The Scarlet Speedsters
The Flash is one of the most iconic, recognisable characters in all of comic book lore and is a founding member of the Justice League alongside DC superpowers such as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. He has the ability to tap into a mystical energy source called “the speed force” which allows him superhuman speed, the ability to phase through objects and makes it possible to run across water and vertically up buildings to name just a few of his unique powers. But not many people realise how many different versions of The Flash there have been.
First came Jay Garrick, a founder and chairman of the Justice Society of America alongside Alan Scott (the original Green Lantern), Hawkman, Dr. Fate, the Spectre, the Atom, Hour-Man and the Sandman. Garrick obtained his powers during a lab accident (get used to this…) during which he was seen to inhale some heavy water vapours which gave him the ability to run at superhuman speed and increased reflexes. His costume features a tin helmet worn by his Father during World War I with the addition of wings to give a more striking and personal appearance.
This was during the time period known as “The Golden Age of Comics”. In the 1950s, DC introduced new versions of many of these characters and explained this by creating and delving into the multiverse theory whereby there are an infinite number of universes all existing in the same space but vibrating at different frequencies which keeps them all separate. This marked the beginning of “The Silver Age of Comics” and it saw the Justice Society became the Justice League and new fan-favourites like Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Oliver Queen as Green Arrow and Arthur Curry as Aquaman were introduced. Also introduced was a new Flash going by the name of Barry Allen.
Fans of The Flash TV series will be familiar with the story of how Barry first obtains his powers and how he chooses to use them to fuel his dual life as a mild-mannered Police forensic scientist by day and a crime fighting speedster at night. The second incarnation of The Flash got his powers through – you guessed it – a lab accident! Barry is working in his lab one night when a random bolt of lightning crashes through a nearby window, knocking Barry into a shelf of chemicals which soak him and permeate into his skin. This combined with the lightning gives Barry superhuman speed and he decides to don a fetching pair of red tights and fight crime as The Flash, the scarlet speedster of Central City. Barry also created a unique way of storing his costume inside a ring using compressed gasses which eject the costume when needed (which he then changes into at lightning speed) and recalls the costume when he wishes to return to civilian life. One of the most notable inventions during this time period is the Cosmic Treadmill which allows a speedster to travel through time so long as they can hit and maintain a certain speed. The treadmill is useless to anyone unable to run at superhuman speeds but has been used by notable future Flash villain Professor Zoom
Barry’s run as The Flash lasted just shy of 30 years from his introduction in 1956’s Showcase #4 until his untimely (and yet utterly heroic) death in the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover story in 1985 and during this time he became battled alongside many allies to take down villains from across the world and indeed across the entire galaxy but arguably none of these allies were as poignant as a young man by the name of Wally West.
Wally made his first appearance in The Flash #110 in 1959 and was introduced as the nephew of Iris West, Barry’s girlfriend (who later became his wife). Wally was obsessed with The Flash and considered him to be his idol so knowing that his Auntie and The Flash were friends (not knowing that she was actually dating him of course) was his very definition of cool. During his stay in Central City, Wally found himself caught in a repeat of the exact same accident which gave Barry his powers – a freak bolt of lightning crashes through a window on a routine tour of Barry’s lab causing Wally to be doused in the same chemical cocktail which had affected his own life years earlier. Once Barry realised that Wally too had been given speedster powers, he took him under his wing and trained him to be his new sidekick going by the name of Kid Flash. Wally originally wore an identical copy of The Flash’s all-red costume before later changing this for a split yellow and red costume with a distinctive mask-meets-headpiece complete with standard Flash lightning bolt earpieces. It has been theorised that this costume change was actually performed by the speed force itself under some instruction from Barry and it has also been theorised that Barry has a greater degree of control over the speed force than first thought and may actually have willed Wally’s accident to happen as he felt isolated and alone as, at the time, he was still very hesitant to share his secret identity with anyone for fear of hurting them.
Wally, as Kid Flash, became a founding member of the Teen Titans with former-Robin Dick Grayson (now under the name of Nightwing).
By the time Wally reached the age of 18, his body had begun to change and this coupled with the accident which granted him his powers began to affect his health. Barry had been a full-grown adult when he was hit by lightning but Wally, still a child, had not yet fully developed and so his body began to reject his new-found abilities and he began to lose his powers. He retired as Kid Flash and attempted to lead a normal life as it became clear that the powers he loved and had used to such good effect were, in fact, killing him each time he used them.
But that retirement wouldn’t last…
“Crisis on Infinite Earths” is one of the biggest, most expansive and most important crossover stories that the DC Universe has ever seen and had some truly pivotal moments but none were more hard-hitting than the death of Barry Allen.*
[* = the story itself is huge and there is too much to detail here so I urge anyone who’s interested to read this themselves.]
