You may have noticed that The Flash TV series has a lot of fans here at Birth.Movies.Death., with Meredith being the major voice for the show around these parts. I like the show, I like it a lot, but I tend to come at it from an angle that Meredith doesn't know much about - as a lifelong fan of the character, I've spent more time learning about Barry, Iris and the gang than I have spent on anything of actual importance in life. Finally, I have a place to spit this information back out. For those of you who also have too many Flash facts in your head, I want to be clear - I'm no Mark Waid. I can't tell you Barry's social security number.
Speaking of Barry, since the show is about him, and he is the most famous of the Flashes (depending on how technical we want to get, there have been between 4 and 400 Flashes in the comics) we'll start with his history...
Throughout the 1950s, superheroes were on the endangered species list. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were the only characters who survived the culling started in the late '40s when Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent sent America into an anti-superhero tizzy. Tales of mystery men in tights were left behind for comics focusing on romance, westerns and science fiction. Even Batman started to spend more time fighting alien invaders than solving crimes.
DC Comics, and more importantly the almighty Julius Schwartz, wanted a place to try out new ideas without sinking months of work into different series that were bound to fail. Julius, then editor of DC, created a new series that would spotlight these ideas to see if an audience could be attracted to any of them. He called it Showcase.
Showcase started off with the not-very-interesting Fireman Farrell, a story about a fireman saving a fireman from a fire. Farrell then fights a fire at a circus and goes on a talk show. Shockingly, kids didn’t give a fuck.
The second issue of Showcase featured stories about a runaway circus bear and a kid in the Midwest doing stuff kids did in the Midwest in 1956. To be honest, I'd like to see this updated for today. The idea of a series about a kid and a bear roaming the highways of America sounds amazing to me.
Issue three followed the format of characters that would never appear again by focusing on a guy called Sardine.
Sardine the Frogman.
Schwartz was not very excited by what his team was coming up with. He looked back over the history of DC Comics and saw something, a guy who wore a petasus (a goofy metal helmet) and a red sweatshirt with a lightning bolt on it. Schwartz turned to three of his top talents, Robert Kanigher, John Broome and Carmine Infantino, to update the character for modern times.
What Kanigher and Broome came up with was a man named Barry Allen, a police scientist who had a tendency to be tardy, often getting lost in his head, thinking about crimes and how to solve crimes. While working late in his lab, Barry would be hit by lightning and thrown into a shelf of chemicals. The mix of the electricity running through his system and the chemicals spilling over him would give Barry the ability to run faster than any man, animal or machine ever could. He would quickly decide to use his newfound power to help those who need it, not because of a tragedy in his past, but because it was the right thing to do. He would call himself Flash, after his favorite comic book character.
As Kanigher and Broome were creating the simple but elegant origin of Barry Allen, Carmine Infantino was sketching out ideas for the costume. They knew the new Flash shouldn’t look like the original - no helmet, no sweatpants - because this Flash needed to look slick. He needed to look current. Infantino created what many believe to be the best superhero costume ever designed (and I would agree with them). It was sleek, it was cool, and it was unlike any other costume out there. Barry looked awesome, and his insignia would become one of the best-known superhero symbols in the world.
Barry made his debut in October of 1956 in issue 4 of Showcase, and the reaction was beyond positive. Flash was brought back for issue 8, the first character to appear more than once in Showcase. In total, Flash would show up in three issues of Showcase before being given his own book. More importantly, Barry Allen’s appearance started what has become known as The Silver Age of Comics, a return of superheroes, now based more on science, and less on kookyness. Going back to what worked, Schwartz gave the order to update other characters who had fallen aside. Green Lantern was next, then came Aquaman. The floodgates were opened, and they haven’t closed yet - superheroes still control the comic book market.
