Review: Flash: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, August 09, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

After a less than positive experience with Green Lantern, let's charge into Flash: The Greatest Stories Ever Told and see how the Scarlet Speedster fares.

On a quick thumb-through of the book, it looks like my complaints about the preceding trade were rectified; I see Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West, which gives me hope for a fair shake for all (no Bart Allen, which is worth debating, although this volume was published before Bart's tenure as The Flash). More enthusiastic already, I'm eager to see if this volume makes the case for Barry Allen's return that Geoff Johns never really did; I'm also expecting fewer Johnsian echoes, since Flash: Rebirth and its subsequent run was less about solving canonical problems than introducing new ones.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"Stone Age Menace" (Flash Comics #86, August 1947): The decision to open the volume with an appearance other than Jay Garrick's first appearance is surprising, but it's hard to be upset about a story that features Jay as the Flash battling a giant dinosaur while attempting to cover for his jailed alter ego. The story by Robert Kanigher (who, you'll recall, was hit or miss in his entries in Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told) never quite ties up at the end -- there's a one-panel wrap-up that doesn't resolve every plot thread satisfactorily -- but there's tremendous fun to be had at seeing Flash zip back and forth between crime-fighting and maintaining his secret as the unjustly imprisoned Jay Garrick. Other than that, I've always been a big fan of the mercury-helmet costume, particularly in what I've fondly dubbed the "stubby style" of the Golden Age.

"The Rival Flash" (Flash Comics #104, February 1949): This story seems included for two reasons -- its succinct retelling of The Flash's origin, and its introduction of Jay's opposite number, The Rival (who's also a college professor, like Barry's foe Professor Zoom). For modern readers, "The Rival Flash" offers two treats -- early Carmine Infantino work and unintentionally hilarious plotting, as when Joan recalls blowing the Flash's secret identity to a classmate but quickly shrugs it off as inconsequential. The end of the story is also hysterical, when someone believes that The Flash must secretly be someone who entered the lab after Jay Garrick inhaled the "hard water" fumes that we know gave him his powers. While The Rival doesn't live up to either incarnation of Zoom, the sequence where The Flash loses, then regains, his powers, is surprisingly exciting, considering we all know that Jay was running around as recently as August 2011.

"Flash of Two Worlds" (Flash #123, September 1961): Not much to say here. This story is iconic and classic, and its exclusion would have undermined the entire "Greatest Stories" project. "Flash of Two Worlds" is the story that started it all -- the crossovers, the Multiverse, the legitimation of the legacy hero. While modern readers will be scratching their heads about The Shade's characterization or the continuity of this Multiverse as opposed to the ones we've known since, what's important to note is that this story has aged remarkably well and has lost none of the appeal of two characters meeting for the first time, and mercifully not fighting on first sight. As great as this story is, it reveals a major flaw of the "Greatest Stories" series -- full covers are not reprinted, and the "Flash of Two Worlds" cover is one of the most quintessential Flash images (although the panel of two Flashes rushing toward a falling construction beam is included as a panel within the story).

"The Gauntlet of Super-Villains" (Flash #155, September 1965): The Barry Allen Flash has perhaps the second best pantheon of villains in the DC Universe (second only to Batman, in my estimations), and this story sees The Rogues teaming up against their common foe. And while this story doesn't have a lot of depth to it, it's a fantastic primer on all of Flash's best enemies (save Zoom, who appears in the following story). The Rogues mysteriously escape from prison and band together to disintegrate The Flash; little do they know, however, that Flash has merely vibrated through the floor and is well on his way to uncovering the real ringleader of The Rogues . . . Two things stand out here -- one, the Silver Age-y introduction of The Rogues' tailor, an unnecessary but whimsical in-canon hanging-lantern who must have been the prototype for Paul Dini's Milton "The Broker" Fine; and two, in spite of the fact that the plot doesn't quite matter, the whirlwind tour of Flash's Rogues more than entertains.

"One Bridegroom Too Many" (Flash #165, November 1966): With the Barry Allen/Iris West marriage annulled by the onset of the New 52, this story seems both inevitable as a collectible and irrelevant as far as continuity goes. John Broome's story translates Barry's wedding-day angst well, but the Professor Zoom plot often feels too convenient by half; while Zoom is clearly a force to be reckoned with, the story plays fast and loose with his abilities and his history. The art by Carmine Infantino is strong as always, solidifying his stance as a DC creative legend, although there are moments when Barry's lips are distractingly large like something out of a Dick Tracy strip. The story is unquestionably in here as a Zoom feature, although the wedding angle helps emphasize the fact that Barry Allen was once the most well-adjusted superhero in the DC Universe (that is, until Professor Zoom "pulled a Johns" and retconned his life).

