As I noted earlier this week, I checked in on the DC universe over the weekend. It looked like Barry Allen (that’s the most famous version of the Flash, for you non-fanboys) was still dead…but, as my brother informed me in the comments on that post, he’s actually been recently resurrected.
I can’t really get worked up one way or another about this. It’s not like Barry Allen ever really had a stable personality to begin with; like any super-hero, he went through numberless iterations. If I remember correctly, his only distinguishing trait in his first issue was that he was always late (which is ironic, because then he gained super-speed! Get it?) In the classic Silver Age issues from the 60s, he picked up a pretty goofy rogues gallery (Mirror Master! Boomerang!) and a penchant for bizarre bodily transformation — growing immensely fat, having his head swell to fifteen times normal size, etc. Somewhere in there he got married, which was unusual, and then his wife got killed, so he had a tragic backstory. Then he got killed off in Crisis and was retroactively made into a hero’s hero — the best of us all, etc. etc. Now that he’s back I understand that he was a brutal vigilante for three issues before getting a Grant Morrison dadaesque revamp where, after briefly studying with an Indian guru, he proceeded to have tantric sex with everyone in the world at super-speed, bringing about a universe-wide bachanal and disco dance until the Justice League atomized him with Captain Puritan’s deadly Continence Ray. Party poopers.
Okay, so maybe that didn’t exactly happen. The point is that seeing the Flash’s return as some sort of desecration is pointless; what’s there to desecrate, anyway? With a couple of minor exceptions (Green Arrow’s mild irascibility; Elongated Man’s mild goofiness) they were all interchangeable, with personality quirks that varied as with the needs of the story. “Barry Allen” as a continuous, coherent fiction never existed anyway; the Flash stories with Wally West could as well have been done with Barry Allen, really.
This is part of the reason why I’m very skeptical of the “let’s go back to the time when comics were fun!” school of thought (propounded, for example, in this message board response to Tom Crippen’s essay on Marvel’s Civil War). In the first place, a lot of those silver age, goofy DC comics were pretty well unreadable. But in the second, a lot of what made those stories what they were was an overwhelming and aggressive aphasia. Characters and plots existed in a kind of eternally stupid present; a repetitious formula made all the more vacuous by the constant sops thrown to continuity (Batman and Superman referring to each other as “old chum” for example; or the JLA narrating to Snapper Carr their “first adventure ever!”
It is possible to recapture that; the Batman animated series, for example, is simple goofiness for kids — and pretty entertaining at that. But comics fans aren’t kids; what they want is not the dumb stories of their youth, but a tribute to those stories, which makes them coherent enough to function as objects of nostalgia. That’s the trick in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, for example; the impending death of the hero gives the goofy silver-age tropes a reason for being that they never had in the original.
That may make Morrison’s version better than the originals, depending on how you look at it. But it isn’t any *truer* to the originals than the “people are actually getting killed now” pseudo-adultificiation that Tom identifies in Marvel’s Civil War. Calculated nostalgia or calculated maturity; both are ways of reacting to a comic-book audience which has gotten older while remaining obsessed with a bunch of characters from their youth — characters who weren’t, even, so much characters as icons with random appelations attached. Barry Allen wasn’t ever anything but a name. You can’t kill that, or resurrect it. The real question is, why you’d want to bother pretending to do either.
UPDATE: Just a note that the blog has been (relatively) hopping this week; besides some of the posts mentioned above, I’ve got a post on the rock and roll manga soap-opera Nana and new Hooded blogger Tom Crippen has a tussle with Tom Spurgeon over the relative merits of Pat Oliphant.