The Flash: Doing Super Heroics Right on TV

 

Full Disclosure: The Flash is my second favorite super-hero (Superman being my favorite) as well as the one that got me into reading comics. Way back in 1990, I was in love with the John Wesley Shipp Flash television show. During its run, I found a copy of Flash #50 on news stand of my local general store.

As you can see, that is quite the cover. Inside, I was not only introduced to the wonderful world of comic books (sure, I had read a few here and there, but I was a scie-fi, fantasy and gaming geek, dammit, not one of those comic book nerds) but given my first lesson in the rules of adaptation: that is, nothing is sacred. On television, the Flash was Barry Allen; in the comic, the Flash was Wally West. There was a relationship between the two, something familial, even fatherly, but I could not parse it from the limited information provided. Some support characters were the same, or at least had the same names, and the TV Barry had some things in common with the comic book Wally (needing lots of food for energy, for example) but it would be months before I figured out which were chickens and which were eggs. In the end, though, none of those details mattered: a comic book reading, super-hero loving geek was born! It was as if I looked at my D&D books and fantasy novels and thought, “Nope, not enough, there is still a chance I might accidentally get laid.”

 

Flash forward (I am SO sorry) 25 years and The Flash is once again on television and is once again fueling my comic book super-hero nerdity. I never stopped reading comics and I have maintained a pull list at the same awesome Cave Comics for well over a decade now. That said, for the last few years I have been estranged from the majority of super hero comics, including my beloved Superman and Flash (among many, many others). Long story short: the Event Treadmill that consumed DC Comics for years starting with Identity Crisis, moving through Final Crisis and finally rebooting the Dc multiverse entirely with Flashpoint wore me out. I just wanted good stories starring the heroes I loved, not universe shaking event and universe shaking event. After all those, I dropped DC Comics entirely, never moving on to the New 52. Marvel, which I had read only intermittently anyway, was in the throws of its own Event Treadmill, from Civil War to the Secret Invasion and beyond, so I decided to take a year hiatus from both companies. When I did return, I followed creators instead of companies, picking up Mark Waid‘s Daredevil and Indestructible Hulk as they debuted with new Marvel Now #1 issues, as well as the return of the amazing Astro City by Kurt Busiek.

 

But I am nothing if not a fickle nerd and first my pull box and then my “to-read” shelf started to fill up with unread comics. It is something of a pattern with me. I will cycle between geek preferences, from video games to table-top games to comics to prose sci-fi and fantasy and back again. This time, though, my time away from comics was longer than it had been for any number of these “cycles.” Judging by the number of Astro City books on my shlef, unread, it had been at least a year since I had read any of the books I bought (and probably longer if the number of Waid’s Daredevil issues were any indication). That is a long time and a lot of comics.

 

In the last two weeks I have cleared out my to-read shelf and even started looking for new and interesting super-hero titles to start following. Why? The title of this post may be a hint: The Flash on the CW.

 

The Flash is not the first comic book super hero TV show to recently attract first my attention and then my slavish dedication. I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it is called, and therefore started watching Agents of SHIELD with great expectations when it premiered last fall. Also last year  I started watching Arrow, which I had avoided in its first season because it was a CW show (I watched Smallville for 6 seasons before the pretty people soap opera was too much to bear). I started watching Arrow exactly because it promised to introduce Barry Allen early in its second season, so I figured I could give it a few episodes just to see. Very soon, I was hooked, in no small part due to the depiction of Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator. Rarely has a comic book adaptation nailed a character so perfectly. Also, I just liked Arrow. It was the best Batman show we could hope for. (Come on, the main villain organization is Ra’s al Ghul‘s League of Assassins and it is about a revenge driven billionaire with mommy and daddy issues.)

 

All that said, neither SHIELD nor Arrow, or even The Walking Dead, reinvigorated that comics love. The back issues continued to pile up. (I did, however, seek out Walt Simonson’s Thor run after seeing Thor: The Dark World. Weird, that.) No, it was not until Flash premiered a few weeks ago that I got the super-hero big again and started burning through my unread comics, but also firing up my Marvel Unlimited subscription, which had sat largely unused for the better part of a year, to dabble in various series. (As an aside, if DC Comics would create a similar service, I would be an instant lifetime subscriber. There are so many great DC Comics not collected in trades from the 70s, 80s and 90s that it would take a lifetime to read through them all.) The strength of the show is its unabashed love of the genre. Where Arrow tries to bring super heroics down to the ground and revels in its gritty (dare I say, “Batman-esque?”) tone, The Flash on the CW is openly and proudly a comic book super hero television show, bright red costumes and villains with goofy code names included. But it is not a joke or a parody or even particularly self referential. It knows what it is, knows that its audience appreciates what it is, and treats both with both a wink and respect. By contrast, the other new DC comics inspired show, Gotham, is confused in its tone, part noirish Nolan-Batman and part weirdo Burton-Batman. (I love Gotham, too, but despite its tone, not because of it.) None of which would matter if star Grant Gustin did not infuse his Barry Allen with such charm and depth.

 

If you have not given The Flash a try and you love super hero comics and television, I implore you to do so. It really is a great achievement in the genre and for me at least, the shot in the arm an old comics fan needed to remember how grerat comics can be when they are about great characters in great stories, not just big events.

