Friday, 23 July 2010

Flash Fact: Wally West is brilliant but it's time for Barry Allen

Barry Allen

In 1985 Barry Allen, The Flash, died saving the Universe. The mantle of The Flash was taken up by his sidekick Wally West, who served as DC Comics' main Flash until 2006 when Barry Allen's grandson Bart briefly took over.  Wally soon returned as the Flash but was joined in 2008 by a resurrected Barry Allen.  Barry is now once again the main Flash, while Wally has taken something of a back seat and is currently not appearing regularly in any DC titles.  This is a controversial move among Flash fans as Wally has developed quite a devoted following over the past 25 years.  I would argue however that DC has made the right decision.  Barry needed to come back and Wally needs some time away, but not because of any failing on the part of Wally as a character.  In fact I would say that Wally has been too well written for his own good.

When The Flash was relaunched in 1987 writer Mike Baron wrote Wally West as a promiscuous, arrogant prat, as far removed in personality from Barry Allen as any character could be.  This was a genius move for many reasons.  For a start, if Wally had been exactly the same as Barry then Barry's death would have been rendered pointless.  Also, this was the mid '80s and in making Wally a bit of a selfish womaniser, Baron very much made him your quintessential '80s man. But the biggest advantage of portraying Wally as a bit of an arsehole was the fact that we got to see Wally grow and mature before our very eyes as the series progressed.

Wally West

When Baron left after issue 14, William Messner-Loebs took over and carried on developing and maturing Wally.  Under Messner-Loebs we saw Wally humbled and forced to temporarily live on the streets.  We saw him begin to appreciate his friends more and become less of a user.  We saw his relationship with his clingy mother and wannabe super-villain father develop.  By the time Messner-Loebs left the book Wally was a much more likeable guy. But his journey wasn't over.  Mark Waid was the next writer to chronicle Wally's adventures and he continued to send Wally on his path to maturity. Under Waid for example, Wally ended his womanising and began to settle down with a long term girlfriend, journalist Linda Park.  But Waid also did something very important.  Waid recognised that while Wally had worked through a lot of his issues there was still something he had yet to come to terms with.  The legacy of Barry Allen. During Waid's run we saw Wally come to terms with Barry's death and grow comfortable with the fact that he was beginning to surpass his mentor in terms of both power and achievement.

Wally West

Wally's understanding and control of his speed was very much tied to this emotional journey he was taking.  When Baron reintroduced the character his top speed was 705 mph and he had to eat and drink huge amounts in order to replenish the energy he expended while running.  We gradually got to see Wally get faster and faster and look more closely into the nature of his powers as he did so.  Messner-Loebs first indicated that there may be more to Wally's powers than meets the eye when he had Wally's scientist friend, Tina McGee note that Barry Allen's powers were physically impossible and he may have become something other than human when he gained his powers.  Waid took this idea and developed it further. He had Wally meet Max Mercury, a Golden Age speedster who was the zen guru of speed.  Under Max's tutelage Wally discovered the Speed Force, the extra-dimensional source of all super speed. Wally soon learnt to control the Speed Force and gained speed and abilities beyond anything any speedster had achieved previously.

Flash v2 Annual #3 (1989) - Even before Mark Waid established the Speed Force William Messner-Loebs had sown the seeds.

By the time Waid left and Geoff Johns took over Wally had married Linda and become a master of the Speed Force.  Johns took some of the focus away from Wally and concentrated on the development of other characters.  For example, Flash's famous Rouge's Gallery enjoyed more character development under Johns than they had ever experienced before.  Despite this Johns continued to allow Wally to change and grow.  During Johns' run Wally began to forge an identity for himself as a blue collared hero of the people with his feet planted firmly on the ground.  He also regained his secret identity and fathered twins with Linda.

Wally and Linda tie the knot

The wonderful thing about Wally's Flash series was that despite the change of writers Wally underwent a real journey over the course of two decades, with characterisation that was so consistent that he is perhaps one of the most fully realised characters in the DC stable.  However, it is this wonderful character development that has proved the character's undoing.  After undertaking the journey from a selfish underpowered hothead to a super powerful, heroic and responsible father of two, Wally has nowhere else to go as a character, at least for the moment.  This was proven by the way the character has floundered somewhat over the past five years or so.  First he was replaced by Bart Allen as the Flash and then he returned in some very underwhelming Mark Waid penned stories.  It was hard not to get the impression that DC had no idea what to do with Wally.  This is why I totally agree with DC's decision to bring Barry Allen back to life and take Wally out of the limelight for a while.  I would much prefer not to see Wally for a bit rather than see him star in a bunch of mediocre, directionless stories or worse still, get killed off.

