William Messner-Loebs' Flash (Part 1)

A column article, The Full Run by: Maxwell Yezpitelok

So here's the deal: each week we'll pick one comic book run we love (in this case, William Messner-Loebs and Greg LaRocque's character-defining Flash tenure) and attempt to review every single issue in no more than a few lines. This time, however, we'll have a little extra help: William Messner-Loebs himself has graciously agreed to provide commentary for each of his story arcs and some individual issues. Mr. Loebs' comments will be in bold type, in case you wanna skip all the other crap.

First, some context: 20-year old Wally West has been The Flash for less than a year and in that short time he's had to deal with stuff like his girlfriend's jealous husband trying to kill him, his dad turning out to be a spy for an alien conspiracy, and being eaten by a bizarrely overweight supervillain called The Chunk. The last thing the previous writer did before leaving the comic was taking away all of Wally's money and superpowers (as we saw in last week when we looked at Mike Baron's Flash). Just when it seems like life can't get any worse for Wally... it totally does.

Flash #15 (August 1988) – "Hitting Bottom"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Suddenly bankrupt and powerless, Wally moves into a rat-infested apartment building. Wally's girlfriend's supervillain husband, Jerry McGee, is reintroduced to the comic and it turns out he's a pretty okay guy without all the super-steroids. Best part of the issue: Wally is beaten up by a superfast junkie inexplicably dressed like Flash. This is all exquisitely decadent.

Flash #16 (September 1988) – "The Adventures of Speed McGee Part 1"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Spotlight on Jerry McGee, who's still in the hospital recovering from his fight with Flash (it's okay, though, because Jerry started it). Tina McGee and Wally break up. Wally is evicted by his landlord, and then the same landlord calls him begging from help because his baby son was kidnapped. Naturally, The Flash replies: "Sorry, Wally doesn't live here anymore."

Flash #17 (October 1988) – "The Adventures of Speed McGee Part 2"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Wally agrees to find his landlord's kidnapped baby... for a price. Problem is, he still has no powers. He enlists the help of his neighbor Mason Trollbridge (because he owns a truck) and Jerry McGee (because let's face it, he has nothing better to do right now). So the three go off to find the damn baby. At some point, Wally gets his powers back.

Flash #18 (November 1988) – "The Adventures of Speed McGee Part 3"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Timothy Dzon)
Wally finds the missing baby inside Barry Allen's grave, of all places, which is otherwise empty because as you might know that guy died of a chronic case of running until you disappear. So Wally returns the baby to his asshole landlord and decides not to accept the reward money for it. This is a real turning point for the character, I think.

That's the end of Mr. Loebs' first story arc on the comic, which introduced a few new supporting characters and re-established a couple of old ones (Jerry and Tina McGee).

Mr. Loebs says:

Superhero comics are a mixture of crime and science fiction. A hero needs easy access to scientific knowledge, and here were two scientists already in place... with a history. If I added them to the team, put them back together as a couple, there would be a complex vibe with Wally, and Wally needed complexity at this point. He and Tina had already been lovers. It would be more interesting for them to be friends.

Flash Annual #2 (1988) – "The Old Detective Dodge"

(William Messner-Loebs / Mike Collins, Greg LaRocque / Tom Poston, Mike Chen)
Wally is visited by his dear old dad, who's unemployed now that the evil alien conspiracy he was working for has been dismantled. This annual also has an interesting backup story which implies that the ruins of the Pre-Crisis DC Multiverse ended up in The Chunk's stomach. The Chunk is now a good guy too, by the way, and Wally's mom is working as his secretary.

Secret Origins Annual #2 (1988) – "The Unforgiving Minute"

(William Messner-Loebs / Mike Collins / Frank McLaughlin, Donald Simpson)
Very interesting story going over the real reasons behind Wally's diminishing powers: basically, whenever he feels like he's disappointing Barry Allen, his powers shut off. So, all the time, lately. This actually makes perfect sense with everything that will happen in this comic, even during Mark Waid's epic run.

There's also a story by Robert Loren Fleming and Carmine Infantino which reveals that the thunderbolt that struck Barry Allen's lab and turned him into The Flash was actually Barry himself, transformed into time-traveling energy after his death. Is this the first appearance of the Speed Force?

Flash #19 (December 1988) – "A Meeting of Rogues"

(William Messner-Loebs / Jim Mooney / Larry Mahlstedt)
This is the classic issue where Wally is invited to a reunion party for Barry Allen's old villains, as a gag, and he actually decides to show up. And bring a date. Highlights include The Chunk feeling neglected and crashing the party (literally) and Captain Boomerang getting drunk and making a scene.

