On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Who the Hell is The Flash?
Posted on January 14, 2015
The Flash – The CW
January 14, 2015
by Andy Waterfield
On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column on comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.
Barely halfway through its first season, the CW’s latest superhero series, The Flash, has just been recommissioned for a second run. In a media landscape where television faces strong competition from myriad other entertainments, this may have come as a surprise to the casual observer.
But not to Flash fans. We saw this coming a mile away.
You see, the new series is colourful, it’s uplifting, and it’s fantastical, all the while remaining grounded in real human emotions, and everyday interactions between people. It’s easy to root for. Put simply, it got the Flash right, and when you get the Flash right, and put those stories where people can find them, people get interested, they get engaged, and they get on board.
Flash Comics #1 (1940)
The Flash has been through a few incarnations since his debut in Flash Comics #1, back in January 1940. The original Flash, created by Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert, was Jay Garrick, a college student who accidentally inhaled heavy water vapours, granting him super-speed. Jay maintained his secret identity without wearing a mask, by vibrating his face so it was only seen as a blur. Seems legit.
Showcase #4 (1956)
Next up was Barry Allen who first pulled on the scarlet onesie in 1956’s Showcase #4. Created by Robert Kanigher, John Broome, and Carmine Infantino, Barry was a police scientist, which was pretty convenient once he was doused with a bunch of electrified chemicals (shut your windows during lightning storms, kids!), got granted super-speed, and starting fighting crime. Because comics. He also had a penchant for bow ties. Just on the day to day, turning up at work, in court, to the pub, in a bow tie. As you do.
Originally, Barry Allen lived on a different Earth to Jay Garrick, with their two dimensions occupying the same space, but at different vibrational frequencies. On Barry’s Earth, Jay’s adventures were published in comic books Barry had read since boyhood, so when they matched vibrational frequencies and met for the first time in the landmark tale, Flash Of Two Worlds, you can imagine that Barry was somewhat taken aback.
Barry was also the first Flash to take on a sidekick, his girlfriend’s nephew Wally West, who would become the first Kid Flash. Kid Flash got his powers from an incredibly unlikely repeat of the freak accident that gave Barry his, again, because comics. Under Barry’s tutelage, Wally grew in both maturity and ability, and when Barry died saving all existence in 1986’s Crisis Of Infinite Earths, Wally was the first character to fulfill the unspoken promise of the sidekick, and step into the role of the hero.
If all that sounds crazy and hard to follow, do remember that’s a potted history of 46 years worth of comics, and the Silver Age was kind of trippy anyway, for reasons too numerous and bizarre to go into right now.
Wally West by Scott Kolins
For anyone who started reading comics between 1986 and 2012, Wally West was their Flash. Better yet, he was, as mentioned before, the kid who stepped up and fulfilled the promise, allowing the title to explore all sorts of themes as Wally found his way as a hero, and as a person.
How does a person follow in the footsteps of someone close to them, yet retain their own sense of themselves? How can they honour a legacy, build on it, and make it stronger? How can anyone do all of this while processing grief over their loss?
By the time I started reading in the mid-1990s, a bunch of other crazy comics stuff had happened, and it now turned out all the Flashes had lived on the same Earth all along, with Jay fighting Nazis in the second world war, and somehow (I think magic was involved) being alive and spritely enough to offer Wally some grandfatherly advice, and occasionally help him out in the field. Barry was still dead, though. Poor old Barry.
Wally gradually surpassed his mentor, running at speeds approaching, and then exceeding light speed, and almost merging with the speed force, the other-dimensional plane of pure velocity from which all speedsters draw their power. Because comics again.
And, in possibly the coolest scene ever committed to paper, Wally once ran so fast he increased his own potential mass to near infinite levels, delivering an ‘infinite mass punch’ that punched a villain clear off the surface of the Earth. Which is rad.
JLA by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter
The definitive run for Wally, and the concept in general in my view, came between 2000 and 2005, during the epic 62-issue saga written by Geoff Johns. Johns had grown up reading old Barry Allen issues, so even though he was writing for Wally, there was always one eye on the legacy, and the responsibility Wally felt to honour his mentor.
Johns thought through Wally’s power-set too, and explored how moving at supersonic speed for a significant portion of one’s life might affect a person’s development. For example, Wally doesn’t like to discuss politics, because when he’s in super-speed mode, a split-second can seem like hours, so he has a lot of time to think, and had established firm views on most major political topics very early in his life, having examined them from every imaginable angle, just to pass the time while running.
Geoff not only reinvigorated the psychology of The Flash, but his supporting cast, too, and Wally’s hometown of Keystone City became a full-fledged character as well. Keystone was built on the manufacturing industry, specifically the manufacture of automobiles, and Keystone’s people, its politicians, trade unions, and economics all played a role. The Flash still worked for the police department, but this time as a mechanic. Wally was a blue collar hero, if you could see the blue for all the oil smeared into his overalls.
Most importantly of all, though, Johns reinvigorated the Rogues. By giving classic villain concepts a dust-off, focusing on what worked and adding compelling new backstories, Johns made The Flash’s villains as compelling as he was, if not moreso.
The Rogues by Scott Kolins
Batman’s villains are driven by compulsion, Superman’s by ego and greed, but the Flash’s? They’ve always been about the score. A dysfunctional pseudo-family (united by the fact they’ve all either royally messed up or killed their own), the Rogues are led by Len Snart, Captain Cold. They don’t kill civilians (mostly), and they don’t kill The Flash (it’d bring down too much heat from the wider superhero crowd), the Rogues are all about loyalty, hard partying, and profit. Not always in that order.
It’s a testament to the hopefulness of The Flash concept that his virtue can be contrasted with villains who have a strong (albeit flexible) ethical code, and still work. The character is all about speed, brightness, and communication, after all, with Grant Morrison and others comparing him to the Greek god Hermes.
It’s this brightness that is most refreshing to Flash fans watching the new series. After all, DC’s live action output of late (The Nolan Batman trilogy, Man Of Steel, Arrow) has been very serious and dark in tone, at times jarringly so. Many fans feared The Flash might be dragged down into that perpetually gloomy miasma too, but thankfully not.
The Flash by Francis Manapul
A bit of colour, a bit of light, and a bit of hope goes a long way.
The series, and the comics these days, are about Barry Allen, but at least he’s gotten rid of the bow tie. I heartily recommend both. In a blood-soaked TV and comic book landscape, The Flash has humour, heart, and is a bloke who, if he ran fast enough, could punch you clean off the face of the planet. Or travel in time.
Andy Waterfield is a 28 year old man, but his eyes light up like a seven-year-old’s whenever he reads a Flash comic. He runs all the time, but has yet to come close to breaking the speed of sound, let alone merging with the speed force. He keeps trying, though. Follow him on twitter: @andywritesstuff