reading list: The Flash (2011) # 1-25, Annual #1
the premise: Crime-scene tech Barry Allen leads a secret life as Central City's speedster and resident superhero - The Flash. In these stories, the Flash squares off against the Rogues Gallery, Gorilla Grodd, the Reverse-Flash and more, all while trying to balance his love life and career.
the lowdown: He may be a little old-fashioned, but for my money the Flash has always been one of the coolest visuals in comics. He's got one of the best costumes - a design that is nearly impossible to translate to any other medium but which looks fantastic in a comic book. He's got a collection of colorful rogues, all of whom have equally brightly-colored costumes. He moves really fast, something that can be depicted in many visually interesting ways. And several of his enemies have powers or weapons that involve firing projectiles, which contrasts nicely with the Flash's speed lines.
In light of that, it's perhaps surprising that no one ever thought to make the Flash comic an art-driven book until DC relaunched this series in the New 52 in 2011. Well, maybe it's not THAT surprising, because relatively few modern DC and Marvel books are at all art-driven. But still.
Allow me to elaborate on what I mean by "art-driven". There are lots of well-drawn comics out there, but very few that are showcases for the art. In this age of editorially-driven event storytelling and byzantine elaborate cross-title continuity, the content of most DC and Marvel books are driven by either writers or editors. At best, a writer might call up the artist and see what s/he wants to draw, then work it into the script. But the script is the foundation for most of these comics. The art is there to illustrate the script - hopefully well. Even something like Batman: Hush, which has Jim Lee's art as its principal draw, is driven by Jeph Loeb's script.
By contrast, the engine that powers this run is Frances Manapul's art. Manapul is credited as co-writer for almost all these issues, and it's clear that he had a significant role in plotting the book. Beyond that, though, things happen in this book because they're interesting visually, and because Manapul can make them look awesome. The script is there to add context to the images, rather than the reverse. The scripting is good, but old-school at times and occasionally pretty generic, but Manapul's depiction of those things is stupendous. A five-page spread with Barry Allen thinking through all the potential outcomes of a fight with Grodd is there solely because Manapul wanted to draw such a thing. I realize that talking about "art-driven" book evokes all kinds of memories of bad 90's Image comics, but while it's true that those books (some of them, at least) were art-driven, there's nothing inherently bad about art-centric books. It is, after all, a visual medium. When you have an artist like Manapul, who clearly is enthusiastic about experimenting and putting visual ideas on the page, it's folly not to embrace that. Manapul was of course also the artist on the pre-Flashpoint run of The Flash, but there he was acting in the role of illustrator. While he capably drew what Geoff Johns told him to draw, there was none of the spark that characterizes these issues, particularly the early ones.
The creators' take on Barry Allen is mostly back-to-basics, though they've tweaked the Rogues and rolled back the Barry/ Iris relationship. (Barry has a new romantic interest in these issues.) Barry is one of the characters well-served by the New 52 reboot, because it wiped away all the continuity baggage that weighed down his previous series. He remains a relatively generic do-gooder - given a more tragic motivation here than he had in the Silver Age, but not an angst-ridden figure by any means. You won't gain any great insight into the character of Barry Allen in these pages, and perhaps there's no great insight to be had. He's a dude who has a cool costume and runs fast - it's elegant in its simplicity.
At least, it is while Manapul is drawing it. Unfortunately as the run progresses you can see him struggling with deadlines, and fill-ins become more and more frequent. Some of the fill-ins are quite competent but none of them have the same spark as Manapul's issues. And frankly, Manapul's own designs get less innovative as time goes on, whether because he was trying to make deadline or because we'd seen his tricks. It's hard to wow people every month, after all.
There is no long-form story being told here, though there are plot threads that stretch over several arcs. The run is less a long-form story than a series of tangentially-related adventure tales, another feature that is refreshingly old-school. I dig long-form storytelling; really, I do, but it doesn't have to be the end-all of every single book on the stands.
Things do pull together, though, into a final arc featuring the Reverse-Flash that ties together most of the various threads from the run. It's more than a little weird to see an arc devoted to the Flash figuring out that going into the past to change history is a bad idea. There was that whole Flashpoint thing, after all. Kind of weird meta-commentary, not sure if it was intentional.
Issue #25, by the way, is a Batman: Zero Year tie-in. I almost didn't include it with the rest of the run, but Manapul did draw the end of that issue so I felt it belonged, by a nose. Since it's set in the past, it has little to do with the rest of the series, but does give a bit of interesting backstory/ context to the Barry/ Iris relationship.
the verdict: Though this run is uneven at times, the first half of it in particular is one of the New 52's stronger entries. The second year is not as good, though it remains entertaining to the end, and finishes on a high note with the return of Reverse Flash. Despite its flaws it does return Barry Allen to the status of "viable character", something DC swung and missed at before Flashpoint. I would rate it below Geoff Johns' first run on the Wally series, but above most other Flash runs I have encountered.