Jul 16, 2014

Riding the Lightning: Talking About Wally West in 2014

Riding the Lightning: Talking About Wally West in 2014
by Duy

In a few months, the Flash is making it back to TV after two decades, and Grant Gustin is playing Barry Allen. Although initial reviews of the pilot have been good (I'm personally happy he looks like he has fun being the Flash instead of something grimdark), there are several common threads I've seen to discussion about it, and they tend to be common threads whenever the Flash comes up as a topic of discussion. By far, the one that leads to the most discussion is this:

The Flash should be Wally West, not Barry Allen.

That one's a bit important to me, since if I had to have a Flash to call my own, his name would be Wally West. This wasn't always the case — I first started liking the character of the Flash with the first Super Powers action figure, followed by the first time I saw his entry in DC's Who's Who, straight after Crisis on Infinite Earths. And that Flash was Barry Allen. Even when Wally replaced him, it seemed kind of lame. I mean, Barry could travel at speeds faster than light, and Wally's top speed, once he took on the mantle of the Flash, was the... speed of sound?

In a word: la-aaaa-aaame.

But something funny happened, as time went on. I saw this on the stands.

Art by Brian Bolland

The Return of Barry Allen? All right! Never mind the fact that trade paperbacks were so rare back then that a storyline that got collected must have been special, but come on! Barry Allen was back! That's MY Flash! So, of course, I quickly snapped it up.

Turns out, it wasn't Barry Allen at all, but his old nemesis, Eobard Thawne, better known as Professor Zoom, but better known to me as the Reverse-Flash. Longtime Cube readers are aware of my irrational love for evil doubles, and if Barry wasn't gonna be Barry, this was the perfect twist for someone like me.

Art by Ty Templeton

What really amazes me, after having read it again recently, is that I now realize this: I was not bothered, when I read it all those years ago, that "The Return of Barry Allen" was anything but. I was not bothered that they dangled this tease in front of me, I fell for it, and it turned out to be false. It was perfectly fine. And it was fine because the story made Wally West one of my favorite characters ever, and used his superpowers as a metaphor for growing up. It was a good, old coming-of-age story, and for a guy who was into coming-of-age stories, it was as close to being a perfect superhero comic as I could hope for.

You see, Wally could only travel at the speed of sound, but Thawne could travel at light speed. With the help of his fellow speedsters Jay Garrick (the original Flash), Johnny Quick (who I marked out for because one of my first comics had Johnny Quick's origin in it), and Max Mercury (the Zen master of speed), Wally ended up figuring out that the reason he couldn't move as fast as Barry was because he was afraid of replacing Barry, confirming that indeed, he was nothing more than a memory. Thawne forced his hand — if he didn't replace Barry, Thawne would end up doing it. The ensuing fight scene was great, a truly climactic fight scene with a beautiful splash page to punctuate the theme of the torch being passed, and the perfect double-page spread to show Wally just taking the torch in no uncertain terms.

Art by Greg LaRocque

I followed Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn's run on Flash sporadically from then on. I bought the paperback for Terminal Velocity, the story in which Wally discovers the source of his power (The Speed Force), enters it, and comes back, becoming the first person to do so, because he was anchored to this life by the love he shared with his girlfriend, Linda Park.

Art by Carlos Pacheco, Oscar Jimenez, and Jose Marzan Jr.

I saw the love between Wally and Linda grow so organically and so naturally. Reading it now, some 15 years later, it even, if anything, feels more genuine. Here's a short sequence that occurs when Flash had to kiss his ex, Frances Kane, on public TV in order to get her to stop destroying town. Linda is understanding but upset, or so Wally wants to convince himself.

Art by Mike Wieringo

(Side note: Waid and Augustyn's Flash used picture-specific storytelling more and almost better than anyone else was at the time. I really appreciated this because it taught me not to take anything for granted in comics, since I had grown up reading comics where almost everything was overexplained. Comics have been criticized for being too decompressed in the past decade, and there is truth to that, but at the same time, it's not like most of the material from back when comics took a while to read wasn't unnecessary and artless exposition.)

In Waid and Augustyn's run (with a year of Grant Morrison and Mark Millar writing in between), Wally and Linda fall deeply in love, work on their relationship, and eventually get married. Waid and Augustyn leave with the honeymoon issue. Maybe that story arc, combined with the fact that I just love the iconography of the Flash, would have been enough to interest me in the series, but fortunately, it was so much more than that. After working his way out of Barry Allen's shadow, Wally West went adventuring with one of the most entertaining supporting casts of all time.

