Donny speeds in another comic great comic review.
Impulse #’s 1-26
1995 – 1997
Mark Waid (writing)
Humberto Ramos (art)
* except issues 18 (Pasko and Williams), 21 (art by Rousseau), 22 (Dice and Rousseau), and 26 (art by Sal Buscema)
Mark Waid wrote Flash for about 100 issues in the 1990’s, a run that really defined his career and was one of the cornerstone books of DC comics in the that decade. Superhero comics following the collapse of the speculator bubble in ’93-94 weren’t doing well… at all… in terms of sales or artistic quality. In fact, they mostly all just sucked. In a misguided effort to pander to “what fourteen-year-old boys want,” the comics became exploitive, gritty spectacles of blood splatter, clinched teeth and T&A. A few stand-out creators went against the trend and proudly displayed their nostalgia and reverence for the classic, heroic superheroes of the Silver Age: guys like Alex Ross, Kurt Busiek, and Mark Waid.
As I understand it, Mark Waid started college at age 15. That means that he’s very smart, but also means that he really understands the fish-out-of-water thing (and Impulse is real fish out of water). He’s so smart that he’s become the defacto historian of the DC universe. He says that every day he fields a dozen calls or emails from other DC writers and editors asking things like, “What are the names of Lois Lane’s parents?” At conventions, Waid regularly does a trivia challenge in which the audience tries (and fails) to stump him. His ability to think fast is obvious in every interview or panel he does, and he knows how to tell a good story (which was depressingly rare among writers of superhero comics in the mid-90’s).
However, the thing that distinguishes Waid the most is his aforementioned love of more lighthearted, fun, classically heroic superhero tales. “I can’t write cynical stuff,” Waid has said, “dark and gloomy just for the sake of dark and gloomy…” I think this is still significant because we are now going through the same thing again with superhero movies. After the success of the dower, gritty, realistic Dark Knight films, DC has (idiotically) pushed even Superman in that direction. (Meanwhile Marvel has brilliantly gone the other way by releasing a fun, lighthearted Guardians of the Galaxy.)
Humberto Ramos was a young Mexican artist who was discovered at San Diego ComiCon. His art initially polarized fans as some found it too “cartoony” (manga had not really exploded on the American scene yet, and in ’95 people were still used to Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee). However, his lighthearted, playful, renderings of youthful characters are perfect for Impulse. Ramos’s initial inexperience is visible. In the first few issues he has trouble making Bart’s age look consistent (sometimes he looks as young as 12 or as old as 16), and throughout the series he has trouble drawing older people (characters who are supposed to be like 50 have no wrinkles – they look 25 with premature white hair), but his talent is apparent from page one. I think Ramos can get the credit for establishing one of Bart’s unique traits: in the DC universe, he’s the one character who’s thought balloons are always pictures rather than words. I always took this as a way of representing that Bart is pseudo-autistic: he thinks in terms of cartoons, vids, and pictures rather than language. Also, his costume looks great – continuing the tradition of Kid Flash, the rare instance where the sidekick’s costume looked better than the hero’s.
Ramos was a new artist drawing his first book, but the series was a gamble in other important ways. It was launched only a few months after the character, Impulse, debuted in the pages of Flash… and the concept was, from the launch, outside the box. At a convention, Waid explained to me (and the other 50 people crammed in the room to hear him) that the secret of Impulse was that it wasn’t really a superhero book at all. “It’s a situation comedy thinly disguised as a superhero book.” If Impulse were ever done live action, it would require a laugh-track. In fact, the closest thing I can think of to this book is Mork and Mindy.
It stars Bart Allen, AKA Impulse, “poster child for the judgment impaired.” He has one of the most difficult to summarize back-stories ever, but it’s important to grasp the genius of this character. He’s the grandson of Barry Allen (the Silver Age Flash), but he was born in the 30th century (never mind why). He was born with his super-speed powers causing his metabolism to be so accelerated that by the time he was 2 he looked 12 (or 14 or 16). In order to feed his brain information at a rate that would match his body so that he wouldn’t have a 12-year-old body with a two-year-old’s mind, scientists had to keep him in virtual reality where (never mind why) they fed him a diet of video games. Back in the ‘90’s video games were the boogieman that was going to ruin our youth and turn them into either idiots or mass-murders. As a kid literally raised on video games, Impulse is the greatest fear of every parent in the ‘90’s.
In addition to having the world’s shortest attention span, Bart doesn’t understand the difference between reality and games – for him, rescuing people and stopping villains is something you do to earn points and win the game. “Impulse was raised in a VR environment devoid of peril. To a boy who can race the wind and vibrate through solid objects, danger is always someone else’s problem.” (Issue #9) This is a lighthearted book because you never feel like Bart’s in real danger… mostly because Bart never feels it – he doesn’t even grasp the concept of what real danger is. He has “danger deficit disorder,” as Max calls it.
Bart has come back in time to the 1990’s. He lives with his very reluctant mentor Max Mercury, the “Zen Master of Speed” – whom he spends 26 issues driving absolutely up the wall. (“Bart, so help me God,” is a frequent invocation.)
