Ask Chris #65: Flashpointless
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: Any thoughts about Flashpoint now? You dismissed it early on but Flashpoint #3 & Batman: Knight of Vengeance #2 were grrrreat. — @LenSnark
A: Flashpoint #3 was actually a topic of debate on this week’s War Rocket Ajax, with Matt Wilson and I holding some pretty opposing views about the book’s quality, but if 65 installments of this column have taught us anything, it’s that I’m definitely not above repeating my opinions as loudly and as often as possible. So since you asked in your own Tony the Tiger-esque way, at the halfway point of DC’s summer crossover, I’m set pretty firmly in thinking that it’s not very good.That’s not to say that there isn’t some good stuff in it. A lot of the divergences from the core DC Universe, the hooks that are meant to pull readers in and keep them interested enough to want to read more about this strange universe in which Everything You Know Is Wrong™, are actually really interesting — although as ComicsAlliance’s David Brothers pointed out, there are also a few that are pretty rough right from the start.
Surprising no one, I’m legitimately intrigued by the idea of Thomas Wayne becoming Batman after his wife and son are murdered, for the simple reason that it’s something I’ve never seen before. And as someone who loves that character and spends a lot of time thinking about how he works and the elements of his origin story that make him unique (see, for example, virtually every other installment of this column), I immediately want to know more.
What was it that made a grown man decide decide he could wage a one-man war on crime, rather than a kid who’s still at an age where he believes that anything is possible? What would Batman look like if he didn’t have the “advantage” of training himself from a young age to fight crime when he was in his physical prime? If he’s old enough to understand that it was a man who killed his family rather than being traumatized by the gun, would he still have the aversion to firearms? Would the loss of Thomas’s wife and son prompt him to build a “family” in the way that the loss of Bruce’s parents did, or would he avoid anything that would feel like replacing their memory? And without forming a strong bond by the necessity of raising him as a surrogate father, would Alfred still be compelled to serve Batman?
Those are the questions that I had immediately after the character’s twist was revealed, but after reading through Flashpoint #1 and 2, I didn’t really feel any particular need to find the answers, because it’s all just sort of sitting there on the page. As it turns out, if an older guy’s wife and child get killed, he just pretty much becomes the Punisher, and those are answers that I already have. As a result, I haven’t bothered with reading the Knight of Vengeance tie-in. I might check it out since I’ve heard it’s good from more than one person (and if you want to get technical, I’ve now heard it’s “grrrreat“), but there’s nothing in the main series that makes me want to.
Now obviously, Batman’s going to be simplified for a supporting role in the main title — it’s not called Batmanpoint, after all. But that’s just the most obvious example of the book’s most pervasive problem: It introduces these ideas, then doesn’t say anything other than the most obvious surface elements. And it takes forever to do it.
For a book about a guy with super-speed, Flashpoint is one of the slowest-paced comics I’ve ever read. Maybe that’s on purpose; maybe these first three issues took forever to do anything as a metatextual reference to Barry Allen losing his super-speed, but it feels more like it’s just stretched out to fill pages while the story sprawls out a bit so that it can wallow in points like “Batman kills people because he’s mean.”
Seriously, if you have a copy of Flashpoint #1 handy, crack it open and we’ll do some counting. There’s a sequence right at the beginning in which Barry Allen runs down a hall, falls down some stairs, and talks to his mom about the Justice League. This takes six pages. Throw in a five-page recap of the status quo and a transitional page, and you’re over a third of the way through the story before it gets around to introducing anything about the world, which is both the hook of the story that’s meant to be interesting enough that you’ll want to pick up four months’ worth of tie-ins and the aspect of the story that DC was promoting for months. And when that stuff does finally show up, it’s introduced in an eight-page sequence where a bunch of people stand around talking to each other and telling each other things they already know.
Decompression gets a bad rap from people who (like me) tend to prefer more action-oriented stories, but when you get right down to it, it’s just another tool for a writer to use. It’s like metaphors or italics, just something that’s there, and when it’s done well, it can be great. There are comics that draw things out in scenes that have no action other than two people talking to each other that are as tense and thrilling as any fight, because there’s something happening.