Mr. Loebs tells us what brought up this issue in the first place:

Editors control the heroes in their books, but also the villains, if they USE the villains. If the villains aren’t active, a stronger editor can take them. Batman has the best villains in the business; Luthor is second; Flash’s Rogues Gallery is third. Everyone had been poaching Flash’s villains. So the first priority of my editors was to get control of the villains again. And you do that by having them appear in your own book, with a new twist. Capt. Cold’s explanation of Barry’s distraction of the Rogues to jewel heists, rather than taking over the world, answered a question I had always had, in an "outside the box" way Alan Moore might have used. We were all trying to be Alan Moore in those days.

Flash #20 (December 1988) – "Lost, Worthless and Forgotten... "

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Through a long series of unlucky circumstances, Wally is evicted from his apartment again and ends up begging for food in the street. He also finds out that the Justice League came to offer him a job some weeks ago but his mother kicked them out thinking that "JLA" stood for "Jewish Defense League" (she's dyslexic). Also, aliens invade the Earth.

I remember feeling rather clumsy setting up this premise. No one was talking about homelessness, in a personal way. But a homeless superhero? A superhero, by his very nature cannot become really poor, because he has the exploitable abilities -- strength, speed, x-ray vision, control of fire and ice, the ability to fly, etc. -- for which people are willing to pay. Plus, superheroes like Wally belong to organizations like Justice League and Titans. It was impossible to believe either one would allow a member to fall below the lower middle class. What can happen is the superhero can choose to be poor, which is not the position of most of the poor folk on the globe, and thus doesn’t make the hero very relatable. However Mike Baron (Bless him!) had given Wally the very useful Achilles Heel of needing to eat constantly. I was able to use this to drive Wally into true poverty for one nightmarish night.

Flash #21 (January 1989) – "Invaded Lives part 1" (INVASION! Crossover)

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Wally and The Chunk are recruited by the Justice League to fight shapeshifting alien invaders in Cuba. In the jungle, Wally finds a guerrilla group led by Fidel Castro and, somehow, Wally's dad. Castro, it seems, has been replaced by a lookalike alien, so Wally has to help him get back into power. Meanwhile Wally's dad tries to cash in on The Flash's sudden popularity in Cuba.

Flash #22 (February 1989) – "Invaded Lives part 2" (INVASION! Crossover)

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Upon learning that it's Wally's birthday (he's turning 21), Fidel Castro throws him a massive party in his Cuban mansion. Later, Wally gets some bad news: his dad died fighting the alien invaders in the INVASION! comic. Wally's mom can't help feeling sad, but she finds comfort in Castro's arms. All of this really happened.

Flash #23 (February 1989) – "The Clipper Returns"

(William Messner-Loebs / Gordon Purcell / Larry Mahlstedt, Timothy Dzon)
A "metagene bomb" dropped by the aliens at the end of INVASION! has made everyone's powers kind of screwy, so Wally is powerless again. On the other hand, the supervillain Kadabra is now more powerful than ever. Wally and his friend Mason solve this by throwing a burning truck at him. That officially ends the INVASION! crossover.

Someone once described INVASION! as "World War II, without the content." Crossovers were the way the big companies had to make money. We writers were pretty tired of them by this time, and there was unofficial talk of a boycott. We were crossing over into series that weren’t yet written yet, interacting with images that hadn’t been drawn, and used a third of our storytelling time each year to do it. Officially we weren’t forced to join in, but if you wanted your book to get the maximum promotion DC could offer you co-operated when you could. My solution to working blind was to turn Fidel Castro into an action hero, flirting with Flash’s Mom. Working with a young Republican hero it seemed like a no-brainer. I have a somewhat undeserved rep as a leftist, since comics have generally been so reflexively a knee-jerk right wing medium (even when the writers themselves are leftists), and since Castro is our national bogyman, I thought we’d have some fun.

Flash #24 (March 1989) – "Like a Straw in a Hurricane"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlsted)
Wally is tired of losing his powers every, like, two issues, so he asks his scientist friends Tina and Jerry for help. They figure that the best way to get his powers back for good is to recreate the accident that made him superfast in the first place. The experiment works a little too well: Wally is so fast, he causes a huge explosion and leaves a trail of destruction across the country.