The comic is least interesting when the superhero stuff is at the forefront, like when it’s building to the big Flash story event, “Terminal Velocity.” (Which was still a good story, by the way.) Usually, however, the focus is elsewhere. Life and death situations don’t matter to Bart because he thinks it’s all just a game, and this shift the dramatic focus to civilian-life situations: keeping his secret identity, dealing with teenage life stuff, and driving Max nuts. Issue 20 has no super-villains or fights at all, just baseball and Bart’s first kiss. Issue 3 (which I’ll come back to) has a brief aside in which Bart stops a bank robbery in a couple of pages – but it’s really about middle school bullies, homework (Bart gets an assignment about how tall the Eiffel Tower is, so, since he can run to France in a few seconds, he just runs over there and asks a tour guide), being the new kid, food fights, and dodge ball. Some of the adventures Bart goes on do work particularly well because they bring out the humor in his character – e.g. issue 17 when Zatanna accidentally transports Bart to a magical dimension that looks to him just like a fantasy video game.
One thing this series does well is flip expectations (which is the quintessence of humor). Confrontations with super-villains are supposed to be dramatic and tense, but Bart is just entertained. 8th and 9th grade is also supposed to be dramatic and tense, but Bart is mostly indifferent – or oblivious. (Generally speaking, he’s very oblivious to others in a rather autistic kind of way.) The school principal turns out to be this cool, relaxed, young guy that everybody likes, completely subverting your expectations there. Completely opposite to Peter Parker, Bart becomes the most popular boy in his school (and he totally doesn’t care – he’d rather be left alone). Bart gets in the papers for saving the life of a boy in front of all his classmates, and issue 13 ends with Max looking at the paper and musing: “Perhaps I didn’t properly explain the concept of the dual identity. The whole point of establishing a non-Impulse persona was to keep a low profile. And yet, as so often happens, you seem to have reversed the process.” Longsuffering Max is constantly ripping with this kind of dry, sarcastic humor that goes completely over Bart’s head. (Bart can be infuriatingly literal.) The Max-Bart interaction is always wonderful and is the real heart of the series. It’s probably my favorite parent-child relationship depicted in comics, or at least superhero comics.
The comic does occasionally deal with serious topics (one issue is about child abuse… and Bart’s insomnia is put on display in issue 19 in a genuinely disturbing way with a twist-ending worthy of EC horror comics), but these are kept on the domestic scale, in keeping with the idea that the book is really a family sit-com rather than a superhero adventure. There are super-villains and super-battles, but these are almost like asides – you are reading the book mostly to watch Bart interacting with teachers, peers, and especially Max… or for gags like when Bart is shown playing three different video games on three different game consoles at once, juggling the controllers at hyper-speed… or like when he gets to use the line, “I’m Bart Allen, who the hell are you?”… or all of issue 20 which involves Bart trying to get the Legionaries back to the 30th century using the Flash’s time machine and much zaniness ensues.
As the series developed, Waid and Ramos decided that Bart should be younger. In his initial Flash appearances he looks like he’s around 16. At the beginning of his own series he’s said to be 14 (well… he’s actually 2 but he looks 14) and in the 9th grade… but later in the series (issue #13) he’s 13 and in the 8th grade… and in issues 22 and 23 they celebrate his 13th birthday (actually his third) and retro-establish that “at 2 he looked 12.” The younger, tween-aged Bart works better for the story (making Bart’s Mork-like naiveté more plausible) and Ramos becomes good at drawing a 13-looking Bart.
How good is Impulse really? Well, Chris Sims of ComicBookAlliance.com names issue 3, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” as his choice for the best single issue story (not part of a multi-issue story arc or graphic novel) of any comic of all time. I don’t know if I’d go that far (I haven’t given it a lot of thought, but I’d probably go with one of the Sandman one-offs like “Ramadan” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream”), but I do agree that this was a great issue. Like Sims, I too have always loved teenage superheroes. Super-drama and double-identities seem to go hand-in-hand with adolescence: from Spider-man to Buffy to Teen Wolf. Personally, I always found Robin (when well written) to be more interesting and relatable than Batman. This issue is about all the problems faced by a 9th grader who’s the new kid at school… only he has superpowers and he easily gets the better of the would-be bullies. So it’s a real wish-fulfillment story. This time period at DC saw a trio of really great teen superheroes emerge: the Tim Drake Robin, Superboy and Impulse – and then they brought them together in Young Justice, written by Peter David, one of the funniest gag writers in superhero comics; that was good stuff, too.
After Waid and Ramos left, the series continued until it was canceled at issue 50, but it was never as good as the first 26 issues. It was okay, but it reverted to being a superhero comic with a lot of humor rather than a domestic comedy with a little superheroics. After the series was cancelled, Bart Allen became the new Kid Flash in 2003, and then he became the Flash for 13 issues starting in 2006 until was killed by Captain Cold, Heatwave, and Weather Wizard. Not very funny. Back to the dark and gritty, I guess…