In other words, this problem could easily be the result of editorial mandate rather than the writer. The test would require looking at other writers on second-tier books at this time, and see how they're doing.

Jon Hastings said...

James -

Yes - that's the test.

I'd point to the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League as an example of a book that successfully combined all of these elements. It wasn't really a "gritty" book, but it had a number of "realistic" details a la Baron's Flash (super hero team with corporate sponsorship, character death, etc.).

The cross-over event Legends, by John Ostrander, Len Wein, and John Byrne, (which Baron's Flash grew out of) also blended things more successfully than Baron does here. (I'll be writing in more detail about this series pretty soon).

There are a couple more books contemporary to these that I'll be looking at, but my observation at this point is that some creators (Ostrander, Wein, Giffen, DeMatteis, Byrne, Maguire) were simply more comfortable working with the DC Mythos than others (Baron, Guice). I'm not ruling out bad decisions from editorial, but, in interviews, Baron hasn't mentioned that kind of interference. (Although I will be bringing up the issue of his cocaine abuse and how that might relate to things in a future post).

I'm also going to pull out my old issues of The Punisher, which Baron was writing at the same time as this Flash run. I used to think (fairly) highly of these comics, but it's been a while.

Not that I don't think editorial wasn't making bad decisions (the not-very-fondly-remembered Millenium event is right around the corner and, though I liked it enough at the time, I'm not expecting it to have held up every well), but in this case I think it's a matter of Baron not being able to get much traction.

Anonymous said...

Comics are kind of hard for me to read.


James said...

I'm going to stand by my comments earlier: I suspect the Flash is a difficult character to write well (at least by my standards of "well").

On and off for the past few days, inspired largely by your series of posts, I've been fooling around with a With Great Power... game scenario for the next Nerd NYC Recess, and I'm using a menu of DC superheroes.

As you know, With Great Power... characters consist of writing down what you know about the hero, and turning this into a laundry list of "aspects."

It was frustrating to realize that based solely on his various cartoon appearances, the few Flash comics I've read, and his guest appearances in other comics, what I know about the Flash is:

* He's the fastest man alive
* He has a cosmic treadmill
* He worships his uncle
* His villains are... an acquired taste.

It's tempting to conclude that the character is "about" nothing at all. And with very little connection to a "straight" genre, it's not really clear how to steer him. (I know you said the Flash is a sci-fi series, but he seems far less so than The Fantastic Four or Green Lantern.)

Having a completely open field like this would be helpful in many ways, because you would be free to re-invent the character completely and alter the local cosmology as you see fit. But this is comics - in particular, DC Comics - where precedent and continuity are more important than doing something interesting and fresh.

(Case in point: although intellectually I can appreciate the decision to turn Hal Jordan into a villain, kill off the Corps, and make Kyle the new Green Lantern - I am still filled with rage! Marz, you suck! I wish I were being ironic about this, but I'm not.)

James said...

Oh, I'm sorry: I left out my conclusion tying this stuff together:

It's hard to write for a character where the "core plot" or thematic elements are difficult to identify. Normally you could rely on genre conventions to get you through, but The Flash seems like a pretty standard superhero series, so that won't help you stand out. And given the readership, it's hard to take big risks.

I'm not saying you're wrong in your assessment of Baron, but nevertheless I think it's a hard game to play well.

Jon Hastings said...

"But this is comics - in particular, DC Comics - where precedent and continuity are more important than doing something interesting and fresh. "

I agree with this!

My contention (at this point) is that while it may or may not be more difficult to write Flash (or a character like him) well, it does require a different set of skills than writing a more self-contained hero well (that is, in WGP... terms, a character that is overflowing with juicy aspects).

DC characters, in general, tend to be less self-contained than the Marvel characters that inspired WGP (Flash might work better in Capes, where individual characters don't have the same central importance). What DC characters are "about" has to do with how they're positioned relative to all that other stuff that's going on and has gone on in the Mythos.

I don't think Baron is interested in this stuff in the way Mark Waid or Geoff Johns are. I don't see that as a big deficiency for Baron: IMO, he created/wrote one of the best contemporary super-hero comics (Nexus), what I've read of Badger is really strong, and at least the first issue of his Punisher run has held up. So his not being able to or, much more likely, not wanting to make DCU continuity work for him is minor in the big scheme of things.

(And I should clarify: I do like these Flash comics and think that the next couple issues get better.)

However, I think that creators can make this stuff work for them. I think that Mark Waid and Geoff Johns both do so in the context of writing Flash (we'll see if I make it that far).

I didn't follow the Green Lantern stuff: are you angry at what Marz did because you see it as a betrayal of something core to the character?

James said...

Hmm, I'm not sure how I can explain, but let me lay some foundation.

In the seven years in which I actively collected comic books, I bought precisely one DC comic: Green Lantern Corps #217. Why that one? I don't really know. I enjoyed that issue, but I didn't become a Green Lantern fan.

As you know, sometime around 1994 Ron Marz wiped out 99% of the series to start fresh and reconceptualize everything. This decision infuriated die-hard Green Lantern fans, who thought Marz was the Anti-Christ.

I remember laughing at these dopes, thinking, "Gee, it's just a crummy superhero, lighten up! Whiners like you are why comic books, which are about the most insanely fresh concepts, are so horribly stagnant."

But in 1999, during a very dull job, I discovered several on-line Green Lantern resources, particularly the Book of Oa. It was the perfect way to while away a dull work day... and after reading about G'nort, Appa Ali Apsa, Professor Ojo, etc., I became a Green Lantern fan. (John Stewart 4 ever!!!!)

And, to my own amazement, I too became furious at Ron Marz, even though intellectually I knew he was completely in the right. It really upset me that he had "ruined" generations of stories, this rich cosmos, in order to do something so pedestrian.

Now: considering that those earlier stories still exist, and Kyle Rayner can't make them un-exist, what the hell was my problem? But I certainly had one.

I guess what it comes down to is that I came to appreciate how much hard work went into building the Green Lantern universe, and Marz's attempt to assert his creativity felt disrepsectful to the earlier creators/creations, and his own contributions can't help but look inadequate in the process.