Thursday, September 18, 2008

Flash Forward

I want to devote an entire post to my reply to my esteemed colleague Kelson of the Speed Force. Ordinarily, I'd reply to a comment in comments, but the issue at hand is significant enough that I think it merits broader treatment.

In yesterday's post, I teased about some changes to Wally West's status quo that I applaud and which I think are key to his future in a World With Barry Allen Back. While I only teased, Kelson's gone into detail about the issue, and has moved me to do the same, so, if you haven't read Flash 244, you may want to do so before you read the rest of this post.

That said, I concur with Kelson: this was a good issue and a great start for the new creative team. Many things happen that follow up on Wally's success in using his power to save his children and stabilize their previously precarious condition and powers. Principally, Wally discovers that his old condition -- the one that used to prevent him from running faster than the speed of sound -- has returned.

This development is a logical one (at least in that it's based on the character's history rather than "a wizard did it") and I think it's essential. I'm enthusiastic about it, but others, particularly fans of Wally, are more concerned. In his comment on my post yesterday, Kelson said:
I'll agree that what's going on with Wally makes sense -- in the context of the current storyline.

I don't see how you think it will "save the character going forward into his new era." For one thing, being "the slow Flash" doesn't seem like a particularly compelling role when the main Flash will probably be at top speed.
I understand the concern, but here's my position. There are plenty of compelling stories that can be told at under 770 mph. During most of the era that I actually enjoyed reading Wally's adventures, that was his top speed, and I certainly never thought of him as slow. We know that, as a practical matter, he seldom traveled any faster than that in the city anyway, because of the danger of sonic booms.

The ability to move at the speed of sound seems like enough to me. Top speed ever recorded for a running human, about 27 or mph. The winds in a tornado rarely exceed 250 mph. The world's fastest train tops out at 300 mph. Commercial jets seldom go faster than 560 mph. The average speed of a 9mm bullet is under 700 mph. That would make Wally West 28 times faster than the world's fastest normal human, able to generate winds faster than a tornado, more than twice as fast as any train, faster than non-military planes, and faster than a speeding bullet. Works for me; I just need the Flash to be the Fastest Man Alive, not the Fastest Thing Imaginable.

Of course, with Barry back, Wally will not be the Fastest Man Alive any more. But he'll have tricks at his disposal that Barry doesn't have. As the most recent story shows, Wally still has his ability to share (and, presumably, siphon) kinetic energy. That's a very significant power, which, along with his new top speed, will help distinguish him from other speedsters, and give him a unique role among the Flash Family. And that is what each of them will need in order to survive (as characters) now that Barry has returned.

If you've ever tried to play an all-speedster Heroclix team, you know that, while superspeed is a great power, a group of combatants with the same power isn't as fun or effective as a group with different but complementary powers.

It's a common problem in heroic dynasties: how to have a group of characters who's abilities are clearly related, but not too redundant, and appropriately tiered. Success in doing so leads to successful dynasties; failure to do so is a major obstacle.

For example, the Batman family have similar abilities, but different enough. Most readers figure out that Batman is most likely to hit you with a batarang, Nighwing's most likely to do a sommersault over your head, Robin's most likely to hit you in the crotch with a stick, Batgirl's most likely to karate chop your Adam's apple, Batwoman's most likely to stick a heel in your eye while doing something fabulous with her cape, and Ace will just snap your ankle then crush your trachea-- dogs love to do that.

Aquaman was ruined by this problem (and many others); he was doomed from the moment it was obvious his wife and baby were more powerful than he was. The Green Lanterns don't have different powers, but pains have been taken to give them different styles. The Superman dynasty would require a separate post to explore this issue, but suffice it to say that when your teenage cousin's cat is as powerful as you are, has no weaknesses, and can beat the crap out of the Legion of Super-Heroes, you're going to have an image problem.

It's clear that DC hopes to revitalize the Flash by revitalizing the Flash Dynasty. Not only will we have three Flashes (Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West), we're likely to see the return of Bart "Impulse" Allen and I'm also rooting for Max Mercury, who used to be among the best characterized of the whole darned lot of them. Even if we don't include Liberty Belle (whom we're all trying not to think of as Jesse Quick), that's a lot of speedsters. In order for them to be most compelling, they need different personalities, styles, and, ideally, versions of their basic power.

I'm hoping this change to Wally is a big step in that direction.


SallyP said...

It WAS a good issue. Since I am a fairly casual Flash fan, I wasn't aware that Wally had had a problem in the past...but I like that it has been referenced. As you say, there SHOULD be consequences to what happened last issue.

I also like having a number of different the Green Lanterns, their powers may be similar, but it is fun to also explore how they are different. Frankly, Jay is my favorite, mainly because he's such a fabulous old fart.

Chad Walters said...

I just thought I'd point out that Jay can't run much faster than the speed of sound either, so Wally won't be "the slow Flash", Barry will just be the fast one.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I was wondering when you were going to mention Max, since he was Exhibit A in the differentiate-your-speedsters gallery. I don't mean the Zen-master routine-- I mean his original higher-agility acrobatics and generally greater ability to do complicated physical things at high speed. And it worked! KE-lending or -siphoning should work, too.

tavella said...

Well, that's assuming Barry doesn't develop those powers at will, which is what tends to happen to the lead character of a book. After all, he's spent years "in the speed force".

