So, it is a slow comics week for me.
One book I recently finished was the well-publicized Flash Rebirth series by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver. While much as been said about the delays in publication from the apologist threads and entries on message boards and Twitter accounts, to the outright criticism posted on various comics news sites, I thought I’d take a moment to post a review of the entire mini-series itself, as well as placing the work within the larger context of GJ’s other publications. As a reader and researcher, I find it quite useful to not just read comics in some sort of vacuum, but rather to situate the new works within the author’s larger publication history.
In terms of readership, I admit that I am rather a “newbie” when it comes to comics. Although I read them quite avidly as a child and well into my early teens, I became disheartened and disenchanted in the 1990s by the variant covers, multiple crossovers, and other publicity stunts that put the artwork and “gloss” above story content and narrative, thus forcing me to abandon the medium entirely. And, while I did extensive research into comics at comics shops and at archives such as Michigan State University’s excellent Comic Art Collection while completing my own doctoral dissertation, I did not read comics for any other purpose than a scholarly one. A close friend and colleague, however, who accompanied me on research trips to Lansing and was a good sounding board for all things comics himself (he actually helped come up with the BGCC site title), did introduce me to two books that completely reversed that trend—Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and Joe Kelly’s JLA “Obsidian Age” story arc. Even though both became titles to cover and to discuss in my dissertation, the writing, the stories, the themes, and the eventual interview and discussion with Kelly himself led to me want to read more by him and the other writers I interviewed. This is how I came to Johns’ work, specifically through the DC series 52.
Reading Johns out of order, however, did not dispel my appreciation for his ability to weave a solid superhero storyline. Beginning with 52, I immediately picked up Infinite Crisis, and this was for a reader who knew nothing about the multiverse, the first “Crisis,” or pretty much anything related to the DCU beyond that which I remembered fondly as a child from Super Friends. While definitely not the same type of writer as Morrison, Kelly, Waid, or Rucka, Johns’ stories have a strength of their own, especially within a limited story arc. He excels at the superhero genre and that is his greatest asset, something that comes across to readers and fans alike. My entry into the Flash, however, was not through Johns. Instead, I came across the scarlet speedster through Waid’s “Terminal Velocity” arc for my dissertation and it was through interviews with Waid that I became truly fascinated by the Wally West character. Long story short, I devoured all of Waid’s Flash stories and moved onto Johns’ run. Even before my inauguration into the Central /Keystone City world, however, I read Johns’ Green Lantern Rebirth, again completely unaware of a Green Lantern Corps, multiple Green Lanterns assigned to Earth, the Guardians, Parallax, or pretty much anything related to the mythos beyond, again, what I recalled from Super Friends and Sinestro’s yellow power ring abilities.
Johns’ Flash Rebirth is nothing like his previous works and perhaps this is the reason for such vitriol on the part of reviewers and fans. I read his GL Rebirth in trade format and thus benefitted from the preface, the introductory character bios, and having the complete series at my disposal. Yet, can the mere presences of a forward and a series of bios truly be all it takes for a completely new reader to appreciate, to understand, and to enjoy Johns’ story, or is it something more? For Flash Rebirth, I read them as individual issues, believing that my “extensive” knowledge of the Flash’s world, the lives of the Flash family would be sufficient to enjoy and appreciate Johns’ new take on the speedster. And while the delivery delays definitely (wow, too much alliteration) hurt the story’s progression, would a solid, well-developed story be able to transcend such difficulties?
Having finished rereading the series as a whole, I am left wondering what Johns’ intentions were. One problem with comics unlike film or television is that it is a medium that is experienced individually, not collectively, and one that relies entirely on expectations. As such, comics must rely in large part on the reader’s own perceptions and cultural baggage to convey the storyline. For example, while an author might describe a character as being from Mississippi and perhaps uses certain dialogue to reinforce this, it is the reader who attributes what level of linguistic drawl the character has. Whether it is on one spectrum Foghorn Leghorn or someone who appears as if they just came from a scene in Deliverance or the refined Southern gentleman on the other spectrum, readers’ experiences, largely shaped by film and television, create the expectations brought into the comic medium. Thus, comics must in large part rely upon stereotype and formula to connect with audiences whose own world view has been largely crafted by the same formulaic depictions and representations. For Rebirth then, were readers’ expectations too high based upon Johns’ previous works? Did readers’ bring with them too much baggage of how they perceive Wally, Jay, and Barry to act and were thus largely disappointed? Or, did Johns try to move beyond his comfort zone, abandoning one formula of simplistic good versus evil storylines in favor of another formula of the anti-hero or “darker” hero persona?
If the delays are taken out of consideration, I believe that Johns work is largely missing its intended point if in fact that intention was to reintroduce a character to new readers yet simultaneously provide a story that would be appreciated by comic fandom. In turn, this is perhaps one reason that authors such as Morrison are largely so divisive within the community—there usually is no middle ground with readers of Morrison as he is either generally heralded as genius or resoundingly defined as too esoteric and bizarre. Perhaps that is the reason Morrison plays around so much in his creator-owned universe because he can truly challenge reader expectations and defy conventional stereotyping. Even when dealing with corporate characters, Morrison still displays his flair and strengths of originality that still illicit such responses from readers. In Rebirth, we see an attempt at innovation with a recharacterization of Barry Allen; however, this seems faulty or forced many times in the series as most of the story is told by the actors through narration rather than action. For some Flash fans as myself, this is disappointing in light of the hero but also in terms of Johns’ strengths in other series, especially his re-inauguration of the Green Lantern franchise, particularly his abilities to tell a solid, developed superhero storyline. Can a forward that contextualizes the story and character bios overcome difficulties in the story itself when Rebirth is collected in trade format? More importantly, will new readers be able to participate in the story itself once it is collected and thus generate a new potential audience for the medium? Time will tell, but I for one will be waiting to see and read it to find out because time and again, Johns has proven himself as one of the best in the superhero genre.