Friday, August 5, 2011

DC Retroactive - Flash 1980s

This Wednesday saw the release of Flash 1980s, a part of the DC comics project centered around mainly rehiring the creative teams that made their mark on the superhero titles from decades past. With Flash, DC has solicited three specials, of which the William Messner-Loebs and Greg Larocque's effort is the second one, acting as a tribute to their run on then recently relaunched title.

Following the original Crisis on infinite Earths and the role Flash played in the mega crossover, his title was in a perfect place for the new #1. The new series starred Wally West in the title role, and was helmed by Mike Baron who left the title after little more then a year's worth of stories. William Messner Loebs, writer of independent hit "Journey" took over, and slowly adapted to writing the series on his own terms. Gone were Baron's superspeed themed villains, and Wally's immature characterization (carried over from New Teen Titans), and in their place Loebs put his own interests.

Typically for the 1980s superhero comic books, these included a more introspective take on the superhero tropes, and a turn from flamboyant supervillainy of the antagonists, to Flash tackling some of the more relevant social issues. A lot of times, the demands of the market meant that the final result was a not always successful mash up, that still read as heartfelt and genuine. Poised between Mark Baron's and the successive Mark Waid superhero heavy interpretations of the character, there was every indication that Loeb's and LaRocque's run was at least a pleasant diversion, that stands as an artifact of competent, if not overtly ambitious superhero storytelling of the day.

Following the writer's departure, Greg LaRocque stayed on to pencil the beginning of Waid's long association to the character, which was commercially and critically lauded, remaining one of the better remembered runs in a very specific moment of DC's history. In this respect, reuniting the 1980s creative team was a decision targeting primarily the collectors nostalgic to the era. Considering the modus operandi behind next month's wide scale relaunch, the Retroactive specials may well be the last time many of these creators tackle these characters in those particular iterations.

Specifically, in regards to "Flash 1980s", everyone involved seemed very conscious of all those factors. Packaging the resulting story with a reprint taken from early into their run, DC's editorial has essentially produced a 5$ Annual. Still, the new material is inoffensive enough to be function perfectly as a standalone piece, reflecting a different sensibility then current material involved with the character. The continuity basically hinges on the incarnation of Flash being less experienced then either Wally or Barry who are both currently married and ill fit for a story dealing with an obsessive fan willing to go great lengths to get together with their celebrity fantasy boyfriend.

Just like the best of Loeb's work, the basic theme is timeless and not tied into the continuity minutiae, even if he tries his best to dress it up in the superhero tropes. Interestingly, the focus is in the sick woman's interaction with the Rogues, the loose network of Flash's over the top enemies. Captain Cold, Mirror master and the rest of the original Barry Allen's Silver age antagonists were rarely the focus in the writer's original work on the title. What's more, the garishly colored characters were depicted as more or less reformed, as the thrust of the series was in establishing Wally West as his own character in the role of the Flash, with his villains in tow. That this was only partially successful, as evidenced by the other writers going back to the Rogues, does not really condemn Loebs and Larocque's work.

Simply, the creators were poised to tell a different kind of story, and it's interesting to see their working in a large number of those characters in Retroactive. Loeb's take on mental illness and the issue of identity aside, the offering is still somewhat limited by it's original premise. Simply put, the writer was seemingly asked for a competent script, featuring a version of the character that is little seen these days, and this is what was delivered. A professional, if not overtly complicated superhero plot designed with nostalgia as it's selling point.

But this does not elevate the rushed feeling of the whole enterprise that is exemplified by Larocque's artwork. It stars very thorough and detailed, and as the pacing slowly picks up, the backgrounds fade to non existence resulting in some very ill defined art that seems as if it was hastily put together to meet the deadline. Greg both pencils and inks his work here, and while his layouts remain clear and reader friendly, a lot of the finesse gets lost along the way. By the end of the twenty five pages allotted to the segment, the reader is reminded how inessential such a contribution is to DC comics on the whole, who regularly put more of their time and resources into more pretentious projects.

