Friday, March 13, 2015

WHY THE FLASH [final part] – Wally West

Within a year-and-a-half of discovering comic books, my favorite superhero, the Flash, was gone from the spinner racks.  Barry Allen had slogged through the lengthy “Trial of the Flash” storyline – by many accounts a story that was far too grim and went on for far too long – and sales were poor.  So, with the 350th issue, the powers that be axed the title.  The progenitor of the Silver Age of comics was now cast adrift.  A year later, the Flash was accorded a proper send-off with the eighth issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, wherein Barry Allen gave the ultimate sacrifice for the good of humankind.  And with the final issue of that senses shattering maxi-series, the mantle was passed to the Flash’s sidekick, Wally West, who, as Kid Flash, had proved his mettle alongside his teammates in the Teen Titans.  But Wally had a huge legacy to live up to.

The new Flash series was launched out of the Legends mini-series, with Mike Baron and Jackson Guice as guiding hands.  Though uncommon, this passing of the torch was not unheard of.  In fact, Barry Allen, once imbued with the power of superspeed, patterned himself off the original Flash, Jay Garrick, whom Allen believed to be merely a comic book character from his own youth, until circumstances brought these two fleet heroes together – a newfound ability to traverse parallel dimensions through extreme speed the catalyst for this historic team-up.  The idea of heroic legacy is (or was) a linchpin in the DC universe, something that differentiated these heroes from Marvel’s, and it was this that spurred Wally to take up the gold and scarlet costume of his mentor, and uncle. 

Immediately, Baron & Guice worked to make this new Flash distinct from those who came before.  Wally was young, brash, and, at times, unthinking – decidedly different from Uncle Barry, who was a criminologist with the Central City police, a job necessitating meticulous care, a trait inherent in Barry.  Wally also had limitations to his speed, unable to slip between dimensions or circle the globe multiple times in the blink of an eye, unlike the seemingly limitless nature of his predecessor’s velocity.  Perhaps most importantly, Wally found himself weighed down by the example Barry set as the Flash.  It was a heroic standard that many would find daunting and unable to live up to.  Wally pushed himself, but always, in the back of his mind, he imagined Barry looking down on him with disappointment.  Though this yoke of responsibility spurred Wally to work harder as the Flash, it also was something he found unable to shake off. 

This weight of responsibility came to a head in Secret Origins Annual #2, in a story written by Baron’s successor on the title, William Messner-Loebs.  In this tale, Wally is speaking with his therapist, relating not only his origin but also many of the turning points in his life as a superspeedster.  Through the anecdotes, readers, and Wally’s therapist, learn about many of the heroic deeds he has accomplished during his young life.  It’s an amazing tale of an amazing life, one to be greatly admired.  However, Wally doesn’t see it in these terms.  His focus is on all of the lives he could not save, in spite of his extraordinary powers.  When the therapist asks Wally to write down how many people he’s saved in the past ten years – excepting intergalactic conflagrations or universe-shattering threats – and his patient treats the number, 172, as routine, he is left dumbfounded.  The therapist shares a thought – that maybe Wally isn’t able to achieve the speeds he once could (the reason Wally is seeing this therapist) because he has wrongly burdened himself with the belief that Barry would not be proud of him.  He tells Wally he needs to give himself a break and accept that 172 lives saved is an important achievement. 

As the series evolved, a family of speedsters, including Max Mercury, Johnny Quick, and others, grew around Wally to help him become a better hero and a better person.  And, in keeping with the youthful exuberance of Wally’s character, there was often a lighter tone to many of the stories.  It’s a fun series that sees a young hero grow into his own through experience and the natural process of maturing.  At its core, it is this personal struggle, and the evolution of the character of Wally West, that makes this run of books such a standout and the character of Wally West so great. 

With a string of extraordinary writers who each put their stamp on the character – from Baron and Messner-Loebs to Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns – and strong work from artists such as Guice, Greg Larocque, Mike Wieringo, and Scott Kolins, there are a number of highlights in the nearly 250 issues of this series.  Those highlights and the intriguing character dynamic of Wally West, along with the foundation created by the wholesome and unselfish character of Barry Allen, are the core of what made the Flash my favorite superhero.  Hands down.  And it is why I still have a great affinity for the scarlet speedster.  Go try out some of those back issues.  If you enjoy fun, energetic superhero comics, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


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