GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "F"

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Firestorm
  My Firestorm review is on the next page even though Fir comes before Fla -- but I wanted to keep my Flash reviews together on one page.


Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave & the Bold
  See my review in the Green Lantern section.


cover by Brian BollandThe Flash: Blood Will Run 2002 (SC TPB) 192 pages

Written by Geoff Johns. Pencils by Scott Kolins. Inks by Doug Hazlewood, Jose Marzan, Jr.
Colours: James Sinclair, Tom McCraw. Letters: various. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Reprinting: The Flash (2nd series) #170-176, The Flash Secret Files #3 (lead story only) - plus covers - 2001

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Prior to reading this, I'd never actually read a Flash comic post-Barry Allen (the Silver Age version of the character), though I'd come across the Wally West-Flash in the pages of the JLA and Teen Titans. (Subsequently I read the Wally saga The Return of Barry Allen -- reviewed below)

The Blood Will Run story arc only comprises the first half of this TPB. A sub-plot introduced in Blood Will Run, involving a toddler who may be Wally's illegitimate son, is answered in a later two-part story, so maybe the editors felt the run of #170-176 comprised a story arc...except there's another plot thread that isn't resolved here, involving someone calling together various Flash foes.

It's almost as if DC were trying to emulate Marvel's Essential books (wherein a block of consecutive issues are reprinted) or maybe DC intends to publish a kind of Flash library, collecting all issues...though, if so, I'm so far unaware of a TPB picking up with #177. (Added: O.K., so they did -- Flash: Rogues) But the result is a TPB that isn't quite focused enough that you can say, O.K., this is the plot, and neither does it tie together neatly enough to form a self-contained saga.

Anyhoo, on to the review.

Blood Will Run has a series of murders sweeping Keystone City, perpetrated by a cult -- their victims being people the Flash had previously saved from death. Despite my initial qualms about the violence of the story -- I don't really think of the Flash as being a character ideally suited to tackling serial killers and mass murders -- and, frankly, my qualms about escalating violence in comics in general -- where death has become so trivialized, comics writers casually murder hundreds just to get a story off the ground -- I kind of liked the early part of the story. Part of the flavour of these Flash comics is to emphasize Keystone City as a blue collar, industrial town, appropriately rendered with washed out colours, giving things a kind of drab, grey look. It kind of put me in mind of movies and TV shows from the 1970s, the era of the working class hero. I liked Kollins' bold, fairly clear, art. And I enjoyed watching the story unfold as a story. However it turns out to be shorter than I expected, and instead of the beginning of an epic...it just kind of resolves a bit disappointingly. Even confusingly with it never quite clear what the rank and file of the cultists hope to achieve. Supposedly they want immortality...but they happily sacrifice their lives for their leader.

After that, there's a filler issue which seems kind of half-done, the villain being ill-explained, or motivated, then a battle with the Weather Wizard, then another story of the Flash tackling some of his rogues gallery (and another bloody serial killer to boot!).

I didn't dislike this collection, but I'll admit the first few issues had me thinking I was going to like it more than I did. Or, put another way, I'm not going to bad mouth the series, but I'm not rushing out to add the Flash to my monthly must buy list, either.

Overall, little of the plotting sticks with me. Johns tries to pad out the supporting cast -- no less than three semi-permanent characters seem to be introduced in these pages (although maybe Det. Morillo had already been there before) -- but there aren't a lot in the way of sub-plots. There's lots of modern-style jokes and humourous asides, and scenes -- like Wally having dinner with his in-laws -- but not too much in the way of dramatic, interesting sub-plots that you kind of wonder where they're headed.

Maybe I just read this wrong. After all, it took a bit of getting used to Johns' Wally West as a bit of goof off and reformed womanizer, given to making disparaging remarks about his parents. The Wally West I remembered was basically level-headed and had a good relationship with his folks. But I guess that was the pre-Crisis version. This Wally seems more like the stock personality DC has imposed on a lot of its characters these days, as if DC doesn't think its audience can handle grown up heroes. Despite being a married man, he's written a little like an arrested adolescent. Contrasted with the Silver Age Flash -- button-downed Barry Allen, scientist --- it was a bit of a shock. Though there were some interesting ideas, like Wally not concealing his real identity.

