Comics on TV: Is the New Flash Character a Stretch?

Ralph Dibny, aka the Elongated Man, is a longtime favorite of DC Comics writers.

by | November 1, 2017 | Comments

This week’s episode of The Flash is the first live-action appearance of Ralph Dibny (Hartley Sawyer), the Elongated Man, which may come as something of a surprise. A longtime favorite of DC Comics writers, Ralph’s difficult-to-realize power kept him from previous DC Comics–based shows like Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville. But with the arrival of workable visual effects in The CW’s Arrow and Flash, it became feasible to introduce him.

Of course, as with anything in the so-called Berlantiverse of Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, finding the right time to include an obscure, but deeply loved character is the alchemy these shows trade in. Did The Flash succeed in finding the right moment to introduce him?

As Ralph may end up a series regular in the program’s fifth year, let’s take a closer look the Elongated Man.

In the Pages of DC Comics

(Photo by DC Comics)

Ralph Dibny was created in 1960 by John Broome – one of DC’s wilder storymen – and Carmine Infantino. First appearing in The Flash #112, he was specifically created because editor Julius Schwartz wanted a flexible, stretchy friend for Barry Allen. Curiously, history tells us Schwartz was unaware the company had owned Plastic Man — a Golden Age crook turned hero when he found out what he was made of and could stretch his form into impossible shapes — for nearly four years.

The two would eventually meet and comment on their identical powers, but the affection readers gained for Ralph was not because of his abilities.

After his first Flash appearance — in which Barry suspected him in a string of crimes —  the character had something of a charmed life; making it big in the entertainment industry after revealing his identity to world. He also met and married the love of his life, Sue Dearborn. The pair would migrate from Flash supporting characters to their own backup feature in Detective Comics. The strip would see the Dibnys traveling around the country in a convertible and solving crimes, with Ralph using his elastic body and heightened sense of smell to aid their investigations instead of punching the bad guys; although, there were still fisticuffs from time to time.

By the mid 1970s, both were members of the Justice League, moving to Europe when the League opened an “embassy” in Paris during the 1980s. When that League disbanded, Ralph and Sue resumed their travels as happily married detectives.

In fact, their marriage was a special, and often protected, rarity in the DC Universe. While many of the characters forswore romantic relationships or saw their loved ones victimized, the pair spent decades happy and in love. This changed with the 2004 miniseries Identity Crisis, a story which begins with the murder of Sue Dibny. Ralph’s life was shattered and he would die himself trying to resurrect her two years later. Writer Mark Waid reunited the pair in DC’s afterlife with the idea that their Thin Man inspired adventures could continue with an added dose of Topper; a B-Movie series from the 1940s about a pair of ghosts who solve crimes for an inadvertent detective who can see their phantom forms.

Sadly, Waid’s concept never became a series and the events of Identity Crisis were swept away in the 2011 reboot. But his interest in restoring at least part of Ralph and Sue’s status quo indicates how strongly the company’s creative forces felt about the characters. The readers also cared, as Identity Crisis’s shocking opening scene — and its subsequent revelations — led to a sales bonanza. Its success led to bigger and bolder event story lines.

On The CW

The Flash -- "Elongated Journey Into Night" - Hartley Sawyer (Jack Rowand/The CW)

As introduced in this week’s Flash, “Elongated Journey Into Night,” Ralph is an ex-cop known for crooked dealings (shades of Plastic Man). He’s also a new kind of jerk for Barry to deal with – a man of vices, easy impulses, and a serious sugar habit.

He’s a far cry from the lovable straight arrow of comics past, but that remix is in keeping with the spirit of the Berlantiverse. Characters like Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), Roy Harper (Colton Haynes), and Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) all began in places far from their comic book counterparts. In each case, it was an intentional choice on the part of the producers to illustrate their journeys to becoming icons. The same can be said for Barry (Grant Gustin) himself, who spent much of the first part of The Flash’s first season learning how to be The Flash.

But in order to have somewhere to go with the character, Ralph had to be muddied up. In doing so, they went back to the plot of Ralph’s first comic book appearance. But this time, Barry’s suspicions proved true. As we now know, Ralph was considered to be a good detective who solved a high-profile murder by producing the murder weapon at the last possible moment. Barry, then a junior CSI, double-checked the evidence and determined Ralph planted the suspect’s fingerprints on it. Ralph was fired in disgraced.

In the intervening four years, Ralph became a private eye and entered a world familiar to fans of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Stepping into his office, Barry and Joe (Jesse L. Martin) left their TV show for one inhabiting an even more heightened reality. It’s definitely the cartoony place the Elongated Man comes from even if Ralph is not yet that person. Instead, he’s the sort who would blackmail the mayor and get dangled off the roof by his goons.

Which is an interesting place for a classic DC superhero to begin his journey into costumed crime-fighting, but – now that Barry has offered him a job at S.T.A.R. Labs – will he be a worthwhile member of Team Flash?

The Flash -- "Girls Night Out" Hartley Sawyer (Katie Yu/The CW)

Let’s look at the performance: At the moment, Ralph is quite abrasive and cartoonish. But considering that was the intent, Sawyer played this version of the character with panache. He’s a great TV jerk. There are also shades of the heroic Ralph in there, particularly when Sawyer intones the character’s catchphrase “I smell a mystery.” His nose twitch at the end of the episode is pulled directly from comic book lore.

Nevertheless, the character will come to the team as a jerk and will no doubt rub Cisco (Carlos Valdes), Iris (Candice Patton), Joe and Harry (Tom Cavanagh) the wrong way. Caitlin’s (Danielle Panabaker) sympathies may eventually be strained if he leaves enough powdered sugar from his donuts around the lab. Again, this would be the intent, but the show’s writers will need to balance out just how antagonizing he can be in the clubhouse before the audience comes to despise him utterly.

In that, though, the show at least has a history of making its jerks some of the most lovable of characters around. Harry himself continues to have his mean streak, and yet viewers have acclimated to his curt manner. Last year’s addition of H.R. also indicates the writers and producers will know when to turn down Ralph’s less appealing traits, even as he will no doubt succumb to certain temptations as he follows the trail of Clifford DeVoe (Neil Sandilands).

The Flash -- "Elongated Journey Into Night" - Hartley Sawyer (Jack Rowand/The CW)

This week’s episode even previewed that struggle with his choice to reverse blackmail the mayor, which makes a certain “elongated” sense even as it shows Ralph has a lot to learn about how justice works. It also indicated that Barry’s words can get through his elastic skull and motivate him to be a better person. And as fans of Ralph will tell you, he is one of the best people in the DC Universe.

As long as the show finds the right balance of contemptuous lout and emerging hero – to say nothing of unlocking his potential as a world class detective – Ralph Dibny will be a worthwhile and welcome member of the team.

Maybe he’ll even be a good enough man for Sue Dearborn when she rides into town.

The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8/7 C on The CW.

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