One of the most noteworthy aspects of coming into comics when I did is that I have been playing a weird sort of hopscotch catching up not only on new books but on the long and staggered pasts which led into them, like a person trying to get by off a classmate’s notes who finds himself constantly needing to actually go find the original textbooks to clarify exactly what it is she was talking about in shorthand. Marvel NOW’s soft reboot approach has made things relatively simple on that front, but with DC I’ve had a feeling for quite some time that even though I didn’t need to know what happened before this “New 52” universe began, I also kind of did.
With this summer promising a massive crossover event by the name of “Trinity War” that ostensibly will hearken back to questions raised at the inception of the New 52 timeline itself, I figured it was about time I went back and read the pivotal event to which people refer whenever they get tired of saying “New 52” or “n52” or “DCnU” or whatever; all of those stories are “pre-Flashpoint,” and the New 52 is post-Flashpoint. So what was Flashpoint? I decided to find out.
Written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Andy Kubert (with Sandra Hope and Alex Sinclair), Flashpoint is the story of Barry Allen, the Fastest Man Alive, who wakes up from a dream about his mother to find himself in a world where he is not, in fact, the Fastest Man Alive, his dead mom isn’t dead, Superman doesn’t seem to exist and Batman’s no-kill policy seems to be on permanent suspension. Wrestling against two civil wars — one in his memories, and one between the Amazonian and Atlantean armies — Barry races to figure out what happened to the life he thought he had when he fell asleep; and what he needs to do to get it back.
There are some fantastic ideas in this book with ripe potential which, honestly, never quite feels realized. A lot happens over the course of the five issues this volume collects (which is the core Flashpoint series, and does not include any of the many spin-off stories which also involve this weird alternate universe), perhaps too much. Occasional moments of true impact rarely have time to linger, though I’ll note now that I thought the final page was a very nice touch.
Were this a mere elseworlds story in which The Flash enters a weird world, learns a lesson about the fragility of time, and then resolves the conflicts at hand, it would probably be easier to recommend. But unfortunately for Johns this was supposed to be the swan song of many decades’ worth of canon, the transitional event by which the company’s longest-running series were terminated to make room for a clean slate. And in that capacity, it fails rather spectacularly.
To truly appreciate the problem with Flashpoint, it helps to question what sort of people would pick up this volume. People who want to understand, contextually, why the New 52 came into existence (I say contextually because I’m trying to ignore the blatant external corporate motivations), right? But while Johns offers a decent enough story, he doesn’t really offer any explanations at all; in fact, in lieu of clarity a reading of Flashpoint actually produces more questions. The entire book hinges on a single two-page spread from issue five, in which a mysterious figure (who we now know is Pandora) explains to Flash that three timelines were once separate and now needed to be joined:
But why were they separated? By whom? What was this impending threat? And how are they being joined? What is the cost which she mentions? Barry doesn’t understand, and neither do we. Twenty issues into the New 52 and we still don’t know. I read Flashpoint in hopes that I would better understand Trinity War. Ironically I am now hoping that reading Trinity War will elucidate Flashpoint. Happily I’ll only have to wait a couple months to get those (potential) answers; but original readers of Flashpoint have been waiting a couple years. And while mystery isn’t an inherently bad thing, creating an event and story for the specific purpose of facilitating a transition and then leaving people more confused than they may have been with no transition whatsoever…that’s a little less defensible.
All that aside, I still enjoyed reading Flashpoint. Kubert et. al.’s art is absolutely gorgeous, and there are some really incredible spreads throughout (the sight of a mostly-submerged Eiffel Tower comes to mind). The elseworld spin on many characters is just the sort one hopes for in this kind of story: recognizable in basic elements but otherwise quite different (Batman and Superman are definitely the highlights). I can’t be sure, but I think that if I had simply picked up this trade without any prior expectations or motivation for doing so beyond a potentially cool story arc, I would have loved Flashpoint. So to that end, if you’re looking for something random, this is a cheap and fun read with the added benefit of having been very important (even if you won’t fully understand how or why from reading it). If, on the other hand, you’re hoping for clarity on what happened back in 2011, you know as much now as you will when you’re done. My first impulse after finishing was to check to see what epilogue had been printed to bridge the (in my mind, obvious) gap between it and the beginning of the New 52. The fact that I felt compelled to do that — and that there is no such bridge — should tell you all you need to know about Flashpoint.