Friday, May 16, 2014

Lost Legends: The Flash by Mark Waid

"My name is Wally West, and I'm the Flash, the fastest man alive." That was the way that Mark Waid began nearly all of his issues of The Flash, a nearly one hundred issue run (0, 62-129, and 142-159, plus various annuals and specials) that redefined Wally West, the third hero to bear the name of the Flash, and my personal favorite. After seeing the impressive trailer to the upcoming Flash TV series, it got me to thinking about my Flash, and about this definitive run, and so I thought I'd settle in today and talk about it. I'm going to be doing a whirlwind tour of the run, hitting the high points along the way. There are plenty of one-off issues and great smaller stories in here too, but I want to spend as much time as I can talking about the things Waid was doing with character and theme, so excuse me if I miss your favorite issue. I probably loved it too.

Born to Run (#62-65)

Waid began his run on Flash by giving the reader a retelling of Wally's early days as Kid Flash, but told specifically through Wally's eyes. We see some interesting information about how Wally's powers worked when he first received them, information that explained in some ways why Wally's powers didn't work as well as Barry's. We also got a good glimpse in the present of Wally's life with his then girlfriend, Linda Park. The previous creators of the book had Wally as a sort of fun time superhero, coming in and out of fortunes, flirting with every pretty girl he came across. This was a nice counterpoint to Barry Allen, the previous Flash, who was (and still is, in the current series), the straightest of straight arrows; heck, his haircut is even square. While William Messner-Loebs, the previous writer, had Wally beginning to mature into a grown up, Waid is the writer most responsible for this, and he began it right out of the gate with this story. It's also fun to see a young Wally as the everyman sidekick. Dick Grayson was a boy acrobat, Bucky Barnes a boy soldier, and heck, even Aqualad was an Atlantean, But Wally was a fanboy, the biggest Flash fan out there, and so there's a special kinship for fan's to read about one of their own becoming a hero.

The Return of Barry Allen (#74-79)

This is possibly the definitive Wally West story, and if it's not that, it is at least the story where Wally absolutely came into his own as the Flash. Since he became the Flash, Wally has lived in the shadow of his mentor, the previous Flash, Barry Allen. And Wally has always wished that Barry would come back. And when he does, things aren't exactly what he hoped they would be. Barry isn't exactly how Wally remembers him; he's quicker to anger, more violent, and acts superior. And when he tells Wally that he is the only Flash, Wally is crushed. But as Barry grows increasingly unbalanced, Wally must step up and find the speed that he's never had to stop the man who claims to be Barry Allen. Wally finally comes to terms with the loss of Barry and with his place in the superhero world. The story also really cements the new supporting cast that Waid is building and will continue to build. Most of the regular supporting characters of the previous run have been phased out (Linda being the exception), and Waid begins to really establish the community of speedsters and their families as Wally's family and backbone. Jay and Joan Garrick, the original Flash and his wife, Johnny Quick, another golden age speedster, and Max Mercury, a somewhat minor speedster also from the golden age, recreated by Waid as the Zen master of Speed, all join Wally in his battle against Barry, and all join the rotating cast of speedsters that populate the rest of the run.

Reckless Youth (#92-94)

Now that Wally is his own hero, there's one more thing he needs: a sidekick. After all, Wally started out as Kid Flash, so shouldn't he be a great mentor? Unfortunately for Wally, the young speedster he has to mentor doesn't want to be mentored. He's Bart Allen, Barry's grandson from the future (it's a time travel thing), and a speedster who is running out of time, since his speed is accelerating his aging. Wally spends the beginning of this story chasing Bart down and helping him control his out of control powers. If the introduction of Impulse, as Bart would be come to known, isn't enough, this story also features the return of Iris West-Allen, Wally's aunt and Barry's wife, to the present, and the villainy of Abra Kadabra, one of the lesser Silver Age Flash rogues who Waid took and made the greatest thorn in Wally's side for his run. These issues also featured art by the late great Mike Wieringo, who made his first big splash in comics on Flash (he started with issue 80, and all these issues are great), and some very early work by X-Men mainstay Salvador Larroca. These were the first Flash stories I read, as they were part of the lead up to DC's Zero Hour event, and the title became a favorite of mine right from the moment I read my first issue.

Flashing Back (#0)

While I said at the beginning I wanted to stick to the tent pole stories of Waid's run, this one off issue is one of  my favorite comics of all time, and so I needed to stop and briefly discuss it. Waid and Wieringo tell a story of Wally West travelling back through time, revisiting important events of his own life. It's a beautiful issue, with some of  'Ringo's best art. Waid's story is one that still warms my heart, as Wally revisits some of his best memories, and gets to solve one of the great mysteries of his life, one Waid seeded at the beginning of his run: who was the mysterious family member who came to him as a young boy and told the lonely boy with the parents who wouldn't stop fighting that things would get better? That ending, as Wally talks to himself, is a truly touching scene, and that heart is one of the things that made this book one of the keystone comics is DC on the 90s.

