Review: Flash: Rebirth hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Friday, June 25, 2010

One thing about a Rebirth is that when you finish it, invariably you're left with a handful of easily encapsulatable nuggets that help to sum up the newly reborn character.

One of these after Flash: Rebirth is this: the Silver Age Flash Barry Allen is one of the few fellow heroes that Batman genuinely likes. The significance of this, of course, is that if we understood nothing else after Green Lantern: Rebirth, it was that Batman didn't like Hal Jordan. But Batman likes Barry and Barry likes Hal, and all of the sudden fans know exactly where Barry fits in the DC Comics pantheon -- even if you were thirteen when Barry died and never really experienced him inside the DC Universe.

Someone who was thirteen when Barry Allen died, by the way, is Rebirth writer and newly minted DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. Sure, I recognize there's back issues, and Johns is undoubtedly familiar with the entirety of Barry Allen's history by now, but I can't disregard that there was never a time for Johns when Barry was "the" current Flash. Whereas I overall enjoyed reafing Flash: Rebirth, the story distinctly like a modern-era recreation of Barry Allen by someone approaching him second-hand, and not a rejuvenation of the original character.

[Contains spoilers]

Johns likely had first-hand experience with Hal Jordan prior to resurrecting him in Green Lantern: Rebirth, and that story served to present all the cool things about Hal Jordan that had already been there but we never fully realized. Flash: Rebirth makes up a couple of things about Barry Allen that are indeed pretty cool and make one want to follow the character, but they're made up nonetheless and not true to the original source.

For instance, if the most a modern fan knows about Barry Allen is that he had a penchant for bow ties, is considered DC Comics' enduring patron saint (by virtue of his long-standing sacrifice and death in Crisis on Infinite Earths), and otherwise seemed like something of a stiff, Johns turns all of these on their ear. Barry himself confronts his reputation as a saint, repudiating it with a host of "angsty" bad deeds including killing the Reverse Flash and abandoning his friends to live in the future. As for the bow tie, Johns retroactively reveals, Barry didn't even wear one until it was slipped on him last minute and his wife Iris liked them. So, Johns seems to say, not so much a stiff as you might have thought.

All of this is clever, especially Barry's sainthood being within the DC Universe as well as without. But, it's a far cry from Johns re-explaining Green Lantern's yellow weakness in light of new evidence; rather it's more like Identity Crisis re-imagining earlier adventures of the Justice League. What we learn in Flash: Rebirth is that Barry Allen truly is so much of a stiff that Johns needs a villain to alter the time-stream in order to make Barry cooler; that it's not enough for Barry just to be a police scientist and a good Flash, but that he needs some kind of "edge" to appeal to audiences, something I thought comics outgrew in the late 1990s.

Even as Flash: Rebirth heralds the return of Barry Allen, it also apologizes for Barry's lack of coolness, when really no one expected Barry to be all that cool to begin with. In this way, we find in Rebirth that Barry Allen isn't returned so much as the DC Universe now has a new Barry Allen-Prime, so to speak -- but I like this Barry Allen-Prime. Rebirth is heavy in Speed Force double-take, but Johns suggests that the forthcoming Flash series will be more of a police procedural, something that's often suceeded in the DC Universe. Barry will solve cold cases against the backdrop of a corrupt police force -- this has worked for most every CBS police drama (complete with an equally "angsty" murder that Barry witnessed in his childhood) so likely it'll work for Flash, too, and I'm excited.

Not to mention that, even as Johns wrote a dynamic Flash Wally West for a number of years, here Johns surprisingly serves to suck most of the remaining fun out of Wally, leaving Barry as the only viable Flash choice. The best part about writer Mark Waid's recent brief return to Flash was how charmingly cute he made Wally's children; Johns presents them here as absolute brats. Even as Barry is the mentor and Wally the sidekick, Barry ends the series seeming the more youthful of the two. Wally gains a new costume reminiscent of his metallic, white-eyed costume again of the 1990s; whereas this does speak to the era from which Wally is best-known, it makes him look dated and Barry the more "modern" Flash.

