“The Flash” #39 opens with a drawn-out, dramatic proclamation. “DC Comics… proudly presents… the 700th issue of… THE FLASH.” Really? But it says #39 on the cover. What sort of huckster comic book tomfoolery is this? As it happens, “The Flash” #39” is an issue try to achieve many goals. While it doesn’t trip and fall on its face, you can never shake the feeling that the story would have been better served picking a single lane, and sticking with it.
Written By Joshua Williamson
Illustrated by Carmine di Giandomenico
Colored by Ivan Plascencia
Lettered by Steve Wands
‘The Perfect Storm’ part one! In the 700th tale of THE FLASH, Barry Allen wants to make amends to the people he’s hurt, but Gorilla Grodd has other plans! If Grodd’s shocking attack on Central City wasn’t enough, the reason why-and how it connects to everything The Flash has faced since the Speed Force Storm-will rock our hero to his core…and change everything he thought he knew! RATED T
Let’s start with the cover, a a bold, gorgeous image of superhero bombast by artist Carmine di Giandomenico and colorist Ivan Plascencia. “GRODD IS BACK,” it shouts, as the evil Gorilla himself leaps through the message, ready to crush the Scarlet Speedster. It’s simple, and promises that this is going to be the story about a superhero battling one of his greatest foes. Classic. Exciting.
The issue opens with a planet of the apes-like visit to the stone age, narrated through white-on-black caption boxes. The flashback shows the power of lightning being harnessed throughout history, from Victor Frankenstein to Benjamin Franklin. It’s totally awesome. With an epic scope, the issue establishes important themes and images, like the lightning that gave Flash his powers, and history, which he is always meddling in. Also, apes.
But then the actual bulk of the issue’s plot kicks in, and it is . . . fine. Barry is facing some of the mistakes he made by lying to Iris, the love of his life. Joshua Williamson writes good dialogue, and has the necessary imagination to write a long-running superhero tale, but the conversation feels somewhat shallow. While superheroes lying to their loved ones is a plot convention as old as the genre, we’re taking the time to consider it, but not really saying anything.
Simply speaking, Barry has been gaslighting Iris. The person he cares about most, and he can’t come clean to her about the most important thing in his life. When she did find out, she was pissed. Now she’s starting to forgive Barry, but he hasn’t made an effort to make things right. He makes grand gestures like taking her into space, he quips about how grumpy Batman is, but he never justifies lying to her, and he doesn’t really apologize. He doesn’t even come totally clean to her about things like the other version of her nephew Wally running around.
All of that has the making of a fascinating conflict, both internally for Barry and between him and Iris. But Williamson never quite gets there. You can feel the weigh of the landmark 700th issue bearing down on the epic love story between Barry and Iris, but they don’t bring any of their past experiences from before the New 52 reboot. The lying conflict takes up more pages than anything else in the issue, but doesn’t get resolved, have any major consequence, or imply future conflict. Iris is going to forgive Barry, because it’s the 700th issue, and that’s what needs to happen.
Things pick up again when a nasty storm hits Central City. Barry continues to narrate the issue, as he has been, in red and yellow caption boxes, and that’s when the issue hits us with its cleverest conceit. The black captions from the intro return… and they are talking to Barry’s red caption boxes. This fourth-wall breaking gimmick isn’t mind shattering, but it’s clever, and got a knowing grin out of me.
The problem though, is that based on the way the issue is paced, we’re not really supposed to know what’s happening. Barry is confused, and he begins to investigate. It’s pretty clear to anyone who’s read 699 issues, or even the previous 38, (or someone who’s seen the CW show, or anyone remotely familiar with superhero stories) what is going on. The mystery has no teeth. Grodd is on the cover.Continued below
This doesn’t have to be presented as mysterious. Hell, it could have been the main source of tension. Alfred Hitchcock said that the best way to deliver tension is to have the audience know something the characters don’t; that way you can see the bad decisions a mile away. That doesn’t happen here though, because when Grodd finally does appear on the last page, it’s treated as a big revelation. Fortunately, Williamson has one more card up his sleeve (just what is Grodd up to?), but it’s undercut by the complete lack of dramatic tension for the first 18 or so pages.
There’s a lot that Giandomenico does very well, especially with the more outlandish elements. His Grodd is legendary, a truly terrifying beast, full of wisdom and cruelty. His blurry speed effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen. He also draws killer lightning, which is important in this series. When he needs to show time passing slowly, he draws looong vertical panels, a fantastic use of the medium that forces the reader to scan down the length of the page, slowing down their reading in the process.
Less astute are the simple things. His faces are ugly, made of just a few a few lines and often obscured by rain, electricity, stars, motion lines, and all sorts of detritus. As such, they manage to look busy and clean at the same time, diminishing both effects. It makes me want to see an issue with nothing but monkeys, because he draws gorillas far better than he does humans.
If “Flash” #39 was just an issue about Barry and Iris, or about the Flash vs Grodd, or a mystery about a shadowy psychic, it could have been great. If it was just another installment in the adventures of the fastest man alive, it could have kept the story going, full speed. If it contented itself to be a major anniversary issue, with appearances from beloved supporting cast members, the team could have done a great job. Unfortunately it tries to be a little bit of all those things, and a lot gets diluted in the process.
Final Verdict: 6.7 – “The Flash” #39 comes quick out of the gate, but quickly forgets which way it’s running.