From the Bookshelf
by Nicolas Juzda
Flash: Terminal Velocity
Mark Waid is one of the most respected writers working in mainstream comics today. Perhaps his best known work is Kingdom Come, considered a landmark of comics in the 1990s. But it was a lengthy run on Flash that first brought him widespread attention and acclaim. The story arc "Terminal Velocity" is perhaps his finest work on the book.
Flash: Terminal Velocity reprints seven issues, the last giant-sized. Original covers are included at full size, though the variant cover of the final part was omitted. There is an introduction by editor Brian Augustyn and an afterword by Waid. My copy lists the cost as eighteen bucks in Canada, and thirteen in the United States. The price, while not astonishingly cheap, isn't unreasonable for the size, and the minor bonus material rounds things out a bit.
"Terminal Velocity" concerns a plot by DC villain-at-large Kobra. The Flash's hometown of Keystone is crucial to this scheme, so it's up to the scarlet speedster to stop him. The first catch is that the more the Flash uses his speed, the more he risks leaving his humanity behind. The second catch is that he's had a vision of the future, and it ain't good.
Unfortunately, much of this was set-up in the issues immediately prior to those collected here, which first hint at Kobra's interest in Keystone, as well as introducing the character of Impulse, who is crucial to Flash: Terminal Velocity. I believe those issues are part of the trade paperback Impulse: Reckless Youth, but I'm not certain. This book isn't particularly hard to follow without those introductory issues, but they might have enriched it.
Waid's approach to Flash often involved treating the title as a showcase not just for one speedster, but for a multitude of them. He's occasionally been criticized for this by people who felt it diluted the main character, or by readers who simply didn't like some of the stories which featured other speedsters. However, when it was working, it allowed Waid to invest his tales with themes of lineage, camaraderie, and community. The first successful use of this technique was possibly the earlier "Return of Barry Allen" arc, but "Terminal Velocity" brings it to the fore. I found that tying the story to DC's long history of speedy heroes added resonance to the narrative's preoccupation with what would happen should the current Flash die. It places the character in a context; he's one link in a chain that began decades ago and will continue after him.
As I mentioned, in the issues immediately preceding those collected here, a new speedster had debuted. Said newcomer was Impulse (grandson of the Silver Age Flash), a youth who had no attention span or understanding of the seriousness of the battles he had become involved in.
The character shown here is clearly vastly different from the one he'd later become. The Impulse ongoing series would develop him into a boy who, despite his hyperactivity, was goodhearted and somewhat naive, as well as fundamentally weird in his approach to life. The version found in Flash: Terminal Velocity is a much more cliched character, a standard depiction of a rebellious teen. His limited attention span is presented as little more than the stereotype of a kid who won't focus on the boring tasks that everyone must suffer through. Also, the smart mouth he shoots off in this story would later vanish, as would the libido he displayed here.
This incarnation of Impulse is less likeable, less interesting, and less original than his later self, and since he's a key figure in this story, his paint-by-numbers characterization is probably the single weakest element of Flash: Terminal Velocity.
On the other hand, the variety of other speedsters present are all quite engaging. Given that three of them are "old guard" characters, Golden Age heroes, the ability to differentiate them is crucial. But Waid deftly does so, presenting Max Mercury as an inscrutable wise man, Jay Garrick as a comfortingly paternal figure, and Johnny Quick as an old cynic. Each of them adds something different to the mix, though Jay and especially Johnny appear for only a regrettably small portion of the story.
More prominently featured is Jesse Quick. Created for the Justice Society Of America ongoing series in the early 1990s, Jesse fell into obscurity until Waid began using her in Flash, and she has since become a minor fan favorite.
With the current Flash, Wally West, believing that this battle could well be his last, he begins the process of selecting a successor to the name. The initial likely candidate is Impulse, but midway through the book it is Jesse whom he selects. The characters are all stunned by this decision, and presumably the reader is meant to be as well. Jesse, after all, is a girl, don't ya know? This objection isn't quite made explicit, but seriously, Wally picks a dedicated, intelligent, and experienced woman as the next Flash rather than a newcomer with no strategic ability or particular desire to do good... and it's treated like a crazy idea that just might work.