Barry was given his own title, starting with issue #105 (the previous Flash series ended at #104, and at that time, readers were less likely to pick up a comic if it was the first issue - something that is the polar opposite of today’s reader). For 23 years, readers followed Barry Allen’s adventures in scarlet. They saw his powers change to the point that Barry was more or less a god - he went from a guy who could run fast, to a guy who could vibrate so fast that he could travel through time and space, and even visit other realities. Then Flash could control every molecule of his body separately, allowing him to vibrate through objects.
Barry was in line with every DC hero - he was as bland as possible, having no opinions, no doubts, no feelings whatsoever. It’s been said that throughout the '60s, you could take any line of dialogue in an issue of Justice League of America and give it to any of the heroes because they were all so similar, and I wouldn’t disagree. It was Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams who would change all this with Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76. O’Neil and Adams brought politics to DC Comics, making Green Arrow super liberal and Green Lantern a right-wing cop of the spaceways. Together they traveled across America dealing with race relations, drug abuse and pollution. This started a major shift at DC (a shift that was already well underway at Marvel) to add pathos to the characters. Batman would stop dealing with goofy aliens and get back to being a detective. Wonder Woman would lose her powers and become a rather terrible character for a while. Flash would... well, he would pretty much stay the same.
By this point in his comics, Flash had gathered what is arguably the second or third best collection of enemies. There was Gorilla Grodd, a super intelligent ape who wanted to wipe out humanity; Abra Kadabra, a man from so far in the future that his technology was akin to magic to us modern day morons; and The Rogues, a team of crooks with a code: no killing. These guys fought Flash more for the fun of it than any actual animosity (and we'll be covering them in future installments).
While the rest of the DC collection of heroes were becoming angst-ridden so that the aging readers, now teens, would better connect with them, Barry Allen married his long-time girlfriend Iris West. Along with the marriage, sales of The Flash started to drop. And drop. And drop.
Drastic measures were needed, and a decision was made. Flash’s greatest enemy, Professor Zoom, a speedster from the future with a serious hate for Flash, would kill Iris. In The Flash #275, Zoom would show up at a costume party dressed as Flash, find Iris there, and vibrate his fingers through her head, scrambling her brain.
This began a long descent into insanity for Flash. Not in his personal state, but in how his comic was written. Ten issues after Iris’ death, Barry would meet Fiona Webb, his next door neighbor who at first thought Barry was a stalker. Turned out that Barry just happened to look EXACTLY like a guy who wanted Fiona dead. Once the actual guy was caught, Fiona and Barry started dating.
Then Fiona’s boss, a senator, turned out be a vigilante called the Eradicator who dissolved his victims. He died too, and Fiona and Barry realized that they were in love.
So it came time for Fiona and Barry to get married. Zoom, not wanting Flash to have any happiness, showed up at the wedding and tried to kill Fiona. In a battle unlike any Flash had ever had before, Barry killed Zoom. Finding out that Barry was Flash, and almost being killed on her wedding day, was too much for Fiona - she had a nervous breakdown and vanished from comics, never to be mentioned again.
Barry turned himself in to the police for the murder of Zoom, and for two years of the comic, he was on trial. During the trial, Barry would fight a guy called Big Sur, who would beat Flash so badly that he needed reconstructive surgery - this ended up being a real problem during the trial when Barry’s lawyer wanted to reveal his identity to the world to get the jury to side with him. After all, who would send a guy away for killing the man who killed his first wife and then came after his second wife?
Flash is found guilty of murder, but he flees from the authorities after he is told by a juror who has been possessed by someone from the future that the rest of the jury has been brainwashed by Zoom. Turns out that it wasn’t Zoom, but Abra Kadabra in disguise and looking to ruin Flash’s good name.
Oh, and Iris isn’t dead - she’s been living in the future. Turns out that Iris was originally from the year 2927, but was sent back by her parents (why? we'll get into that next week) and adopted by Ira and Nadine West. Because Iris died almost a thousand years before she was born, her birth parents were able to capture her consciousness and place it into a clone of herself. Then they sent her back in time into the body of a juror, the juror who told Flash about the others being brainwashed. Iris used future tech to then show the court that the trial was all fucked up, and Flash was acquitted.
