Tyranny of the Ochlocracy: Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato’s ‘Flash’
Prior to the launch of DC's New 52, if you asked basically anyone what the most visually inventive book of the relaunch would be, they'd answer J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman's very good Batwoman. After Williams's virtuosic work on Batwoman: Elegy with Greg Rucka -- not to mention the rest of his career! -- it'd be a natural conclusion to draw. And somehow, it turned out to be the wrong one. Artist/co-writer Francis Manapul and colorist/co-writer Brian Buccellato trumped it in spades on the relaunch of The Flash, with a level of imagination that only increased from issue to issue.The first hint of this came when DC began promoting the first issue's title page the promotional rounds, an absolutely gorgeous piece of work that integrated the design sense of the logo into not only the artwork but the actual storytelling. Manapul drew Barry Allen disarming an army of mysterious sci-fi marines in a breathtaking clockwise sequence that was immediately readable despite its complexity, guiding the eye in a circle across a sequence where the Flash basically hands all of these dudes their butts in a series of small panels within the letters of his own name.
Then it kept getting better.
As impressive as that title page is -- and Manapul continually ups the ante with each issue on that regard, merging design and storytelling with a flair I haven't seen in mainstream comics since, well, J.H. Williams III -- it is eclipsed by his work in the second issue. Barry Allen's scientist friend, Dr. Darwin Elias, teaches him how to use his mind as well as his body to tap into the Speed Force. Manapul uses a series of branching panels, almost like a flowchart (but not quite), to portray how Allen's mind is working as quickly as his body, examining his surroundings and formulating courses of action -- and then acting on them -- in a split-second, as Barry sets off a chain of events that saves a man's life, stops a robbery, and nets him a free apple within the time it takes for a single neural synapse to fire.
We're also introduced to the first arc's villain, Mob Rule, a collective of clones who all share a telepathic link, as well as a rapidly-approaching expiration date. Logistically, this is an almost perfect enemy for the Flash: the fastest man alive versus the man who can be everywhere at once. The fact that Barry Allen learns how to think fast while fighting this villain is no coincidence; since his villain can coordinate at the speed of thought to use his omnipresence, Allen has to learn to think as fast as he can run to have a hope in hell of keeping up, never mind foiling them.
This culminates in the end of the third issue, as Allen attempts to use his hypercognition in a situation with so much stimuli that he's unable to distinguish between what he's predicting and what's already occurred. His neural pathways become so congested that he ends up getting shot, and at the beginning of the fourth issue, we're shown that what saves him is instinct -- shutting down the hypercognition and just reacting rather than attempting to predict anything. Thinking fast nearly killed him.
What makes this occurrence so impressive on a narrative level is how thematically tied it is with the rest of the story. As much adulation as I've thrown on Manapul's art, he and Buccellato's script is incredibly impressive as well, especially for two rookie writers. As much as I heaped scorn on DC's decision to give so many artists writing gigs with the New 52, the entire experiment was worth it for this result.
In the very first scene of the very first issue, Barry Allen and his now-girlfriend (and coworker) Patty Spivot are attending a tech symposium where Allen (and his alter-ego the Flash) meet Elias for the first time and Elias describes the Law of Congestion, which states that the more roads you add, the worse traffic will get. (It's more than likely that Manapul was inspired in this regard by recent developments regarding the ongoing war between streetcars and automobiles in the city of Toronto, our shared hometown.) While a seemingly throwaway line, it's actually a perfect metaphor for what Barry Allen is discovering with his new augmented cognition: while sometimes useful, if he overuses it and tries to take in too much -- as he does when Mob Rule attempts to shoot him at the end of #3 -- he ends up with a bullet passing through his head.
The only thing that saves him is, at the last second, tearing down the mental highways (much like the highway in Seoul that Elias references, the destruction of which greatly reduced traffic congestion) and acting on instinct, moving fast enough so that the bullet grazes him rather than passing through his brain. Less highways reduced congestion, just as Elias predicted, except it took place in the metropolis of Barry Allen's mind rather than the physical world.
This is not bush league superhero comics writing, and it's perfectly married to -- indeed, inseparable from, a Siamese twin -- the art and coloring of Manapul and Buccellato. This isn't even touching on Barry Allen's newly-introduced college friend Manuel Lago, the genetic template and "father" of Mob Rule, who never stopped running from trouble in any form and whose self-denial almost leads to Barry's death, as he can't imagine his own clones capable of hurting his best friend. Or Allen's relationship with Patty Spivot, and his continual obliviousness to Iris West's increasingly-more-obvious attempts at courtship. Or Buccellato's gorgeous colors, which perfectly complement Manapul's artwork and are just as integrated into the narrative process as the panel layout.
What Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato have managed to create with Flash is not simply the best comic of the New 52, but one of the best superhero comics of the year, an absolutely mind-blowing debut for new writing talents, and the best Flash story since Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Paul Ryan made me cry as Wally West tapped the power of the entire human race to beat a Sonic the Hedgehog analogue (and also his childhood imaginary friend) for the fate of the Earth in the brilliant "The Human Race."
I can't wait to see where they go next.