The end is here... after 100 issues, writer Josh Williamson's Flash tenure comes to a close with an unexpected bang. Barry and the Reverse-Flash have spent years caught in a never-ending cycle of time-travel, death, and historical retcons. And there's nothing the Reverse-Flash would like more than to perpetuate that cycle forevermore.
How can the Flash break this cycle? Is he doomed to repeat his conflict with Thawne for eternity? The answer is not what anyone would expect!
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
So says Barry Allen, the Flash, when asked why he’s a hero toward the end of Flash #762. Writer Josh Williamson’s record-breaking run on the title has been a lot of things – solid then disjointed, high then low, uneven then flawlessly perfect in its portrayal of its hero. At times it’s been too beholden to the editorial whims of higher-ups, other times, the writer’s own proclivities have run (pardon the wordplay) a little far afield of what many readers perceive a Flash comic “should” be. But in the final assessment, although it’s been occasionally messy and imperfect, by stronger turns, it’s been a wonderful encapsulation of what makes the Flash so great. Writers shouldn’t strive to meet the whims and desires of what fans (think) they want, though. They should stay true to their vision, fan reaction be damned. And I don’t think anyone can say that that isn’t exactly what Josh Williamson has accomplished.
Since Barry Allen’s return from the Great Beyond in Final Crisis, writers have unevenly been trying to crack the code of what makes him tick (and how to differentiate him from Wally West, whose twenty-two years wearing his mentor’s cowl created a body of work that many would claim is the definitive era of the Flash’s already-history) with fleeting success. Who is Barry Allen, really? His greatest legacy is two-fold: he’s the revisionist sci-fi hero who ushered in comics’ Silver Age, and subsequently the Hero Who Died in Crisis on Infinite Earths. What transpired in between was a) a lot of Silver Age wackiness; b) some stilted and mostly-forgettable Bronze Age storytelling; and c) a way, way, way too-long story in which the Fastest Man Alive sat in a courtroom on trial for murder. For two years. By the time Barry met his end, the final analysis of his tenure as the Flash really could be distilled to its beginning and end (due in no small part to DC editorial being hopelessly behind the times when it came to writing fleshed-out, three-dimensional heroes with interior lives and failings, but I digress). Having him die a hero’s death, and passing his mantle to his sidekick, Wally West, cemented his status and legend in a way that a quarter-century of so-so storytelling never could.
Bringing him back after almost as much time had passed that he had been dead as he’d been alive (real-world time) created a new problem: namely, how to connect this guy to modern readers whose working knowledge of him was primarily that he had died? DC arch-mastermind Geoff Johns’ solution was to use him to kick off Flashpoint, which ultimately lead to the sorta-continuity reboot New 52. Compelling from a plot perspective, sure, but not exactly overflowing with deep character development beyond him struggling to find his place in the world. New 52 offered the opportunity to start anew with Barry’s story, but ultimately fell flat of its challenge and pretty much just churned out decent-but-not-great straightforward superhero fare. Finally, when Rebirth came about with the stated goal of returning DC’s heroes to a state of relative “purity” (see: back to basics to appease angry anti-New 52 backlashers), writer Josh Williamson was given the challenge to not only bring Barry back to his roots, but more or less define what those roots were beyond the birth and death bookends – and do it in such away that it was accessible to new or lapsed readers without being so basic as to be viewed as a pure retcon. Easy, right?
It took a little while for Williamson to find his footing, which would have been difficult for any writer in this case. The most widely-regarded “best” and expansive aspects of the Flash mythos had occurred in the ’90s, after all, when Wally West was wearing the costume, doing his best to live up to Barry’s memory. That meant that Williamson had to graft elements such as the Speed Force or a more nuanced approach to the Rogues into Barry’s world in such a way that felt natural, without giving short shrift to Wally. It’s hard to think about what those brainstorming sessions between Williamson and editorial must have been like, but I can only imagine it was not unlike a chef being told that he has to throw multiple unconnected ingredients into a stew and make it work – and then serve that stew to a nationwide audience. No pressure.
