Writing Speedsters

Today’s guest post is by Adam Komar.

Speedsters make me nervous, because if you play them accurately, they’re impossible to beat… The moment someone sees him coming, it’s too late. You shout, “It’s the Flash!” and you haven’t even got “It’s” out before you’re done… I could deal with Impulse because he was easily distracted. — Peter David

This quote and the mentality behind always is why speedsters are written the way they are. In case you’re not aware of how speedsters are written, I’ll sum it up in one word: Poorly. You can argue that point, but I’ll have to throw a slew of campy villains at you that the Flash has faced off against over the years and the ridiculous scenarios he’s been in to deal with them.

I’m not saying the quote is entirely wrong. There is a degree of difficulty in dealing with someone who can run from the horizon to you before you can blink. But impossible? Impossible is a word used by people who lack the creativity to resolve their issues. That may sound harsh, but it’s true.

Before you can combat a speedster, you have to know everything he or she can do. This varies slightly from speedster to speedster. Your speedsters with extreme power levels like those found in the DC Universe, most of which are connected to the extra-dimensional entity called the Speed Force that grants them their power. These speedsters can have any combination of the following: Superhuman speed, superhuman endurance, decelerated aging, phasing through solid objects, accelerated perception, supercharged brain activity, sharing speed, stealing speed, accelerated healing, vibrational vision, time travel, dimensional travel, limited flight, creating solid constructs using the Speed Force, self-sustenance, creating various forms of vortices and a Speed Force aura that protects them from the effects of moving at superhuman speeds.

A lot of that makes sense, but some of it is a stretch. Marvel doesn’t go quite as far with their speedsters. Quicksilver is the most prominent speedster in the Marvel universe so I’ll use him as an example. He has superhuman speed, superhuman endurance, accelerated perception, supercharged brain activity and a mutated physiology that enables him to withstand the effects of superhuman speed.

No matter how far a writer does or doesn’t take the creative liberties with a speedster’s abilities, they’ll always just be someone who does everything faster than everyone else. When someone is faster than you, you either have to match the person’s speed or slow the person down. That’s why the greatest success against the Flash has been a speedster. Zoom has repeatedly given the Flash a run for his money. Sure, the Flash has the Rogues to deal with, but that always came off as more of a game they play than an actual challenge. They rarely propose a possibility of loss for the Flash. Zoom has not only proposed the possibliity, but succeeded in making it happen.

To me, another speedster is the easy and obvious solution to dealing with a speedster. You put the hero and the villain on an equal playing field then find out which one knows how to use their abilities the best.

There’s another option that I don’t recall ever seeing before [Editor’s note: this is similar to the Turtle’s most recent appearance in Flash #213]. A character that can slow down the flow of time for everyone but him or herself can also prove a tough opponent for a speedster. To a normal person, he would be perceived as a speedster. Where as a normal person would perceive the character as moving really fast, the character would perceive everyone else as moving excruciatingly slow. If a speedster were to enter the area affected by the time-slowing character, assuming the slowing of time is in proportion to the speedster’s speed, then the speedster would appear to be moving at the same speed as a normal person. The two characters would then have to fight it out using their similar, but ultimately different, powers and abilities.

But opposing powers aren’t the only way to deal with a speedster. Every speedster has certain characteristics that just come with being a speedster. Quicksilver, for example, is extraordinarily impatient. Put him in a situation where he has to wait and you’ll get him so worked up that he’ll make a mistake. His temper is and always has been his greatest weakness. It’s gotten him into a lot of trouble he wouldn’t have otherwise gotten into had he been tolerant and patient.

The Flash over-analyzes every situation he gets into so simplicity is his weakness. Even better is vague simplicity. The expression, “The devil is in the details” comes to mind. The Flash will get caught up in the details of whatever the villain has done, come to the wrong conclusion and the villain will have set him up to destroy himself.

Bart Allen, who has been Impulse, Kid Flash and the Flash, is known for being impulsive, hence his first moniker. He makes decisions without thinking, presumably because he’s so confident in his abilities that he believes he can do what he wants to do before something bad can happen. Overconfidence is another easy weakness for a villain to manipulate.

These are just quick thoughts I’m putting out there in hopes that writers will delve into them further and apply them to a quality story about a speedster. I love speedsters and that’s why I’ve had such a big issue with how they’ve been written for so long. I’m challenging writers, both professional and amateur, to really think outside the box when writing about a speedster, come up with some new ideas and run with them… Pun intended.

3 thoughts on “Writing Speedsters

  1. Xian

    “In case you’re not aware of how speedsters are written, I’ll sum it up in one word: Poorly.”

    I disagree with this because it makes the assumption that the measure of superhero writing quality hinges on rationality when that is far from the actual truth. The emphasis on rationality in the superhero genre is- at best- a tool used to enhance some comic book storytelling in the 80s for a genre that’s existed for half-a-century prior… at worst it’s a source of relentless deconstruction which completely undermines the qualities which makes the genre appealing at all. However, in either case, such storytelling consistency has never been the end-all be-all of what constitutes “good” or “poor” comic book writing across the board, much less for The Flash. Nearly all of the current post-modern, post-rationality, post-deconstruction comic books winning critical acclaim, commercial success, and reader support are far less than strictly rational or internally consistent.

