Thursday, June 21, 2007

Really? That's it?

Let me tell you a little story. Way back in 1999, I went to see a small independently-funded film that you might be familiar with: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I came out of that film with a pretty positive impression, which would change greatly as the years passed. But that's pretty much beside the point.

One of the subplots in the film involved Senator Palpatine, a man who curiously shared the surname and actor as Emperor Palpatine from the later films. Senator Palpatine's rise to power occurred as a mysterious and sinister cloaked Sith Lord named Darth Sidious--who also looked and sounded like the later Emperor--plotted with the Republic's enemies. On the surface, it was pretty clear that Palpatine and Sidious were the same person. There was a coy air of mystery hovering over the subplot, but both were played by the same actor, and we knew that Emperor Palpatine, who shared that distinctive surname, sure looked a lot like Darth Sidious. The connection seemed obvious.

So obvious, in fact, that I thought it was a trick. I was convinced leaving the theater and until shown otherwise, that the second film would contain a twist, that Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious weren't the same character. Maybe the films would pick up an element from the various books, and the Senator would turn out to be the clone of Sidious, a puppet used to conduct public dealings. Maybe Sidious sought to assassinate and replace the Senator. But it was so obvious that the two were the same person that I was certain they wouldn't be.

As it turns out, I just gave George Lucas far too much credit. The coy air of mystery was an apparition, and the plot decided to stay close to the careful and obvious, refusing to give us any of the Empire-style plot twists that we'd come to expect from the franchise.

The same thing basically happened with Jeph Loeb's "Hush." Tommy Elliot was the only new character introduced in the story, besides the enigmatic villain. He was a plastic surgeon and the villain wore bandages. He was a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne's, and the killer was intimately aware of Bruce's secrets. Even when Tommy was apparently gunned down in an alley, it was incredibly obvious that he would turn out to be Hush, which is why I was so certain that he wouldn't. I'd read Loeb's other Batman mysteries, I'd read his other work, and the man knew how to do a twist, or so I thought. Instead, the plot followed on to the obvious conclusion that Tommy Elliot was indeed Hush, and thus the most boring character in Batman's rogues gallery since The Eraser.

Running into the sunset.Cue "Flash: The Fastest Man Alive" #13. That may have been the single most telegraphed death in the history of comics. I mean, honestly, "Superman" #75 had a gravestone on the cover, and yet you still couldn't be sure if they'd really kill him until you unfolded that last gatefold page. This Flash issue was begging for a twist at the end, and yet despite all the talk about changing the future, despite all the openings and options for someone else to make the big sacrifice, they decided to end it with the titular character being beaten to death. Maybe I just give writers too much credit, but when you've got a story like this issue, it seems like the logical progression would be to tease the audience with the obvious death, then tear the rug out from under them, simultaneously entertaining them and giving them an upbeat, hopeful ending. But what do I know, they don't pay me to write.

I can understand this ending, though. It was almost necessary. Bart Allen was a broken character, and had been ever since he came out of Infinite Crisis. Just take a look at his backstory: the grandson of Silver Age Flash Barry Allen in the 30th Century is raised in a simulated world due to his hyperaccelerated metabolism, and is brought back in time by his grandmother to be cured of his condition and to learn responsibility from her nephew, Wally West. Bart is taken under the wing of Max Mercury and develops into a competent-but-brash, happy-go-lucky teen hero, who eventually is forced to contemplate his own mortality, and to grow up fairly rapidly after a battle with Deathstroke. He wears the mantle of Kid Flash for some time, then helps drive Superboy-Prime into the Speed Force, where he spends four years (sort of) in another dimension (I guess) and comes back as a 16-year-old in a 20-year-old's body, wearing Barry's costume, with the Speed Force threatening to destroy him from the inside out.

Born in one Crisis, broken in another.He returned from Infinite Crisis with several gimmicks too many, and it was clear that the writers didn't know what to do with them. First, it was clear that they didn't know what to make of their change to the Speed Force status quo; they eliminated the dangers caused by using it fairly early on. Second, mucking about with his age had left him with a basically unwritable personality. An immature-but-intelligent 16-year-old in the body of a 20-year-old? The best course of action would seem to have him be awkward, emotionally stunted, and immature; instead they moved him away from mentor figures, had him living on his own, gave him an adult girlfriend, and put him in a position in the police academy, all things which served to give the impression of age and maturity. That wouldn't be necessarily so bad if they had crafted a clear personality for him. Somehow, this Bart was neither the impulsive, ADD-afflicted, goofy character he was in his youth, nor the more introverted, speculative, emotionally distant character he became in Teen Titans, but a competent, experienced hero trying to juggle work, a social life, and superheroics in a world where all three kept colliding, while also trying to fill Barry Allen's shoes.

