A long time ago, in a Multiverse far, far away, DC Comics put The Flash on trial for Murder.
This was an extended, two-year plus run-in to Crisis on Infinite Earths in which it had been decided that the Barry Allen version of The Flash, the symbol of the Silver Age that was to pass before our eyes, should die. His writer, Cary Bates, set-up a scenario in which the Flash actually did kill one of his Rogues, the Reverse-Flash, albeit unintentionally, and to save a life, and had him put through a lengthy trial, in which he was actually found Guilty.
He then rather spoilt the outcome by having the Guilty verdict be the result of mental domination by one of The Flash’s future foes, leaving the door open for our favourite Speedster to bring this enemy down, and secure a new verdict of Not Guilty.
This all occurred between 1983 and 1985 and, although I did not normally read The Flash in that era, I did pick up the run about six months in and followed it until its semitragic ending.
The current season of The Flash tv show has gone for a change of pace in relation to its Big Bad Villain, eschewing another superhero and going for The Thinker, aka Clifford Devoe, an updated version of a Golden Age villain whose abilities lie in his brilliant mind and comprehensive plotting.
Which, in time for the mid-season finale, involved framing Barry Allen for the murder of… Clifford Devoe.
There have now been four episodes since the series returned after New Year, dealing with the Trial and Incarceration of Barry Allen. I’ve already excoriated the first of these as one of the most stupid episodes of American TV I have ever seen so I’ll not waste any more time on that.
But after two weeks of Barry moping around in prison, and discovering that the Warden has actually proved he’s The Flash, we got the resolution of this latest Trial of The Flash story (to all those getting their Flash fix from a certain major commercial TV company, ‘ware Spoilers).
Barry has been kidnapped into a super-special secret metahuman wing of Iron Heights, known only to crooked Warden Wolf where he is imprisoned along with all four of the new, bus passenger metahumans (don’t ask). Wolf plans to sell them to the annoying Amunet (Katee Sackhoff with a wince-inducing English accent and manner).
Team Flash works to frustrate this, Barry uses his CSI skills to create an acid that breaks everyone one, only to be intercepted in the Yard by Wolf and Amunet, who turns everyone against CSI Allen – aka – The Flash!
Everyone, that is, except Hazard, Becky Sharp, the one with luck-powers. She’s turned over a new leaf in prison, helped by Barry’s encouragement, and she uses her ability to project bad luck onto everyone else, causing multiple deaths throughout, including Wolf but not Amunet (pity).
But then (and now it starts getting complicated or, to use another word, stupid), The Thinker intervenes, to capture all four bus metas, including Becky. Y’see, Devoe’s body is dead, but he’s developed this means of transferring his mind into other people’s bodies, which isn’t half freaking out his lovely (depending on which hairstyle she’s wearing at the time) wife, Marlee. It’s all part of his plan to kidnap the twelve bus metas, seven of whom haven’t yet been identified, and Marlize gets even more freaked when her husband sideslips into Becky and insists on dancing with her to their song (icky!)
Meanwhile. DA Cecile is one day away from conducting Barry Allen’s Appeal, on the grounds of new evidence, of which she has none, not one iota, Vibe and Killer Frost are prepared to break Barry out, but he refuses to leave until he can leave on a legal basis. Is this tedious little sub-story ever going to end?
Well, yes. Ralph (The Elongated Man) Dibny has discovered a new superpower this week: if he concentrates, he can look like anyone he wants. So, just as the Judge is about to gavel the appeal into next week, the courtroom door opens and guess who wheels himself in? Why, it’s Clifford (wink, wink) Devoe, not dead after all, and eager to help clear Barry Allen’s good name.
Remind me again, which section of the US Criminal Code covers impersonating murder victims. So much for Barry Allen’s insistence on only getting out if it’s legal.
And people wonder why I’m losing patience with superhero tv shows.
The original Flash was created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert for Flash Comics no 1, published by All-American Publications in 1940. He was Jay Garrick, a Research Chemist in Keystone City, and his was the most simple and appealing of powers: super-speed: who had not dreamed of being able to run fast, with the wind whipping through their hair?
Garrick gained his powers through a lab accident whilst a student at Midwestern University: clearing the lab one night, he broke a retort of hard water: overcome by its fumes, he breathed them in all night, until discovered and rushed to hospital in the morning. He made a complete recovery, but concealed from everyone but his girlfriend, feisty Army Colonel’s daughter Joan Williams, that his body chemistry had been changed and that he could now run with superspeed.