As for the cast, interestingly it consists mostly of Flash, Golden Glider and Pied Piper, with Dr Alchemy substituting for the voice of all the other Rogues duped into helping Flash's obsessive fan carry out her attention grabbing plan. Interestingly, Golden Glider, a good example of throwaway Silver Age character sports such an overblown hyper sexed design that she serves as the source of distraction in most of the panels she appears in. The otherwise seldom seen character's previously subdued sex appeal is so magnified in these pages that it distracts from her ice skater superhero gimmick. Of course, the highly idealized female form is nothing new when it comes to superhero comics, but the portrayal is so much at odds with Loebs' script that depicts her as a Captain Cold's younger sister, that it creates a curious juxtaposition.

It doesn't help that the garish colors fail to spotlight the blade of her skates in one panel where the character draws attention to it. Glider's appearance is particularly spotlighted given that the rest of the cast, Flash's physique aside, sports realistic human anatomy. Pied Piper particularly looks like overweight with long hair making for a distinctive sidekick look, that is in keeping with Loeb's original run on the title. Unfortunately, due to the writer's perpetual uneasy when it comes to typical superhero storytelling, the character ends up completely forgoing the use of his superhuman abilities, making him little more then a clown serving as another voice commenting on the strange events in Central city.

Dr Alchemy makes for a very unsettling visual, seeming like a self-conscious parody of a caped archetype. Sporting an unkempt beard and spending most of his page time in his underwear, the character's appearance is somewhat distracting, but ultimately makes sense plot-wise. Unfortunately, the way the Flash deal with doctor's own mental illness is very troubling, albeit ultimately somewhat amended when it comes to the showdown with powers stealing Alex, whom he subdues in a way that is thankfully somewhat less controversial.

Curiously, the presence of Captain Boomerang in the closing scene makes little sense given the previous plot, and the character's more modest power level. It suggests that Alex has made her way through even more of the Rogues' operations then identified in the dialogue, but it would been more logical if Larocque used Heatwave in his place. The flame-themed villain's powers feature into the plot, thus it would have made sense if he was present at the big showdown.

Finally, Alex herself is rendered as a more or less ordinary young woman, bereft of impossibly perfect superhuman physical attributes. Once again, this is more present in the story's opening pages, that go somewhat overboard in identifying her love for Flash as one-sided. Following her contrived plan that drives Flash, Glider and Piper on a mad chase around the crime scenes of Central City, the character returns with a much more lithe form. Due to the presence of superhero antics such as her leaving notes in battered jewelries and museums, her final idealized appearance doesn't stick out too much, but it's still inconsistent with her initial look, no matter the character's personal delusions.

Complete with an end sequence that opens the possibility of the character's further appearances down the line, Loeb's scripting is much more tighter then his original run on the title. In a way, it seems that "Flash 1980s" was written to play to the expectations of a current Geoff Johns' Flash fan regarding what the title must have been like some twenty five years ago. The presence of the Rogues aside, this is reinforced by the Silver Age elements that were much less pronounced during the writer's original run on the title.

For evidence, the reader doesn't need to look much further then the reprint included after the original story. Featuring the third part of Loeb and Larocque's original "Flash" storyline, the story was conceived to wrap up some of the departing writer Baron's plot threads, and is pretty much inaccessible to the reader uninitiated with these never reprinted comics. Albeit, a cursory look through the pages reveals Flash as the only costumed character within, coupled with Larocque's art that seems much more refined and earnest, if understandably old fashioned. The characters are easily recognizable due to the, admittedly exaggerated, facial features, but the work on the whole feels like it could have come from any of the alternate genre publishers of the day. 

Forgoing some of the amateurish touches, Larocque illustrating the Retroactive event Flash comic is much more concerned with putting a modern sheen on his work, robbing it of some of it's uniqueness. In the process he achieves a somewhat more moody artwork, that certainly benefits from stronger line and better staging, but it's to a large percent workmanlike, the product of yet another contributor painfully aware of the limits of the editorial mandate and the finite appeal of the material he was commissioned to produce, which is never as apparent as in the final panel. Still, the very inclusion of such a tongue in cheek commentary on the whole of Retroactive project versus the upcoming relaunch of DC's entire superhero line, belies the creators that at least approached the arbitrary endeavour with a sense of playfulness and humor.

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