Thursday, April 02, 2009

Flash Rebirth

I've just read the most important superhero comic book in the last 20 years.

Obviously, I'm discussing Flash Rebirth.

Central City. Really, the opening panel is all I needed. The skyline is much too long. The buildings are too tall. The buildings are too thin. All their lights are always on. In other words, it's perfect and looks exactly like Central City should. Delightfully, this panel and the other panel of the unnamed river that separates Central City and Keystone perfectly depict the two cities. Keystone is short, industrial city with factories (as indicated by smokestacks) along the river. Central City is ... well, you know what Central City is like.

Not only is the look of Central City firmly re-established, but its character is being fleshed out. In Central City, people are in a hurry, pressed for time, all about speed; this make the Flash the perfect hero for them. It also reinforces that Barry Allen -- the slow, methodical police scientist-- is their perfect 'anti-hero'. And the death of the scrupulous lab cop in the opening scene reminds us of that.

The Opening Scene Narrator. Well. THAT wasn't exactly what I expected.... and I'm glad. This negative re-creation of Barry's origin was gory, dramatic, creepy, mysterious, and yet obviously deeply rooted in the character's history somehow. I know these characteristics are what some of you hate about Geoff Johns' work; but it's what I love about it. Geoff Johns is the anti-Morrison; with John's work you don't know what's going on until it's over, when all is revealed and it makes sense, whereas with Morrison's you think you know what's going on until it's over, when it's revealed that it didn't make any sense at all.

Who/what is that in the opening scene? After lots of thought, I've come to the conclusion that... I have no idea. And that I like it that way; I don't want to wrack my 12-level comic book brain to deduce everything that's going to happen in a story like this, I just want to enjoy the ride. Whatever it is: it doesn't revere Barry and his worldview; it dresses just like him; as a foe of haste, it represents the opposite point of Central City and the Flash. Smells like the new Reverse-Flash to me, folks.

Bart Allen. Many readers will surely complain that Bart's lack of respect for his grandfather is mischaracterization. I don't mean to dismiss those feelings; I myself almost fainted when Bart referred to him as "Barry" rather than "Grandpa". Make no mistake; yes, it is a very dramatic change in the way Bart is portrayed. But, after a bit of thought, I don't think of it as "mischaracterization" but as "re-characterization". Bart's essential characterization hasn't been changed (like it was when they grew him up and made him grim 'n' gritty; that was mischaracterization). Only his attitude toward one character has been adjusted.

Shocking though it was at first, I'm okay with it for two reasons. One; it makes more sense. Bart never really knew his grandfather; heck, he never really knew his parents. Bart's father figure was Max Mercury, and I think Geoff Johns implies that Bart resents the fact that Barry came back and Max didn't. Add to that the fact that Barry's return has completely overshadowed Bart's and seems like a "demotion" of Wally, and Bart's current lack of respect for Barry makes a lot more sense than his former veneration of him.

Two, the viewpoint he now embodies is a necessary one. Quite obviously, Bart now represents 'the doubters' among the readership. Barry isn't "his Flash"; he doesn't really know Barry; he doesn't understand why people revere him and are so willing to "put aside" Wally, who's been the only Flash he's ever known. This gives the writer to "prove" to the reader that the return of Barry Allen is a good thing, rather than just positing it as a unquestioned fact. And, really, there's no other Flash character who could be given this sceptical viewpoint.

Iris Allen. Well, naturally, I'm not ever going to be happy until Iris is portrayed as the vicious ball-buster she's traditionally been, with Barry Allen being the only man perfect enough to meet her high standards. But the main thing that Johns has done with her in issue 1 is clever: like Bart, her attitude is the opposite of her traditional portrayal. It may have escaped you, because lots of younger readers don't really know Iris from the Silver Age. Iris was a pushy, nosy, in your face reporter, as we are reminded by the frames articles on her wall. To have her first words be "I'm not asking any questions" is a virtual slap in the face to wake up the reader and say, "Oh, but there are LOTS of questions that need asked, and soon". But even more confounding to my than Iris's ostriching, even more mysterious than the visitor to the crime lab is ... the dog. WTF? In Iris's house?! It's not Bart's former dog, Ivan; did Joan bring it with her? I can't imagine the Garrick's having that kind of dog. My theory is that the dog is, in fact, Iris's, but that it's stuffed and that she bought it that way. The only other possibility is that it's not hers, it's there recuperating because does neutering free as her hobby; who better?

