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520 Weeks – Francis Manapul on “The Flash:” “Moving Forward is Easy When You Don’t Know What Happened in the Past”

By | November 1st, 2021
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On Tuesday, August 31, 2011, “Justice League” #1 dropped, officially beginning the experiment known as the New 52. DC Comics was not just relaunching all of its titles, it was doing so in a new, clean(er) continuity, in an attempt to revitalize and enthuse the fan base. It was an unprecedented move that bore good, bad, and mediocre comics.

Over the next year, we’ll be discussing each of the New 52 titles with a member of its creative team. We’re not taking any clear path through these books, but hopping from title to title, line to line, in an effort to spotlight the breadth of the initiative.

Today, we’re chatting with Francis Manapul. Before joining DCFrancis had made his name as an artist on “Witchblade,” “G.I. Joe,” and “Necromancer.” After stints on “Legion of Super-Heroes” and “Adventure Comics,” Francis joined Geoff Johns on a relaunched “The Flash,” spinning out of “Final Crisis” and “The Flash: Rebirth.” In the New 52, Francis co-wrote and illustrated 25 issues of “The Flash” along with Brian Buccellato, and then took over “Detective Comics” for a year plus.

Francis is currently illustrating “Clear” with Scott Snyder for comiXology Originals. You can follow him on Twitter, @FrancisManapul.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cover by Francis Manapul

So you joined Geoff Johns on “The Flash” about a year before the New 52. Was this your first time working on the character?

Francis Manapul: It was. I have been asking for the book, literally, from even before I worked at DC, The very first time I got a call from Dan [DiDio], it was to work on Shazam, actually. And I said, “I really, really want to do the Flash.” And he’s like, “No, I don’t know if that’s the right fit.”

I’m like, okay, and then I kind of just bide my time. And I kind of jumped around from this title to that title. But it was really working with Geoff on “Adventure Comics” that really bridged that gap and eventually got me to the book that I had been wanting the entire time. I was there.

Which Shazam book was that? Who eventually got that gig?

FM: I think Howard Porter. [He’s correct, this was for “The Trials of Shazam,” which Porter drew – Ed.]

I think it’s one of those things where I think things work out for the best because Howard was doing this new digital painting thing and it looks incredible. But also at that point, I didn’t know much about the character. You know, like when I came into DC, I had three characters I wanted: The Flash. Batman, Superman. That’s it. That was all I wanted to do.

So you got on “The Flash” with Geoff. How far into that run did the New 52 come up in conversation?

FM: Dude, I have no clue. I just know that the last storyline we did had this new character, Hot Pursuit. And I think it was the ‘Dastardly Death of the Rogues’ or something like that.

It felt pretty sudden, you know, because we were just entering this second arc, I believe. And I was getting ready for the long haul, you know, I was like,” Okay, this is it. I’m going to be on this book for a long time.” Because prior to that, I had, I think, the last monthly book that I did for a long time, was like 20 issues or something. And then “Legion of Super-Heoes” didn’t exactly turn out us, as we expected, and then “Adventure Comics” was cut short. So it felt somewhat on brand over there.

So how did that process come about? How did you go from drawing the book to getting to pitch the book, or did Dan and Co come to you and say, “Hey, how would you feel about writing ‘The Flash?’”

FM: Fun fact, it was not the New 52 when I was first approached to take over writing it; that wasn’t even a thing yet. Geoff was leaving the book, and they said “can you take over and midway through?” A little while later, that turned into the New 52.

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So there’s two versions of this story. One is what I think, and then one that seems probable, if that makes sense. So when they first contacted me, I think with the New 52, when they told me about it I thought, at least as long as I’ve been in the industry, it was the biggest reboot that I could recall at least since “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Barry had just come back, and he had been through many relaunches and they wanted a face I guess that would carry over from pre-New 52 to the New 52, that gave the reader some sort of stability. But at that point, Geoff was really focused on “Aquaman,” and he was taking over “Justice League.” So I think it was almost like I was the last man standing, along with their desire to have a sense of continuity with the book. They knew I probably would have left and gone and done whatever Geoff was working on next. And so I think they knew that if they offered it to me to write that I had a higher chance of staying.

