When DC Comics launched their company line-wide New 52 reboot nearly three years ago, there was one glaring omission from their character line-up (well, to be fair, there were a few, but this was maybe the biggest.) Wally West, the man who wore the mantle of the Flash for the better part of twenty five years was nowhere to be seen, and was instead replaced by Barry Allen, his predecessor as the Flash. Barry had been dead and gone for decades, and was only recently brought back to life a few years prior. Wally was, for all intents and purposes, THE Flash for a generation, a position solidified by his being the Flash in the animated Justice League series as well. When IGN did their 100 Greatest Comic Book Heroes list, Wally made it all the way to the #8 spot, well ahead of Barry Allen. But with the coming of the New 52 DCU, Wally vanished.
Since then, at almost every comic convention from San Diego to the UK, at least one fan always asked DC representatives, “When is Wally West coming back?!?” — which usually got a muffled response, or, at worst, a dismissive “next question.” But finally this past month, Wally West finally returned to the DC Universe in Flash Annual #3. He’s still the nephew of Central City reporter Iris West, but he’s a young teen again. And to make things edgier I guess, Wally is now a troubled youth who meets Barry Allen while tagging a wall with graffiti.
Before I get into why this new version of Wally West is exactly what fans didn’t want, let’s address the elephant in the room; this new Wally is African-American. That’s not my problem, and it shouldn’t be yours either. The original Wally was a pasty white guy and a red head, and although I’ve always loved how gingers are usually portrayed in comics (I love how supposed natural gingers in comics have this fire-engine red hair, the kind that almost exclusively comes from a bottle in real life.I’m lookin’ at you Mary Jane Watson and Jean Grey.) But ya know what? I’ll trade racial diversity and inclusivity over my need for Wally West to have a mop of red hair any day. In short, Wally becoming a black character is not my issue. At all. Although, DC might have wanted to think about the taste level in introducing a young, new African American character as a troubled youth who vandalizes property. I mean, really? One step forward, two steps back I guess.
No, my real issue is that Wally is a kid again. Presumably, to be a new Kid-Flash before too long. Here’s the problem: Wally as Kid Flash is boring. Oh, it’s crucial to his character that he was Kid Flash at one point, don’t get me wrong. But Wally’s least interesting years were as Barry Allen’s sidekick. The reason fans love the Wally West version of the Flash so much is because we’ve seen him grow and change much as a real person would, a rarity in superhero comics where characters are seemingly frozen in amber forever. Wally wasn’t one of those characters. We saw him go from teen sidekick to reluctant hero to married father of two. The whole “married with kids” part might be Wally’s biggest problem in regards to DC editorial, who regard “growing up” the same as “growing old and obsolete” these days.
The beginning of Wally’s character progression really begins in earnest in the early ’80s, when he was part of the New Teen Titans, at the time DC’s biggest selling book. On a team that had a sexually liberated space princess, a tortured half man/half machine, the daughter of a demon, and a version of Robin struggling to live up to his mentor Batman, Wally West was just an average suburban kid from Blue Valley, Nebraska. He was the least interesting of the bunch, and series writer Marv Wolfman struggled to find interesting stories for him. Wally also seemed kinda judgmental of some his teammate’s more unorthodox lifestyles, was a tried and true Reagan America conservative youth, and mostly just wanted to be “normal”, in the way his mid-western parents would consider normal. Eventually, Marv Wolfman got so bored with Wally that he wrote him out of the series a few years in, pairing him off with a girl named Frances Kane, who had super powers herself but shunned them, also just wanting to be “normal.” And that might have been the end of Wally, but Wolfman gave the character a huge gift in 1985, when Barry Allen died saving the universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the mantle of the Flash was passed to Wally. And that’s when Wally started to get interesting.
Within a year of his new ongoing Flash series, Wally ditched girlfriend Frances Kane, having outgrown her and her need to be ordinary and not super. He kind of started becoming a bit of a slut at this point, even dating a married woman for awhile. (This period of Wally was clearly the inspiration for the animated Justice League horn dog take on the character.) He found out his picture-perfect suburban family wasn’t so perfect after all (his dad, it turns out, was kinda evil) and he even started hanging out with members of his martyred uncle Barry Allen’s rogue’s gallery, particularly the Pied Piper, who was gay. Over the course of a few short years, Wally’s conservative views on people had drastically changed from his teenage years, as a real person’s often do when transitioning from adolescence into being an adult and being confronted with people outside of what one was used to.
Of course, future series writers Mark Waid and later Geoff Johns really pushed Wally even more into the hero who would be loved by so many, making him a hero truly worthy of the name and legacy of the Flash. For many readers out there, Wally was the ultimate Flash. He was the only kid-sidekick character to take over his mentor’s title, and not just for a brief short lived stunt (like with Nightwing taking over for Batman, or Winter Soldier replacing Captain America.) When DC tried to replace Wally as the Flash after their 2005 mini-series Infinite Crisis with then-current Kid Flash Bart Allen, fans revolted; in less than a year Wally was reinstated as the Flash. But then DC got rid of him again in 2011 after their Flashpoint mini-series. Obviously, someone higher up at DC, who shall remain nameless, obviously has it in for Wally West.
So after several years of begging from fans, DC has now given us a character named Wally West again, although one with none of the attributes that made fans love Wally in the first place. True, the New 52 DCU is a younger universe, but DC knew well enough to not de-age Dick Grayson into being Batman’s kid partner Robin again, realizing that the character’s growth from Robin into the adult hero Nightwing was a huge part of the character’s appeal. It’s the exact same appeal with Wally West’s version of the Flash. How DC can understand that about one character and not the other is somewhat baffling.
The funny thing is, if DC wants to maintain Barry Allen is their primary Flash (as in the only one with his own ongoing title) they’ve proven they can do that and still have alternate versions of the character with their Earth 2 book, a title that features a new, younger version of Jay Garrick, who was the original golden age Flash, but on an parallel Earth. They couldn’t have given us an adult Wally an Earth all his own, where he more or less resembles the Flash fans have grown to love? He could have reflected the things fans love about Wally while still being an updated version of the character at the same time (including being African American if they so chose.)
DC has a huge Multiverse that they seem timid to fully exploit. As a fan of Wally West’s Flash, I can only hope that the version we love exists out there in some form, waiting for the good folks at DC to let us see him once again. Because another kid sidekick who just happens to share a name with Wally West isn’t going to cut it.