The Flash: Why DC Comics' speedy superhero is also one of its extended universe's most well liked

Vinay Viswanath

December 04, 2018 09:22:27 IST

Editor's note: The characters — and story-lines — that inhabit popular comic books can be expansive, multidimensional, and often, just plain bewildering. Firstpost's #HeroesAndVillains is a one-stop definitive guide to understanding (and keeping track of) comic book characters. From the iconic to the little-known, the old and the new, superheroes and their villainous nemeses — this is the deep dive you need, and deserve.

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Today’s character could arguably have had the most significant impact on the DC Universe to date. Unlike most superheroes, the identity of The Flash has been assumed by many ‘speedster’ heroes over the years — either due to reboots or even in-continuity deaths. Of the characters to don the mantle of the Flash, Jay Garrick, Barry Allen and Wally West are usually considered to be the most important and influential.

Extreme smugness is his other superpower | DC Comics

Extreme smugness is his other superpower | DC Comics

Since doing a profile on three characters who played the same role is a bit much, today we’ll be focusing on Barry Allen, who replaced Jay Garrick for the character’s reboot in the 1950s. Allen served as the prime Flash until his death during the Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985 after which he was replaced by former sidekick and nephew Wally West who then took the title for himself.

"Barry is the kind of man I would have hoped to become had my parents not been murdered before my eyes." — Bruce Wayne

In 2009, Barry was resurrected in Flash: Rebirth and is once again the primary Flash of DC comics, although his return has resulted in the awkward situation of having two characters who go by the name The Flash, living and working side by side.

While being “the fastest man alive” is impressive, The Flash can currently reach faster-than-light speeds, granting him a limited ability to manipulate time and space, elevating a fairly unassuming character who just ‘pushes people and runs away’ into one of the most powerful characters in the DC universe.

Origin and Powers

The original Flash was developed by Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert and premiered in Flash Comics #1 back in 1940. The lead, Jay Garrick, is said to have gained his abilities due to exposure to ‘heavy water’. But since Deuterium Oxide wouldn’t have such an effect (or any abnormal effect at all) this detail has been retconned to either the unwitting activation of a latent ‘meta-gene’ mutation or exposure to much more generic ‘toxins’.

Despite initial success leading to an exclusive comic series that ran till 1949, the decline of interest in superhero comics that followed the end of World War II resulted in all Flash comic-series being cancelled.

In 1956 DC comics relaunched The Flash with a new lead — Barry Allen — relegating the original Jay Garrick flash to a comic book character that Barry himself was a fan of. Garrick has since been retconned back into the main timeline, now a World War II veteran and retired hero and who has mostly passed on the mantle of the Flash to younger generations of ‘Speedsters’ although he does remain an active hero as well.

For a man pushing 100, Garrick still looks pretty good in the Flash's outfit. |DC Comics

For a man pushing 100, Garrick still looks pretty good in the Flash's outfit. |DC Comics

For the 1950s reboot, the origin of the new Flash Barry Allen, was also reimagined, now gaining his amazing new powers in a freak accident involving a lightning strike combined with accidental exposure to an exotic cocktail of chemicals. This origin story appears to have gained favour with various writers of the flash comics since, three years later, Allen’s nephew, Wally West gained his speedster powers through the exact same circumstances, with another lightning strike and exposure to a second but identical combination of chemicals giving him similar powers.

The Flash in all of his incarnations has drawn his powers from a previously unknown form of primal energy that comes to be known as the ‘Speed Force’. The Flash’s powers have varied in intensity by a great deal since his debut back in the '40s. While the Flash in the early days could be outrun by Superman, the Flash’s current powers allow him to become intangible due to rapid molecular vibration and also exceed the speed of light (another power that Superman once intermittently possessed but has since lost, seemingly forever).

His ability to travel faster than light consequentially allows him to travel through time and even into alternate dimensions and parallel universes on occasion. Barry Allen accomplishes this temporal and dimensional travel with the aid of a “Cosmic Treadmill” of his own invention. A device that, miraculously, appears to work as designed despite Barry’s background in forensics offering no explanation for his ability to devise or construct such a machine.

