The Flash by Geoff Johns Omnibus Volume 3 (2022)
Reprints Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge #1-3, Blackest Night: The Flash #1-3, Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps #1, The Flash: Rebirth #1-6, The Flash Secret Files and Origins 2010, The Flash v3 #1-12, Flashpoint #1-5
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Scott Kolins, Ethan Van Sciver, Francis Manapul, Andy Kubert
I’m not sure what has happened to Geoff Johns in the last few years. It’s been a disheartening turn of events between some weighty accusations lobbed at him by Justice League star Ray Fisher and some egregious delays on books like Shazam. Recently, artist Bryan Hitch shared that plans for a Justice Society revival book with Johns had been scrapped even after promotional art was shown off in 2021. Johns has become a writer whose work I prefer to wait to be collected than deal with the chronic delays. This definitive collection of his Flash work marks the point where things really went off the rails for the writer and DC Comics for about a decade. Looking at these stories, we can see how the previous consistently high-quality stories being told by Johns about the Flash lost some luster.
The first two items in the omnibus are a pair of three-issue mini-series centered around significant DC events. Without those events in the collection, you may be confused if you don’t have the proper context. However, if you have been following this Flash run, it shouldn’t be too difficult. Rogues’ Revenge features Captain Cold and his team of Flash villains going up against the Final Crisis villain Libra and his forces. Simultaneously, this mini-series is following up on the recently canceled Flash title. That short-lived series featured Bart Allen as The Flash, having aged up following events from Infinite Crisis. He was killed by his “evil twin” Inertia, released by Zoom as part of that villain’s ongoing agenda to shape the elements in our hero’s life. This is a very dark story, especially in the final issue when Weather Wizard’s infant son is murdered by Inertia. There were many complaints at this time of how dark DC Comics had gone, and Johns was one of those writers falling down a bleaker path. Despite his love of classic characters and the rich continuity of the DCU, he has leaned into the darkness. What’s also a little infuriating about this is that it teases the return of Barry Allen, which ends up happening in the pages of the main Final Crisis book, not collected here.
Barry Allen’s return in 2009 never really sat well with me. As with many comic book readers my age or younger, we’d grown up with the knowledge of Wally West as The Flash and with Allen as his deceased mentor. Allen was never that compelling of a character, much like Green Lantern Hal Jordan. They have great costume designs and concepts, but they were always written so flatly as characters. Wally was a much more dynamic and nuanced person in his stories, so bringing Barry back and making him the main Flash of the DCU just didn’t work. Instead, Johns retroactively gives Barry personality by retconning a major tragedy into his life, the death of his mother, and his father’s arrest & conviction for it. Johns makes this event core to everything about Barry when he starts writing The Flash again.
The Flash: Rebirth feels like an undeniable attempt to ape the success Johns had with the similar Green Lantern: Rebirth years prior, and I don’t think it works as well. One of the most jarring elements of this story is the sudden sidelining of Wally West. After Bart Allen was killed off, Mark Waid returned for a short and ultimately unsuccessful run with Wally and his now aged up twin kids, Irey & Jai. When the decision to bring Barry back was made, Wally and his whole family just got pushed off the pages. They make a memorable appearance in Rebirth, but they became invisible in the main Flash title after that. It felt like Johns was already rolling out the reset of the New 52 a year before it officially happened. Barry is presented as younger, maybe the same age as Wally. Iris Allen also seems to have aged back a little from Wally’s wise aunt to someone younger. The ignoring of so many established Flash family members didn’t make this run sit well with me when it first was published, and, after reading the previous Wally-centric volumes in the last year, it reads even worse.
