Monday, June 30, 2008

The Future of the Flash, Part IV: How Things Run From Here

That's the point of comics – they don't have to die, because they're fictional creations... We can do anything with them, and we can make them come back and make them defy death... And that's why people read comics, to get away from the way life works, which is quite cruel and unheroic and ends in death.
Grant Morrison

I am writing this under the assumption that Barry Allen is returning for good. This could all be proven wrong at the end of Final Crisis #7 if Barry makes another spectacular sacrifice to save the universe but… well, I think only the permanent return of Barry Allen would warrant enough “buzz” to make it into the New York Daily News.

With that out of the way…

Bringing back Barry Allen to revitalize the Flash franchise is a financial no-brainer for DC Comics. The return of the “classic” versions of Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Hawkman worked very well for the company, rejuvenating concepts that had, in some ways, lost their way. As shown by the spectacular debut issue of Flash: The Fastest Man Alive, there is plenty of interest in the Flash property. Also, as the late 90s/early 00s have proven, the Flash characters are one of the cornerstones of the DC Universe and can support several titles and team books.

With that in mind…

Here are five major moves DC needs to make to ensure a successful re-launch, or there is a very real chance that fan apathy and ever-dropping sales will result in DC not having an ongoing Flash title for the first time since 1959, something that is really inexcusable for one of their top half-dozen franchise characters.

  1. Do not kill off Wally. This one goes without saying. DC had three Flashes (Jay Garrick, Barry, and Wally) at the same time for two decades before Crisis on Infinite Earths and during Waid’s run on Flash there were as many as a half-dozen speedsters running around the title at any time. With four “main” Green Lanterns (and thousands more throughout the universe) there is really no reason why the DC Universe could not have multiple Flashes. If nothing else, it certainly opens up many new storyline possibilities. Clearly many fans were not happy with the sudden death of Bart Allen to clear the deck for Wally’s return, and redoing that for Barry’s sake would probably lead to the same criticism.
  2. Do not kill off Wally’s children. Yes, it is obvious that they are not popular and the “domestic direction” of the book is killing sales. But again, while it was a quick sales boost, Bart’s death seemed to be an unpopular decision and I sincerely doubt that the deaths of Wally’s infant children (no matter how rapidly they age) would go over any better. Stick them in a “paradise dimension,” have them lose their powers, de-age them back to infants , have Norman Osborne steal them and then hide them in Europe – whatever the writer deems best – but simply killing them off smells of a lack of creativity and would probably generate more negative buzz than the Flash property can afford at this point.
  3. Get a high-profile creative team who has a long-term commitment to the book. As I pointed out in Part III, Flash has always performed best with a strong writer committed to the success of the book. High-profile writers and artists almost always boost sales, which Flash desperately needs at this point.
  4. Have a direction and stick to it. The Green Lantern franchise has benefited tremendously by the build and success of the “Sinestro Corps War” and now the slow build to “The Blackest Night.” Geoff Johns was able to pull off similar success (though to a lesser extent) during his last Flash storyline, “Rogue War” (issues #220-225), proving that the Flash is just as capable of building to and executing a successful event. Now it is time to raise the stakes.
  5. Promote it, preferably with honesty. The New York Daily News is a good start, but what DC really needs to do as a goodwill gesture to fans is to be upfront with the new direction – that there will not be anymore quick death fixes, that there will be a clear direction that will not be rapidly changed, and that the creative team will stick around for the long-term. Admit that mistakes have been made with the franchise but the company is making every attempt to get it back on track at a level of quality it deserves (and thus sell at the level it should be selling).

Of course, there are a thousand other suggestions – particularly story related – however I feel that the above five are broad enough to get Flash selling like it should. For the most part they are pretty general in terms of launching a new book in this market, but DC Comics owes it to themselves to get Flash selling among their top ten or twelve titles, and if the last few years have taught us anything it is that a quick fix will not cut it. The best chance they have is with Barry Allen, but DC Comics has to do it right because a character deemed “too dull” over twenty years ago cannot do it on his own.

Even if he did save the universe.

(I would appreciate any feedback on this series – I plan to follow it up in a few months to see how the Flash franchise is recovering. And please keep visiting for other commentaries!)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Future of the Flash, Part III: How Things are Running Now

Please note that I didn't think it was a good idea to kill The Flash but those were my marching orders, so I did the best I could to make his death as moving as I could... Much of the reason the people in charge didn't care for Barry Allen was that he was considered dull.
Marv Wolfman

Marv Wolfman has often stated that it was an editorial decision to kill off Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths because the higher-ups felt the character was rather boring and that his story – he was acquitted for the murder of his wife Iris’ killer and then happily reunited with her not-quite-dead self – had reached a happy conclusion. Of course, killing Barry off, even in a heroic sacrifice, sort of takes away from the "happy ending," but I digress. The decision was made to have Barry’s sidekick, Wally West, become the lead of a new Flash series.