Terminal Velocity (#95-100)

After returning from his trip to the past, Wally has to live with two realizations: one is a vision of the future he must avert. And one is that he is dying, changing into a being of pure speed energy. Now under a deadline, he must prepare a new Flash to take his place while protecting Keystone City, his home, and Linda from the forces of the terrorist serpent cult, Kobra. This story introduces Jesse Quick to the title, the daughter of Johnny Quick, who first appeared in the wonderful but short lived Justice Society of America series by Len Strazewski and Mike Parobeck, becoming an important member of the Flash family and the longest running female speedster (pun absolutely intended). We are also given the origin of Max Mercury and through him, the introduction of the concept of the Speed Force, the extra-dimensional energy field that powers all speedsters. Introducing this concept allowed for speedsters to have a more integrated history, and explaining how odd chemical accidents involving lightning kept happening. But most important to the story Waid was telling, this story cemented Wally and Linda's relationship, first showing how far he would go to save her, and then showing that their love is the anchor that would always bring Wally home. This is a story element that would prove important for the rest of Waid's run. Also, aside from more early work by Salvador Larocca, this story also features early work by Carlos Pacheco and Oscar Jimenez, so its a real murderer's row of artists.

Dead Heat (#108-111, Impulse #10-11)

While Wally had fought Professor Zoom, Barry's arch foe, and a few other minor evil speedsters, Wally hadn't fought a speedster on his level. And then Waid introduced Savitar. The leader of a speed force cult, Savitar had discovered ways to both grant and steal Speed Force energy to others, and had grown jealous of Wally's direct connection to the Force. Sending his speed powered ninjas after Wally's allies, he lured Wally into a confrontation so Savitar could gain access to all of Wally's speed powers and the Speed Force itself. It's an action packed story, and the concept of super speed ninjas is just too cool to pass up. There are castles; super speed battles, and all the things that you can only really pull off in your wildest imagination and on the comic book page. We also get a guest appearance from XS, Bart's cousin from the future and another speedster. Aside form being an all around cool story, this is also a crossover with the Impulse ongoing, so we get some early work from Humberto Ramos. It amazed me, looking back, how many A-list artists really rose to prominence within this run.

Race Against Time (#112-118)

After Wally disappeared at the end of his battle with Savitar, all his friends expected him to return. Instead, the man who appeared was John Fox, a Flash from the 27th Century (a character introduced in the Flash 50th Anniversary Special, a comic that was Mark Waid's first foray into Flash writing). Fox proves to the the Guy Gardner of the Flashes, arrogant and preening, and with a serious desire to take Wally's place. Fox finds himself in the middle of a scheme of Abra Kadabra, Dr. Polaris, and Chillblaine, and not exactly up to the task. Meanwhile, Wally has been bounced into the future by a near miss with the Speed Force in his battle with Savitar, and is making his way back to Linda, bouncing from era to era, knowing that his anchor only exists as long as Linda is sure he is coming home to her. Wally stops off at various relevant temporal points, including a meeting with John Fox in his native 27th century and with the Tornado Twins, Barry's twin son and daughter, living in the 30th Century. This story builds the Flash legacy far into the future, an element that will become hugely important in Waid's next big arc. It also firmly establishes that Wally isn't a Flash who can easily be replaced by any speedster-come-lately who might appear.

Chain Lightning! (#145-150)

After a series of shorter stories and a year off (with stories written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar filling in), Waid returned (with co-writer Brian Augustyn) with the wedding of Wally and Linda, just to have Linda disappear from time. Reality reordered itself, and Wally was single and no one knew Linda. Wally then met a new villain, Cobalt Blue, who had appeared once before on a one shot called Speed Force, and it was revealed he was Malcolm Thawne, ancestor to Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash, and long lost twin brother of Barry Allen. These stories led to "Chain Lightning!" a story where Wally and his allies traveled into the future to meet all the Allens and Flashes of the future to give them fragments of the blue gem that powered Blue to help them fight their own Coblat Blues, to help stop Thawne from fulfilling a prophecy that says he will kill Barry Allen a thousand years in the future. The story takes all the aspects that Waid had spent years building and paid them all off in one big story; the Allen/Thawne family feud, the Flash Legacy, the Speed Force. And at the end, Wally travels to the future and meets Barry again, who gives Wally the affirmation he never received in the present, and the two Flashes fight one final battle against Barry's dark twin. And in the end, without Linda to return to, Wally passes into the Speed Force to find peace...

The Dark Flash (#152-159)

... Only for a new flash to appear in Keystone. In a silver and dark red costume (which I always thought looked really cool), this Flash displayed powers Wally never had, and hid his identity from his family and friends. Eventually, it was revealed he was the Wally West of a different timeline, who had encountered our Wally when Linda had slipped from the prison outside time Abra Kadabra had placed her in and had wound up in his timeline, calling Wally from the Speed Force where he had been left after his final battle with Cobalt Blue. In the end, Wally and Linda return, and the two Wallys team up to finally defeat Kadabra. While "Chain Lightning!" tied up most of the big story and plot elements Waid had been building, this final story tied up most of the personal ones. Wally and Linda finally get their happy ending, and Abra Kadabra, who had been regularly plaguing Wally for nearly one hundred issues is finally defeated. Waid also used it to build up the mythos of Hypertime, his replacement for the multiverse, which DC quickly forgot, which was a shame, since it was a cool concept.

As I said, there are some other great stories in this run, including issue 91, where Wally gets stuck in an accelerated speed and the world freezes with some great 'Ringo art and Annual #8, telling the story of Wally's first days as the Flash. But the thing that makes this series stand out in comparison to so much of what DC is putting out today is that Waid embraced the idea of legacy. With James Robinson's Starman, which I wrote about before, I feel like this is a title that made the DC Universe feel like a place that was lived in, that had a long and noble history of heroism and one that would continue into the far distant future. Mark Waid clearly loved superheroes, and loved Wally West, and that showed through in this run.

While many of these stories were available in trade at one point, they are all now sadly out of print. You still might be able to track some down at a comic shop, and the back issues are readily available.

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