Flash's powers have been augmented over the years so that he can do all sorts of wild n' woolly things like sap kinetic energy from things, and (seeming) fire electricity. I dunno. I thought the appeal of the Flash was that he could run fast. The trick was to see the different, novel ways a writer could employ that.

And the nifty-cool costume-in-a-ring gimmick has been dropped entirely!

I'm also just not that big on the way police characters seem to be proliferating like mad in super hero comics -- all the newly added supporting characters here are cops. That's fine...if this was a cop comic. But it's a super hero comic, and I always thought of super heroes as being kind of everyman heroes, empowering the little guy, where the action heroics gets contrasted with the mundane normalacy of a supporting cast of friends and family far removed from that crimebustin' world. Clearly, that's not what DC is going for, either here, or in contemporary Batman comics.

Another curious thing I've noticed is the treatment of ethnicity. I was pretty sure Linda, Wally's wife, is supposed to be Asian. But, y'know, it's awfully hard to tell here. I assume it's just a problem with the colouring and drawing. It's hard to imbue faces with ethnic characteristics. But I've noticed other comics where it's unclear what people are supposed to be. The cynic in me almost wonders if that's on purpose. On one hand, there are more non-white characters in comics these days, on the other hand, it's as if comic publishers want to make it ambiguous enough so as not to lose neo-Nazi readers. But that's just the cynic in me.

I mean, is Det. Morillo supposed to be black? Or Latino? Or what?

I went into this, having got it on a whim, unsure what to think. The first couple of issues won me over, even as the rest kind of cooled my enthusiasm. But, really, I think after another read I'll probably regard this all as O.K., if unspectacular stuff. Although the dangling plot thread of the mysterious person gathering villains was annoying.

Maybe, though, I shouldn't have read an old Barry Allen-Flash comic while I was reading this TPB -- the comparison wasn't too flattering for Wally.

Cover price: $29.95 CDN./ $17.95 USA


Flash: The Return of Barry Allen 1996 (SC TPB) 192 pagwes

cover by Brian BollandWritten by Mark Waid. Pencils by Greg LaRocque. Inks by Roy Richardson.
Colours: Matt Hollingsworth. Letters: Tim Harkins. Editor: Brian Augustyn.

Reprinting: The Flash (2nd series) #74-79 (plus a couple of pages from #73 as a prologue) - 1993

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Re-reviewed: Oct. 4, 2009

Published by DC Comics

Additional notes: introduction; cover gallery.

At the time this was published, the current Flash was Wally West -- formerly Kid Flash. And the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, was still hanging about in a mentorly capacity. But Wally's uncle, the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, was long dead, having died during the Crisis on Infinite Earths. So imagine Wally and everyone's surprise when Barry shows up on his doorstep, alive and well, albeit slightly amnesiac when it comes to how he's been resurrected. Wally is initially overjoyed by the return of his uncle, Barry, as are some of Barry's old colleagues -- the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, and Green Lantern Hal Jordan.

Of course, going into this saga years after it was first published, the reader knows one thing -- this story didn't return Barry to continuity (that wouldn't happen until many years later!) So however it ends, one knows it isn't "happily ever after". Certainly not when Barry starts acting oddly, seeming obsessively possessive of his identity -- which can create problems given that Wally has basically usurped it.

This is a well regarded saga, and it starts well. Writer Mark Waid peppers the thing with introspective captions, and the first few issues (once everyone gets used to the idea that Barry's back) with the many Flashes tackling a new mob in town, is entertaining, in a comfortable, old fashioned way, evoking 1960s Flash-Kid Flash team ups (particularly the first chapter, involving the two Flashes trying to prevent a mob hit at an amusement park). And for all that Barry's been dismissed by some commentators over the years as too bland, seeing him back in action reminds you how much you missed him -- particularly older readers who might actually prefer the adventures of a level-headed thirtysomething to the cocky, arrested adolescents that are passed off as mature super heroes these days (just a thought). But all is not well in Mudville. And the second chapter closes on a particularly effective denouement.

