COMIC LOVE: Growing Up Wally (West)

Toledo, Ohio isn’t Blue Valley, Nebraska, but if you blindfolded someone, made Wayne’s World time flashback sound effects around them and took the blindfold off of them in the middle of Eleanor Avenue in Toledo, they’d be hard pressed to tell you the difference between Toledo and Blue Valley, minus the smell of fertilizer one would presumably notice in Nebraska.

Granted, none of my uncles were superheroes, but they were gatekeepers to other worlds: Uncle Steve worked at General Mills making cereal and other awesome treats; Uncle Mike lived in California, which in and of itself was like Earth-2 or at least Metropolis; Uncle John was a police officer; and Uncle Joe was the nice guy who always listened to you. All of them were heroic in their own right, and all of them were role models.

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You know, kind of like Barry Allen for Wally West before, during, and after Crisis on Infinite Earths.

I’ve been a fan of lots of characters, many of them also-rans or B-listers: Firestorm, Nightcrawler and the Beast, Hawkman, Aquaman, even Red Tornado. When I learned of the larger, sprawling vastness of the infinitude present in the DC Universe from a friend’s copy of Crisis of Infinite Earths #2 (not sure why he didn’t give me #1 to start with), my mind started melting. I started drawing. I started digging. I started learning. About comics. About characters. About creators.

Yes, I had bought comics before. I had read comics before. I knew there were certain art styles I liked better than others, but Crisis changed it all. For me. For the DC Universe. For Wally West. I went with my buddy to the comic shop on his next trip. We hadn’t adopted the Wednesday Warrior mentality yet, as we had no idea to ask when comics shipped. We’d only just discovered the magic of King’s Comics on Monroe in Toledo.

And it was magical.

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From that trip on, I’ve frequented LCSes. Mostly because of the Crisis on Infinite Earths. The first issue of that series I bought was #5. The one with the bajillion faces on the cover and the tragic stories of Red Tornado, Barry Allen, and Wildcat inside. I was hooked. I didn’t know who everyone was, but thanks to discovering Who’s Who near the same time, my wallet was lighter and my brain was filling up with facts about the DC Universe.

I kept reading Crisis on Infinite Earths. Barry Allen died in Crisis #8. Wally West was brought back into heroing in #9, unaware that his mentor had passed and willing to take the risk inherent in his return to using his powers. (A quick aside, Wally had previously retired from heroing as his powers were threatening to consume him. I wasn’t reading the Marv Wolfman/George Pérez New Teen Titans at the time, but has since corrected my younger self’s ignorance. Time travel through back issues.)

By the end of Crisis, Wally had assumed his mentor’s costume, declaring, “From this day forth – the Flash lives again!”

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After Crisis, some new series happened that gave me a chance to find MY comic book series. There was a whole slew of new titles starting, and many of them starting with #1. Gone were the already-dashed dreams of collecting a series that had been around since before I was born with issues I’d never be able to afford, if I was lucky enough to even find them. No, this was my chance to start reading new heroes. I’d already been collecting some comics, but new #1s in those days were a delicacy for collectors and speculators.

For those of us looking for good reads, they were also pretty darn enticing.

Of course Wally would have to grow into the gargantuan boots his dear uncle had left behind. In 1987, Flash #1 hit the racks, and Wally West was trying to make a living through using his abilities. Naturally, that gave the story a more grounded protagonist, but being a legacy superhero, trouble awaited young Wally.

Mike Baron wrote the first year-plus of the Flash, Jackson (pre-“Butch”) Guice drew a strong run of it. And I became a high schooler. Like Wally, I was quite confident to be better than the rest of the world around me, and more than willing to prove it.

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Baron and Guice would eventually give way to William Messner-Loebs and Greg LaRocque. Through this volume of The Flash, Wally’s world grew. New characters entered, added to Flash mythology: Chester P. Runk, Tina McGee, Red Trinity, and a revitalized Pied Piper.

