Multiple contact points

Today I shall dabble in two different topics within the same overall subject, which is DC Comics’ super-hero comics. These two topics have a point of contact that deserves review, and this is why I have come here.

The first topic is the annuals. DC Comics issues its super-hero titles monthly. (Everything I say in this text is true as a rule in 2013, but the titles change over the years and my reading is still in 1996, so that the specific examples I give are from that year.) Thus, Superman’s continuing adventures are out in Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman and Superman; Batman’s in Detective Comics, Batman, Batman: Shadow of the Bat and The Batman Chronicles; other heroes are published in Wonder Woman, The Flash, Robin, Catwoman and many, many other titles that the lay public would not recognise, such as Nightwing, Azrael and Impulse.

Usually, each one of these series has twelve issues a year. The most popular of them are matched by other, yearly series, which are equivalent to special editions — as if they were thirteenth issues of the main title. These are the Annuals, as in Action Comics Annual, Batman Annual, Flash Annual. According to DC’s practice, the story that comes in an Annual is not a part of the storyline that is told over months in the main series; yet it is a part of the official chronology. Each Annual usually has more pages than the corresponding monthly title, and some have more than one story per issue.

In the 1990s, DC used to give the same theme to each year’s Annuals. For example, in 1991 all of them were interesting tie-ins to the Armageddon 2001 event. In 1994, all of them were Elseworlds stories. In 1996, all Annuals brought the subtitle “Legends of the Dead Earth”. Each one told a story that was not necessarily compatible with those of the other Annuals, but each writer was in charge of creating variations on the same theme: a distant future when planet Earth no longer exists. In this future, the hero from the regular title (not the one in the Annual) has been dead for centuries, but his or her memory lives on somehow, and another hero follows on his or her footsteps.

Batman Annual #20. Weak story.

Green Lantern Annual #5. Fun story.

Most of these Annuals turned out unimpressive. This is not exactly a surprise, seeing as that, according to Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of all cultural production is trash. It could not be otherwise: first, statistically it would not make sense that everything were good, and this is exactly why the word “mediocre” has ceased to mean just “average” and started to mean “bad”; second, by definition you will only notice that something is good because it stands out from the rest, and this is where the word “good” starts to have its meaning. If everything were good, you would not realise that it were good, nor would you, therefore, even be aware of the concept or have a name for it.

Precisely because of all this, when one of these Annuals turned out much better than the others, it drew my attention. I refer to Legionnaires Annual #3, which was one of the last Annuals of 1996, having been published along with December’s regulars. Differing from the other Annuals of 1996, this one had its story as an aftermath of another that took place in a main title.

This is where we hold the discussion of 1996’s Annuals and enter the second topic, which is the chronology of the many characters named “Flash”. As it is in the case of most any other DC super-hero, a full chronology would deserve lengthy explanations and due commentary. Unfortunately, because of the scope of this article, I will have to leave the treatment that the Flash deserves for a later date, because that would be too long an exposition, with too many details. Just you believe that everything I say hereunder has a fascinating, minutiae-ridden story behind it, and do yourself the favour of researching it, because there are lots of effort and creativity involved. For now, let us move on.

Follow me. Historically, the nickname “The Flash” was first attributed to a character called Jay Garrick who had acquired super-speed. This Flash’s stories were published from 1940 to 1949, during the Golden Age of comics, and then his monthly book Flash Comics ceased to be published. Maybe you still remember him: red shirt, blue trousers, helmet, maskless.

Jay Garrick, the first Flash. I tried to use Wikipedia’s image, but WordPress will not allow it. So go there and type “Jay Garrick”.

In 1956, DC Comics revamped the concept and launched a new character named Flash. This time, the runner was an often-late police chemist called Barry Allen, who was gifted with his superpower when struck by a lightning in the Chemistry lab. This second Flash gave continuity to Flash Comics and today is considered to be the character who gave DC’s Silver Age of comics its start.

The second Flash, Barry Allen

This is the Flash who became famous, whom readers came to love and whom the lay public is aware of. He is the epitome of the good-hearted hero willing to sacrifice his own life to save the others’ — in some cases even more so than Superman himself, who is considered the archetypal super-hero for all his physical and psychological traits.

