Comics That Make Tom Cry (Out) – The Flash #116

The title of this week’s column is a bit misleading. The type of crying this book induced wasn’t the waterworks type. It was more of a cry of relief. A loud exclamation when I realized what was happening in this issue. The creators were manipulating me and I fell for it. Hook. Line. Sinker.

Superhero comics have to walk a fine line. We all know that nothing is really permanent in comics. The hero ends up winning in the end. It might take awhile, and some really bad things  might happen, but in the end the scales of justice tip towards the good guys. At the same time, creators have to create drama. There has to be stakes for the emotion to flow. Without the emotion, the readers can’t immerse themselves. The drama and emotion are needed to elevate the superhero story beyond being a checklist of plot events.


Sometimes the real stakes of the story aren’t the city being at peril, or the Earth being invaded. Those world shattering events are going on in the background but the real drama is on a personal level. An perfect example of this is The Flash (V2) #116 from 1996; written by Mark Waid, with art by Oscar Jimenez and Jose Marzan, Jr.

This issue is part four of a larger story line, Race Against Time. It isn’t even the climax of the story line, yet there is a moment in the book that always makes me cry out on the inside. Wally West, The Flash at this time, has become lost in the time stream. In the previous story line he had to run into the Speed Force in order to defeat an evil speedster by the name of Savitar. Waid and team had previously established that the Speed Force is a nirvana for speedsters. Once a being passes into it, they start to lose their own personal identity. They slowly become absorbed into the larger force. Wally had passed into the Speed Force previously, but was able to find his way back home. His anchor to reality was his girlfriend, Linda Park. Her love was a beacon that would allow Wally to escape the Speed Force. If that love faltered, what would happen? That was the central drama in Race Against Time.

Wally and Linda’s relationship had grown slowly over the course of the book. With the relaunch of the title after Crisis on Infinite Earths, Wally West was obviously a very different Flash from Barry Allen. He wasn’t as fast of course, but he was more personally flawed. He was the kid taking over the family business, except maybe he wasn’t quite ready. Mike Baron wrote him as a bit of a womanizer, not really thinking about how his actions affected those around him. He flitted from relationship to relationship. Wally needed a woman to straighten him up, something that I am familiar with on a personal level. William Messner-Loebs introduced Linda as an investigative reporter that seemed to get mixed up with The Flash regularly. A relationship grew over time.  A relationship that was one of the most realistic in Superhero books.

Wally wasn’t perfect and he knew it. He didn’t think he deserved to take over for his beloved Uncle Barry. He lied to Linda when he thought it would help protect her from danger. In general he was like most men in their twenties, insecure about who they are and trying to BS their way out of relationship problems instead of just dealing with it head on. Wally had created doubt in Linda’s mind about where exactly she stood with him. Doubt that would put Wally in danger.

At the start of this story line, issue #112, we are reintroduced to a Flash from the future. A man by the name of John Fox, who is from the 27th century. In a special Anniversary issue of the Flash, John Fox had tried to gather the different Flashes from throughout time to battle a villain by the name of Mota. Failing to gather the Flashes, he did gain super speed from the time travel involved in his adventure. Using his powers he defeated Mota, and became the Flash of his time period. He pops into  the present, just as Wally seems to have disappeared. He says he simply came back to meet Wally and had no other motives or plans.
 

John Fox is a goof. We don’t necessarily know it for sure at first. Over time though we see that he doesn’t quite have a handle on his powers. He also strikes me as a lonely and awkward man. With Wally’s absence, John sticks around to help protect Keystone. He crashes at Linda’s apartment where Piper is also staying. Something else begins to happen. John starts to get the idea that he can replace Wally. Wally hasn’t been gone for this long previously and Linda is putting up a brave face but is obviously concerned. Linda is hounding John about his knowledge of past events. She hopes that since he is from the future he should have knowledge of what happened to Wally. In this moment John makes a decision that breaks my heart, he implies that Wally never returns. He doesn’t really know, but to get close to Linda he lies.

Over the next couple issues John helps Linda track down Chillblaine and they grow closer. She is in mourning and John feels like he can be the person he wants to be with Linda.  Wally is stuck travelling through time. Leaping form a future society based on his personality to meeting Barry Allen’s kids. He is lost. He enters the Speed Force again and again, but the beacon home is getting weaker. Every time he enters the force he starts to forget Linda more and more.

