March 3, 2012

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Dust off the Panels: Morrison and Millar's Flash

Written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar
Illustrated by Various Artists
DC

Wally West is the fastest man alive, and has to prove it over and over again in this series of stories from two creators who tend to attract very different kinds of readers.  Watch as the Flash must take on a haunted costume, compete in a deadly race, and finally, battle death itself!  Can Wally manage all that, when even his mentor, Barry Allen, could not?  He just might make it--with the help of his friends, the Jay Garrick Flash, Max Mercury, and more.  It's a race from start to finish in these issues of...The Flash!

Of all the major characters in the DC core books, the Flash is pretty close to my least favorite.  While I've liked the Flash stories I've read before, the character concept just doesn't do much for me.  It's like the writers have to keep explaining why we should want to read about Wally and the Flash family, not unlike the similar problem Aquaman has.  The constant comparisons to Batman's family and rogues gallery just gets on my nerves after awhile.  But give me an interesting storyline, and I'll read the book, and here, Morrison and Millar are perfect for the task.

Though vastly different writers, both Millar and Morrison are good with so-called "high concept" ideas.  We get them in spades here, especially the opening arc of the second trade, the Human Race.  In that story arc, Wally is pressed into service by two cosmic compulsive gamblers, who pit strangers from different worlds together for a race across space and time.  The winner must keep racing until they fall.  The loser--and his or her entire world--are destroyed.  The gamblers are large, Kirby-like creations, and Wally's opponent, a character he thought he dreamed up, is effectively a living radio wave.  The Flash's path to victory is especially Morrisonian in nature, and I won't spoil it here.

The other two major arcs are good and also have the weirdness of Morrison with the large scale of Millar.  In the opening story, a costume appears to select people to create a demented path of revenge that only the Flash (and his friends) can stop.  It takes the idea of "the clothing makes the man" to a whole new level.  In the final arc, which is not credited to Morrison but seems to share some of his quirks, the Flash is saved from dying at the hands of the super-speed grim reaper, the Black Flash only to find that death does not appreciate being cheated.  It's another high-concept idea that's handled well by Millar, who is not yet in his terrible, semi-racist writing patterns at this time.

One of the things running through all of the stories in these two books is that the Flash has a lot of friends, both in the speedster world and outside of it.  Nightwing and Green Lantern are weaved in and out a time or two, and Garrick, the original Flash, has several starring roles, including a one-shot issue that shows a lot about his character.  Wally does some of what he does because he can't let his friends down.  It's a great characterization for him, giving Wally a personality that is his own, not a clone of his predecessor or the other heroes of the day.  (On a related note, I found it rather amusing that the characters talk about entering an age where things are lighter in tone.  Oh, if only!)

Though I enjoyed the surprise weirdness and high concepts, these issues aren't perfect.  Some of the dialog is tin-eared, especially the excessive monologuing by Wally.  While current superhero comics might be too light on exposition, these issues were often too densely populated by caption boxes and overburdened with pseudo-science explanations that the reader doesn't need.  We also run into the problem of defensiveness in relation to the character and the fact that Wally's impending death is hinted at--then not carried out--way too often.  I get that one Flash died already.  That doesn't mean you make it a plot point every story.

The art is also extremely weak in the second trade.  Paul Ryan, the artist for the first volume, is not present for much of the second, and the mish-mash of artists in the final set of stories really grates on me.  Their art just isn't very good, and the styles clash terribly.  Ryan's contributions tell the story well, but I don't think he took full advantage of the visual potential of the Flash as well as he could have.  I'm probably just spoiled from the Manapul Flash that's in the current series.

Overall, I enjoyed these books a lot more than I expected to.  If you are scared off because of Millar, don't be.  These are pretty good stories that don't reflect some of his more modern, awful comics, though there are a few hints of what's to come.  Morrison's weirdness and pseudo-science are in full force, echoing some ideas we'll see more of in his Batman run.  This set of trades make a nice compliment to your Morrison collection, if you're of a mind to it.  I'd say this is a pair of books you can dust off the panels for.