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)


Anthony Strand said...


Good series so far. The upcoming fate of the Flash franchise is something I've thought a lot about, so it's fun to read your thoughts.

I think you hit the nail on the head that the short runs have been a major problem. Wally, as the Flash, was developed by just a few writers. I wasn't crazy about Bart as the Flash, but he should have gotten that same chance.

I don't think Bilson & DeMeo were the guys to do that, but Guggenheim's run was off to a promising start (by which I mean, basically, that I liked that one scene of Bart and Tim Drake talking on the telephone). He may have been able to make Bart-as-Flash work, given time.

*sigh* Oh well.

Scipio said...

"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."

This is the most important, and simplest statement about What Is Currently Most Wrong With Comics ever made. We all know this; why doesn't DC? Does Didio have ADD?

McK said...

"This is the most important, and simplest statement about What Is Currently Most Wrong With Comics ever made. We all know this; why doesn't DC? Does Didio have ADD?"

Part of the problem is a that a lot of creators only want to jump onto a title for only the one or two arcs that they want to write. Towards the end of the run of JLA we had the infamous "everyone has a great Justice League story" era, resulting in a hodgepodge of creators jumping onto the title to produce some truly forgettable stories -- most of which ended up in JLA Classified anyway. Fact is, I don't think the sales boost of having, say, Jeph Loeb, on a book for 6 issues will eventually outweigh the lack of longterm direction. Editors would probably be better of saying, "come back when you have two years worth of stories," but that isn't going to happen with someone like Loeb or Meltzer or Heinberg.

Thankfully I feel this trend is mostly reversing for DC -- witness Dini and Morrison on the Batman titles, and now Johns and Robinson on the Superman titles. Johns is well-known for sticking on his titles, just as Bendis is on the other side of town. Still, a recent (and relevant) example is Waid's cup of coffee run on Flash. He was pretty open about the fact that he wasn't going to be on those titles very long, and look how that turned out.

beta ray steve said...

It seems that having kids and achieving domestic tranquility should be the end to the Wally West story, setting him up for an "I didn't want to come out of retirement, but you made me" death.