Friday, November 29, 2013

1987 and all that 018: a villain who defeats himself

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

The Flash #5-6 (DC)
by Mike Baron, Jackson Guice, Jack Torrance, Larry Mahlstedt, Shelley Eiber, Steve Haynie

I’m not a real big Flash guy, but I’ve got nothing against the character either. I respect him from a distance, appreciative of what he can do and stand for as a superhero, but not especially drawn to him for any reason. As a result, my experience with Flash comic books is limited at best, and there are, I’m sure, many classic stories I’ve missed out on over the years. How, exactly, this seemingly minor two-issue arc from 1987 stacks up against the greater Flash library is impossible for me to say, but taken on its own, it’s a visually bold, conceptually compelling, and structurally unstable read.

At the time, Wally West was new in the role of the Flash. He’d been Kid Flash for years until his predecessor, Barry Allen, died at the end of 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' and Wally got to drop the “Kid” from his name. Whatever his moniker, though, he was still very much a kid, only twenty years old and also newly rich. Early in his days as the main Flash, Wally won the lottery, so suddenly he’s an A-list superhero and millionaire before he’s old enough to drink. His youth and relative inexperience are evident throughout this story, in which he half-bumbles through a few failed attempts to stop the villain before the villain accidentally stops himself. It’s not perfectly clear how much of Wally’s ineptitude was intentional on the part of writer Mike Baron, and how much of it is just a side effect from the script’s poor pacing. Whatever the case, Wally’s not too impressive a hero or even a man here, but lucky for him, he doesn't need to be in order to win in the end.

The plot of this narrative, which does not have a name but takes place in two issues titled “Speed McGee” and “Super Nature,” revolves around Wally being romantically involved with a married woman, and her completely insane husband’s misguided attempts to get revenge/win her back. She is Tina McGee, who the Flash met in a previous issue during some speed tests they conducted together in Utah. Her husband is Jerry McGee, a brilliant scientist whose most recent experiments have stolen his mind. He’s been researching steroids in an attempt to create new super-humans, and has even gone so far as to inject himself with the drugs, which have eaten away at his sanity. Now a rage-filled madman, Jerry finds himself losing Tina, who has become quite enamored of Wally since their initial encounter. Convinced that Wally is a threat to his marriage (which is essentially true) Jerry decides to do something about it, and creates a costume designed to regularly dose him with the experimental steroids and also uses various additional bits of sci-fi technology to further enhance his physical abilities. The result is a hulking, crazed beast of a man in purple-and-yellow spandex with super speed, ridiculous levels of strength, and a seemingly impenetrable tolerance for pain.

It is Jerry as a supervillain—the cover of issue #6 names him “Speed Demon” but nobody ever says that in-story so I’m just going to keep calling him “Jerry”—that provides the most impressive visuals. Jackson Guice (before he went by “Butch”) makes Jerry a truly horrific figure, his massive, warped body straining against the weight of its own might. When he bleeds, which is often, it is a viscous black, which may be partly thanks to colorist Shelley Eiber, but the sickeningly sticky texture, if not the dark hue, is certainly Guice’s work. In addition to his overstuffed size and shape, Jerry’s maniacal anger and over-confidence make him dominate every panel he’s in. He also dominates every fight, despite the Flash’s best efforts. No amount of high-speed punching is enough to even phase Jerry in his drug-enhanced state, so he trounces Wally a couple times, once to kidnap Tina back, and then later when he tries to murder his former boss, Dr. Bortz. Though Jerry doesn't succeed in getting Tina or killing Bortz, in neither case is it the Flash who actually foils his plans. No, it is Jerry’s own superpowers that thwart him, or rather his inability to keep them under control. When he snatches Tina and tries to run away with her, he accidentally charges full speed into a fuel depot, causing a massive explosion that, though Jerry survives, forces him to drop his wife. Later, the Flash tries to defend Bortz, so he and Jerry get into a fierce melee. Jerry quickly gets the upper hand, and is mere seconds away from snapping Wally’s spine when, all of a sudden, his body finally craps out on him after days of extra-strength steroids and reckless violence.