"The Flash - Fact or Fiction?" (Flash #179, May 1968): To my memory, The Flash was one of the only DC heroes to know he existed in a comic book (over at Marvel, Dr. Doom once met Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), and this story is clearly in the volume as a testament to that. Here, The Flash is transported to our earth and enlists the help of Julius Schwartz in building a new cosmic treadmill to return home. Unfortunately, it's also a return to a much less compelling main story, in which The Flash has to battle some kind of renegade dream monster called Nok. A hit or miss entry by Cary Bates and Ross Andry, "Fact or Fiction?" is probably not the best metafictional entry the editors could have chosen. (That reminds me, does the Earth where Superboy-Prime met Dan Didio still exist in the New 52? [I believe the rule is nothing exists until we see that it does. Or everything exists until we see that it doesn't. Or something -- ed.])

"Beyond the Super-Speed Barrier" (DC Special Series #11, 1978): The longest story in this volume (and possibly in the entire "Greatest Stories" series, at 63 pages), this Bates-penned epic tale finds the three Flahes of 1978 -- Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West -- in three interconnected stories drawing them together for a confrontation with a "silent simian" after the execution of Gorilla Grodd.

While I definitely appreciate this volume's overall attitude to the Flash legacy, parts of this story go on a little too long -- especially (and perhaps appropriately) the Barry Allen chapter with The Turtle. Jay's segment feels quicker, perhaps because Johnny Quick also appears to double the speedster quotient, and the Wally chapter is great, capturing the "teenage hero" mentality without delving too deeply into soap opera angst. Ultimately, the story isn't terrible, but it's mostly forgettable, although modern readers won't help but remember the Combo-Flash formed by the three vibrating to inhabit the same space, or the hilariously memorable image of Barry Allen's ring ejecting its costume while he's in bed with Iris- - tell me Bates didn't have something a little naughtier in mind! (Iris's actual reaction: "Barry! You can't be serious!")

"Out of Time" (Flash #91, June 1994): In the final story of this volume, Wally takes center stage and dons the red tights in this Mark Waid piece. Here, Wally boosts his own speed with Johnny Quick's formula (3X2(9YZ)4A!) and freezes time like something out of a Twilight Zone episode. Max Mercury comes along to dole out some zen wisdom about the speed force, and Wally's left excited about the future. In one way, it's a great way to end the volume, musing optimistically about what's next (Wally's current nonexistence in the New 52 notwithstanding). But it's more frustrating than anything else -- if Wally's now moving faster than light, why does he complain about being powerless to save a helicopter crash directly in front of him? Why doesn't Max Mercury help Wally instead of complaining that Wally isn't fast enough? Moreover, aren't there Wally stories that don't fall into the "Hero can't do everything" trope of the 1990s? Maybe I'm overthinking it, but "Out of Time" is too restless for its own good.

Overall, Flash: The Greatest Stories Ever Told is a strong volume, imperfect like the others but with enough of an overall survey to give a holistic sense of what the Flash legacy means. I'm surprised that there's nary a Geoff Johns story in here, especially considering how highly praised his Flash run was. I also would have liked to see more of the traditional Rogues, but I suppose I'll have to read The Flash vs. The Rogues for that.

Next time around, I'll cover the world's greatest superheroes in JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. See you then!

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

[Thanks Zach! Next week, come back here for the DC New 52 debut of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Excelsior!]
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2 comments:

  1. Nice run-down of the contents. I did my own evaluation a few years back, and mostly agree, though I have a soft spot for "Fact or Fiction" and quite liked "Out of Time."

    "Beyond the Super-Speed Barrier" is my only real complaint about this collection. It's okay, but not (IMO) "great," and it takes up valuable pages that could have gone to more -- and better -- solo stories. This also would have allowed them to better showcase the other Flashes.

    Off the top of my head, I would have included the day-in-the-life Jay Garrick solo from the Grant Morrison/Mark Millar run in 1998 and "Nobody Dies," the William Messner-Loebs story in which Wally West jumps out of an airplane to rescue a flight attendant, even though he knows he can't fly. (Admittedly it's tricky to pick the best Wally spotlights, because his best stories were all long-form.)

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  2. I think one thing that seriously hampers these "Greatest Stories Ever Told" collections is the fact that they only include stand-alone issues. Not all heroes and teams are well-represented by those kinds of stories, but I think the Flash is one of them. That said, I wish they made room for The Flash v2 #0 by Mark Waid nad Mike Wieringo in this volume.

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