Monday, August 29, 2011

Storytelling Engines: Trial of the Flash

(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.


Jim S said...

Steven Bochco tried a long-form trial show called "Murder One" in the mid-1990s. The first season starred Daniel Benzali and it had one major trial for that year. Of course Benzali wins, of course his client is innocent, despite being a total scumbag and of course, thanks to Benzali, the real murderer is found a la Perry Mason and Matlock.

When I'm king of the universe, all shows that feature defense attorneys will only have guilty clients. Just once I'd like to see Matlock defend a guilty person and lose. As to the Flash, I remember that story line and my thought was "Wow this is taking long to get to a 'not guilty' verdict." I don't care about this.

I had the same problem with Angel Season 5. The whole season was Angel realizing that working for an evil law firm to accomadate bad demons and such was a bad idea. Duh. Talk about your false status quos.

BillytheWHP said...

I haven't seen it, but doesn't "Damages" do one case a season? Yeah, I think it's actually a bit more realistic for one case to play out over the span of two years. However, as is often the case with fiction, sometimes things are sped up for a reason. It's a lot more fun to watch a bunch of cases play out in a short period of time than watch one case play out for so long.

However, in today's era of decompression, I could definitely see something like this working. I mean, why do super hero lawyer series never last? Though Daredevil's noir stuff is awesome, why can't the series ever put more of a focus on his lawyering?

Maybe one day.

RichardAK said...

Jim, I'm with you. I am sick of stories about heroic defense attorneys whose clients are always innocent. Let's see what happens when they have to defend someone who's guilty as sin. I don't object to having them win sometimes though. Guilty defendants get acquitted all the time.

Anonymous said...

Murder One was a blast precisely because it took a year to do everything (and Benzali and Stanley Tucci are terrific). Having him innocent is a cliche, but not a fatal one for me.
The problem with Trial of the Flash for me wasn't at all the length, it was that the good parts (His lawyer's conviction Flash had gotten her father killed made for a good subplot for instance) were outweighed by all the draggy ones for me. And yes, the happy ending.

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Anonymous said...

Having just reread that arc, I still (I'm anonymous above)don't see the problem as length, or the fact it's going to end eventually (I think the latter is true of a lot of comics arcs). I never thought of it at the time I originally read it as a status quo reset, just a temporary plotline.
The problem is, it's poorly done. Big Sir is dreadful. The DA's constant conviction he's going to ride this case to glory makes no sense (because hey, how hard can it be to convict a popular, world-saving hero when the only motive you offer is "Well, they were enemies."). The legal flaws make the plot worse. His fiancee Fiona is mostly just an unwitting marplot complicating things.
Barry's plastic surgery does make me wonder if (had the book lasted) they planned to lead off with a new life (just as they'd killed off Iris and given Barry new supporting characters a few years earlier).
In any case, definitely a failure.-fraser

Anonymous said...

I remember when that plot line took over the Flash comic book, and there was one crucial reason it ruined the book -- the same reason, in fact, that also helped ruin Identity Crisis at DC and Civil War at Marvel.

It was seen as gratuitously mean-spirited.

I'm not referring to the dark tones or even occasional shadenfreude of a Bill Willingham or a Garth Ennis, who can have some rather cruel art. I'm referring to simple, artless mean-spiritedness without any real aesthetic or thematic purpose to it.

You can get away with a lot of things with comic book fans, even with the false status quo you so dislike, John, but one of the few things that almost always hemorrhages fans away from a title is ongoing mean-spiritedness of the sort I've mentioned.

Because such mean-spiritedness doesn't make us angry about the story; it makes us anger at THE WRITER, HIS OR HER EDITORS, perhaps even THE COMPANY itself for what appears to have no reason to occur, no artistic or aesthetic or thematic or narrative reason to occur, except for the mean-spiritedness of the WRITER, ETC.

Once that happened, it got to the point that even the people writing the book knew they had doomed their own title (but only once it was too late to shift gears).