The creators do an amazing job weaving drama from this simple love story. After seeing Wally and Linda go through so much to be together, we are watching the relationship start to fade away. Not with the thunderclap of a death, but with the slow fading of memory and love. I remember the feeling of dread these issues gave me at the time they came out. Waid was always great at making the reader feel like Wally might disappear and not come back, that he really was in danger most of the time. There was a real sense of excitement with the character. Month after month of seeing Wally become more lost was taking it’s toll on me.

Issue #115 really pissed me off. It ended with Linda kissing John and Wally seemingly fading into the Speed Force. It was like a double slap to the face. I felt like Linda was cheating on me. HOW COULD SHE KISS JOHN!?! He was just a second rate Flash. The next issue was high drama for me. Waid had done his job. I was twisting on the line.

Wally doesn’t even appear in #116, but his presence is felt throughout the issue. Doctor Polaris and Abra Kadabra have hatched a plan to freeze the Earth and start a disaster that will allow them to rebuild the world in their image. John and Linda enter the fray to stop the disaster. As the issue moves forward,  we see John start to fall apart. He can’t handle what is going on. Every move he makes seems to cause a bigger disaster. The whole time in my head I am thinking, “Wally would know what to do.” John can't stop the freezing apparatus and starts to confess his strong feelings to Linda. Then it happens. The moment that still makes me yelp inside.


Linda starts to turn against John. She knows that he as been lying and hasn’t been truthful. He isn’t her hero. He folds in the crunch. The city needs a real hero. In the perfect match of art and writing, we see lightning bolts flashing in the sky behind Linda. It grows louder and louder, almost like footsteps pounding their way home. She runs off. She remembers now how much she loves Wally. Lightning continues to flash in the sky…..then….then…..Linda is frozen. A wild cliffhanger that had me on the edge of my city. I had no doubt Wally would be back. The beacon was there for him.

In the next issue Wally returns, shows up John Fox, saves the day, Linda defrosts, and I sit back completely satisfied by the story. Sometimes the reader needs to have their faith rewarded. You go through years of threats and almost break ups, and you get pushed right up to the edge. When you get pulled back it is the best experience in fiction. You know you shouldn’t have been worried, but you were.

I have read this issue numerous times, and I still get the same rush when I see those lightning bolts in the background. If you are interested in reading this story you are either going to have to find the issues, buy the trade on eBay, or meet me at a public location. The trade is unfortunately out of print. HEY DC! Get this reprinted. Or else.

 


Tom Katers just wants those two crazy kids to stay together.

Comments

  1. Great article, Tom!  I recently found those issues at Half Price Books.  They’re as good as you say.

  2. I need to read this story!!

  3. Great pick, Tom. The Mark Waid Wally West stories remain some of my favorite Flash stories. I liked a bit of what Messner-Loeb did, but it was really Waid who came in and crafted some really heartfelt stories that were still fun action/adventure super-hero comics. This piece makes me want to dig those out and read ’em all over again.

  4. Damn! Even your synopsis had me on the edge of my seat. Sounds like a great arc!

  5. Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

    I’m not quite sure how I managed it, but I do have all the trades that came out for Waid’s run on FLASH. The ‘Race Against Time’ storyline was indeed a good one. Those trades make for some great reading. During his run, Waid built the Flash family up so beautifully and his take on the Linda/Wally relationship was the core of that book. In the trade for ‘Terminal Velocity,’ he makes the claim that he was writing a love story in that arc, not a superhero story. I think there’s a fine argument that could be made that this is true for most of his run, not just those issues.

    It irks me that they never collected the storyline where Linda and Wally finally got married!

  6. Why are all women who marry Flashes succubuses??  er….succubi??

  7. Man, that Mark Waid run on The Flash in the 90s was just awesome. Lots of great story arcs, great characterization, cool ideas, just awesome all around. He really developed Wally into an awesome character. Everyone loves Barry, but the Waid run on this made me like Wally more.

     His return to The Flash a few years ago stunk, though.

  8. Never liked this arc, how quick Linda was to change sides, to me this run was rather unrealistic character wise

  9. Oh yeah, I loved the hell out of this arc. Waid’s Flash was just so so good, though this was probably the last truly great arc he had with the character.

  10. thanks guys… I only just got over this…. Now the wound has opened again…sob…..snifff…..gulp…