If that sounds familiar, it's because we've run that track before, after the last big Crisis. Having stripped Bart of the personality traits and supporting cast that made him distinctive, the only way you'd be able to tell him apart from Wally was the hair color. And the repeated references to him being "a 16-year-old in an adult body," despite the fact that he never acted or thought like a teenager. In another stunning case of telling, not showing, in the Mighty Marvel Manner, we had other characters dictate to us what we should have been able to tell from thought captions, dialogue, and actions. That's just sloppy.

Take good care of him, Barry.Bart, quite simply, has been lost since Infinite Crisis, in a sea of discarded or largely ignored plot points, unexplored cast and status changes, and wasted potential. I'm not sure, given where they left off after the Crisis, that this could have been an interesting book. The "young hero trying to fill his predecessor's shoes" motif has been done to death in the Flash comics, and has been done better than this recently in books like Firestorm and, to a lesser extent, Blue Beetle. The "hero with powers that are a danger to himself" angle has also been tread in the Flash storyline, and was rapidly forgotten in this new relaunch. The "hero training to be a cop" arc was done better in Nightwing, and this book didn't seem too concerned with exploring that aspect of the character. The "hero who is younger than he looks" was a staple of the Superboy comics for awhile, but had some potential; unfortunately, Bart acted and sounded more like he was a 35-year-old trapped in a 20-year-old's body. With de-aging pretty much out of the question, they didn't have much choice but to kill him off.

And how about the ending to JLofA #10? They didn't give Wally a funeral, because they "knew he'd make it." Guess it sucks to be Bart; the other heroes apparently had no such faith in his recuperative abilities. It's not as though being bludgeoned to death is the hindrance it used to be; just ask Jason Todd.

So, in the end, I'm fairly happy that Bart got a nice clean break and that the Speed Force was released. I wish Bart could have gone out in a blaze of glory, rather than in the midst of a one-sided battle. I'm very happy that Wally and his family returned (even though the twins being older means that my dream arc, seeing Wally try to balance superheroics with being a stay-at-home dad, will probably not come to pass). I'm not happy that Editorial has shifted its sights away from the Giffen-era JLU and has moved on to killing off Young Justice. Slobo was the first to go (and was dissed by Didio, saying that Lobo wasn't supposed to be a joke, or something), then Kon, now Bart. Aside from Robin and Wonder Girl, the rest of the characters have been consigned to comics limbo. When's the last time the Ray or Snapper Carr showed up? I know Empress has appeared something like twice since the end of the series, and once was miscolored.

You know, the Kid Flash costume was already one of the best costumes in comic history, but somehow they actually improved it.Naturally, whether the writers at DC know it, they've left a back door open to bring back Bart. He didn't use the ability much after "Our Worlds At War," but Bart had the power to create avatars of himself; energy clones that he could send through time and reabsorb. Kind of a Negative Man-meets-Jamie Madrox ability. One of these scouts shows up in our time, having been lost in the timestream. Some event (Bart's death, releasing the Speed Force, bringing back Wally, etc.) solidified the avatar, made him essentially a physical copy of Bart, and shocked him back to this time period. Naturally, he'd have no memorty of the events of Crisis; depending on when the avatar was retroactively created, they could wind the clock back to Teen Titans' Kid Flash, or to the days when he was Impulse. I think the latter would present some interesting conflicts and stories; now, suddenly, Bart is significantly younger than his friends, and hasn't gone through many of the difficult, character-defining moments that they have. He'll have to be informed about Conner's death, the Crisis, and the subsequent events, including his own untimely demise. Meanwhile, Tim and Cassie will be forced to deal with the fact that Bart has returned, while Conner remains dead, and will be sadly reminded of the happier times before their lives turned morose and crappy. Naturally, Impulse would join the Teen Titans, though he'd constantly be trying to turn it back into Young Justice; I imagine he'd form a quick rapport with similarly-cheery Miss Martian, and the group would begin to clique along age lines.

