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.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism