Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: “Tom vs. The Flash”

Posted by Maximum Fun on 24th May 2009

Deep into the hunt for unusual, innovative podcasts, one would not normally give a comic book show a second look, let alone a first listen. If there’s anything of which the podcasting world has a surfeit, it’s guys talking about movies and television. But if there’s anything else of which the podcasting world has a surfeit, it’s guys talking about video games. But beyond that, if there’s still anything else of which the podcasting world has a surfeit, it’s guys talking about comic books. Being nothing but a guy talking about comic books, Tom vs. The Flash [iTunes link] would seem to be a prime candidate for the “listen upon the introduction of the 30-hour day” file. But here’s the thing: it’s not just freeform comics chatter. Host Tom Katers, also of the well-regarded comic-book culture podcast Around Comics, has actually adopted a fairly disciplined and unusual format: each episode, he describes to the audience one issue of The Flash. In the episode following, he describes the next issue of The Flash. And on, one assumes, into infinity.

This is a godsend to anyone who wants to catch up on what’s gone on over The Flash’s last forty-odd years. though Katers probably didn’t hold that utilitarian a vision when conceiving the program. In fact, it didn’t even begin as Tom vs. The Flash; the first half of the archive has Katers taking on the Justice League of America. So this isn’t about superhero narrative completism. It’s about reading old comic books and having one hell of a good time doing it. When Katers blasts through an issue of The Flash, he doesn’t simply read it, he doesn’t simply snark on it, and — boy, is your Podthinker thankful for this — he doesn’t obsessively nitpick misalignments with scientific fact and the greater Flash chronology. Yes, he announces a few passages verbatim; yes, he makes fun; yes, he points out the creators’ more egregious dismissals of plausibility and continuity. But he does it so joyfully!

While “joyful” is rarely the word for any podcast, it has to lie at the core of any description of Tom vs. The Flash. Katers sounds utterly thrilled to be telling us Flash stories, to be admiring them where their artistry can be admired, to be ridiculing them where they deserve a bit of ridicule, and to be reading the things in the first place. This holds even when the comics frustrate them, as when he admits that he’s had to restart a recording three times because one story was too ridiculously convoluted to accurately relate in takes one and two. And anyone who’s read broad superhero comics of the era — Katers is currently reading Flash issues from the late 1960s — knows that ridiculous convolution is the least of their stories’ problems. The tales related on the podcast are usually deadly cocktails of contrivance, preposterousness and ham-handedness. One of them is about aliens who steal the Eiffel Tower.

That’s not to say that the adventures of the super-speedy Barry Allen (the second of several Flashes, it seems) and his main squeeze Iris in the bustling metropolis of Central City lack all charm. Perhaps the fact that he’s nobody’s idea of iconic is what makes this high-tech dredging-up of his midcentury exploits so endearing in the first place. Though the concept stands every chance of swerving into tiresome territory, Katers appears to know exactly when and how much to take what he’s reading seriously. Surely your Podthinker can be forgiven for claiming that striking a controlled balance in that department is not a skill of particular prevalence in the comic-book community. One unanswered question remains, though: can The Flash outrun Superman? And if not, why not?

Vital stats:
Format: man reading The Flash
Running since: January 2008
Duration: 9m-20m
Frequency: every 2-3 days
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall fights the West Coast Avengers, himself. Other superheroes or superhero teams can challenge him at colinjmarshall at gmail.]