Twenty years later, as Infinite Crisis approached, Flash was coming off of a long popular run by Geoff Johns that typically sold in the low-to-mid-40k area, a solid, but not stellar, performer. Like Barry, Wally’s story was heading towards a happy ending after a period of tragedy. With the upcoming Infinite Crisis looming, the decision was made to have Wally’s pseudo-sidekick, Bart Allen, become the lead of a new Flash series. It certainly came off well all those years ago.

There was one problem. People liked Wally. They really liked him.

Okay... probably not the best example to illustrate my point.

Wally West is unique among all replacement characters in comic books because he had been a qualified success for twenty years, longer than Kyle Rayner (who had a solid run as Green Lantern) and Connor Hawke (who was never given much of a shot of being Green Arrow since Oliver Queen was always intended to return) combined. Wally’s Flash series featured lengthy and highly acclaimed runs by William Messner-Loebs, Mark Waid and frequent co-writer Brian Augustyn, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns that greatly expanded the mythos of the character and the entire Flash property. For a few years in the late 90s/early 2000s the Flash franchise was so popular that Wally appeared monthly in Flash, JLA, and Titans while Impulse appeared in his own spin-off title and Young Justice. Counting Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash who was a regular in JSA, Flash characters were regularly appearing in at least six titles per month.

I picked this month at random -- June 2000. Flash characters starred in the above six titles.
I did not even count mini-series or one-shots.

All things considered, Wally remained popular even when he was given his “happy ending” – so much so that regardless of how the Bart Allen experiment did Wally was still going to be brought back by Meltzer and Johns in “The Lightning Saga” crossover. When the Flash: The Fastest Man Alive failed, DC determined that the best possible course of action was to kill Bart off in favor of having Wally as the “main” Flash.

Yet the current Wally-lead series is not selling poorly. How come? Wasn’t the dismal sales of Flash: The Fastest Man Alive proof that fans preferred Wally as the Flash?

Yes and no. Here are three major factors to think about:

  1. “Wally West is the Flash” is a very different concept than “Wally West is the Flash with two super-powered rapidly-aging kids,” a new direction that for one reason or another is not working. The whole “domestic life of a nuclear family of superheroes” dynamic (which many have compared to the recent Disney-Pixar film, The Incredibles), is not one, to my knowledge, that has ever been a major success in mainstream superhero comics.
  2. As the Speed Force blog points out, there has been no long-term Flash writer since Johns left the title at the end of 2005. While creators jumping on for four-to-twelve issues is a common occurrence these days on other books, Flash, as pointed out above, always thrived on the work of long-term writers. Since Flash: The Fastest Man Alive launched there have been no less than five different writers on the Flash titles, with a sixth on the way. This lack of long-term direction really causes the book to suffer.
  3. Simply enough, the death of Bart Allen barely a year into his Flash career, along with the merry-go-round of writers that has followed, has burned away fan goodwill. DC promoted Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #14 (which later became the “bridge” one-shot All Flash #1) and Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #15 (which later became Flash #231, continuing the number of Wally’s earlier series) with the same hush-hush secret solicitations that accompanied Marvel’s death of Captain America. Of course, there were major differences between the two events: Cap’s death plotted over the course of two dozen critically acclaimed and high-selling issues written by a proven comic writer, while Bart’s Flash series was a sales disaster which lead to the decision to kill off the character after a handful of issues and completely change directions. It is difficult for fans to get excited about and purchase a book when a creative team can change the whole direction again in three months or less.
The facts are that a Flash re-launch with Bart Allen did not work, nor has the current ongoing saga of Wally’s children and their rapidly-aging powers. But obviously DC is aware that the Flash property cannot last much longer in this condition.

Because here comes Barry Allen. And he was the Flash.

(Coming in the final part of this series: what problems DC should consider with a new Barry Allen Flash series)

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Future of the Flash, Part II: Acting on Impulses

The costume will be very familiar, although you may not
want to get too attached to the first Flash you see.
Dan Didio

Bart Allen was not always marked for death. If the post-Infinite Crisis re-launch of the Flash series had not bombed beyond what anyone thought possible, Bart could still be the Flash today. Or alive, at the very least.

Of course, The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive debacle has since become a blueprint (along with the 2006 Wonder Woman title) of How Not to Do a High Profile Relaunch. As a side note, even though both re-launches suffered from different problems I would be remiss not to point out that both were written by television writers who had limited comic book writing experience. But that, of course, is a whole other article.

