April 23, 2012

Where’s Wally West? C2E2, Dan Didio, and the Illusion of Change

Category: Opinion — By @ 12:44 pm

First off, sorry for the lack of updates last week. Sometimes, life gets too busy to blog.

There’s been a lot of talk about Wally West since C2E2 panels brought up the usual non-answers, and a Bleeding Cool reporter accidentally asked Dan Didio about Wally.

He explained that fans had grown up with Wally West, seen him get married and have children and with the de-aging of Barry Allen, it would cheat those fans who grew to love Wally to de-age him as well.

As a justification, it’s a bit disingenuous. “We shouldn’t do to Wally what we did to Barry” kind of suggests that maybe they shouldn’t have done it to Barry either. And while there’s something to “We’re making your favorite character go away because we know you wouldn’t like what we do with him,” it seems like it would rank right up there with “I don’t want to ruin our friendship by dating you” on phrases that people like to hear.

At Boston Comic Con, Francis Manapul mentioned a rejected a Wally cameo that he tried to put into an early issue of the New 52 Flash.

He doesn’t say how Wally would have appeared, and frankly, that’s a problem in itself. A few months ago when I met Brian Buccellato at a signing, he pointed out that having Barry Allen young and Bart Allen as Kid Flash kind of squeezes out Wally: Wally should be somewhere between Barry and Bart. But if Barry never died, and Bart’s already Kid Flash, where does that leave Wally?

There’s just no room for Wally West in the DCnU.

I kind of suspect that’s by design: A lot of Didio’s statements line up with that first panel of Comic Critics up above (though I’m sure he did watch Justice League Unlimited – and note the reference to the same nostalgia cycle I talked about recently), and he’s often talked about how Barry Allen is “more iconic” and otherwise superior to Wally West. I’ve long thought, cynically, that “more iconic” means “the version I grew up with,” but as I mull over the words reported by Bleeding Cool, I think it means something else.

Isn’t It Iconic?

I think what Didio (and by extension DC Comics) means by “iconic” is something you can use as a foundation, or a framework, for just about any story you want, for as long as you want. Wally West wasn’t iconic in this sense, because he was fleshed out as a real, dynamic character, whose journey was central to who he was. We didn’t just grow up with Wally West; he grew up with us.

The story of Barry Allen has always been simple: Police scientist gets hit by lightning and becomes a super-speed hero.

The story of Wally West, however, has been the story of a boy who gets his greatest wish — to become just like his hero — and then has to struggle with living up to that responsibility. It’s a story with a beginning (Wally as sidekick), a middle (Wally struggles to live up to his uncle’s legacy), and, if not an end per se, a conclusion (Wally becomes a mature adult, a seasoned hero, and a family man).

Rewind Barry Allen’s life? No problem. Rewind Wally West’s life? You destroy what made him most interesting to many of his fans.

Don’t Ever Change

It comes down to the classic question of change vs. the illusion of change. You can keep telling stories about a guy with super-speed forever. But at some point, stories about a guy with super-speed who grows into his destiny have to become stories about something else.

Did you notice that Star Trek got a reboot while Star Wars got prequels? A starship with a mission to explore is a framework. A farm boy leaves home, becomes a knight and helps overthrow an oppressive Empire is a story. You can start over with tales of Kirk, Spock and company. You can tell side stories (like Clone Wars) in any universe. But there’s not much point in retelling how Luke Skywalker left Tatooine and joined the Rebellion.

A little closer to home perhaps: look at how DC has approached the DC Universe and Watchmen over the past year.

I’m sure DC Entertainment would like to go as long as possible without rebooting their universe again, and the only way to do that is to set up frameworks, not decade-long stories. Stories that long introduce change, and as those changes keep piling up, you eventually get to the point that the stories and characters no longer fit what the series used to be.

At that point you have a few options:

  1. Bring in new characters so that you can keep going.
  2. Change the dynamic so that it fits the way the characters have changed.
  3. Rewind the changes in some way.
  4. Let the story end and move on to something new.

Stick with frameworks, and you can keep going in a holding pattern for as long as the audience is interested. Start on long-term character-development, and even if you can tell better stories, your days are numbered.

Countdown to Inevitable Crisis

Wally West made a huge impression on a generation of readers, both by representing real change (Barry’s death and Wally’s solo career lasted two decades) and by showing real character development himself over that time. That’s why, as Francis Manapul remarked in Boston, “once you introduce Wally the audience is then going to be waiting for him to become the Flash.” That takes a timeless world and starts the clock ticking toward the day when DC will have to make one of those decisions.

And I suspect the last thing DC wants to do is retool one of their major properties again.