The 1950’s were a dark time for comic books. A psychologist by the name of Dr. Fredric Wertham published a book called the Seduction of Innocent that blamed comic books for many of the social evils. This led to senate hearings into comic books and their effect on society and in order to survive the companies that we now know as DC and Marvel formed the Comics Code Authority, a self governing body that regulated and censored inappropriate content. For all its good intensions, it also led to a sharp decline in comic book sales and for a time it looked like the superheroes would fade away into oblivion along side other heroes of myth and folk-lore.
Then in 1955, DC Comics publisher Julius Schwartz decided it was time to try and revive an old character from the Golden Age. This character was called “The Flash.” The Golden Age Flash was a college chemistry student and All-American athlete by the name of Jay Garrick who became the Flash when he was exposed to heavy water vapors while working on an experiment. Theis resulted in him gaining the ability to run at more than 187,000 miles per second, the speed of light. This new Flash, however, as a totally different character, and his arrival would be like the aptly metaphorical “lightning bolt out of the blue” for superhero comic books.
This Flash was a man by the name of Barry Allen, a forensic scientist with the Central City Police Department, or as we would call him a member of CSI: Central City. Barry had the unfortunate tendency to be very slow and meticulous in his work, and was perpetually late for everything. Then one day Barry was working late at night in the crime lab, when a bolt of lightening struck him, throwing him back into a shelf of chemicals. Barry was able to get up on his own strength, and soon discovered he had super-speed.
As a child Barry had loved reading comic books that starred the Golden Age Flash and upon discovering he had super-speed, he realized he could become a superhero just like his favorite comic book character. He developed a brand new suit for himself and took up the name The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive. His suit could pop out of a ring he made and expand upon contact with the air, a process he likened to a raft inflating.
The accident was a double blessing for him as not only could he be like his favorite childhood superhero, it also meant as a police scientist he could do even more good work. As a CSI, he was usually on scene after the crime had been committed. There would be nothing left to do but gather evidence and offer condolences to the family of a victim. Since he had the power of super-speed he could stop a crime within seconds of it occurring. The short lived TV show from 1990 added an additional element as Barry’s father and brother were also police officers. Barry’s brother even died in the line of duty, giving him some added pathos.
His super-speed allowed him to vibrate his molecules through solid objects, allowing him to not only pass through walls if need be, but to even break guns.Barry soon discovered the ability to time travel, often using a device called a Cosmic Treadmill. Barry, and all other speedsters also possessed an encyclopedia level of knowledge. He can read and process a great amount of information in a short amount of time. It is often advised to never play a game of trivial pursuit with The Flash.
Despite his incredible speed, the Flash is probably the closest thing to a true everyman hero in the DC universe. Superman may have been raised by a loving Midwestern couple, but he is still an alien. Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess. Batman is a rich boy with issues, lots of issues. Three out of five of the human Green Lanterns are military men, specifically the Air Force, the Marines and the Army. Green Arrow is a billionaire. In fact, because of his job as a police scientist Barry had a great deal of respect for the rest of his fellow Police Officers as they risked their life every day and had no powers.
He also enjoys his super-powers, a rare thing for many super heroes as they tend to feel a heavy burden in having their powers and responsibilities. However, Barry does have to be careful with his powers. It was discovered early on that if he runs and doesn’t stop to rest or eat that, like any ordinary person, he will grow fatigued. His great speed means he has a hyper-fast metabolism, and needs to eat in order to stay alive. For example, in the 12 issue mini-series, Justice, the villains plant tiny robots in him that force him to run continuously. Afterall, Newton’s Law of Motion states that an object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion unless it is acted upon, and such is the case for the Flash. It takes Superman to apply the action necissisary to stopping the Scarlet Speedster. Then once Flash has stopped and caught his breath, Superman instructs another hero to take Barry to a nearby $9.99 all you can eat buffet. Further, in the American Dreams story arc, when the villain the key has the other leaguers captured, and locked in a drug induced dream-like state, this metabolism allows the Flash to flush the drug from his system much faster.
He also gets lonely while running, afterall, he is running at the speed of light, and he says everything looks like a blur as he races on by. However, he would not be forced to run alone forever, as his nephew, Wally West, a ten year old boy who loved the Flash almost as much as Barry did when he was growing up, was soon to follow him. One summer, when he was 10 years old, Wally got the chance of a lifetime. His favorite Aunt, Iris West (Barry’s girl-friend and future wife) called and asked if he would like to spend the summer with her. Wally, who grew up in an abusive home, was overjoyed to accept her offer for three reasons. The first reason was just to get away from his home, the second was because Iris was one of the few adults who treated him like an adult ,and third was the fact that she lived in Central City: home of the Flash.