That origin has been tweaked half a dozen times since, in an attempt to introduce even a fraction of plausibility into it, but all the reboots do is to further emphasise that, as superhero origins go, this is one of the least credible ever, and there is, trust me, a great deal of competition. It’s typical of comic book irony that such a silly origin should characterise such an excellent and successful character.
As The Flash, Garrick wore a simple costume consisting of a long-sleeved red top decorated by a yellow lightning bolt, blue pants, red boots, and a symbolic winged helmet of Mercury, the Roman God of Speed. Like his fellow heroes, Garrick wore that costume under his street-clothes, ready at any time to throw them off and race into action.
Garrick was a founder member of the JSA, and its first Chairman, recognising his status as the character most likely to be voted into his own solo title, making him the first after Superman and Batman to achieve this success. All-Flash ran from 1941 – 1948, during which period not only was the Flash invited back into the JSA, but he also became one of the regulars in Comics Cavalcade, one of the last successful anthology titles to be introduced in the 1940s. This meant that The Flash was appearing regularly in four titles, one more than each of Superman and Batman.
But the swing away from superheroes after the end of the war affected everyone, except a handful. One by one, All-Flash, Comics Cavalcade and Flash Comics were cancelled, and at the end of 1950, when All-Star became a Western title, The Flash disappeared, presumed forever.
However, as we already know, in 1956 National Periodical Publications decided to test the waters of whether kids were ready to read superheroes again by reviving The Flash. But editor Julius Schwartz, unwilling to revive a character who had already been “done”, insisting on creating a brand new character, more in tune with the 1950s.
The Flash 2, created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino, was Barry Allen, blonde crew-cut, bow-tie and sports jacket, the perfect image of Organisation Man. He was a Police (i.e. Forensic) Scientist with the Central City P.D., again out in the flat mid-West. Allen was working late one night in the lab, with a storm approaching. After a coffee-break during which he reads an old issue of Flash Comics, starring his childhood favourite, the lab is struck by lightning. It overturns a cabinet of chemicals on Allen, drenching him with an unpredictable mixture of electrified chemicals (now THAT’S an origin!).
After leaving the lab, Allen undergoes a series of experiences in which he seems to move at superspeed, but he does not fully realise what has happened until the following morning, when he can not only see a bullet flying towards his fiancée, reporter Iris West, but push her out of its way. In emulation of his comic book hero, Allen becomes the Flash.
The new Flash ran in an all-red body suit, incorporating a pull-over head cowl and eye-mask, with yellow boots, yellow lightning flashes at wrists and waist, and a chest symbol of a yellow lightning bolt across a white circle. The costume was made of an advanced version of the material used in inflatable life-rafts: in compressed form it was stored in a signet ring on Allen’s finger: when exposed to the air, it instantly grew to full size and Allen would don it over his street clothes (yeuch!).
National’s management were strangely reluctant to accept the positive sales figures and it took four try-outs over three years before Allen was awarded his own series, picking up the original numbering of Flash Comics with issue 105, and John Broome took over scripting.
Given the background of both Broome and Schwarz, there was an unsurprisingly strong SF element to the Flash’s adventures. Broome made use of a wide variety of scientific and pseudo-scientific tricks to underpin Allen’s speed (long though I believed it, I have been forced to come to the conclusion that there is no scientific validity to the notion that objects which vibrate at different rates can occupy the same physical space without damaging each other: I invite any reader of this to come up with even a shred of proof that this actually is true). And Broome also came up with a constant stream of costumed villains, a Rogues Gallery built around scientific gimmicks, who would stretch the scientist in the Flash to defeat them.
Schwartz’s success with the Flash led to a new Green Lantern and then to a revived Justice Society, renamed by Schwartz as the Justice League of America. The Flash was a founder member. Unlike the JSA, the League didn’t require all its members to appear in each issue, nor did it have a permanent Chairman: instead, the office was passed round from issue to issue. As one of National/DC’s most popular characters, the Flash appeared in most issues, and took his turn in charge many times.
Also in 1960, Broome gave the Flash a boy side-kick. Kid Flash – who originally wore a cut down version of Barry’s uniform before gaining a snazzy yellow and red version of his own – was Iris’s nephew Wally West, a 10 year old from the farming community of Blue Valley and a big Flash fan. Iris arranged through Barry for Wally to meet the Flash (Reporter though she was, Iris was certainly no Lois Lane). The Flash explains his origin in Barry Allen’s home laboratory when an identical lightning bolt overturns the cabinet on Wally, giving him exactly the same powers! Ok, it’s a good origin, but this was stretching probability, and a much later story went to great lengths to suggest a reason why this event duplicated itself so exactly.