Wally was encouraged to come out of retirement to fight alongside some of DC’s finest heroes against the Antimonitor and during a fight was struck with a blast of pure anti-matter energy. This accident actually cured Wally of his metabolic illness which would have been fantastic news had his friend and mentor not died in the battle which ensued. Barry, desperate to stop the Antimonitor, creates a speed vortex to absorb the power created by the blast but in doing so sacrifices his own life. The final scene sees Barry remark:
“There’s hope… there is ALWAYS hope… it’s time to save the world! Time… back in time. Do what you have to… we must save the world… we must save the world…”
… following this, Barry’s form disappears leaving only an empty Flash suit and a stunned gallery of heroes but none are more affected than Wally. It is at this moment that Wally decides to honour his fallen friend by abandoning the mantle of Kid Flash and becoming The Flash. But in doing so Wally also created a huge problem for himself. His respect for Barry was so great that he unknowingly creates a mental block on his powers which stops him from ever fully accessing the speed force and therefore stops him from truly realising his potential. He doesn’t feel that he could ever be the equal of his mentor so subconsciously shackles himself until a chance encounter with future arch-nemesis – the Reverse Flash (aka Eobard Thawne) results in this block being removed when Thawne goads Wally one time too many by stating that HE would become the true Flash and not Wally. While Wally gained his full speed and could now once again travel as fast as Barry (and actually go even faster) but he still had trouble phasing through objects while he learned some new powers including the ability to share his speed force with other speedsters, take speed away from speedsters and an increased healing factor which could be shared with others. In time Wally was once again able to phase through objects safely following a 1990s scientific about what the speed force actually was by DC.
Geoff Johns took the helm in the 2000s and ushered in what many consider to be the most important, iconic era of The Flash and during this time Wally and his family actually left for a parallel universe leaving the Flash mantle to be taken up by Bart Allen, Barry Allen’s grandson who travelled back from the future and had previously taken over as Kid Flash when Wally became The Flash. This arc wasn’t very popular and so didn’t last very long with Bart being killed off leading to Wally returning to Earth-One to avenge Bart.
In true comic fashion, Barry was brought back from the dead in 2008’s “Final Crisis” story and the manner of this return is open to some interpretation as DC always allowed themselves the ability to bring Barry back without any major re-writing. It’s widely believed that Barry became one with the speed force itself and, in doing so, became the very bolt of lightning that struck him years earlier and created The Flash. Trippy, right? Barry becomes a lightning bolt which travels back in time and strikes himself in order to give powers. That is also said to be the creation of the speed force itself and that every step Barry has taken during his life has strengthened the speed force and caused it to grow! And to think you used to only think he could run fast…
Barry’s return came in the presence of Jay Garrick and Wally West who, sensing the vibrations, realised what was about to happen before Barry re-appears mid-run instructing his friends to run as Barry himself is currently outrunning the Black Racer, said to be an embodiment of death for anyone associated with the speed force. 2009 saw the release of the Geoff Johns-penned “Flash: Rebirth” which reasserted Barry as a major character in the DC universe.
Now I couldn’t write a Flash article without touching on what is regarded as THE best Flash story of all-time – and this will be especially interesting to fans of the TV show who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of season three – we are, of course, talking about Flashpoint!!
Barry Allen awakes to a world he doesn’t recognised: he has no powers, his Mum is alive while his Father is dead, Citizen Cold is Central City’s finest hero and the world knows nothing of the Justice League and Superman. Barry doesn’t understand what happens but knows there is only one person he trusts to unravel this mystery with him – Batman – so he drives to Wayne Manor and is shocked when he is attacked by Batman! In this reality, Batman is Thomas Wayne – Bruce’s Father – and it was young Bruce Wayne who was killed on that fateful Gotham night in Crime Alley. Thomas agrees to help Barry recreate his now-famous accident in order to tap into the speed force. The first attempt fails and leaves Barry on the brink of death covered from head to toe in burns but this can’t stop him and the pair try again. The second attempt works and Barry once again has his Flash powers, his increased healing factor deals with the burns until he is back to 100%. A war rages across the world between Wonder Woman and her Amazonian forces and Aquaman and the full might of the Atlantean army. Barry’s mind begins to knit together and remember what has happened, he begins to forget fragments of his previous life and Batman urges him to keep it together as he is the only person capable of healing history.
Barry believes that this alternative future is the work of the Reverse Flash and is determined to stop him… but he’s oh-so wrong. When Thawne appears in front of Barry he reveals that it is Barry himself who caused this whole mess when he travelled back in time to stop Thawne from killing his mother, the very act which drove Barry to pursue a life in law enforcement and, in doing so, absorbed the full might of the speed force into himself which fractured the whole of human history and turned Thawne into a living paradox. He now exists outside of the timeline. Reverse Flash beats Barry to within an inch of his life until he is stabbed from behind by Batman with a discarded Amazonian sword.
Barry then travels back in time, carrying a note from Thomas Wayne to his son, and rights his wrong by restoring the timeline to it’s previous state.
So there you have it, a brief (and I use that term lightly) history of everyone’s favourite speedster – an ever-present member of the Justice League, long-time saviour of reality and frequent bringer of comic relief.