Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Flash is faster than Writing and Art

As I recall, a new issue of the Flash comes out today.  This is my attempt to convince you to buy it.

I know I’ve already discussed how pleased I am with Flash recently, but I feel the need to unpack that a bit. It’s not just that the writing is good and that the art is good (although they certainly are). Those are wonderful things! But they are fleeting. They adhere in each particular story, but by themselves they do not necessarily improve the character in ways that help future creators.

In short, great art and great writing make for a great story, but they don’t necessarily make the character greater. But choices about what to do with a character and their central elements can make them great—even in the absence of great writing and great art.

 For example, I know some of you do not think Geoff Johns is a great writer. I like his work, but I will still concede that he tends to use gratuitous graphic violence, his good guys seem to win mostly because they’ve reached the point in the story where he needs them to, and he has trouble ending a story. But whether you think his writing is great, there is little question that his authorial decisions succeed in making the characters greater, as the long list of characters (many considered irredeemably toxic) he has revitalized makes evident.

Certainly, as we saw last week during “Wolf Week” here at the Absorbascon, great art does not make a character greater. Neal Adams’ overwhelming genius depicted in gorgeous, unforgettable detail just how stupid the Stupid Bronze Age Batman was.
But, even in the absence of great writing and great art, an author can still be remember for doing great things with (or for) a characters. James Robinson’s Starman series comes to mind. The art was always blocky, crude, murky, or just plain off. Robinson had a lot of trouble plotting the series consistently and often seemed to lose his way amid the details of the Starman legacy and the fictionopolis of Opal City. But, oh, what glorious details they were! And that is why his work on Starman is remembered so fondly, not because the prose, or the plotting, or the pictures were so stellar, but because Robinson’s character choices and world-building were so powerful and unforgettable. Heck, I never did figure out what was up with that dwarf; it was all very Twin Peaks there for quite some time.

When I complained in 2006 about how tedious and misguided the Flash series had become because its concepts were so far off-base: a commenter replied, “I think the concept is the least of the current Flash comic's problems. The writing and art are just plain bad.” I respectfully (still) disagree: if there is a problem with the concept of a character it is NEVER the least of the character’s problem. If the writing and art are bad, the fix is not complicated: get a better artist and a writer. I am NOT saying that it is easy to get good writers and artists; but the solution is not a complicated one. Melpomene knows, some of our most enduring characters in modern literature were launched in horrible books with awkward plotting, turgid pacing, and painful prose.  

One year, as a horror movie fan, raised by a horror movie fans, it hit me: I had never read the original version of most of horror’s classic monsters. So I sat down and read Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hide, the Phantom of the Opera. And you know what? They were, on the whole… bad. Tedious. Painful, even. These classic monsters survived, thrived, and grew in fame was not because they were written particularly well, but because the underlying concepts were so incredibly powerful.

Fixing the underlying concepts of a character is therefore more important to the character’s longevity. You know how many Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman stories are either badly written or badly drawn? MOST OF THEM. But their underlying concepts are strong enough to withstand poor handling by creators.

And what Francis Manapul is doing is not just bringing great writing and brilliant artistic vision to his depiction of the Flash; he’s fixing the Flash’s underlying concepts and in two very specific ways.  

One: he’s created a “mental power” for the Flash in the form of his “augmented cognition”. Having a mental power of some type is almost essential to having a well-rounded iconic heroic. Superman is super-smart, Aquaman has his telepathy, Green Lantern has his willpower and imagination, Shazam has his wisdom, Wonder Woman has her lasso of truth (essentially a mental power rather than a physical one), Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective, even Spider-Man has his spider-sense. And now Flash has his augmented cognition which allows him to use his mental super-speed to see all possible outcomes of a situation. 

Two: Manapul has been very cleverly limiting the Flash’s power… without limiting the Flash’s power. Face it, one of the issues in writing the Flash has always been that his power is so great that it can make him seem unbeatable. Flash’s augmented cognition comes with a downside: option paralysis and loss of perception of the “Now”. As for Barry’s ridiculous physical speed… he still has it, but it now comes with a downside: the rifts in space-time he creates if he generates too much “Speed Force”. And these are just the intrinsic limits to his power. He’s also crafting new villains “immune” to Flash’s speed (Mob Rule’s ability to be in many more than one place at a time) and giving old villains the ability to nerf Barry’s powers (such as Captain Cold’s new dampening of kinetic energy in his surrounding area).

Manapul’s writing is great. His art is fantastic. And what he’s doing with the Flash is even better.


collectededitions said...

So glad to hear this. It's hard to tell from the solicitations -- "Who are the Runners?" "The Speed Force will be lost/changed/turned purple forever!" -- how this title is doing; no mention of supporting characters, no mention of Barry's character. I adore Manapul's art though and I know the co-writers are bringing a lot of science into the storylines; your post makes me optimistic that I'll enjoy this when it comes out in collection (and all the more eager for that time to come!). Collectively we don't spend enough time just praising good books -- thanks for this.

Bryan L said...

I'd agree with the clever limitation of Flash's power. I've argued before (not here) that the Flash is the most powerful hero in the DC Universe, excepting big mystical guys like the Spectre. Simple physics (F=MA) make Flash stronger than Superman (if Superman isn't at Silver Age omnipotent levels -- I'm never sure any more). So I like the clever nature of the current set-up -- of course, Flash's brain has to operate at super-speed, or he RUNS INTO STUFF. The ability to consider all outcomes makes sense if you can think at super-speed.

