Friday, September 19, 2008

In Defense of Wally West

From equal parts news and rumours, it would seem Wally West’s days as The Flash are numbered. Barry Allen is coming back, and while a fair number of people are rejoicing, the rest of us Flash-fans are scratching our heads as to why. Why does Barry Allen need to come back? Why are people excited?

I get that for some he’s a childhood hero, but the last time Barry Allen was an active player in the DC Universe it was 1985… 23 years ago! If you’re trying to appeal to a modern audience, DC, resurrecting a character dead for the past 23 years isn’t helping. Since then his nephew, dear Wally, has taken up the mantle, and taken the Flash to a level that Barry never achieved. Where Wally learned about his powers, learned about the Speed Force , learned about his legacy, and grew as a person. Barry's Flash went around bopping themed costume villains on the noggin, mooning over Iris and otherwise being as dry as sawdust.

Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, when Barry was struck down during the first Crisis, he became much more powerful than he ever was before. He became the inspiration for Wally, and truly DC’s richest sense of legacy was born.

In 1986 when Wally took the mantle, he was still in many respects a kid. Though he had a few years of superheroing under his belt with both the Teen Titans and as Barry’s sidekick, when he became the Flash he was still immature, cocky, and easily distracted (mostly by women). At the same time, he had this huge legend to live up to, and the weight of it bore down upon him, hard. He didn’t immediately get respect of his elder superheroes – Green Lantern, Batman, Wonder Woman - just because he was wearing the costume, he would have to earn it. Sometimes that pressure was just too much. In the same respect, The Rogues Gallery didn’t really respect him either, and barely deemed him worthy of their opposition. Some of the Rogues even became his friends.

Wally was also one of the first major heroes to have a relaxed stance on his private identity. Although he never flaunted who he was, he didn’t really care too much if people knew who he was… afterall, the Rogues weren’t posing much of a threat. (Although Geoff Johns Brand New Day’d that in The Flash #200)

For a time Wally was extremely wealthy, but he squandered his riches (with the help of his overbearing mother and his Manhunter-cultist father). Going from sudden riches to sudden destitution pushed Wally into work-for-hire with the

Justice League Europe. There he befriended Uncle Barry’s best pal, Ralph Dibney, who didn’t treat him like an inferior version of the Flash, but instead taught him how it was okay to forge his own path, his own legend. I also think his time there, with two defiantly strong female personalities in Wonder Woman and Power Girl, he learned to respect women.

As Wally began to learn more and more about his powers, discovering and utilizing the Speed Force, he began to take what he could do more seriously, and he also began to exceed the limits of what Barry could do. Not only that, but he understood things more than Barry ever tried to (for a scientist he wasn’t very curious about his own powers). Wally found himself in love with Linda Park, and started to man-up for her. It also wasn’t long before he was roped with the responsibility of looking out for his cousin, Bart Allen, who no doubt reminded him of himself when younger, only capable of infinitely more trouble. His path was set, he was now a role model, and being a jackass was no longer his function.

Joining the powerhouse JLA pushed this even further. Wally was bumped up from the rookie position by Kyle Rayner, and he resented it. The rookie gets to make mistakes, the rookie gets leniency, the rookie looks up to everyone else. Wally was afraid to be on top at first, but the JLA made him one of the world’s greatest heroes, and for the first time he stepped out of Barry’s shadow, and he’s only put distance between them ever since..

But some people refuse to let go. Wally isn’t the Flash to them, he’ll always be Kid Flash. We need to ignore those people. Jay Garrick was the first flash from 1940 – 1955 (15 years). Barry became the Flash in 1956, and died in 1985 (29 years). Wally has been The Flash for nearly as long as Barry and he’s developed as a far better character for it.

Barry works best not as a character but as inspiration for Wally, as part of the Flash legend, as the hero who saved the world/universe (no matter how many times Wally saves the universe, Uncle Barry will always be the “bigger hero” who died saving the universe). Bringing Barry back negates all of that, and what’s more, it diminishes Wally West’s many accomplishments. With Barry back, Wally won’t have the spotlight. He’ll once again be in his uncle’s shadow, even though he knows far better how to use their powers. He’ll be Kid Flash again, if not in name or costume, than in spirit.

Dan Didio, Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver have all said that they want to capitalize upon the “CSI craze” by bringing back Barry Allen, the forensic scientist. “Now is the time for this character,” Van Sciver said at a recent DC Nation panel, obviously not realizing CSI peaked in popularity about three years ago. And what, is Barry just gong to walk into a Central City police station say “I’m Barry Allen, I used to work here before I died and had a whole museum dedicated to me, can I have my job back?”

