Funnybook Babylon

April 8, 2009

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

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — David Uzumeri @ 4:40 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.

22 Comments »

  1. also I think part of it was that Johns was carefully setting up Hal for years, whereas I think with Barry Grant just called him up and said “oh I’m bringing up Barry Allen, how are things?” amnd he just felt he had to do something about it

    Comment by Nathan — April 8, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  2. Agreed with a vengeance. I’m vehemently against all sort of resuscitation in comics, but I was willing to give Barry a chance for no reason other than I like the idea of The Flash, and the whole Flash family concept was terribly lame. While this first issue had good bits, I thought the villains looked terribly cartoony and the whole plot dragged on terribly.

    Comment by euthanatos — April 8, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  3. It wasn’t like reading a story; it was reading a plot.

    Comment by HitTheTargets — April 8, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

  4. The other thing that really bothered me about the new Allen backstory was that it seemed too similar to the incident with Hunter Zolomon’s father that Johns wrote as motivation for that character joining the FBI.

    Comment by Crusader — April 9, 2009 @ 8:48 am

  5. I’ve been telling all of you, he’s the problem, not the solution. Whatever demons haunt Johns, he must deal with them before he takes the entirety of DC down with him.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — April 10, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

  6. Heh. The best comment I read was over on speedforce, where the writer quoted Johns claiming that tragedy in his backstory made Barry a better hero and then basically said- “Huh. I always thought Zoom was a villain, not a mouthpiece for the writer.” Because tragedy in the backstory works for some characters- but NOT Barry Allen.

    Particularly not when it’s actually getting rid of old stories. Johns seems oblivious to the fact that Barry’s parents were alive and well in old Mark Waid stories….

    Comment by Doctor of Doom — April 10, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

  7. Look, SOMEONE in Johns’ past clearly did him tremendous harm. And I’m tired of him using his comics to try and process it. He’s capable of telling good stories. But there aren’t it.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — April 10, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

  8. I’m not sure if we should really be talking about Johns’ past (I’m mostly talking to Dan here) – its not fair game to talk about someone’s personal life. I think the fact that he used (and still uses) Martin Jordan’s death as a way to make his readers connect more fully with Hal’s character so effectively might be making him (subconsciously for all we know) think that if Barry had a similar sort of drama around him he could use that in a similar way. I think this murder will be used sort of like how the earlier issues of Green Lantern used to flash back to Martin Jordan’s plane crash quite consistently in order to make us understand why Hal was the way he was.

    Comment by fayzan — April 10, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

  9. I enjoyed Flash Rebirth on a “Well, it’s still better than the last 3 years of Flash” kind of level (And utterly despised the Post-Infinite Crisis Flash. Seriously, the TV show guys? Why?) but it left me kind of cold. I REALLY enjoyed Johns’ first Flash run, so I’m going to hold on awhile longer. I get the feeling this is one of those stories that’s going to read MUCH better in one sitting/the trade rather than the individual issues.

    Comment by DantePD — April 11, 2009 @ 3:55 am

  10. Yeah, Dan, I’m uncomfortable with speculation about implied child abuse or something in Johns’s past. It’s not like with Meltzer and his published, online essay about how Terra was his sexual awakening; that’s fair game because the author backed it up. I agree Johns’s writing certainly seems to give most of his characters a traumatic event that they build their morality off of, but extrapolating that to his past makes me uncomfortable.

    Comment by David Uzumeri — April 11, 2009 @ 3:58 am

  11. If anything, the only biographical detail I can imagine fitting into Dan’s argument is Johns’s sister dying in the TWA 800 crash and then Johns basing Stargirl off of her. But has there ever been any significant tragedy in Stargirl’s life to motivate her? It seems much more likely that Johns has transformed his tragedy into a positive creative force, exactly the opposite of what Dan is saying.

    Comment by Mike Barrett — April 11, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

  12. Add me to the chorus that thinks Dan’s crossing the line from fair criticism into possible personal attacks.

    David, I’d be curious if you could further explain the idea that you feel the Flash characters always did what was right just because it was right. Especially in light of your mentioning that you have little previous experience with the Barry Allen character.

