If you’d told me a year ago that one of my favorite monthly comics be DC’s relaunched The Flash, I would have laughed in your face. Superhero comics are not my favorite type of sequential art, nor do I have any childhood nostalgia for the title draw upon. The closest thing I have to childhood nostalgia for superhero comics is my fondness for the Batman animated series; I didn’t start reading sequential art until I was in my twenties. And The Flash wasn’t a comic that had any obvious appeal to me. What I’d seen of it seemed stuck in the Silver Age–a bit square, and very dated.
Zoom forward to the new 52, where I was lured into picking up The Flash after seeing some online previews of Manapul and Buccellato’s gorgeous art. The Flash is still never going to be a comic that’s edgy, hip, and modern, but Manapul and Buccellato pull off the nifty trick of turning Barry Allen’s squareness into part of his appeal. There’s something refreshing about having a hero who isn’t angsty or snarky or carrying a chip the size of Texas on his or her shoulders. Barry is simply a nice guy: a little boring, definitely nonthreatening, and something of a blank slate, but also easy to like and root for.
Issue #1 opens with Barry on a date with his coworker, Patty Spivot, at a tech symposium. Their evening is soon interrupted when a group of armed men break into the venue and to steal a portable genome re-coder on display. Barry takes advantage of the confusion of the attack to don the Flash costume and then uses his superpowers to retrieve the stolen tech. But one of the assailants dies during the scuffle, and when he’s unmasked, his face is a familiar one: he looks just like Barry’s old friend, Manuel Lago. Before long, the real Manuel shows up, on the run from unknown forces, and Barry finds himself up against a new villain called Mob Rule.
Barry’s efforts to figure out what has happened to Manuel are a pretty straightforward superhero story. What’s notable here is how deftly Manapul and Buccellato use this unremarkable mystery to establish the rebooted world of the Flash and to explore Barry’s superpowers. When the story begins, Barry has already discovered, through experiment and accident, various ways to use his superpowers beyond running really fast; these include vibrating through solid surfaces and running on water. However, experiments run by Barry’s scientific genius friend, Dr. Elias, soon reveal that Barry hasn’t even begun to tap into the mental advantages of his superspeed, and the highlights of the story involve Barry discovering the pros and cons of trying to do so.
This is where Manapul and Buccellato’s visuals really shine. Much has been said about Manapul’s innovative layouts–you can see them in the online previews of issues #1 and #2–but that’s only part of the eye candy here. Take, for instance, the way that Manapul and Buccellato use coloring and tone to indicate the mood and timelines. They take full advantage of the contrast between the bright red Flash uniform and more muted backgrounds to convey his superspeed or to contrast the present day with a flashback. In doing so, they make something that so easily could have been visually boring–a guy moving really, really fast–into something your eye wants to linger over. The art also does the basics well. Panels flow neatly and are easy to follow. The scenes feel dynamic, and the figures rarely feel posed. The characters are well-designed; they’re easy to distinguish and their faces are expressive.
Like many of DC’s other series, The Flash has been stripped of a lot of history and continuity in the New 52. For example, Barry Allen was married to Iris West in the old DCU; in this series, Barry and Iris aren’t even dating. Whether you think that’s a good or bad thing probably depends on how invested you were as a reader in what was lost. While I understand why long-time fans may miss the history that was erased, I also appreciate that this is a huge favor to anyone who is new to the character. You don’t need to have read 50 years of comics or several long Wikipedia articles to get the gist of what is going on here.
It’s also worth nothing that The Flash, in its current incarnation, would be a great read for middle-grade or teen readers interested in trying out a superhero comic. Most superhero comics aren’t particularly accessible to tween and younger teen readers. Some require too much knowledge of prior continuity, while others are just simply aimed at older audiences despite their supposed teen age rating. (All teen age ratings are not created equal, not by a long shot–if you don’t believe me, compare the content in The Flash to the content in some of DC’s other teen-rated series, like Detective Comics or Red Hood and the Outlaws.) The Flash only has modest amounts of violence (all of it cartoony, or played out offscreen). The visuals don’t feature any pornification of women, and the closest thing it has to sexual content is some very mild flirtiness between Barry and Iris. And Barry’s adventures–with their emphasis on self-discovery, loyalty, and doing the right thing–have all-ages appeal.
Though I’m really enjoying The Flash so far, I’m also curious to see where Manapul and Buccellato are going with this story. These first five issues are a great beginning to build upon, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. I’d especially like to see Manapul and Buccellato do more with their two female leads, Patty Spivot and Iris West. It’s a great start to have art that doesn’t oversexualize and objectify them*: now Manapul and Buccellato will hopefully give them something to do other than be damsels in distress and generally excluded from Barry’s secret life as the Flash. Romance is all well and good, but I hope neither woman ends up being reduced to just “The Girl.”
I also wonder how the dynamic in this series will change when Barry starts facing different types of villains, especially those from his traditional Rogues Gallery. Though this first arc with Manuel Lago was in some ways a pretty standard story, it did do a great job of highlighting the individual in the superhero costume by giving Barry a truly personal stake in what happened. I suspect some of that will be lost when Barry faces other antagonists, and I hope Manapul and Buccalleto will find some other way to continue to make the conflicts in the series meaningful rather than just a crisis of the month.
Issue #6 of The Flash hit comic book stores on February 22–guess I better swing by my local store to pick up my copy!
* There was that one weird bit where Iris West is wearing shorts and an off-the-shoulder t-shirt while doing research in a prison. Because that’s really what a smart investigative journalist would wear on the job. C’mon, you can do better than that, Manapul! On the other, Iris West’s not-work-appropriate outfit of shorts and a t-shirt is still less revealing and sexualized than . . . 90% of all female superhero outfits ever. Sad, but true.