Ask Chris #311: The Many Deaths Of The DC Universe
Q: Can you explain the difference between the Black Racer and the Black Flash and why DC needs both? - @CoreyInformin
A: Oh, this one's easy. Black Racer has skis. All right, cool, see y'all next week!
Okay, fine, it's a little more complicated than that. Despite the obvious difference in appearance and the fact that one of those characters tends to only show up around the Flash, they're actually pretty similar characters, both in terms of powers and in terms of what they represent. In the DC Universe, they're both aspects of capital-D Death, and I don't just think DC needs both of them, I think it could probably use a whole lot more.
The Black Racer was, of course, created by Jack Kirby in 1971 as part of the roster of New Gods, because every pantheon needs a god of death. Considering how much Kirby's characters liked to talk about themselves and their missions so that new readers could be brought up to speed with a handful of "scare quotes" and exclamation points, the Black Racer is easily the most mysterious of the entire bunch. He's unknowable, inevitable, and most of all, inescapable, but in the grand cosmic opera that is the Fourth World Saga, he's the only character who remains decidedly neutral.
I don't want to do too much extrapolating into what Kirby's actual view of the world might've been, since he's no longer around to discuss it himself, but in the metaphor of the Black Racer, Death isn't necessarily a bad thing --- at least, it's not morally bad. It's something you don't want, for sure, and it's something you're always going to try to escape, even if all you're really doing is delaying it, but it doesn't pick sides. It comes for everybody in the end, and while the actions of others can certainly speed it towards you on its way, it's not death itself that you should be mad at.
As for the skis, your guess is as good as mine. The magic of Kirby's concepts is that they seem so far out there that a lot of times you miss that there's a really simple straight line to get there --- the Mother Box is just a three-dimensional motherboard, and Intergang is just the criminal equivalent of INTERPOL. The skis, though, seem like Kirby slipping into a parody of his earlier work at Marvel --- if you've already designed a guy surfing through space, then I guess this guy's gonna have skis.
On the other hand, I just literally found out today that the real-life black racer is a kind of snake, so maybe the idea here is that he slides along the ground, except in space. I honestly do not know.
Far more interesting, at least from that metaphorical standpoint, is the idea that the Black Racer is, at his core, human. I think the idea here, as unfortunate as it might have been, is that Willie Walker's injuries and paralysis had left him in a halfway state between life and death, which allowed him to serve as the bridge between the living and the dead. It's that marriage of the inevitable cosmic force of death and that human element, something inside there that can be reasoned with, bargained with, and even deterred, that makes him a much more compelling character than a purely unshakable neutrality would.
The Black Flash, on the other hand, is way weirder, mostly because he's extremely specific.
Created by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Ron Wagner, the Black Flash has a lot of those same aspects wrapped up into a character. He's inevitable, inescapable, and can outrun anyone no matter how they might try to escape --- until the story requires them to get away so that they can come back next month to throw down with the Weather Wizard or whatever.
The thing is, while the Black Racer was meant to function as capital-D Death for an entire population --- albeit a limited one, considering that we very rarely see him outside of the context of the New Gods --- the Black Flash was a manifestation of Death that existed specifically for one guy.
Well. One guy and a handful of other people who had the same super-power, but still. It's alarmingly specific --- and I kind of love that.
To be fair, a lot of it has to do with context. Morrison and Millar's year-long tenure on Flash was rooted in taking concepts that had the trappings of the Silver Age, that same bizarre feel that defined the era, but modernized to a very late-'90s extreme. There's a grittiness in them that helps to compliment the optimism that forms the underlying structure, and because of that, those stories hold up really well, especially if you happen to be the kind of person who already likes late-'90s DC Comics.
Every arc starts with a very simple, Silver Agey idea. There's the one about the super-suit made by the Rogues' tailor that gains sentience and tries to kill everyone, or the one that gives Wally West his own equivalent to Mr. Mxyzptlk or Quisp, and ended up with a story where the Flash pretty much had to race Sonic the Hedgehog for the fate of the Earth. And it's how we got the Black Flash.
You'll have to forgive Wally's soul patch. He was grieving.
Again, the line here is a really short, simple one to follow: If the Flash is the Fastest Man Alive, then how does Death as a concept catch up to him long enough to drag him to the afterlife, especially when Wally himself has proven to be capable of getting out of his speedster-specific heaven under his own power? Simple: Death just becomes the Flash itself.
And that's great, for the simple reason that everything in a superhero story is always tailored to fit the main character. In the same way that Gotham City is built around Batman, or that Lex Luthor is built to highlight Superman's defining characteristics by serving as the opposite, everything rests on top of that foundation. So making individual manifestations of Death is really just that idea taken to its logical extreme, and I think it'd make for a pretty fun time to go further.
I mean, why stick with the Grim Reaper and his scythe when you could have a Death tailored for every superhero? Where's the Superreaper, whose slow journey to Earth from the rubble of Krypton has finally caught up with the ones who got away? Where's Batdeath, who somehow wears even more black than Batman? Where's DEATHBORG?! I mean, that definitely sounds like something that would've happened already, right?
And honestly, we're almost there already. There are a lot of spooky, scary manifestations of Death out there tied to existing superheroes, whether it's the Black Racer, the Black Flash, Hades, or Nekron, or a goth with an umbrella and extremely elaborate eyeliner.
Or sometimes all of the above.
In 1990's Captain Atom #42, Cary Bates, Greg Weisman, and Rafael Kayanan dealt with this topic in a pretty literal way by having the Black Racer and Death (of the Endless) show up to talk about how they were different aspects of the same cosmic certainty.
I've always heard that Neil Gaiman didn't appreciate the story, but I honestly don't know if that's as big a deal as some people make it out to be, or just an interesting piece of behind-the-scenes gossip that gets blown out of proportion. Either way, it's an idea that I really like, for exactly the reasons that Bates and Weisman lay out in their dialogue: Death is a big concept.
If we can have five manifestations of the concept of "Robin, the Teen Wonder," then I'm pretty sure we can have at least that many for Death, the End of All Things.