The current Flash storyline is called “This Was Your Life, Wally West”, and it appears that at the end of it, the title is going on hiatus so Geoff Johns can present a “Flash Rebirth” series (ala Green Lantern Rebirth). DC hasn’t been very kind to the Flash legacy of late (if only we could forget Bart Allen in The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive) and it’s true, they have broken it (the family setup for Wally isn’t necessarily a mis-step, but how it’s been handled hasn’t exactly been smooth). But instead of working to fix it, they’re diving back into the nostalgia pool.

If the end result of Final Crisis is to return each of the major DC characters to their “truest” representation, for the Flash that would be, in my opinion, Wally West (and as our recent poll shows, it would seem people agree with me).


PJ said...

Graig, I totally agree. Barry works far better dead than alive. It's awful hard to be a martyr when you're not actually dead. The whole idea undercuts what I'd say is the best Flash story in the Flash run, the not conicidentally titled The Return of Barry Allen. I mean, wasn't the everloving point of that story that Wally had finally made peace with Barry's legacy?

It's exactly this kind of thing that turns me off on Geoff Johns and his hopeless nostalgia-porn.

ChrisM said...

I respectfully disagree on a number of counts.

The "truest" of the Flash characters is not the most popular..esp. with a poll that has as small a sampling as yours.

Barry was THE Silver Age Flash (technically-the truest version of the Flash would be Jay Garrick). He had the disadvantage of being written during a time when 2-D superheroics was the standard. He has a huge amount of character potential... esp. with being reintroduced en parallel with Green Lantern.

Plus, from interviews, there's no indication that Wally West will die. Interviews suggest that Van Sciver's been working on a new costume..and there's supposed to be a story-related motivation for it.

From the potential of the editors/writers..there's a lot of potential to be had with the reintroduction of this Flash. The WW Flash franchise hasnt'been doing well lately and there's a lot of good reasons to give Wally a little break.

I heard exactly this kind of nay-saying and skepticism when they discussed the return of Hal Jordan and now nobody can get get enough of it.

Give it a chance.

BIG MIKE said...

Don't you think it's interesting though that the comics seem to be going in the opposite direction of what has been so successful in the DC animated universe? John Stewart was nowhere to be found until McDuffie threw him into the JLA... Martian Manhunter is dead, and now Wally West is getting the Kyle Rayner treatment so Barry Allen can come back and be the Flash. Weird...

Personally, I think almost any character can make for a good story if the writer does a good enough job. I just think the Flash franchise needs a consistent direction that we can get used to instead of getting reinvented every ten issues.

KENT! said...

To clarify:
I don't think Wally's going to be killed, and didn't mean to imply that. From the looks of it, they're depowering him, although that's just speculation on my part. I suspect when they bring Barry back they shooing Wally aside with his family for a while.

My problem with Barry is he's boring. His Flash wasn't necessarily boring, but Barry himself was meant to be corn-fed mid-western stock. His persona as a lab rat was to keep his nose down and kind of hide, not to make much notice of himself. He was pokey and dull, that was the intended counterpoint to his superhero identity. It just didn't make for much of a character. Reviving him, I'm just not sure where you can take him and still have him be the meek, reliable Barry that people remember. If he's suddenly Horatio whazzisface from CSI Miami, then that's not Barry Allen.

In the end, it's DC's right to do with their characters as they wish, but despite Johns' proclamations that his "Rebirth" lighting will strike twice, I just don't see it working this time. Not for me at least.

I will give it a chance, chrism, but realize the decks aren't stacked in their favour of me liking it :P

Jason Langlois said...

I continue to suspect that the current crop of writers is trying to turn back the clock to reset everything back to the status quo from when they started reading comics.

Also agreed that CSI peaked 3 years ago.

And I wish they'd leave Barry dead as a hero, rather than bring him back and start making him more "real".

ChrisM said...

Barry is boring? Well, that's likely the result of his character having been killed 23 years before well-developed characterization was part of comics. Hal Jordan was even MORE of a blank slate than Barry in his day.

Hell, that was the problem with nearly ALL of the JSA until Geoff Johns and James Robinson came along to "flesh them out". They were ciphers with no discernable personality. They were all some white guy in a cape with a gimmick.

That is the promise of Barry Allen. He remains an underdeveloped character that has a lot of potential. Can Geoff Johns make him interesting? But even if he doesn't-the successful premise of the original Silver Age Flash was more adventure-sci-fi based comics over character.

