William Messner-Loebs' Flash (Part 3)

A column article, The Full Run by: Maxwell Yezpitelok

Continuing our titanic effort to review every Wally West Flash comic ever in a few lines per issue (which is about as much as our ADD-riddled, Twitter-obsessed intellects can handle, anyway). We'd like to thank Mr. William Messner-Loebs for supplying commentary for these past three columns: this time, he shared with us some fascinating insights into one of the most significant issues in Flash comics history, Flash #53 from 1991, in which the Pied Piper casually mentions that, oh, by the way, he's gay.

This time we'll be wrapping up the Messner-Loebs/Greg LaRocque issues and, as a bonus, we'll also look at a couple of early stories by future Flash writer Mark Waid.

Flash Special #1 (1990) – "Generations"

(various / various / various)
This is cool: the special includes a Golden Age Flash story by veteran artist Irv Novick, a Barry Allen story by his co-creator Carmine Infantino, a Wally West story by then-current writer William Messner-Loebs, and a "future" story by Mark Waid and… Mike Parobeck (close enough). The Waid story introduces John Fox, the Flash of the 27th Century, who will show up again.

Flash Annual #4 (1991) – "Family Business" (Armageddon 2001 crossover)

(Mark Waid / Craig Brasfield / Andrew Pepoy)
Some guy is going around groping all the DC superheroes, trying to find out which one turns evil in the future. In Flash's future, he's retired and lives a happy uneventful life with a wife and son, except that time some gangsters tried to kill them. The ending is kinda disturbing: Wally just misses meeting his "wife"… which means she's probably sleeping with the fishes by now.

Flash #51 (June 1991) – "Rage of the Proletariat!"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Roy Richardson)
Christina Alexandrova, one of the Russian speedsters Wally met a while ago (the evil ones) briefly worked for Vandal as "Lady Savage". At the last moment she turned against him and became "Lady Flash". In this issue Wally and all his Russian friends fight a commie superhero who doesn't know the USSR is over. It's Goodbye Lenin with more punching.

Flash #52 (July 1991) – "Death and Taxes"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / José Marzan Jr.)
Wally starts working for the IRS to pay off his massive debt, because let's face it, running around saving people doesn't count as "a real job" (or at least that's what our moms keep telling us). Wally has to convince a group of supervillains to pay their late taxes, which he basically does by annoying them until they give up and hand him a check.

Mr. Loebs told us how the "Wally works for the IRS" storyline came about:

DC bought the Harvey comic line and decided to make it into an entry level comic line for tweens called Impact, drafting Brian Augustine, Mark Waid and yours truly among others as talents. We were brought to White Plains, New York for a series of meetings to fix the shared universe. I ended up writing Jaguar, which I envisioned as a Betty and Veronica mash up, with feral transformations and battles, plus a disguised appearance by Nick and Nora of the Thin Man. At the after party Brian approached me with the idea of Wally being hired by the IRS to work off his tax bill. I liked it. The hardest part was coming up with the tax related villains. In return I pitched him the idea below —

Flash #53 (August 1991) – "Fast Friends"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / José Marzan Jr.)
Superman and Flash don't actually have a race in this issue, which sucks because they've only done that like 30 times before. Supes comes to ask Wally's help in rescuing Jimmy Olsen, presumably because he's tired of doing that himself all the time. Also, Wally's friend the Pied Piper comes out of the closet, initially freaking out Wally a little bit. Brilliant scene.

This was an important issue (because of Piper's announcement, not Jimmy Olsen being in danger), and so Mr. Loebs had a lot to say about it:

At the time comics had a Gay problem. Every time a superhero comic approached Gayness, the ball would get dropped. Just a regular normal Gay person in a mainstream comic seemed to be beyond us. Part of this was that the writers and editors were all young men, with the usual sensitivities about their own sexuality. Part of it was a lack of “Normal” folk in any sense in superhero comics. Since comics were still considered a kids’ medium, we were all still worried about doing anything that somebody running for office might latch onto. And who was going to write this theoretical gay-friendly story? Not the couple of lightly-closeted gay people who were writing comics. Not anybody with drug issue or a gambling issue or an alcohol or transgender issue or anything that might be intensely embarrassing like an extramarital affair if this hit the media on a slow news day and there was suddenly a big white light shining on them.

