Thursday, January 03, 2008

OMD v. HtP

One of the common complaints about the “One More Day” storyline in the Spider-Man comics has been that it’s just not a very Marvel Comics kinda story (Savage Critic Brian Hibbs made it the case pretty well the other day), but in its cosmic continuity fussing it is much more of a DC Comics story.

As has also been pointed out repeatedly, it’s actually like a pretty specific DC story, Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn’s late-90’s mini-epic “Hell To Pay” from The Flash #127-#128. The similarity is pretty striking. The DC Comics version of the devil makes a deal with a young superhero and his significant other, exchanging a cosmic favor for their love for one another. (Not to be confused with the Geoff Johns story from a few years later, in which The Spectre cosmically removes Flash Wally West’s long-outted secret identity from the minds of everyone on earth, essentially putting that genie back in its bottle which, obviously, also seems similar to “One More Day,” wherein an all-powerful religious figure removes the memory of Spidey’s secret identity from the public at large).

Given the similarity to the old Flash story, I was kind of surprised that DC didn’t rush out a trade paperback version of “Hell To Pay” the second they heard Marvel’s diabolical reboot option rumored (I think Lying in the Gutters had rumored Mephisto’s involvement and the marriage trade months before the story actually started running).

If they moved at the rumor stage and the Mephisto reboot-for-marriage deal is what happened, then DC would have put their story back in the public consciousness and kind of took some of the air out of Marvel’s sure-to-be-a-sales-juggernaut story (and/or at least just tweaked their rival Joe Quesada).

If it didn’t come to pass as rumored, they would have published a Flash trade from a very popular writer guest-starring the JLA, which would have made a pretty good trial balloon for starting to collect the Waid Flash run. And right after this storyline, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar would come on to co-write a 12-part run; considering their popularity, two Flash trades by the pair seem like a slam dunk, don’t they? ( “Hell To Pay” is only three-issues long, which would make for a pretty slim trade, but the plot actually begins a few issues earlier; #123-#129 or #125-#129 would collect rather seamlessly into a complete story).

At any rate, since superhero deals with devils have obviously been on my mind a lot this week (and I’ve got one more “One More Day” post coming and then I swear that’s the last you’ll hear on the subject from me…probably), it seemed like a good time to go back and revisit the Waid/Augustyn story, which was illustrated by Paul Ryan and John Nyberg, and featured one cover by J.H.Williams III and Mick Gray, and two by the late, great Mike Wieringo, a man who was born to draw The Flash.

It’s well worth noting that, for the few similarities to the J. Michael Straczynski and Quesada story, the Waid/Augustyn one is much bigger in terms of scope and stakes, with a great deal many more characters and scenes, more believable motivations and, refreshingly, heroes being truly heroic.

That’s not just a slam on Marvel; DC has likewise kind of forgotten the key to superheroes is that they are both a) heroes who b) have superpowers. From the DC heroes torturing, mind-wiping, snapping necks and generally all acting like a Dark Knight Batman too often to the weird fascist dystopia that the Marvel Universe has become the last few years, it’s not often enough that I see heroes being heroic in my stack of Wednesday purchases.

Anyway, way back in 1997, The Flash had been exiled from his hometown of Central City, whose new mayor had campaigned that his presence attracted supervillains there. So Flash set up shop in the city of Santa Marta, until Major Disaster flooded and destroyed the city. No one died (mass death wasn’t as common back thenn), but the city was destroyed, and Flash was feeling pretty bummed about it.

His fiancée, Linda Park, was still working as a TV reporter in Central City, and she had a lot to report on when The Rogues—Captain Cold, Heat Wave, Weather Wizard, Captain Boomerang and Mirror Master—began destroying it.

This was significant because The Rogues were, at the time, dead, having lost their lives in the first part of Waid’s 1995 crossover series Underworld Unleashed, and because they were never much more than colorful bank robbers (Johns would darken them all up during his run, making them more serious threats at home in the darker, more serious DCU he was working in at the time).

Apparently, the Rogues were now soulless husks with greater power than ever before and no morals. They were also unkillable and unstoppable, shattering like glass when struck, only to reform. Casualties from their rampage, we’re told, were already in the “low four figures.”

Flash turns to his friends, reformed rogues Trickster and Piper, who get him an audience with Neron, the DC Devil (well, one of them). Neron was introduced by Waid in Underworld Unleashed; he was a demon that looked like a poorly designed supervillain (I think his look is Howard Porter’s fault, as Porter penciled UU; props to Marvel for a much better looking devil) and who embodied the devil-as-dealmaker aspect of the concept. The story itself was about his giving lame-ass old supervillians new powers and scarier looks in exchange for their souls, and generally tempting the heroes, like offering Barbara Gordon her legs back, or Batman Jason Todd back, and so on (It’s actually a pretty decent story, as far as these things go).

