Review: Flash: Season Zero trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, September 21, 2015

The downside of television tie-in comics, in my opinion, has been that in an attempt not to contradict the show, the comics offer either vague character origins or inconsequential between-the-episodes tales that put all the pieces back where they're found; the ye olde Smallville monthly had this problem, as did the inaugural Arrow digital comic. To that end, I was intrigued by the announcements of both the Arrow: Season 2.5 and Flash: Season Zero digital comics (the latter of which newly collected in trade paperback), which, acting as "seasons," might sooner provide a cohesive story than a series of one-off tales.

I haven't read the new Arrow book, but solicitations suggest there's a good through-way there in Team Arrow's fight against the Cult of Blood. The Flash book, I can say, is more in the old style, just a bunch of stories and not anything that approaches a "season" necessarily. It is light reading, but it is not bad reading, with showrunner Andrew Kreisberg writing most stories with the authentic voices of the characters, and the art of Phil Hester being always a pleasure. Additionally, there's a couple stories here that by virtue of collecting the digital comics emerge at about eighty pages; if the stories are not stupendous, at least one has the sense of spending a weighty amount of time with the Flash crew.

[Review contains spoilers]

Most notable in this book, and the story that perhaps best uses Flash: Season Zero's format, is Kreisberg, Kai Yu Wu, and Lauren Certo's "King Shark," drawn by Hester. Fans of the DC Comics know the monstrous King Shark initially as a Superboy villain, but later associated with the Suicide Squad, and indeed, Arrow Oliver Queen, Felicity Smoak, ARGUS's Amanda Waller, and Suicide Squad-ers Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and Cupid all play a role here. That's an enormous cast that the Flash television show could rarely abide by, and that's even aside from the production costs of putting a giant man-shark on the screen.

The comic has none of those limitations, of course, and so we get a story that feels genuinely of the Flash show (King Shark has been mutated by the particle accelerator explosion, naturally), that ties into Flash Barry Allen's own sense of self and his "Flash family," and that pits Flash against Arrow's Amanda Waller and teams him with the Suicide Squad. Also, the Season Zero collection shunts all the covers to the back so there's no "chapter" interruptions within individual stories, so "King Shark" wonderfully seems to just go on and on, like a super-sized annual or a mini-graphic novel. "King Shark" is a story we might want to see on Flash, can't, and in this way Season Zero well proves its worth.

The book's first story, "Freak Show," is equally long, and offers some value in that aspect, but lacks the guest stars or other kinds of exterior "importance" to make it worthwhile beyond "just" a Flash story. The plot involves Barry and friends versus a mad metahuman ringmaster and his circus; thematically it's about Barry accepting his "freak" status as the Flash. For a book called Season Zero, arguably there's some expectation that these will be early tales of Barry and friends; that Barry still struggles with being a metahuman in "Freak Show" leans toward this expectation, but for the most part the stories in this book would more likely take place in the middle of the season or "Season 1.5" than they would at the beginning.

On the other hand, another item in Season Zero's favor is a strong use of Flash friends Caitlin Snow and Cisco Ramon. The two are relatively present in the show, but in both "Freak Show" and "King Shark" they're Barry's constant back-up in a way that reminded of Buffy's "Scooby Gang." There's also plenty of appearances by Felicity Smoak here, including Marc Guggenheim, Kreisberg, and Marcus To's "Smoak Signals," which hints at "nemesis" for Felicity, something it would be interested to see followed up upon in one show or the other.

Phil Hester also writes and draws an especially strong ten-page story, "Black Star," in which Caitlin threatens to reveal government secrets to help save a man in an experiment-gone-wrong in which she participated (even if the idea of the particle accelerator affecting things out in space is too far-fetched even for Flash). Caitlin also gets the spotlight in Sterling Gates's "Melting Point" that closes out this volume; while it's nice to see Gates working in the Flash universe again, the story feels repetitious after "Black Star" and the villain's motivations less clear.

I'm a fan of Hester's art and I'm glad to see him on a DC Comics title, but I'd note that his Barry Allen is fairly off-model throughout the book, looking much older than Grant Gustin; this is lessened mainly by the fact that Barry is in costume most of the book. Hester's Cisco and Detective Joe West look fine as Hester-ized versions of themselves, though his Caitlin Snow, too, is hardly recognizable as Danielle Panabaker. Depending on your point of view, another shortcoming of this book is a distinct lack of Iris West, though to some extent not more or less than the actual show; Hester's seeming lone attempt at real actor likeness is drawing Candice-Patton-as-Iris in "Freak Show," to no great result, and in all it's better here when Hester is just Hester.

What I wanted most from Flash: Season Zero was stories with consequence, and unfortunately, these are not stories with consequence. Again, however, they are buffered by being relatively good overall, and further by some of them being relatively long. An ardent Flash fan who wants to experience every aspect of the show might enjoy this, though again, not as a volume with consequence; a more casual Flash fan might enjoy these as casual stories, but also won't feel they've missed anything if they pass it up.

[Includes print issue original and variant covers]
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