Yet, there is plenty for Flash fans to like in this story, though as with Johns' Superboy: The Boy of Steel, some might venture it suffers from too much nostalgia. At the end of Rebirth, the Flash-family status quo is essentially the same as around issue #100 of Mark Waid's Flash run, with Jesse Quick back in the Flash fold and Max Mercury resurrected. This latter item is one of the few great surprises of the book, and as happy as I am to see Max, it feels like something of a regression for the Kid Flash character to have his teacher looking over his shoulder again.

The book's other great cameos are of Wally's villains Savitar and Lady Flash; again, I like these characters and I'm glad to see them, but they've each been out of comics for fifteen years, such that Rebirth's intended audience does seem to be fans who've followed the Flash that long, and not necessarily ones who might've joined the DC Universe more recently. In fact, a good 99% of the knowledge you need for Flash: Rebirth comes from the one story where Savitar appeared, Dead Heat -- now, that's a great Flash story, but it makes Flash: Rebirth feel more insular whereas Green Lantern: Rebirth was more expansive.

Early in Flash: Rebirth, the Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick explains how Barry Allen actually inspired him to become a hero again after Jay's initial retirement. Johns is being cute here, too; this is a not-so-subtle reference to the Barry Allen character heralding the Silver Age of comic books in 1950s, which itself helped return the Golden Age heroes to popularity. As such, Johns posits Barry Allen as the DC Universe's preeminent Flash (Barry created the Speed Force, we learn, and gifted every speedster past or present with their super-speed [though completely by accident]) and perhaps even the DC Universe's preeminent superhero (I, for one, like that accolade to go to Superman, but what can you do?).

The irony of the story, ultimately, is that even as Johns takes great pains to suggest that Barry isn't as perfect and unrelatable as we all thought he was, Johns also offers a dozen reasons why Barry is the greatest superhero who ever lived, not to mention having created a multi-dimensional cosmic force that apparently contains the answer to every question ever asked in the entire universe ever. It's a lot to live up to, and I'd venture Flash: Rebirth might've done well to have reigned itself in just a bit. If one detriment of Barry Allen the first time around was too much perfection verging on sainthood, Geoff Johns toes a dangerous line this second time. I'll be watching to see what happens to Barry Allen next in the DC Universe, but if the skies turn red again, he might just want to watch out.

[Contains full and variant covers, introduction, original proposal by Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Skiever sketchbook]

I hope you've enjoyed our Flash week at Collected Editions. Don't miss this week's other Flash reviews, Flash: The Return of Barry Allen, Flash: Emergency Stop, Flash: The Human Race, Flash: The Wild Wests. Tip of the Flash hat, of course, to Kelson Vibber of the Flash-centered Speed Force blog for his guest reviews this week, and also to everyone who posted and re-tweeted about the Collected Editions Flash Week -- thank you!
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13 comments:

  1. I still suspect, to be honest, that an Absolute version of this makes sense - particularly with Warners considering a Flash film to compliment Green Lantern. I am looking forward to the relaunch and will collect it in paperback (well, hardcover), but I'll hold out on this one for a while. In fairness, that was the reason I held out on Dark Victory so long, so what do I know?

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  2. No doubt it would make a gorgeous Absolute volume.

    My question, however, would be that if they make an Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth and an Absolute Flash: Rebirth, does this whet fan expectations for an Absolute volume whenever there's a Rebirth? (And, does that even matter? And also, do we think there will ever be another Rebirth [maybe Aquaman: Rebirth] after Flash: Rebirth?)

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  3. The first thing I noticed about this one was the artwork. I love van Sciver, and he does a good job here. But the coloring was extremely problematic for me; since most of the story takes place within the speed force, almost the whole book is red, which made things tough to follow and dizzying to look at for too long. (The yellow lightning streaks didn't break it up enough for me.) After Final Crisis's red skies, I think DC needs to pull back on the red. Leave it on the costumes.

