Sunday, August 21, 2005

Geoff Johns' Flash, Part 1: "Wonderland"

Geoff Johns' five-year tenure as writer of The Flash comes to an end with the next issue (#225), the conclusion of "Rogue War." This series of posts has no chance of finishing by then, since I aim to cover every Johns-penned storyline.

Although I have been following the Wally West series from the beginning, I have only vague memories of these stories, so I hope to have a fresh perspective. However, I admit to being burned out on Johns' style, and am not sure how well it works for the title. Still, I'm trying to keep an open mind.

Besides, this iteration of Flash apparently encourages writers to put their own stamps on Wally. Johns followed seven years' worth of issues by Mark Waid, who in turn followed almost four years by Bill Messner-Loebs. Messner-Loebs showed Wally maturing, and Waid showed Wally becoming his own man.

How will Johns be remembered? Right now I'd say for his treatment of the Rogues' Gallery; but that could change.

Anyway, on to Johns' first storyline, "Wonderland," pencilled by Angel Unzueta and inked by Doug Hazlewood, from Flash #s 164-69 (September 2000-February 2001). Appropriately enough, each issue begins with a different Lewis Carroll quote. It's an alternate-reality story featuring a nightmarish, fascistic Keystone City and a fairy-tale kingdom. Wally finds himself in the former in Flash #164, bereft of his super-speed and tossed roughly into the Keystone City jail. At the end of the issue, "our" Captain Cold's broken him out and before too long, "our" Mirror Master (police flyers reveal the alter-Rogues are dead) has joined them in trying to find a way home. To do this, they have to get by not only new villain Plunder (and his boss, the Thinker), but also the Keystone P.D. and a certain still-alive police scientist.

"Wonderland" spends four issues in this Keystone, but it goes by too quickly. Its conceit is that neither Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, nor Wally West ever received super-speed, so there never was a Flash to save the Justice Society, Justice League, or Teen Titans. Therefore, each group suffered a member's death which pretty much ended its existence and drove society to an extreme stance on super-crime. Since Barry was never the Flash, Hal Jordan ended up dying in the "Crisis." Thus, there's a big fight at Keystone's "Green Lantern Museum" (which apparently took the place of Central City's Flash Museum), where the powerless Wally uses GL-villain weaponry to get past Plunder and the cops. Since the GL Museum also has a Mirror Master gadget, I take it that GL also fought the Rogues in Flash's place. (How Green Lantern managed to make regular trips to the Midwest is never really explained.)

Wally, Cold, and Mirror Master get out of alt-Keystone after they discover it's a dimension created by a Mirror Master weapon. Seems that Cold and MM were hired to trap Wally in this dimension, where he'd be powerless -- but their employer double-crossed them and trapped them too. Using the MM weapon stolen from the GL Museum, the Rogues and Wally zap themselves back to the real Keystone, only to discover a crater in its place. Moreover, the "mirror dimension" was inside the facets of Wally's wife Linda's wedding ring, so she's gone too.

Again using Mirror Master's technology, the three zap themselves into the kidnapped Keystone to find it in ruins and its citizens mind-controlled. Zombie Pied Piper tells them the woodcut-rendered backstory. In a nutshell, when Wally was Kid Flash, he, Barry, and Jay traveled to this dimension (called Eastwind) to overthrow its cruel tyrant (the Tin Reverend, who had designs on Earth) and restore the rightful monarch. That would have been the late king's oldest son, Grimm, but he didn't want to be king. No, he wanted to be a denti-- I mean, an artist (almost as bad -- reminded me of that singing groom in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), so Wally advised him to follow his heart and let his younger brother, Angar, be King.

Well, that was a mistake. Angar turned out to be just as much of a despot, and Grimm was forced to kill him. By this time, though, Wally had become the Flash, and when Grimm found out, cursed Wally for lying to him about all the choose-your-own-path advice. Wally remembers it differently, of course, but there you go. Grimm set up the Rogues to trap Wally in the mirror-Keystone, and now rules the real Keystone with a mind-controlled Jay Garrick as his enforcer. Grimm can also sense disturbances in the Speed Force, so Wally can't sneak up on him. Grimm and Jay take out Wally, Cold and Mirror Master zap themselves home, and Wally finds himself trapped in a guillotine out of which he can't vibrate. What's worse, there's Linda yelling "Off with his head!"

