Friday, June 16, 2017

Comment on a Great Cover (1): THE FLASH #258 (1978)

I have never been a great fan of the Flash. I remember reading some of his stories around the time CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was redrawing the DC Universe, but surely not enough to tell Barry Allen from Wally West at first sight, or to care much about it. And not even FLASHPOINT (2011), which I read from cover to cover, and to which Flash was central, did anything to draw me into the fold of Flash fans. And maybe, just maybe, it was due to this excellent cover by Jack Abel and Rich Buckler that haunts me from the time I was eight or nine.

And I’m sure it was not just any child’s natural fear of the fire that consumes Flash’s flesh, exposing the skull beneath. Nor the realization that superheroes are mortal after all, as much flesh-and-blood as any of us – a scary thought for any kid, used to believe that heroes live forever and cannot be defeated by second rate villains like Black Hand (not that I had even heard of him before). That the cover is gruesome (although brilliantly so) cannot be disputed, but it has remained an object of fascination for me since then. And there are several reasons for that, pilling one over the other, building a graphic edifice of macabre grandeur. Some of those elements are of clear intention; others however, result from fortuitous circumstances, like the darkly morbid humor that results from the juxtaposition of the hero’s sobriquet – the fastest man alive! – with a cover illustration where the Flash is everything but:

Then we have all the macabre trappings of the Flash being devoured by flame to the very bone, his skeleton sticking out from charred flesh and burnt costume, the shadows on the musculature of his torso looking nothing as much as fire-blackened roasted flesh. I guess death as never been rendered so viscerally in a super-hero comic book cover, something I believe can be attributed to Abel’s experience inking horror stories for MISTER MYSTERY (#2 -3 , 1951-52) and JOURNEY INTO UNKNOWN WORLDS. And what can one say of the look – the hopelessly desperate look on Flash’s eyes, still alive in the exposed caves of their orbits? In truth the progression of terror patent in Flash’s eyes in the last three steps of his deflagration tell unheard tales of unexpected horror and despair.

All this is fostered by the cover’s extremely dynamic layout: the reader’s own eyes are subtly dragged from the cover lower right along with the Flash’s curving trajectory, past where it’s intersected by the fatal beam from Black Hand’s gizmo-rod (C), and finally to the hovering villain himself, gloating like a mad-angel of death, in the right upper-corner of the page, there to be sent again along the beam of the rod  to where it hits Flash (C), igniting him,  a dramatic circularity that subliminally convinces the reader that there is no escape for our hero.

At least, that was the idea that held me in its unbreakable grip for all these years. So much so, that it kept me from reading any more Flash stories. Maybe I should make a short parenthesis in here: it is true that a good cover must be able to stand for itself – and this one surely does that. But in this particular instance, besides being effective from a dramatic and commercial point of view, the cover really had something to do with the story inside. And in that story, “The Day Flash Ran His Last Mile!” (by veteran Cary Bates, penciled by Irving Novick and inked by Frank McLaughlin), the villain Black Hand addresses the reader through the fourth wall, putting forth a clever explanation for his sinister plan:

I must admit that the idea of a “protective aura” shielding Flash from the friction-heat of his speed seemed cleverly logic to my young mind. After all, how would he be able to run at such speeds (even light-speed if one’s to believe his earlier stories) if it wasn’t so? And how clever of Black Hand to devise a way to neutralize said aura.  That’s the stuff great adventure is made of. However, the story at hand was a two-parter, to be concluded in THE FLASH #259 the following month. And, thanks to the erratic distribution of Brasilian-printed comic books in Portugal, where I then lived, I never got to read its conclusion (not for a few decades anyway, but it was enough delay for the effect to from the cover to dig deep in my mind). As such, the last I heard of the Flash was the final gloat of Black Hand assuring me that our hero had ran his last mile.

The truth is, I could not see how could the Flash escape such a tragic destiny. And I don’t mean in the story per se. Even at such a tender age one knows that he must have found a solution, or else there would not be any more stories featuring the Flash – and I knew there were (although I kept away from them). But I couldn’t see how could he escape such a tragic destiny forever. If he truly depended on that aura to survive such speeds, how could he run that fast without ever thinking that his aura could fail from one moment to the next? That someone else would discover the same gizmo as Black Hand did. Or, what the heck, what’s to say it wouldn’t just fail by freak accident? And I kept hearing Flash’s voice panting in panicky effort in my brain “I can’t  slow down… fast enough…” 

I guess it was this existential dread that killed my taste for the Flash. When one relied solely in comic book logic, it was easy to accept the workings of his powers. But as soon as one tries a scientific approach to it (an acquired taste from Julius Schwartz, who was then ruling editor on the book), the unavoidable cold equations take hold… and the universe is indeed a cold and indifferent place. One can run, but one can’t hide. And to err in the side of caution, better not run as fast as the Flash.