    As for another Rebirth, perhaps that will be Morrison's fifth (and, he claims, final) entry in his long-running Batman series. Batman: Rebirth, illustrated by Ethan van Sciver (who seems to be DC's resident Rebirth artist)? Just imagine!

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  4. That would be a Just Imagine moment!

    ... Dare I say that I'm not van Sciver's biggest fan? He's certainly very accomplished, but there's a "pinched" look to some of his faces (Hal with his mask on, in particular) that sticks out to me. I liked much more all the yellow accompanied Scott Kolins early Flash work; you knew Wally was really going fast when all the panel backgrounds got that yellow tinge.

    Unfortunately I think the red may be here to stay, now that red is the color of the good Flashes and yellow is the color of the bad ones (at least I think that's what I understood) ...

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  5. Yeah, van Sciver does have that pinched look. It was a big problem for me in GL: Rebirth, because I couldn't quite tell who was possessed by Parallax and who was just drawn with their face scrunched up. It's like Jessica Rabbit said: "I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way."

    And I'm not suggesting we change Barry's costume color to a more neutral color; I just don't want to see Manapul paint an issue filled with big red blobs. I wouldn't even mind it if the whole speed force thing was left in the background now that it's been demystified.

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  6. I haven't read Flash: Rebirth yet, but I loved Van Sciver's art in GL: Rebirth (although I understand what you mean about the pinched face look). Other than that, I thought his art was fantastic. I also enjoyed his work in the Sinestro Corps War.

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  7. As a long time Marvel reader, this series was my second real exposure to DC. My first was Crisis on Infinite Earths. I would seem that I have now seen the beginning and end of "Saint Barry" period in the DCU.

    My feeling walking away from this mini-series is that Barry feels the weight of his reputation. He knows he's been canonized in people's minds during his absence. He believes people are expecting him to live up to this over-sized memory they have of him, regardless of whether their memory has any basis in fact.

    Furthermore, he knows that he was given a second chance, so he feels he has to make the most of every moment. This means even more pressure for Barry because, even though he is the fastest man alive, there will never be enough time. He will never be able to save enough people, or put enough bad guys behind bars. And, ironically, because he knows it can all vanish in an instant, he also knows that he must slow down and savor the special moments with his family and friends.

    It's a great tortured dynamic that John's has set up. Barry Allen's Flash has quickly become one of my favorite characters in the DCU. (Skeets is my absolute favorite.)

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  8. I don't know. I think that "Rebirth" is an expression of the thematic ties which bind Green Lantern and Flash. Both are among the definitive "science" heroes, both introduced the concept of "legacy" heroes to regular comics, both "died" in past few decades, both launched the Silver Age at DC.

    Hell, Johns describes the Flash as a story about time, in comparison to Green Lantern's story about space. He even seems to be formatting the sagas the same, with an introductory "Rebirth" miniseries followed by a regular series and a "family" event (Sinestro Corps War, Flashpoint). I would expect a big event to follow Flashpoint drawing in even more of the DCU.

    I can see a similar relaunch for other properties (particularly, as you noted, Aquaman), but I think "Rebirth" is a title and a concept specifically tied to Johns' Silver Age revival, and I think it ties to Flash and Green Lantern specifically. Flash/Green Lantern are like Batman/Superman - they just fit together well. In the same way that Absolute For Tomorrow compliments Absolute Hush, I'd expect a similar approach to Flash: Rebirth as a compliment to Green Lantern: Rebirth.

    If there's no confirmation by the time we get a Flash movie in three to four years time, then I'll spring for this collection. Damn DC and their sly marketing, making me hold off on buying books!