All of this took a toll on Barry Allen, and he decided it was time to retire. He moved to the future with Iris to live happily ever after. The Flash ended with issue 350. Barry Allen was allowed to rest, but not for long. The big brains at DC Comics weren't done messing with him yet.
A few months before The Flash ended, DC Comics started one of the most important series in comic book history: Crisis on Infinite Earths, a culling of 50 years of comic book continuity, leading to a completely new start for DC Comics. A baddie called the Anti-Monitor was threatening to destroy all of reality, wiping out Earths one at a time. Barry, seeing the destruction in the future, attempts to go back in time to warn his friends, but is captured and tortured by the Anti-Monitor, or more specifically, the Psycho Pirate. For weeks, Psycho Pirate fills Barry's mind with horrible images of his friends and family being killed, of worlds exploding. As a guy who became a superhero because he wanted nothing more than to help others, this is the worst possible fate for old Barry. Ultimately, Barry escapes from the Anti-Monitor and finds the antimatter cannon, a backup device for destroying everything (props to Anti-Monitor for being the rare villain with a back-up plan). Barry uses his powers one last time in order to destroy the antimatter cannon, and in the process, dies, the speed eating away at him as he pushes himself through both anti-matter and time to save the last four Earths.
His death turns Barry into the saint of heroes, the one who made the ultimate sacrifice. For over 20 years, Barry Allen was the guy the others think about when they have moral quandaries. He was the best of them.
Then he came back 23 years later. Why? Because no one stays dead in comics. Personally, I’m not a fan of Barry’s return, but I do love how he came back: in a story called Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, Superman builds a miracle machine that will only work if you sing the perfect song. Superman sings the perfect song and Barry shows up to save all of reality yet again. There’s something really cool about that*.
Then Zoom went back in time and killed Barry’s mom when Barry was a kid. Why? Because between the time Barry was killed off and his return to comics, it was decided that every hero needs a tragedy in their past to make them be heroic. This is something I find endlessly dumb and, to me, destroys what is so great about the Flash legacy.
Anyway, Barry destroys all of existence in an attempt to save his mom and has to recreate it (this is all in the DC Comics mini-series Flashpoint written by Geoff Johns, a long time Flash writer who, I personally think, hates Barry Allen). In recreating all of existence, Barry erased everything that had happened before, so everything you just read never was. Except now it appears to be again - DC recently completed a summer series called Convergence that ended with all versions of all the characters existing again. It was terrible and read almost totally like fan service.
The current Flash comic follows the New 52 version of Barry (post Flashpoint). Barry Allen is a police scientist again. Iris West is a reporter who (ugh) was abused when she was a child and is now taking care of her nephew, Wally (more on this next week). They aren’t together; Barry is with a woman named Patty Spivot who is mainly there to complain that Barry spends too much time as Flash and too much time helping Iris with random shit. She's a poorly written character.
In a real twist, DC has decided to keep Barry dull. I’m caught up with his adventures in the New 52, and they are not very good. As I mentioned, DC felt the need to give Barry a tragic past - the murder of his mother and imprisonment of his father for the crime - which kinda ruins what I love about the idea of Flash. As we'll cover in future articles, all the major Flashes (Jay, Barry, Wally) became superheroes because they wanted to help. The Flash is a blue collar hero, a guy who everyone knows and likes (they even built a museum for him!) because he's a affable guy overall. More than any other DC character, Flash's main concern is for the people. Barry was a police scientist before he got his powers because he wanted to help. I like that.
The TV series has done a better job of making the tragic past work with the character, which makes me happy. They also decided to not make Barry dull, which is a good choice. I'm excited to see what they do in season 2.
If you've made it this far, I promise not every one of these articles will be so long. Also, next week we'll be covering Iris, the Lois Lane knock-off who became so much more.