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The Circle Of Protection Service

I was unsure whether to include this in this blog, as it is just a write-up for a super-hero table top RPG I run. But as I am trying to get as many words written as possible, and this is going to devour much of my creative energy for the next couple of weeks, I figured, why not? Besides, gaming in general and TTRPGs in particular have defined my creative life for, well, most of my creative life. I tend to run games the same way I write — an idea, an outline maybe and then just go! — and I tend to treat my pre-game writing as seriously (or not, as the case may be) as my fiction. And, utlimately, there’s only like 2 of you so what’s the harm in boring you with some gaming related nonsense?

 

After the text itself, I will make a few comments, so if you make it through, stick around.

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During the Great War, the Circle of Protection — a loose alliance of super-beings — brought their incredible talents to bear against the rising evil of Osiron Empire and its saboteurs, secret agents and super villains allies. In their bright primary colors and their two fisted attitudes, the Circle of Protection enamoured the people of Erebar and the world over.

 

After the war, the Ereban-Dukemian-Hin Alliance (later to be called the Mutual Economic Defense and Interest Alliance (MEDIA) as other member states joined) agreed to expand the Circle of Protection program to include a “mundane” support network of military and civilian specialists. Over the course of the next ten years, that support staff became more and more prominent. The Circle Of Protection Service (COPS) was no long a super-hero team backed up by normal agents, but an expansive governmental agency (much of it clandestine) with a small super-heroic action team.

 

The directorship of COPS was granted to a military intelligence officer from the Great War, one Colonel Abernathy Paladin. Colonel Paladin was responsible for bringing the super-heroic members of the original CoP team in-line with MEDIA’s (and especially Erebar’s) interests and policies, or push them out. In addition, Col. Paladin made great strides in the growing cold war between MEDIA and the Elven Empire over the acquisition of newfound super-weapons (and super-people) in the post-War era. By allowing just enough of these secret operations to leak to the public (successful ones, of course) Paladin ensured strong public support for what was quickly becoming a super-spy international paramilitary organization.

 

Over the years, COPS has split its focus between the machinations of the Elven Empire and the emergence of independent super-beings (both hero and villain). Too often, these aspects cross and intertwine because of the Elven Empire’s aggressive policy of capture, containment and recruitment of super-powered individuals. In response, Col. Paladin instituted a controversial policy (among the Ereban and MEDIA governments, anyway) of undermining the very concept of the independent “super hero” and bolster the idea of the COPS as a super-response force. In this, their most useful and successful tool is the super-hero known as Bulkhead.

 

Bulkhead, monstrous in appearance but loyal and good in heart, emerged in the days prior to the Great War and joined the side of the angels as a member of the original Circle of Protection. After the war ended, Bulkhead stayed on and lent his immense power to the new COPS organization. Unsubtle in every way, Bulkhead is released against monsters that emerge from ancient mystical sites, horrors of science gone awry and other larger and louder than life threats. While all eyes (and cameras) are on Bulkhead, the rest of the COPS special team does its work (dirty or otherwise). Aside from his great power, the other advantage Col. Paladin saw in using Bulkhead as the public face of COPS super-heroics is his alienness. No square jawed, perfect haired hero with a shining emblem on his chest, Bulkhead is forever an Other, no matter how much good he does.

 

The recent increase in Eleven activity in non-MEDIA member states, especially the [African continent] countries as well as the rise in instances of individuals expressing or developing superpowered or mystical abilities has put COPS in a prominent position and made Col. Paladin one of the most powerful men in Erebar. With the apparent threats ever increasing, Paladin goes to more and more extreme lengths to combat those threats, using the twin tools of the COPS secret agents and its super-powered action team.

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I am guessing that you have a weird feeling of dissonance, that there are both familiar things in there and unfamiliar, connected in ways that don’t quite line up (unless, of course, you have played in a D&D campaign that have moved into a modern era dominated by super heroes). I thought I might explain a little bit. Obviosly, a great deal of the inspiration for this (and the previous events of the campaign) is American super hero comics, especially the various titles that take modern looks at the historical comic book eras. However, because this campaign and world were born out of a long series of D&D adventures, the inspiration and base mythology upon which the super heroic universe is built is different. In our world, the comic book heroes are based on folktales and myths common to Western civilization (or the near East and East, but poorly translated). Robin Hood, King Arthur, Thor, Zeus and Uncle Sam all serve as basis for American super-heroes. While I have intentionally held on to the tropes and themes of our worlds of comics, I have tried to replace those real world influences with ones from our D&D campaign world — the gods, heroes and adventures we created over the course of nearly a decade. Of course, because we were playing Dungeons and Dragons, itself a product of the mishmash of Western mythology and folklore and the pulp fantasies of the mid 20th century, there is certainly a lot of overlap. The goal, in many cases, is to try and find where we can bury the real world trope in its equivalent D&D campaign world trope.

 

It would take far too long to discuss all the details of that overlap. Suffice it to say, we have found a good balance where we are informed by our influences and are able to creatively merge them in telling each other a story about super-powered people beating up other super-powered people. It probably seems a vain pursuit to the non-gamer, but I suppose to the non-writer, crafting a world and the people within that world, and their stories, seems equally vain.