Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern from 1969 to 1994, was brought back to much fanfare in Geoff Johns’ 2004 miniseries. Older fans in particular had never accepted his younger replacement Kyle Rayner, brought out just at the moment that Hal rather abruptly went nuts (one of the few stories of the last 20 years that should have been twice as long). DC decided to capitalize on the success (and ignore the mockery of Johns’ “mancrush” on Hal as well as his hopeless nostalgia) five years later by bringing back Barry Allen, who served as the Flash from 1955 to 1986.
Johns is usually derided, not entirely unfairly, as an unsophisticated writer mostly concerned with simplistic heroics (and increasingly nasty villainy). Reading this hardcover, however, I was struck by the degree to which he engages in metacommentary. This is not really new; superhero comics writers have used their titles to score points and make arguments with peers or readers since the 1980s at least, but Johns lets meta dominate the entire series in a way few “normal” writers (i.e., people not named Grant Morrison) are comfortable with.
In this case, the “subtext which is rapidly becoming text” (that’s a Buffy paraphrase if you were wondering) is the question of whether Barry really needed to come back, a question on the lips of many, including those who had clamored for Hal’s return for ten years. Barry, as any fanboy will tell you, sacrificed himself heroically (while Hal went out quite ignominiously,) and gave way to his former sidekick Wally West, who headlined his own Flash title for over 200 issues… 63 of which were written by Johns himself.
Here’s the thing; despite his pitch in the back of the book, I don’t think Johns is fully convinced that Barry really needed to return. Spoilers follow…
As I’ve said before, Barry spends a lot of time questioning his reasons for being here. We later learn that he was being corrupted by some malevolent force (strangely and unnecessarily similar to the plot device Johns used to absolve Hal of his past crimes in the other Rebirth), and of course his arc leads him to triumphantly take his place as the most important and even original Flash (yes, he manages to somehow predate the one who debuted in the 40s, don’t ask), and revel in his return.
Maybe it’s just my bias, but I found Barry’s earlier comments more convincing, as if Johns had more conviction behind them. Considering everything we know about Johns, it’s more likely that, much as a freshman composition student might do, he brought up all the opposing side’s arguments only to find himself incapable of refuting them.
The other metatextual element is the fascinating use of the retcon (it stands for retroactive continuity) in this book. It’s common enough for heroes to have new details retconned into their personal history in order to fit the whims of contemporary writers and readers, and such a thing happens here, as Barry now lost his mom to a grisly murder, and lost his father (falsely accused) to prison. Yes, Barry is now Bruce Wayne, in fact you could argue that he had it worse! If he was raised this way instead of by two happy, alive, and free parents, he can no longer be the same man he once was… which is, more than anything, the most significant admission by Johns: “okay fine, yes this guy is boring, there’s no hook to his character, so look, here’s another guy that we’re just gonna call Barry Allen.”
What amuses me about this change, however, is that rather than simply insert it in and blame on it so-called cosmic crises (the usual practice at DC), Johns actually makes it part of the story, as we learn eventually that Barry’s mother was the victim of a time traveling villain, the (supposedly) rare individual who can actually change the past rather than merely create an alternate timeline (or whatever). I consider this to be the only real innovation in this series, a realization on Johns part that retcons need more motivation behind them. More than anyone, he seems to have learned from the unending mockery earned by the Superboy-Prime universe punch (don’t ask, really).
Strangely, I did enjoy this book while I was reading it, mostly because of the callbacks and references to the Wally West Flash series, which as far as I can see outnumber any references to the actual Barry Allen series. But then, that’s the amusing thing about Johns’ attempts to purify the past; he always spends more time referencing the “bad” stories of the 90s than the “good” stories he’s supposedly restoring. There are many reasons for this, one of course being that they didn’t exist, at least not in the way he seems to remember them.