The greatest addition to Flash’s world, however, came in the form of reporter Linda Park in Flash #28, cover-dated July 1989. Thank you Misters Messner-Loebs and LaRocque. Coincidentally, I found myself in a relationship at the same time. Mine didn’t last, as I was a kid, but at the time, it was more than Flash had, as the waters between Wally and Linda were rocky at best, more antagonistic than passionate.

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LaRocque would stick around as Messner-Loebs gave way to Mark Waid. Waid would investigate the concept of legacy, bringing Jay Garrick in to Wally’s life more prominently and adding in visits from Aquaman and Green Lantern. Wally was also constantly trying to measure up to Ralph (Elongated Man) Dibny’s fond recollections of Barry Allen. Waid would use these moments less and less for comedy, but more and more for growth opportunity. His Wally wasn’t above learning from a mistake. And he made mistakes. But he also grew.

In 1993, just as I was entering my last year of college, learning from my mistakes and growing (I entered college as a biology major, but was set to leave with a degree in graphic design), Wally West was entering a new era all his own.

A relatively unknown artist named Mike Wieringo joined Waid. Ringo as he would come to be known helped Waid guide Wally into a life that included the love of his life (the aforementioned Linda Park) and recognition that, finally, Wally was worthy of the mantle of the Flash.

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In 1994, Wally fully emerged from Barry Allen’s shadow, just as I stepped into the spotlight of my own life. I took a graphic design job, got an apartment, and proposed to the young lady who would become my wife.

Not exactly direct parallels, but Wally and I would continue to have life milestones track close together. In 1996, Wally found himself trapped in time, with the John Fox Flash taking his place in the present. I got married and bought a house, where I tacked up a Wally West poster and hung up a sketch of Impulse I’d received from Mike Wieringo.

Grant Morrison and Mark Millar gave Mark Waid a year’s reprieve as they added more detail to Wally’s life. I was busy adding detail to the life of my firstborn. Waid returned in 1999 for Chain Lightning, which led to the Dark Flash. Dark Flash led to Wally’s return once again, and his marriage to Linda.

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The two of them tied the knot in Flash #159, as I was painting the nursery for Zawisza Baby #2. Not exact matches, but life event for life event. Wally continued to be there for me, giving me a chance to unleash my imagination and a reminder of just how great life is when there is someone to share it with.

When Mark Waid left the Flash, Geoff Johns took over, right around the time my middle daughter was born. The younger writer had made a name for himself with his Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. series. He added depth and diversity to an already magnificent Rogues Gallery for the Flash, giving Wally a stable of foes to rival Batman or Spider-Man. He also kept Wally human, grounded, and relatable.

Christmas in the new house in 2001 tightened the bond I felt to Wally West. Having ripped through presents with two kids, my wife pulled another gift out from under the couch. Not for my daughters. But for me. She had commissioned an inked drawing of Wally from George Pérez.

Yeah. The man who introduced me to Wally West over fifteen years prior now provided one of my most treasured original art possessions. Matted in red and yellow, this black and white beauty is something I should thank my wife and Mr. Pérez for every day. It also further ingratiated me to the Flash, despite the shake-ups on the comic itself.

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Johns’ Rogues would prove their mettle in 2002, as the Zawisza family grew once more. My comic budget tightened with each birth. And again with activities my kids undertook. One thing remained constant, no matter what else was cancelled or dropped: I was buying and reading the Flash.

October 2005 changed up Wally’s life once more as Jai and Iris were born in Flash #225. That issue dropped as I was living a double-life of my own, working in one city, but driving 300 miles home to see my family every weekend. Oh, what I wouldn’t have given to have Wally’s speed then! That cover for Flash #225 by Howard Porter appears to be an homage to the Crisis on Infinite Earths #5 cover that I mentioned earlier, bringing everything back together.

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Johns’ run was enjoyable, but things being what they were, DC deemed it time to try a different Flash, and attempted to pass the mantle on to Barry’s grandson, Bart Allen in 2006. That would prove to be a misfire among the readership, as fans preferred Bart to be identified as Impulse.  Wally would eventually return to his series, which would in turn end once more in 2009.

