New To You Comics #96: Does ‘The Flash: Back On Track’ Age Well?
by Tony Thornley
With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, sparkly tights, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals, and things that go bump in the night. This week, we dig deep on a 90’s classic, warts and all.
The Flash had a bumpy road in the late 80’s and early 90’s. After DC Comics sacrificed Barry Allen, the character that kicked off their Silver Age, in the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, his nephew Wally West took over the role. The character’s initial run as the scarlet speedster wasn’t smooth, but eventually the series was taken over by Mark Waid who quickly established Wally stronger as his own character, while building on the legacy and mantle of the Flash.
At issue #80, Waid was joined by the collaborator he was perhaps best known for- the late Mike Wieringo– kicking off an era of the Flash widely considered the best in the character’s long history. Thanks to this story arc, including issues 80-83, Waid and Wieringo, alongside Jose Marzan Jr., Matt Hollingsworth, Gina Going, Tim Harkins, and Gaspar, quickly became DC’s creative team to watch.
Regardless, this was 1993. For the time, it was a critically acclaimed and much loved series. So how does it hold up nearly 30 years later?
Wally West has just confronted the greatest threat of his life- a deadly villain wearing his uncle’s face. Now he’s moving on more confident than he’s ever been before. Unfortunately, an old flame, some new enemies, and his best friends are going to throw a wrench in the works…
Tony Thornley: So this is the story arc that got me into the Flash. Wally West has been one of my favorite characters for a long time, and it’s largely thanks to this story arc. I don’t think this is the best story arc in Waid’s run (that’s Return of Barry Allen) or the best story these two did together on Flash (Terminal Velocity). I do think though that it’s a generally good entry point and also a pretty solid story. But there is a huge problem that you and I talked about a bit before we started chatting.
Brendan Allen: I have only ever read Flash when he was involved in a Batman crossover, so this is probably the third Flash book I’ve read, behind Flashpoint and Darkest Night.
Tony: So, I think this needs to be said up front. This is a 30 year old story, and one of the main plot points, especially for the first issue of the arc, is mental illness. One of the major characters- Wally’s ex Frankie- has either Dissociative Identity Disorder or Bipolar disorder induced by her magnetic superpowers.
Naturally, that’s handled with as much sensitivity and nuance as you’d expect from a superhero comic in the 90’s. Now, it’s definitely better than other stories from the 80’s and nineties (New Mutants’ Legion storyline immediately comes to mind), but it’s still extremely dated, and insensitive.
Brendan: Yeah. This thing is SUPER dated. From the mullets on every male character to the sparkles and big hair on all the female characters. Attitudes on mental health, and using real mental health phenomena with wildly incorrect descriptions and explanation is par for the course. It’s still obtuse, factually incorrect, and uncomfortable, even given the context.
Tony: Waid has definitely grown since this time. In his Daredevil run, he handled a storyline with Matt Murdock being diagnosed with depression really well. So, it’s dated, it’s cringey as hell, but the writer has grown since. I read the first and last issue of the arc, and genuinely wondered about changing stories this week.
Outside of that though, I think this is a hell of a superhero story. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and it’s just as concerned with the growth of the characters as people as it is with “Flash punch bad guy.” Plus, it’s a good DCU primer, with Nightwing and Starfire guest starring (though that’s a little dated as the appearance is very tied to the events of the New Titans series from that same time). That first issue of the arc was a huge mistake though, as were multiple moments in the fourth issue, no doubt. I was frankly a little embarrassed after I read those issues, but I thought it was worth discussing. What did you think?
Brendan: I’m mixed on this one. It’s a very ‘early nineties’ arc. There is a whole lot of exposition, and it comes in the most unimaginative way possible, with a couple pages of narration boxes leading into the main story. That can be useful, especially if you’re picking up a book in the middle of the arc and have no bearings, but when you’re tackling a whole arc from the beginning, it gets a little old. Then, in addition to the narration boxes, the characters’ dialog gets a little clunky with more exposition. It feels very comic book nerd ‘splained for most of the book.
Tony: That’s fair. This is VERY much an era where the comics motto of “every issue is someone’s first” was popular, and Waid is right on the bleeding edge of that. And for context, the newsstand was still a big market at this point, so it really was best for the book to write in a way that a new reader really wouldn’t get lost. That definitely comes through on the page.
Brendan: I also kind of feel like Wally’s girlfriend is only in this story to get pissed when Wally makes out with his ex. She doesn’t really exist in any sense other than as a set piece to bounce relationship crap off of.
