Phrase it like the cable news guys: is The Flash: Fastest Man Alive #4 making Bart Allen the new Kyle Rayner?
Let’s take a look.
SPOILERS after the jump.
You’ll remember that once the dust had settled from the Hal-to-Kyle transition, all of the Guardians’ energy had been divided unequally among Hal/Parallax (who got most of it), Ganthet (who kept his own), and Kyle (whose battery and ring were powered by Ganthet). After Parallax’s death, his share eventually found its way into Kyle, who used it for rebuilding Oa and reviving the Guardians.
In Flash: FMA #4, Bart learns that the Speed Force — including the spirits/eternal souls lodged therein — has become “embedded” in him. For several years, the reallocation of Oan power meant that no one but Kyle could be Green Lantern. Likewise, now no one but Bart can be the Flash.
Meanwhile Bart, like Kyle, is currently something of a cipher. Oh sure, he has arguably more claim to his particular legacy than Kyle did originally, and he’s certainly more familiar to readers than Kyle was; but for a long time he was essentially a cartoon. Considering where he is now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As was the case with his first maturation in Teen Titans, his second giant step further into maturity has happened mostly off-panel. He might have the right superheroic temperament, but so far we’re just asked to accept that he does. Again, he wears the Flash costume because he’s the only one who can.
Except he’s not, strictly speaking, the only Flash, as long as Jay Garrick’s still around. (And Jay’s not going anywhere, because he still has to anchor the Justice Society.) It underscores a significant change from the Jay-to-Barry and Barry-to-Wally progressions. In both of those cases, the new Flash was the only Flash, period. Jay didn’t reappear until 1961, and right after Crisis on Infinite Earths he disappeared, from 1986 until 1992. There’s a qualitative difference between being the only Flash and being the only available candidate. The former lets us go deeper into the character’s motivation. With the latter, the issue is, “there’s going to be a Flash and this guy’s it.”
Both Barry and Wally were inspired by their immediate predecessors to be the new Flash. Wally also went through a significant emo period of reluctant heroism and “my speed is killing me” before Crisis pulled him back in. Here, circumstances — including the ready-made love interest and antagonist — have conspired to force Bart into the role. Even Jay’s presence reinforces Bart’s anointing instead of providing an alternative, because Jay’s not as fast as he used to be. Not only does it all feel contrived, it bogs down the story, as the readers wait for the characters to catch up with them.
Related to all of this is the attempt to explain a magical event rationally. In Infinite Crisis, the Flashes tried to trap Superboy-Prime in the Speed Force, the speedsters’ source of power/afterlife. However, the SF specifically does not fuel beings like Kryptonians whose super-speed comes from other sources. Therefore, while it wasn’t implausible (relatively speaking) for the Flashes to open up a portal to the Speed Force and throw Superboy in, it’s also not surprising that Superboy could escape. Still, maybe the plan was just to get him in so that all those speedsters could beat on him for eternity. As for how that relates to Bart’s situation, I suppose that, in order to either fight or pursue Superboy, Bart had to draw all of the Speed Force into himself, which kicked him back into our dimension. Now, apparently, the stress of containing all that energy (including, presumably, those speedster spirits) is killing him, not unlike Wally’s former condition.
This notion of Bart as repository for his cousin, his grandfather, and all the others, may be the writers’ way of symbolizing the Flash legacy’s tremendous psychological burden. If Bart is going to be the Flash, he will have to learn to live with it, because with great power, etc. However, it also feels like DC hedging its bets. If Bart has Barry, Wally, Johnny Quick, Max Mercury, et al., floating through his mind, then if fans don’t like Bart, it shouldn’t be too hard to have one of the others “take over.” Similarly, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for Bart and Jay to collaborate on some ultimate Cosmic Treadmill to release the Speed Force back into the wild, as it were, for someone else’s use. Certainly, while Parallax controlled all that Oan power, the potential existed for him to have a change of heart and return it to the Guardians; and after a fashion, that’s what happened, even before Geoff Johns got involved.
Ultimately, it seems very likely that one way or another, Bart will have to get rid of his exclusive relationship with the Speed Force. Naturally, it’s possible for there to be only one Flash, or only one Green Lantern, but those names/identities/legacies tend to be expansive. Barry Allen got a sidekick and found a counterpart, and Hal Jordan soon learned he was one among thousands (and also found a counterpart). Mark Waid even gave Wally the new power of “sharing speed,” which, slightly modified, could provide the (appropriately) magical solution to Bart’s problems. Too much Speed Force? Give it away, to Jay or Jesse Quick, or even Wally West, if (as 52 #1 suggests) he’s still alive and corporeal.
Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo have talked about their first macro-arc lasting through issue #12 and ”open[ing] up new avenues of storytelling,” and editor Joan Hilty has said the story would be “turned on its head” at some point. I’d like to think that Bart is being built up to sweeten the bait-and-switch, because otherwise, the book is pretty dull. When Jay reappeared in “Flash of Two Worlds,” when Wally declared himself the new Flash in Crisis #12, and when Barry was introduced “cold” in Showcase #4, it was good to see the Flash come back. Now, not so much.
Maybe Bart’s ambivalence about taking over the role is rubbing off on me; and maybe he’ll end up passing the legacy to someone else (someone familiar?) with more enthusiasm. The reluctant-hero-upholding-tradition thing can be done well, as in James Robinson’s Starman; which also recognized that superheroing could be fun. Although Bart once represented the pinnacle of id-driven hyperactivity, he’s pretty far removed from that now, and it’s sucking the life out of this latest revival. No matter who will be the long-term Flash, the book needs to get us more excited about it.