Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Long, Slow Death of Bart Allen

In Wednesday’s The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #13, the title character was killed in what turned out to be the last book of the recently relaunched series; the previous of the four Flashes will be returning to star in the now un-cancelled previous volume of the series.

For those who haven’t been reading Flash or at least, like me, picking it up and flipping through it once a month while sadly shaking your head and placing it back on your local comic book shop’s shelf, the dead Flash isn’t Wally West, but his replacement, Bart Allen, a.k.a. Flash IV, previously known as Kid Flash and, prior to that, Impulse.

How did he die? Nothing so dramatic as saving the whole universe, as his grandfather Barry Allen did, or even saving the whole world, as Ice did. Rather, he was killed by his archenemy Inertia and a motley crew of perennial Flash villains like Captain Cold, Heatwave, Mirror Master II and the like. In the actual comic, it took a committee of bad guys to kill Bart Allen, and in real life, it likewise took a committee of people to kill him off.

See, the truth of the matter is that DC has been killing Bart Allen for a long time now. Geoff Johns actually started the process a few years back, putting Bart on a path that could really only lead to Bart’s death.

It probably began around the time that Johns assumed the reigns of the Flash monthly (with 2000’s #164). I know Johns’ run was a very popular one, but my initial impression was pretty negative. I tried out the first story arc, solely on the strength of the fantastic Brian Bolland covers and curiosity about what the writer of Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. would be able to do with the Flash characters, and six issues later, decided it just wasn’t for me—dull, mediocre and unimaginative, it was just another superhero comic, which I didn’t need any more of. I’ve since gone back and read Johns’ entire run in trade (and actually started picking it up monthly when Howard Porter joined the art team), and now have a much higher opinion of it. I guess Johns just took a few stories to really find his footing on the title (and/or I needed a few months to get used to the change in style form the imaginative Morrison/Millar run to the more straightforward Johns one).

The run was most notable, I think, for the way Johns essentially Batman-ized the Flash, giving his rogues gallery a darker, more murderous and/or psychotic edge (Rather than colorful bank robbers with silly sci-fi gimmicks, they all had tics, like pyromania and cocaine addiction), giving them an Arkham equivalent warehouse to keep escaping from and be returned to at the end of each adventure, and giving Keystone City a personality so that the setting itself began to become something of a cast member, in much the same way Gotham City is a character unto itself in Batman stories.

Johns’ impulse to make the Flash franchise darker, grittier and more realistic had unfortunate consequences for Impulse. Johns wrote a perfectly fun and funny Impulse in Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., an Impulse fill-in and some JSA appearances. He really seemed to get the character as Mark Waid and company had originally conceived him—a little kid superhero whose adventures were played for laughs over thrills or melodrama.

But the kid with big hair, bigger feet and pictogram thought clouds didn’t really fit into Johns’ darker, grittier Flash (not that he needed too; Impulse was a member of Flash’s extended family, but wasn’t a sidekick or partner. With a title of his own, and a slot in first Young Justice and then Teen Titans, Johns could have gotten away with ignoring Impulse completely). So Johns changed Impulse into Kid Flash II, giving him a modified version of Wally’s old red-and-yellow costume. It was a move that felt forced and false to me, but that may have been simply because the very first time I met Impulse was in the pages of Zero Hour, when he introduced himself to Superman by saying, “Call me Kid Flash-- --and get your big 'S’ handed to you!”

Accompanying the name and costume change was a change in attitude. Johns wrote Bart as a teenager instead of a preteen (Odd that Bart aged more or less in real time, while his DCU peers like Robin and Superboy remained forever sixteen-ish). And after Judd Winick and Johns teamed up to decimate Young Justice and the then flailing Titans monthlies in Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day, reorganizing the teams into the new Teen Titans and the new Outsiders, Johns got the new Titans title, which by that point, was Bart Allen’s only regular title.

Though he was now writing all of the popular Young Justice characters, Johns quickly focused on the angstier aspects of them, and for Bart that meant having Deathstroke kneecap him, a traumatic event that forced Bart to grow up, unveiling a new power (unlike the other Flashes, he could remember everything he read) that turned him into a bit of a know-it-all, a 180-degree turn from the traditionally naïve, oblivious Impulse.

By that point, Johns had changed his codename, costume and characterization, wasn’t Bart already dead?

I think, for all intents and purposes, he was, even if the character was technically still alive. Then Infinite Crisis occurred, and DC made one of the several incredibly bad moves associated with IC and it’s “One Year Later” jump. Wally West disappeared into the timestream or Speed Force or wherever with his new family, Bart and Jay Garrick in tow. When Bart returned, he was aged into young adulthood (another change, pushing him father from conception), and was now the Flash, given his own book to star in, The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive, with a rather unexpected (and certainly untested) writing team at the helm, Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, newcomers to comics whose credentials included the 1990 live action Flash TV series, which lasted only 21 episodes.

Why exactly DC thought a pair of writers from a sixteen-year-old cancelled TV series would be enough to sell fans on a brand-new Flash remains a mystery. I know that, for my part, I didn’t buy a single issue of the new Flash: The Fastest Man Alive simply because of the change in lead characters, having zero interest reading about a twenty-something former Kid Flash struggling to live up to the legacy of The Flash, who had just disappeared during a Crisis. I mean, I had already read that story 20 years or so ago. (If DC really had to lose Wally temporarily, the only Flash I personally probably would have been interested in starring in a monthly was Jay Garrick; farthere away on a conceptual level, Bart becoming Flash didn’t make any sense anyway, with Jay still running around. I could see a character feeling the need to be the Flash if there was no other Flash, like when Wally assumed Barry’s mantle, but Bart’s new role was simply to be The Other Flash).

Sales on the new title were abysmal, plunging from over 120,000 to less than 47,000 in the space of eleven issues, and fan sentiment was even more negative. Soon Bilson and DeMeo were off the title, replaced by Mark Guggenheim. I thought about checking out his first issue, which promised guest appearances by both the JLoA and the Teen Titans, and picked it up in the store to give it a looksee. I got all the way to the first panel before noticing a big, huge, stupid mistake—Robin was in the wrong costume—before setting it back down.

Then the mysterious hyping began.

DC was promising big, big things with #13, and that issue and the next two were made returnable, which took some of the risk from retailers if they were unable to sell extra copies, indicating DC had confidence that this was an issue everyone would want to read. Vibe-obsessed blog The Absorbascon offered an interesting theory about who the JLoA/JSoA crossover was intending to resurrect, which seemed pretty damn plausible (Personally, I thought the return of Barry Allen would be a terrible, terrible idea, but if DC resurrected Jason Todd, then clearly there’s no idea that’s too terrible for them to try now).

Well, if you’ve read last week’s Flash, then you know what the big surprise was, and you might have been surprised at the lack of surprise (The teaser image spoiled the fact that Bart would be dying as soon as it was released, didn’t it?).

(Above: Ah, nothing like some light escapism...)

Actually, there was a big surprise to Flash #13; it wasn’t Bart’s death, it was that there was no return or resurrection of any other Flashes in it. The only thing that happened was the foregone conclusion, that Bart died (The return happened in JLoA, and it was Wally…the Flash who wasn’t really dead, and whom no one thought was dead. Except maybe Brad Meltzer, who brought the still-living Wally back to life. Or something. I don’t know, JLoA #10 doesn’t make a damn bit of sense).

The fact that DC felt the need to kill Bart Allen, essentially putting the character out of his misery after years of progressively fucking him up, moving him farther and farther away from his original conception (and not because he was growing or evolving, but because one by one the things that made him unique in the DCU were being stripped from him) is highly unfortunate, and seems to shows a lack of imagination (As well as an odd lack of understanding about how to manage a fictional universe full of character properties; there’s always more potential in a living character shunted off into off-panel limbo than a dead one rotting in a fictional graveyard, who will need a resurrection story to be used again some day… which further makes death meaningless in your universe).

There seem to be three predominant stories at DC now: Characters are either being killed, being brought back to life after having been killed, or the multiverse/continuity is being screwed with. There are exceptions aplenty, of course, but the very fact that death, resurrection and continuity tweaking are trends in the line is profoundly disturbing (I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again—How fucked up is it that DC has managed to make stories about death itself completely uninteresting?).

(Above: At least the last time Bart Allen died, it was funny)

That the character they killed was Bart Allen is even more disturbing, given that the character once embodied all that was fun and young-at-heart within the DCU. As I said, that character has been dead for a while now, and dying for even longer, and, personally I don’t see this as any kind of concerted effort to kill off all of DC’s fun or funny characters. I honestly think that the number of JLI characters (and now Young Justice characters, I guess) that are being done in is simply a matter of coincidence. The same thing that opened characters like Blue Beetle, The Dibnys, Booster Gold and Bart Allen up to being played for laughs—their expendability—is the same thing that makes them candidates for killing off.

Put another way, Batman and Superman have lines of books to sell, not to mention movies, cartoons and merchandise. They wouldn’t fit in a JLI or Young Justice-style comic book because it erodes their brand too much, just as killing them off would.