Well, my private life was so conventional that it barely counted as private. I was older, happily married, with nothing the slightest bit off-color in my past (or as it turned out my future.)

And you needed a story that would lead to a discussion of the issue in a relatively natural way. Well, Frank Miller had suggested satirically that the Joker, with his use of make up and his flamboyant manner, might be gay. Surely this would be the talk of the super-human community. Brian had been talking with Mike Carlin about a Superman guest spot. If we wanted an audience this would give us one. I had only to decide on the supporting cast member. I couldn’t introduce a character and then turn him gay. There wasn’t time. I didn’t know how long I’d be on the book and the point was to show that people who were gay were normal, and could be anyone you know. The Piper was the obvious choice. My small qualm was that he was already an ex-villain, super-powered, ex-rogue, social activist, jazz musician. Would this give him too much baggage? As it turned out it was a good fit.

My favorite story from this happened a couple of years later. Lightning had struck with The Maxx, and every convention had huge lines filled with young kids clutching issues to be signed. For an hour and a half I noticed a tall, quiet young man working his way down the blocks-long line at this particular convention. When he got to me he smiled. “I don’t have a book to sign. I just wanted to thank you for the Piper.” He shook my hand and was gone.

Flash #54 (September 1991) – "Nobody Dies"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / José Marzan Jr.)
Despite the spoilerific title, this is an awesome issue. Wally is traveling on IRS business, when his plane gets hijacked by terrorists. He takes care of them pretty fast -- but in the process, a stewardess falls off the plane and Wally jumps after her. The rest of the issue is about Wally trying to slow down the fall as the sidewalk approaches. Mr. Loebs told us:

As I think I mentioned this was the period of Grim-and-Gritty in comics. I have nothing against this in principle (I enjoy it quite a lot when my friend John Ostrander does it), but too often it means an easy acceptance of death to resolve plot holes, or get rid of inconvenient characters, or to motivate superheroes into snarling, vengeance-laden soliloquies. Also we had drifted into multipart stories and I was hoping to discipline myself to write more single issue plots (didn’t really happen.) Mike Gold, Brian Augustine and I had been invited to Universal studios by the producers of the Flash TV show to see the filming of what turned out to be three episodes. On the flight out there I came up with this idea, wrote up the outline and got Brian to approve it. I set myself to have Wally put himself in jeopardy to save someone else. So often the fate of individuals is made subordinate to the plot, providing a fight scene or “saving” the world. For once I wanted it to be about the fate of one person. It is my favorite issue.

The whole trip was by the way a spectacular good time. The producers and the cast went out of their way to make time for us, we got the walk through the regular sets (built seven-eights true size to give the actors “presence”) and even had a snowball fight on set of The Butcher’s Wife with real fake snow. These were rebuilt NYC streets the other two guys walked every day to work, so very surreal all around.

Flash #55 (October 1991) – "To Race with Gods (War of the Gods crossover)"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / José Marzan Jr.)
Wally is caught in a fight between the Greek god of speed Hermes and the Roman god of speed Mercury, who are pretty much the same guy. Hermes steals the speed of Wally, Lady Flash and other speedsters to aid him in the fight, but then The Chunk eats him. Or maybe that was Mercury. They really do look the same. It's a solid done-in-one issue nonetheless.

Flash #56 (November 1991) – "The Way of a Will, Part 1"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / José Marzan Jr.)
For some reason, Wally is named in the will of an old villain called The Icicle, a guy with ice powers who used to fight the original Flash. After the will is read, Wally is forced to stay with The Icicle's family in their old mansion because of a snowstorm, and from that point onwards the story turns into an episode of Scooby Doo, complete with a "ghost" killing people.

