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Okay, before we start this week, I should point out that if you are super interested in Wally, you may want to read the previous entries of Flash Facts before reading this. I’ve covered aspects of Wally’s life in the past, and this entry is already long enough without me repeating myself. The main ones for this chapter would be Barry Allen and Iris West.
You may be wondering why Wally West gets multiple chapters while I was able to cover Barry Allen in a single piece. Wally, introduced just two years after Barry, has 20 years of stories on Barry. From 1985 until 2009, Barry was dead, and Wally was Flash. That was during a period where comics really started to focus on character arcs over character stillness. Barry Allen, as Flash, only has one really great storyline that had repercussions on the character, the killing of Reverse Flash and the ensuing trial. Wally has many of them. His character, starting in the ‘70s, was written with the idea that he would grow. Barry was stuck in the mud as Wally raced ahead.
By 1959, the concept of the sidekick was nothing new. We had Robin running around without pants, and Speedy chilling out with Green Arrow, not yet getting into drugs, and both Mary Marvel and Kid Marvel chilling out in Fawcett City with the Big Red Cheese, just to name a few. Still, John Broome and Carmine Infantino were all about giving Barry Allen, the new Flash who was five issues into his own series, his own little buddy. Looking at the list of sidekicks from that time, the format should be easy to follow - kid loses parent(s) and hero feels bad for kid, decides to teach kid how to be heroic. Just about every sidekick was a take on Robin - heroism formed by tragedy. John Broome, never one to follow the crowd, said “screw that” and came up with Wally West.
Living in Blue Valley, Nebraska, ten-year-old Wally West found himself trapped in a house with two humans who had no right being parents. He called them mom and dad, but to the outside world, they were Mary and Rudolph West. Rudolph, the oldest child of Ira and Nadine West, never lived up to his father’s expectations, and he took this out on his own family. Rudolph resented the hand life had dealt him, and he was willing to do just about anything to show everyone how great he could be given half the chance. Mary liked the quiet Mid-West life. She probably would have loved it if Rudolph wasn't there. She took her frustrations of being unable to control her husband out on her son, whom she would dote on one minute, then guilt trip the next.
There were two things young Wally loved, two things more than anything else in the world that kept him sane, that filled him with hope for a better tomorrow. One was his Aunt Iris, a reporter in Central City who was cool and fun and lived in a big city. The other was Flash, the hero of Central City. Wally was such a big fan of Flash that he was the president of the Flash Fan Club: Blue Valley Chapter - he may also have been the only member; this was never really discussed. His room was covered in Flash posters and toys. When Iris offered to take Wally in during the summer of his tenth birthday, Wally couldn’t believe his luck. Here he is, ten years old, getting a chance to escape dullsville Blue Valley. A chance to get away from his constantly arguing parents. A chance to spend a few weeks with his cool aunt in the home city of his favorite hero. Wally was living the dream, and the dream would only get better.
There are two things to understand about what happened next. The first thing that you need to remember is that Iris doesn’t know Barry is Flash at this point. As we discussed earlier, this is something Iris wouldn’t learn until after she and Barry wed. The second is that Barry really wanted to impress Iris. They were dating for only a little while at this point, and Barry was sure that if he could get Wally on his side, Iris would be way more into him. It was a chance for Barry to show Iris that he was good with kids, and to have Iris’ favorite nephew (her only nephew) praising him surely wouldn’t hurt.
So, on a stormy night in Central City, when Iris had to work late, Barry offered to watch Wally. Wally wasn’t about it; Barry was, in his ten-year-old opinion, a stiff. The guy droned on and on about science and crime lab gobbledegook. Wally was not feeling it. That was when Barry dropped the bomb. He said he knew Flash, and that Flash sometimes used his personal lab to solve crimes. Wally was confused; why would Flash hang out with such a boring guy? Still, if this meant there was a chance that Wally could meet his idol, he was going to take it. In a scene that, if we were watching Diff'rent Strokes would certainly lead to Dudley getting molested, Barry leads Wally into a dark room and, before Wally can turn on the light, Barry changes into Flash.
Wally turns on the light and sees the guy he would die for. Flash is standing there, right there, just a few feet away.
Once he picks up his jaw from the floor, Wally and Flash get to talking, and Flash explains to his young fan club president how he got his powers - the lightning striking a shelf of chemicals and dousing him, all the stuff we covered previously. Just then, as if written by someone in a smoke-filled office who just wants to go home and isn’t interested in spending time coming up with a new storyline, the exact same thing happens to Wally!
