Identity Crisis:

How Iconism Hurts DC’s Characters

Most of everyone knows, especially through the hit TV show, that Barry Allen is the Flash. And he is. But he isn’t the Flash. For an entire generation, Wally West was the Flash. After 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barry Allen was left dead—the hero of the crisis and arguably the biggest hero in DC Comics’ history. From 1986-2008, it was Wally West, the former Kid Flash, who took on the mantle, through hundreds of comics over twenty-years. Because of Mark Waid’s run on The Flash, fans warmed to the idea of Wally taking over the mantle. Waid introduced characters like Impulse and Jesse Quick. He also introduced the Speed Force, which has become a lynchpin in the Flash mythology since.

What separated Wally from Barry, what kept longtime fans to stay—and what made new readers into lifelong fans—was that Wally was simply more fun. He was in the Teen Titans at that point, and suddenly in a legacy he would have to grow into, a kid wearing dad’s shoes. This allowed for Wally’s early stories to be subtextually about coming of age. Suddenly unable to rely on a team or his mentor, Wally was alone in the real, adult world, where he had to balance the weight of the world while also trying to maintain the humor he was known for. This built-in arc allowed for Wally to progress the way most young superheroes never get to. Not only did he fulfill the promise of the sidekick taking on the role of his mentor—in taking the Flash name and, also, training partners—but worried about living up to the generation before him, eventually making the role his own—even surpassing the speeds Barry clocked, which led to the discovery of the Speed Force.

Younger fans could easily identify with Wally for the problems he had, the feelings he attempted to process, the pressure he felt. Every teenager feels that eyes are always on them, and as an adult, sometimes they are. Waid’s run, therefore, wasn’t so much about keeping a Flash title going, but was more a metaphor for growing up.

By the early aughts, Wally was chosen over Barry to be the Flash in the Justice League animated series, produced by Bruce Timm. He was chosen for a number of reasons: Wally was still the Flash in the comics’ continuity and he didn’t want to confuse fans, and Wally’s Flash had more potential for humor, which was greatly needed in a line-up that was comprised of the statuesque Superman and Wonder Woman, the militant John Stewart and Hawkgirl, a stoic Martian Manhunter, and a manic Batman. Also, by keeping Wally a bit younger than the rest of the Leaguers, he adds an air of youth for the kids—where the wish fulfillment elements of comics come into play.

When Barry returned during Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, this was not only the return of one of the two greatest heroes of the Multiverse (the other being pre-Crisis Supergirl, headband and all) but a cast-aside moment for Wally. Barry took over the Flash title, which soon after led to Flashpoint which led to the New 52 where Wally was simply erased. DC’s decision was to return their continuity to the original icons that they were famous for. Dick Grayson went back to being Nightwing so Bruce Wayne could be Batman. Wonder Woman no longer had partners. Everyone was de-aged. Wally disappeared so Barry could be the one and only Flash.

But there was a problem in that.

Barry is kinda dull. He’s a nice guy, sure, a real noble guy with a great moral compass. Sure he cracked jokes in the Golden Age—who didn’t?—but as the years and the Silver Age drew on, he was written very much like his best buddy Hal Jordan: somewhat older gentlemen; establishment types. Hal worked for the air force and a group of space cops; Barry was a scientist for the police. They were the man. They were blandly conservative—particularly with Barry’s lack of humor and often jarheaded haircut. He wagged his finger, he lectured, and he taught everyone the danger of running with scissors.

If Barry was going to hold on to a solo title he needed more of a hook. Superman is noble. Batman is dark. Barry has a similar kind of nobility, a bit of an old world kind of chivalry. Whereas Wally was a bit friendly with the Rogues (or at least had an open respect for them). Barry only saw them as criminals. Wally became best friends with Pied Piper, who eventually confided in Wally that he was gay (in of the first characters in comics to come out of the closet). Barry calls the Rogues scum.

But a clear sense of right and wrong can be a tough sell these days. God knows Superman’s titles have been struggling in the modern era, if not in sales than in telling compelling character driven stories. In Barry’s case, he’s a boy scout and a dial tone. Except, the New 52 “fixed” him. To the casual fan who will randomly pick up an issue or see a rerun of Justice League will know one thing: Flash is funny. So the idea was to keep him funny. It was easy to do so, especially now that Wally no longer existed. This newfound take on Barry offered the title great sales—which eventually returned to roughly the same numbers moved during Wally’s run.