Kid Flash would appear periodically as a guest star, or in back-up stories, until he gained an independent life as a member of the Teen Titans, a foursome of teenage sidekicks hanging out together.
Meanwhile, the steady stream of letters wanting to know about the Golden Age Flash, and how Jay Garrick fitted in with Barry Allen. It was obviously a story that would sell, so Schwartz brought in Garrick’s creator, Gardner Fox, to write the landmark “Flash of Two Worlds” for issue 123. Whilst carrying out superspeed tricks for the Central City orphans, Allen vibrates into invisibility and finds himself several miles outside town. Thinking he’s passed through a space warp, he runs back only to find prominent local landmarks missing. Fearing he’s also passed through a time warp, he checked the date on the newspaper, which is correct (June 4th 1961). However, the paper is not the Central City Picture News but rather the Keystone City Herald – Keystone City as in Jay Garrick.
Allen finds Garrick’s address in the phone book and, in civilian clothes, calls on him and his wife, Joan. He shocks them by relating Garrick’s origin as the Flash, before revealing his own. Allen’s theory, based on the vibrating-at-different-rates idea, is that there are two Earths occupying the same physical place in the Universe, but forever invisible and intangible to each other because they vibrate at different rates: Allen has discovered Garrick’s Earth because he has accidentally tuned into its rate.
The implications of this single issue would underpin the entire DC Multiverse for twenty five years to come, and its waves continue to have effect even now, in The New 52.
For now, though, it was a massive success, concluding with a nostalgia fest as three of Garrick’s old foes obligingly appeared out of retirement to require a fight.
The story was the predicted smash and called for a sequel, in issue 129, when Garrick came to Allen’s Earth and helped him out against a couple of his Rogues. It also included a teaser flashback to All-Star 57, marking the first post-Golden Age appearance for the other six JSA members of the team’s last phase.
Emboldened, Schwartz and Fox took things a stage further in the third team-up, in The Flash 136, which took place on Garrick’s Earth, where six of his old JSA comrades had been kidnapped. Thanks to Barry Allen, they are rescued and agree to come out of retirement, which happened only two months later, in a two part story in Justice League of America 21 and 22, with both Flashes taking part.
This story formally named Allen’s Earth as Earth-1 and Garrick’s as Earth-2, and was the foundation of a series of annual team-ups that ran for 23 years.
With Kid Flash changing his costume so as to no longer be identical to Barry Allen, and joining the Teen Titans, by 1965 there was a status quo that would hold for twenty years. Garrick appeared regularly in JLA/JSA team-ups, and occasionally teamed up with Allen: in 1976, surprisingly belatedly, All-Star was revived for the JSA, with the Flash as a regular attendee.
There was more development in Teen Titans for Kid Flash. In 1970, as a response to the ‘Age of Relevance’, most of the Titans, Wally West included, gave up their powers and costumes after their inexperience led to a campus riot that killed a prominent peace envoy in issue 25. Under the philanthropic gaze of millionaire Mr Jupiter, the grey-jump-suited teens dealt with social and teenage issues. Unfortunately, the experiment sent sales tumbling, and was abandoned (as was scripter Steve Skeates) halfway through a two-part story. The series tried a ghoulies and ghosties approach instead, but was still cancelled with issue 43.
Two years later, Teen Titans returned for another and very pallid ten issues before being cancelled again, but it, and Wally West, took on a new lease of life in 1980 when the team of Marv Wolfman and George Perez started The New Teen Titans, DC’s first genuine fan-favourite series, and its first corrective to the effects of the notorious DC Implosion in 1978.
We’ll return to the New Teen Titans and Wally’s part in it, after looking at Barry Allen’s career since the early-Sixties.
To be frank, entertaining and amusing as Broome’s (and Fox’s) stories could be, and successful as The Flash was, after starting the Golden Age Revival there were very few stories of significance in the rest of the decade. One such, however, featured Allen’s marriage to Iris West in 1965: National’s first superhero wedding, and only the second in comics after Marvel’s same year pairing of Mr Fantastic and The Invisible Girl from Fantastic Four.
The marriage was almost ruined by Allen’s 25th century foe, the Reverse-Flash, who was obsessed with Allen to the point of believing himself in love with Iris. Professor Zoom (his alternate name) tried to substitute for Allen at the ceremony but was beaten off with Iris none the wiser.
The new Mrs Allen was also none the wiser as to her husband’s secret identity, which became a running theme for the next year until, after a visit from the Garricks and some strong words from Joan, Allen agreed to tell Iris on their first Anniversary. At which point he discovered that she’d known since their Wedding Night, because Barry talked in his sleep!