    I do echo a lot of the same issues with the first installment, but just to a lesser degree. I saw the personal tragedy as explanation for why he chose his career path, more than why he became a hero. In interviews, I know that Van Sciver has discussed how more people are aware of what forensic scientists do, thanks to CSI and many documentary shows about such work. This element might have, also, been chosen to help pave the way for an increased focus on his civilian work in an ongoing.

    Comment by Kevin Huxford — April 11, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

  13. “I REALLY enjoyed Johns’ first Flash run,”

    same. though in regards to this article, Johns kept his hands off Wally, acknowledging that Waid had pretty much written the definitive take on the character and kept his revision style of writting on the Rogues, which I appreciated.

    “I get the feeling this is one of those stories that’s going to read MUCH better in one sitting/the trade rather than the individual issues.”

    going with this, I mean in GLR #1 Hal was just a creepy ghost stalker who burned peoples hands off and that stuff at the beginning with Kyle

    Comment by Nathan — April 11, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

  14. […] AGAIN! David Uzumeri at Funnybook Babylon also reviews the first issue of Flash: Rebirth, and finds it wanting: [T]he story’s artifice […]

    Pingback by Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources » Easter Sunday Brunch: 4/12/09 — April 12, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  15. All right guys, all right. I surrender.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — April 12, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  16. Obviously, if your character needs to be described in 15 words, you’re going to aim for a 15 word character. Something along the lines of “A cynical police officer whose parents’ murder leads him to wage masked war on crime.” While this may well represent the beginnings of a perfectly workable character, the tendency seems to be that the writer sees no further than that 15-word skeleton. Once or twice in every story he will make sure that character says something cynical and thinks back to his career as a police officer. Also, one of the supporting character will probably say “Honestly! You’re so cynical!!” To which our hero will reply, “What did you expect, babe? Remember, I used to be a police officer!” If the writer is comparatively skillful, minor quirks of personality will be introduced into the scheme. It is revealed, for example, that our cynical ex-police officer also collects stamps. Weirdly, this will usually be somehow tied back in to the 15 word premise: “Well, here I am, sitting with my album in front of me, licking hinges. Of course, I wouldn’t be doing this if I were still a police officer. In fact, the more I think about the situation, the more cynical I feel.”

    -Alan Moore; “Writing for Comics”

    Comment by adam aaron — April 12, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  17. Substitute “cynical” for “fast”

    Comment by adam aaron — April 12, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

  18. […] Babylon compares storytelling vs. model building in the context of Green Lantern and Flash: […]

    Pingback by Speed Reading: Rebirth, Weapons, Action Figures and More « Speed Force — April 13, 2009 @ 6:04 am

  19. i still think it is still too early to tell with the story, im not keen on the tradgic back story. But i have never read Barry Allen, the vast majority of us, will have only read him in the context as the saint, now we are getting behind the myth of him. Part of me thinks that, people start to mix up part of what Wally see’s of him as his legit personality. And if rebirth is the redicsovery of Barry’s humanity, then it would be a short story if he did it in issue 1

    Comment by Ben Macleod — April 13, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  20. This new Flash thing is frankly balls so far. I have never read the character because I started reading DC comics right before they killed off Bart Allen. Since then they have not been able to settle down on one character to carry the mantle. I do not give a fuck which character that is but if they would hurry up and do it already it would be great.

    Comment by Jbird — April 26, 2009 @ 12:33 am

  21. though as a huge Johns fagfan, I gotta point out that the first issue of GL: Rebirth wasn’t all the interesting either. it was just Kyle in space, then Hal cutting BH’s hand off then stalking people and going to a baseball game. just saying

    Comment by Nathan — April 27, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

  22. […] or wrong to do that… but it does sound unnatural, and it’s boring and depressing (Link with examples) because you constantly feel like everything you knew was wrong: Reading Geoff Johns feels like […]

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