In 1961, with the publication of The Flash #123 and its story “Flash of Two Worlds!”, writer Julius Schwartz brought forth the concept that, in my view, is the most ingenious and mind-stimulating idea in the whole DC Universe: the notion of parallel universes where the heroes have counterparts who are like different versions of the same person. With this issue, it was retroactively established that the old Flash (Jay Garrick) kept on existing despite no longer being published. It is just that his adventures took place in another universe, in so-called Earth-2. By jumping dimensions, Barry Allen meets Jay Garrick, declaring himself his admirer and follower.

The Flash #123, a classic issue. This story changed the whole DC universe. An original copy is worth more than a thousand dollars, but, fortunately, it is easy to find reprints.

In the following years of the Silver Age, we learned that all the heroes who had been published during the Golden Age (from 1938 to 1951), including Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, were a part of Earth-2, while the heroes that were being published from 1955 were set in Earth-1 (in Brazil, “Active Earth”). Thus there were two Supermen, two Batmen, two Wonder Women, two Green Lanterns (one of them being Alan Scott, the other Hal Jordan), two Flashes etc., one of each on each Earth. The vast majority of DC’s regular titles told the adventures on Earth-1, but, in the 80s, some titles started to tell of adventures that continued on Earth-2, outside of DC’s main chronology. The meetings of heroes from the two universes were much celebrated, especially those in the anxiously anticipated stories that were out once a year in the regular issues of Justice League of America.

(Incidentally, the variety of Earths in many universes only became one of DC’s relevant topics in the miniseries [or so-called “maxiseries”] Crisis on Infinite Earths, in 1985-1986. This lengthy story, written by Marv Wolfman and wonderfully pencilled by George Pérez, redefined the whole DC Universe, with a fundamental impact on the chronology of every character and permanent effects that are discussed to this day. At the time, its purpose was to extinguish the multiverse, kill off many characters and gather the survivors in a sole, streamlined universe. Over the years, the idea of a multiverse has come back, since it was too good to be wasted, but it would only become a main theme of discussion again in the period 2006-2008, with Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis.)

In 1984-1985, the monthly The Flash threw Barry Allen to the 30th century, in a long and complex storyline where he never went back to his original time. When the Crisis on Infinite Earths came about, Barry made the final sacrifice to save the many Earths, but no one witnessed his death. According to George Pérez, Barry was chosen to be a martyr because the idea of a DC multiverse had begun with him, therefore also with him this multiverse would end.

Barry Allen’s final sacrifice, saving DC’s universes in his last race.

Then, in a turn of events which was very controversial at the time and which attracted the fury of many a fan, not only did Barry stay dead definitively(*) (which never happens to any comic book character, but finally happened to him) but also he was succeeded by Wally West, the nephew of his wife. Wally was an old acquaintance of the readers’, because he had undergone the same kind of freak accident as Barry had before him (yeah, writers could be less creative during the Silver Age) and, for a good time, followed in the footsteps of his beloved and admired uncle-by-marriage as Kid Flash, having, by the way, been a part of the Teen Titans and of the New Teen Titans. With Barry’s passing, Wally became the third Flash.

Kid Flash (Wally West during the Silver Age)

At the end of the Crisis, Wally takes on the legacy of his uncle-by-marriage.

Wally West as the third Flash, after the Crisis.

[Parenthetical: the 1990 short-lived TV series The Flash told the adventures of Barry Allen, whose origins and profession matched those of the Barry Allen from the Silver Age comics. However, the Flash from this TV series had the personal traits and metabolic characteristics of Wally West, who already was the Flash in the comics of the time. I assume that these choices were made to join Wally’s popularity to the knowledge by an older public of laymen in relation to the only Flash that they probably knew, who had been the longer-standing Barry Allen (who had been active for thirty years up to 1986), in comparison to then-upstart Wally West (active for only four years up to that point).]