Hal Jordan. The relationship portrayed here between Hal and Barry is all note-perfect, so I don't have a lot to say here. There are a couple of nice "comic book irony" points Johns' makes that I want to re-emphasize. For one, other than Bart and the Rogues, the only person who's not thrilled that Barry is back and accepting it unquestioningly is ... Barry himself. It's a nice irony and a clever hook for those who are still sceptical of his return; Barry, it turns out, is one of you. Also, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan are often thought of as contrasting characters (which, yes, they are, and their differences still shine in their scene together). But reminding us of their common like as policeman (terrestrial and extra-terrestrial) is a useful irony. My favorite irony is this scene is the "catching up" reference. Johns shows that world now operates at a much faster pace than it did when Barry was introduced, that speed is now more important than ever. This is the ingenious irony... The common wisdom for a decades had been "Barry Allen is dated character, his time is over, he's a symbol of the past." Johns is saying, "Barry Allen was ahead of his time, his time isn't over, his time has only now finally arrived." And, really, who could symolize modern crimefighting in the information age better than a police scientist with superspeed?

But most important, Johns has re-established the essential irony of the character. Most great characters have an essential irony. Bruce Wayne, the gazillionaire who fights muggers in alleys. Superman, the passive office schlub who can shove planets around. Wonder Woman, the ass-kicking warrior of peace and sisterhood. Hal Jordan, with a ring that can do whatever you imagine on the hand of a rock-headed moron. Barry Allen's essential irony used to be that, even though he was the fastest man alive, he had a reputation for being slow, lazy, and always late. Johns has re-established that irony with a new twist: Barry Allen, the one person who you'd think of as having all the time in the world, feels he has no time for anything, is terrified of being late, and can't afford to slow down. Suddenly, a modern person can identify with Barry Allen more than ever before; no matter how fast you are nowadays, there still never seems to be enough time.

Johns takes pains to build this essential irony into a new backstory for Barry, which naturally involves a gruesome childhood tragedy. Now, I'm sure a lot of you are rolling your eyes, and Pantha's head, over Geoff Johns' brutalization of your childhood (and Barry Allen's). And I will admit that it's all a bit familiar. One of the first things Johns did in retooling Hal Jordan's origin was to give him a Tragic Death of Parent Before Child's Eyes story as a mechanism for explaining why they character is how they are. Now he's doing it with Barry Allen (and what a story it is).

No, it's not the most original origin of all time. But it's classic, and unlike many modern writers, Geoff Johns doesn't try to pretend that he's smarter than the writers who created the likes of Batman, Superman, and Dr. Fate using just such origins.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Visit Metropolis

I want you to read Superman. Not because the story is good (it is; quite), but because it's a vindication of the concept of the fictionopolis.

The fictionopolis is one of our favorite concepts here, and a powerful element in our Dynastic Centerpiece Model. It was once a standard in DC comics, faded under the pernicious influence of Marvel-style "realism" *snort*, and has reasserted itself strongly in recent years.

Its chief modern apostle is James Robinson, of Starman fame. There's a lot about Robinson's Starman I didn't like (weak plots, mostly), but his achievement over seven years (1994-2001) in creating an entire fictionopolis (Opal City) and making it unique impressed and delighted me to no end. His success led the charge back toward the fictionopolis as the setting of choice for the modern DC hero: really, if you don't have a fictionopolis of your own, you're just not top drawer. Oh, and for Wonder Woman's purposes, Washington D.C. counts as a fictionopolis; honestly, I think it counts as one for me.