If there's any character I would say "can lightning strike twice" I would say its Barry Allen's Flash!

Unknown said...

Why does it have to be either/or?

Can't Wally and Barry co-exist as Flashes, as Barry and Jay did? I would love to read the story where Barry comes back, Wally joins him to acclimate him to the modern world, and each ends up thinking the other one is the better Flash.

Barry died too close to the Dark Phoenix Saga - his death could still be considered permanent. But now that Bucky and Jason Todd are both resurrectable, so is the Fastest Man Alive.

I would like to see Barry Allen again, especially in a Rip Van Winkle kind of opening. But I hope DC won't shuffle Wally off to make room for Barry.

snell said...

Sadly, it's a done deal. Just as when Geoff Johns took over Green Lantern, Kyle got the shaft-- lost his mag, kicked out of the JLA, shuffled between Ion and Parallax the "Challengers of the Unknown" and Oan "Honor Guard", his supporting cast evaporated--so will happen with Wally. He'll lose his mag, lose his JLA post, get a lame new costume, he's already been neutered power-wise, and he'll be relegated to the Titans. If we ever see Linda again in the next 5 years, it'll be one or two panels at most.

Wally won't die, but his career as a first-stringer sleeps with the fishes. (Until 2025, when some writer who grew up reeding Wally's Flash stories comes along and decides to make the DC Universe reflect what he knew as a kid.

Anonymous said...

The problem here, I think, is that it was a mistake to kill Barry off in the first place. Yes, Barry was boring -- but blame a 12-year writing run by Cary Bates, who served as his own editor for a significant portion of that time. Presumably it was felt in 1985 that there was no more potential left in Barry, so they chose to change things up by killing him off and turning Wally into a highly Marvelized character (hero for hire, fighting for respect, that kind of thing).

Barry never got written well until Mark Waid came along, and even then it was really Eobard Thawne cosplaying as Barry Allen. But still, I think that was what made people realize that Barry did in fact still have some life in him, so to speak.

So bringing back Barry means more good Barry stories can be told, about half a century overdue. In and of itself, that's good.

I opine Wally should be moved out of the spotlight for a while, until writers are more certain what to do with him. They made him disappear for a while, then brought him back with kids, then had him trying to fix the kids' powers ... it looks like they don't really know what story to tell next, and so they keep convoluting and changing him up. Rather than tell bad stories and complicate Wally's life even further, maybe it would be better to shift focus onto another Flash for a while. This doesn't mean Wally goes into retirement; besides all the team books that Wally would qualify for, Wally need not be written out of the "Flash" comic. Barry certainly wouldn't want it that way, after all.

Bill D. said...

If you’re trying to appeal to a modern audience, DC, resurrecting a character dead for the past 23 years isn’t helping.

If DC has proven anything these past few years, it's that appealing to a modern, or at least new, audience is something that by and large doesn't interest them.

And as for Barry, I've always said that dying was the most interesting thing he ever did. Some of those old Flash stories are great fun, but the man himself had very little to do with that. He was just a delivery device for interesting, colorful antagonists.

Marc Burkhardt said...

"He was just a delivery device for interesting, colorful antagonists"

Which pretty much sums up every Silver Age DC character until about 1968.

One thing forgotten by anti-Barry posters is that he was the hero who ushered in the Silver Age. Without him, no super-hero comeback, no Green Lantern, no JLA, no FF no Marvel.

He's to the Silver Age what Superman was to the Golden Age, and I think DC showed a lack of respect toward Julius Schwartz, John Broome, Carmine Infantino and the others who made it possible for a comics industry to even be in place.

As far as whether or not Barry or Wally should be the Flash, well I guess it depends on who is the best vehicle for stories. Nobody seems to like Wally & Family these days ... so I dunno maybe its Barry's turn again.

The Blot said...

I 100% agree with ya, as someone in his late 20's who has read comics his entire life, the only Flash I've ever known in "real time" is Wally West. I feel like I've watched him grown into the hero he is today and feel either removing him from the suit or depowering him is such an cowardly way for DC to handle (ala Kyle). We've had Barry & Jay and then Wally & Jay for years, why not just have Barry, Wally & Jay?

The biggest problem I have with all of this is that bringing back Barry totally devalues everything that happened in the original Crisis (the best event crossover ever imho). Why DC feels the need to rewrite one of the biggest sacrifices in its comic book universe is beyond me. It is one of the few events that has had an impact on all of the DC heroes for decades.

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