Wally escapes when Linda throws a tomato at him. Vibrating so it passes through his head, the tomato gets so agitated it explodes (this was Waid's modification of the classic Flash power), destroying the guillotine. Cold and Mirror Master reappear -- there's some weird vibrational technobabble keeping everyone in place -- and Wally lends them super-speed so they can gather the citizens of Keystone while he takes out Grimm. Wally beats Grimm at normal speed, smashes Grimm's dimension-hopping machine (source of the technobabble), and explains that he never betrayed his dream like Grimm did. He's his own person, but he's also the Flash. Grimm vanishes, wraith-like, into the remnants of his flux-machine. Wally restores Keystone's vibrational frequency and sends it home. He then goes home himself, to enjoy some sweet lovin' from his sexy wife.

Future storylines may prove me wrong, but "Wonderland" doesn't seem like the best way to introduce a new writer. For one thing, why set up a new status quo with an alternate reality? (Was Johns channeling Quesada and Bendis?) In a way, I suppose it's an amalgamation of Mark Waid and Bill Messner-Loebs plot elements -- Waid was fond of casting Wally into unfamiliar surroundings, with Linda as his "anchor," and Loebs liked to strip Wally of his super-speed -- but it never quite feels fully formed until the last third.

Consider: Grimm is mad at Wally for betraying his principles and not following his own path, so he traps Wally in a nightmare where there is no Flash legacy to assume, and no Speed Force to facilitate it. Effectively, Wally is punished for being the Flash, because there the Flash is a threat. The idea has a lot of potential, but Johns seems more interested in having Wally team up with Captain Cold and Mirror Master for a series of chases and fights. Yes, Johns could have done a by-the-numbers story about Wally choosing to be the Flash and enlisting Barry and/or the surviving Rogues to help him escape, but I think that might have been more satisfying.

My main frustration with "Wonderland" can be pretty well summarized by its use of Barry Allen, which is never really justified. He has no meaningful interaction with Wally or the Rogues, and Johns seems content to use him only to establish Wally's independence and the Rogues' longstanding rivalries with him. Neither of these character bits really required Barry to return, and in any event Johns doesn't take them any further than a few lines of dialogue. Wally may have worked through his Barry issues, but Barry is still an important figure in Wally's life. (The story also mentions alternate versions of Jay Garrick and Wally himself, but we don't see either of them.)

The art doesn't help matters much. It reminded me of Mike Wieringo's blocky, square-jawed early Flash work, but it's scratchier and muddier. Some of that may be the inker, Doug Hazlewood, but Unzueta makes Wally look more like a wrestler than a runner. Still, Unzueta and Hazlewood do have some pretty effective "nightmare" moments in Keystone; and they do a good job with the fairy-tale flashbacks.

To be fair, much of Wally West's development had been chronicled before Johns came aboard. Loebs and Waid had explored Wally's relationship to Barry and the Flash legacy, and with Wally marrying Linda there weren't too many more big life events on the horizon. Instead, I saw in "Wonderland" what I'm seeing now with Hal Jordan in Johns' Green Lantern -- a hero with very little self-doubt put into situations he has to think his way around. Objectively speaking, that's the same setup as virtually every Silver Age DC comic up to the Denny O'Neil era, but here it feels like Wally is answering questions he's been asked several times before. Maybe that was Johns' point all along.

In any event, Johns' tenure begins in earnest with "Blood Will Run," featuring new regular artist Scott Kolins, so we'll pick up there next time.


Jim Roeg said...

Nice review, Tom. This is actually the only story arc from Johns's Flash run that I haven't read, so I appreciated the recap. Regarding this point:

Future storylines may prove me wrong, but "Wonderland" doesn't seem like the best way to introduce a new writer. For one thing, why set up a new status quo with an alternate reality?

I agree. I generally hate alternate reality storylines, which is why I never ended up picking this up. I might be getting this wrong, but wasn't this arc originally just commissioned as a fill-in, so that Johns only found out later that he'd be the regular writer. If so, this would probably account for the arc's "overstuffed" quality (superfluous Barry appearance) and self-conscious artiness (Lewis Carroll quotes). If Johns though this might be his one and only crack at the Flash, maybe he just tried to throw everything in?

Looking forward to your comments on "Blood Will Run"--which as you say begins Johns's run "in earnest." (It's the storyline that got me to pick this comic up in the first place. Appearance by an old Teen Titans supporting character--go figure!).

Tom Bondurant said...

No, I think you're right -- Johns says here his 6-month gig got turned into a regular assignment. I guess the question is whether "Wonderland" was finished before that decision was made.