I credit Robinson's work on Opal City with inspiring the "new Gotham City", suddenly an island and now with a map all its own, as debuted in No Man's Land (1999), and the B13 revamping (2000) of Metropolis (also with a new look and layout of its own).

The B13 changes were de-vamped, of course, but the desire to give Metropolis its own character as the home of the Man of Tomorrow didn't go away. Kurt Busiek's certainly been striving toward it, and under his pen Metropolis has become the place where you might encounter, on any given day, Kryptococcus the Omni-Germ on the Avenue of Tomorrow.

The new creative team is building (quite literary) on Busiek's beginning vision of the city. Yeah, sure, it's "Deco", but most of DCU cities are, to some degree. That's a natural function of DC's roots in the late 1930s. But, within the Deco vernacular, Metropolis is clearly being defined as having its own characteristic style; vertical, bright but not shiny, glass as an accent but white stone for structure, soft rather than hard, powerful but not harsh.

The Tomorrow Diner, evocative of 'the city of tomorrow' Note that at every level the architecture favors curved edges over sharp ones. The building is a series of many strong, upward elements. Spacially the building is stout. But the repeated, thin, upward pointing elements make it seem tall and thin. The effect is almost cathedral-like.

The characteristics we noted in the Tomorrow Diner are here in the Ace O'Clubs (and throughout Metropolis). Favoring curved edges over sharp ones. The 'Metropolis' deco font. Structures as a series of strong straight vertical strokes. Note the angle of view adding to Metropolis's characteristic 'up, up and away' look. Note also the elevated causeways and rail-lines. This has been an element in previous visions of the city and it's becoming a Metropolis sine qua non (like the gargoyles of Gotham City).

The 'pylon pile-on' effect. This is the essence of Metropolis's new design. Cleverly, the team has chosen a look that can clearly indicate to the view that they are in Metropolis, even when only one otherwise unidentified building is visible. Note the look is both reminiscent of and in contrast to the 'crystal cathedral' look of the Fortress of Solitude. Both are composed of repeated strong vertical straight lines. But the Kryptonian style favors 45 degree angles and pointed tips, whereas the Metropolitan styles favors perpendicularlity and rounded tips.

Compared the previous buildings, the Steelworks and its environs are stocky, down to earth. This solidity helps send the message "factory/warehouse district". Still, most of the Metrotecture elements remain evident (note the cathedral style windows, for example), even if they no longer dominate. The decorative ironworks are a very nice touch as is the symbolic wall carving in the window casing; very WPA.

A broader view allows you to see all the characteristics of Metrotecture on a grander scale. Note that not only do the buildings themselves have the pylon pile-on effect, but the invidual buildings become pylons replicating the effect at a grander scale across the cityscape. Very fractal, in a non-organic way. And because the buildings, individually and collectively, taper as they reach skyward, you don't get the effect same narrow-canyon effect you get in, say, New York City. Metropolis needs to be a city where it's easy to look up in the sky.

Put it all together and you get

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pep 12; Mud in Your Eye

"Oh, Gladys, you won't believe what happened to me last weekend!

"So, there I was at the Skylight Spa-- you know, the one with all the statuary?-- getting my monthly mud-treatment, with the help of Edgar -- poor, deformed, otherwise unemployable Edgar. Such a sweet old man; he reminds me of my seventh grade shop teacher.

"Anyway, Edgar had lit the aromatherapy lantern and was giving me the Lazy Susan Special (tm) -- you know, the one with the straps, so you don't go flying?-- when that lunatic in the flag costume -- yes, the one who attacked those protesters down on the Mall -- kicks in the door and starts attacking the statues!

"Before I realized what was happening, he had broken one in half and was using it to pummel the other statues. Oh, but then it got worse: some crazed boy in a makeshift costume he must have cobbled together out of a used clothing bin crashes through the skylight with a maniacal grin on his face! Gladys, it was just horrible and I dashed out of there for my life, shaking off mud as I ran.

"And poor, poor Edgar. The doctors say he may never walk again..."