To put in in movie terms, let’s talk about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and my favorite scene, hands down, is the climax in the graveyard where Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef just stand there staring at each other for five minutes. It’s an amazing piece of cinema, full of tight close-ups detailing each minor movement, hands twitching next to pistols and eyes darting back and forth from one man to the next, all under a score by Ennio Morricone that builds to this huge crescendo, layering on the tension. And all it is is three men staring at each other.
But there’s a part of that scene that’s as important to it as anything else, and that’s that at the end of it, one of those men pulls out a gun and shoots somebody with it. That’s the context to the stare-down and the moment that it’s all building to. There’s a conflict going on with every second of it.
With that first issue of Flashpoint, though, there’s no conflict at all driving a huge chunk of the issue. They talk about how there’s going to be a conflict eventually, but in this particular issue, the only actual problem is that Barry Allen doesn’t have his powers and doesn’t know what’s up with the world he’s in, which he also doesn’t really find out other than the realization that Batman is a different guy. He doesn’t learn why and he doesn’t learn anything else, and those dudes who were standing around on the roof announcing their names and the things they want out loud, then talk about doing some stuff — all without the protagonist of the comic being anywhere to be found — and come to an agreement that in the future they might do it, but then they don’t. That’s Flashpoint #1.
Obviously, Flashpoint as a whole is building to something and there’s going to be a conflict that shows up at some point — it might want to hurry, there’s only two issues left — but for this to come out as Flashpoint #1, a 32-page comic book that they put out as an individual unit of story, it doesn’t do much. It’s like going into a store and buying just that five minutes of Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef staring and nothing else. It might be part of something truly amazing, but isolated from any of the conflict, it’s just three guys looking at each other under really good music.
And that’s not even close to being the worst of it. That comes in #2 and #3.
Simply put, there’s just no reason for the events of this story we’ve gotten up to now to have taken almost a hundred pages to tell, especially since the story starts repeating itself. If the conflict of the first leg of this story is Barry Allen not having his powers, then Flashpoint #2 devotes its last four pages to an attempt to get them back. Admittedly, four pages might not sound like a whole lot, but in comics, that’s not exactlly a small piece of storytelling real estate. To put it in context, Superman’s entire actual fight with Lex Luthor in All Star Superman only lasts seven pages, and that’s the climactic action of a twelve-issue mini-series.
So in this sequence, Barry Allen builds himself an electric chair with a chemistry set, and gets struck by lightning in the hope that this’ll give him back his super-powers. And this is the result:
Quick aside before we move on: This is the funniest page of the year. I’m not kidding; when I got to this page reading the issue, I laughed so hard there were tears in my eyes. It’s just such a monumental example of the ongoing grotesquerie that super-hero comics in general and DC in particular have become that it crosses over into self-parody in the most hilarious way it possibly could. It’s Barry Allen re-enacting his origin and getting covered in horrible chemical burns instead of getting super-powers. That would’ve shown up in a WildStorm book in 1999 as the punchline to a joke and gotten used on message boards as evidence that Grant Morrison/Warren Ellis/Mark Millar hated super-heroes. And yet, here it is as a splash page in DC’s blockbuster summer crossover by the writer of Justice League. Hilarious.
Anyway, that’s your end-of-issue cliffhanger, a
hysterical horrifying example of how strange and unlike what we’re used to things are in this world and a sign that the characters can’t just use the same old tricks they’ve been relying on for their entire careers, because things are different now.
So of course, in #3, in another seven-page sequence that kicks off with Barry Allen in a bloody diaper, they just do the exact same thing again and this time it works.
What, exactly, is the point?
