Sep 8, 2017

Mike Baron's The Flash: The Effects of Realism in Superhero Comics

I remember reading Robert Kirkman once say that cutting Rick’s hand off in his hit comic series The Walking Dead was one of the worst decisions he could have made. In the world he had created, there was no way to fix that, so as a writer it was an unnecessary constraint he placed on his character that he would always have to address, and never be able to undo. In superhero comics, characters lose limbs or die or get new powers all the time, so there’s less weight on any new limitation a writer might want to establish, but that doesn’t make it less interesting to examine if those decisions help or hurt the storytelling process.

Mike Baron's The Flash: The Effects of Realism in Superhero Comics
Ben Smith

Following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Wally West took over the mantle of the Flash from his dead mentor Barry Allen. The series was restarted with a brand new number one issue, and Mike Baron and Jackson Guice took over as the new writer and artist. Baron obviously was interested in exploring how a speedster would operate in the real world, and established several new limitations on the character to achieve that effect. It’s pretty much the perfect test case for how realistic constraints can help or hinder a superhero character.


For most of us in the real world, money is an ever present and pressing concern. In fiction, this is often not the case. Batman is the best example of how you can completely sidestep the need to ever address money, because he is a billionaire. Spider-Man is on the opposite end of that spectrum, or at least he used to be until he became the billionaire head of a technology empire. The point is, if you want to ignore boring real world concerns like money, make your character a billionaire. That’s exactly what Mike Baron did to Wally, by having him win the lottery. I’m perfectly fine with not having to hear about money problems in my entertainment, so I’m declaring this a good decision on his part. It even adds a few good story bits as Wally adjusts to his new life of wealth.


Let’s face it, it’s pretty unrealistic that a villain with a freeze ray could challenge a man that can run at the speed of light. Adding realism to the power set of a super speedster is a bit tough, so the best Baron could do was give Wally a top speed of 700 mph. 700 mph is still incredibly fast, but it’s a much more manageable number for a reader to wrap their head around. The average speed of a commercial jet is roughly 560 mph, so you can make the correlation to how fast Wally can run by comparing him to a jet in flight. It still isn’t that realistic if you really analyze it, but it provides the illusion of plausibility, so I’m fine with it as an established limitation. However, there is a downside once you tumble down the rabbit hole of super speed realism.


Just like money, eating and sleeping are everyday necessities for human beings that live in the real world. However, watching a person eat and/or sleep is one of the most boring things you can watch a person do, unless you’re creepy and weird. It actually makes sense that Wally would burn a lot of calories when he runs, all runners do. The problem is that once you establish that he needs to eat a lot of food or else he won’t have enough energy to use his powers, it’s something you can never stop addressing in the story, which Baron does constantly. It seems like Wally is referencing a need to eat on nearly every single page, and whenever he does actually use his powers he more often than not passes out from the effort. I get it, it makes him a lot less powerful if he has to regularly recharge and refuel. Realistic too, if you think of it in terms of how much sprinting long distances takes a toll on even the most well-conditioned athletes. It’s a very effective limitation in that respect, but that doesn’t make it entertaining to read about. I’m chalking this up as a mistake on his part.


When a hospital contacts the Flash to see if he can deliver a heart through a snowstorm to a transplant patient that is in desperate need of it, Wally agrees like any hero would, but on the condition that he receives something in return. In the real world, it’s reasonable to expect some form of compensation for services rendered, but in the world of comic books this is never even considered. This approach to heroism may be more pragmatic and relatable, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of making Wally look like a self-centered dick. In fiction, a character that gets paid to do good automatically looks less heroic than the character that doesn’t. (Luke Skywalker’s main concern is saving lives and saving the galaxy. Han Solo’s main concern is how much he’s going to get paid.) It may not be fair, but it’s true. Now, the result of this negotiation is that Wally gets free medical care from that hospital, which is something that a person that regularly gets into fights would need, so we can check off another real world problem that a superhero would have.

This practical approach to heroism is addressed by Wally in the comic, when he thinks about how Barry died heavily in debt, and the Justice League had to pay for him to even have a funeral. It’s reasonable for Wally to not want to have that happen to himself, but it only serves to contribute to him overall becoming a huge jerk. His Teen Titans girlfriend moves in with him when he buys a fancy big mansion, and then moves out just as quickly. Wally barely seems to notice, especially when he’s hitting on an attractive research scientist later in the same comic. It’s definitely an interesting change of pace, depicting a superhero as self-serving and borderline unlikable. It was actually one of my favorite aspects of reading these comics, which is probably a sign I’m getting older and crankier.

This selfish attitude also sets the groundwork for probably the most fully-realized character arc of any superhero in comic book history. As Wally gets older and matures, he becomes a better person and a better hero. He completes the journey from young self-centered jerk to a devoted husband and father, along the way fully supplanting Barry Allen as the Flash of the DC universe. This transformation is so effective, that it essentially provides an end to the story of Wally West, at least for entertainment purposes.

I enjoyed reading these comics again a lot more than I expected. I remembered having to force myself through them a lot more the last time. Again, probably a sign I’m getting crankier. (Incidentally, after the 1989 Batman movie briefly made me a DC fan as a kid, this Flash #1 was one of the more memorable comics I remember reading from that time. It’s no surprise the comics I keep coming back to and why.) Realism is always a slippery slope when it comes to superhero comics. The more you tug on that proverbial string, the more the whole illusion can unravel. But when it comes to these comics, they’re well worth your time, and like I said before, they’re the beginning of a fantastically satisfying run for Wally West as the Flash.

Plus, there’s Vandal Savage. Who doesn’t like immortal madmen bent on world domination?

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