And so that’s what I think, and then that’s also what I was told. But my contract was also expiring around that time, and I had one meeting with Marvel at a convention. And the funny thing is, if my memory serves me correctly, the meeting never actually happened. I was supposed to have a meeting with CB [Cebulksi, then Marvel editor] but it never happened. Everybody knew that I wanted to draw Spider-Man. That was the book that I really wanted. And somehow the guys of DC had heard about it, and I remember getting a phone call from Geoff. He’s like, “Hey, dude, are you leaving to go do Spider-Man?” I’m like, “I mean, not that I know of. If that’s true, maybe I will.”

So I think, essentially, the long and short of it was that my contract was expiring at the exact same time that the New 52 was about to begin. And, you know, I’d like to think that they loved me so much they wanted me to stay on. To be honest, I think it was a little bit of a long shot, because I had wanted to write for a while but I never expressed my desire because I always felt like I was taking one step at a time. You know, I knew I couldn’t quite ink myself yet. I wanted to just focus on penciling, right? With “Adventure Comics,” I started inking my own work and eventually, I wanted to get around to writing. But I wasn’t going to force the issue. So the funny thing is that my editors actually didn’t know that I wanted to write, they just said, “Do you have any interest in writing?”

You know, so again, like my memory is a little bit murky. I mean, maybe somewhere in the office, they had heard that I wanted to write, but I do remember that exact phone call from my editor, asking me if I had any interest in writing. You know, I live in Toronto, Canada, and so much of this stuff happens behind the scenes, so what I’m telling you may not even be fact; these are just things that I remember.

Brian Buccellato both co-wrote and colored “The Flash”with you, and then you guys moved on to “Detective Comics” together. How did you guys get connected in terms of being writing partners?

FM: So, Brian I’ve known for a long time. We actually started working together on “Witchblade” and we became really good friends. And to this day, he’s still one of my best friends. And around our early days at Top Cow, there were a couple issues of “The Darkness” that they wanted me to draw, and I asked if I could write it. I knew that Brian had actually been wanting to write for a long time as well, more so he wanted to get into screenwriting. So we came up with the two issues story. So that was our first writing collaboration. But you know, not not much really came out of it. It wasn’t like we set the world on fire or anything like that.

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So we remained working together on the art side. When I started at DC, I didn’t really have as much pull, so it took us a while to reunite. And when we did, you know, we kind of just focused on art. To be honest, we didn’t even talk about writing together, it was just art. So when my editor asked me if I wanted to write “The Flash,” I knew it’s a lot of fucking work to write a book, especially since I had just started inking my own work. And as much as I wanted to write it, as well, I knew that it may not be possible, because it’s a monthly book. So the first thing I did was I called Brian and I said, “Hey, they just offered me “The Flash” to write and draw. Would you want to co write it with me?” And he said, “Yeah, of course.” And I think his question was, “would they let me?” And I think I just said, “why wouldn’t they? My contract is running up, they have no choice.”

So when I called my editor back, I said, “I’ll take it, I’ll do it. But Brian has to co-write it with me.” And they said, “Yeah, sure.” It wasn’t, it was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. They said, yes and they didn’t even ask for pitch. They just said, “Sure. Whatever you want.” Like a minute later, I called Brian right back. “Yes, it’s done.”

It was the easiest corporate thing that happened, even though I feel like there was corporate stuff that happened that got me there in the first place. But the process of me and Brian working together felt really, really easy.

When you guys got the gig, did you have ideas that you wanted to pitch for a long time, as a big Flash fan? Or did you and Brian get together and sort of brainstorm some new stuff? How did that first arc take shape?

FM: So yeah, I’m a longtime Flash fan, but Brian is really fresh to the Flash, but Brian grew up in New York, and he’s good friends with some cops. He had more knowledge of the police procedural stuff, and that aspect of it, and I’m the guy that came in with superheroic Flash mythos.