For the first three issues, it's cruising along fine -- laying the groundwork, distracting us with the sub-plot involving the new mob. Along the way other DC speedsters are thrown in -- not just the Golden Age Flash, but other oldies like Johnny Quick, and the more obscure, and apparently multi-named, Max Mercury (a.k.a. Bluestreak a.k.a. Quicksilver -- not the Marvel character). Unfortunateely, Waid kicks the story into high gear...before it's really had time to build up sufficient speed. When Barry goes bad, the super speed action goes into overdrive. And you know what? Seeing a bunch of super speedsters fighting each other isn't nearly as fun as you might think. Rather, it is fun...for a bit, as they must utilize strategy against the rogue Barry who is, apparently, faster, and more powerful, than any of them. But it wears when such fight scenes dominate the page count.

One even suspects the revelation behind it all won't be that big a surprise to fans of the character, familiar with his rogues gallery. Though there was some clever twists relating to motive -- though I can't go into detail. At least, they're sort of clever...and sort of muddled. I mean when the rogue Barry goes from being a seeming good guy (fighting crime) except psychotically possessive of his name and identity to someone who's just trashing the city like any old villain, it feels like we're missing out on a more interesting story. There are even technical questions, relating to the physical appearance of the returned Barry.

The saga is spread over six issues, but the final is 54 pages -- meaning it's closer to an eight issue epic. If Waid had dragged his heels a bit more, let the Barry stuff percolate as a sub-plot, it might have been more effective. Admittedly, that can be the problem with reading stories as collections: stories that maybe benefited from a gradual sense of unfolding inherent in a monthly schedule can lose that edge (the Barry Allen stuff originally took a few months to come to a head). Which might explain Jay appearing to have figured out something was wrong...without the reader seeing what made him suspicious.

The story seems a tad thin. There's not a lot else going on besides the Barry-Wally drama. The mob plot is dropped quickly. Wally's wife isn't mulling over a job offer or anything; there's nothing to act as a grounding beyond the super heroics. Which isn't altogether bad. I initially enjoyed the simple super hero adventure of the thing. But it does mean there's not a lot else to round out the characters.

What Waid really wants to do is focus in on Wally, his mixed emotions toward Barry's returns -- joy, unease, and a feeling of inadequacy next to his mentor. Ironically, that's where the story stumbles a bit. Waid's so intent on dissecting his protagonist according to his vision, that he threatens plausibility. When Barry's behaviour is at odds with the man Wally remembered, it leads to some soul searching as Wally is devastated by this bringing down of his idol. But, come on! Surely in a super hero reality, Wally's first reaction would be: if he's not acting like the Barry who Wally remembered (a Barry who, after all, is supposed to be dead) doesn't it seem likely he's not Barry? Or, at least, wouldn't he assume Barry's mentally ill? Instead, Wally acts as if this must be the true Barry and Barry's a real stinker. Later, when Wally decides he must confront the rogue Barry, he tells the other speedsters, and Green Lantern (in a bit part), that this is his fight. O.K., I recognize that's a convention of adventure stories, but by this point Barry has gone on a destructive crime spree -- it's not just about Wally's wounded ego anymore! Realistically GL should've said: "No, we stop him any way we can, and you can work out your issues on your own time. Period." (Speaking of GL -- this saga crossed over with Green Lantern #40, but that's not included here. Sure, you can still follow the plot -- the GL issue itself was just a rather long action piece -- but it might've been nice to include it).