It’s not a clever euphemism, it’s an actual trans-dimensional treadmill | DC Comics

It’s not a clever euphemism, it’s an actual trans-dimensional treadmill | DC Comics

Recent events in 2018's Flash War storyline appear to have robbed Barry and other speedsters of their ability to travel across time and dimensions. But comic book continuity being what it is, it’s not clear whether this is going to be a lasting retraction from Barry’s list of abilities or simply a bump in the road for the ‘Scarlet Speedster’. But even without his command over time and space, The Flash remains a powerful and versatile hero in his own right.

Allies and Adversaries

Despite the Flash being one of the most powerful heroes, his ‘Rogues Gallery’ is populated primarily by lower-tier villains, usually more interested in theft or racketeering than global conquest. Recurring villains include characters such as Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, The Shade, The Top and Mirror Master. Some of the Flash’s villains have even formed their own Rogues club, usually led by Captain Cold, who are known to socialise together even when they’re not planning their next heist or revenge scheme against the Flash.

Even Supervillains need friends to kick back with in their down time | DC Comics and Warner Bros

Even supervillains need friends to kick back with in their down time | DC Comics and Warner Bros

Of course, not all of the Flash’s villains are quite so affable. Take for example, Gorilla Grodd, the super genius, telepathic outcast ape from ‘Gorilla City’ (a secret community of highly intelligent apes who have formed a Wakanda-like nation based on total secrecy and technological advancement). His plans, in fact, do involve global domination, and occasionally turning the entire human populace of the earth into apes as well, a plan that his fellow villains frequently ridicule.

Finally, we have Eobard Thawne, also known as Professor Zoom or the Reverse Flash. An inhabitant from the 25th century, Eobard Thawne was obsessed with the legacy of the Flash, collecting memorabilia and artefacts and in contemporary retellings of his origin, even getting cosmetic surgery to look identical to Barry Allen. After deliberately recreating the conditions that led to the Flash gaining his powers, Thawne becomes a powerful speedster in his own right. But after travelling back in time to meet his idol, Eobard realises that he is destined to become a villain and eventually die at the hands of Barry himself. Already mentally unstable, Thawne suffers a complete breakdown and would later take on the mantle of the Reverse Flash.

With both a personal obsession and vendetta against the Flash, coupled with the fact that his powers and even his name cast him as Barry Allen’s dark reflection, Professor Zoom ticks all the boxes of what makes for a great arch-enemy. And the enmity isn’t one-sided in the least since in most storylines Thawne is responsible for murdering Barry’s wife Iris West and also tries to kill his second fiancée Fiona Webb, the latter of which results in Barry killing Thawne (although comics being what they are, neither Iris nor Zoom stay dead permanently). In newer continuities Zoom is also responsible for killing Barry Allen’s mother Nora Allen and framing Barry’s father for her murder.

Don’t be fooled, he’s way more evil than he looks | DC Comics and Warner Bros

Don’t be fooled, he’s way more evil than he looks | DC Comics and Warner Bros

With a little help from his friends

Over the years Barry has formed close friendships with the original Flash, Jay Garrick and his former sidekick turned contemporary Wally West, as well as several Green Lanterns including Hal Jordan, Kyle Rayner and if I remember correctly even John Stewart as well.

Also, as a founding member of the Justice League and with other allies such as the Titans, the Justice Society of America and several friendly Speedsters, many of whom are family and some of whom are actually from the future, Barry Allen has always been able to count on the support of at least a few friends to help out when the chips are down.

Popularity has its benefits | DC Comics

Popularity has its benefits | DC Comics

Character and Philosophy

The Flash is the perfect example of a Lawful Good character. Barry Allen didn’t lose loved ones, suffer a childhood tragedy or survive a harrowing experience that changed his perspective on life and consequentially made him want to be a hero. (That is, until the unnecessary and in my opinion idiotic decision to retcon his past so that Eobard Thawne killed his mother). In fact, most of the tragedy in Barry’s life, including losing his first wife, stems directly from his side gig as a masked crime fighter; technically this applies even to the loss of his mother at the hands of Zoom, although young Barry had no way of knowing that at the time.