Flash #57 (December 1991) – "The Way of a Will, Part 2"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Carlos Garzon)
The ghost of The Icicle turns out to be… Old Man McMillan, the owner of the avocado farm! Actually, it was someone in The Icicle's family who wanted the inheritance all to himself. Wally defeats him with the help of The Icicle's daughter, who dresses up in her dad's costume. After that's over, she says to Wally: "Thanks for saving me! I still hate you BTW, see you in court".

Flash #58 (January 1992) – "The Barry Allen Foundation"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / José Marzan Jr.)
Wally and The Icicle's daughter are fighting in court over the inheritance money, when the Pied Piper kidnaps and drops them in the caves under the city, where all the homeless people live (victims of the alien invasions, God wars and so on). Having been homeless himself, Wally is moved and decides to use the money to set up a charitable foundation named after Barry Allen.

Flash #59 (February 1992) – "Last Resorts, Part 1"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / John Nyberg)
Good ol' Mason hooked up with The Icicle's old mother-in-law, but then someone starts sending death threats to both him and his booty call. It turns out to be Mason's delinquent son, who has somehow achieved superpowers. Meanwhile, Wally is harassed by Power Girl from the Justice League, who hates him because the writers of that comic are still writing him like a jerk.

Flash #60 (March 1992) – "Last Resorts, Part 2"

(William Messner-Loebs / Rod Whigham / Frank McLaughlin)
Mason investigates his son, who is apparently some sort of bounty hunter called "Last Resort" whom desperate people hire as a, you know. Eventually father and son reconcile. Meanwhile, The Chunk hooks up with Wally's on-and-off supermodel girlfriend Connie, and Wally and the Pied Piper have a talk about AIDS. Stay tuned for more Days of our Lives.

Flash #61 (March 1992) – "The Old Wedding Dodge"

(William Messner-Loebs / Rod Whigham / Frank McLaughlin)
Wally's mom is getting married to her French boyfriend and everyone who ever appeared in this comic shows up for the wedding -- including Wally's dad, who obviously brought an escort as a date. Fidel Castro also sends his regards (seriously). Wally's feeling down because everyone's hooking up except him… and then Linda Park shows up. The end.


The final scene in Flash #61, to me, perfectly sums up William Messner-Loebs' run in this comic: Wally is sitting next to Linda, hinting that there might one day be something between them but not saying it. Of course Mark Waid would come in next and turn their relationship into an epic reality-shattering romance, but the seeds were here, in this one scene. Mr. Loebs' run was all about character growth, but he didn't go out of his way to point it out -- Wally didn't wake up one morning and declare "I AM A STRONGER AND MORE CONFIDENT PERSON NOW!", like he's in an X-Men comic or something. As awesome as Wally West became when Mark Waid was writing him, I think none of that could have been possible without the work William Messner-Loebs and Greg LaRocque did in these issues (or at least it wouldn't have been so believable).

Speaking of Mr. LaRocque, while he was already an established artist when he started on Flash, I think his evolution in this title was amazing: from those slightly awkward first issues to the polished and expressive work of the last. In fact, the only thing that makes the last issues written by Mr. Loebs' suffer a little bit is that Greg LaRocque didn't get to draw them… however, he would be back at the beginning of Mark Waid's run with what is perhaps the greatest work in his career.

To close, here's my favorite moment from these issues, from Flash #53:

Piper says that, in fact, he can't think of a single villain who is gay… and then he adds, "Except me, of course".

Wally then makes an excuse and (literally) runs off, calling himself an idiot for handling that so awkwardly. Of course, by the end of the issue they're friends again. This is like the exact opposite of Northstar's publicized coming out in X-Men -- it's just another low key moment between two friends, not a huge deal.

Next time: Mark Waid! Time travel! Talking apes!

Maxwell Yezpitelok is a writer from Chile. He likes doorknobs. Find him on Twitter (@mrmxy) or outside your house OMG

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