As for me? I had four different jobs (of my own choosing) in that same span. Yeah. Weird parallels once again.

Looking for a way to reinvigorate the Flash, DC decided that the formula used to revive the Green Lantern franchise just might work. They brought Geoff Johns and artist Ethan Van Sciver over to Flash: Rebirth, and the DCU welcomed back Barry Allen.

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With the Silver Age hero back in action, Wally was relegated to the background, and then eventually phased out altogether.  That was Flashpoint. DC abandoned Wally. Shut down the Doom Patrol. Rebooted their universe. And ignored the promises made at the end of Brightest Day. Wally West was nowhere to be found in Flashpoint or the New 52 DCU. At least not my Wally West.

When DC came around to bringing back a Wally West, they did so with the inspiration of diversity and inclusion. Wally was now African-American. His name was Wally West. But he wasn’t my Wally West.

I have nothing against him as a character, but counter to the way that Miles Morales didn’t truly replace Peter Parker; this Wally West replaced my Wally. Yes, I still had the comics. And the George Pérez drawing. But there as very little hope for new adventures starring the kid I grew up with.

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And that’s OK. Sure, this Wally could have easily been “Mike” or “Allen,” and DC could have added depth to the Flash mythos once more, but DC likes using similar names, and Wally West is a name people associate with the Flash.

It was another major event in our lives. Wally as I knew him was gone. So too, perhaps, was DC Comics. Yes, there were still DC books I read, but the universe that honored legacy and celebrated hope had faded, much like the Wally West once nurtured by Baron, Messner-Loebs, Waid, and Johns. No bang, no whimper. Just fading.

Yes, the new Wally West is someone’s favorite character. I have no doubt about that. I also have no doubt that he’s framed with a yellow and red matte in someone’s house somewhere, perhaps even in Toledo, Ohio. But this isn’t about him.

This is a tale about the Wally West returned in Rebirth.

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I don’t have a significant life event to parallel this return. Well, maybe I do. The week before Rebirth came out, my Uncle Joe passed away. Uncle Joe, the nice guy who always listened. He always smiled. He found the quarter behind your ear and gave it to you. He cracked the egg on your head (which was really just his own hand, fingers slowly splaying out to feel like a running egg). He laughed at jokes and made sure to repay the favor with jokes of his own. He loved. He lived as though every second was a gift.

I had a tough time just getting past the first page of Rebirth #1 with dry eyes. Seriously. I’m a forty-four-year-old man who nearly lost it on the first page of a comic book. But that’s what these things mean to some of us. We each have our favorites. We have our treasures.

As I read the rest of Rebirth, I gave myself breaks to process the chapters. End of a chapter meant a walk around the house or a session petting the dog, digesting what I had read, hoping for what might come next. Chapter two brought hope. Chapter three, heartbreak. Chapter four brought pure elation.

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Granted it seemed pitched towards acceptable disappointment, but writer Geoff Johns and artist Phil Jimenez put enough into it and found just the right combination of word and imagery to light me up. Wally was back!

MY Wally West, who I, literally, grew up with had returned.

Maybe DC Comics has some good stuff ahead of it. Or maybe, like Peyton Manning realizing the Denver Broncos’ victory in Super Bowl 50 is as good as it gets, maybe, I should accept this as a closed chapter and provide my own life event. Maybe this is the perfect pitch for me to walk away from comics. End on a high note.

Except this is not just a renewal of the DC Universe. It’s a renewal of my interest in the DC Universe. Yes, Wally West is back. And DC managed to maintain the new Wally West as well. And they’ve (thanks in no small part to Geoff Johns) brought back hope, joy, legacy, and love.

It’s not quite as vast and fascinating as Crisis on Infinite Earths was to me back in 1986, but there is simply no denying that the DC Universe right now has a great deal of potential in front of it. I’m just happy to have my old running buddy back with me to take it all in.

 

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