Tuesday, December 29, 2009
During the early part of this decade, a tension built with many fans and certain creators at DC calling for the return to action of Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern who had been in the meantime replaced by various successors. Hal Jordan's return in Green Lantern Rebirth capped a nine-year "death" of his character and made him once again the front-and-center Green Lantern at DC Comics. But not before his return had been teased in Identity Crisis #4. In that scene, Hal Jordan as the undead Spectre was asked by Ollie Queen when he would return and he answered, "I'm working on it." That story was written by Brad Meltzer.
A year later, Hal was back but Barry wasn't and -- remember my refrain that real drama requires an uncertain ending -- there was no guarantee that he would. It was much debated by fans whether he would or should displace Wally West, his one-time sidekick, as the main Flash in the DC Universe, a proposition largely equivalent to whether he would return from the dead. His death in Crisis on Infinite Earth #8 had come with an "out" that writer Marv Wolfman intended to allow Barry to come back -- the fact that he had traveled in both directions through time before his demise, allowing for the possibility that he might appear in present-day stories living on time provided before his sacrifice, with the poignant requirement that he would have to return to die after some arbitrary time alive. That was way back in 1985, but as of 2006, the creators had not taken advantage of Wolfman's loophole except to give Barry very brief appearances that were not proper returns. One of the first teases that he might come back to stay was in Infinite Crisis #4, when a very-much alive Barry Allen, apparently with no time travel required to put him into the story, emerged momentarily from the Speed Force to help his grandson Bart Allen. This set into motion a change of status as to who was the Flash -- installing Bart as the new adult Flash while Wally West disappeared into limbo. An obscure element in Bart's brief series (and one that was seemingly disavowed by the powers-that-be) told us that Barry and other Flashes were alive in an alternate plane of reality. But still, Bart and old-timer Jay Garrick were the only Flashes, with Wally and Barry gone and perhaps never returning.
But Bart's series had a poor reception, and it began to wind down to a finish at issue #13, a fact that was not communicated publicly in advance (in fact, it was obscured by bogus solicits for issues #14 and #15), but was sensed by fans. This coincided with an intriguing and complex crossover between the Justice League series penned by Brad Meltzer and Justice Society by Geoff Johns. The day came when the final issue of this story, The Lightning Saga, was released along with the final issue of Bart's series, and while nothing on the pages of either issue told the reader that they were tied together, in the bigger picture, they very much were. Many of us read the saga of Bart's death at the hands of the Rogues, the top villains who had plagued three Flashes over the years. Without moving from my seat, I picked up JLA v4 #10 and began to read. With Bart's death a fact, it seemed clear that JLA #10 was going to bring an old Flash out of retirement.
Meltzer's conclusion to the story built on the mystery that harkened back to a Legion of Super Heroes story from 1963 in which several Legionnaires put up their own lives as sacrifices to return Lightning Lad to life. The newer story used several elements of the older, such as the handing-out of lightning rods to several Legionnaires and the repeated use of the key phrase "Lightning Lad". The combined forces of the Justice League and Justice Society were determined to stop this sacrifice, perceiving it as suicide. The LSH is uniquely capable, however, and even the JLA and JSA found themselves one step behind the plan as seven Legionnaires dispersed to locations associated with the Flashes and the Speed Force.
As the seconds counted down to the moment that a lightning bolt was destined to strike one of the seven locations, and putatively take the life of a hero, the JLA, the JSA, and readers alike were uncertain of what, exactly, the LSH was trying to achieve. Were they trying to bring back Lightning Lad, Garth Rannz? Or Wally West and his family? Since Bart had just been killed off minutes earlier (in my reading time frame), he seemed an unlikely possibility. But then, while the 21st-century heroes scrambled to stop their successors, the significance of the locations involved began to dawn on some of them. This was the moment of truth. As Batman realized that he was in one of two places where he'd seen Barry Allen's life tick away, the panel reprinted the exact art from COIE #8. Simultaneously, Hal Jordan realized that he was at the lab where Barry Allen had become the Flash in the first place, and the two heroes began to believe that if they succeeded in stopping the LSH, they would prevent the resurrection of their long-dead friend.
And we had to believe it, too. Showing the art from COIE again -- that was a bold move. Drama is about uncertainty regarding the outcome. Suddenly, Batman and Green Lantern froze in their tracks, and wanted to see the LSH succeed. There wasn't much doubt that they would -- someone was coming back. But had DC dared to bring back Barry Allen?
No -- it was a colossal headfake. When the lightning struck, Karate Kid was on the ground in Blue Valley, former home of Wally West, and Wally was alive nearby, along with his wife and kids. How a reader took it came down, perhaps, to how they felt about the Barry-vs-Wally question. I personally took it the way Batman did; pleased, no doubt, that Wally was back, but surprised and upset that Barry was not.
As it turned out, Barry's return was only eight months longer in coming. When it did come, the very fine prose of Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns closed DC Universe #0 in fine fashion, guaranteeing that Barry would be back in the flesh. We now know that the LSH had succeeding in bringing back Bart Allen (himself deserving of the monicker "Lightning Lad"). The creators at DC had already decided to resurrect Barry Allen, but not at that time. I still think in many ways, that was too bad, because while they managed to surprise me, I couldn't imagine a better set-up for his return than the scenes in JLA #10 that seemed to promise his return, but left me only with the consolation that Batman had fallen for the same trick.
At #2, a scene with no surprises at all. A superhero prevails against the odds, and the scene employs every cliche in the book, but is so over-the-top that it defines, for me, this entire genre which is after all about being over-the-top.