Pipeline: Remembering Ringo & Waid's "Flash"

Tue, June 24th, 2014 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
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THE FLASH BY WAID AND WIERINGO

Nearly a decade before Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo's well-received run on "The Fantastic Four," the two worked together at DC Comics on "The Flash." It was Wieringo's first monthly series, and it didn't last all that long, to be honest. He did twelve issues in about a year and a half ("The Flash" #80-83, #85-88, #90-92, #0), but the growth was phenomenal. You could see the budding artist mature, becoming more confident and comfortable in his work. What started out stiff, awkward, and looking like a thousand decent budding artist portfolios would grow into something more polished and fleshed out. His style was always there, but using it to good effect took some extra on-the-job training.

At the start in issue #80, Wally West was a lumpy, non-descript superhero. Wieringo's art skills were still a little shaky. There are proportion problems here and there. Characters aren't seen at the peak of action, instead looking stiff and too often posted like an action figure.

At a time when the DC house ads were filled with gritty characters drawn in poor Jim Lee imitation styles, Wieringo's softer curvier line was an anomaly. As I recall, he wouldn't become more popular until the manga craze swept over comics and Wieringo's art style suddenly didn't seem so crazy.

Wieringo's Flash is expressive, going from shock to determination in the span of a panel or two. That "cartoonish" sensibility of his art leads to a lot of panels where the readers gets to see what the character is feeling before seeing what they think, just because of what is drawn on the page. It looks like Kevin Maguire may have influenced Wieringo on some of the pages. Those unique expressions were often beyond just the Happy/Sad/Mad emotional triumvirate of many beginning artists.

As a superhero, Flash ran with a wall of red light laced with yellow lightning trailing behind him. His costume is sleek and shiny. When the time comes for a super dramatic pose or reaction, Wieringo delivers. As dynamic as those action scenes became, Wieringo also did a strong job in drawing the "normal" human beings. As a superhero with no secret identity, Wally West is able to come in and out of his "private" life more quickly. Characters have different looks across the board. Some are clearly based on people Wieringo knew, but that trick works. It keeps artists from getting too homogeneous with their depictions of non-superhero folks. There's a panel, for example, where someone talks to Flash's significant other, Linda Park, and I can't quite tell if that's supposed to be Mike Wieringo, or his brother, Matt.

Who is that mustached man? Mike Wieringo? Or his brother?

The run starts off slowly. The initial four-part storyline guest stars Dick Grayson and Starfire, along with an ex-flame of Wally's named Frankie Kane. There's a period of adjustment needed, I think, to get into the book. At first, it's tough to get over the early '90s fashions and seemingly odd continuity. Starting a run with guest stars that bring additional baggage to the series didn't help, though I suppose it helped to attract Teen Titans fans to the series.

But things kick into gear with the second story, where an untouchable tough guy named Razer wreaks destructive havoc on the city. Both Flash and Linda Park get drawn into the mystery while Flash tries to work out how to deal with a foe he physically can't grab a hold of. In the melee, a decision is made that comes back to haunt Flash a few issues down the road. With the helping hand of one of Flash's oldest enemies, that mistake is turned into a public spectacle, with the Flash being discredited and racked with guilt over his missed opportunity.

It's another example of how Waid clearly had a long-term plan for the title. The batch of issues Wieringo draws forms a clear arc, with stories building upon themselves. Waid adds layers to the story. It's not that he's telling A-plots and B-plots and letting one evolve to take over from the other. This is all A-plot, with consequences from each rolling over to the next. Each story is self-contained; the impact is felt in successive stories.

Just for a sense of perspective: These issues all led up to the "Terminal Velocity" storyline, where Waid revealed the Speed Force, something that's been a Flash staple ever since.

The strength of Waid's writing is in Wally's characterization. Wally is a hero, but also a bit of a hot head. Being super-fast, he'll occasionally take his time to fight crime with a flourish. He loves being The Flash, and he lets that show with his sense of humor. His captions are often terse and direct. When he's at top speed and his thoughts bounce all over the place, those short sentences form a great rhythm, to the point where it's too bad when Flash thinks in drawn out sentences.

Waid is also clever when he deals with the superheroic angle of the title, as well. He crafts situations for Wally to be in that work against his powers or against his personality. It's never a case of The Flash just needing to find a way to be even faster. When Waid gets to that story, it's a tale of The Flash versus himself, of trying too hard to be all things to all people and saving everyone. Honestly, that might be my favorite issue of them all.

In "The Flash" #91, Wally West is just getting past a situation where he couldn't save a woman. He saved ten other people in that moment, sure, but leaving that one woman to be hurt is too much for him. He borrows Johnny Quick's formula and uses it at a moment when all seems lost. He speeds up so much that time effectively stands still. That's when Max Mercury steps in to show Wally what goes on in the city at any given moment. He proves to Wally -- by showing him -- that he can't be everywhere all at once. Heck, even when he is in the right place at the right time, he might not be able to save anyone. It's a strong story that pits Wally against time and himself, learning a smart lesson at the right time.

The action isn't forgotten in "The Flash" #91, as Wally makes a desperate attempt to save a helicopter from crashing into a bridge.

It's another issue, too, where Waid balances the needs of dramatic superhero action with deeper emotional cues. Yes, the bulk of the issue feels like a talking heads thing. It's Max and Wally having a chat, but the opening and closing bits are strong action, and everything inbetween is visually interested. Not only is the town stuck in time, but we see interesting moments in that time.