Yes, Impulse is faster, but that's not all the name Flash means.
When it's finally revealed why Wally made this choice, I was gravelly disappointed. The implication that if Impulse was anything but totally unsuited to the job, he'd have been a shoe-in to beat out the female candidate is not one I take to.
In his afterword, Waid reveals that Jesse's role in this was unplanned, so perhaps this was less a failure to accept a feminine Flash than a desire to keep his plot in line with his original vision, wherein the Flash mantle would not have been offered to her. But I think that the presentation was unfortunate.
Having discussed so many other speedsters, it must seem that I am giving the alleged hero of the piece short shrift. And Wally West, the Flash, is the hero of this story. His actions, though manipulative and callous towards his allies and his girlfriend Linda, are motivated by a desire to see justice done even if the cost will be his own life.
And this is a story about Wally's life. It begins with a revisitation of his childhood, and the penultimate chapter features more reflections on Wally's past and present, before sending him into his future. Seldom do super-hero comics revolve around the sum of their protagonist's experiences, who they are and what has made them, and integrate it all into the story in a meaningful way. "Terminal Velocity" does. It would be an exaggeration to say that all of Wally's history plays a direct role in the current narrative, but the past is invoked in such a way as to suggest that those experiences did all lead him here, to this one deciding moment.
In the afterword, Waid describes Flash: Terminal Velocity as a love story. And he is right. The final two chapters bring this to the fore, as Wally says a truly heartwrenching goodbye to Linda, and her reaction to what follows is poignantly presented.
The final chapter is told not from Wally's perspective, as all previous ones had been, but from Linda's, and it is truly epic. Covering depths of grief and despair and heights of elation, not to mention some excellent battle scenes, this issue proves that Waid doesn't need to rely on super-heroes to tell a story. Linda Park, a normal human woman, stands up to Kobra, one of the arch-villains of the DC Universe. She may not be the one to actually save the day (it is the Flash's name on the book) but she certainly holds her own.
This story also featured the introduction of the Speed Force, a somewhat poorly explained combination of heaven and a power source. This is where speedsters draw their velocity from, and where they go when they travel beyond light speed. Subsequent stories would revolve around it to varying effect, but this initial outing makes good use of it. In part, this is because it is mysterious, and even menacing; Wally is afraid of journeying into it. When that was dispelled in later stories, it became just a pseudo-plausible explanation for his powers, nothing more than a plot device.
Speaking of speed, one of the things that traditionally differentiates the Flash from other speedsters is the inventive uses to which he puts his powers. This book sees a few of those, such as the classic whirlwind trick and using vibrations to destroy a building. However, the most inventive use of super-speed is the Flash's attempt to track down the source of some radiation by moving close enough to lightspeed to see the normally invisible rays through red shift.
The artwork for Flash: Terminal Velocity is mostly provided by Salvador Larrocca. His characters have a slightly cartoony look to them, but it's appealing in its way. Most importantly for this particular title, he is quite good at portraying speed. In addition to posing characters well, he uses blurs, after-images, speed lines, lightning effects, and so on, applying them both to characters and occasionally to backgrounds (which are moving relative to a static shot of a character) to portray the motion that is at the heart of any Flash story. Also, I think the design of Jesse's Flash costume was great.
I recommend Flash: Terminal Velocity to any fan of the Flash or fast paced but character driven superhero stories in general. It presents Waid's entire Flash run in microcosm, tying together its concerns with the community of speedsters, Wally's personal maturation, and his love affair with Linda. However, if you're a fan of the Impulse comic, you needn't consider this as a necessary prelude to that series; the Bart Allen you know and love will not be found within.
Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda
is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in
his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in
the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
All characters are © DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Nicolas Juzda
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