It quickly dawns on Flash that this was all a set-up to get him to the bargaining table—Neron had Disaster destroy Santa Marta, he sicced the Rogues on Central City—and Neromb offers to give the Rogues’ undead bodies their souls (and consciences) back to stem the destruction, if Flash will trade him something.

But he doesn’t want his soul, he wants his heart—his love for his fiancée Linda.

Now, I’m not going to accuse JMS and Quesada of lifting this from the Flash story. While a devil wanting something other than a soul does seem a little weird, and therefore a pretty strange coincidence, the history of DC and Marvel comics is one of weird, often innocent coincidences (See Man-Thing/Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol/X-Men for the weirdest).

But the DC version of this particular plot element certainly works better. For one, Neron isn’t an out-of-left-field character. This Flash story is a semi-sequel to Underworld Unleashed, in which the Flash himself played a small-ish role, but the Rouges played a major role (The Trickster was essentially the hero of Underworld Unleashed). And this was just a couple years afterwards.

Mephisto coming to Spider-Man, though? He’s not really a Spider-Man villain, belonging more to the Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider or Dr. Strange. Sure, Mephisto and Spider-Man share the same fictional setting, but it’s a big fictional universe, and they belong to different corners of it. I’m sure the two have faced off in the past, but not since I’ve read Spider-Man comics.

I also preferred the way Neron made his pitch. Mephisto had some funny line about wanting Spider-Man’s love, wanting his marriage, which sounded a bit like a proposal. Neron just points out to the Flash that he and Linda really love one another; “It annoys me. I want you… to stop it.”

But he actually has a motivation for it, which becomes clear as things go on. See, the Flash gets his super-speed from an extra-dimensional energy source called “The Speed Force,” a kind of Valhalla for speedster superheroes. It’s where Barry Allen and Johnny Quick went when they died. Neron doesn’t tell Wally this at the time, but he wants to remove Wally’s love for Linda from the equation because it’s that love and that relationship which ground Flash, which keeps him part of the real world instead of being pulled into the Speed Force. With Wally’s anchor gone, Neron will have access to the Speed Force and, incidentally, the demons he’s sent to attack Central City will have access to it, thus being powerful enough to level it and, I don’t know, the world (It’s worth noting they’re doing a pretty good job of it; at this point, the Morrison era JLA is helping out, and they’re getting creamed).

So not only does this devil have a motivation for his deal, he’s also—in true devil tradition—planning to totally screw over the person doing the deal with him. He’ll take something from Flash, he’ll give him something he doesn’t really need or want, Flash will technically get what he asked for but not what he really wants, and Neron will have this Speed Force route to perhaps attack heaven through.

What’s Mephisto get in exchange for the Parkers’ love? He says that, “There will be a very small part of your soul that will remember, that will know what you lost. And my joy will be in listening to that part of your soul screaming throughout eternity.” Later, he mentioned God (without using His name) will be irritated if the marriage between Peter and MJ is undone, and that’s a win for Mephisto.

Now, Mephisto is the devil, so I guess Just To Be A Dick is reason enough for him to do anything, but it really doesn’t seem all that bad a deal for the Parkers. May lives, Harry comes back to life, Peter, MJ and May are no longer fugitives from the law—there doesn’t seem to be a downside so far. But the Parkers really got the best of him here. Since he erased their memories—and everyone else’s?—of their marriage and the baby they’ll now never have, it’s not like they even have anything to be broken up about. Just that small part of the soul will be a wreck, I guess.

Also, Waid and Augustyn have Linda and Wally already bickering quite a bit throughout the story, so there’s actually a bit of realistic tension to their relationship. Or as realistic as it can be when one of them wears what Flash wears and runs at light-speed. And they do their deals with Neron (unbeknowest to one another) for realistic reasons. Or as realistic as can be, considering the super-opera of the story.

If Flash doesn’t get the Rogues’ souls back, thousands, maybe millions of people will die, including all of his friends, his teammates, and his fiancée Linda. How can he measure his own happiness against all that? And if he really loves Linda, won’t he give up loving her in exchange for her life? Linda, meanwhile, gives up her love in exchange for Neron’s promise not to take Flash’s soul.

In “One More Day,” there are no real stakes. It’s the life of an elderly woman dying of natural causes (bullets are natural, right?) versus decades of life and memories, the entire past, present and future of marriage. With the secret identity de-outting thrown in at the last minute. But what it comes down to is Peter Parker’s guilt. I was awestruck in the early part of the story when he says he can’t live with her dying if it’s his fault; if she died of old age, that’s one thing, but if she died because of him? Unacceptable.

