(or "Central City Law")
"Now hold on just a minute!" I hear you say, even before I begin my introduction. (Which I'm fine with, because we've been through a lot together, you and I.) "I've been willing to read about anthologies as storytelling engines, I've been willing to read about histories as storytelling engines--I even went along with you on 'The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe', for cripes sakes!" (It's so charming that you don't swear on my blog.) "But 'The Trial of the Flash' isn't a storytelling engine, it's just a freaking story! A long story, but a story nonetheless!"
But then I hand you the thick, 500+ page collection of the 'Trial of the Flash' storyline. You read the whole thing. At last, you hand it back to me. "Okay," you say. "I think I see where you're going with this."
Because in actual fact, the trial of the Flash isn't just one story. It's a whole status quo for the series, with new supporting characters (the Flash's sexy new lawyer), new antagonists (Big Sir, the grandstanding D.A., the shady lawyer who's determined to get the Flash as his client)...and a new motivation and purpose to the series. The Flash is now a character under suspicion of murder, not a civic hero. How does this change the way people react to him? How do his villains view this now-clouded character? How do his parents, his friends, his ex-fiancee react? The setting of the courtroom, the conceptual setting of being on trial, becomes fertile ground to plant the seeds of multiple storylines.
Obviously, this is a concept that has roots; at any given time, you can flip the channel to a legal show of some kind. "Perry Mason", "LA Law", "Law and Order", "JAG", "The Defenders"...we are fascinated by the law and the criminal justice system. There is endless potential for drama involved, the stakes are frequently life and death, and the fate of a person can depend on skilled, moving rhetoric--exactly the kind of thing a good writer should excel at. The idea of a superhero series that is also a law drama should be bona fide gripping drama.
So why was 'Trial of the Flash' so unpopular at the time that it led to the cancellation of the series and the death of the character in 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'? (Spoilers, sorry.)
There are a couple of reasons. The first is that it is, like much of the late Bronze Age at DC, tinged with just enough silliness to make it seem corny, and just enough painful earnestness and attempts at mimicking Marvel's darker, more introspective characters to take the joy out of it. (There is a reason that DC decided to completely revamp its entire fictional universe at about this time, after all.) Characters like Big Sir are irritating and unwelcome, the attempts at turning this into a serious legal drama merely highlight how utterly comic-booky the whole thing is (Bob Ingersoll kept up a running commentary in his column at the time on the sheer number of major, trial-derailing legal mistakes the series made. It's worth tracking down.) And the conclusion is a ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn a happy ending into the story...and series...when the decision had already been made to bump off the character in another book.
But that's not why it was unpopular. It was unpopular because it was a false status quo.
When a trial begins, everyone knows that it has to end. The law finds the defendant guilty or innocent, they either go to jail or go free, and everyone moves on. Law series don't spend a whole season on one case; they get to the verdict, usually within an hour. When you announce that there will be a "trial of the Flash", people don't want to see how he copes with the pressure of being in the public eye or what the latest legal maneuver will be, they want to see whether he's guilty or not. And every issue where you don't reveal that verdict is an issue where people get a little more impatient. Doing a full two-year long trial almost in real time becomes a recipe for frustration, particularly in a pre-"decompression" era. It's this frustration that comes out in the reviews of the era, and it's this frustration that's probably the reason why we won't see an experiment like the trial of the Flash carried out again soon.
Or maybe we will. If Teen Iron Man has taught us anything, it's that writers will try anything.