In true Geoff Johns’ fashion, he attempts to take disparate minor elements and tie them into a grand narrative, which is one of the more fun things about his writing style. In the pages of Justice Society, I loved seeing things like ancient Egypt bring together Shazam, Dr. Fate, and Metamorpho. These things were always like little treats for longtime fans without feeling shallow; they brought depth to the universe and the stories. In Rebirth, Johns pulls in pieces of The Reverse Flash’s time twisty history, the speed formula used by Jesse Quick (and her dad Johnny), and Waid’s development of the Speed Force, but I don’t think it works quite as well as he wanted. It’s here that we learn Reverse Flash murdered Barry’s mother as part of his mission to ruin his former idol’s life. It’s also heavily implied that Barry is responsible for the same lightning bolt that gave him his powers through this same time travel. It sounds good, but it reads to me as clunky and not thoroughly thought out on the page. Leading into the new Flash ongoing series, we get a series of teases: Zoom locked up in Iron Heights with Reverse-Flash, the denizens of Gorilla City engaged in a ceremony that implies a more excellent knowledge of the Flash legacy, Abra Kadabra plotting his revenge, and Captain Cold becoming fully aware his old foe is back.
Most of these teases do not get followed up in The Flash ongoing. There are two complete arcs before the series was canceled to make way for the continuity shake-up of Flashpoint. I did find myself enjoying the twelve issues that were published more than I did at their original release. The first arc is enjoyable and introduces The Renegades. They are police from the Reverse Flash’s 25th century using the gimmicks of The Rogues, but for good. The second arc gets caught up in setting the stage for Flashpoint, and thus the story feels rushed and messy. Artist Francis Manpaul would take the writing reins when New 52 started, and these stories would continue more or less. I can’t help but think New 52 was on Johns’ mind already when this series started because it just reads like a reset of previous continuity.
Flashpoint is very interesting to read now, given the context of the New 52’s failure and the Rebirth initiative to restore many elements of the old continuity. This event finds Barry Allen waking up in a world very different from the one he knows. He has no powers, and the state of the planet is pretty bleak. The Amazons and Atlantis, led by Wonder Woman and Aquaman, respectively, are engaged in a globe-spanning war. Bruce Wayne and his mother died, so Thomas Wayne operates as a much more brutal & older Batman. Superman’s rocket was intercepted by the US government, and he’s been raised in an underground bunker far from the eyes of the public. Captain Thunder appears when six children shout “Shazam!” a la Captain Planet. I absolutely love parallel universe stories so reading the book in that context makes it a lot of fun. Also, this is the first time characters from the Wildstorm Universe were beginning to be folded into the DCU, which is also an interesting experiment, which I don’t think DC has yet to nail.
The conclusion of Flashpoint means the obliteration of the post-Crisis universe. Barry has to fold in the DCU, the darker Vertigo characters, and the Wildstorm above heroes into one continuity in the final pages. There are great moments in the story for all its misguided effort to remake something that wasn’t really broken. I loved the last scene with Bruce, now restored as Batman, reading a letter Barry brought to him from his parallel reality father. I also noted the prevalence of Element Woman, a new character based off of Metamorpho. In interviews around the time, it was clear that Johns was planning on bringing her into his Justice League run at some point. She eventually showed up over a year later in the pages of Justice League #16. She would appear in ten issues of that series, but I honestly cannot remember a single thing she did. Subsequently, Element Woman has sort of fallen off the map, last seen around the time the Forever Evil event ended.
This final Johns Flash omnibus is a very mixed bag. I still think The Flash is one of the characters and worlds within the DCU; he writes with a level of expertise that others just haven’t nailed down. It’s disappointing that because of certain editorial decisions, which Johns went along with, he could not provide a truly great ending to the stories he was telling about Wally West and the Rogues. With American comics having the nature of endlessness, it wasn’t encouraging writers to plan grand arcs to close out their runs too often. You might be in something like James Robinson’s Starman or Grant Morrison’s JLA, but in the greater DC Universe, that wasn’t quite as common as it has become now. However, we can learn a lot from seeing how the leadership at the company during the 2010s failed to produce stories about these characters that could build on that momentum. Something was lost in the desire to focus on blockbuster events rather than the steady, quality character development. Right now, DC Comics is somewhere in the middle. They are still eager to build towards big events (see Infinite Frontier), but smaller stories are popping back up, and we’re starting to see energy focused on developing characters. Geoff Johns has become a very different figure in the industry now, and I personally don’t see it as something for the better. His work on Justice Society and The Flash remains up there in my list of favorite comics, but anything contemporary he releases will always be met with some skepticism from me.