Greg LaRocque's art is a little problematic and apparently his tenure on the title was a bit controversial. On one hand, he's one of those artists who's certainly got a grip on anatomy (muscles are drawn where they're supposed to be) but his figures are often stiff and ungainly, and facial expressions not always the most expressive (Waid's captions describing an emotion that LaRocque's pencils fail to convey). I sort of liked the art at first, clunkiness included, precisely for its old fashioned, Bronze Age feel. It's not garish or self-indulgent or cluttered. But even the action scenes can be a bit muddy at times (though that may well be a fault of Waid's script, not always giving LaRocque enough direction as to what miraculous feat of super speed the Flashes are supposed to be engaged in).

This features an introduction, supposedly transcribing a conversation between Waid and editor Brian Augustyn. O.K., I realize it's mainly a joke conversation -- I don't suppose anyone really kept track at the time. I don't know who even wrote it. But it kind of rubbed me the wrong way. For one thing, they talk about how fans continue to ask "when's Barry coming back" -- and mock such expectations, deriding rival Marvel Comics for its "revolving door" policy of bringing characters back from the dead. But, uh, DC's just as guilty as Marvel -- even moreso. And it becomes even more ironic, fifteen years later, now that DC really has brought back Barry! And such petty company rivalry just seems childish. As well, I used to agree that death should be death, like in the real world, but I've softened my position. Maybe there's nothing wrong with an escapist, fictional reality where even death is little more than an inconvenience (particularly as characters are often killed off for no more valid a reason than simply as a marketing stunt -- like Barry was). Finally, I think there's something unkind about creators knowing the fans have been clamouring for a beloved character's return, only to then exploit that affection by "returning" him in a story which is bound to disappoint them.

The bottom line with The Return of Barry Allen is that it starts out well, and is moderately enjoyable (and doesn't actually besmirch the character of Barry Allen the way the "rogue Barry" premise might imply). But it fails to quite become more than that.

Cover price: $21.95 CDN./ $12.95 USA 


Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave & the Bold
  See my review in the Green Lantern section.


cover by InfantinoShowcase presents The Trial of the Flash 2011 (SC TPB) 592 pages

Writen by Cary Bates. Pencils by Carmine Infantino. Inks by Frank McLaughlin, others.
black & white. Letters: various.

Reprinting: The Flash #323-327, 329-336, 340-350 - with covers (1983-1985)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review posted Sept, 2011

Published by DC Comics

The Trial of the Flash was the epic swan song of the Silver Age Flash -- the character whom, in many respects, defined the super hero renaissance that began in the 1950s, leading the slow climb to where super heroes pretty much dominate the comic book industry. The Flash, arguably, never quite got a lot of industry approbation -- perhaps because there remained a deliberately old fashioned hokiness to his stories. Yet he must have been a fairly solid seller, as his series barrelled ahead undaunted for almost three decades while other, arguably better regarded, characters underwent publishing hiatus and "new directions" (at one point, with his comic on hiatus, Green Lantern was given the back up slot in The Flash).

By the mid-1980s, DC Comics was gearing up for its universe altering epic Crisis on Infinite Earths. And, in the case of the Flash, the plan had already been laid to kill him off in that mini-series. But unlike some comics at the time, which basically just trundled along until the Crisis, Flash writer Bates clearly decided to present, in a sense, the final Flash saga -- essentially wrapping up the series.

It's a rambling effort -- too long to fit into a conventional TPB collection, yet maybe not well regarded enough by editors, or believed appealing enough for modern fans (that old Flash stigma again) to justify being spread over a series of expensive, colour TPBs.

Which led to an unusual format. DC's "Showcase presents" TPBs (modelled after Marvel's Essential collections) usually just collect chronological runs of comics in a low-priced format -- black & white, cheap paper, but as big as phone books! But here they decided to turn the format to collecting a specific storyline, and so we have Showcase presents The Trial of the Flash, collecting over 20 issues between a single cover.

Now I'll begin by saying I have sort of mixed feelings about the Flash. I can't say I have that many comics of his compared to some other A-list heroes. But I do have a certain affection for him. I have a couple of digests (from back in the day when DC regularly put out digest collections) featuring him that were fun. The appeal of the Flash was that his stories were often quirky and imaginative, and the very simplicity of the concept -- a guy with one super power -- was actually what made him kind of neat...even cool.