But the one thing that kind of was a bit of a struggle was that I grew up on Wally West. To me, Barry Allen was whoever Geoff Johns said Barry Allen was, however short his run was. And so I realized I couldn’t use my own fan knowledge. You know, it was like, it’s like, great. I get to play for the Chicago Bulls. I’m ready to play in this triangle offense. And they’re like, “no, no, we’re not doing triangle offense.” Oh, shit.

Was that a huge bummer for you?

FM: Yes, at first it was because, again, Wally was literally my favorite character in the DCU. When I realized the whole idea of the New 52 was to start from scratch, I started buying into it, because it made sense, you know, the whole concept of the New 52. And I think Dan was right, in this respect. Our first trade for “The Flash” has been a phenomenal success for us. If it had been Wally, you, you can’t tell a Wally story without Barry. Right? And with it being the New 52, you can tell Barry’s story without anybody else’s history.

So I realized, “oh, shit, this is a clean slate.” So at that point, I had all these bold, giant size Flash books and I read quite a lot of them just to get the idea of who Barry was. And they were really, really fun books. You know, I remember reading this scene where Barry was fighting [the Turtle],and the closer he got to the villain, the heavier he got, he was getting slower. So he’s like, “Ah, I know how to solve this.” The further he moves away, the faster we can go, so he simply just started running backwards and he made a U turn. So like, scientifically, it didn’t make any sense, but because he was running backwards, somehow it now works. Right? And so that single silly thing somewhat dictated the early tone of the book in that, “okay, well, I think we can get really scientific with this stuff, and really hone in on that.”

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With Wally, it was about this coming of age story. He’s this guy that doesn’t feel like he deserves to be there. But also, he’s a huge fan. But with Barry being such a blank slate and the early history of the book being so scientific, we leaned heavily into that. So essentially, we put together this idea that we pitched to our editor, and it was essentially this: The Flash can be everywhere at once, so how do you defeat him? And we came up with this concept that, well, you can beat him by creating a villain that is physically everywhere at once, because he can multiply.

Another idea that really popped into it, which was a lot more meta, which is that, Brian and I were doing research on city planning. And there’s this thing called the Law of Congestion, where the more highways and freeways you build, the more traffic you actually create, rather than alleviate it. And so we came up with this idea that the Flash always plans things through in his head before he acts on the scenario. If he thinks so much about all of his options, I feel like there’s a connection between mind and body where eventually, he wouldn’t be physically moving, but he might think he had already done something, whereas he didn’t do it at all. So he’s frozen, right? And in a lot of ways, that’s what was happening to us. We were a little bit frozen at the beginning because there were so many options of what we could do. But also ironically, even though we could do a lot and it was kind of a blue sky approach, what we couldn’t do was refer to the past because we didn’t know what happened yet. And I’m sure you might have heard this [from others working on the New 52]. I’m like, “Hey, Dan, Hey, Brian [Cunningham, editor], did Barry die?” That dictates how you’re going to write it, right? Did he die? The answer was “I don’t know.” Shit, okay. “Did his mom die?” And they’re like, “We don’t know, ask Geoff.” And Geoff was like, “Look, you can do whatever you want, but I want you to keep that part.” Right. That was literally the only aspect of his history that we knew had happened. It made it difficult to write a character without knowing who he was.

And so, the basic, most basic premise and pitch we gave to our editor, which is the Flash, ‘Brand New Day,’ [the storyline that Johns/Manapul did pre-New 52 – ed.] that was a Barry Allen, who was physically moving forward, but stuck in the past, hence “Flashpoint.” Our character was emotionally moving forward, but physically stuck in place. Which is why in the first few issues when he would use his speed mind, he wasn’t actually physically moving, he was only using his mind and he would be frozen in place, thinking he had done these things that he wanted to do. And going with that premise, it allowed us to try to create his character through the story, as we’re moving forward. It wasn’t about Barry moping about the past or being traumatized by it. This was a Barry Allen, that was learning to move forward, as cheesy as it sounds. That’s why the first story was called “Forward,” he was moving forward with his life. Aside from Geoff stating that he really wanted to keep that aspect of his origin around, we didn’t know what else happened. Moving forward was easy to do when you don’t know what had happened in the past.