You can see here where some of the black lines are dropped out, and areas that would be solid black normally are drawn in a little sketchier.

It's the entire creative team that pitches in to make this one work so well. Wieringo adjusts his style to accommodate the frozen time frame, dropping out lines and making solid black areas slightly sketchier. You feel like you're drifting through a frozen timescape this way. The changes are very subtle, but they work. Gina Going's colors are a big part of that success, using softer colors throughout those moments, keeping the hazier feeling, and not overpowering the art that's partially missing. Inker Jose Marzan, Jr., obviously, plays a huge part in the issue, too. It's his final lines -- and final non-lines -- that make the issue so strong. He keeps the detail where it counts and drops it out to accommodate the stillness of the scene.

Just a few months later came "Flash #0." This is the issue that crossed over with the "Zero Hour" event, which I bet not too many people remember any of the details from. Doesn't matter. The thing that counts here is that Waid pays off an event from Wally West's childhood that set him on his course for life. He had been dropping hints about it for months, but here it pays off. Waid has said this is one of his most personal issues, and it doesn't take a genius to read between the lines of this issue to see how that might be.

Young Wally lives in a small town. His parents are constantly fighting. His father expects him to get a normal job and to stop dreaming. This is hardly a unique story in the world. And, as Wally even mentions in the issue, a lot of it comes from the right place. What parent wouldn't want to see their child get a safe dependable job instead of dreaming of something silly and less reliable like creating comics or being a superhero? Of course, that just makes Wally's eventual growth into The Flash even more triumphant.

While there is a superhero universe framing sequence to this issue, the real story is what happens between those moments. Waid pulls that off beautifully, with a story that fills Flash fans with hope.

The zero issue is also Wieringo's last. He'd do a few more covers, but his interior work was over. He would soon move on to a "Rogue" mini at Marvel and then back to DC for a run on "Robin." Then he'd go back to Marvel for "Sensational Spider-Man," then to Image for "Tellos," before going back to Marvel for "Fantastic Four."

Mark Waid's run on "The Flash" defined the character for a whole generation of comics fans. Whether DC realized it or not, it also strongly defined him for a generation after that. His stamp was left on the title, and the concepts he left behind are still felt. For a year and a half, Mike Wieringo joined him on that ride. It was the start of a creative partnership that would only blossom into something better a decade later, but it was a very good start. It's also a great way to see how far Wieringo came in his career. He learned the ropes in public and did a pretty good job along the way.

NOSTALGIA

Honestly, I think I started picking up "The Flash" because Alan Davis was doing the covers. Reviews of Waid's previous storylines had been good, too, so I knew issue #80 was a good jumping on point. (I guess I read those reviews in "Comics Buyer's Guide"? I was still a year away from college when this run began in 1993, so I didn't have the internet and Rec.Arts.Comics, yet...) I enjoyed it, but comics money was tight at that age, and at one point I decided to stop reading "The Flash." I changed my mind the next month. The only issue I missed was the one that introduced Impulse. Whoops. It wasn't easy to find that one in a back issue bin. Eventually, you could, but you had to pay top dollar. I think it was collected in a trade at some point, but I never picked it up.

To this day, I've never read that issue, though I still think that year on "Impulse" with Waid and Humberto Ramos have some of the best comics from that time period. Maybe we'll take a second look at those in the future sometime.

I had two letters printed during this run of comics, in issues #87 and #90. As with most of my published writing of that time period, I'd rather not look at it ever again. Those were some great letters columns, otherwise, with two pages worth of letters from regulars like Carl Pietrantonio, Joey Marchese, Simon DelMonte, Jeff DeMos, and more.

I'm happy to say that I don't write in that voice anymore. It's been 20 years. Happy to see I've improved. (Also, the "say hello to Mark Waid" thing was a bit of a running gag of the letters column at the time.)

I hadn't taken some of these comics out of their bags and boards in more than a decade. I bet some of them had been sitting in there for longer than 15 years. Let me show you what happens when a comic stays on the same backing board for that long. On the left is the back cover. On the right is the backing board it was sitting on, pressed into a longbox. I use Silver Age size bags and boards for the extra bit of room, which is why you see a little extra border around the board. Let this be a lesson to all of us to change out those bags and boards every decade or so.

I enhanced the brown board so you can see it clearer, but trust me -- it's pretty ugly as it is. I didn't do much with it here.

POST-SCRIPT

The day this sees print would have been Mike Wieringo's 51st birthday. Celebrate the day by, at the very least, heading over to his DeviantArt page and paging through all the sketches there. Yes, you may have seen them all originally, but it's probably been a while. One or two will likely look new, or make you catch your breath all over again. It's worth it.

If you need direct pointers, go look at "Space Friend," "Scarlet Witch" (if just for the inking on it), "Rhiannon," "Ultimate Spider-Ham," "Blacksad," and "Hawke and Dani" (from "Tellos").

Last year, I looked at Mike Wieringo's Widescreen "Fantastic Four", and there's a bunch of links from this 2009 column to various books Wieringo worked on that I did write-ups on.

And, of course, iFanboy invited me to be on their Wieringo-themed video show back in 2007.

Next week: I catch up on "The McSpidey Chronicles." Or, at least, there'll be something McSpidey-related. You'll see what I mean next week.

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