In the Flash story then, the protagonists’ decision comes about as altruistic: they give up their love to save each other’s lives—and the lives of countless innocents. In the Spider-Man story, MJ gives up her love, marriage and memory of it to spare Peter’s feelings, and Peter gives up his as well to do the same. (One of the dozen or so better ideas for “One More Day” I’ve read online would have been if MJ had been the one shot and dying; at least then Peter would be giving up his marriage to her to save her, and there would have been that whole he loved her enough to sacrifice that love for her going on).

The very best part of the Flash story, however, is that it adheres to superhero comics at their most basic—good triumphs over evil—but not necessarily in an overly simplistic way. Good as an abstract force is more powerful than bad as an abstract force, but the Flash doesn’t win because he’s stronger or faster than Neron. Instead, there are several clever little twists to the thing, including the greedy devil biting off more than he can chew.

There are some fun little scenes in which the presence of love in hell starts gumming up the works for Neron, and he finds himself slowly becoming more compassionate—first it’s just the screams of agony becoming grating rather than seeming like a beautiful symphony, then he’s putting out burning souls and feeding the damned who haven’t eaten in millennia. Soon, he wants Wally and Linda to take their love back from him before it completely destroys him, but they refuse, forcing him to a do a deal—they’ll only accept their love for one another back from him if he undoes all the carnage and destruction wreaked upon Central City, including bringing all those murdered back to life (so even those deaths in the four digits are undone).

And that is, I suppose, another key way in which the Flash story seems superior to the more recent Spider-Man one. It’s a victory for the good guys and a progression of the story, rather than a victory for the editor and a weird, diagonal regression of the story, as in “One More Day.” Taken on its own, “Hell To Pay” reads like a comic book story, but “One More Day” is impossible to make sense of without taking into consideration Quesada’s publishing plans and PR efforts. I think a pretty basic rule of thumb for a super-comic is that if you need to publish two-to-four pages of fictional character history and reprint old comics in the back of each issue just so readers know who the hell the story is about and why they should care, then you’re falling down in telling the story.

Rather than the deal with the devil being the end of the Wally/Linda marriage, it was actually the beginning, as they would get married shortly after they defeated the devil. Just after the Millar/Morrison fill-in year, Waid and Augustyn returned to marry their stars off. Wally would later have all memory of Linda and his relationship wiped away—temporarily—but not as part of this story. So, oddly enough, “One More Day” seems to pluck elements from three different Flash stories and use them in service of a Crisis-like reboot.

It’s just too bad Quesada and company didn’t make their story more like the Flash one—then it might have actually been good.


Matt Singer said...

I own all those Flash issues but only remember this story vaguely; I was a big fan of the start of Waid's run but remember becoming increasingly bored by this point and being quite glad that he was taking a vacation and that Morrison and Millar were coming in to replace him. This makes me want to bust these issues out and take another look. Nice work.

Siskoid said...

Thanks for the memories, Caleb.

You are completely right across the board.

OMD is quite obviously an editorially mandated change. Well, of course it is, we all know that, but I'm saying it SHOWS.

And the biggest sign is that the characters don't act like themselves or at all logically. MJ, Spidey, Mephisto, none of them do. And that's where the Flash story succeeds.

chris w. said...

"That’s not just a slam on Marvel; DC has likewise kind of forgotten the key to superheroes is that they are both a) heroes who b) have superpowers. From the DC heroes torturing, mind-wiping, snapping necks and generally all acting like a Dark Knight Batman too often to the weird fascist dystopia that the Marvel Universe has become the last few years, it’s not often enough that I see heroes being heroic in my stack of Wednesday purchases."

These are exactly the problems I had with mainline Marvel and DC during my brief flirtation with collecting new comics over this past summer, after a 15+ year hiatus. Well put.

mordicai said...

I don't know that I agree with the "comics are so gritty it ruins everything!" opinion that is prevelent among a lot of readers: then again, there are plenty of comics I just plain don't read, so. Pick & choose, I guess.

Mike Lorah said...

I was reading Flash when this story came out, and though I see the bigger themes and why it's a better story than OMD, it was still a suck-ass story.

In the aftermath of Terminal Velocity, Dead Heat and Race Against Time, I was praying Waid would kill Linda (or Wally) just so that we'd NEVER have another storyarc end with some heavy-handed testament to the power of their love.
Unfortunately, I got Hell to Pay, and then Morrison/Millar's tedious run (which at least didn't beat me over the head with the exact same message at the end of every arc). There's a two-year window that pretty much ruined Flash for me. I still feel queezy inside when I look at the cover of that series.

Mike Lorah said...

Looking at the post again, I feel it worth noting that I really enjoyed Waid's take on Wally and company prior to the stories I've complained about.

Esteban138 said...

This post is something I go back to and read every so often... it's more than a little bittersweet, but it's definitely one of my favorites.