That night, Iris took Wally over to meet Barry. Wally found him dull, but at the same time, the young boy also thought Barry seemed like a magician trying to conceal some kind of trick. That night at Barry’s house Wally got to meet the Flash face to face and ask any question he liked. While he could not learn the Flash’s secret identity, he did learn the source of his powers. To Wally that was the coolest thing to ever learn, and he even told Barry that he wished something like that would happen to him.
Barry told him, “What happened to me that day was a billion to one chance. You know what they say…lightning never strikes the same place twice.”
That was when the odds were defied and bolt of lightning stuck Wally, throwing him into a shelf of chemicals, just like Barry. Wally was just even more excited then Barry had been to learn he had been given super-speed. After all, while Barry had been an adult, Wally was just a 10 year old boy. What 10 year-old child would not want to the power of super-speed? After flight, it is the kind of super-power that can allow you to break free from your quaint little world. Years, later Wally would describe the experience:
“When you’re a kid, every day is an eternity. Your entire sphere of existence is ruled by people who tell you when to go and when to stop and when to move and when to stand still.… I’d finally found a way to keep people from running my life. I started doing the running. What I saw was incredible. All around me, cars and buildings became blips, their shapes and colors blending together. People were frozen in time, living between the ticks of a clock. And the only sounds in the world were the roar of the wind and the thunder of my own two feet.”
Wally was given the code-name “Kid Flash” and became Barry’s sidekick. He wanted the name Speedy but that was aken by another kid sidekick in the DC Universe, one who didn’t even have super-speed. Despite the joy of having the power of super-speed, Wally had to retire for a while during his adolescence. Since he was still growing, his body was having a difficult time adjusting to his powers. Once he stabilized and learned to control his powers he was allowed to continue on.
Not long after, Barry would discover that the golden Age Flash was alive and well. He had often wondered about this strange “Bridge to Nowhere” coming from Central City. It turned out that the bridge connected Central City to Jay’s home base of Keystone City, which had been traped in another dimension by three supervillians, vibrating at a different frequency from the rest of the world. Barry’s incredible speed allowed him to break through that barrier, setting Keystone City, and the Golden Age Flash free. Jay would later admit that Barry woke him up, and not only brought him back, but the other Golden Age superheroes too. Jay was pleased with the work Barry was doing and told him to carry on Jay’s legacy. But soon, tragedy would strike. A being called the Anti-Monitor was going to destroy the entire universe, and Barry sacrificed his life to save them all. Wally then took up the mantle becoming the Flash.
In the 1990’s Wally, like Barry before him would usher in a new age in heroes. In the case of Wally it was the fact that in the late 70’s and 80’s almost very hero had to be grim, dark, gritty and brooding. Wally was also falling down that dark path. That is until it was decided that Wally could actually stand to be a light hearted character, and that they could focus on super-speed and exciting heroics instead of angst. He even managed to have a healthy family life with a wife, Linda Park, and two children, Iris and Jai.
Sure enough the light hearted Wally proved to be a hit. He would soon ultimately discover the true nature and source of their speed. Somehow the lightning and chemicals caused them to tap into an extra-dimensional force called “The Speed Force”. It enabled them to go faster then the speed of light and in away, like a Flux Capacitor on the DeLorean time machine in The Back to the Future movies, it is what makes time travel possible. He also discovered other speedsters, including some from the far distant future.
Much like Barry, Wally remained ever optimistic and possessed a great heart. Much of this came from the influence of Barry and his wife Iris. He was willing to risk his life to save his father during a tornado, and Wally even befriends a former enemy The Pied Piper. Similarly in an episode of the Justice League cartoon show from the early 2000’s he gets a villain, “The Trickster” to turn himself in just by sitting down with him in a bar, talking to him like a friend, urging him to go back on his medication and promising to come visit him and play darts. While Batman and another hero, Orion, try to use standard intimidation and interrogation techniques that amount to nothing with Trickster, Flash’s compassion and kindness prove more effective. In an episode entitled “Hereafter” where Superman is believed to have been killed he comforts a little girl, hiding her eyes from the horrifying sight.
He has often been depicted as the conscience of the group because of his youth. For example when the League was voting to expel Batman for his contingency plans, he voted to keep him in. Wally remembered times when the superheroes were under the mind control of a super-villain and could recall how frightened people seemed of the JLA when they feared they had gone evil. He understood that steps would have to be taken to insure Earth’s safety. In the Identity Crisis story arc, when he learned what methods some of the other heroes used to conceal their secret identities, such as memory wipes and even something akin to a lobotomy, he questioned their actions knowing full well it was wrong. To him it was a line that should never be crossed, even if there were good intensions behind those actions.
This something that was focused on heavily in his depiction in the cartoon series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Just as Wonder Woman is about to punch a hole in the head of the villain Toy Man for blasting Superman to oblivion, Flash holds her back, reminding her that it isn’t how they treat their enemies. While the other heroes go home for the holidays to celebrate with family or friends, he races all over the globe to find a special toy for under privileged kids. When a museum in central City that was dedicated to his honor was destroyed and news reporter ( and future wife) Linda Park expresses her sorrow over it, Flash reminds her, “We saved the day, and we caught the bad guy. Best of all no one got hurt. You now what I call that? A good day.”
However, because of their great speed, something is needed to hold them down. Wally and Jay describe this as being like a lightening rod. The purpose of a lightning rod is to help raw a bolt of lightning down to the ground and insure it doesn’t destroy a home. For the Jay, Barry and Wally it comes in the form of the women they love. During a battle with an evil speedster named Savitar, Wally was lost in time, but Linda’s faith in their love kept him focused. When Barry Allen gave his life to save the universe, it was his love for Iris that gave the will to fight, and it was his thoughts of her and the life they shared that brought him peace. When Barry returned from the grave it was Iris and the love that they shared that helped him hold together and avoided being caught back into the Speed Force.
Jay Garrick, Barry Allen and Wally West live life at the speed of lightning. They run fast so others don’t die young. Untimely in the end they are willing to risk everything, even their lives to save the world, even for those that may not deserve it. As a future speedster named John Fox tells Wally, “You saved my life, and like you said I didn’t deserve it. That’s what makes the Flash, all Flashes a hero through out all time.”
Broome, John and Carmine Infantino with Joe Kubert “The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier”
Flash #108. October, 1956. DC Comics.
Broome, John and Carmine Infantino with Frank Giacoia,“The Speed of Doom!
Showcase #4. October, 1956. DC Comics.
Broome, John and Carmine Infantino with Frank Giacoia “ Meet Kid Flash!” The Flash #110. Dec. Jan. 1960.
dos Santos, Joaquim. ( Dir.) “Flash and Substance” Justice League: Unlimited( TV series). Matt Wayne (Writer). Feb. 11, 2006 (Original Airdate)
Iscove, R. 9 Dir) Danny Bilson& Paul DeMeo ( writers) “Pilot” Flash. ( TV Series)1990 Warner Brothers. Studios.
Kanigher, Robert and Carmine Infantino with Frank Giacoia, “The Rival Flash!” Flash Comics # 104. Feb. 1949. DC Comics.
Kanigher, Robert and Carmine Infantino with Joe Kubert “Mystery of the Human Thunder Bolt!” Showcase #4* October, 1956. DC Comics.
Krueger, Jim, Alex Ross and Doug Braithwaite Justice. 2006. DC Comics.
Kubberberg, Paul. “Forward” Flash Archives volume 1. 1996 DC Comics.
Lukic, Butch ( Dir.) “Hereafter” Justice League: The Animated Series. ( TV Show). Dwayne McDuffie. ( Writer). Nov. 29, 2003 (Original Airdate)
Lukic, Butch(Dir.) “Comfort and Joy” Justice League: The Animated Series. ( TV Show). Paul Dini. (writer). Dec. 13, 2003.
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Waid, Mark, Brian Augustyn, et all. Flash: Race Against Time. 1996 DC Comics.
Waid, Mark, Brian Augusten, Gil Kane, Joe Staton, and Tom Palmer( writing as Iris Allen) The Life Story of the Flash. 1997. DC Comics.
Waid, Mark, Howard Porter, and Drew Geraci JLA: Tower of Babel.2001 DC Comics.
Waid, Mark, Tom Peyer, Barry Kitson and Tom Kindberg Flash&Green Lantern: Brave and the Bold. 1999 DC Comics.
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*First Appearance of the Silver Age Flash.
The Flash I ( Jay Garrick) Created by Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert
The Flash II (Barry Allen) Created by Robert Kanigher, John Broome, and Carmine Infantino.
The Flash III ( Wally West) Created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino
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2010 DC Comics, 2011 DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Animation Studios, 1990 Warner Bros .Studios.