Art by Paul Pelletier

In addition to Jay, Johnny, and Max, the Flash Family consisted of Jesse Quick (Johnny's daughter) and Impulse (Barry's grandson from the future). Fans and creators alike tend to cite some ridiculous notion when it comes to characters with the same powers; they say that it dilutes the main character, but Waid and Augustyn proved this didn't have to be the case, and showed that superpowers are only a part of a character. If anything, it was about roles, and the Flash Family was just that: a family. They're the family you build, and Wally, having just "graduated" and coming into his own as the Flash, was the head.

Art by Mike Wieringo

Seeing Wally West's growth from insecure kid sidekick left on his own to the guy coming up with the carefully calculated plan to save the day was like seeing a friend grow up and come into his own.

The last storyline Waid and Augustyn did, involving the Dark Flash, where he shunted Wally off elsewhere for a while and replaced him with a darker version of himself (this plot device has been around for a while, but you wouldn't know it from the people still overreacting to things like "Thor's going to be replaced by a woman" news) really makes one appreciate Wally and Linda. Cut off from the rest of the world, where everyone has forgotten Linda and everyone thinks the Dark Flash is Wally, the Lightning Couple has to find a way to get everything back to normal. And they do, because Wally and Linda don't give up on each other and because, despite faulty memories and mistaken identities, the Flash Family somehow finds a way to get it together.

So on some level, yes, I am disappointed that Wally West isn't the Flash in the TV show.

But you know what I realized?

This isn't my Flash either.

That's Wally West from the critically acclaimed series from the 1980s, New Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez (only my favorite comic book creator ever). I spent two years tracking down just about every issue of this run, thinking, hey, I like Wally West and I like Dick Grayson and this series is critically acclaimed, so I should love this series. But no — I was still find with Grayson, but my other favorite character in the series became Donna Troy. Wally West? Well, in the series, he was weak-willed (they actually described him this way), temperamental, and a bigot. This characterization continued into his own series, although he was much less unlikable, until Waid and Augustyn took over the writing duties.

Making a character grow up is the job of a creative team, and Waid and Augustyn did it beautifully, but that portion of Wally West's life, to the extent that fictional characters have lives, is not only uninteresting to me; it's flat out cringeworthy. It's almost a completely different character.

Shortly after Waid and Augustyn left, Geoff Johns took over the title, and he did some interesting things, especially with the Rogues (Flash's almost affectionate term for his villains), what ended up going on with Wally, Linda, and the rest just did not interest me at all. It was almost like Wally became a supporting character in his own book, so that when they finally brought Barry back in 2008 and shunted Wally off to the side, it didn't interest me either.

DC's New 52 continuity recently introduced a new version of Wally West, who is probably a good character in his own right, but it's not my Wally West, not the one I have any interest in reading.

I guess what I'm really saying is, to the extent Wally West is my Flash, there is also the fact that Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn (and again, I have to mention Grant Morrison and Mark Miller for that year in between as well as for Morrison's concurrent handling of him in JLA) handled my Wally West. Before that, he was plain unlikable. After that, he was just plain. Really, the only other version of Wally West I've been interested in has been the one in Justice League Unlimited, which is really unfair because I like just about everyone on that show.

I can be annoyed that the Flash on the new TV show isn't Wally West, but what would the point be, unless I just wanted to be annoyed? It wouldn't have been my Wally West anyway. My Wally West existed in the  pages of approximately 80 issues of his own series and some 50 issues of co-starring with the Justice League. If reading those issues was like watching a good friend come into his own, everything that came after is like if you and that friend grew apart, you doing his own thing and him doing his own thing, you curious enough to check in on him once in a while to see what's going on, but in the end, being fine with not really hanging out anymore.

And you know, that's okay. Maybe TV's version of Barry Allen will be yet another character I get invested in, maybe the show will flop. Hell, maybe it will end up being my favorite version of Barry Allen! All I know is that after being a Flash fan since I first found out he existed via a Super Powers action figure, I'm just happy that this is going to come onto my screen at some point.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wally was my Flash too.

Even when he wore the yellow and red of Kid Flash, which I only knew in passing, because I didn't really start reading superhero comics until almost 1990 (Despite that being my freshman year in college) I knew the basics of the DC universe from Superfriends cartoons.

I knew the Flash, but when I found out about Kid Flash, I was much more interested in him. He was my age! He had a way cooler costume! But I never read the comics (the only comics I ever read were Marvel's Star Wars series) until I read Crisis from my roommate in college.

When I found out Wally became the Flash! I went with him to the local comic shop and picked up the latest issue, it was either 39 or 40, during Messner-Loebs run, which I liked a lot. That's where Wally's jerk side was minimized. He stopped being a angry Teen, and it set up Waid's run nicely.

I have bought every issue of Flash since, I haven't enjoyed it as much as when Wally was the Flash (until about issue 200 of his series). I enjoy the New 52 series, but not as much as Wally in his nadir.

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