Nobody’s making a Ted Kord movie any time soon, and he couldn’t keep one book going as a serious character, let alone two or three. He can be turned into a goofball comedian then without worry. He can also be shot through the head without losing any monthly comic book sales. Bart Allen was in the same boat; his book was long since cancelled and he had gradually been turned into Wally West 2.0. Killing him off has no adverse effects for the company; the only ones who might miss him are his fans, but DC wasn’t selling them any books anyway at the moment.

And maybe not even Bart’s fans.

I mean, I read Impulse and Young Justice, and always really dug the character, but I’m not the least bit broken up about Bart’s death, because Bart hasn’t been Bart in years anyway, so it’s not like I’ll miss him anymore now that I did last week or last year.

In fact, his death might actually be a good thing for fans.

Okay, yes, having good guys Piper and Trickster I involved in murdering him was silly, and only going to cause problems for the poor bastards trying to write something coherent with them in Countdown, and, yeah, killing yet another character only makes the DCU that much darker and drearier and death-obsessed, but Bart, like Booster Gold, is a character who only exists in the present day DCU due to time travel. Bart dead? Hell, Bart’s not even born yet. He can come running out of the timestream at any moment, whenever anyone has a hankering to write him. And better yet, he can come back at the point he left the DCU in IC (i.e. as the teenaged Kid Flash), or, even better still, at some point before Johns started de-Impulsifying him, so that a pre-teen, big-haired, big-footed Imp can appear back in the DCU at any moment to stare blank faced at adversaries while Owly-esque thought clouds appear above him.

I don’t expect him too, of course, at least not for a while. But the only thing DC seems to be as interested in as killing their characters these days is resurrecting the characters their predecessors had killed, so I’d put odds of an Impulse return somewhere around…oh, let’s say…100%.

And that’s just considering Bart as a character in the fourth-dimension of New Earth; there are possibly 51 other Bart Allen’s out there.

RELATED: For those who have only known Bart Allen as Flash or Kid Flash, here are some excellent low-threshold-of-previous-knowledge-required introductions to the character back when he was still awesome, ones that also happen to be really entertaining standalone stories. Actually, pretty much any issue of Impulse is pretty reader-friendly, but these are among the most so:


Anonymous said...

I have to agree. Bart was once a unique, fun and enjoyable character, but all of those qualities had long since been stripped away.

He's just "fast super-hero c" now. I'll miss Bart Allen, but not Flash IV, or even Kid Flash II.

Matthew said...

Oddly, I have no knowledge of Impulse, having come to the DC party only lately. Despite - or probably because of - this, I was enjoying the new Flash run, and I suppose that Bart is always going to be 'my' Flash. I'm pretty sad that they saw the need to kill him off rather than just putting him back in the toy box.

Strangevisitor said...

That was totally awesome! Thanks!


Vichus Smith said...

Nice retrospective on the character.

Wally wasn't dead, or called dead in JLA 10. He was just "riding the lightning." So the Legion used the Lightning ritual to zap him out of it.

Caleb said...


You're right. I guess I thought the fact that they were doing a resurrection ritual implied someone would be coming back to life.

However, Jay Garrick still says something like "We didn't even have a funeral this time," which implies he (and/or everyone thought Wally was dead), doesn't it?

Unknown said...

Loved the post, even if I was able to get a little choked up by the book (meaning my heartstrings disagreed that the death wasn't executed in a compelling way (pun NOT intended)).

Unknown said...

I think you pointed out brilliantly that the real tragedy was the methodical destruction of Bart's unique identity.

That being said I originally thought the new Flash (Fastest Man ...) book would be a chance for DC to reinvent "The Flash" for a fresher audience much the same as Marvel's Ultimate re-spin. If anything, The Fastest Man Alive books reinforced the idea that their are a lot of writers in the industry lacking original ideas or who are unwilling to rock the boat in order to make an interesting story.

I am now in danger of remembering Bart Allen as the only Flash who never did anything significant...

Unknown said...

I honest to god love Bart Allen, he's my favorite flash and always will be. He was such a cute little kid in Impulse and YJ, and this is coming from someone born in 2002 and hates older comics. I actually liked the whole being shot in the kneecap thing, as a piece of Bart's character developement, but I wished the event had been discussed more. Or at least more than "I got shot now I'm smart and understand pain." It was completely unnecessary to make Bart a flash, and I would've fathered him grow up to be another Max Mercury. I hope he's back in Rebirth soon with a whole new, more well though out role to play.