This “new” Barry found its way to television as well. Grant Gustin’s Flash is roughly the same age Wally was when he took over, and combines Barry’s scientific mind with CW youthful awkwardness (again, scientist) and a healthy dose of warmth wit once associated with Wally West. Whereas the original Barry was always dating or married to Iris, this Barry’s charming enough to play the field while lusting after her, even going so far as to date Linda Park (who, in the comics, was married to Wally and eventually had twins). In one episode, Barry laments how his powers keep him from getting drunk; in a flashback comic, Barry is a teetotal.

Something similar has happened in Batgirl recently. After Gail Simone’s New 52 run ended, new writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher gave Barbara Gordon a mini-reboot. They de-aged her, altered her costume, and made her personality bubbly. The changes were jarringly immediate, but ultimately familiar. While the depiction of social media obsessed millennials is both fun and refreshing, the larger picture makes this rebooted Barbara nearly a carbon copy of Stephanie Brown who was Batgirl pre-Flashpoint, as written by Bryan Q. Miller.

Stephanie Brown, especially during her time as Batgirl, was cut from the same cloth as Buffy Summers. She was an awkward, poppy, enthusiastic, trying to balance her “part-time job” as a crime-fighter while going to college. She made pop culture references, she was nervous around cute boys. She was, as TVtropes referred to her, “adorkable.” She wasn’t the best at “superheroing” but she never gave up and always tried harder. She got better as time went on. At the same time, she was not great at planning and prone to improvising on the fly. This is exactly what Barbara Gordon is now. (I’m not trying to say that one creative team is stealing from another—their depiction of modern young women was/is very accurate—I’m saying that this tendency of redundancy and repetition is damaging to DC Comics’ brand.)

The decision to revert to Barry Allen and Barbara Gordon to their original roles in the New 52 is a result of Iconism. While it is understandable that the company would want the most famous incarnations of their heroes to be at the forefront of their catalogue, it’s also limiting. In Wally’s case—in any case really—twenty years is a long time. More than enough time for an entire generation to grow up with Wally West as their Flash. The current writers responsible for his resurrection and resurgence—Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns—instead grew up with Barry, and out of a sense of nostalgia tempered with Dan DiDio’s compulsive use of the word “Iconic!” have instead given us Barry Allen’s name and face, but Wally West’s personality.

DC Comics claims to be the home of the best characters in the world. Given that the company has been around as long as it has also makes it the company with the largest amount of characters to play around with. By ignoring characters like Wally and Stephanie and pasting their characteristic on elder characters cheapens all of them. It borders creative bankruptcy and is a shortcut to thinking. When it happens, a soft term applies to this: “We’re updating the characters,” someone will say. In reality, it’s a copy/paste job. In this case, particularly in Wally West’s, there was no need to update the Flash.

DC Comics always championed their use of sidekicks and legacy characters. This practice tells the casual fan that despite all these amazing characters there are only a few whose stories are worth telling. It limits the characters that were once unique to archetypes, it makes it harder for other writers to develop new or lesser known characters, and it makes the established characters act antithetical to who they were before—sometimes just an issue ago. Likewise, it tells longtime fans that it isn’t worth the effort to care.

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Ed Cambro is a freelance writer and alumni of John Jay College of Criminal Justice where his writing received awards. He has been reading comics since 2003 and has a particular affection for any kind of character driven fiction. His reviews on film, television and literature can often see read on Ed unapologetically believes that Dick Grayson was the superior Batman. He lives in New York.

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  1. Totally agree. I’m part of that generation, Wally West is my Flash, and Kyle Rayner is my Green Lantern. Kyle was so much cooler than Hal Jordan for me as a kid, he was a nerd comic book artist, not a macho air force pilot. Plus, his costume was awesome. At least they didn’t erase Kyle altogether as they did with Wally, though I don’t know much about that, I got stuck at the Morrison-Waid era JLA and just once in a while read some of the newer stuff.