Flash #25 (April 1989) – "A Short Drive with Friends"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlsted)
Flash is missing! Tina, Jerry and Mason Trollbridge take a road trip across the US to try to find out where the hell Wally ended up after last issue. The burning trail of destruction ends in the middle of the desert in New Mexico, where the locals speak of a mysterious chicken-killing "Porcupine Man." Some great moments with Jerry and Tina reconnecting in this issue.

Flash #26 (May 1989) – "The Porcupine Man"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlsted)
Since there's still no trace of Wally, his friends decide they might as well do something useful while they're in New Mexico and start investigating the mystery of the Porcupine Man. Eventually they find Wally hiding in a barn, half naked, with spikes coming out of his body, munching on a dead chicken and tripping balls. Mystery solved!

Flash #27 (June 1989) – "Running from Myself"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlsted)
You see, what happened is that Wally ran so fast that his metabolism went all screwy and caused big spikes to grow all over his body, which has been known to happen to Olympic runners. His friends try to calm him down, but Wally is delusional and escapes into the desert... where he's hunted by reformed supervillains seeking to capture the "Porcupine Man".

Flash #28 (July 1989) – "Bless the Beasts"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Timothy Dzon)
Porcupine-Wally eludes Captain Cold and also a group of angry villagers shooting at him. He then wins back the favor of the village (having murdered their chickens) by rescuing a group of children trapped in a mine. His spikes fall off, Wally goes back to normal and he's interviewed by some reporter called Linda Park or something. The end.

Take it away, Mr. Loebs:

It was time to solve the mystery of Wally’s faltering speed, and I wanted to explore the mystery of super-speed itself (something Mark Waid was to do much better later on.) The image of the Porcupine Man was my attempt to do "grim and gritty" in the Mike Baron/Frank Miller tradition. This was the high water mark of "grim and gritty" in comics, assuming it ever went away!

Flash Annual #3 (1989) – "Flashing on the Past"

(William Messner-Loebs / John Kock, Don Simpson / Timothy Dzon)
Wally wonders what happened to Jay Garrick, the original Flash, and finds out that he's trapped in another dimension, fighting a demon for all eternity. In the backup story, Wally and Chunk visit the Justice League International headquarters and hijinks ensue. Somehow, they end up taking a shower together with Guy Gardner.

Flash #29 (August 1989) – "Casablanca Nights"

(Len Strazewski / Grant Miehm / Paul Fricke)
In this fill-in issue by guest writer Len Strazewski, Wally uses his newly installed JLI teleporter to travel across the world to the city of Casablanca, but finds out the place isn't as romantic as he imagined. In fact, it's kind of a dump. Wally somehow gets involved in an adventure with Phantom Lady, or perhaps a high class stripper. There's no way to tell.

Flash #30 (September 1989) – "Dancing in the Dark"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Wally is on a movie date when suddenly time comes to a stop: someone shot a bullet and Wally reflexively started moving faster to dodge it. Now he has to find out which of the frozen-in-time moviegoers was the shooter. Meanwhile, his mom uses the Justice League teleporter to go to Paris and hook up with an old French guy. I can't believe she got over Fidel Castro so fast!

Mark Waid famously did another issue with Wally frozen in time, but Mr. Loebs did it first. He tells us:

Another attempt at trying to think through super-speed in the Alan Moore way. My real regret is that I never met Alan, though we did have one brief, awkward phone call. It’s impossible to overestimate his influence over writers at this period.

Flash #31 (October 1989) – "The Comfort of a Stranger"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Someone has been killing hobos. The Pied Piper, another former Flash enemy turned good, sets out to find the killer, since he's a big fan of homeless people. It turns out to be a guy who was in Gotham during a story where hobos took over the city (Batman: The Cult) who now hates them for some reason. Pied Piper is gonna be a recurrent character from now on.

I had wanted to truly reform one of the Rogues permanently, and I’ve always liked the design of the Piper. The real Pied Piper of Hamlin was a kind of Robin Hood figure, so the whole story came together very quickly. I was also able to crib extensively from my favorite movie, the Warners/Errol Flynn Robin Hood, an added bonus.

Flash #32 (November 1989) – "Welcome to Keystone City"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
After the case of the creepy hobo killer, Wally decides it might be time to move out of New York. He settles on Keystone City, the home of the original Flash. Pied Piper comes along since his parents live there, and Mason too, because he's bored. Keystone has a mysterious crime lord who doesn't want a superhero moving into town, so he sends villains to attack Wally.