That’s a charming little story that betrays too much of its time, and of the Comics Code Authority’s strictures. In 1965, nice girls didn’t – at all – until they were married, but in the Nineties the notion that Barry and Iris wouldn’t have slept together until then would have been too strange for an audience to believe, and a more complex justification had to be found for his sudden lapse into somniloquy.
Two other stories of significance achieved this by being so insanely dumb that, if back issues did not exist, we would politely assume them to be merely urban legends. The first of these, published in 1967, purported to be the real origin of the Flash: that he had been given his speed by a trainee angel named Mopee who had broken the rules by using materials that Barry Allen didn’t own himself, hence the need for Mopee to return and take them away again. This was so colossally dumb, National were trying to pretend it hadn’t happened practically before the inks dried.
But the other, a 1969 Robert Kanigher effort entitled “The Flash’s Wife is a Two-Timer!”, despite being almost as buzzard-gaggingly stupid, cannot be so ignored, for it would go on to form a crucial component in the Flash-mythos.
For the benefit of our younger readers, a ‘Two-Timer’ was an already archaic, or ‘square’, term for someone who was cheating on their partner, and it is as misleading as it is cheesy. Instead of being about adultery, the story was even worse. Iris Allen discovered that Professor and Mrs West were not in fact her parents but that she had been adopted. Which would not have been so bad if it hadn’t also have been revealed that she had actually been born in the Thirtieth Century, but that her scientist parents, in fear of an imminent and destructive nuclear war, had sent her back in time a thousand years so that she might live.
Now if you sit back a think for just a second about the likelihood of a woman born after a millennium of human evolution being medically indistinguishable from her incredibly distant ancestors or the likelihood of concerned parents sending their child to such an unutterably primitive age, you will have thought for exactly one second longer than Kanigher himself.
Nevertheless, the fact that Iris Allen was no longer the sweet, uncomplicated, loving wife of one of the saner and well-balanced heroes, but a time-travelling visitor was shuffled into the deep background until, in Barry Allen’s final months, it was resurrected as the big twist in his final issue.
Such things apart, most of Allen’s career avoided great highs and lows. By the late Sixties, John Broome was easing himself out of comics and America, and his role as Flash scripter went to Cary Bates, one of the earliest fans-turned-writers, who would go on to write over 150 issues of Allen’s series, in a quiet, pseudo-Silver Age manner, for so long as Julius Schwarz maintained editorship of The Flash.
Let us move ahead to 1980, and resume Kid Flash’s story, in The New Teen Titans. The new team consisted of three old characters, three new ones, and a rebooted Sixties teenager with no previous connection to the Titans. Under Wolfman, Wally West would receive the first sustained attention to character of his career: Wolfman depicted West as a product of his midwestern, small-town background, naturally conservative – or at least rabidly anti-Communist – undemonstratively but firmly Christian.
But the most significant aspect of West’s presence was that it was coerced: initially, he had turned down the Titans, only to join up after falling in love with new girl Raven, unaware that the half-human, half-demon girl had used her empathic powers to induce his ‘love’, because she desperately needed him for the new team.
When this was revealed, almost three years later, West was badly hurt, but he did not leave the Titans for another six months, and then for two totally different reasons. One was to assist his girlfriend Frankie Raye in coming to terms with unwillingly developing superpowers, the other the (secret) discovery that he had himself developed a mysterious degenerative condition whereby his own speed was killing him.
In this period, Garrick was effectively inactive, under the ground conditions of the new All-Star Squadron series. In ‘real life’, he was now in his sixties, but writer Roy Thomas unveiled a hidden JSA adventure in which the entire team, plus significant others like Joan Williams, had been exposed to chronal radiation, which slowed everybody’s ageing process by about fifty per cent: the sixty-something Garrick was, physically, only forty-something.
Our focus now swings back to Barry Allen. Things had changed in the world of Central City. Schwartz had finally retired as editor of The Flash, after over twenty years, in 1978, to be succeeded by artist Ross Andru, veteran of several series at both National/DC and Marvel.
Bates had been writing his calm, polite, Broome-manque stories for many years. True, at any given stage you could gather together a year’s issues of The Flash, throw them in the air and read them in whatever order they fell, without seeing any difference, but this had been good enough to keep Allen’s audience as stable as any other in the declining market of the decade.
But Andru wanted more. He had come from Marvel, where issue-to-issue progression and development and stories based in emotional dramas were the order of things, and where continuity meant more than the meticulous cross-referencing of Allen’s super-speed tricks to which issue they had previously been used in.
