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)


Kelson said...

The question “should DC have backpedaled on Bart Allen so quickly?” certainly looms over here.

I personally think they shouldn't have. While Wally is my favorite Flash, I think if they'd just put as much effort into Bart's series as an ongoing as they did into "Full Throttle," it would have turned around and at least sold comparable to pre-relaunch levels. The fact that the drop leveled out during Guggenheim's run, and even climbed back just a little bit (before the event-fueled spike for #13), says a lot about the potential.

But lately they've been changing directions so fast, nothing has a chance to take hold.

Another thing to consider is that if you go back farther, to when Geoff Johns took over the book in the first place, it was selling in the 20-30K range regularly. It was only in the second half of his run (after "Blitz") on the book that it climbed up to 40K and, with "Rogue War," hit that 50K mark at the beginning of your graph. (I don't have time to look up the numbers now, but there was a thread on Comic Bloc sometime last year where someone put together the numbers entire run from around #170 onward. It should be old enough to have survived the database crash.)

Kelson said...

On another (off-topic) note: Thanks for the link on your blogroll! I've got to say, that's some good company to be in!

Only one problem: it's pointing to, which doesn't exist, instead of to

Scipio said...

Nice series, MCK! Very interested in hearing your further analysis of the Flash.