Barry and Wally in Flash:Rebirth

As for Barry, Geoff Johns has done a fantastic job of returning him to the DC Universe.  Flash: Rebirth, the story in which Barry's return is explained, sold well but has had it's fair share of online detractors.  Personally I loved it.  Johns establishes that while Wally is the master of the Speed Force, Barry is its source.  Barry actually generates the Speed Force with each step he takes.  The Speed Force reaches through time, which explains why Barry's predecessor, Jay Garrick is also connected to it.  This, in my opinion, is a fantastic continuation of themes established not only during Waid's run but as far back as Messner-Loebs' run, when Tina McGee questioned Barry Allen's status as a human being.  It is also incredibly apt in the way it mirrors real life.  Without Barry, Jay Garrick would probably have been forgotten and Wally would never have been created.  Barry is very much the source of Wally and Jay's "power" in reality, as well as in the pages of the comic.

Barry Allen

Flash: Rebirth also sees the return of Barry's arch enemy, Professor Zoom, The Reverse Flash.  It seems that Zoom is powered by a negative Speed Force and is responsible for Barry's return.  Zoom wanted to not only undermine Barry's myth by negating his sacrifice but also to continue making Barry's life a misery.  Zoom actually goes back in time and kills Barry's mother, framing his father for the crime.  The mystery surrounding his mother's death and the desire to clear his father's name drives Barry into a career as a police scientist and strengthens his desire for justice.  With this tweak of continuity Johns has made Barry a far deeper character than he was when he died.  This change also helped to further distinguish Barry from Wally, who is motivated more from the love of his powers and the desire to carry on Barry's legacy than from tragedy.   

Professor Zoom

Geoff Johns' new Flash series starring Barry Allen has been brilliant so far.  It's certainley slower paced than Johns' Wally stories, but I think that has more to do with the differences between Barry and Wally as characters than any failing on Johns' part.  Thanks to Johns, and Barry of course, The Flash comic has a clear identity and direction once again.  In fact, Johns is building up to a big Flash-related event in 2011, Flashpoint.  But I'm sure Wally's story isn't over.  In 1985 DC felt they could go no further with Barry Allen and so they killed him off and he remained dead for 23 years.  Despite his absence from the books, Wally is very much still alive and I remain confident that it will be a lot sooner than 23 years before we see him take an active role in the DC Universe once again.

Monday, 19 July 2010

How I learned to love The Legion of Superheroes

The Legion of Superheroes are a group of super powered individuals from a thousand years in the future who came from all over the universe to follow the example of Superboy and fight for justice. Despite this relatively simple premise the Legion probably have one of the most complicated backstories in comics. For a start there are three different versions of them, and with over fifty members and over fifty years of stories it can seem a little daunting to anyone approaching the Legion for the first time. As a result the Legion pretty much split fans down the middle. You either love 'em or hate 'em, like a superhero version of Marmite or Morrissey.

I was introduced to the Legion for the first time as a kid by a couple of my father's old copies of Adventure Comics. One was a story containing the origin of Sun Boy, while the other was a story about the death of Beast Boy, one of the Heroes of Lallor. I absolutely loved these stories and read them so much that the covers fell off the comics. Every members' super-power seemed so cool and there were so many things that intrigued me about each one. I remember being particularly intrigued by Mon-El. This guy's as powerful as Superboy!? What's the deal? Is he Superboy's brother? I was hooked.

I was later given a bunch of old comics by my R.E. teacher and sure enough there were Legion comics in the pile. One story involved Brainiac 5 going crazy from the pressure of being the smartest guy on the team and using the Miracle Machine to unleash a monster on the Universe. The monster was only stopped by the sacrifice of Matter Eater Lad, who ate the Miracle Machine and was driven insane as a result. These issues left a tremendous impression on me. Brainiac 5 and Matter Eater Lad remain two of my favourite DC characters to this day and the idea of a good guy having a nervous breakdown and turning on his team mates seemed extremely grown up to me at the time.