But that's a story for another day. Unlike Jay, apparently, I don't expect Bart Allen to stay dead for any length of time, not when there's a backdoor like that to be exploited. For now, though, I mourn. Bart Allen, Impulse, Kid Flash, Flash: we hardly knew ye.

Keep running!


Tom Bondurant said...

It's scary how much we think alike: I too expected more from the Palpatine/Sidious setup (the "Clone" Wars referring to a clone of the Emperor, maybe) and from "Hush" (I thought it'd be Hugo Strange).

However, I really didn't expect Bart to die. (Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice ... you've fooled me again.) Now that I've spent all this time invested in Bart's fate, watch -- he'll come back, just like you said.

Matthew E said...

That thing with Bart's 'scouts' or whatever it is... you know who else had that ability? Roger Rabbit. Not in the movie; in the novel.

Anonymous said...

I think DC is being obvious with their covers for sales. It may not tell as much of an interesting story, but it will grab people.

Also, isn't The Ray in Uncle Sam & The Freedom Fighters?

Tom Foss said...

Tom: Glad to hear I wasn't the only one. My friends at the time thought I was crazy for suggesting that Sidious and Palpatine weren't the same person.

Matthew: Interesting; it really is kind of a cartoony ability, which is why (I imagine) it worked so well for Impulse.

Justin: I commented on the "spoiler cover" before, and while I liked it for the Manhunter and 52 covers, it seems like it works best when it comes out of left field or resolves a long-running mystery. When all the signs, cover included, keep pointing to the character's imminent death, the smarter move seems to me to be to drop the optimistic twist in at the end.

It's so hard to describe this feeling, honestly, because it's so convoluted. On one hand, the story proceeds absolutely logically, and every point follows from what came before. The problem is that the end result is unsatisfying; when the story proceeds logically and obviously in one direction, you expect to be jerked in another. It's like a roller coaster ride that only goes up. The way this story went, there was no climax. Just "Bart's gonna die, Bart's gonna die, Bart's gonna die, Bart's dying, Bart's dead." It was totally flat.

It's the difference between "Yes, Luke, I killed your father" or "Soylent Green is nutritious and tasty, with no nasty secrets whatsoever!" and the endings we're familiar with. Some stories are just screaming for a twist, a heroic turn, something. This is one of them.

LurkerWithout said...

One minor point. From internet posts made by the writer, Bart is killed by getting zapped by the 3 Rogues, the scene where it looks like Trickster/MM/Piper/Inertia are beating on him? Thats supposed to be the first three beating up Inertia...

I've seen the panel and it doesn't even vaguely look like that. So I guess the book had a really incompetant artist...

Will Staples said...

Really excellent post, and I love your "back door" idea for bringing Bart back. Too bad he won't be back for a while even if they decided to go in that direction...

I just kept waiting for some piece of Bart's old personality to shine through, for him to spray-paint "Hanson sucks!" all over a room one last time, but it just never came to pass. At this point, I think they were just putting him out of his misery, the poor boy.

When's the last time the Ray or Snapper Carr showed up?

I can't speak for Snapper, but Ray Terril came back toward the end Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, replacing the "darker and edgier" new Ray that was introduced in the beginning.

Um... I'm pretty sure Arrowette and Secret are living perfectly normal lives as regular teenagers, and Red Tornado may not be written well but at least he's still in one piece (hah). And as for Lagoon Boy, I think he's too obscure for even C-List cannon fodder.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'd do something different from Bart. Since his character has been a wreck since Infinite Crisis, I'd just have him spontaneously appear out of nowhere in the Kid Flash costume saying: "Hey guys, what did I miss?" Turns out the guy masquerading as "Bart" was Cobalt Blue...or not. It depends on what DC does next. Regardless, it basically allows me to say this series of the Flash never happened.

Bart then becomes the voice of anti-angst among the Teen Titans, and reverts to Impulse after realizing that he was caught up in the same angstiness as his friends (said ansgtyness is revealed to be caused by an external force of old Titan villains). I'd have to get rid of Miss Martian (not dead, just in limbo) to bring back Secret.

As for the death of Kon, Bart's like "Oh, he'll be back", even thought Empress new superteam, made in honor of Connor's death, seems to think Bart's in denial.