Things changed, suddenly. Allen found himself under pressure from a strict Police Captain, giving him grief over all his absences from the lab. An undercover cop started investigating drug-running through the lab, with the same Captain framing Allen as the culprit. Barry and Iris started to bicker and argue. Allen was ordered to supervise a morally dubious experiment on a prison inmate, Clive Reston, undergoing a Clockwork Orange procedure that would backfire, turning Reston into a monster who escaped. At a fancy dress party, with Iris making a very tasty Batgirl, she and Barry resolve their differences and decide it’s time to try for a baby. Reston kills Iris.
And yes, it was almost as schematic as that, not helped by veteran penciller Irv Novick retiring after the first issue, throwing Andru back on, first fill-ins, then a young and inexperienced penciller with no ability at body language or expressions. Though despite that, a disbelieving Allen’s grief at being shown his wife’s body in the morgue came over with sufficient power and helplessness to momentarily pause the story.
After that, the clichés start to run into each other. The Flash pursues Reston but is injured by him, enough that, when Allen shrinks back from exacting the Ultimate Price for His Crime, Reston still falls to his death from A High Place, the injured Flash unable to save him.
Then Bates promptly unveils evidence that Reston did not, after all, kill Iris. The true villain was actually the Reverse-Flash, giving Iris a final ultimatum to leave Allen for him and, when she gave him a final refusal, killing her by vibrating his hand into her head and literally scrambling her brain (ew, yeuch! and no-one spotted this at the autopsy?).
So Allen gets to go through the revenge issue again, up to a fresh point of exacting the Ultimate Price, only this time a vision of Iris comes to him to turn him away from Sinking to the Villain’s Level, but the Reverse-Flash still pays a terrible price, being trapped in a malfunctioning Time Bubble that will never again materialise in an actual time period into which he can escape.
Note that Zoom gets a comic book ‘death’ from which he can be retrieved whenever he’s wanted whilst Reston actually dies, but that’s the difference between a name player in the stock supporting characters and being an inarticulate new creation who doesn’t even get a codename.
Andru moved on, Len Wein took over as editor and Bates went back to his calm, polite, Broome-manque stories, this time with added new background as Allen moves into an apartment building and tries to cope with being a bachelor again.
But before we consider that, we must look at the anniversary story Bates wrote for The Flash 300, a triple-size tale, drawn by the returning Carmine Infantino, back at DC after his sacking as Publisher, a story that would be Bates’s masterpiece.
A bandaged man lies in a hospital bed in a private room, unable to move. Years ago, Barry Allen was caught in an horrific lab accident, when he was showered by electrified chemicals. Allen suffered appalling, paralysing burns, and has been bed-ridden ever since whilst Doctors slowly rebuilt him physically. Soon, their work will be complete, and he will be able to move, walk, live again.
But, unable to bear the reality of his condition, Allen’s mind has constructed for himself a powerful fantasy, that the accident gave him superpowers, comic book superspeed. Instead of paralysis, he lives a wild, free life, capable of running round the world in,literally, seconds.
Now, Allen’s doctors must free him of this delusion, break down his comforting fantasy, if he is to truly recover.
For Allen, it’s a lonely, utterly unsupported battle of wits to escape a subtle, paranoid plot by one of his enemies. But the slowly building case is inarguable; seamless, complete, absolutely convincing. The Doctor can even produce a living, still-loving Iris West, and a Reverse-Flash to confirm he never killed her.
For the reader, it’s obviously a cunning plan and, if you escape the beautifully maintained suspension of disbelief, a fundamentally flawed one – what happens when the ‘cured’ Allen is released from hospital into a world where the Flash manifestly does exist, and meet friends who know Barry Allen to be the Scarlet Speedster? But for the duration of the story, that suspension is willingly, eagerly maintained.
And it is the Reverse-Flash who saves Allen, by giving him the one incongruity, the one flaw that his relentless search for logic can seize on to destroy the whole structure of lies: if there never was a Flash, how can there have been a Reverse-Flash?
From there, the series resumed its general course. Allen met and started to date a young red-headed woman called Fiona Webb, who was initially suspicious of him: Webb had been relocated under the Witness Protection Programme and Allen was identical to the man she feared. Once the Flash had removed the threat to her life, she relaxed with Allen.
Meanwhile, Crisis on Infinite Earths was now being discussed and the decision was taken to kill off Barry Allen as a massive symbolic, we’re-serious-about-this gesture. With more than two years to go until the actual event, Bates started laying the ground.
