By Joe Grunenwald — “Darkness. Eternal, malevolent, all-encompassing darkness.” Those are the first words of Flash Forward #1, and if there’s a better descriptor for the state of Wally West as the issue starts, I don’t know what it is.
It’s been a rough twelve months for fans of Wally West, objectively The Best Flash and I will hear no argument otherwise. After a triumphant return in 2016’s DC Universe: Rebirth one-shot, writer Tom King’s Heroes in Crisis, a nine-issue examination of the effects of trauma on heroes in the DCU, took Wally in an unexpectedly dark direction. Here’s the pertinent, Wally-related information from Heroes in Crisis, in case you missed it:
Wally West, feeling isolated in his grief over returning to the DCU to find his family having been erased post-Flashpoint, had a moment of weakness while staying at Sanctuary, the secret superhero treatment facility set up by Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. In that moment he reconstructed the scattered data for the video interviews of everyone who had ever stayed at Sanctuary, and viewed all of the video. The weight of taking in everyone’s trauma all at once caused Wally to lose control of his powers, accidentally killing the thirteen other residents of Sanctuary.
Realizing what he’d done, Wally attempted to make things right by staging a crime scene at Sanctuary, including his own body which he travelled five days into the future to kill and bring back; manipulating Booster Gold and Harley Quinn into believing they were the killers, sending investigating heroes on a wild goose chase to capture them; and releasing the confidential video interviews from Sanctuary to the public, to reveal to the world that heroes suffer trauma just like everyone else. In the end, Booster, Harley, and a team of others found Wally before he could kill himself and talked him out of it, and Wally turned himself in to await trial for his crimes.
Smarter people than me have already written about how Heroes in Crisis stigmatizes mental illness. Beyond that, there are fundamental issues with the plot of the series and the handling of Wally. King illustrates a complete misunderstanding of how superspeed in comics has always been presented—time is relative to speed, so Wally’s ‘moment of weakness’ would’ve lasted days, weeks, years, however long it would’ve taken him to reconstruct all of that video, plenty of time for him to realize that what he was doing was unforgivable. There’s also no precedent for a speedster ‘losing control’ of their powers and hurting anyone else, nor has the idea that that’s something to be concerned about ever been brought up, so it sort of feels like King just invented that as a way to justify making Wally the killer. Putting all of that aside and just looking at the events of the series, though, Heroes in Crisis tarnishes Wally West in the same way that Emerald Twilight tarnished Hal Jordan, and short of saying he was possessed, or completely erasing that the story happened, it’s hard to see how Wally goes forward from this without the killing, however accidental, of thirteen people hanging over his head forever.
Now, Flash Forward by Scott Lobdell, Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund, and Luis Guerrero is the first title to feature Wally since HiC ended. It finds Wally in prison at Blackgate, wearing a power-dampening collar, awaiting his trial and just trying to get by. He has apparently asked that no one visit him in prison, in effect isolating himself in the same way he was isolated while staying at Sanctuary, which didn’t go great then so it’s pretty questionable why he would do that to himself again. He’s visited by reporter Linda Park (Wally’s wife and the mother of his children pre-Flashpoint, who is now virtually a stranger to him with no memory of any of that), and he tangles with a few inmates before he’s whisked away by the being who delivered the aforementioned opening line of the book, Tempus Fuginaut. Fuginaut (mostly seen in the now-ended Sideways) has observed the rising Dark Multiverse and its effect on what he calls ”healthy worlds.” Over Wally’s objections, Fuginaut puts Wally in costume and sends him out into the multiverse to combat the dark forces.
Given the circumstances, Flash Forward #1 is actually an okay comic. In just about any other context, “Wally West saves the Multiverse” would be a comic I would be thrilled to read. The fact that it’s couched within the fallout of Heroes in Crisis is unfortunate, yet understandable. But the creative team is also, frankly, less than ideal. Writer Scott Lobdell has admitted to harrassing at least one woman in the past, and Bleeding Cool ran a piece a few months ago, when Flash Forward was on the cover of Previews, detailing more recent allegations against him. Artist Brett Booth hasn’t, to my knowledge, done anything remotely that bad, but he has been known to...not take criticism well, even when it’s not directed at him. Personally, I find Booth’s art to be an outdated relic of the ‘90s, his figures preposterously proportioned and his storytelling awkward. Look at this page from Flash Forward #1, in which Wally West and Linda Park attempt to hold phones without the use of their opposable thumbs:
Panel 7 looks like a way a person holds a phone, but I don’t know what they’re doing in the others. The combination of the context and the creative team makes Flash Forward #1 a challenging read for me to get into.
(Side note: Flash Forward also contradicts the core conceit of what caused Wally to kill all those people in Heroes in Crisis. Wally’s ‘moment of weakness’ came out of his feeling of isolation at Sanctuary. Yet Flash Forward features a memory of Wally at Sanctuary hanging out with his friend Roy Harper, and talking with Roy about the others who are also at Sanctuary with them. Heroes in Crisis, with its robes and gold masks, established Sanctuary as a place where residents didn’t know who else was there, if they ever even saw them. If Wally knew there were others there with him who were also struggling, why would he have felt so isolated?)
Dear reader, you may be asking, if I don’t care for the creative team or for one of the key elements of the series, why did I read Flash Forward #1?
DC co-publisher Dan Didio has made no secret of his dislike for characters like Nightwing, who have aged out of their original sidekick roles, calling them ‘redundant’ and saying that aging them means there’s ‘nowhere for them to go.’ During DC’s “Meet The Publishers” panel at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, in answering a fan’s question about plans for Wally, Didio joked that he knows every fan’s favorite Flash is Wally, so he clearly knows there’s a desire to read stories about the character, but there’s apparently a reluctance on Didio’s part to publish them.
Flash Forward, then, feels like a test on the part of DC Comics. ‘You say you want to read a Wally West series, but we really don’t want to make them, so here’s a miniseries spinning out of a story a majority of Wally West fans hated, by a creative team made up of a very problematic writer and a fairly lackluster artist. If it sells well, we’ll make more Wally West comics, most likely with this same creative team. If it doesn’t sell well, we tried and you didn’t support it so we won’t try anymore. What’s it gonna be?’ As fans we vote with our dollars, and as a Wally West fan, I would ask you, dear reader: what choice do I have?
In a way, for all the strikes against it, Flash Forward is the perfect Wally West comic for this moment. Plucked seemingly at random out of the ether by a cosmic force, Wally is thrust into action against his will. That’s also basically how he ended up as the killer in Heroes in Crisis. In an interview following the conclusion of the series, King said that he did not choose the characters for that series, and that they were dictated to him by DC editorial:
As I've said many times before, I don't pick the characters for my story; I give my plot to the editors and then the editors pick the characters for me. So I told them in the beginning, "this is what it's going to be -- it's going to be about one hero who's made a mistake and it's going to be about the two heroes that get framed for that mistake." And they said, "okay, it's Booster, Harley, and Wally, those are the three characters."
It wasn’t because he was the best character for the story, or because it made the most sense for the character. Wally West was made a murderer by editorial fiat. We don’t yet know why Tempus Fuginaut picked Wally for his Multiverse-saving mission, but hopefully it ends up being a less arbitrary decision than the one that led to him killing a bunch of people.
Joe Grunenwald is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He's taller than a lot of people but not as tall as some people.