Just like Barry, through the mixture of lightning and specific chemicals, Wally gains superspeed! Unable to use the name Speedy because some arrow-slinging goof had already taken it, Wally gets left with the not very exciting name of Kid Flash. He also gets his own costume that looks exactly like Flash’s costume. I don’t know if artist Carmine Infantino just didn’t feel like designing a new look for Wally since writer John Broome couldn’t be bothered to come up with an original origin for the kid, or if everyone figured there was no need for Kid Flash to look in any way different from his mentor. Either way, it took a while before they finally gave Wally his own look, but when they did, Infantino knocked it out of the park.
In what would become true Flash fashion (pun intended), getting a new costume couldn’t be as easy as just making one. While working together to stop an alien invasion that Wally kinda sorta started by accident, Barry plays around with a mind over matter machine and, thinking about an idea he had for a new look for Kid Flash, makes it magically appear on Wally. For those keeping count, this was over twenty years before Spider-Man would do a similar deal in Secret Wars and get himself a new all-black costume. As my buddy Todd would say, “Marvel rips off DC again!”
Wally would pop in and out of Flash and he would be a founding member of the Teen Titans along with Robin and Aqualad. It was really in Teen Titansthat Wally would become his own character, and even then it would take a while. The Teen Titans, created by Bob Haney, first showed up in The Brave and the Bold before getting their own series. Haney wanted the team to focus on teen issues, living up to their name, and set the stories in teen culture. At first this meant showing that the Titans liked cool bands like the Beatles, but soon enough it led to stories about Vietnam and inner-city racism. In one story, the Titans get involved at a protest that turns violent, leading to the death of a famous peace activist. The Titans all give up their superhero identities, deciding that they can do better as civilians than as kids playing superhero. They went back to being superheroes a few issues later.
Under the watchful eye of writer Marv Wolfman, Wally kind of became a dick. Here was a kid who had his ultimate dream come true at ten, and much like Justin Bieber, it went to his head. Wally was still a great hero, but his friends often found him to be a little… annoying. Wally started to treat his parents like servants, and his girlfriend Frances, who had magnetic superpowers that were slowly driving her insane, as little more than a plaything. Even his best friend, Dick Grayson - Robin - was getting tired of Wally’s ‘tude. His ego was getting big, too big, and he was due for some serious comeuppance.
Something was wrong with Wally. He was in pain, terrible pain, but no one could figure out why. Concerned for his sidekick, Barry took Wally, both of them in costume, to see supergenius Ira West - Wally’s gramps - to get some tests done. Ira figure out the problem: Wally’s power was killing him. It seemed that gaining his powers while still growing caused an unexpected side-effect - every time Wally used his powers, he was aging faster. The only chance he had to survive was to quit being Kid Flash. It broke his heart; everything in Wally’s life was wrapped up in being Flash’s sidekick, and he never wanted to stop, but he couldn’t do it anymore. Sad times for the fastest teen alive, and they were only going to get sadder.
As Wally was facing life as a civilian, he was also watching his uncle’s life fall apart. Wally and Barry already had to deal with the loss of the most important woman in both of their lives, Iris, when she was killed by Reverse Flash. Barry would kill Reverse Flash when Reverse Flash attempted to kill his second wife, and during the trial of Flash, Wally would be called on as an expert in superspeed. Asked by the prosecution if there was any way Flash could have subdued Reverse Flash without killing him, Wally had no choice but to admit that there were at least three ways Flash could have stopped his enemy without killing him. It broke his heart to basically send his mentor to prison, but Wally wasn’t going to lie on the stand - if he had, Barry would have called him out on it. Barry Allen didn’t train Kid Flash to be a liar.
Even though the jury would judge in favor of Flash, this moment would haunt Wally for a very long time. The life and death of Barry Allen would form a lot of how Wally acted when he became Flash.
But how could he become Flash, you ask? Good question, considering that his powers were killing him! In the epic event Crisis on Infinite Earth, Wally would be hit by an energy beam that would fix his problem, Wally would no longer die from using his powers. On the downside, Barry was dead - sacrificing himself to save all of reality. Wally, determined to make sure Barry’s legacy would live on, took on the mantle of Flash.
Wally would be the first, and really the only, sidekick to ever take up the mantle he was being trained to take over. Next week, we’ll go over how the weight of this responsibility would nearly crush him.
But we’ll save that for next week.