Out of the blue, Allen asks Fiona to marry him. Their rushed wedding day is marred when the Reverse-Flash reappears, set on killing Allen’s second wife. The pursuit of Professor Zoom kept Allen from appearing at Church, causing Fiona great distress and humiliation. The Flash finally stopped Zoom at the final instant, managing to drag him back in a choke-hold that, stopping Zoom at superspeed, broke his neck. The incident drove Fiona into an asylum, whilst the Flash was charged with manslaughter, later upped to Second Degree Murder. Barry Allen had ‘disappeared’ and was presumed murdered by Zoom. Allen left it that way after learning that his re-appearance might cause Fiona permanent mental damage.
The next two years dealt at length with preparations for and the conducting of the Flash’s trial. He was quickly suspended from the Justice League, several of whose members vote for expulsion. The series was set for cancellation with issue 350, which would appear simultaneously with Crisis 7, in which Supergirl was killed. As early as Crisis 2, the Flash had appeared in pain and terror, arousing fears.
The trial ended with the Flash being found guilty, but this verdict was ‘forced’ on the other Jurors by Flash’s foe Abra Kadabra, masquerading as Jury Chairman. Another juror also came from the future, intent on ensuring that History’s true verdict of Not Guilty was not disturbed. This juror persuaded the Flash to fight back and expose Kadabra, and winning his acquittal.
This other juror was Allen’s beloved Iris.
Using Kanigher’s appalling story, Bates revealed that Iris’s thirtieth century parents, knowing the time of her death, had created a machine that reached through time to pluck her ‘soul’ from her body seconds before Zoom struck, bring it to their time and house it in a clone body, ensuring Iris still lived.
Now, with his twentieth century life in ruins, with Barry Allen ‘dead’ and the Flash’s reputation mired, Allen chose to retire to the Thirtieth Century, reunited with Iris. The couple enjoyed a blissful month, during which, unknown to Allen, Iris became pregnant, before the Flash was swept up into the Crisis. In issue 8 he died, alone, unseen, sacrificing himself to save the entire Universe by destroying the Anti-Monitor’s Tachyon Cannon.
Allen literally ran himself to death, his body disintegrating into its component atoms as he poured it on. Cut loose from the time stream, he bounced from time to time before unravelling. A later Origin re-telling added a touching note as Allen’s final conscious moment saw him slip back in time to Central City, to a night of storm, his atoms forming into a lightning bolt that flashed down towards the Central City Police Department lab…
Despite Wally West’s declaration in Crisis 12 that he would take up Allen’s name and costume, DC initially intended to produce a completely new Flash. Little is known of who/what this Flash might have been (a throwaway reference in Alan Moore’s unproduced Twilight of the Superheroes proposal refers to “Barbara Randall’s new female Flash”. Eventually, DC announced they were abandoning that idea because they couldn’t think of a way to do it without it appearing to be a massive insult to the legacy of Barry Allen.
Thus, after a year’s delay, first in the pages of the crossover series, Legends, then immediately in a new Flash series (no definitive article), Wally West became The Flash 3, the first teen sidekick to actually grow up and take over his father-figure’s role.
At first, the name of the game was to be as unlike Barry Allen as possible. West, who lived in New York and didn’t keep his identity secret, was callow, brash and self-centred. He’d seen his Uncle die a pauper so he wanted payment for his non-emergency work. The Crisis had got rid of the mysterious degenerative speed condition but now he was stuck at just over the speed of sound and had to refuel constantly by wolfing down junk food. West was also moody and promiscuous (he was 20, so what’s new?) and he even started seeing a woman ten years older than him who was separated but not divorced from her husband. Bad boy, bad boy.
West was also filthy rich, having won the Lottery in issue 1.
All this stemmed from new writer Mike Baron, who lasted only until issue 14, in which he obligingly bankrupted West for incoming writer Bill Messner-Loebs. Loebs, who, like Baron, came from outside mainstream superhero comics, took a more left-wing, even socialist approach, with West experiencing poverty and seeing the DC Universe with a darker eye. His associates were friends outside the superhero field, even after he moved back to Keystone City in search of a lower cost of living.
West also found himself joining the new Justice League International, as part of its spin-off Justice League Europe, as much for the salary as anything, though he was treated as money-conscious and weak-willed in that series.
West did not begin to come into his own as the Flash until Loebs left the series and Mark Waid – one of the better, most inventive superhero writers of the last twenty years – took over. Waid immediately positioned the series as a firmly Silver Age oriented title, yet incorporating the emotional dramas, continuity and, to as little an extent as he could get away with, the enforcement of grim’n’gritty agony.
Waid’s aim was to solidify and elevate West to become the Flash, a process he began by bringing back not just Jay Garrick but Barry Allen.
