Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Chain Lightning & The Dark Flash Saga

First be warned, this here review be packed with spoilers for almost two years' worth of Flash comics. So if you don't want to have the results of the Chain Lightning and Dark Flash saga spoiled for some reason, click on the forward bar over there in the upper-right corner and go read some nice fan-fic or look at some artwork.

Okay. Everybody who is going to stay here, here? Good.

This has been a very hard review to write for a number of reasons. The first being that at times I barely understood what I was reviewing. I've always had that problem with Mark Waid when reading his work on The Flash; understanding everything that was happening and where it was going. Well, that's not precisely true. I knew broadly WHAT was happening but the exact logic and sequence of the goings-on escaped me.

I am however dead honest in saying that I had no idea where I was heading at any given time, like I was riding a rollercoaster blindfolded. An apt metaphor, considering that in the last year of Flash comics, Wally West has himself been running blind, not knowing what he was running into.
The story began many months ago when an unknown assailant kidnapped Linda Park, fiancee of Wally West (a.k.a. The Flash, The Fastest Man Alive). Shortly after, everyone in the world forgot about Linda's existence for then unknown reasons. Wally didn't have time to worry about it though (even if he did remember her) due to the emergence of a new villain called Cobalt Blue.

Cobalt Blue, it turns out, is Barry Allen's long lost twin brother. Yes, it seems that Barry's mom gave birth to twins at a doctor's office the same night that another woman, Charlene Thawne was due with one child. Sadly, the doctor, who was quite drunk that night, accidentally strangled the Thawne's child. Attempting to make up for the mistake, he gave one of the Allen children to the Thawnes, convincing the Allens that one of the twins had been stillborn. The Thawnes named this boy Malcom.
The Thawnes were a family of con artists with a special power: a blue flame which could steal pain from another. They used their gift to temporarily take away a person's pain, attributing the loss of pain to a "magic salve", which they would sell to whoever witnessed the injured being healed. Malcom was abused by his family, since it was obvious to them that he was not really one of them.
In time, Malcom learned the truth of who he was and killed the doctor who had made the switch. He also gained the power of the blue flame and, under the name Cobalt Blue, set out to destroy Barry Allen and all the other Flashes. This resulted in the very large, very complicated Chain Lightning storyline where various Thawne descendants gained the power of the gem and tried to use it to destroy the Flash of that time period.

To make a long story short, despite the united efforts of 1,000 years worth of speedsters, Cobalt Blue assassinated Barry Allen in the 30th century during the short time he lived there with Iris. This created a major paradox, for without a Barry Allen to sacrifice himself during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Anti-Monitor won and Wally's attempt to return to the past resulted in him being trapped in an anti-Matter Universe. After two failed attempts to solve the problem by replacing Barry in his sacrifice and by trying to aid the assault on the Anti-Monitor, Wally saved the universe by simply going back to the 30th century, grabbing Cobalt Blue, and taking him into the Speed Force. This is believed to have killed Wally West.

Shortly after Wally disappeared, a new Flash appeared: one in a darker red costume with a silver lightning bolt. Referred to as the Dark Flash, this new hero refused to reveal his identity to the public at large. Indeed, save for Donna Troy and Superman (and eventually Jay Garrick) he refused to even tell his teammates who he was. What was known about this new Flash was that he had abilities that Wally West didn't, such as the ability to drain speed from objects. He also had a much more violent attitude towards the criminals that he fought. This violence resulted in the creation of a new villain: Replicant.

Replicant (who appeared first in Flash Secret Files #2) is Tony Gambi, nephew and adopted son of Paul Gambi; the tailor of choice for the Flash Rogues Gallery. (What? You thought Leo Snart designed that Eskimo outfit by himself? No way. You need a professional stylist to get an outfit like that.) Tony grew up with the Rogues being sort of a substitute family, his own parents having been killed when he was young. He was in Central City at the time of the Dark Flash's first appearance and witnessed a battle in which the more vicious speedster crippled Captain Boomerang and nearly killed Captain Cold.

Worried about what a more violent superhero might do to them, the mostly non-violent Rogues gathered together and with the aid of T.O. Morrow, they developed a process that would allow the person subjected to it to absorb the properties and abilities of any weapon they could get their hands on (kinda like MegaMan, but much more sinister). Paul Gambi volunteered to undergo the treatment and after absorbing the powers of Captain Cold, Heatwave, Mirror Master, Weather Wizard and Dr. Alchemy, became Replicant.

Meanwhile, Linda Park (Remember her? Don't worry if you forgot. So did everyone else) managed to escape from her captor, who was revealed to be Kadabra. The Mad Magus kidnapped her, took her outside of time and cast a spell of forgetfulness on the world so that nobody would remember her. Well, nobody except Impulse… but everyone just assumed that Linda was an imaginary friend of his. At any rate, she managed to escape and thought she had found Wally, only to learn (according to him) that she was dead.