Why waste a last-page cliffhanger when you’re just going to open the next issue by doing a longer version of the same thing? Why have a tawdry full-page shot of a your protagonist being horribly disfigured when the exact same thing that disfigured him is going to suddenly patch him right up to his default handsome blondeness? Why not use those pages to move things forward instead of just doubling back to cover the same ground that got a good stomping in the previous issue? Are readers’ memories so short that they won’t remember they just saw this? Is DC reaching out to the lucrative goldfish market? Is it being written for the guy from Memento?
The rest of the issue is taken up with characters explaining everything except why the “bigger lightning bolt” did the job when a smaller, somehow inferior lightning bolt failed to do the job. There is no event so small that characters won’t describe it in lurid detail, from a handy guide to what Batman’s non-vocal grunts mean to Batman saying “it looks like a canine skeleton” while pointing to a dog skeleton that we can see because it’s a comic book and those have pictures. My favorite part, though, is when Barry Allen talks about how he could make himself a new costume one way, and then talks about making his costume a different way, and does that instead! Oh man, you guys. That was edge-of-my-seat, there. For a second I thought he was going to make his costume this one way, but then… man! He did it another way instead!
Seriously, why do those panels exist? I’m genuinely curious, is there anyone out there who was more interested in the multiple costume creation options available to Barry Allen: Light Speed Seamstress? If you were, by all means, let me know.
It all builds to a scene where they go find out where Superman is and go get him, and then Superman runs away at the end, and given what we’ve seen already, there’s a good chance that means we’ll be treated to another scene of people figuring out where Superman is and going to get him in the next issue.
Point being, it’s stretched thin and padded out so much that there’s barely anything there. There are three issues out right now, and you could honestly skip the second one and not miss anything that wasn’t already revealed in the previous issue or that doesn’t happen again, only better, in the next one. And if you have no reason to read a 32-page comic that they’re charging $3.99 for, why even bother with it?
In all fairness, there are still two more issues to go, and as unlikely as it is, there’s always a chance that they could bring everything together every issue I’ve brought up (and a few I skipped) in a way that’s satisfying and engaging and ties it all in to make a great story. Even if there is, though, I’m pretty sure that the fact that I’ve read 60% of this story and have no desire whatsoever to read it — and that I wouldn’t have even gotten that far if it wasn’t my actual job to do so — is a problem.
And now, The Lightning Round!
Q: When it comes to film adaptation of comics, do you believe the actors need to be well versed in the comic characters? — @blueneurosis
A: I don’t think so, no. It probably doesn’t hurt, but it’s less important that they know about the comics than to be well-versed in the version of the character that’s consistent with the director and script for the film, especially when you’re dealing with super-hero comics and their many, often conflicting approaches to the same character. The writer and director, on the other hand, have a much greater need to be familiar with how those characters are defined and what works about them, and I’d say it’s that vision that the actors need to rely on more than anything else.
Q: What is the best big screen adaptation of a cartoon series? — @616Earth
A: Speed Racer.
Q: Why didn’t Batman stop Jack the Ripper? — @jessnevins
A: How do you know he didn’t?
Q: Thoughts on the second Pipettes album vs the first? — @heythisisbrian
A: Pretty disappointing, actually. That might not be a surprise given that We Are the Pipettes is up there with 36 Chambers as one of my favorite albums of all time, but Earth vs. the Pipettes did absolutely nothing for me. The move away from the ’60s girl group/Phil Spector sound — which I love — and into a faux-disco aesthetic makes sense in the context of Pipettes being an experiment in creating a prefab pop group, but between that and the lineup change, it also took away everything I loved about that group except the polka dots. Fortunately, the Like’s Release Me was there to fill the void.
Q: Followup to last week’s article: So who wound up being the 666th guy The Punisher killed? — @spudsfan
A: Considering that the story in question is all about a super-powered cult leader called the Rev who declares himself to be the messiah, you’d think he would’ve been the one who got the Punisher to the Number of the Beast, but that’s not the case. Instead, Frank just casually shoots one of the Rev’s henchmen:
Incidentally, the Rev ends up being #670, although oddly enough, his actual death happens off-panel after Frank leaves him mortally wounded. Go figure.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just put it on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!