At this point, let us go back briefly to Garrick. Since 1986, he and the JSA had been trapped in limbo but, as described elsewhere, a Justice Society of America mini-series featuring Garrick in his prime had led to the JSA being returned from limbo and receiving their own, albeit short-lived and controversial series, again with Garrick prominent. As a bonus, Garrick received another rejuvenation, this time mystical, owing to his time in limbo.
Of more significance, Garrick immediately became a central part of West’s supporting cast, a wise, experienced grandfather-figure, who would have a significant role to play in “The Return of Barry Allen” and many more of West’s subsequent adventures.
“The Return” begins with the utterly unexpected return of Allen on Christmas Eve, apparently resolving out of electrical energy into his body in a back alley. West is, at first, sceptical, unwilling to let himself believe his beloved uncle and mentor is back, but gladly accepts him when Allen finally mourns at Iris’s grave. Allen too is weirded out to find West has adopted his name and costume.
This starts to come out more as Allen grows increasingly self-centred about the title of the Flash and resentful towards West. Eventually, he accuses West of trying to replace him, to make people forget him, and he abandons West in a death-trap. West only just escapes, to find Allen publicly announcing his death.
Heartbroken, West is left purposeless as Allen starts to direct a revenge spree against Central-Keystone for forgetting him. Garrick enlists fellow speedsters Johnny Quick and Max Mercury, to (unsuccessfully) go up against Allen. West’s malaise ends when, in the alley where Allen returned, he discovers an old, badly damaged book which is not to be published for several years yet. He is stunned by the names of the book’s author, and its writer.
West sets up a fight that destroys Allen’s costume, forcing him to come to the Flash Museum to retrieve the last one existing. But West has substituted another costume, that of the person who thinks he is genuinely Barry Allen but who is really the owner of the strange book – the Reverse-Flash.
Zoom’s story is rewritten to portray him as someone who hero-worshipped Barry Allen and who forced his way back in time to meet his idol, only to arrive several years too late, and to discover that he was destined to be Allen’s worst enemy, and to be killed by Allen. Hysterical trauma forced the knowledge deep, leaving Zoom thinking he was Allen and trying to take his place.
Eventually, West not only beats Zoom but forces him back to his own time, with no memory of anything but a burning hatred for Barry Allen. To do so, he has to burst through his own psychological limits and finally surpass Allen’s speed.
Incidentally, the book’s writer was Iris West Allen, whom West believed to be dead.
This was the springboard for a series of stories, during which West discovered that his, and all speedsters, speed came from a semi-sentient energy dimension known as the Speed Force, into which all speedsters were gathered when they died. West became the first speedster to enter the Speed Force and return, anchored by his love for girlfriend, TV reporter Linda Park. After that, West ‘mainlined’ speed, becoming the Fastest Man Who Ever Lived.
Shortly before this, Waid introduced a new element to the Flash Mythos, in the form of Impulse.
Impulse was Bart Allen, grandson of Barry Allen and heir to all his speed. Iris’s pregnancy had resulted in twins, Don and Dawn, both of whom inherited half their father’s speed. They had gone on to become heroes themselves before being killed at the behest of a descendent of the Reverse-Flash, but Don had married Meloni Thawne, also of the Reverse-Flash’s dynasty, and he had inherited Barry’s full speed.
Unfortunately, he had also inherited a hypermetabolism that saw him grow to the physical age of 12 in only two years. Bart was brought up in Virtual Reality, which could run fast enough to keep up with him. As Bart was in danger of simply dying by living too fast, his grandmother Iris broke him free and brought him back to the 20th Century, to West, the only other speedster to get his powers as a child, who could help cure him.
But Bart, used to living in a video game, found reality confusing. Max Mercury took on the job of training and raising him, as Impulse got his own series.
Waid’s run on The Flash was West’s best period. He succeeded in outlasting the grim’n’gritty period, making West’s adventures underpinned by glory and the sheer love of speed. He established that Barry Allen had originally been born with a twin, who had been still-born, leaving Allen in unconscious search for what was missing, that this need in Allen called down the lightning that transformed Wally West and that finally Allen’s twin turned up alive, as a mysterious villain, Cobalt Blue.
And that Cobalt Blue’s real name was Malcolm Thawne, the ancestor of the Reverse-Flash.
Waid’s final adventure involved getting Wally and Linda married, after a long story introducing the short-lived Hypertime – an intriguing means of reintroducing a much more flexible version of the Multiverse that DC dispensed with all too soon.