The art in this collection, from first to last, is by Carmine Infantino. Infantino was the first artist to draw the Barry Allen/Flash in the 1950s and remained the chief artist up until the late 1960s, and had returned to the character by the 1980s. Some characters have signature artists -- and Infantino is definitely that for the Flash. And writer Cary Bates had been writing the Flash's adventures probably for over a decade. If a creative combo was going to write the Flash's final run -- these were the guys to do it. At one point, an issue here is wrapped around a reprint of an old Flash story from the 1960s, and nothing better establishes a sense of continuity than seeing a decades old reprint next to the newer pages -- by the same artist!

In truth, I'm not a huge fan of Infantino -- his figures are kind of squat and angular, his pencil work can be kind of rough and hasty (depending on the inker). Yet, I appreciate him, too -- his composition, his design work (like page 7, issue #325). And reading him here -- certainly I can imagine a lot of artists I would've liked less to look at for 500 pages! Infantino is given a few inkers at first (Kalus Janson is credited on the back cover -- but he only inks some covers!), before Frank McLaughlin is established as the main inker for the lion's share. McLaughlin isn't necessarily a subtle inker, given to stiff, thick lines, but he probably brings a decent solidness to Infantino's sometimes rough pencils for a respectable pairing. But what's too bad is there are a couple of issues inked by Dennis Jensen (actually he's credited with three issues, but I'm guessing that's a mistake, as only two of those issues look like the same style) -- Jensen brings a modelled, lush style to the pencils that actually put me in mind of some of Infantino's classic pairings with 1960s inkers like Murphy Anderson and Sid Greene. If DC had kept Jensen as the primary inker over Infantino's, as mentioned, sometimes stylish and eye catching composition -- this book might've been truly gorgeous. Ah, well.

The saga starts out on Barry (The Flash) Allen's wedding day to Fiona Webb -- a wedding interrupted by an attack by the villainous Reverse-Flash (a.k.a. Professor Zoom). R-Flash had previously killed Barry's first wife, Iris (in a story serialised in the 1970s -- though not yet collected anywhere) and in the struggle to save Fiona from a similar fate -- Flash ends up killing R-Flash. And though there's reasonable grounds for an assumption of justification, Flash is charged with murder...and his troubles begin.

This plot is stretched out over the next couple of years of issues, even as it might take a back seat to more conventional conflicts as the Flash ends up battling various of his main rogues gallery (being as this was intended as Flash's final run, one assumes Bates was deliberately calling upon the familiar foes to make appearances). Along the way there are also cameoes and appearances by Kid Flash, the Elongated Man, Green Lantern and the JLA. Indeed, what's too bad is most of these are cameoes. If Bates intended this as Barry's finale hurrah, it might've been nice to have better incorporated them in meaningful ways -- not gratuitous guest stars, but ones with a long history with him, like the Elongated Man.

And the result is mixed, with ups and downs.

Some of the "downs"?

For one thing, the central case/trial seems a bit of an odd hook. It's not a mystery (as the earlier murder of Iris saga had been) --there are no major surprise revelations. One can even question whether such a case would even be tried -- the prosecutor may question Flash's motives, but given the fight, it's hard to make the case beyond a reasonable doubt that it was anything more than accidental and unavoidable. At the same time, that may well have been Bates point -- his artistic conceit, if you will: to do a "realistic" court room drama. Yet Bates doesn't even really use the case to debate the morals and ethics of the situation.

Being put on trial -- even one where he still has the support of most of the city and the police, and is free without bail -- means Flash decides to make other changes in his life including dropping his Barry Allen secret identity. Again, the plot choices Bates makes seem a bit curious -- I mean, surely now is the time Flash would need the sanctuary of a secret identity more than ever? Particularly as Barry's "disappearance" leads to police wasting resources searching for the vanished scientist...and sends fiancee Fiona spiralling into a mental breakdown! It provides for plot complications, but does feel as though Flash is making things worse for everyone!

