Review: Flash: The Human Race trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

This week, we're featuring all things Flash at Collected Editions! Here's another guest review from Kelson Vibber of the Flash-centered Speed Force blog and Those Who Ride the Lightning Flash reference site.

Flash: The Human Race covers the second half of the year-long Grant Morrison/Mark Millar run on The Flash from the late 1990s, plus one more short story. This volume rushes even deeper into "mad ideas" territory than the first, with the Flash racing across time and space first against his childhood imaginary friend, and then against death itself.

The Human Race
The Flash is forced to compete in a cosmic footrace, or else the Earth will be destroyed. The concept is simple, but the details are crazy: The racetrack loops across space and time. One obstacle is a collapsing star. Another is running through the last moments of the exploding planet Krypton. And the Flash's opponent -- Krakkl of the radio-based people of Kwyzz -- is Wally West's childhood imaginary friend (who turns out to have been not so imaginary after all).

This book absolutely revels in the kind of crazy stories you can tell when you don't need to worry about a special effects budget.

Despite that, it manages to feel very familiar. Several of the Bronze-Age races between Flash and Superman had them running across space and time. One race was controlled by cosmic gamblers. Krakkl looks vaguely like Sonic the Hedgehog if he were made out of energy (with Kirby Dots, of course). Even the twist is similar to something Morrison himself does just two years later near the end of his JLA run. (Come to think of it, that same twist fits in well with certain elements of Flash: Rebirth.)

The Black Flash
I'm surprised that this wasn't used as the title of the collection, considering that the concept of death for speedsters has had so much more impact. The Black Flash has shown up in Full Throttle, was referenced in Final Crisis, and showed up again in Flash: Rebirth. Radioland? Not so much.

The basic premise: Max Mercury learns that Wally West is about to die, and tries to save him. But death doesn't leave empty-handed, and takes Linda Park instead. Wally is devastated . . . and death isn't satisfied. It begins stalking him in the form of the skeletal Black Flash.

Two things change with The Black Flash: Grant Morrison drops out, leaving Mark Millar flying solo as writer, and Pop Mhan and Chris Ivy take over the art. The writing comes off a bit awkward in some places, while in others it's absolutely dead on. For instance, at one point, Captain Cold is holding the city for ransom in a way that makes absolutely no sense for Captain Cold; Impulse's characterization, however, is absolutely perfect.

The story bounces back and forth between the utterly ridiculous and the devastatingly real. It's at its best in the character beats in the middle chapter. Sure, several Rogues show up, and the third chapter is one long stuck-in-time battle with the Black Flash . . . but Impulse saying, "Wrote you a letter when you blinked," or Wally West trying to explain to Jesse Quick why he can't handle super-heroics anymore in the absence of Linda, or the absolute bleakness of the funeral . . . those are the moments that that stick in my head.

The ending, unfortunately, relies on not one but two of those cool-when-you-read-it ideas that make absolutely no sense if you think about them for more than a half-second.

I remember severely disliking Pop Mhan's art when this first came out, and I still feel it's not a good match for the Flash. People's features are very exaggerated, and everyone seems to be about 9 feet tall. At the same time I have to admit: he does the best rendition of the Black Flash that I've ever seen.

Flash of Two Worlds
The last story in the collection is a short from 1990 in which Grant Morrison tries to adapt the classic "Flash of Two Worlds" into modern continuity. The original story had Barry Allen crossing from one universe to another and meeting Jay Garrick, but Crisis on Infinite Earths had changed things so that Central City and Keystone City were in the same universe, on opposite sides of a river.

The solution: The Thinker, Fiddler and Shade (who had simply gone on a crime spree in the original story) have cut off Keystone City from the rest of the world, and Barry manages to cross through that barrier.

It's told as a mix of standard comic book panels, childish sketches, and narration by an eight-year-old who witnessed part of the event and heard the rest from the Flashes themselves, giving the whole thing a fragmented feel, as if we're not really getting the whole story.

In a way, that's almost better, because like "The Black Flash," the story works better if you don't think about it too much. Sure, the Rip Van Winkle angle works great as a substitute for crossing dimensions, but it opens up questions that DC has never really been sure how to answer. How long was Keystone City kept separate from the world? Months? Years? Decades? Did people age? If they didn't, that's got to make for some awkward families. If they did, imagine all the young children who woke up as adults without actually growing up.

Overall
This is a much more uneven collection than Emergency Stop on creative team alone. Paul Ryan drops out part-way through "The Human Race," to be replaced with Ron Wagner, but their styles are similar enough that it's not too jarring (John Nyberg inking both of them has to help); whereas Pop Mhan's exaggerated style is a huge change, even coming at the beginning of a new story. "Flash of Two Worlds" feels even more out of place, but given how critical it is for the modern Central City/Keystone City dynamic, it's good that the story is available somewhere that today's audience can find it.

On the plus side, the stories of Flash: The Human Race are far from the fill-in tales they could have been. Just as Emergency Stop introduced the Speed Force costume and set up Jakeem Thunder and the modern incarnation of the Thinker, this volume introduced the Black Flash and set up Wally and Linda's engagement . . . a major development which would factor into the next two years of stories when Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn returned to the book.

Tomorrow at Collected Editions, we'll look at the last trade paperback of Wally West's adventures, before the Collected Editions review of Flash: Rebirth on Friday. Don't miss it!
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4 comments:

  1. I was never a fan of the Human race story. I don't think it was Krakkl though, I think it was the way the Flash powers himself at the end.
    I do love some Black Flash though.

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  2. Linda's funeral had more gravity to it than even Identity Crisis'. It had a genuine emotional reality to it. Compare it to Iris' funeral. When Iris died, all the superheroes showed up and complimented Barry about being a real man because he was in control of his emotions. Wally, meanwhile, yelled at the other heroes for attending the event in their "play clothes" and taking the focus off of Linda.

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  3. Absolutely. I've found myself comparing just about every super-hero funeral I read to this one. The beats that really stick with me are Wally's thoughts on the costumes, and Linda's mother complaining that even her own channel was running the story about "the Flash's girlfriend," not "TV reporter Linda Park."

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  4. And that's Millar, right? Because Morrison's funeral for Martian Manhunter (though not a civilian) was all capes and cowls.

    Whether the story was good or bad or long, we need a collection of Trial of the Flash. I've never read those issues, and things like Iris's funeral sound like they're worth reading.

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