I’m quite fond of the idea of a supervillain who’s too powerful for his own britches. It’s pretty common for bad guys to seem impossible to beat at first, usually because this makes the hero’s eventual victory all the more satisfying. In this case though, Baron goes the opposite route, and I appreciate his commitment to making Jerry such a massive threat that the Flash never does figure out a way to save the day. Baron takes the common approach of creating an apparently insurmountable obstacle at the start of the story, but then surprises the reader by having the problem solve itself. The Flash is almost incidental to this tale, except that without him, Jerry would have no reason to become a ‘roided out super-lunatic. Also, Dr. Bortz might have died if the Flash was not around to defend him, though even that’s not for certain, since Bortz already had a weapon on hand specifically designed to deal with Jerry’s new powers. Having the Flash be such an insignificant player in his own book might turn some people off, but I don’t have a problem with it here because it fits with Baron’s general characterization of Wally as immature and inexperienced. He’s rash, he lacks forethought, he gets involved with a married woman eleven years his senior, he handles his newfound riches poorly, and so on. Failing to defeat Jerry goes right along with the rest of Wally’s shortcomings.

That’s the core of this narrative, and it’s a solid one. Baron and Guice construct Jerry as a convincingly terrifying new villain, and his brief, brutal story is atypical and artistically interesting enough to support the two issues it takes up. Where these comics fail to deliver, though, is in all the non-Jerry material. Baron can’t quite seem to strike a balance between the Jerry-vs.-Flash scenes and all the other storytelling that needs to take place. Wally’s scenes with Tina are consistently too short for their relationship to develop the way it ought to for this narrative to be at its best. Their romance is so new, their bond so thin, that without more room to see them get to know and care for one another, it’s hard to feel invested in them as a couple. This in turn makes the stakes seem lower, since the whole conflict is based on Wally and Jerry both wanting to be with Tina.

This is the most obvious example of Baron mismanaging things, because it’s a problem throughout the entire story, but there are other, more isolated instances as well. Wally’s dad shows up suddenly to crash at his son’s mansion with a flimsy-at-best explanation as to why. Then, once he’s settled in, the narrative forgets about him completely, and he’s not seen again for the duration of this story-line. Later, after Jerry’s first attack, Wally contacts his teammates in the Teen Titans to have them protect Tina, which they do for about three pages, even flying her out to Titans Tower. But almost as soon as she arrives, Tina decides she doesn't want to stay in the safe, secure environment if it means being apart from Wally, so he agrees to take her back, making the entire trip essentially pointless. It comes across as Baron feeling obligated to address why Wally isn't turning to his friends for help, rather than having a legitimate story reason for including them. The ending leaves a lot to be desired, too. While, as I said, I’m a fan of Jerry taking himself down, it does happen rather abruptly. Afterwards, there’s a rushed, jumpy final few scenes, hurriedly tying up the story’s loose ends before charging right into a teaser for the book’s next arc. It’s a bungled closing beat, not given the proper space to do everything it wants to do.

Basically, anything in this narrative not directly related to Jerry’s destructive (and self-destructive) streak is given the short shrift. Which is too bad, but better a lack of balance than a lack of anything interesting at all. Jerry is an intense, fascinating villain who brings some unusual and unexpected elements to this comic, and that on its own makes these issues worth reading. They’d be even more enjoyable if Baron could more deftly juggle all the balls he has in the air, but both he and Guice put their focus on a single character instead, making him memorable and immensely entertaining, but only at the rest of the tale’s expense.


  1. I have read a few Flash comics from that era. I think Baron & Guice were a really good creative team.

    By the way, I love the idea of reading comics the year you were born... perhaps I should do the same.


    1. Yeah, I gotta say, focusing on all this material from back when I was born has been unexpectedly satisfying, enlightening, and educational. Helps me better appreciate what has changed in the medium/industry during my lifetime, and also what's stayed the same. So yeah, if you're inclined to do this, too, I say go for it!