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  9. I agree there's an interesting study to be done of Green Lantern: Rebirth versus Flash: Rebirth, and the stories "speak" to one another more than I've covered here (could we venture, in a way, that Flash: Rebirth is a "sequel" to Green Lantern: Rebirth?).

    Hal returned from the dead and had to convince people why he deserved to be alive; Barry returned from the dead and had to convince people he didn't deserve it maybe as much as they thought. The two dynamics play into the times in which they died -- Hal's rebirth is about overcoming the 1990s cynicism that saw him put out to pasture in the first place, while Barry's rebirth is about overcoming our tendency to idealize the past in contrast to the present. And on, and on ...

    I'm curious to see how the new Flash series compares to this; from what I've seen, all signs point good.

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  10. Yep, I think the two properties are joined at the hip, which is why I can see the logic in an Absolute Flash: Rebirth collection down the line. I think Johns tends to treat them as both sides of the same coin, in the same way that Batman/Superman work as light/dark archetypes and I think you're right, they both have interesting things to say about the cynicism of the nineties, but also our attitudes to what came before. I'll probably talk about it a bit when i get around to reviewing Blackest Night, but it seems like something of a baton-passing between the two franchises. Green Lantern is restored and now it's Flash's turn.

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  11. Finally just read this. Great story, I loved the art, and I was glad that I took the time to finish reading Waid's Flash run before this book; I found it very interesting that this book drew more on Waid's Flash that on John's own Flash work (which seemed to be more focused on restoring the Rogues than on the Speed Force mythos). I thought that Barry's addressing of his saint-hood was spot-on; killing Zoom (although accidental, which wasn't mentioned here), the trial, running away to the future...and yet all those were forgotten due to his sacrifice in the Crisis. And the whole "I didn't NEED to come back" thing was good too, and it aknowledged that Wally was so good that he truly did replace Barry.

    I wasn't too keen on the whole mother being murdered thing, although I was willing to accept it as a Post-Crisis change. Glad to see they at least explained it as Zoom messing around with time, and used it as a way to update Barry for the modern era.

    Another thought is that, even though this is a Barry story, it really felt more like a Wally story, what with Wally's cast of characters and Speed Force talk, even while Wally himself was mostly in the background (note at the end, Barry pushed Zoom all alone, while Wally followed; contrast this with Wally, Jay, Bart all pushing Superman Prime during Infinite Crisis).

    My final thought is that while Barry initially felt that he wasn't needed anymore, now it is Wally who's no longer needed. Unlike the multiple Green Lanterns, I can't see the need for Wally and Barry running around at the same time (at least when it was Wally and Jay, Jay played a different role, and was below Wally in his abilities; Wally was THE Flash).

    I guess, then, Flashpoint is as good a time as any to undo Wally as Flash. I'm not sure why Bart was picked as Kid Flash instead of Wally; I guess it makes sense in that it retains the Bart/Tim Drake/Conner Superboy Teen Titans. Dick goes back to being Nightwing, not Robin. I'm sure we haven't seen the last of Wally (although maybe the last of him as Flash); turning Wally evil could potentially make a good story, but with Professor Zoom and Hunter Zoloman around, is it necessary?

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  12. Granted, however, Bart is Barry's grandson. And, come to think of it, the current Robin is Batman's son. Maybe in DC's relaunch logic -- pure speculation here -- it's a clearer path to say Kid Flash is Flash's grandson (albeit from the future and the whole "raised in virtual reality bit") than to say Kid Flash is Flash's nephew-in-law. Or maybe something will be made of the fact that Bart is both Barry and Professor Zoom's grandson (isn't he?).

    I do agree that "Look, it's the Flash. And the other Flash!" doesn't work like it does with Green Lantern. Yes, it could, and maybe it should, but I don't think it does.

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  13. Zoom is from the 25th Century while Bart is from the 30th; so while he's a distant relative on Bart's mother's side, he's at best his great-great-great-etc. grandfather. Not including time travel, of course. ;-)

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