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.

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses