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One of my favorite collected stories is writer Mark Waid's Flash: The Return of Barry Allen. It was my gateway and first introduction to all things Flash in the form of Wally West, as I imagine is true for many modern readers; as I'm on the precipice of reading Flash: Rebirth, which replaces Wally West with Barry Allen as the titular Flash of the DC Universe, I re-read The Return of Barry Allen with some uncertainty. The book builds the case for Wally West as the Flash so well that it's difficult to imagine an equally strong argument in the other direction.
I recall from the text pieces of 52 that Mark Waid has some affinity for "locked room" mysteries; similarly, Return of Barry Allen distinguishes itself perhaps first of all because it's such a cogent whodunit. Waid gives air to all the readers' natural suspicions, through Wally, in the first chapter, and seemingly brings that mystery to a close; for much of the book, the reader's question becomes "What's wrong with Barry Allen," not "Who is Barry Allen," effectively distracting from the mystery's solution. Waid can't possibly let slip the book's mystery villain's name else the surprise be spoiled immediately; instead the book offers clues in supposedly innocuous mentions of the death of Wally's Aunt Iris -- without saying so outright, Waid gives the readers all the clues they need to solve the mystery.
(It's interesting to note, reading The Return of Barry Allen trade paperback, that the trade dress veritably shouts the book's conclusion in as much as possible. Look at the image of Barry on the back cover. Now look at Barry on the very first title page. Note Barry uncolored on the last page of the introduction. I wonder if this was intentional or not; reading the book with this in mind, I found a number of instances in artist Greg LaRocque's artwork -- mirror images, uncolored flashbacks, statues -- all of which hint at the same thing.)
Waid's later Wally West stories like the also-great Terminal Velocity and Dead Heat would give character arcs to a veritable Flash-family around Wally, but Return remains for the most part Wally's story. The three speedsters who fight alongside Wally serve primarily to represent a kind of "ghosts of Christmas" -- Johnny Quick, for instance, tries to teach Wally about speed through science, much like Barry Allen did in Wally's past, and Wally finds little he doesn't already know. Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, represents Wally's present; neither he nor Wally really think about their speed so much as they just let it come naturally. And though Wally is skeptical of the "zen" teachings of Max Mercury, Max ultimately represents Wally's future in both offering the solution to defeating the faux Barry Allen and also later introducing Wally to the concept of the Speed Force.
Wally realizes through Max that his memory of Barry Allen has been holding him back; I was never a Barry fan myself, but I imagine this to be Waid's specific message to the Barry fans of the time -- that their love for the past hindered their enjoyment of the present. To drive that home, Wally ultimately finds an even more slavish Barry fan than himself in his mysterious enemy, someone who's so even in love with Barry as to want to replace him; in that way, Wally sees the healthy way toward honoring Barry when faced with the decidedly un-healthy way. Long before Superboy-Prime, the faux Barry Allen is the reader here, and as such we must accept Wally when shown the evil of our ways.
As someone who was new to the Flash, what I believe made me accept Wally as "one to watch" at the conclusion of this story is the leadership he demonstrates. In the presence of much older, experienced heroes, Waid has Wally concoct a truly ingenious plan to not only reveal the mystery villain but also to send him on his way, and Wally fulfills the plan with much aplomb. Of course, I also credit Waid for any number of just-cool moments in Return of Barry Allen, from echoing for Wally a deadly scene from Barry's own life to one of the first (and still the coolest) cameos of Barry Allen's ghostly spirit, and from four heroes just sitting around talking about speed for a while to a shout out to Stan Lee and John Romita's "Spider-Man No More," there's little in this story that doesn't work extremely well.
(Though, one picky item I noticed, foremost because it changes sharply in every Waid-era Flash story afterward, is the complete absence of a meaningful female protagonist here. This is perhaps accentuated by LaRocque's artwork, which offers standard superheroics until a woman comes onscreen, and then every one is posed like a magazine model, especially Wally's girlfriend Linda Park, such that women seem even moreso like objects than people than is usual for comics. Waid's Terminal Velocity, Dead Heat, and others will have strong roles for Linda, Jesse Quick, and Iris Allen, but I was surprised in re-reading Return how centered on male relationships -- Jay's friendship with Max, Wally's admiration for Barry -- the book seems to be.)
It's been a couple years since Green Lantern: Rebirth, and while I recall some trepidation at the time about accepting Hal Jordan as Green Lantern when he'd bored me before, it's nowhere near what I feel about Barry now replacing Wally. Wally's personality has come and gone in recent years, hindered tremendously by his more jokester portrayal in Justice League Unlimited, but in a story like Waid's Terminal Velocity or Dead Heat, the reader has a sense that Wally was the guy, a leader, someone who was going to pull off a magnificent feat. Geoff Johns' later Flash run only cemented Wally as a deep, mature, edgy-but-still sunny hero. In this first story, Waid introduced me to Wally West as the Flash and put to rest for me immediately what hero deserved to be inside that red suit; right now I feel like Barry Allen will have to have a heck of a rebirth to replace what Flash: The Return of Barry Allen set in motion.
[Contains full covers, introduction by Mark Waid]
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