All Star Superman, Aquaman, Art, Back to the Future, Batman Arkham Asylum A serious House on Serious Earth, Blurb, Book Review, Comics, Cosmic Treadmill, fable, Flashpoint, Futurama, Geoff Johns, graphic novel, incest, narrative, story, The Flash, The Sandman, Time Travel, Watchmen
Whenever people talk about the hypothetical of going “back in time” it’s usually so that they can kill (or not kill) Hitler. The other hypothetical condition of time travel, based upon the Back to the Future series and Futurama, is usually incest involving either the mother or grandmother. Looking at both of these I wonder why nobody wants to go back in time and get drunk with Faulkner or get coffee with Voltaire, I mean that sounds like fun to me, but I guess you have to pick your time travel reasons for yourself.
This set-up provides a nice segway into Flashpoint, for while Barry Gordon doesn’t go back in time to pork his mother, he does so in the effort to save her. Spoilers.
I recently had the opportunity to read the graphic novel Flashpoint because I’m part of a book club that reads nothing but graphic novels, and with the release of DC’s Rebirth issue the topic of Flashpoint was on everybody’s mind, including out Big Cheese Mr. TJ Rankin. I was actually pretty interested in the book because, while I haven’t been reading as much superhero comic books lately, The Flash has always been a character I liked but never actually read. I missed the meeting when the group covered the first volume of The New 52 run, and independently I’d never actually read a book dedicated solely to his character. I liked him in Geoff Johns Justice League Origins, and I also appreciated his role Identity Crisis, but still there was no work that centered principally on Flash himself.
If the reader has never actually read Flashpoint the plot is not simple by any means. The story starts out with a narration by a character the reader is at first supposed to be The Flash. We find out later that it’s actually Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman. Barry Allen wakes up in police station where he works, but when he tries to run and hop into his suit he discovers he has no super powers, and that his mother is a live. Not only that but Superman is absent, Aquaman and Wonder Woman are fighting a war over who gets to control Europe, Cyborg is attempting to unify the superheroes to beat them back, Batman is really Thomas Wayne because it was Bruce who was shot by the gunman in Crime Alley, and that all of his memories of his previous reality are slowly slipping away as memories of the new world begin to replace them.
Now anyone outside of the regular superhero comics reading community will probably look at that plot synopsis the way they look at their mother or aunt who watches soap operas regularly and has to listen to them explain why Nicole is really the victim of Stefano’s mind control plot. The plot’s of these structures are similar because unless the viewer or reader has a history with these characters the plots seem outlandish or Kafkaesque (fancy-pantss word for overly complicated) and too be fair even I recognize that this description sounds ludicrous at first glance. To say that this book offers nothing of value however is to miss an important opportunity.
Flashpoint is not art in the way that Watchmen, All Star Superman, or Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is art. The way a friend of mine who owns the comic book store where our group meets up described it aptly as a “Popcorn film/book.” It’s not that the book is bad, in fact by comic book standards the story does everything it needs to and there is little weakness in the text. The conflict is the book is driven by plot alone and that keeps it from pushing into that strange and complicated terrain called art.
The way I break it down works thusly. “Stories” are narratives which serve the purpose of entertaining alone. They occupy our time for a period but the once they have finished the listener/reader/viewer then moves on with their life. “Fables,” “fairy tales,” “allegories,” and “myth” are narratives designed to teach. There is a didactic lesson or truth about the human condition that is taught through the narrative so that when the viewer/reader/listener has finished with the narrative they process the lesson of said narrative into their philosophies and world views. “Art” is a careful combination of this working pair. The reader may object that that may be a gross oversimplification of what “art” is, and in many ways they’re right. Art is expression and creativity which is subjective and there is nothing so dangerous as someone trying to bring objectivity into creative expression. Still the cultural products that last over time are those that offer up “lessons” about the human condition while also balancing some form of entertainment whether that be a rigid plot structure or else an abstract puzzle that pushes and challenges the reader/viewer/listener.
Flashpoint does attempt a kind of didactic lesson in its presentation, however the larger effort seems to be to entertain. The reader is supposed to be intrigued by this new universe which has been, as they discover during the climax, created by The Flash after he used the Cosmic Treadmill to go back in time and keep his mother from dying. Rather than focus on the Butterfly effect and explore the philosophy implied by the physics contained within the work, the writer Geoff Johns (a man who holds my undying respect for reminding the world why Aquaman was always cool) simply tries to show what would happen to the characters.
Flashpoint is a great story and I loved every moment of it but I can’t in good conscience call it art the way The Sandman series is art.
The reader may then offer their final rebuttal then: does it really need to be art? Everything can’t always be intellectually stimulating and entertaining. Sometimes you do just need a good story.
For once I’ll leave my reader’s rebuttal as is and agree. Sometimes a great story is all you really need, and Flashpoint definitely delivers just that.