Waid’s period saw a large number of other Flash’s added to the legend, though not to the main line of Flash’s that we’re discussing here. He created future Flash John Fox, originally of the 27th century, and, very temporarily placed Jesse Quick, daughter of Johnny, in a Flash uniform when West, afraid he was going to die, was desperately trying to get Bart to take seriously the responsibility of being the Flash, but Waid’s most notable addition was actually a tendentious character, a new Kid Flash in a contingent future timeline, who was Iris West II, West’s own daughter, a warm-hearted, eager-to-please, somewhat anxious teenage girl in a slick Kid Flash costume who would have made a great character if only she’d been ‘real’.
Another interesting creation was Dark Flash, aka Walter West (Wally’s full name was Wallace), a older, harder, hypertime alternate who found himself in West’s timeline for a memorable year of stories.
There were also a millennia’s worth of ‘future’ Flash’s as Waid portrayed Barry Allen’s legacy spanning the centuries, his speed running true in his family line. When Barry Allen fans complained that Wally West’s series demeaned their hero, by making Wally out to be the best and fastest of all time, it should be noted that it was not West’s legacy that lasted 1,000 years.
Impulse was quickly given his own series, a high-tempo, light-hearted, wonderfully comic affair of Max Mercury trying to train both Impulse and Bart Allen in a quiet southern town (Manchester, yay!). First Waid, then Bill Loebs, maintained this theme for 49 issues, before a new team took over with a more serious approach in mind: Impulse would join such teams as Young Justice and the Teen Titans, where he would take on a more grown-up aspect and become the new Kid Flash.
Waid moved on from The Flash after almost 100 issues and was replaced by the increasingly central figure of Geoff Johns, though I dropped the series at that point. Linda would get pregnant, miscarry due to the machinations of Johns’s new Reverse-Flash, leave Wally for a time. West’s identity would become secret again for a time, Linda’s babies would be (improbably) restored and she gave birth to twins. Wally talked of slowing down.
And the revival of a new JSA series gave Garrick a lease of life, as one of the elder trinity, the first generation founding fathers of the team, taking on responsibility for encouraging and training their legacies.
With the twentieth anniversary of Crisis on Infinite Earths coming up, DC decided upon a sequel that would shake things up as the original had. Infinite Crisis, more tightly controlled than its predecessor but still utterly risible in many places, shook up The Flash. In attempting to neutralise a raving villain, West, Garrick and Bart tried to imprison him in the Speed Force: Garrick dropped out but Bart and West disappeared, the latter having chance to bring Linda and his new-born twins along with him.
And Bart returned, in a Flash costume, a decade older, but apparently without powers: the Speed Force had vanished.
Only not so. Bart Allen became The Flash 4, in a new series, The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive. Jay Garrick continued with the JSA in a new Justice Society of America series. Though his various rejuvenations had been reversed, and he was now in his mid-Eighties, it was implied that the exposure to the Speed Force for all those years had kept Jay physically young.
It was not announced at first that Bart’s series was only planned to run for 15 issues, by far the shortest Flash ever. In the event, it was ended after 13. Bart, unsurprisingly, still had his superspeed, the Speed Force having coalesced into him, but through the machinations of Inertia – his Thirtieth Century cloned twin brother – Bart was temporarily cut off from his speed during a pitched battle with the massed Rogue’s Gallery and was killed.
Simultaneously, Wally West and his family were drawn back from the alternate dimension in which they’d lived for 10 years (?) over the last twelve months. West resumed the role of Flash 3, his series picking up its old numbering and, after meeting out appropriate punishment to Inertia, focused on training ten year old Jai and Iris in their respective abilities with the Speed Force.
Even this arrangement did not last long. The ‘creative’ Powers-That-Be at DC had decided upon a Silver Age-oriented theme of Iconicity. Hal Jordan was back as Green Lantern and, after twenty-three years, Barry Allen would return in 2008’s Final Crisis. Wally West was overshadowed. Geoff Johns wrote a six issue reboot of Allen’s history as The Flash: Rebirth, and a new Flash series starring The Flash 2 began.
Meanwhile, in one of Final Crisis‘s offshoot series, Bart Allen was revived, in the Thirty-First Century, back as a teenager, and brought back to the present day to resume being Kid Flash.
It didn’t last long. Barry Allen was used as the centrepiece of Flashpoint, the 2011 crossover series that rearranged the furniture of the DC Universe yet again, this time sweeping away any history older than five years ago.
The picture is different now. Barry Allen is now The Flash 1, and a new Jay Garrick, younger than Allen, of a completely different character and origin, is The Flash 2, in the series Earth-Two, now a contemporary and, to the new readers, a secondary creation. Neither Wally West nor Bart Allen exist, yet, if ever. There is not yet a Justice Society, though there will be. The world has been changed since then, and you can read it for yourselves.