One of the things that the New 52 was kind of notorious for is a lot of editorial influence, and things changing at the last minute. Did you have that experience, as at from the writing side, or from the art side, where you had to redo a lot of stuff? Were you getting conflicting answers on things?

FM: Yeah, absolutely. At one point, I almost left the book.

At the beginning of the New 52, we literally had a form, like a two or three page questionnaire that we had to answer for every issue, and everyone hated it. So it was like, “what event in this issue changes everything?” There were literally bullet points of things we needed to hit. And, you know, when you’re writing an arc, you can’t do that because it leads to unearned moments, right? You can’t have a life altering thing every issue. That’s impossible. We really struggled with that because, I mean, we could answer those questions for the arc, but we couldn’t answer those questions for every single issue. It was impossible. And it led us to really rushing a lot of stories, because there were these beats that they wanted, because they wanted each issue to be very action packed. They wanted it to be snappy, but the thing is, I know in the past, they were able to accomplish this and to the credit of the creators of the process, they’re able to do so much with so few pages. But me personally and Brian, we found it difficult to make you care about something and then quickly pull it away from you, to make you feel that loss within only one issue. I can’t make you care. I can’t make you care about Patty Spivot in one issue. I need an arc.

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Now, keep in mind, in the initial press release of “The Flash,” a lot of people were expecting the events of “Flashpoint” to be referenced or continued in our book. Think about it, “Flashpoint,” that big event, just ended and here’s a brand new universe. And DC fans, whether begrudgingly or excitedly, had to read “The Flash” because they thought they needed to read that to understand what’s happening, and it made sense for “The Flash” to be the carryover book. So the numbers for first issue were phenomenal [“The Flash” #1 sold 129,260 in its first month – ed.], but we knew it wasn’t sustainable. Like “The Flash” held a certain number that wasn’t like “Batman” numbers, it was a middling title, you know, and it always has been, even when I was a fan. There’s very few instances where it was top of the charts. And I think they were expecting it to stay that way.

When the sales started kind of going down a bit – now ever mind you, everybody sales were going down, because everything was starting to stabilize -I think Dan was starting to panic. And he’s like, “Hey, we need snappier; introduce the Rogues faster, give them superpowers, let’s hit him with something.” And I was like, “Dude, we’re, we’re only three issues in, let us finish this first arc.” And we got into this whole argument where they were like, “well, you know, maybe we need to bring in another writer,” and that was a real blow.

As a more or less the first time writer, my confidence was tanking. I was like, “man, I’m a failure.” Ultimately, I think this is where the politics of it came in. Now, mind you, the writer that they introduced, to potentially come in, and Co-write with me, I won’t name names, but I love his work, big fan of his work. And we had this discussion, and I gave him all of my material. And we had this very frank conversation, he said, “you know, it sounds like you know what you want. And if I were to come in, you know, in order for me to have my voice, it wouldn’t be this story.” As much as I would love to work with him, he wouldn’t have been my Flash story at all; it would have been a complete 180. So I was like, “fuck, okay. What would you do?” And to his credit, and I have to be very thankful to him for this, he said, “If I were you, I would either stick to your guns, or quit.”

So basically, after that conversation, I wrote this email to Dan and Jim. And I said, Hey, guys, you know, this has been a really tough process. I am very open to changing things; I’m not a difficult person to work with by any means. But you have to allow us the room to breathe and tell the stories that we’re getting to, and we’ll get to what you wanted us to get to, but we need to earn those moments. I basically ended the email with saying “I put my trust in you as a company by signing this contract for the next couple years of my life and if I’m willing to give my trust to you, you need I need you to give your trust to me. Otherwise, I quit.” And they’re like, “Don’t quit. Everything’s cool. Keep going.” And this was in the first arc. This was in the middle of the first arc.