It seems that Linda, trapped outside of time, managed to find her way into another reality where she was killed by Kobra (See Flash: Terminal Velocity for that story as it happened in OUR world). It was then, as she was trying to get away from this new Wally (who was a wanted criminal hunted by the police) that another man in a Flash costume showed up. Will the Real Wally West please stand up?

Speaking of an identity crisis, the Dark Flash finally revealed himself to be Wally West to the rest of the Speedster family. He was 10 years older, and scarred with a lightning bolt down his cheek, but he refused to explain how he had gotten that way and why he had been so secretive about his identity before. The Dark Flash also became romantically involved with Angela Margolin, the police scientist who took Barry Allen's post after his death. The Dark Flash continued his courtship of Angela, all while dealing with the new threat of Replicant

Meanwhile, back on the alter-Earth…. the two Flashes had begun fighting over Linda, the psychotic Flash showing the ability to steal the speed from other objects. It was at this point that Kadabra appeared and explained that they were in another dimension. Aside from the Wally West of this world having blue eyes and the full name of "Walter West" (our Wally is "Wallace West" and has green eyes), the Linda Park of this world was killed by Kobra and Wally West had become more ruthless in his pursuit of criminals to the point of being declared a dangerous vigilante.

 The end result? Our Wally and Linda were vaporized as Wally tried to carry them through the dimensions again and "Walter" was aged 10 years and scared by Kadabra. Seeking to avenge his other self and Linda, "Walter" took on the identity of the Dark Flash and journeyed to the regular DC Universe to find Kadabra.

This brings us up to Flash #157, where Kadabra discovered that Walter West was the new Dark Flash. He summoned Replicant to his side and offered the young Rogue a chance to partner up and kill the man who nearly killed his mentors. Kadabra helpfully explains the situation thus far to Replicant (who seemed every bit as confused about this as I am).

Kadabra explained that it was Wally West's love for Linda Park that gave him an anchor that kept him from being consumed by the Speed Force. He reasoned that if he removed the anchor, sooner or later Wally would wind up out of his hair for good. He explained about the spell of forgetfulness and how Linda escaped his prison outside of time and made it to the parallel world of Walter West, where Linda Park had died months before and The Flash had become mentally unstable. Walter thought that Linda had somehow come back from the grave to be with him (And why not? After all, it happens every other month in someone else's comic…).

Yet through a fluke (probably his contact with the Speed Force putting him outside of time and out of the influence of Kadabra's magic) Wally DID remember Linda and instead of dying when he took Cobalt Blue into the Speed Force, he traveled to the alternate dimension when he sensed Linda there. Kadabra also showed up, seeking the escaped Linda. Kadabra wound up killing Wally and Linda and severely injured Walter. Needless to say, Kadabra loved the fact that he drove Walter even closer over the brink, having robbed him of his true love a second time. He had never counted on Walter journeying between dimensions for revenge.

At the same time, Walter explains the situation to Angela, including his motives for being the Dark Flash. He felt responsible for Wally and Linda dying and he wanted to make amends. But with his older body and scars, he needed a way to insure trust until he could find out how he and Wally differed in their lives and to keep Kadabra from knowing who he was.

It's at this point that Professor Zoom: The Reverse Flash shows up and offers to help deal with the new Flash ("The only good Flash is a dead Flash and I don't want this one breeding any more than you do."), bringing with him a new weapon called the Neuron Gauntlet. The issue ends with Zoom incapacitating the rest of the Speedster family (Jay Garrick, Impulse, Max Mercury and Jesse Quick).
Last month's The Flash #158 started with a bang… the most powerful Flash enemy of modern times, the arch-enemy of the entire Flash family and the most recent addition to the Rogues Gallery teaming up to bring down the Dark Flash. The three proved successful and Kadabra soon stood over a beaten and bruised Walter West, gloating that the last thing he would see would be the man who killed his precious Linda. Kadabra didn't count on one thing though. Walter looked back at him, shook his head in confusion and ruined the play with one word… "Who?"

Thinking that his spell must have somehow made Walter forget Linda Park along with the rest of the world, he negated the spell. After all, what point was there to his ultimate plan to destroy The Flash if nobody knew what he had accomplished. As Kadabra negated his spell, two things happened. First, Linda Park appeared amongst the assembled crowd of speedsters and villains. And secondly, the Reverse-Flash took off his mask to reveal a very unhappy looking Wally West.

After dealing with both villains, Wally gathered together everyone, in true Agatha Christie style to explain the latest twist in the plot. It seems that when Kadabra cast his spell to vaporize Wally and Linda, the two were already partly between dimensions. It still took everything Wally could muster to keep their atoms together as they got stuck in the spaces between worlds. The two became wraiths of energy, ghosts for all purposes, wandering between worlds. As ghosts, they watched Walter swear to avenge them and leave for their world. They tried to follow him and eventually found their world and Wally was able to solidify himself.

