When we were dividing up the assignments for the most recent Comics Panel, Keith and I had a brief, friendly debate over which of us should handle the first issue of The Flash: Rebirth. Keith basically enjoyed Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver’s take on the Silver Age Scarlet Speedster. I read the issue and was reminded why I rarely read super-hero comics anymore.
I gave up buying individual issues of my D.C./Marvel/Wildstorm favorites about five or six years ago, in order to “wait for the trade.” And when I realized the trades were stacking up unread next to my bed, I stopped buying those too. There have been a few exceptions: I pick Astro City when I can find it; I’ve read just about all of All Star Superman; and I liked Jeff Smith’s Shazam comics. Mainly though, aside from the vintage material in the Showcase collections, just about the only time I read a super-hero comic these days is when D.C. sends one along for review purposes. And that’s only maybe a half-dozen times a year.
Still, I had mildly high hopes for The Flash: Rebirth, because whether it’s Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Bart Allen or Wally West, I dig a speedster. Also, I'd enjoyed Geoff Johns’ first couple of years writing The Flash, years ago. But my heart sank during the opening seven pages of The Flash: Rebirth. Between the images of two police scientists getting their throats slashed (after casually chatting about framing a suspect with a history of sexual deviancy) and the way Johns and Van Sciver spend nearly a third of the issue’s page count on what’s essentially mood-setting, I felt like I was reading a handbook on how to create a dreary modern super-hero comic.
I understand that the battle over what’s appropriate content for a story featuring an iconic super-hero has long-since been lost. Any lingering notion that the D.C. universe is family-friendly went out the window when Dr. Light raped Sue Dibny. These days, as near as I can tell, darkness is the rule, not the exception. And while I prefer a little more Silver Age shine on my D.C. heroes, I’m not inherently opposed to the idea of telling more mature stories using familiar characters. (I liked that Dark Knight movie a whole bunch, for example.)
It’s just that so much about this approach to super-hero storytelling feels cliché now. The Flash: Rebirth is intended to re-establish the long-dead Barry Allen in the D.C. universe, and for the first issue Johns spends most of his time dwelling on other characters’ reactions to Barry’s return, in lengthy, action-free, plot-free conversations. Then, out of nowhere, Johns adds a new wrinkle to Barry Allen’s backstory, indicating that his mother was murdered when he was a kid, and that his father may have been responsible.
Even if Rebirth revises that flashback before it ends—revealing that the father’s innocent, for example—how does this in any way make The Flash a more interesting character? Here’s all The Flash has to do: run very fast, fight a gallery of colorful rogues in creative ways, and be a righteous dude. Barry Allen can be a little prickly about his rigid code of right and wrong, but he doesn’t need to be angst-ridden. And for the love of Savitar, the D.C. Universe doesn’t need to make its mythology any more convoluted.
Which brings me to one of my two biggest pet peeves about The Flash: Rebirth. In my ideal world, D.C. would toss long-range continuity out the window. They’d stop trying to rectify it, reboot it, or in any way fix something that’s beyond repair. The writers should just tell new stories, and only rely on the rudiments of the past. But in Rebirth—and in the Johns-penned Blackest Night #0, which I also read this past week—the characters act like the past 25 years of one crossover-laden “crisis” after another is an elephant in the room that they have to address. Everyone’s constantly talking about who died and how they died and how they came back and what’s changed, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if D.C. puts out any super-hero comics anymore that aren’t directly pitched to continuity freaks. Johns is a good enough writer that you don’t have to have read “Zero Hour” and “Final Night” and “Underworld Unleashed” and “52” and “Infinite Crisis” to understand what’s happening in Rebirth and Blackest Night. But there are far too many nods to the past here. It’s like these comics are being written specifically for these guys:
I confess that I was kind of grabbed by the end of the first issue of Rebirth, which has The Flash inadvertently releasing a discharge of energy which immediately fells every living speedster (including my beloved Bart Allen… again). But I’d have been more impressed if:
1.) This weren’t one of the few moments in the comic when something actually happens, and….
2.) The moment didn’t occur on one of my least-favorite modern comics devices: The last-page/splash-page/credits-page.
I can’t recall exactly when the LPSPCP became common—perhaps over a decade ago, when the Warren Ellis/Grant Morrison/Mark Millar faction were touting the concept of “widescreen comics”—but it’s now become every bit as cliché as reinserting a defunct character into a milieu of gratuitous violence and relentless psychological analysis. The LPSPCP has lost any “hey that’s neat” impact it my have once had. (And frankly, it looks stupid when these issues are ultimately collected for the trades.)
But my main problem with the LPSPCP is that more often than not I feel like it comes at exactly the wrong place in the comic, but at the right place in the story. In other words: When The Flash’s powers knock his colleagues flat, that’s the perfect place to put the splash/credits. It’s just that it should happen on the third or fourth page of the issue. Then after that, the characters could, y’know, do things.
Ultimately, I think my problem with modern super-hero comics might be encapsulated by the LPSPCP. Whenever I pick one of these comics up, all I see is a constant cycle of introduction and re-introduction, with very little settling-in. There’s plenty of rebirth in the D.C. Universe these days, but not a lot of life.