Was it more smooth sailing after that? Like did that sort of the big argument that then made it easier for that, for those conversations to happen in the future?

FM: Well, so two things happen. One, you know, I’m a team player, you know, so I, I felt like we, aside from, aside from near the end of the first arc, where we sped things up, I felt like the first arc for all its merits or faults, it was what we wanted it to be. And the second arc, I knew that I needed to show I’m willing to play ball and speed things up. I sped things up so much that I think the second arc started with the ending or near the ending of the story. And then I started going backwards, you know, so that way I could get the action right away, because they really wanted to amp up the action, and they wanted the roads introduced so quickly. So I essentially took all of their notes. And I did them; I took what they wanted, and I executed them to the best of my abilities at that time. And from then on, they definitely were a lot more hands off. And I think the big thing that really got them off our backs is when the first trade came out and it did really, really well. And I remember Dan messaging me and said, “you know, all of our other movies or our other TV shows never move the needle on any of our trades, but when The Flash TV show came ou, your book went up with it.” So the TV show definitely helped, but that they were also obviously patting themselves on the back in that, with the New 52 being such a clean slate. Like if I asked you “hey, you’re a Glash fan, I want to get into the character, which one would you start with?”

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And there’s a lot of history to all the best Fash rums that come before yours. The Wally stuff requires a certain amount of knowledge of Barry, even the Barry stuff requires a certain knowledge of Jay. This was the cleanest entry point for him.

FM: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it gives them the confidence that, okay, well. Now, it makes sense, you know, because the story we were telling was unencumbered by any of the crossovers. And you know, and there wasn’t really any crossover at all in the first year of the New 52. So basically, it was a combination of, I think once the sales settled, the trade paperbacks doing really well, and at that point, it’s found its footing. And I was just relieved that it wasn’t like, “oh, the sales dropped because the story’s not good enough.” And ultimately, I think that’s what it comes down to: if your sales can back it up, then they’re much more willing to give you a bit of breathing room. But I think that that first year, that first couple arcs, those were probably the most strenuous time for anybody at DC because around that time when you when you get to issue three, you know what your numbers are on issue one, and by the time you get to six, you know what your middle numbers are. And once they get to issue two and three, that you know, as I’m sure you’re aware of, that’s when books started dropping, but I will say the group near the top, we held our numbers very well over the course of the next couple years. Yeah.

What eventually led to you wanting to get off that book or did DC say, alright, we want to move you someplace else?

FM: So I think at that point, my Wally itch was getting really, really itchy. And I had pitched a way to bring Wally into the New 52.

Do you remember what that mechanism was going to be to introduce him?

FM: I do. And this is kind of funny, and I don’t know if Dan will read this, but maybe he’ll laugh. So we wanted to introduce Wally, similar to the Silver Age books, in which he was going to be Iris’s nephew. I had even storyboarded a whole scene, but this the scene that I storyboarded was, was while he was becoming the Flash, but it was for the future because I needed to see where it was going in order to go backwards. So because one of the things that Dan was really adamant about was that there was going to be no other Flash, he didn’t want to muddy the water. So I totally get it.

Even though there was a Kid Flash in Teen Titans at that time

FM: Look, I made that argument. So I came up with this very simple idea of Wally West being introduced as Iris’s nephew, and he was going to be in a wheelchair, right. So he was going to be this kid that had an illness that prevented him from walking to show Dan that look, “he can’t run. So there’s no possible way of this ever happening. Right?” You know, and I wanted to create this, this big emotional arc, where, you know, Barry became the Flash as a result of this accident, righ? And he kind of learned how to deal with it. Wally wanted to be the Flash, right and essentially, he was going to betrying to figure out a way to get to run. And you saw, I kind of teased a little bit of that, when, in the issue where Iris West ran in a suit. And, you know, if you’ve ever ridden a bike or driven a car, and you remember in The Fast and the Furious where they’re drifting so the centrifugal force would pull the person behind. So my idea was that Barry was going to come up with something that would kind of for that moment, help Wally run. It wasn’t gonna be to make him the Flash, it was just to give this kid who’s never experienced running an opportunity to run. At that time, one of the most satisfying things about writing “The Flash” is I would get emails with people who were like, “I’m in a wheelchair, and I love ‘The Flash’ because it’s pure escapism.” I wanted to get that real fan feeling of somebody accomplishing their dreams.

