The new Flash comic: what happens when an artist tries writing too?

Alex Hern reviews The Flash: Move Forward by DC.

The Flash: Move Forward
Francis Manapul (W/A) and Brian Buccellato (W/C)
DC Comics, 192pp HC, £18.99

In the Autumn of 2011, DC comics took the unprecedented step of ending all of their ongoing series, and restarting them from number one with a streamlined continuity and shuffled creative teams. Superman and Lois Lane were never married; Barbara Gordon — Batgirl — still suffered the events of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke but was never crippled as a result; and poor Wally West, the third Flash, was erased from existence entirely.

Given one of the key features of corporate comics has always been their decades of continuous storylines (a blessing and a curse: what can be a selling point for dedicated fans is also a notorious hurdle for new readers to leap), the move was audacious. But it wasn't just continuity which suffered. The initiative — promoted as "The New 52", after the 52 titles which were restarted from issue one — also marked a new low for an industry which has historically ranked the importance of the fictional characters above the very real writers and artists who create them.

DC "promised" an end to late shipping of titles — a problem which had, admittedly, plagued some series before the reboot — which they achieved by swapping out artists who were too slow to hand in finished pages. Even series launched by superstar artists, like Yanick Paquette on Swamp Thing, weren't immune. He was supported by Victor Ibáñez by issue three. And they've shown the same tendency towards writers, throwing Gail Simone off Batgirl (apparently due to her refusal to write the storyline editorial had requested), only to recant following fan outrage.

For obvious reasons, this policy hasn't led to the best results in the company (though it has indeed ensured that most comics ship every month on cue). It's had to resort to further gimmicks down the line, including a "zero month" (when all comics ran an issue zero, partially to straighten out the already convoluted backstory, partially to boost lagging sales) and an increasing number of crossovers and mini-events.

All of which is to say that the diamonds in the rough deserve extra credit. Managing to turn out a good comic despite everything being stacked against you is a mark of impressive talent. And The Flash shows that Francis Manapul possesses a hefty amount of that.

The rebooted version The Flash is a rare thing in corporate comics, since it's largely the work of one man, Manapul (Brian Buccellato has a co-writer credit and colours the work). Manapul had been the artist on the previous series of the Flash, scripted by DC Comics' Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, and did an admirable job. But he was still illustrating a relatively staid script.

Writing for himself gives him the opportunity to really cut loose. The most obvious example of his freedom is the way in which the title of the comic is intertwined with the narrative in every issue. Take the splash from the first of the eight comics in the hardcover collection:

As well as being an impressive pin-up of Barry Allen, the second Flash and lead of the book, it continues the narrative of him taking on the masked intruders who appeared on the prior page.

That inventiveness with layouts is apparent throughout the book. A recent highlight, which will likely be collected in the second hardcover, features a nine-page sequence which stitches together to make one continuous spread. And the way Manapul illustrates a new power the Flash develops in the second issue is a wonderful example of exposition which is only possible in comics — the same effect simply couldn't be replicated in prose or cinema. Manapul knows his medium, and plays to it.

The flip side of an inventive young illustrator being given near total control over a book is that The Flash is the first mainstream work that he has written, and it shows. The dialogue can be a bit clunky, although to a certain extent that matches the artistic style which, in its bold colours and uncluttered line-work, evokes DC comics' Silver Age. More problematic is the plot and character work. The first arc shows an inventiveness which bodes well — who's the perfect villain for the fastest man alive? Someone who can be multiple places at the same time, of course — but it tapers off after that. The characters are largely unaltered from the archetypes (super-smart scientist, bossy lady reporter, hard-working forensic detective) which have existed in superhero comics for decades.

But comics are a visual medium, and in corporate comics that fact seems increasingly forgotten in favour of brand support and a continuing churn of dangerous adventures for the leads to face. In giving Manapul the chance to focus on another aspect of the medium, DC made at least one good decision before it all went wrong.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle