Review: Flash Vol. 5: History Lessons hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Brian Buccellato's Flash Vol. 5: History Lessons could be dismissed as a filler trade. It contains only three issues written by Buccellato, sans co-writer Francis Manapul and just prior to Buccellato leaving Flash to join Manapul on Detective Comics. There's an annual, by Buccellato but disconnected from ongoing events, and then an inventory issue by Christos Gage. It is arguably a thin trade, as these things go, marking time before Robert Venditti, Van Jensen, and Brett Booth take over with the sixth volume.

At the same time, the three-part "History Lessons" is a very good story, and for that reason while one could dismiss this trade out of hand, I wouldn't. Part of what makes it good is, here at the end of the inaugural New 52 Flash run, how close Buccellato comes to upsetting the entire Flash status quo, in ways that might intrigue Flash television show fans. Another notable aspect is that whereas artist Patrick Zircher might not be an obvious choice for Flash, Buccellato plays to Zircher's strengths. What emerges is a gritty, authentically frightening Flash story, markedly different from much of what we've read so far, that demonstrates the range of the character. Even if History Lessons is filler, Buccellato and Zircher go a long way to make the book worth a reader's while.

[Review contains spoilers]

Given how central the murder of Barry's mother is to the CW's Flash, I was surprised to realize in reading History Lessons just how much Buccellato and Manapul have de-emphasized it over the first 30 issues of the New 52 Flash. Whether this was to separate the New 52 Flash series from the then-recent events of Flashpoint, or whether leaving it alone stemmed even from some early uncertainty as to how much of Flashpoint was still in continuity, I'm not sure. It has been part of Barry's backstory, factoring most prominently into Barry and Patty Spivot's relationship in Flash Vol. 4: Reverse, but startlingly I'm pretty sure this fifth volume is the first New 52 appearance of Barry's father Henry, whereas he's all over the CW's Flash (as portrayed by former Flash lead John Wesley Shipp).

In "History Lessons," the Flash Barry Allen uncovers a mass grave that leads him to believe a noted Keystone serial killer had additional unknown victims, including potentially Barry's mother Nora. In investigating, the Flash accidentally unleashes an evil spirit, and must team with Deadman to stop the spirit and solve the murders. Ghosts and goblins don't immediately strike me as quite the right fit for a Flash story, though I'm reminded there's some recent precedent in Flash serving as an honorary member of the Justice League Dark. From this Constantine-esque premise, however, Buccellato builds a cogent mystery, in determining the evil spirit's motivations and also in raising a number of viable suspects for Nora Allen's killer, including the spirit, Henry Allen himself, or Barry's mentor Captain Frye. Barry's investigation leads to looking at the DNA of various Keystone residents, and Buccellato also finally addresses the possibility that Frye might actually be Barry's father.

In this more street-level (at times), serial killer story, Buccellato suggests what a CSI/Gotham Central-type Flash series might be like. He's helped immeasurably by Patrick Zircher's pencils, which are more straightforward and foreboding than Francis Manapul's bright, artsy layouts ever were. Indeed between the scary subject matter, Deadman's role, and Zircher's art, the story becomes a fine homage to Neal Adams's work of the late 1960s-1970s. With Brett Booth coming on in the next trade, obviously DC is making a choice not to "go dark" with Flash, but surely Buccellato and Zircher demonstrate that Flash could support it.

My clearest indication that "History Lessons" was "something else" was that Buccellato succeeded in making me believe he might really upturn the apple cart, revealing Frye as Barry's father or fingering any of the suspects as Nora Allen's killer. Nothing really actually changes by the end of the book -- Buccellato putting all the toys back in their place for Venditti and Jensen -- but it's the mark of a good writer that I believed it might.

Like Superman hailing from Krypton, I think we're essentially wedded at this point to the Reverse Flash murdering Nora Allen, between Flashpoint on one hand and the CW Flash on the other. That leaves the Flash comic in a tough position since the current Reverse Flash, at least, doesn't quite work in the same paradigm (though I'm sure another writer could introduce a new-new Reverse Flash). But in its scant three issues, "History Lessons" offers an intriguing "what if" -- what would it mean for the Flash if someone else killed Nora -- and I think that's a valuable experiment in looking at ways to break these characters out of their "it's always been this way" cages.

The book starts with Flash Annual #2, which reveals the first New 52 meeting between Flash and Green Lantern. This is not weighty, per se, but enjoyable, and certainly I like that someone gets to tell the story instead of leaving it unexplored. At moments I thought Sami Basri's art resembled Barry Kitson, which was nicely evocative of Mark Waid's Flash/Green Lantern Brave and the Bold story, giving it all some authenticity. I liked Young Justice writer Nicole Dubuc's backup story of how Flash affects the residents of Keystone more than I did Christos Gage's fill-in story of Flash versus what seemed in everything but name to be Batman's Roxy Rocket.

Thematically, Flash Vol. 4: Reverse was a better conclusion to the Brian Buccellato/Francis Manapul Flash run, but I'm glad the story in Flash Vol. 5: History Lessons still saw the light of day. It remains to be seen which characters will be involved in DC Comics's post-New 52 "dark" team book, but if they saw fit to put Flash in there, I think that makes more and more sense. I rather hope maybe History Lessons could inspire the CW Flash team; I don't mind the STAR Labs shenanigans, but a more realistic CSI story would be an interesting change of pace.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook section]
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