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And one of the things that we said was that the wheelchair also represented Dan in that Wally can’t become the Flash. He can’t run in that Dan is preventing Wally from running, you know? I just wanted to introduce the wider range of the Flash family because, you know, when Barry has this kind of very, like, father-like, thing to his character, he’s very old school and I think they wanted to make him cool. But, I mean, it’s not that he’s uncool…

He can’t be cool on the way that Wally can be cool.

FM: Exactly, exactly, you know, and I just wanted to expand on on his supporting cast. “I promise you, He will not become the Flash, just let us introduce him, please. You know, I fucking wrote this whole story arc, and I’ll be honest, I, I can’t find it. And I am so frustrated because I can’t find that file. You know, I had what I call ‘the great big computer crash’ and I lost a lot of files. I’ll be honest, one of the things really drove me off the book was that I was like, you know, at this point, the better part of my 20s and 30s were spent on “The Flash.” I drew “The Flash” for a year with Geoff, I wrote and drew “The Flash” with Brian for another four years. At that age, that’s a big chunk of my life, and I felt like, if I’m going to dedicate even more time to this book, I’d really like to bring in some of the characters that I love. And when I couldn’t, I was just like, “Okay, I think I’m done,” you know? Yeah. To be honest, I am still very pissed off that as soon as I left, they brought Wally back, you know? And I remember asking, like, “What the fuck, man, how come I couldn’t bring him back?”

He was introduced in a “Flash” annual in June of 2014. That must have been just a few months after you left the book.

FM: That ate at me, you know. And what they said was “we were afraid that when you left, sales would drop, so we needed to do something”. And I was like, “if you gave me Wally, maybe the sales would have gone up?” I think that was the beginning where it felt like things were much more reactionary rather than proactive.

I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t the right guy to do it. I know that Dan has this sort of rule where sometimes he doesn’t like creators who have too much reverence for certain characters. Which, I don’t know. I mean, that works pretty well for Geoff, who greatly loves every one of these characters.I think when you look at the decisions being made at that time, it makes sense at that time. You know, so that’s why it’s hard to really play Monday morning quarterback with all this stuff. At that time, they thought those were the right decisions.

You’re maybe the 10th or 11th of these interviews that I’ve done so far, and almost everybody has agreed that while it was flawed, they think the comics in general in DC in particular are better off today because of the New 52. Do you agree with that?

FM: Absolutely. So, by the time I worked on the New 52, I wasn’t like a veteran of the comic book industry, but I’ve been around long enough to know what my audience looks like to know what the fan base is. I got accustomed to seeing a certain kind of fan. And I remember when I did a signing at Stadium Comics in the suburbs of Toronto. I thought it’ll just be okay. When I got there, I saw tons of people, and not only were there tons of people, so many of them were kids .Before that my average age group of the fans that I was accustomed to seeing were in their 20s 30s 40s 50s. It could be because I was working on the Legion before that as well.

Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure “Legion of Super-Heroes” didn’t bring your average age down at all.

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FM: You go to enough conventions and you see kids, but they’re there for video games or toys or whatever. You know, it’s really their parents that are into the comics, but going to the store signing and seeing how many kids there were, it was incredible.

I think Dan hits the mark on when things need to change; he has an amazing instinct for when things need to shift. But much like the first arc of the book, sometimes the execution falters on the idea because everything starts getting rushed.

And like, for me, even just from a practical standpoint, no “Flash,” no house. Tthe Flash was transformative for me financially, it was transformative. In terms of the fan base, I felt like it rejuvenated and gave me a much younger fan base than I was used to.

//TAGS | 520 Weeks

Brian Salvatore

Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).


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