SPOILER ALERT for “The Return of Barry Allen”
Last time, I said that there were some startling coincidences related to some of the Stories I Never Told. I’ve decided to spend this week focusing on two of them, both of which happen to relate directly to one of my favorite comic book writers, Mark Waid.
A little background, for those of you who don’t know: Waid started in comics in the ’80s as an editor, but didn’t really hit his stride until the ’90s, when he became the main writer on Flash. When he first took on the writing chores, no one really took note — Flash wasn’t a book most people were paying attention to, and Waid was pretty much unknown. In short order, though, he made the book his own and did some truly astounding things with it, sending his reputation into the stratosphere and cementing his bonafides as a truly talented comic book writer.
I’ve always loved the Flash. In the early eighties, Barry Allen (the Flash of my childhood) was forced into a situation where he had to kill his nemesis, the time-traveling Reverse-Flash, in order to save an innocent life. A trial for manslaughter ensued, there was much drama, and in the end, Barry ended up sacrificing himself to save the universe.
So that ended well.
Barry’s protege, Wally West, graduated from Kid Flash to Flash, and that’s pretty much where things stood around about 1992 or so, when I had an idea.
(Sorry. Wrong company.)
I was trying to break into comics (I was always trying to break into comics!) and one bit of advice I’d read from someone at DC was to try to write a “fill-in” issue for a comic that wasn’t a big deal. In other words, don’t try to reinvent Superman and don’t pitch a massive mega-epic for Batman. But pick a quiet book that’s just plugging along and write a single issue, one that could be dropped into the pond without causing any ripples.
Flash met the criteria at the time. Waid had just started his run and no one was paying attention to the book. I figured they could maybe use a decent fill-in issue, just in case.
My idea was delightful in its simplicity and, I thought, showed both attention to detail and creativity in one fell swoop.
What if, thought I, Reverse-Flash decided on some posthumous revenge? His death at Barry Allen’s hands was a matter of public record in his own time period, so what if he decided to come back to his past, but Barry’s future…and kill Wally after Barry’s own death? How twisted would that be? Revenge from beyond the grave, at a time when Barry could do nothing about it!
I called the story “Reversal of Fortune,” and the basic premise was that Reverse-Flash comes to the nineties to kill Wally. At the time, Wally could move at something like three or four times the speed of sound, while Reverse-Flash could move at the speed of light. No contest, right? Reverse-Flash would toy with Wally for a while, making damn sure Wally knows why he’s going to die.
And then something would happen. I hadn’t figured out what yet. (I would figure it out if DC bought the story!) Somehow, Wally turns the tables on Reverse-Flash and soon has an unconscious bad guy at his feet.
And he realizes… He realizes that if he kills Reverse-Flash right now, then Reverse-Flash will never be able to return to his own time period. And will, as a result, never be able to go back in time to the 1980s and threaten that innocent life. And if he never threatens that innocent life, then, well, he’ll never be killed by Barry Allen, and maybe — just maybe! — Barry won’t end up in a situation where he has to sacrifice himself to save the universe.
If Wally kills Reverse-Flash, Barry could be alive again!
But, of course, Wally comes to realize that this isn’t his decision to make. Barry would never condone cold-blooded murder like that, no matter the possible benefits, and so the tale ends with a sobered Wally sending the bad guy into the future so that the cycle can complete itself.
Ta-da! Some action, some character work, a dash of continuity porn, and a moral to the story, all in a neat little package.
I sent the proposal off to the Flash editor, Brian Augustyn. Within a couple of weeks, I got it back, with a handwritten note (which I seem to have lost in the past twenty or so years — damn!) which said, mysteriously, “Barry, I’m sending this back to you so you won’t get the wrong idea. Great minds think alike!”
What the hell?
I had no idea what he meant. But a little while later, I read the latest issue of Flash, and who should show up?
It clicked for me. It wasn’t really Barry. It was Reverse-Flash pretending to be Barry.
And it was. With masterful pacing and story control, Waid’s “Return of Barry Allen” pulled readers along a path of tortured emotions and true villainous cunning. I knew the twist through sheer coincidence, but I imagine it must have been a hammer-blow to other readers.
Obviously, Waid had the advantage of being able to tell a protracted story that made significant changes to the characters, something I couldn’t propose. His story was miles better than anything I would have come up with, but I was a bit heartened that, like Brian said, “great minds think alike.”
Coincidence, right? Clearly! What happened next, though, damn near crosses the line to ESP.
At the same time I was thinking of and submitting “Reversal of Fortune,” I was also developing a mini-series idea for a very obscure DC character: Quicksilver. No, not that Quicksilver. This one was a speedster from comics in the 1940s. Here’s his Who’s Who page:
Pretty much nothing known or established about him, right? Makes him perfect for a newbie writer looking to break in — a total blank slate. What could I do with him?
Are you kidding me? A hidden cave as his headquarters? Knowledge of chemistry? It was obvious to me who this guy had to be.
Barry hadn’t died when he’d sacrificed himself after all — he’d been hurled back in time to the 1940s, with much of his speed lost, enough that he couldn’t time travel anymore. Stuck there, he decides to do what he’s always done: Help people.
That cave headquarters? Inspired by his buddy, Batman. Knowledge of chemistry? Duh — Barry Allen is a scientist. As to why he’s slowing down… Well, as time passes, he gets closer and closer to the date of his own birth. My thinking was that at the moment Barry Allen is born, Quicksilver loses his speed forever, trapped in his own past. A sober ending, sure, but also a “circle of life” sort of riff. Pretty sure I planned to have the last issue with Barry, powerless, as the cab driver who gets his parents to the hospital on time.
Well, I submitted my idea for a Quicksilver limited series, but then, who should appear in Flash but…
At this point, I imagine poor Brian Augustyn sitting at his desk with a bottle of Excedrin, thinking, “What is with this guy?”
The fact is, there was (obviously) nothing psychic about any of this. Take two writers (one professional, one not) of roughly the same age, who grew up reading the same comics, and put “Flash” in their heads, and they’re going to conjure some of the same ideas. As Campbell said of myths, the basics are identical, and the inflections reveal something of the specific culture. Well, in this case, Mark and I both started with the same germs of ideas, and Mark proved why — at the time — he was published…and I was not!
All things considered, I think it worked out pretty well for both of us.