In 1994-1996, the monthly The Flash was written by brilliant Mark Waid, Author of the masterpiece Kingdom Come and one of the writers who best understand and respect their characters. Waid wrote many stories where he rounded up the many super-speedsters of the DC universe, and I love stories that join up variations on the same character. In particular, Waid’s stories on this motif are excellent and inspired. Besides, at the time when he was writing the Flash, Waid raised this character’s superpower to something greater than him, inserting Wally into a continuity where a single force in the universe was the moving source of all the super-speedsters. Suddenly, the Flash’s superpower was no longer unique, and it was revealed that it was derived from an energy field which common mortals were incapable of reaching: the Speed Force. In Waid’s hands, the Flash became sort of a Jedi knight of speed, a privileged man who, just like Neo in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, had access to understanding hidden meanings in reality and to perceiving universe, time and space with a zen sense of unity. The Speed Force has the effect of a power that is neither magical nor, however, understood or even noticed by humans, an energy that permeates the universe and which only the super-speedsters are able to explore. Therefrom spring some very interesting stories where we can see the world in slow-motion through the eyes of the scarlet racer as Wally gradually finds out that his speed power brings many side benefits, such as time travel and the possibility of giving other people a “ride” on his speed. Also, writer Waid treated Barry Allen’s memory with religious reverence, endowing Wally with the desire to better know the destiny of his uncle in the 30th century and to contact the expanded reality which had fed Barry and which only now became visible to himself.

At the beginning of 1996, The Flash told the many-part Dead Heat story arch, where Wally strove to stop the villain Savitar from disabling all heroes whose superpower is their speed: Wally himself, Jay Garrick, young Impulse (Bart Allen, a grandson of Barry’s, born in the 30th century), Johnny Quick, his daughter Jesse Quick, wise Max Mercury (a time-traveling speedster revamped by Waid, born in the Old West and, already at a certain age, a mentor for the other speedsters) and some others. In order to beat Savitar, Wally had to accelerate in a way that had never been demanded of him, entering the timestream and, out of control, traveling to the 64th century.

In the Race Against Time! story arch, after defeating Savitar and already in the second half of 1996, Wally tries to return to his time in successive jumps back the centuries. One character who helps him is John Fox, the Flash of the 27th century, heir to the mantle out of inspiration by the memory of both Barry and Wally.

Following the continuity of stories, I am now in (or at) December 1996, at the point where Wally manages to return to the 20th century. It just so happens that, when he was still fighting Savitar earlier in the year, Wally was helped by a racer codenamed XS, who, by the way, is also Barry Allen’s granddaughter born in the 30th century (and Bart’s cousin). In Dead Heat, XS had gone back in time, from her 30th to the 20th century, along with her colleagues from the Legion of Super-Heroes, and had become stuck here. Just like Wally resorts to using the Speed Force to come back from the future to the present (and ultimately succeeds), XS attempts to jump in the opposite direction, from the present to the future (which is “her present”). In the 1996 issues of the monthly The Flash, the young heroine XS is just a supporting character, and there comes a moment (in the first chapter of Race Against Time!, The Flash #112, April 1996) when John Fox and Jay Garrick give her a hand in time-jumping. XS disappears, the Reader is led to assume that she has managed to get home, and the story turns its focus back onto the Flash, his misfortunes and his own happy return.

And this is where, always in the effort to read everything in the original publication order, I arrived at Legionnaires Annual #3. This is where the two topics touch. Having read the other annuals of 1996, I had assumed this issue to be in the Sturgeon’s Law’s 90% portion. To my very grateful surprise, I then discovered that I had been wrong! The story starts out by showing what happened to XS when, with the help of Fox and Garrick, she launches into the timestream. Thereafter she feels attracted by a focal point, leaves the timestream and finds herself already in the 30th century, but still a long way from the point she was trying to reach. She realises that the point which attracted her was the assembly of a time-travel device by the hands of… Barry Allen! Ever since the stories published in 1986, I do not recall having seen any new story with Barry Allen that was not some retrospective or otherwise a story set in the Silver Age, when he was the titular Flash. As far as I know, this is the FIRST story where Barry appears while, for the reader, “today’s Flash” already is Wally West. Unfortunately for XS, Barry is still too young, does not even have any children and, therefore, does not recognise her. Still, this is a moving moment, because XS sees the opportunity to meet her grandfather, who was already deceased when she was born. The scene could even have been a tear-bringer, I would not mind. But the two of them do not know each other, so what remains is that deep admiration and XS’s feeling that she is beholding a historic icon, one of the greatest heroes of them all, in a lonely, introspective moment — and he is her grandfather!…