For reasons of secrecy not much was said about the future of the Flash post-Infinite Crisis even after it was announced that the writers for the relaunched title would be Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, the writers of the short-lived Flash television series from over fifteen years prior. Their first issue, released in June 2006, had phenomenal sales of over 120k copies. As far as Bilson and DeMeo were concerned, their run was open-ended. In an October 2006 interview with Comic Book Resources’ Robert Taylor, the two writers had this to say about their future plans on Flash: The Fastest Man Alive:

Robert Taylor: How long are you guys planning on staying on the book?

Danny Bilson:
We are planning on staying on the book as long as it's mutually agreed upon by us and DC. There was never the idea that it would be a limited experience or we'd only do it for a few months. We have a lot of plans and a lot of stuff laid out going forward.

Paul DeMeo:
At this point we have outlined all the way through issue 12…

Danny Bilson:
…and beyond!

However, sales immediately plummeted – I will leave speculation why up to the reader (although I will address it somewhat in Part III of this series). As a result, Bilson and DeMeo’s open-ended run that was at the very least plotted through issue #12 was cut short at issue #8. In November 2006 it was announced that Marc Guggenheim would be the new writer starting with #9, the January 2007 issue. However, as late as December 2006 Dan Didio seemed to still support the idea of Bart Allen as the Flash. In an interview that month with Newsarama, Didio said on the controversy:

If you don't change, fans generally start crying out for change. Then, if you change something, the fans – sometimes the same ones – will start crying out that they didn't want the change. You're never going to be able to please everybody – you've got to go out there and do it, and almost, damn the consequences. And it keeps going – we've got fans who are still arguing whether or not Flash should be Barry Allen or Wally West, but at the same time, we're getting a new set of voices who like the idea of Bart as Flash. And for those fans, Bart Allen is their Flash. He's the one that they want to see and want to keep. Likewise, I'm starting to see acceptance of Jason Rusch as Firestorm, even after the outcry about Ronnie Raymond. So there is an evolution, but the real trick for all of us is to stay true to the course of what we've done and stay true to the plan of the changes we've made so that these characters are able to take root – and not to go running backwards and changing things, just because it seems like it was a mistake.

On March 22, 2007 in a post on ComicBloc, Bilson elaborated on the duo’s plans for issues beyond #8 had they remained on the title. This proved that as far as they knew Bart Allen would stick around as the Flash and they would have continued writing the title had sales remained high:

What was planned included a new Trixter and a return of the Nightshade from our old TV show. It was also going to feature appearances by Heatwave and Captain Cold. A big team up with Jay Garrick, and Bart would finally defeat Inertia in book 12 in a freeway chase against traffic.

That's just a small part of it. Feels kind of wierd [sic] to lay it all's not the fiction. That's in Mark's [sic] hands now.

Clearly Bart was not, as DC later argued, always intended to die, since Bilson and DeMeo plotted out their stories until (at least) issue 12. Regardless, by the time Guggenheim was announced as the new writer, DC apparently judged that the poor sales of Flash: The Fastest Man Alive were a result of fans not liking Bart as the Flash and had come to a decision about the fate of Bart Allen. In a July 2007 interview with Newsarama, Guggenheim confirmed that from the beginning his five-issue run came with very specific instructions:

Marc Guggenheim: …Taking things in reverse order, I was told that my run would be five issues; I was told that it would end with whacking him, and I was even told that the Rogues had to play a pivotal role in being responsible for his death.

Wally West conveniently returned in Justice League of America #10, released the same day Bart was killed off in Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #13. Oddly enough, Brad Meltzer and Geoff Johns apparently always intended to return Wally to the scene, regardless of Bart’s altered fate. From another interview with Comic Book Resources:

[Guggenheim explained] that due to the tie-in with the top-selling "Justice League of America" and "Justice Society of America" "Lightning Saga" crossover, writing Bart's death was a fairly simple process to execute. "It really helped that Brad [Meltzer] and Geoff [Johns] had a very clear and very well planned out sense of where they were going, so I just wrote towards that."

What DC planned to do with the Flash title with Bart and Wally both among the living is unknown, but obviously Meltzer wrote his Justice League of America issues far enough in advance that the possibility was certainly there. Because of the advanced planning, DC already had the comfortable option of bringing back Wally West as the "main" Flash. I have since speculated that it was an “escape clause” if the Bart experiment did not pan out, but I do not have any source to back up that speculation. In any case, Bart’s death issue sold very well, but much less than his #1 issue.