Tony: You know, that’s an interesting and very valid point. This was also an era where a writer could get a six year run, so he can develop supporting cast members over time. Linda does not do much besides take up scenery in this story, but she’s a Lois Lane-level supporting cast member throughout the run. This arc is just a bad example of that. That doesn’t excuse the under-use, but it makes sense. Another relic of a bygone era.
Brendan: We’ve talked about that phenomenon before, where things make more sense in the context of the larger picture, but even now knowing she gets developed more down the line, I think she could have been used just a little more respectfully. There isn’t even really a reconciliation between Linda and the evil ex. Just one minute, they’re at each other, and the next they’re being all chummy and jokingly critical of Wally. You know, because women, amiright? Planting seeds, I get. It’s just a little weird and one dimensional.
Tony: Yeah, also Frankie and Starfire both get significantly bigger roles, and for someone that’s clearly as important to Wally as Linda is (they would end up getting married about three years later), this arc is a horrible example of their relationship. It doesn’t make her look like a nag, but it toes that line. In the larger picture, it’s fine. But for “hey, let’s look at four issues that made me a lifelong reader” it doesn’t work one bit.
Brendan: Sometimes things are way more cringey on reflection than they were when we first experienced them. I’ve been seeing this a lot in 80s and 90s flicks that I’m screening to make sure they’re appropriate to watch with my young kids. A few pass the test of time. Most age very poorly.
Tony: With all that said, I love the art on this book. Now, I know this is relatively early Wieringo, and I don’t think Marzan’s inks are the best over his pencils. Regardless, he has the sort of dynamic style that I think is a must for the Flash. Even though it’s a static image, you Wally always feels like he’s in motion. Some of that is the speed lines, or how he’s always doing something.
I loved the page where Nightwing and Flash are shaking down some mobsters. After they get the information they need out of them, Wally runs around the table and finishes their spaghetti and meatballs. He was such a master of that. Even with the dated hair and fashion.
Brendan: This is a shining example of 90s house style. Big hair on the ladies, mullets on the dudes. Lots of very tight clothes all around. It’s not egregious with the cleavage and hips, but it definitely has the look of the era.
Tony: Not very egregious with the cleavage, EXCEPT for Starfire. My hell, that first panel after we’ve learned she’s been captured is way too over-sexualized. Which is ALWAYS a problem with artists drawing Prime-DCU Kory, even today. I wish we could get the Teen Titans/Teen Titans Go design as her permanent design in the Prime-DCU.
Brendan: I’ll give you that. One of the things that I appreciate are the general proportions of the characters. Artists tended to slip quite a bit with height and relative size from panel to panel during the 80s/90s. One character would tower over another in the first panel, then they’d inexplicably switch size dynamics in the very next panel. None of that here. Faces stay consistent, and relative sizes are mostly consistent.
Tony: Yeah. Wieringo doesn’t do great with changing body types and heights (again except for Kory, who actually seems six-foot-six), but each character actually feels unique and distinct otherwise. And he got better with that by the time he was drawing Fantastic Four with Waid or his extremely good but short Adventures of Superman run with Joe Casey.
Brendan: But Kory is 6’6” in EVERY DAMNED PANEL. That’s consistency, at the very least.
Wait. Who’s the lady in gold tights? She’s ENORMOUS.
Tony: Those aren’t tights. She’s an alien and that’s her skin tone.
Brendan: Oop. Missed that one completely.
Tony: So I think it’s pretty clear what we’re thinking. Story is horribly dated and makes some massive missteps, but the art is pretty top notch, especially for 1993, an era full of wannabe Jim Lees and Rob Liefelds.
Brendan: It’s all right. I tend to stray away from outright recommending books that have such glaring insensitivities to mental health, and such dated attitudes toward women, but with that HUGE asterisk, it is what it is, very much a product of the nineties.
Tony: Yeah, I think as poorly aged as it is, it’s still worth talking about. One, to point out how outdated these ideas are, and how they were wrong then and wrong now. But I think it’s also worth talking about to see how the industry has changed. I think if we had Waid here to talk about it with us, he’d be agreeing.
So what do we have up next?
Brendan: Let’s do AfterShock’s Scout’s Honor, written by our friend David Pepose, illustrated by Luca Casalanguida. I think I called it ‘a slick commentary on flawed and corrupt institutions, mashed up with gritty post-apocalyptic action.’