Barry gives XS the privilege and the honour of running along with him and then works as a catapult for her, sending her again into the timestream. This time, XS ends up in the 100th century, where she learns that Earth is no longer (this being the common point with the other annuals of 1996, Legends of the Dead Earth), as the Legion of Super-Heroes is no longer either. On the planet Almeer-5, humanity is oppressed by the villain Nevlor, who has imprisoned the few remaining metahumans. One of the heroes in jail is Avatar, who wields the ancient Spear of Destiny, which can only be raised by those worthy of it. Her outfit resembles those of Jack Kirby’s gods, particularly that of Marvel’s Thor, whose hammer Mjölnir only those worthy are able to raise. Another heroine is Melissa Trask (an anagram of “Stark”, get it?), who is a brilliant electronics engineer and has crafted a flying armour that fires bolts from its hands (just like Iron Man’s armour…). The third hero is Robert “Bob” Brunner (just as Robert Bruce Banner, right?), who, thanks to an energy transfer (gamma rays?), has transformed into a megamuscular blue giant (not green, OK?). His clothes are torn and he is left in his shorts as he throws puny humans about. The last hero, said to be the greatest of all in the 100th century, does not have any superpower, but has arrived there in suspended animation to lead them with his winged helmet and his star-chested uniform (just like, let us see, a certain Captain America…). With XS’s help, the heroes escape and regroup in a new secret base built by Stark Trask, the Avengers Mansion. You may note that the words “Almeer” and “Nevlor” contain the letters of “Marvel” and (Stan) “Lee”.

Receiving new assistance from this “Avenger” Legion of the 100th century, XS again enters the timestream, but, instead of getting home, she ends up at the Vanishing Point, the Linear Men‘s space base, located statically in a parallel dimension during the last time instant before the end of the universe. Sometimes the Vanishing Point appeared in DC’s stories from the 90s, including the miniseries Zero Hour. There XS meets the Time Trapper, a villain from the Legion of Super-Heroes’s stories — whom she did not know of, since there were no confrontations with him after she joined the Legion. The Time Trapper commands the timelines, which he often manipulates in order to change events in his own favour, but, in this brief encounter, he introduces himself to XS as someone who behaves as such to the benefit of the human race, as opposed to the Linear Men, who patrol timelines against interference and, among other things, stop planet Earth from being saved from destruction. Under this point of view, the Time Trapper is the hero! Before he sends her back to the 30th century, XS gets to witness the events of Zero Hour from the Linear Men’s perspective. Though she does not understand what is going on (as she is a character created by Mark Waid after the publication of Zero Hour), the Reader can recognise several speeches by the Linear Men, by Waverider and by the Atom, as well as the Atom’s death, which was one of the outcomes of that miniseries. The writer never makes it explicit that what we are looking at is Zero Hour, but leaves the conclusion very much available whilst we can observe the same happenings from a different viewpoint.

Curiously, the story in Legionnaires Annual #3 was scripted not by consistent, careful Mark Waid, but by Roger Stern. It is so coherent, so well fitting in the DC universe, so in line with the Flash’s tales to which it connects, so perfectly elegant before the chronologies of Zero Hour and of the Legion of Super-Heroes, that one would think that Waid were its true Author. The adherence to continuity and the respectful (as opposed to mocking) treatment of Marvel’s heroes indicate a connection of affection to the comics that we typically see in Waid’s work. Here I leave my compliments to the excellent job accomplished, not only by him who wrote but also by those who drew (Tony Castrillo, Chuck Wojtkiewicz and Dan Jurgens, the last of whom pencilled the “Zero Hour” sequence and had also been the penciller for the original Zero Hour miniseries) and especially those who edited (Ruben Díaz and KC Carlson, who had been one of Zero Hour‘s editors).

(*) Yes, I am partially aware of the effective return of Barry Allen after the Final Crisis. As I said, my reading is in 1996 and, at this point, DC stands by its intent to keep Barry definitively dead.