Williamson was not exactly a rookie in the comics scene in 2016, but hadn’t yet worked under a spotlight this big, either. He made some mistakes toward the beginning of his run – chiefly, trying to go too big too soon by having a so-called “Speed Force storm” imbue multiple citizens in Central City with speed powers – but as he settled into his groove, one thing became abundantly clear: he not only loved the Flash, he loved his entire history, and most importantly, understood what makes Barry Allen tick. Spoiler: it’s not what Barry Allen thinks it is.
Upon being resurrected, writer Geoff Johns gave Barry a tragic backstory by having his father blamed for the death of his mother, and rot unjustly in prison – and then reveal that the killer was Reverse-Flash, giving their decades-deep rivalry a more personal intimacy. This isn’t necessarily a bad backstory (and certainly higher-ups at Warner Bros. and the CW agree with me, because it’s become canonical enough that it’s officially Barry’s origin on both TV and film), but it’s derivative of both Spider-Man and Batman, and makes Barry into the sort of tragic hero he was never built to be. It drags him down emotionally, which leads to an excessive amount of hand-wringing and naval-gazing. These are not good looks for Barry Allen (lookin’ at you, Flash tv show). Looking at Josh Williamson’s run from start to finish, it could be reasonably stated that – by this, the final issue of his run – it’s really been about rebuilding Barry Allen, moving him past that well-intended but ultimately flawed origin reboot – and redefining who he is, and what exactly makes him the hero he is. So:
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
That’s overly simplistic, but it’s also down-to-earth and relatable. Barry Allen isn’t driven by a child’s promise to avenge his parents, or an overpowering guilt complex stemming from a dead uncle, or a cosmic Crackerjack box space cop ring. He’s not the sole survivor of an exploded planet. He does the right thing because he’s a decent man, who doesn’t want people to suffer. It doesn’t get more basic than that, but that’s exactly why it works.
Of course, no hero is worth his or her salt without an arch-rival, an ultimate antagonist, a mirror-image reflection. And that’s where Reverse-Flash comes in. A key figure not just in Williamson’s run but throughout the Flash’s storied history, he’s been there pretty much since the beginning, and has figured into some of the biggest moments in the character’s history: the death of Iris West, “The Return of Barry Allen” story, the death of Barry’s mother, indirectly leading to the events of Flashpoint. And now, at the end of Williamson’s run, a forever villain, destined to fight the same battles, continue to manipulate, and perpetually torment Barry Allen unless Barry does the most unexpected, quietly revolutionary thing he could possibly do to break the recursive loop.
Sorry, no spoilers.
And what Barry does recombines his character DNA, and finally moves him past the albatross of a tragic backstory that has been slung around his neck. The Flash family has been restored (with one exception, though that’s to be touched on in this week’s Dark Nights: Death Metal – Speed Metal one-shot), the hero is smiling, and after a long four-year haul, Josh Williamson’s tenure has come to a breathtaking, satisfying conclusion. It definitely doesn’t hurt that he brought Flash artist par excellence Howard Porter along for the ride, or that Hi-Fi’s mindbending colors jump off the page like the best trip imaginable. Or that unsung hero Steve Wands’ lettering is among the best in the business. Porter, especially, has a storied history with the character, going back to Grant Morrison’s hallowed and justly-revered JLA run in the ’90s. His Flash absolutely dashes right off the page, all kinetics and motion and fluidity. There’s not a false line to be had, and that linework is brought to perfection by the colors. Needless to say, the incoming creative team has some pretty big shoes to fill.
In the final assessment, Williamson’s Flash run has been uneven at times, a bit messy, but also uplifting, pulse-pounding, and in the end, character-defining. (Look… let’s see you write a character for 100 issues and have every outing come up a winner, okay?! Even Claremont had some fallow periods.) Fans should be genuinely excited to read this comic, because it reinforces what makes Barry Allen one of the greatest heroes of all time anew for the 21st century. There’s a sense of awe to be had here. And it’s well-deserved. Hats off and a standing ovation, Josh Williamson – you’ve earned it.
Flash #762 brings writer Josh Williamson's 100-issue tenure to a close with a quietly mind-blowing thesis on what makes Barry Allen such an astounding hero. This is one for the record books, folks.
Flash #762: The Fastest Man Alive
Writing - 10/1010/10
Storyline - 10/1010/10
Art - 10/1010/10
Color - 10/1010/10
Cover Art - 10/1010/10
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