Thursday, November 08, 2012
One title that has seen a real reinvention of comics -- not "comics as usual," but rather something truly different and new that would appeal to non-fans who already think they know what comics are "all about" -- is J. H. Williams and Haden Blackman's Batwoman. The strong plot aside, Williams utilizes not just complex paneling, but also a number of inventive artistic tricks that enhance the story. The art in Batwoman says something on its own; it doesn't just sit on the page in companion to the dialogue.
Another of these impressive titles is Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato's Flash: Move Forward. The creators offer a Flash Barry Allen that is thankfully free of years of excess baggage, including the specter of his own death. In the previous iteration of his title, Barry been routinely anachronistic and also terribly dour; even despite what Flash fans have lost in the transition to the New 52, Manapul and Buccellato's Flash recaptures much of the joy inherent in Barry that makes him a viable character, which creators like Geoff Johns have championed but failed to be able to show. Barry is a little nerdy, a little square, but he also loves his powers and loves learning about them, and the reader gets caught up in Barry's enthusiasm.
Moreover, however, Manapul's art in Move Forward is a visual feast. Manapul's work already deserves praise for his meticulous action sequences and his ability to draw attractive characters without sexual gratuity; but in Flash, Manapul employs all of that plus creative paneling, perspective shift, and numerous outstanding visual cues all to bring the Flash and his world more alive for the reader. Flash is more than just the average comic; they should all look this good.
[Review contains spoilers]
In Move Forward, the Flash faces conflicts from within and without. An old friend of Barry's resurfaces, chased by an army of clones called Mob Rule. An electromagnetic pulse, seemingly related to Mob Rule, plunges Keystone and Central cities into a blackout. And Barry realizes his ability to "think fast," considering millions of options in seconds, though he finds this brings him as much utility as danger. These subplots coexist on the page, often plaguing Barry simultaneously -- in effect, Move Forward is about a lot of different things, separate but related, and this works well, both to keep Flash constantly interesting and to reinforce the sense that the reader is moving with Barry at lightning speed.
The audience later learns that Barry is responsible for the blackout due to inadvertent time travel; if the readers go back to the book's second chapter, they can see where Manapul and Bucellato pull a slight of hand to conceal this until the final revelation. Flash quickly becomes a book that has to be read very carefully. There's a set of five pages also in the second chapter that form a kind of Rube Goldberg, non-linear puzzle in which Barry visualizes and stops a handful of crimes before they happen, depicted through a series of panel cues. Lest this become old hat, the creators shift this trick in the fourth issue such that what the panels depict and what Barry visualizes isn't always what happens, but sometimes only what Barry incorrectly thinks might happen. This is complicated stuff, wonderfully requiring more from the reader than the average issue of Batman or Green Lantern does.
All of this is without even mentioning Manapul's deftly shaped double-page spreads (at times, multiple double-page spreads in succession), or that at times the creators even have the characters fall through three-dimensional panels. It's something else.
Arguably, Move Forward isn't quite a Flash story. Barry appears here, has speed-related conflicts, and Manapul and Bucellato get points for making Mob Rule an old friend of Barry's and not just a citizen in distress. But Manuel Lago is too new a character for Flash, even despite the New 52 reboot (rather this was Chunk, for instance, or one of the Rogues), so it's difficult for the reader to sympathize with Barry over the plight of his friend -- the conflict is Flash-specific, but emotionally Lago could as easily be an old friend of Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent. At one point Barry, unconscious, leaves the story entirely; this offers a good spotlight for Lago and the Flash supporting cast, but Barry is gone long enough that the first arc of Move Forward begins to feel like Lago's story with Barry in a secondary role and not vice versa.
The last three chapters of the eight-issue Move Forward jump, somewhat jarringly, from the Mob Rule story to Barry's conflict with a newly-enhanced Captain Cold, and from there Barry is thrust into the Speed Force. Keeping with Move Forward's overall aesthetic, the creators never "slow down," but it seems to make it hard to collect the Flash title -- the book ends on a jarring cliffhanger. If five issues would have been too small a collection for Move Forward and eight issues is at the extent of what DC has collected for the first New 52 volumes, it would appear there's just no good place to break Flash between books. More Forward doesn't read poorly, it just ends suddenly, and it'll like read better with the next volume in tow.
There are a wealth of nods to Flash stories past in Move Forward, from the Cosmic Treadmill to Rogues like the Top ("Turbine"), Pied Piper, Trickster, and Golden Glider. In-jokes are fun, but at times these get cloyingly too clever, akin to similar teases on Smallville, for instance. More than in other DC New 52 titles, Manapul and Buccellato position Barry as at the beginning of his career, but they also drop more hints than most as to how Barry might someday grow to become the "old" DC Universe Flash.
This is entertaining, but it seems the wrong way to go. From this beginning, the reader can already see the Rogues returing and Barry inevitably dating Iris West, and as such those aspects lack suspense. Manapul and Buccellato offer a gorgeous book package, not to be overlooked, but in some ways it's too similar to what came before.
Those concerns aside, however, Flash: Move Forward sets a standard for a smart book, deftly drawn. As these reviews have stated before, if every artist drew like Francis Manapul, the DC Universe and the comics landscape would be a much different place. If this Flash book stumbles only slightly, there's plenty of evidence that the writers will get it back on the right track.
[Includes original covers, comprehensive Manapul layouts and art section]
Next week -- back on our "Young Justice" track with the Collected Editions review of Legion Lost: Run from Tomorrow. See you then!