It looks to me less like an attempt to differentiate speedsters, than an attempt to define Barry as the One True Speedster. Since the vast, vast majority of people actually reading comics (or watching cartoons, or...) know Wally as "their" Flash, you have to make Wally inadequate in some way to transfer loyalties and interest, and this looks like how they plan to do it.

Kelson said...

This would be all well and good if we were talking about DC's only speedster, or about all of DC's speedsters. The Flash -- any Flash -- is overpowered as it is.

But consider this:

If Barry returned and could only run 770 MPH, while Wally could move at lightspeed, would you still make the same arguments about how it's a good way to differentiate the characters' powers, and there are plenty of speed feats that can be accomplished at the speed of sound, and this is a great way to move Barry forward? Or would it seem like DC was going out of its way to make Barry inferior to Wally?

@chad: I'm pretty sure Jay is back up to top speed after the end of "Full Throttle" restored the speed force to normal.

Anonymous said...

Barry probably still has the total molecular control thing, which I don't think Wally ever had in post-Crisis continuity. Plus he's got the scientific smarts to use his powers intelligently, so he's got plenty of unique talents such that Wally doesn't really need to be significantly slower (or faster).

There is a danger in deliberately making Wally weaker than Barry on a permanent basis, namely it can be interpreted as something of a snub to those for whom The Flash = Wally West. But at least for a while, it's a decent story. Even Max Mercury's powers went on the blink for a time, but then he got better -- it's part of being a speedster. Sometimes you're in tune with the Speed Force, sometimes you're not.

Side note: I know you don't like the cop-out concept of the Speed Force, but it really solves enough problems that we're better off with it. Every peculiar speed feat that is scientifically ridiculous can be hand-waved away, and with Flashes there's going to be a lot of ridiculousness afoot.

Scott said...

Hmmm... the one caveat I have to what you're saying is that there are a whole lot of bullets that *do* go faster than Wally now; most rifle rounds are supersonic, up to Mach 3 or 4 in some cases. Plus, he's only marginally faster, if at all, than even a 9mm or .38, so from a standing start across the room, he can't intercept one once fired...

Captain Infinity said...

I just need the Flash to be the Fastest Man Alive, not the Fastest Thing Imaginable.

That's why I loved Wally immediately post-Crisis. It seems pretty ridiculous to have a hero that can circle the Earth seven times in one second but can't has trouble catching a guy throwing boomerangs.

Anonymous said...

"That's why I loved Wally immediately post-Crisis. It seems pretty ridiculous to have a hero that can circle the Earth seven times in one second but can't has trouble catching a guy throwing boomerangs."

That run-around-the-world thing is one of the reasons I like the Speed Force: as much as I try not to let physics compromise my enjoyment of comics, I cannot escape the awareness that gravity would insufficient to keep a Flash from launching into space. That is, unless there were some sort of other mysterious force that Flashes were in the habit of subconsciously employing to keep their feet touching the ground.

Barry's had his "speed aura" since the 1960s, I say that's no different from the Speed Force in terms of vague explanations as to how Flashes don't immediately die. In fact, Barry's aura probably is a manifestation of the Speed Force, in case it hasn't been officially retconned yet.

plok said...

Barry's had a speed aura since the 60s?

I guess I'd lose that round of Superhero Jeopardy. But be that as it may, I think the Speed Force sucks precisely because it grants such limitless handwaving powers. There are things about Flash comics that will never make sense, because they are not supposed to, and they do not...and that's part of the fun of reading Flash comics in the first place, that you just have to accept the absolute impossibility of the basic wish-fulfillment that makes the thing go. That the Flash can even do what he does at all is crazier than any super-ventriloquism there ever was.

But, once you accept that basic fantasy the rest of it plays pretty fair, and that's the other part of the fun of reading Flash comics!

But with the Speed Force, writers don't need to play fair anymore, and it's all still impossible anyway, so what's the point?

My position in a nutshell.

I can live with a speed-of-sound Wally. Wally just got too nutty under Waid's pen, too "Speed-Force-ized", but what Barry can do will presumably not change once he's back. At the very least he will not need to be "faster than Barry", and that'll make a nice change.

I think it was Larocque who drew this neat bit with Wally and "Barry" running over water, and Barry's feet made these neat little splashes, but Wally's made these heavy plooshy ones. If Wally can still go fast enough for me to see someone draw that again, I'm good.

Although it would be nice if there were no rifle bullets he couldn't outrun. Um, maybe we could just pretend those higher-power guns don't exist in the DCU?

Scipio said...

"Barry's had a speed aura since the 60s?"

What Barry had ("has"; it's nice to write "has" now) is what was always termed his "frictionless aura". It didn't enable him to move fast; it just kept him from killing himself when he did move fast.

plok said...

Ah! I'd thought the aura was a Messner-Loebs invention, I guess just because it played such a big part in his stories. Should've known, though: that's just the sort of thing I like about Flash comics from the 60s.

"Frictionless aura". You want some found superhero poetry, there it is...

Putney Swope said...

Even if he can only go as fast as the speed of sound, his senses still operate relative to that, if I understand my comic-book pseudo-science right. As soon as the bullet is fired, he would enter "speed mode" and react accordingly. He doesn't need to outrun the bullet, just not be there.

Scott said...

"He doesn't need to outrun the bullet, just not be there."

Not if he wants to intercept and catch one, thereby saving somebody else... which is a Flash trick going back to the first Jay Garrick appearance.

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So Barry Allen is back !! I-m so happy about that!Eh is my hero