    As a genre, superhero books rely on tropes, which is not an inherently bad thing nor a reflection of “poor” writing. There are plenty of good action films with implausible explosions or irrational gunplay. A musical can consist of excellent writing even if there’s no explanation for why the denizens of this particular story burst out into arbitrary song and dance for unseen audiences. Martial arts films are not proceeded by a lecture explaining the efficacy of the choreography allowing one to conquer one hundred with impossibly agile blows. This is because the audience is trained to acknowledge the tropes of the genre rather than see them as a challenge to the quality of the work. When one reads, “Once upon a time…” the genre-literate audience is no longer expected to critique the work on the basis that animals are talking, that magic is used, and so on. Superhero comics, having existed from the 1930s on, has a body of well-established genre-defining tropes which defy rationality or internal consistency, but nevertheless allow for good writing to take place within the constraints of the genre.

    Many of these tropes allow for smooth and concise storytelling (rather than having to explain talking animals or what martial arts are in every story), while others arise out of tradition or expectation, yet others are for market reasons, nonetheless few are senseless and simply “poor” writing merely for existing, they all have their histories or purposes which may constitute a necessary “evil” (and not particularly evil at that compared to the alternative).

    Consider the posited “solutions”, concisely: 1. Speedster villains; 2. Slowing villains; & 3. Mental handicap. [A quick aside, of course, all of these have been tackled by modern Flash storytellers: As early as issue #5 of Wally’s run, he was battling Speed Demon. Captain Cold throws down fields which sap kinetic energy and The Turtle is able to do the same at will with in a large radius. Wally’s entire slower-than-Kid-Flash era was due to psychological factors.] One wonders how quickly the stories would dull if the entire rogues gallery was paired down to only the first two types of villains and the main character never grew past a mental characteristic which impeded his goals despite experiencing its consequences with regularity (such characterization- or lack thereof- would be, I daresay, poor). Most audiences would happily accept tropes which provide a colorful variety of villains, challenges, and opportunities for character growth and development in exchange for staid plots governed by cold rationality and strict internal consistency. Audiences want brilliant hard-hitting choreography and high-octane chase sequences… not sloppy wrestling matches squirming on the ground and vehicles stuck in urban traffic jams, and their tastes are not wrong or “poor”, merely acquired and developed.

    This doesn’t mean that rationality or internal consistency doesn’t matter at all, simply not nearly as much as the article imagines. When the sacrifice of these things is for a purpose and falls within a commonly accepted trope, there’s less cause for complaint, but if the writer chooses to focus on and emphasize rationality- by delving deep into the technical, exploring tactics and actions with nuance, or going out of its way to upend a traditionally held trope- then a higher level of scrutiny is appropriate. However, how many Flash stories- or superhero genre stories in general- really fit that mold?

    Even if one considers the original thesis as valid, how often does it really occur? Critics like to laud the absurdity of Captain Boomerang or the obviousness of the truncated sentence as if Captain Boomerang was defeating Flash on a regular basis or villains were engaged in long drawn out single combat with Flash, but anyone actually reading the books can assure you that modern Captain Boomerang appearances are far and few between (and not really presenting a genuine threat to the Flash when he does)… likewise, Flash does blitz his opponents quite often. Instead, the issue seems over-inflated for the purposes of making a point rather than an accurate portrayal of what is going on in the books themselves.

    Admittedly, there is has been a trend in increased rationality in modern comics, here and there, but you’ll find that Flash has kept in step- if not outpaced- the conventions of the genre being ahead of his time at nearly every turn (being grounded and mundane and technical before such approaches were popular, being character and power driven, being cosmic and godlike, being street level and darker, being optimistic adventurous and light, etc) these tone shifts being more relevant to overall quality than strict adherence to a non-existent power-level bible. Quality writing and more fluid portrayal of powers and vulnerabilities are not mutually exclusive nor intrinsically linked.

    Modern Flash remains one of the purest examples of the superhero genre, with its tropes and all. Having seen the likes of the writing talents like Waid, Morrison, Millar, and Johns it is very difficult for a seasoned comic fan to consider that a pantheon of poor writers. As with the fan of musicals, martial arts films, or action flicks, the onus is more on the reader to be familiar with and accept the tropes of the genre- than on the writer to go out of his way to defy them… if he does, then he can be called to task, but Flash has nearly always been written firmly a superhero fan’s superhero comic.

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  2. Perplexio

    Actually I thought Zoom’s (Hunter Zolomon) super speed was actually time manipulation. He slows time to a near standstill and runs creating the perception of super speed for the Flash and his opponents. At least I thought that’s how it was written in Flash:FFMA during Bart’s brief stint as the Scarlet Speedster. With the negative Speed Force in play now that may have actually been retconned out.

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