    Ironically, Morrison and Waid, the nostalgic ones for the SIlver Age, were the ones who made me fall in love with them. Their dynamic as best buddies, joking between themselves and quarreling, was one of the highlights of that JLA.

    And what about the new black Wally West? Is he somewhat the same character? Will he still be around with all this Convergence thing or is the old Wally coming back? DC continuity is so convoluted these days, maybe more than ever before.

  2. I’m 57 so I grew up with the SA version but I think Barry should have stayed dead. Not only did Wally become a more compelling character the writers actually dealt with more practical sf elements like needing to consume lots of calories. Perhaps my favorite comic story published during my lifetime is “Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt” from Secret Origins Annual #2. It is both touching and brilliant and Geoff Johns indulging his nostalgia made it totally impossible to be true. I like Hal Jordan but most of the stories can’t be read after a certain age. The only run I can stomach for its content (as opposed its cheesyness) is Englehart & Staton at the tale end of the SA series. It was true to early stories but more interesting, revisiting the old ideas and make them work. With all of the stupid stuff that happened to Jordan later on I just wish they had let him die. I never cared for Kyle but much of that is due to the stupidity of Jordan losing and trying to turn back time, etc. Also, for an artist that was a horribly designed outfit. Of course that’s applying the failings of the creators to the character much as currently so many characters such as Reed Richards or Tony Stark are inconsiderate asses because it’s convenient for the writers to write them that way.

  3. Ed, I really liked and enjoyed this article. I was also part of the Wally West generation. Change was good for DC. Letting readers know that characters would grow up and mature and replace their mentors made them more than disposable sidekicks.

    And of course, you’re right about Barry Allen’s personality! Part of the problem was that he was so venerated by Wally that we kind of remembered him as more than he was. And don’t get me wrong: I loved the Silver Age Flash stories. But Barry wasn’t suited to the 1980s onward. To revive him, only to rewrite him, always struck me as a bit odd. What was being resurrected? Not the personality. Only the name.

    Thanks again!

  4. Dirk Reuter says:

    Absolutely right. Once a decision is made it shouldn’t be undone just because older fans (like me) are used to certain names. It is almost the same trap that Marvel is stumbling into. It is not serious storytelling anymore when you let characters die and resurrect them a year later. The real problem with DC and Marvel are parallel worlds. Who needs Ultimate Comcis or anything different from Earth 616 or multplie universes? Tell a story and stick to it. That’s continuity.

  5. Ed Cambro says:

    Thank you all for the kind words.

    The New 52 Wally West, personality-wise, is more of the disgruntled youth rather than the humorous/neurotic we’ve seen before. Convergence seems to be about cleaning out some characterizations that haven’t been working. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the return of pre-Flashpoint Superboy, but I would be surprised if they gave us the old Wally again; it’s their poor attempt at diversity.

    The funny thing is that Wally’s veneration of Barry made Barry all the more heroic after the fact. He’s monolithic in his heroism and bringing him back for Final Crisis cheapened that status and his sacrifice.

    I’ve always had a fixation with legacy characters and sidekicks, and while there’s sometimes a need for cannon fodder (Jason Todd, Bucky Barnes), the static nature of comics that keeps brands going is also damaging.

    I’m a fan of both Jordan and Rayner, and while I loved Johns’ GL run, it was definitely to Kyle’s detriment–so much so he’s slated to die shortly (after being thought dead a hundred times so far).

    Steve Englehart is an underappreciated talent.

  6. Two more examples to add to your list, Superman and Wonder Woman.

    Pre-Flashpoint, Wonder Woman’s sidekick Cassie Sandsmark was the daughter of Zeus and in a relationship with Superboy. Now Wonder Woman (no longer made of clay) is the daughter of Zeus and in a relationship with Superman.

    New 52 Superman himself has frequently sported the jeans-and-t-shirt look of his young clone Superboy, and in the upcoming story-arch “Truth” loses the cape gets a buzz cut that makes him a dead-ringer for Conner Kent.

    DC has basically given Supes and WW their sidekicks’ younger and “cooler” traits, leaving those characters vague and directionless.

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