Sadly by the time I tried to get into what were then current Legion stories it was the early to mid '90s and things had taken a turn for the confusing. Initially I tried getting into what I later found out was the "Five Year Gap" Legion, so called because the stories had jumped forward five years and caught up with a disbanded Legion in a much darker universe. I couldn't understand why there were two Legions, a young version and an adult version where everyone was missing limbs and had designer stubble. Shortly afterwards I tried once again to get into the Legion but by now Legion continuity had been rebooted and everyone had new, funky codenames like Live-Wire, Triad and Apparition, which in my mind robbed the characters of a lot of their charm. Worst still, Matter Eater Lad was demoted to the status of the Legion's resident chef! In 2004 Mark Waid rebooted the Legion once more and I gave the Legion another chance. The old code name's were back and these stories held a lot of promise, but something was still missing.

In fact all of these different versions were probably perfectly decent interpretations of the characters but I was looking to recapture the wonder and fascination I had experienced reading my Dad's old Adventure Comics and these comics just weren't doing it for me. Having said that, I always enjoyed seeing the Legion turn up in other people's comics. I had two favourite Legion guest appearances in particular. The first was Superman: Time and Time Again, in which Superman finds himself bouncing through time and meets the Legion at three different points in their history. The second was Final Night in which the rebooted Legion are trapped in the present day and help reignite the Sun. This story contains some wonderful interaction between Lex Luthor and Brainiac 5, with an arrogant Brainy trying to lord it over Lex with his massive intellect but being thoroughly put in his place by the super-arrogant Luthor. These stories always gave me the impression that I was missing out on something wonderful by not following the Legion regularly. However that feeling I had reading my Dad's Adventure Comics continued to elude me.

That is until 2007 when I read Geoff Johns' Superman and the Legion of Superheroes. Finally, here was the Legion I recognised! Sure, they were older but they were unmistakably the characters I fell in love with as a child. This was confirmed by the utterly brilliant Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, which had nothing to do with Final Crisis but did beat convoluted Legion continuity into something resembling coherency, validated every single incarnation of the Legion and told a fantastic story at the same time. All these years I had been peering over the wall of confusion at this wonderful Legion party going on without me, and if Geoff Johns didn't break down this barrier, he did at least give me a leg up over it and allowed me to join the party.

So why do I love the Legion so much? There are many reasons but here's the main three.

1) The History

The huge continuity that once seemed so daunting now seems like a rich reservoir of storytelling goodness which I can dip into as much or as little as I like. Since Johns reintroduced me to the Legion I've sought out and thoroughly enjoyed the famous Great Darkness Saga, where the Legion go up against the 30th Century version of Darkseid. I've also bought Showcase Presents: The Legion of Superheroes Vol: 1-3 which reprints all the early Legion stuff. These books have allowed me to experience such great Legion moments as the Death of Ferro Lad and the origins of such villains as Computo and the Fatal Five. I've also been able to reexperience those two stories involving Beast Boy and Sun Boy that began my love affair with the Legion.

2) They're like the X-Men but better

The countless members! The wacky powers! The deaths! The dodgy resurrections! The drama! The love! The hate! The Dave Cockrum designed costumes! Everything the X-Men can do the Legion can do better. In the future. With spaceships.

3) The Coolest Super Powers in Comics

For me one of the best things about the Legion is that most of the members have the kind of powers that kids give themselves when they're playing. What kid wouldn't want to grow really big, split into three people, walk through walls, change shape, turn invisible or be really, really, really good at Karate? These are the kind of powers you would wish for if you had a magic wishing lamp, rather than certain other powers like, say, some vague energy based powers involving playing cards.

Recently veteran Legion writer Paul Levitz has begun a new ongoing Legion series and I've been getting it. I've recently been facing some minor financial woe and have been forced to cut my Pull List down slightly. I eventually decided that the Legion was among those comics for the chop. The first two issues have been great but I figured I couldn't miss out on Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin, J. Michael Straczynski's Superman or Aquaman's ongoing adventures in Brightest Day and so the Legion must be sacrificed. I tossed and turned that night in fitful slumber, and by the morning I had decided that I just couldn't drop it and Legion of Superheroes was back on the Pull List. It seems that after years of trying to get into the Legion party I just can't bring myself to leave! And why would I want to? The Legion of Superheroes are awesome! Long may they live!

Somewhere in this pic artist Keith Giffen has hidden Spider-Man. Can you find him?
UPDATE: My fellow blogger and internet chum Kello has kindly agreed to a blog crossover and has written a great post explaining why he doesn't like the Legion.  You can read his rebuttal here.