Flash #33 (December 1989) – "Joker's Holiday"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Timothy Dzon)
A chilling issue about a young mother who asks Wally's help because The Joker is stalking her baby. Or so she believes. The woman turns out to be delusional and in her madness even tries killing her baby herself. This sounds like it could easily be a cheap shocker story, but Misters Loebs and LaRocque do a great job with it.

Another undeserved part of my rep is that I promiscuously reform villains because I’m a "nice" guy who doesn’t understand evil. If the only reason Flash has to not just jerk the hearts out of these bloodthirsty maniacs is to keep his karma pure, well, that’s just not enough. People are reformable, but even more we are all part of the moral ecosystem and you never know from where the next good act may come. We shouldn’t judge people with deadly force, because our judgement isn’t perfect. We all may need to be saved one day by the Golden Glider.

I tried to publicize the problem of postpartum depression in this one. I don’t know how successful I was. It’s hard to bring out the rare cases where depression become psychosis and mothers threaten their children, without feeding an anti-woman bias. And of course I desperately wanted to use the Joker somewhere. Having Batman, or a Batman villain in your book builds circulation... at least so we believed.

Flash #34 (January 1990) – "White Out"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Wally finds himself in a white void being confronted by Barry Allen, who starts calling him names. Eventually Wally realizes someone's playing with his head. He's been kidnapped by the dangerous mastermind who's been tormenting him for the past issues: The Turtle, an old Flash villain whose superpower was being really slow. He's also talks... like... this.

Flash #35 (February 1990) – "Behold the Turtle"

(William Messner-Loebs / Greg LaRocque / Larry Mahlstedt)
Practically every character we've seen in this comic is drafted by Mason for a mission to rescue Wally from The Turtle. They do, and there's much rejoicing. Curiously, this issues is titled "Behold the Turtle" by the cover says "Search for a Scarlet Speedster!". Have you ever wondered why that happens? Mr. Loebs solves the age old mystery:

Somewhere in here Brian Augustyn became my editor and we struck a compromise. He had the knack for writing punchy, commercial titles, but I loved my boring old over-intellectual titles, so I titled the stories and he titled the covers. It worked out.

I... always wanted... to do the... story... Chunk vs... the ... Turtle. But... it... would have... run... 20... issues...

Suddenly I want to see them meet Swamp Thing too. Having reached the middle point of this run, we're gonna stop for the week.


Wally West was a completely different character at the beginning of this run: the previous writer, Mike Baron, deliberately wrote him like a bit of a womanizing, money-obsessed jerk in order to distance him from the old Flashes. It worked, but it also turned Wally into kind of a douche. Mr. Loebs' first step in de-asshole-izing Wally was running his life into the gutter, naturally. He told us a little about what was going on behind the scenes at the time:

One thing: I’m a trial to my friends because I answer their questions about the motivations of the characters, with answers about the motivations of the writers and editors. For instance I was told when I came on board that Wally was so promiscuous because Marv Wolfman had written him as a straight arrow Republican in Titans, and [DC editor] Mike Gold and Mike Baron were teasing him -- "Look who your character is sleeping with now, Marv!" Was it true? I have no idea. But sniping at other writers didn’t strike me as a way toward valid character development. I wrote Wally a little younger to warm him up and explain him more thoroughly. I kept him Republican, but added Mason Trollbridge as an old line New Dealer and mentor for balance.

Supposedly Mike Baron started writing Flash and the Punisher at the same time, Flash for fun and Punisher for money. But soon he was having so much fun with Punisher, he had no real reason to write Flash, leaving the book in my... tender... care. Bwah ha ha! Again, I don’t know this. I heard this. I had a small agenda myself. When I came on board Flash was living in a world filled with dozens of super-speedsters, while he, "the fastest man alive," had no speed. This was not a condition that could last. And the most distinctive thing about him, the fact he was a Lotto millionaire, had just been taken away from him. In an extraordinarily generous phone call Mike Baron offered to let me change anything that happened in his last issue; he even offered to try and get them to re-letter some balloons. I could explain it as a dream, as Mom’s drunken hallucination, anything. But in the end I decided the energy of the series was all towards Wally’s life going over that cliff. I wanted to change things, the smash up would help me do it. And I liked the challenge.

Finally, here's my favorite moment from these issues:

Come back next week for The Flash #36-60, plus Annual #4. In the meantime you can go look for DC Retroactive: The Flash - The '80s, William Messner-Loebs and Greg LaRocque's first Flash comic in like 20 years!

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

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