Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mark Waid's Flash and Lost

Most of writer Mark Waid's issues on The Flash included the phrase, "My name is Wally West, and I'm the fastest man alive."

While the phrase can be read as a mantra or as a simple matter of fact (if you didn't know, The Flash is a DC Comics superhero who runs really fast), it was also a statement of how Waid approached the character. In a word, brilliantly.

He was the first writer who wrote Wally West as someone other than the former sidekick who wasn't trying desperately to screw up replacing a legend like Barry Allen.  He create the whole concept of the Speed Force, and revolutionized the concept of legacies, uniting all of the speedsters into a coherent mythology, including the Zen master of speed, Max Mercury (still one of my favorites to this day).

What Waid figured out was that Wally wasn't just the guy trying to fill out red tights, but one of the first superheroes to grow up and truly embrace his destiny.  He wrote The Flash in a way that embraced the concept as well as the character.  It wasn't just about what had happened to him or who he was, but what he did with it.  In short, "My name is Wally West, and I'm the fastest man alive."

The TV series Lost was nearly capsized by its own cult following.  It worked so hard building up the mythology that the fans forgot what the series was actually about.

Was it about the mythology?  Sure, to a certain extent.  But Lost was always about its characters.  And like Wally West, the sprawling cast was a motley bunch of damaged goods who may have been defined in any other series by the tragedies their lives had become.  In any crime show, for instance, they would have been the bad guys, plain and simple.

Yet Lost figured out, like Mark Waid did, that it's not just what happened to someone or who they were, but what they do with their lives.

The island was a shot at redemption.  Plain and simple.  That's the whole kit and caboodle.  That's what it was all about.  All those crazy theories that were especially popular during the second season were great, but all the disappointment that heaped up in the second season, when Charlie and Locke are once again pathetic and nobody can understand why, is where reaction started to truly misinterpret what the show was trying to accomplish.

By the fourth season, when they got a chance to go home, and the fifth season, when they were hopping through time, and the sixth season, which ended in Heaven, the flashbacks that had propelled the first half of the series gave way to different kinds of material.  That was well and good for some people.  They got tired of the flashbacks.

Well, hey howdy.  The flashbacks were what Lost was all about.  Their lives on the island were a way of processing and letting go of the mistakes they'd made.  That's why the final season brought them back, helped us look at what their lives would be like if a few key differences help makes things easier off the island.  Because it was never about the island.

You can have the coolest gimmicks ever, running really fast or some fantastic island where odd things happen as a matter of course, but none of it truly resonates, none of it lasts, if the characters who are behind these gimmicks don't matter.

Sure, some readers, some viewers don't care.  As a creator, your primary focus should always be to give the audience what they want, but go well beyond what they want, give them as much as you can.  If you care about the characters, you owe it to the characters as much as the audience.  The audience is fickle, and you're not creating only for the first audience, but the second and third generation fans.  Well, presumably.  Some creators are perfectly content to work on disposable things.

I say, it's not enough to know what happened to a character (their backstory) or what happens to them (their story).  I say characters demand to have perspective, too.  The creator needs that perspective as much as the characters do.  If the characters don't have it, the creator doesn't, and if the creator doesn't, the audience will eventually notice.

To me, that's incredibly scary.  I want my stories to mean something, to speak to something.  I don't just write because I like to write, but because I think I have something to say.

If it's something as simple and profound as "My name is Wally West, and I'm the fastest man alive," then I'll feel like I've accomplished something.


  1. I think that's what usually defines something as a good entertainment and something as a truly great piece of art. In whatever form: books, comics, movies, etc. things can work at the level of escapism or popcorn movies, but the ones that really stick with you have something more going on.

    BTW, I've never found the Flash that interesting. The whole running fast thing seems like it'd get old after a while. Maybe that's why they keep killing them off and bringing them back.

  2. First-class points Tony. Lost was always about great characters, but after all the characterization was done they had to fall on the mythos. IN the end it just fell flat. I didn't know Waid created the "speed-force." Smart move.


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