(A little aside: at one point characters suggest if people knew Flash was Barry, and that R-Flash had killed his first wife and was now trying to kill his fiancee, it would guarantee his acquittal -- but really, wouldn't that just lend credence to the prosecutions theory that the Flash acted with malicious intent?).

Peppered throughout are various characters and sub-plots that seem to come and go. The search for the missing Barry just seems like a shaggy dog plot (at one point a cop gets hold of Barry's ring -- the one that ejects his Flash uniform -- and it's teased along for a few issues, about what would happen if the cop discovered the ring's secret...but nothing really comes of it). Supporting characters (presumably long a part of the series) drift about and just kind of fade away (including Fiona!). And some of the secondary mysteries can seem a bit...obvious. Bates started acting as his own editor, and maybe needed a little more oversight on his plotting -- at one point the Flash successfully defeats various members of his rogues gallery, leaving them unconscious...yet then a few issues later, they are still running around free!

Another problem is a fault of the collection's editor. At one point in this largely consecutive run, we skip an issue -- but there's no indication we've missed anything when we get to the next reprinted issues. Yet later in the collection we skip three issues in a row. And after the gap we're in the middle of a plot involving a teaming of various of the rogues. What's more, you realize other things relating to the on going sub-plots also arose, or were resolved, in those missing issues -- minor plots, perhaps, but still...

So if there are flaws to the saga...what are the strengths?

Well, for one thing, even if I'm complaining a lot of the sub-plots can be half-heartedly developed and resolved...at least there are such plots. There is fun in cutting between some of the other plots and the unfolding secondary mysteries. There are a few twists and turns. And there's just an intrinsic fun in, well, a Flash epic. There are next to no collections of Barry's pre-Crisis adventures (save Archive and Showcase collections), so there is fun in breaking that drought with a 500 plus page opus.

And it's just eminently readable. I can complain about the story, the plot holes, the questionable characterization/motivation/behaviour, but the bottom line is that it's five hundred pages...and I never found it a struggle to start on the next chapter. I won't say it was always riveting...but if you can spend night after night reading through 500 pages -- I guess they're doing something right. Intellectually I can quibble...viscerally I enjoyed it.

Part of the appeal is the Flash himself. Yeah, Barry Allen is a kind of bland character -- but you still like the guy, you can still appreciate his joy and sympathize with his anger and despair. Above all, the appeal of The Flash was the very simplicity of the character -- he has one super power, just one. Speed. And the fun is just watching all the various tricks and gimmicks Bates (and earlier writers like John Broome and Gardner Fox) could milk from that idea. It's not just about beating up bad guys (despite fairly one note villains) but about performing super feats -- saving planes, or trains, or out running explosions.

Despite what Bates may have seen as a stab at doing a "sophisticated, mature" plot with the trial idea...at heart, the appeal is just the goofy charm of the fantasy of super feats, garish villains, and -- yes -- time travel and bizarre fantasy paradoxes. A comic book world where a masked man is put on trial...and no one asks to unmask him!

At the same time, it's equally true that few of the action-plots necessarily distinguish themselves as stories in and of themselves. At one point, we are treated to a flashback issue, largely comprised of reprinting some old John Broome stories from the 1960s, involving Flash and Kid Flash and an alien dimension. And it's actually more interesting, more clever, than a lot of the other stories here!

The thing builds to the double-sized 350th issue to mostly good effect. Bates treats us to some irony (a villain's actions...actually weren't necessarily as villainous as we thought) and plenty of weird time travel and paradoxes (though I'm not sure a character's explanations about time paradoxes really makes sense). And above all, Bates tries to wrap things up with a happy ending -- at least as far as the circumstances allow. The Flash's death was already decreed by DC's editorial staff, so all Bates can offer is a temporary happy ending, as some time travellers mutter cryptically about his troubles to come (foreshadowing the Crisis on Infinite Earths).

Is the Trial of the Flash a classic? Nah. But in its occasionally goofy, old school way...it is an enjoyable page turner.

Cover price: $19.99 USA.


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