There is a Death Word used in the world of superhero comics readers, a word that when used by fans to describe a series immediately condemns that book to derision, dwindling sales, and eventual cancellation. Can you guess what that word is? “Romance”? No, no. Great character relationships are the soap-opera nectar that brings readers back month after month. “Tragedy”? Pffft. Tragedy is the motor of drama; no one wants to invest in the adventures of someone whose life has no conflict.
No, paradoxically enough given that we’re talking about a genre full of people who run up the sides of buildings and fly through the air and wear capes and colorful costumes, the Death Word is “fun.” In comics, “fun” has its own meaning. In comics, mostly because its audience went through the back quarter of the 20th century fighting hard to convince moms and dads and girlfriends and teachers that comic books weren’t just “kids’ stuff,” the word “fun” became permanent shorthand for “inconsequential” and “light” and “shallow” and “wait, where’s the gore and blood?” and “’fun’ closes outta town, your audience numbers will be plummeting soon.” I know that to most of you this is absolutely nonsensical, THANK YOU, but as a superhero comic writer, it’s the world in which I function. I’m not complaining; it’s a good world. I’m simply trying to make a point, and I am indescribably grateful that The Flash is unafraid to make it to millions of people ever week.
“Fun” isn’t a pejorative. “Fun” is not without drama. “Fun” is a tone, not an iron maiden confining your story within a happy place. And what I’ve loved so far about The Flash is the beautiful balancing act it maintains between the showy, puts-a-grin-on-your-face feats of super-speed and the maturity with which it treats the characters themselves. Watching Joe West berate his foster son Barry because he’s being overprotective isn’t “fun,” it’s sincere. Seeing young Barry beg a policeman to let his real father out of jail isn’t “fun,” it’s dramatic. And there is nothing at all “fun” about watching Barry — that is to say, actor Grant Gustin — at his best and most compelling, when he shows genuine rage against the suggestion that he should let people in burning buildings die rather than risk saving them when saving them is something he knows he can do. (The origins of Barry Allen’s morality is a separate topic I’m saving for a later, less packed-with-Easter-Eggs column, trust me.)
The way the writers and the actors shifted so effortlessly back and forth between drama and comedy, dark and light in this episode, “Fastest Man Alive,” was — and I use this adjective as a sincere compliment — positively Whedonesque. I went through a lot of emotions as I watched, and many of them weren’t terribly bubbly, but the end result was that I had a good time watching. And since it’s not a comic I’m consequently condemning, I’ll say it out loud: I had fun. And I’ll be back next week.
Flash Facts (a.k.a. Easter Eggs):
As I mentioned last week, in the comics, Iris West was a reporter. Nice to see her taking a step in that direction. (Not an Easter Egg, but my favorite moment of the night: Barry “secretly” opening up his heart to Iris by confessing his feelings at super-speed in between the ticks of a second. The key to great super-hero writing is to always, always look for those “civilian” moments where the hero can use his powers in small but surprising “I wish I could do that” ways.)
In DC continuity, the Flash having to eat staggering amounts of food to keep his energy up wasn’t a Barry thing; it was characteristic of his successor, Wally West (credit to writer Mike Baron), but I have no problem with it; it’s a cute bit.
Comics’ Simon Stagg, created by Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon, isn’t a Flash character; he’s the bajillionaire frenemy of Rex Mason, a soldier-of-fortune in love with Stagg’s daughter Sapphire. Rex, comics fans know by another name: Metamorpho, a crimefighter who has total control over the elements of his body. Given Stagg’s fate in this episode, I don’t imagine Metamorpho’s close at hand. (Comics-Stagg’s aide was a comedy-relief thawed caveman named Java; nice name-check for the bodyguard who bought it in that alleyway.)
Good week for shout-outs to legendary comics writer Gerry Conway; Caitlin’s “dead” boyfriend, Ronnie, is no doubt Ronnie Raymond, half of the two-man team who, when nuclearly fused, comprises a.k.a. Firestorm, created by Conway and artist Al Milgrom in 1978. News leaked recently that Victor Garber has been cast as Professor Stein for an upcoming episode, so Firestorm can’t be far behind.
Danton Black, this episode’s villain, was also a Conway/Milgrom creation, one of Firestorm’s villains. (Flash Fact: executive producer Geoff Johns loves Firestorm.) You will just have to take me at my word that the nom du crime “Multiplex” was, back in his day of single-screen theaters, a lot less wince-worthy.