But this did not fix things. While DC scrapped their plans with poorly-selling Bart Allen, sales of the current Flash series featuring Wally and his super-powered kids are far below what one of DC’s top characters should be selling, in fact it is now selling below what the pre-Infinite Crisis title sold:

(Sales figures taken from The Beat. The biggest spike was the first issue of Bart's series, while the smaller one was from his death issue.)
The question “should DC have backpedaled on Bart Allen so quickly?” certainly looms over here. There was evidently enough interest in a new Flash series, since Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #1 sold three times as many copies as Flash #230, the last pre-Infinite Crisis issue. But by Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #12 (the issue before Bart’s death), the title was selling about the same numbers (give or take two or three thousand) that the last five issues of the previous Flash series sold. The one-year change was basically zero. While Bilson and DeMeo were clearly not interesting new readers, it was not an impossibility that sales could have recovered long-term with a better writer and an interesting Wally/Bart/Wally’s kids dynamic. But that was not the direction DC decided to take the failing property.

However, as it stands now, the Flash property is more radioactive than Three-Mile Island and sales could scarcely be more embarrassing for one of DC’s top characters. As explored in Part I, a back-to-basics approach certainly worked with Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Hawkman, so at this point it looks like a return of Barry Allen could just be what the property needs to get back on track.

But there stands Wally West. And he is (currently) the Flash.

(Coming in Part III: why it was so hard for DC to replace Wally, and how the series stands now)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Future of the Flash, Part I: Back to (Silver Age) Basics

(This is the first part of a four-part series that analyzes how DC Comics has handled the Flash series over the last few years, and how they can get it back on track. Feedback is definitely appreciated!)

Is bringing Barry Allen back a good business move for DC? Well, Barry has already made four or five brief visits from beyond the grave since his death in 1986 and those temporary flirts certainly could not help or hurt sales in any earth-shattering way. But precedent set by the return of other classic characters forecasts that a permanent return for Barry Allen would be a good move on DC’s part. After all, three have been very positive long-term moves. In order of success:

  • In 2005, Silver Age Green Lantern Hal Jordan was brought back to dynamite sales in Green Lantern: Rebirth, resulting in one of DC’s best-selling franchises (the Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps titles), and “The Sinestro Corps War,” DC’s most positively-received crossover in years. Both titles are currently building towards another crossover in 2009, “The Blackest Night.” Popular writer Geoff Johns is certainly committed to the character for the long-term, so DC can probably count on continued success.

  • In 2001, Green Arrow Oliver Queen was brought back by filmmaker Kevin Smith and enjoyed a 75 issue series that ended to make way for a high profile wedding to Black Canary and the re-launched “shared” title, Green Arrow/Black Canary. Ollie also had a fairly prominent role in Identity Crisis, the crossover that help set the direction for the DC Universe over the last few years. While sales of Green Arrow/Black Canary are not at Green Lantern levels, Green Arrow is still enjoying solid success.

  • Hawkman and Hawkgirl both enjoyed prominent roles in JSA after their returns from comic book continuity hell, as well as a spin-off solo title. Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray had a strong run that generated positive buzz and regained sales before the title was changed to Hawkgirl at issue #50. Sales soon dropped harshly and the title was cancelled at issue #66. Currently Hawkman still appears in Justice Society of America and Rann/Thanagar: Holy War while Hawkgirl appears in Justice League of America, so both characters are certainly doing better post-return despite their main title being cancelled.

All good moves, DC!

Curiously enough, it appears all recent attempts by DC to significantly alter one of their “icons” have poor long-term results:

  • Aquaman was close to cancellation in 2005 but received a gigantic jump in sales with issue #40 when it was revamped by Kurt Busiek into a sword-and-sorcery series with a brand new Aquaman. However, interest did not last and even fantasy novelist Tad Williams, who took over from Busiek with issue #50, failed to bring the numbers back up (although personally I thought his run was really well-written). Cancelled with issue #57, the Aquaman property seems to be taking a rest.

  • While the All-New Atom was the longest-lasting Atom series since the 1960s, the sales were never that great and the title was recently canceled with next week’s issue #25. Silver Age Atom Ray Palmer appears in the last few issues and will also be appearing in James Robinson’s upcoming Justice League title.

  • Martian Manhunter’s recent mini-series revamp did little to revive interest in the character. See Final Crisis #1 for the end result.

Ouch... Better luck next time?

Taking all of the above into account, it is clear that the classic versions of DC’s characters are far more successful than revamped versions. Of course, the Atom and Martian Manhunter never had the sales power that Green Lantern or even Green Arrow had, yet neither did Hawkman, who has never been a top seller since the Golden Age, and he has done fairly well. The Flash, however, is certainly as high-profile a character as Green Lantern, so logic dictates that by following the “back-basics” model DC would have another blockbuster.

Except for one major problem: over the last few years the Flash franchise has been nothing less than a total sales disaster.

(Coming in Part II: some truth about Bart Allen’s hasty exit…)



A four-part series looking at the state of DC Comics' currently troubled Flash series, how it got that way, and analysis on how DC can repair the franchise by following similar methods that they have recently used to revitalize other characters.

Hope you enjoyed the early retirement, Barry. Planning to stick around this time? DC sure hopes so!