However, Linda could not return to normal because of Kadabra's magic. Wally went to Jay and told him about Walter and Linda. He then came up with a plan. Jay had Pied Piper construct a device that could disable Replicant: a nanovirus, placed in a weapon, that would disable his powers upon his trying to absorb that weapon. This weapon was the Neuron Gauntlet, which also doubled as a light projector and created the illusion of capturing energy fields. Jay also informed the other Speedsters of Wally's plan, telling them to freeze up when "Zoom" used his "gauntlet" on them. Finally, they also got Walter to feign ignorance as to who Linda was, so that Kadabra (whose massive ego would never allow his work to be unnoticed) would be forced to bring her back into existence. With all this explained, Walter proposes to Angela only to be stopped by a restraining lasso held by Wonder Woman. She and Superman look down on Walter as he says "Will you marry me?" and Superman says "No. Not if we can help it."

Superman and Wonder Woman reluctantly tell the assembled group about the existence of Hypertime: the bridgeway between alternate realities. It turns out that Walter's continued presence in the main DC reality is causing a major wrinkle in space and time and will eventually cause all the realities to collapse in on each other. The downshot of this being that Walter has to return to his world, leaving Angela behind. He can't even take a photo of her with him! Superman grants the couple six hours before Walter MUST leave.

The star-crossed couple go to spend their last hours in Rome (Angela's favorite city) while Wally and Linda begin planning a rush wedding (an easy enough task with a family of speedsters on site). Wally and Linda are married without incident, giving us the big wedding we were expecting over a year and a half ago. But the stage truly belongs to Walter and Angela. The two go to a chapel in Rome, where they give their own vows and "marry". Walter laments, "I'm the Fastest Man Alive. I can squeeze a thousand years out of every second… and it's still not near long enough."
Unsure that the two will ever remember each other, Walter leaves… and starts running… sorry that he'll never know for sure if he will be remembered.

It is then he enters another dimension… not his or the main DCU. He is astonished to find that the crowd around him doesn't recognize him. In fact, they start making fun of the guy in the silly costume. A man then grabs Walter and pulls him into a shop, commenting upon what a fan he must be. Walter looks around the store… and sees a large number of books devoted to the exploits of heroes in his world and the one he just left. Yes, Walter is in our world… in a comic shop. Playing a hunch, he picks up the new issue of "The Flash" and flips to the last page. He sees a smiling Angela, thinking, "I remember you, Walter. I'll always remember." With a grin, Walter disappears in a rush of paper…

What will happen to Walter from here on after at this point is anyone's guess. Literally. No series in all the time I've read comics has kept me guessing like this one. I didn't see a tenth of the aforementioned events coming. And for that, I would like to give a very hearty thanks to Mark Waid who has managed to do the impossible. In this day of Previews, Wizard Magazine Exclusives and numerous on-line scoopers and spoilers… he created a story where I honestly was surprised with every issue. This story also works on two levels. First of all, this story has all the elements of a classic fairy tale romance, with Wally and Walter both taking on the roles of princes in disguise out to reclaim their kingdom. To say nothing of the theme true love really can conquer all. Secondly, this story is a classic Silver Age story with numerous "silly comic" ideas. Evil Twins, a villain who can absorb weapons into himself….Impulse (in a reference to one of the more infamous silly Flash issues) even gets turned into a puppet at one point. And then… there is the ending of the Dark Flash saga, which ends with an old chestnut not seen since the days of the Superfriends cartoon.

That said, the storyline does have a few problems. As I said, the story was always a surprise and I was never really sure where it was going. By that same token, I sometimes didn't know where the story was coming from. Waid's writing is at times very convoluted and very fast-paced. Usually, it is not too hard to keep up with him in a double-issue story. But in a long storyline (and this one is LONG, spanning nearly a year and a half from Linda's disappearance up to now), this kind of writing can be disastrous if the reader misses an issue. If you live in an area, like me, where getting comics can be very difficult, the possibility of missing an issue is very likely. And I missed more than a few issues of this comic, having to piece together what I missed with friends on-line. This can really throw off a reader; to say nothing of the effect that this has on new readers to the series who come in on the middle of a long arc. To Waid's credit, he does explain most of the situation in 157 (Kadabra's speech to Replicant) but the series could have benefited from a "The Story Thus Far" section at the front.

Still, despite not being new-reader friendly and being hell to catch up with if you missed an issue, Waid's most recent run on The Flash has continued to evoke the classic Silver Age style that we are used to seeing from him…and coupled it with one thing rarely seen anymore: actual surprise endings.
My vote: 8 out of 10

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