Disclaimer: This column is an opinion formed by an author who does not have an omniscient knowledge of comics. It also contains a fair number of spoilers for the titular comic.
The Flash: Scarlet Speedster, Fastest Man Alive, or to people who don’t know DC comics too well, “that red guy who runs really fast.” Though the many men behind the mask (or under the hat in one case) have all had interesting backgrounds and personalities to develop, through his many incarnations, Flash is usually at his best when he’s blazing around in a story that can keep pace with his impossible speed. The Flash: Dead Heat (which spans The Flash issues #108 –#111 and Impulse issues #10 – #11) is a high stakes, high speed adventure centering around arguably one of the greatest men to take up the mantle of The Flash– former Flash sidekick Wally West.
The story begins with Wally West on a date with his girlfriend, Linda Park. Wally is saved from a serious conversation by a timely attack from a pair of super-speed ninjas. Wally stops the attack, but one ninja gets away. At this point two of the other speedsters, Jesse Quick and Jay Garrick, arrive to tell Wally that nearly all known speedsters besides himself have suddenly and inexplicably been cut off from their speed. Wally interrogates the remaining ninja and finds out that the man responsible for the speed drop is named Savitar and that he seeks to take the gift of speed from all those who he deems unworthy before the ninja literally ages to death in Wally’s hands. Wally and the gang race to warn fellow speedsters Max Mercury and Impulse only to find ninjas already there surrounding Impulse and his speedster cousin, XS. Wally quickly dispatches the ninjas and upon finding out that Max has been missing for a while, searches with the others through Max’s files for answers. They find out that Savitar was gifted with super-speed when a flight of an experimental supersonic airplane went wrong. Savitar took speed as his new religion and learned all he could about it, becoming a deadly, dangerous expert on the subject who considers those who take their powers less seriously to be unworthy of wielding them. When Max re-emerges, badly injured from a beating at Savitar’s hands, Wally and Jesse take him to a hospital and go after Savitar, leaving the other de-powered speedsters behind. They find Savitar’s castle and discover that he is leeching speed energy off the Speed Force and storing it in ninjas so that most speedsters will be unable to use it. Jesse manages to break the machine Savitar is using to steal and store energy, thus restoring superspeed to herself and the other speedsters. Savitar brings out fifty of his best ninjas just as Jay, Max, Impulse, and Johnny Quick arrive and the fight is on. In an attempt to save his daughter, Johnny runs fast enough to permanently merge with the Speed Force, the almost mythical energy force that gives all speedsters their power. This is considered a sort of heaven for speedsters and most including Johnny Quick do not return to the mortal plane once they have merged with Speed Force. With his castle and army in shambles, Savitar lashes out toward Wally’s girlfriend. In a desperate attempt to stop him, Wally runs as hard as he can into the Speed Force with Savitar right on his heels. Wally manages to get an ecstatic Savitar to merge with the Speed Force, though he finds himself sure that he can get home as long as he has a “beacon” in the form of Linda. He concentrates and pulls himself out of the Speed Force and the comic ends with a different man in a different Flash costume appearing in his home.
This story is a high-speed adventure that will entertain most any reader. It draws on many established elements from various parts of the Flash mythos, but the plot is still simple enough to keep from leaving new readers behind in the dust. It is nothing masterful, but it is fun, engaging, and it makes sense. The action is fast paced and never stays in one spot long enough to get boring. The numerous character interactions are great at establishing the characters and relationships for new readers and can often get a smile or a chuckle from old readers who know the characters well. These comics do understand that while most readers love to see a person in costume beating the snot out of some tricky bad guys, it is hard to stay invested in the story if they don’t know the person behind the mask. Unfortunately, the characters’ personalities are sometimes oversimplified into boiled-down versions of their most basic and recognizable traits, probably for the benefit of inexperienced readers. The character development suffers a bit as well, often adhering to archetypal tropes for this sort of story with little regard to character traits or tendencies that would normally slow down such development, though there are some character evolutions that make perfect sense in context.
Similarly, the art style varies back and forth between fitting the story perfectly and being a little out of place. The Flash issues are a bit more realistic, though it often skimps on the details. Facial expressions, particularly from a distance, are simplified and sometimes blurry due to lack of detail. Lines of definition between objects and people flip from being too numerous to too sparse, making it sometimes a bit difficult to find the boundaries and giving much of the comic the look of a fleshed-out sketch the original lines of which were either left in or over-erased. While it can be a bit irritating or distracting, this also does serve the purpose of helping the reader understand a bit of how Wally West and his fellow speedsters see the world at a very different speed than normal people do. The Impulse issues, on the other hand, are a bit more cartoonish, with big feet and big heads (and occasionally very badly drawn joints and hands that look like paws), and the art there generally creates a very juvenile impression. This is not a criticism, but rather a compliment, as that style is very fitting for the Impulse comics. Those stories center on a little boy from the future in a teenage body fighting super fast ninjas in blue robes who serve a man that worships the actual concept of speed. The Flash issues are more serious (though not without a sense of humor), but while Impulse knows that the situation at hand is a serious matter, he and his comics can recognize the utter absurdity of his world and figure that if the world is crazy, he might as well have fun with it.
This story is a lot of fun, though it does hold weight in the Flash universe. The characters are sometimes oversimplified, but things happen to them that actually do have a permanent effect on who they are. There’s a lot of great action, but it’s held together with a cohesive, believable plot that does a good job of carrying over into the next story without leaving too many loose ends lying around. It’s no masterpiece, but The Flash: Dead Heat is definitely worth reading for any comic fan, if for no other reason than reminding the reader that it is possible to have a serious story without becoming so grim and gritty that the characters and readers lose any ability to have fun with the world.