The fastest man alive Stasis and speed in contemporary superhero comics

Superheroes are so used to achieving the impossible that it’s only fitting the visually impossible is used to depict them. The Flash might not wear a cape, but the speed lines and lightning bolts that stretch from his speeding form serve the same purpose. Stranger still are moments when he appears multiple times within the one panel, showing he’s too fast to be captured in a single temporal moment. In the arthouse comic series, The Invisibles (published by DC’s ‘adult’ imprint) this technique of rendering temporality is an avant garde abstraction; in superhero comics, it is just part of the regular vocabulary of the impossible (Wolk, 2007: 265). Similarly, when Grant Morrison wrote his epic Animal Man, he shows his characters actually breaking through the panel edge and into the guttering of the page. It’s a moment of pure horror, haunted by shadows, saying: “…spooned out my own eyes and still I see. We’re not real.” (Animal Man #24, 1990). Morrison often uses this kind of formal play with the gutter to torment Animal Man in novel and unpredictable ways (Pedler, 2009: 256). Years later, though, when Animal Man again encounters this same white non-space beyond the panel, it’s described in superhero sci-fi lingo as ‘Space-B’, and concerns that it will be more “existential isolation trauma” are quickly assuaged (52: Week 49, 2007).

The Flash has to deal with this kind of visual oddness all the time. Barry Allen would run so fast that he’d break the time barrier, first represented by the strange typography of digits hanging in the air around him (Showcase #14, 1958). Wally West, moving faster than the speed of light, breaks free of the concrete visuals around him and into the pure white of the gutter, sitting between the original scene and the ‘speed force’: a wall of multicoloured light (Flash #137, 1998). This is ‘solid speed’. It’s time represented as space – just as it is in the spatiotemporal landscape of the comic page. As with spectacle-driven science fiction cinema, superhero comics regularly depict the infinite and the sublime, and both media exhibit this obsession in their titles alone (Bukatman, 1995: 258 & Wolk, 2007: 56). The endless space and time of the sublime is a place of hyperbole and excess, causing sensations of awe and astonishment; Bukatman (1995) holds that the special effects of science fiction create tamed versions of these infinities to allow the spectator a sense of mastery while viewing them (p. 281). Comic books go one better. Marvel Comics even made infinity an anthropomorphised being – part of the five cosmic individuals alongside Eternity, Death, Oblivion, and Galactus – for superheroes to encounter. The Flash even briefly (and spectacularly) wore a crackling, golden costume made of pure speed-force, explaining that it was speed “…condensed into three-dimensional space. I think.” (Flash #132, 1997).

Giant, planet-devouring Galactus trails irony as well as destruction in his wake. When he seemed ready for his moment of transmedia glory, ready to appear on the big screen in the special-effects-laden Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007) his comic book visual was unpalatable for the realism required by cinema. Instead, he was presented as a destructive space-cloud. Those disappointed by this should take heart that it was also revealed that Galactus doesn’t really look as Jack Kirby draws him. Galactus simply can’t be perceived by human eyes:

Yes, you’re big… but humanoid… nose, fingers, optic nerves, etcetera… is how my brain registers you so it doesn’t melt down. Truth is, you’re so far beyond what I recognize that my piddling human senses are beneath you. (Fantastic Four #521, 2005).

Galactus’ appearance is deemed too fantastic for the cinema screen, but here his usual visual representation – that of a purple-helmeted space-giant – is retroactively declared to be a watered-down version of his never-seen ‘real’ form. In the multi-dimensioned universe inhabited by superheroes, it’s intriguing to imagine that ‘aggressive caricature’ is actually protecting us from the unmediated sublime: an overwhelming “spatiotemporal grandeur”, as Bukatman puts it (1995: 286), that no technology can tame or represent – whether pencil and ink, or expensive CGI effects. 

The Flash is held responsible for rejuvenating interest in superheroes, with DC Comics writer Geoff Jones even saying that “…without Barry Allen, we’d still be reading comic books about cowboys” (Sacks 2008). The Flash, and his connection to the boundless velocity of the ‘Speed Force’, makes him a perfect vehicle for stories with the speed and spectacle required of superhero adventures. As the Flash explains: “When you do this trick right there’s a point where… momentum… overcomes… gravity.” (Flash #54, 1991). As more and more heroes are claiming their own Hollywood films, it’s been suggested that this big screen success – combined with dwindling audiences of superhero comics themselves – might mean that the future will hold only ‘screened’ versions of these stories (Fingeroth, 2004: 170). Cinematic blockbusters have certainly found new excuses for action through the adaptation of superhero stories. Seeing the Flash run from one jagged panel to another, trailing lightning bolts through the limbo of the gutter that separates them, it’s obvious that the static images of comic book spectacle require a visual vocabulary that is specific, complicated, and often joyously impossible. 


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