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By the mid-'70s, DC comics had already started to shift itself into a more… serious tone. Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen had already had their journey across America where they faced the real issues of racism, drugs, and Vietnam. Batman had quit fighting aliens and was back to dealing with the likes of Joker and a new baddie called Ra's al Ghul. Still, DC had a big honking problem on their hands… Superman.
Superman was too strong, too powerful. He had reached the point where he could eat kryptonite. DC comics’ main man was boring to readers because nothing could hurt him. DC knew they had to depower the Man of Steel, which helped lead to the classic series Crisis on Infinite Earths, where the entire 50 year history of DC was erased and replaced.
One thing that seems to get missed by people is that Superman wasn’t the only hero DC knew they had to power down - Barry Allen was also way too powerful, maybe even more powerful than Superman. Barry could run faster than the speed of light, he could travel through time and space by vibrating at different frequencies. He could also travel to different dimensions with the same trick. Matter of fact, Barry could control every molecule in his body, allowing him to vibrate through objects. The guy could literally do anything he wanted. Anything. So could his teen sidekick Wally West.
So DC killed Barry and depowered Wally. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, Wally West was Flash, but he was only able to go just over 700mph. He also needed to eat all the time because his powers upped his metabolism. Wally was made to be a “real” hero based on “real” science. At one point, as we discussed previously, Wally lost his powers and regained them. It was during this story that the first “hint” of there being more to the power of the Flashes than what we knew. A theory was even bounced around that Barry Allen wasn’t human, but something more*. It would take fifty or so more issues before writer Mark Waid** gave this theory a name… the Speed Force.
The Speed Force was an energy that a select few could connect to. The connection to it was created when a person reached a “wall” and was able to break through it. If the Speed Force were real, Chuck Yeager, for example, would have ended up with superspeed after he broke the speed barrier. In the DC Universe, the first person to break the speed barrier was a test pilot for a Middle-Eastern country during the Cold War. He hit a speed no man had ever reached in a supersonic jet that was hit by what appeared to be lightning. That man is only known as Savitar and maybe one day we’ll talk about him more.
Anywho… the Speed Force is an energy, like I said, that speedsters can take from. It appears to be infinite, but different speedsters have different connections to it. The big problem is that if a speedster hits a certain velocity - going faster than light - they are sucked into the Speed Force. This happened to a few speedsters - Savitar being one, Barry Allen being another. The first to ever be sucked into the Speed Force and come back out was Wally West. In doing so, Wally gained control of the Force, able to give out and take it away at will. As Wally discovered, the Speed Force was not just an energy, but something akin to another dimension. A boring dimension, but a dimension all the same.
At one point, Bart Allen, grandson of Barry who we’ve talked about in pieces, took all of the Speed Force into himself in order to try and stop Superboy Prime, a Superboy who had gone crazy and was trying to destroy the DC Universe. In doing so, Bart almost killed himself. In time, the Speed Force was released back to the universe.
Take a gander at this map of the DC Universe created for the excellent series Multiversity…
Each of those circles with numbers are Earths. You’ll note that the Speed Force acts as a wall that separates the Earths from the Sphere of the Gods. This is, in theory, why Barry Allen was so powerful, and why Wally West became so powerful - they were so connected to the Speed Force that they were, in essence, demi-gods. If you want a closer look at that map, here it is.
The Speed Force can manifest itself in different ways in different people. While the most common form is superspeed, it can also affect aging. Jay Garrick’s connection to the Speed Force slowed his aging process, while Bart Allen’s connection made him age at superspeed. Max Mercury, known as the “Zen Master of Speed” was able to sense the Speed Force in people. Jai West, the son of Wally and Linda, didn’t have superspeed, but he could use the Speed Force to overcharge his muscles, giving him super strength for brief periods.
The Speed Force had been shown to be a vast nothingness where the people who were sucked into it had no corporeal form, but were more like spirits. But when DC started their failed New 52, that all changed. After New 52 began, the Speed Force was something like Marvel’s Savage Land - a place that was a jungle filled with dinosaurs and robots and junk. I hated it. So dumb. So so dumb. It took away the, if you’ll excuse the pun, energy behind the idea of the Speed Force. Also, it seemed like people could travel in and out of the Speed Force pretty easily. So so dumb.
Hopefully with Rebirth, DC will get back to the original concept for the Speed Force.
As we saw on The Flash, the show decided to kind of mix the two concepts of the Speed Force. Barry was indeed in a place that seemed to be just energy, but within it, he was able to speak with the Speed Force (as far as I know, this is a new idea). I liked this melding of the concepts. They also seem to be melding two other ideas together in the episode…
The first is that when a speedster enters the Speed Force and is able to come back out (something only three speedsters have been able to do) they are more powerful than before. I’m pretty sure that Barry will be faster now, we’ve already seen that he appears to have a better understanding of his powers, what with his waking Jessie up lickity-split.
The second is that in the Bill Messner-Loebs era of Flash, it was explained that Wally West was unable to reach speeds Barry could because of a mental block - Wally felt guilty that he was taking on the mantle of Flash after Barry died. In last night’s episode, and I could be reading a bit too much into this, it was suggested that Barry wasn’t reaching his full potential because he felt guilty that he, when he was a boy, let his mother die. The Speed Force allowed Barry to make peace with Nora, and now that mental block is gone. I love that the show puts out both possibilities so that an old Flash nerd like me can have his cake and eat it too.
* There is a comic, Secret Origins Annual 2, where it shows that the lightning bolt that hit Barry and gave him his speed was, in fact, Barry Allen himself. As he traveled back in time and turned into energy in Crisis on Infinite Earths, his last stop was his own superhero birth. This idea was pretty much ignored.
**Mark Waid has gone on record as saying that if he knew that the Speed Force would be something he or DC would come to use so often, he would have come up with a more original name for it. Oh well.
Ethan Van Sciver
Carlos Pacheco & Oscar Jimenez