Building versus Writing: Geoff Johns, Hal Jordan, Barry Allen and the Rebirth

Posted by on Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 at 04:40:34 PM
Flash: Rebirth #1

Flash: Rebirth #1

I was pretty optimistic when I picked up Flash: Rebirth #1 out of the stack. It’s a hefty volume, and I’ve enjoyed almost everything Johns has done since the epic career misstep that was Infinite Crisis, so my expectations were pretty much that I’d at least thoroughly enjoy it – I mean, I’m the target audience here, right? A DCU fan who’s never really read a Barry story, enjoyed his return in Final Crisis, enjoyed Green Lantern: Rebirth, and has a considerable predilection towards epic, whacked-out stories of spacetime travel anchored by metaphor and human emotion. Which is largely what Johns has been doing in Green Lantern, taking the seemingly irrelevant character of Hal Jordan and integrating him into this very post-9/11 superhero parable about the importance of standing ideological and emotional ground and not buckling in to fear. It certainly faltered at times, and Johns’s flair for the bombastic sometimes got in the way of his character arcs, but Green Lantern: Rebirth and the arcs following it clearly did an effective job elevating the Green Lantern mythos into a story that resonated with a lot of people for any number of reasons. It sold a lot of copies, it got a lot of good reviews, and it really raised Johns’s game.

The Flash franchise, though – I don’t think I’m out of line in saying it’s been a commercial disaster since Geoff Johns left. While I had a lot of love for Mark Waid and Tom Peyer’s combined run, the readership didn’t at all want to read Flash reimagined as DC’s non-all-ages superhero family title. Despite logically propelling forward the lives of both Wally West and Linda Park, not to mention introducing two kids that I thought were adorable and everyone else hated, the book was a complete commercial bust and it rapidly became clear that nobody wanted to read a Flash Family comic. But it did. So here we are, attempt number three in the past four years. Flash: Rebirth, in which creates an immensely carefully constructed story to revise and redefine the Flash mythology for the 21st century. It’s a bold goal, but Johns at least certainly seems to feel like he’s up to the task, and whatever your philosophical or emotional feelings about Green Lantern: Rebirth, it’s pretty much the all-time winner for insanely meticulously plotted and planned out retcons.

The problem with this is that this first issue is so mechanically crafted – so completely self-referential, every line of dialogue reflecting every other line of dialogue, every scene emanating from the CONCEPT OF SPEED – that the story’s artifice began to override its momentum. For a book ostensibly about speed, I found it very difficult to get caught up in the momentum and flow of its story, especially not when it was so obvious with its themes and subtext. There’s a scene – and I’m going to describe this as spoiler-free as I can – where we see young Barry Allen racing another kid his age and losing because he “doesn’t like to race”; however, something happens that he thinks is important and grabs his attention, so Barry runs towards it, leaving the other kid behind, screaming to catch up. It’s clear what Johns is trying to do here: to illustrate that Barry is a fast runner and a hard competitor but only in situations where it matters to him. The problem is that this subtext and the actual text are so close together that the story suffers as a result, and Johns’s intentions become so easy to divine that it takes the front seat to the plot.

And once you enter that territory, the book slips straight into utterly self-aware metafiction – once you see the speed “gimmick”, for lack of a better word, it becomes clear that every scene, every character interaction, every line of dialogue and every metaphor are all reflections and refractions of that one major theme Johns is going for. Here, it has something to do with making sure to slow down and enjoy life: the Mystery Villain of the First Scene states that “haste makes waste.” This theme seems to play a similar role to the Green Lantern theme of overcoming fear, which became pretty obvious an issue or two into the ongoing series (if not before).

The most egregious example of this is the family scene I alluded to earlier that’s been the talk of a decent bit of the Internet since the book’s release; the Flash was always a character who did the right things because they were right, and my initial reaction is that adding a layer of tragedy into his backstory only undercuts what made the character so enjoyable. Not only that, but the scene is so incongruous with Barry Allen, not just outside of Flash: Rebirth but inside as well – I’ve never read a Barry Allen story in my life, and I could tell the second I read the scene that it was a Geoff Johns retcon rather than a piece of actual repurposed history because it almost feels like a foreign substance. Yeah, the scene at the beginning is bloody, but whatever, that’s a murder that doesn’t involve the protagonist; it’s not as damagingly GRIM AND GRITTY as the changes made to Barry himself. I’m tempted to draw a parallel between Johns’s insertions regarding Jordan family drama in Green Lantern and this, but it’s not quite accurate: while Johns expounded on the Jordan family drama caused by the canonical and integral event of his father’s plane crash, here he essentially inserts the equivalent of Martin Jordan’s plane crash itself right into Barry’s previously fairly pastoral backstory, and it feels more like it’s wedged in with a hammer than slotted in smoothly.

I think that Johns’s return to Flash, and Barry’s return as well, is something that will end up pretty popular, and this issue is something that people will be able to return to in a while and see where Johns started laying down plot points. However, to get there, Johns really needs to loosen up and stop trying to build every story like fuckin’ Watchmen; a tightly constructed, internally consistent story is important, but sometimes it feels like the man is building a model more than telling a story, and this is unfortunately one of those times. There was a point in Green Lantern where Johns stopped trying to tie everything into fear and just let the story move on its own terms, and that’s when the book started improving greatly from its early issues. I think we’ll hit that point here, but I hope the learning curve is shorter this time, and might even be eliminated in the next.

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