Grumpy Old Fan | Road to nowhere, highway to Hell
Even at 34 pages, the first issue of Flashpoint feels like it’s missing something.
This is not exactly a surprise. The very premise of Flashpoint is that lots of things are missing, including Superman, the Justice League, and a generally-peaceful world. Mainly, the world of Flashpoint is short on hope — and so is issue #1.
To be sure, while the story itself is fairly bleak, it’s told in compelling fashion by writer Geoff Johns, penciller Andy Kubert, inker Sandra Hope, and colorist Alex Sinclair. Barry Allen wakes up in a world that would have made George Bailey jump off that bridge without a second thought, and by the end of Flashpoint #1 he has little reason to think his old life will ever return. Nevertheless, under Geoff Johns, Barry has literally become an avatar of hope, unironically intoning the Blue Lantern motto “all will be well.” Never mind the reset button implied in most alternate-reality scenarios — by itself, Johns’ history with the character all but promises Barry’s ultimate triumph. If Flashpoint lives up to that promise, and subsequent issues have as much excitement as this first issue has nihilism, it could be one of the great big-event miniseries.
That’s a big “if,” though. The first issue necessarily comes with a good bit of exposition, and Flashpoint risks its readers being lost in a myriad of apocalyptic scenarios and changed characters. Flashpoint might also become nothing more than a framework for all those tie-in miniseries and one-shots. However, Johns wisely keeps the focus on Barry and just a couple of significant allies. Maintaining that focus is the key to this miniseries, and it’ll be the measure of Flashpoint’s success.
Flashpoint’s premise gives it two immediate advantages: Johns doesn’t have to spend a lot of time introducing characters who readers might already know; and the aforementioned reset button gives him a good bit of leeway in terms of story possibilities. Issue #1 uses the latter to good effect: in the war between Aquaman and Wonder Woman, Western Europe is 200 miles underwater, and Great Britain has become New Themyscira.
As for introducing characters, Johns limits himself largely to Barry, Batman, and Cyborg. Oh sure, there are a number of bit players, including Barry’s police colleagues, his mom, and the weird assortment of superheroes Cyborg tries to lead, but they’re there (at least for now) as local color. Even the Reverse-Flash, whose fingerprints are (perhaps literally) all over this altered timeline, only merits a cameo.
Compare this to the first issues of Johns’ previous big-event series. Brightest Day pared down its cast pretty quickly, but still had a lot of characters and subplots to juggle. Blackest Night #1 started with four Green Lanterns and went on a survey of the superhero landscape. Infinite Crisis #1 picked up plot threads from various disparate miniseries, “broke up” the Trinitarians, and ended on a callback to Crisis On Infinite Earths. Here, though, the plot is simple: a powerless Barry Allen has to fix the timeline. You don’t even have to have read Flash #12 — which, by the way, helps make Professor Zoom even more hissable — to appreciate how hard that’s going to be. This may shock you, but I have no complaints about Flashpoint’s accessibility. (And given those voluminous tie-ins, I hope that continues, at least for the core miniseries….)
A big part of that accessibility is Johns, Kubert, and Hope’s portrayal of Barry as an ordinary guy who happens to be a superhero. Waking up at the crime lab, hugging his mom, or realizing his super-speed is gone, he’s wide-eyed, stepping into the reader’s place, trying to process what’s happened. When he realizes he can (or, more accurately, should) do something about it, his eyes narrow, his mouth tightens, and the reader can share his confidence. Again, we know (albeit from Blackest Night) that Barry doesn’t lack for hope; but that suits him ideally for the “all will be well” mindset triggered by his horrific surroundings.
Before going too much farther, I want to praise Kubert, Hope, and Sinclair more generally, for their polished work bringing the world of Flashpoint to life. Much of Flashpoint #1 features characters talking and/or reacting, and Kubert sells those sequences fairly well. He frames the mother-and-child reunion with an arched window, decorates a glamour-shot of the Flash with a dumpy fisherman and a well-attended ice-cream cart, populates a crowded newsroom, and peppers the issue with expressive closeups. Hope’s inks are tight and careful, polishing Kubert’s pencils and helping to darken the issue’s mood as its plot moves along. Sinclair’s colors are most noticeable in the Gotham City sequences, giving the alt-Gotham a garish orange-and-blue glow; and they contrast nicely with the warmer Central City scenes. Probably the most effective sequence is the issue’s last. It starts with a lonely, wordless traffic jam and ends with Barry trudging through a dilapidated Wayne Manor into one of the more dismal Batcaves readers are likely to see. The combination of odd angles, stark blacks, and a muted palette makes Barry’s final-page discovery particularly shocking.