I guess what I'm saying is I second your recommendation, Scipio. I wasn't thrilled about Barry's return, but it's being handled better than I expected.

My biggest concern now is his status as a CSI. Writing that believably takes hard work and research, and if the writer's not willing to do that, you'll start running into the same problems with Barry as before (same thing applies to Hal Jordan and test piloting -- you can't make up believable scenarios in between games on your xBox, sorry).

TheStrawMan said...

I agree with the gist of your article. But I think that Dracula is a great book, even if your main point, that the concepts (bolstered by the great Universal Pictures depictions) were what made those characters timeless, still stands.

PS. I remember enjoying The Invisible Man, although it was a long time ago and I only read it once. Never read Dr. Jekyll, and I seem to recall that Frankenstein was a bit tedious and "Victorian"...

Van Google said...

"The Speed Force will be lost/changed/turned purple forever!"

Total non sequitur, but, PLEASE GOD let that actually happen. I'll admit to not being a huge Flash devotee, but I still think Speed Force is still among the dumbest and vaguest ideas in comics. It's an energy force, it's a place, it's a time, it's Wally's costume, it makes Barry fast, it makes other people fast, it's CREATED by Barry being fast but it's still there when Barry is dead or asleep or standing still...arrgh.

Also, yes, what Scipio says. New old Flash is good Flash.

Scipio said...

It's a dessert topping and a floor wax, as the saying goes.

SallyP said...

The Manapul Flash has indeed been on the spectacular is one of my favorite books in the new 52. Beautiful art of course, and the story...well you can tell that Manapul has sat down and thought about some of this stuff!

Bryan L said...

I like the Speed Force. Or I did, until it became this bizarre catch-all to explain virtually anything. If you think of it as another dimension where things happen "faster" than ours (I'm simplifying but frankly, it should be simple), and into which Flash partially shifts his mass (and perceptions), then it "explains" a LOT of the physics issues with having someone travel at near-light speed.

Otherwise, the faster Flash goes the greater his mass becomes (see formula in first post) and you start running into (heh) all kinds of problems. But if he's partially "phasing" into another dimension, extra mass could get shunted there. It also "explains" his "vibrating through objects" power.

The problem with the Speed Force is lack of definition (in fictional terms) and inconsistent application, really.

Imitorar said...

Great post, I agree completely. Manapul and Buccellato's Flash has been probably my favorite of DC's current books. And the coolest thing is, a lot of the neat new directions they're taking the character in actually have precedents. Barry not being able to use his full power without causing damage? Flash v1 #154. Augmented Cognition? I believe that aspect was mentioned in both Waid and Johns' runs (the most explicit reference that comes to mind is Johns' Flash v2 #174), but it never got much focus. Now Manapul and Buccellato have made it a central conflict in their run. Captain Cold being able to dampen kinetic energy? Flash v2 #204, though it may have been mentioned earlier.

So not only are they coming up with a take on the character that fleshes out his world and compensates for some of his weaknesses, they're even bringing together disparate old ideas to do it.

Assuming those old issues are actually inspiring them of course. It could just be chance that Manapul and Buccellato are using ideas that had already been mentioned in passing in old Flash comics.

Anonymous said...

Hey, say what you will about Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula", without it I wouldn't know a damn thing about 19th century Eastern European railroad schedules.

In other news, I notice the Intertubes are not saying "Barry is a boring so-and-so" quite as much as they used to. Perhaps it's because people get tired of repeating themselves, but I think it's also because 52 Barry has demonstrated that there was still plenty of unrecognized potential. I'd still like to see Wally and the rest return, because I love superheroic dynasties; I would be entirely satisfied with a one-year leap ahead that brings 'em all back with no explanation whatsoever. We could call it "One Year Later: Don't Even Ask".

Bryan L said...

"One Year Later: Don't Even Ask".

If you choose to apply for the position of editor-in-chief at DC, you will have my full support.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Would you also support my "The Doctor Dances" initiative, summarized as: "everybody lives"? From Arthur Jr to Ryan Choi, none of them were ever killed off, and any writer who proposes to kill off a character must first donate three internal organs to prove they really really think it has to be done.

Scipio said...

Hear hear!

Um, except for Pantha, who is MUCH better as a severed head with satirical undertones than she ever was alive.

Anonymous said...

Pantha's still got her fans, hypothetically, so I wouldn't kill her off. But every time she showed up, at least the first few months, people would be contractually obligated to say: "I thought Pantha was dead? I seem to remember someone accidentally knocked her head off and it rolled around for a while. It was awesome!"

Bryan L said...

"everybody lives"?

Oh, yes. You've got my vote locked up.

Jon Q. Citizen said...

You've put my thoughts into words...even though I didn't really know my thoughts...? I've felt something delightfully different about Manapul's Flash, and have really enjoyed the title so far...and it's because of what you said!

mrjl said...

I wasn't aware this was a new mental power for Flash. In fact the fact he's only just now developing it strikes me as a weakness in the book. He's had five years to explore these powers after all.

In addition I just can't forgive Flashpoint.