Thursday, March 05, 2009

Personal Favorites: Flash #50

Today, I just wanted to take a moment to talk about something I love; don't think of it as a formal review, so much as me talking about something awesome and saying, "Isn't that COOL!" like a six-year-old. Because let's face it, sometimes we all need to let out our inner six-year-old. This does mean there'll be spoilers, BTW, so if you just want to experience the issue unspoiled first and then come here and reminisce about it with me, I'd advise running to a comics shop and finding the back issue before reading this.

The subject of my gushing adoration is Flash #50, published in May of 1991, written by the wonderful (and woefully underused these days) William Messner-Loebs, penciled by the talented Greg LaRocque and inked by the equally talented Jose Marzan Jr, with Tim Harkins providing the lettering and Glenn Whitmore handling the coloring, and the underappreciated Brian Augustyn taking care of editing duties.

To fully appreciate this story, you have to understand that Messner-Loebs had been building up to it for a while. Vandal Savage, immortal super-villain, had returned, and he was well and truly making Wally West's life a living hell. He'd kidnapped Wally's friends and family, turned a Russian super-speedster into his drug-addicted slave and dubbed her "Lady Flash", feeding her a super-speed drug called "Velocity 9" to make her as fast as the Flash, and finally set a trap for Wally out in the desert. Actually, it was more sort of a dare than a trap. At the end of Flash #49, Vandal Savage displayed his latest gizmo, a kinetic absorption platform. Standing on it sucked away the Flash's super-speed, leaving him no faster than a normal man. The dare was this: Vandal Savage would let the Flash's loved ones go if he just went and stood on that platform. After that, if he could get back off of it before Vandal Savage could shoot him, he could do whatever he wanted.

So the Flash stepped onto the platform...and Vandal Savage shot him in the chest. (Best. Cliffhanger. Ever.)

We open the issue with Wally bleeding out in the desert sands, as Vandal Savage (true to his word) returns Wally's loved ones to safety. But Messner-Loebs has been setting this up for a while, and one of the things he set up was that the machine intellect Kilg%re, a former-enemy-turned-enlightened-being, promised Wally one big favor. Turns out that favor was a nanite colony in his body that would give him a one-time instant heal from any injury, no matter how apparently fatal. Nice deal, really, and Wally returns to life feeling just fine (albeit slightly freaked out at watching machines erupt out of his chest and fix his wounds.) In fact, he's feeling better than ever--his near-death experience has finally liberated him from his fears of being in Barry Allen's shadow as the Flash.

Meanwhile, Vandal Savage is using Lady Flash to clear out his competitors in the drug trade. He's planning, in his own way, to be altruistic--he's going to corner the drug market, then flood it with tainted product and end the drug problem by killing all the addicts. (He's got a bit of an issue with drugs, since an accident with Velocity 9 is burning up his immortality.) He is, to say the least, confident with the Flash out of the way.

Now is where things kick into gear. Wally goes to STAR Labs and gets a slick new costume (Lady Flash has his old one), and then uses a hologram generator to contact Vandal Savage, telling him that he's not dead, and that he's coming for him at noon tomorrow. "Why did you do that?" one of Flash's allies asked. "You lost the advantage of surprise!"

"I replaced it with something better," Wally says in the second-best line of the issue. "Fear."

Noon tomorrow, and Savage thinks he's ready for the showdown. He's got his desert mansion ringed with the speed-sapping devices, he's got armed gunmen, he's got Lady Flash hopped up on V-9 and ready to fight. Whatever's coming, he can handle it.

He's wrong. The Flash races across the desert so fast the sand is melting to glass under his feet, sending up plumes of liquified sand behind him as he runs. He slams into the speed-sappers at Mach Ungodly, instantly overloading their capacity to absorb energy and causing them all to go up in a massive explosion that knocks half the gunmen out of commission with its shockwave and leaves the whole place a blinding mix of smoke, flames, and blowing sand. In the ensuing eyeblink, the rest of the gunmen go down. It's just the Flash, Savage, and Lady Flash.

Gun out, Savage snarls defiance, ordering Lady Flash to kill him. But she refuses--she's fallen so low, but deep down, she wants to live up to the costume she wears. She wants to be a hero, and the first step is breaking her shameful subservience to Savage. She finds within her a nobility of spirit that she'd lost, and refuses to fight.

Savage is furious. He empties his entire pistol into her at point-blank range, less than an inch away from her skin. They both look down at the same time...but her skin is unmarked. "How--" Savage gasps. "Even with your speed, you could not have--"

From his position twenty feet away, the Flash opens his hand. Six bullets fall out onto the dust. "I caught them," he says, in the best line of the issue. "I could have caught them from fifty feet away, a hundred yards away, two miles away." He starts walking, slowly and confidently, towards Savage. "People always told me that I could be just as fast as Barry, if only I believed it. They're right." He grabs the barrel of the gun, and brings Savage's arm up to point the pistol at his own head. "Care to try another six shots? I've reloaded the gun for you."

That moment is immortalized in my mind, even eighteen years later.

Savage gives up on victory at that point and tries to flee, only to be stopped by his old foe the Immortal Man (whose own powers are in flux, thanks to his connection with Savage--he looks about twelve at the moment.) Their mixed-up powers react on contact with each other, and the explosion leaves neither of them to be seen...but Wally's stopped his drug trade and broken his empire, while finally casting off his self-doubts and becoming the hero he was meant to be.

Many people point to Mark Waid's run on the series as the point where Wally became a legitimate Flash, but I think it began here--certainly, Messner-Loebs seemed to feel he'd done enough, as he left the series a few issues later (although as with any writer's departure, it could have been involuntary.) But I think that this issue capped off a stellar run by a great writer, and it remains a favorite of mine to this day. If you can track it down in back issue boxes, it's well worth reading. (Okay, so there's a bit of "review-ness" to this. But only a bit.)


Dixon said...

You're quite right, this was one of the highlights of William Messner-Loebs' run on The Flash. It's an exciting issue full of spectacular action. (For me, the image that's burned into my memory is that of the Flash lying dead in the desert as the Kilg%re's nanite-constructed machinery erupts from his chest to repair the bullet wound inflicted by Savage. Unsettling and unforgettable.) Thanks for posting your review of the issue!

Unknown said...

I remember buying this because it was marketed as a "collector's item".

After that, I collected most of Messner-Loebs's run and continued buying Flash every month.

It's still one of my favorite Flash issues ever.

Anonymous said...

Oh man...This comic is a highlight of twenty two years of collecting. "I've reloaded the gun for you." Gave me goosebumps when I was a kid, gave me goosebumps even now!

Anonymous said...

I miss those old issues. I think you just made me go re-read my collection.