Despite the setbacks, the occasional self-doubt and the great personal toll that his efforts have taken on him both mentally and emotionally, Barry has never allowed it to stop him or to turn him into a brooding, bitter hero. His resilience and optimism are part of what makes him such an integral part of any team he’s in, using humour and empathy to maintain the morale of his teammates even when a fight isn’t going their way. Indeed, Flash’s empathy even for those that he finds himself fighting against is an example of what differentiates him from most other comic book heroes who are entirely focused on protecting the innocent while punishing those they see as guilty, content to not involve themselves at all in the rehabilitation of offenders.

Video above: This is Wally West but I think Barry Allen would’ve handled the situation similarly | DC Comics and Warner Bros

While somewhat more stoic than some of the others who have borne the title of The Flash, Barry remains a personable character that fans find easy to relate with and support. If he has a weakness, it is his lack of self-confidence which often makes him reluctant to take on a leadership role despite his vast experience. That said, since his return in Flash: Rebirth, Barry appears to be more mature and sure of himself.

From a philosophical standpoint Barry Allen’s Flash appears to espouse a form of Deontological ethics, also sometimes referred to as ‘Kantian’ ethics after the famed German philosopher Immanuel Kant. This school of thought believes that morality is determined by actions rather than by consequences, which is to say that according to this school of thought, the ends do not justify the means. This is a moral stance that is quite common with superheroes (with some exceptions like The Punisher or Dr Manhattan, whose utilitarian viewpoints make them notable outliers) but The Flash appears to be more rigid in his principles in most situations, uncomfortable with deceiving or manipulating others even when the outcome would be highly beneficial for all.

This focus on placing value on individuals and his unwillingness to compromise the people under his protection in service to “the greater good”, has made Flash not just a respected hero, but also well-liked. While Batman instills fear even in the law-abiding citizens of Gotham, and Superman soars over the citizens of Metropolis as a Demi-God, The Flash has always been more of a man of the people.

In fact, the populace of Central City have come to regard their resident masked vigilante as someone worthy of celebrating, a well-liked protector who, if you ever need him, will be there in a flash (as Jay Garrick is so fond of saying).

Essential Reading

There have been a lot of good storylines featuring The Flash over the years, but the following are widely considered to be some of the best stories, featuring Barry Allen’s run as the Scarlet Speedster. They’re all widely available online in both physical and digital editions.

Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985) – Starting off our list with a bang is the 1985 crossover event that saw hundreds of superheroes and more than a few villains being killed while fighting the Anti-Monitor, a cosmic villain bent on the destruction of the multiverse (a goal that he mostly succeeded in). Given that Barry’s backstory would be retconned and re-explored later, beginning with his heroic death isn’t that odd of a starting point for newcomers to the character.

The Flash: The Return of Barry Allen (1987) – With Wally West (Kid Flash) now bearing the title of his deceased mentor, Barry’s apparent return from the grave leads to some hilariously awkward moments between the two. But the newly returned Barry is perhaps not what he seems.

Flash Rebirth (2009) –12 years later, Barry Allen is back, for real this time, and resumes his role as the primary Flash although Wally West doesn’t give up the name or return to his role as sidekick. This storyline helps to unify all of the major narrative points from both Barry Allen’s and Wally Wests tenures as the Flash. It also reintroduces former and future Flashes Jay Garrick and Bart Allen as well as bringing back a few old and unfriendly faces as well.

Flash: Flashpoint (2011) – What’s a Flash reading list without a major time travel plot? Flashpoint sees The Flash being targeted by Professor Zoom, whose attempts to erase Barry from existence entirely has resulted in heavily twisted alternate reality where the Atlanteans, Amazons and humanity are locked in a ruinous three-way conflict.

Flash War (2018) – The most important story on this list since Crisis on Infinite Earths, Flash War sees Barry Allen and Wally West ending up on opposing sides. Wally is on the hunt for his children while Barry Allen believes he is being manipulated by their enemies. Additionally, the events of this storyline also result in one of the biggest changes to the DC Universe in recent history.

Also in this series: Mandrake the Magician, Moon Knight, Lex Luthor. Read more from the series here.

Updated Date: Dec 06, 2018 13:46 PM