That brings me to Batman, the character who — in a very weird way — was a pleasant surprise. From what I could tell from the hype, Flashpoint’s Batman looked fairly similar to Regular Batman: rich guy, spooky outfit, antisocial, etc. Much of issue #1 is devoted to Batman (both of its action sequences feature him), and for most of that time, Flashpoint is content mostly to give this Batman a harder edge. Again, nothing particularly new. However, I was not prepared for the last-page reveal of this Batman as … Thomas Wayne, who apparently saw his wife and son murdered before his eyes, and who has spent the last few decades — which would make him about 80, but I guess that’ll be addressed — dishing out bat-flavored, glowing-red-eyed punishment. That kinda blew my mind; and while I’d have liked Flashpoint to take a few more steps towards restoring Barry’s speed, “[y]ou’re Thomas Wayne” is a pretty good cliffhanger. (It helps that the way Kubert frames Batman’s face, it’s slightly obscuring Dr. Wayne’s part of the family photo. If I weren’t sure who Thomas Wayne was in relation to Batman, that would’ve been a big clue.)
It also provides a nice counterpoint to Barry’s situation with his own parents. Prior to 2009’s Flash: Rebirth, Henry and Nora Allen lived to see their son marry Iris West and fight crime as the Flash. However, Rebirth revealed that Professor Zoom went back in time to kill Nora and frame Henry for her murder. Aside from altering the details of some of Barry’s adventures, Nora’s death (Flashpoint reminds us) preyed on Barry’s mind for years. Eventually he dealt with it, but learning that Zoom was behind it reawakened all those old negative impulses.
Thus, Flashpoint gives Barry a few options. One supposes that, at the appropriately-dramatic moment, Barry will need to choose between his mother’s life and the fate of the world. (Note that, at such moment, Barry may well be able to save both.) One supposes further that, likely as part of said choice, Barry will be able to defeat Zoom in a way which gives him closure over his mother’s death. This can either be in a good way (she lives and Henry’s good name is restored) or in a bittersweet way (she dies, and Barry can deal with it in a stoic-Geoff-Johns-hero manner).
Batman’s fate seems a lot more clear: he’s got to sacrifice himself (even if it’s through the loss of this timeline) so that his death can facilitate his son’s Bat-career in the restored timeline. Presumably, Flashpoint will contain at least one “I would die for my son/I would die for my mom” scene, perhaps followed by “I die for my son’s sake, and so you can live with your mom.” Before that happens, though, I imagine we’ll get to see some ultra-grim Thomas Wayne moments. Let’s face it: we all know that Regular Batman kept a good bit of his marbles through his relationships with happier people — Alfred, Leslie, the sidekicks, the JLA, et al. Thomas Wayne has had none of that, and Wayne Manor is a dump, and he’s stuck running casinos as a day job. If Flashpoint has a strong buddy-movie component, I think I will like contrasting Barry’s optimism with Batman’s fatalism.
Finally, there’s Cyborg, the odd man out in more ways than one. Throughout the runup to Flashpoint, I have tried to figure why Johns chose Cyborg to fill Superman’s ideal-hero role. I mean, I’ve liked Cyborg since 1980’s New Teen Titans preview in DC Comics Presents #26, but it seems like he got the job because no one else was available. What’s more, Victor Stone was Wally West’s friend and colleague (first when Wally was Kid Flash, and later when he succeeded Barry) — so there’s a second-degree relationship with Barry, and maybe not much of that. Still, Cyborg arguably personifies Earth-Flashpoint: put back together after a catastrophe, and heavily armed. Like Barry, too, he represents hope; or at least he did, back when Victor Stone learned to master the possibilities of his new life.
In the rapidly-deteriorating world of Flashpoint, though, such acceptance is unlikely. What I thought was missing from Flashpoint #1 was a sense of progress, and specifically (as mentioned above) the satisfaction of seeing Barry’s powers return. That would have given the issue more momentum, as opposed to Batman’s devastating reveal. Certainly, Flashpoint’s actual cliffhanger makes me want to read issue #2, but partly to see if it does what issue #1 didn’t.
Nevertheless, as a first issue, Flashpoint #1 laid out an intriguing (if relentlessly grim) scenario, plopped our hero in the middle of it with little chance of success, and subverted this reader’s expectations about a key player. Alternate takes on Captain Marvel, Captain Cold, and Green Lantern may also make Flashpoint more entertaining. Flashpoint has a lot of potential, and right now it’s off to the best start of any of Geoff Johns’ recent big-event miniseries. Here’s hoping it gets even better.