Years ago, there was a comics publisher named Bill. Bill’s moved onto other things since, but while he was in the business, he made his mark by challenging every tradition and tenet of comics publishing large and small, from the size and price and format of the magazines right down to copy placement and typeface. He loved whipping out a magnifying glass every time one of his editors answered a question with the words “Because that’s the way it’s always been done.” I genuinely admired that about Bill…until the day when I suddenly, with all my might, began praying that his extraterrestrial masters would hurry to Earth and take Bill back to his home planet.
That specific day, Bill had been on a tear about the morality of super-heroes. Specifically, Bill got hung up on the idea that, for the most part, super-heroes don’t kill. “That’s stupid,” said Bill. “Of course heroes kill. Cops kill bad guys. Dirty Harry kills. James Bond kills. Our heroes shouldn’t be afraid to kill. This whole ‘heroes don’t kill’ philosophy is just a dumb holdover from children’s literature.”
How I’ve since known I’m not a likely candidate for a brain aneurysm is that if I were ever going to have one, it would have been right then and right there.
Yes, there is absolutely such a thing as justifiable homicide, but it’s a last resort, not a method of operation. The concept that life in all forms is sacred isn’t just a throwback to fairy tales or simpler times, I argued; it’s a philosophy as old as realized religion. Okay, yeah. Cops have to shoot robbers sometimes. Soldiers have to kill. Homicide detectives and private investigators, real or fictional, sometimes kill. They’re people just like you and me, with limited abilities and limited tools. But super-heroes were created specifically, from the imaginations of the young and the young at heart, to do the impossible — to defy gravity or bounce missiles off their chest or outrun speeding bullets. It’s baked into their DNA. To find a perpetual audience, super-heroes must seem relevant and relatable and admirable, but they are still creations of fantasy. We read their comics and watch their TV shows and movies to see them do the things we can’t, to triumph heroically against odds that would flatten you and me…not to suffer with them as they’re forced into the trauma of making the same real-world choices that you and I, mere humans, would have to make if we caught helpless with our only available weapon one that was designed explicitly to kill.
What The Flash gets so right, and what makes me feel good watching it, is its reverence for the sanctity of human life. Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is always at his most compelling and riveting when he’s losing his cool with others who don’t find that sanctity as crucial as Barry does. It’s really the only thing that makes him angry, and highlighting that outrage of his as a motivation to unashamedly embrace the corny super-hero tropes of a skin-tight suit and a code-name and a secret identity…man, that’s an incredibly brave choice on the part of the show’s creative staff, but it works.
Their next challenge is going to be giving the villains a similar depth, but we can talk about that next week.
Flash Facts (a.k.a. Easter Eggs):
The Mist is a forgotten DC super-villain from the 1940s who got successfully remembered and revived by writer James Robinson for his epic Starman series of the ‘90s, still a high-water mark in DC publishing. (This show borrows a lot of its super-villains.)
In the comics, Ronnie Raymond was a jock teenager, not an adult engineer, but that certainly makes it a million times more likely that he’d be at the site of the accident that created all of Central City’s metahumans. As mentioned in this column previously, he’ll show up soon, alive, as Firestorm, the Nuclear Man. Caitlin Snow may or may not be fated, as per her comics counterpart, to become the villainous Killer Frost. (“Ronnie used to say that we were fire and ice.”)
Blink and you’ll miss Barry and Iris coming out of a movie theater billing Blue Devil II and The Rita Farr Story. Blue Devil is a beloved DC super-hero of the 1980s, a Hollywood stuntman who always longed to be a film star, and Rita Farr (Elasti-Girl of the Doom Patrol) was, in the comics, an actress with a tragically brief career. Why are you looking at me like that? Don’t they teach you kids this stuff in school?
And, yes, I got a shout-out in that same scene. I am apparently a boulevard in Central City. That makes me happy.
In addition to a landmark near-100-issue run on The Flash from 1992 to 2000, New York Times bestselling author Mark Waid has written a wider variety of well-known characters than any other American comics creator, from Superman to the Justice League to Spider-Man to Archie and hundreds of others. His award-winning graphic novel with artist Alex Ross, Kingdom Come, is one of the best-selling comics of all time. Currently, he writes Daredevil and S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics and Empire and Insufferable for his own webcomics site, Thrillbent.