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.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear