(This is a segment from the Gradient Podcast Network’s It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast’s tenth episode: “The Flash: DC’s Anti-Antihero.” You can listen to the entire thing at the end of this article.)
In the 1950s, the United States was gripped by what had come to be known as “the space race”: a competition with the Soviet Union to see which country would be the first to stake a claim in the final frontier. In retrospect, the space race was basically two competing public relations campaigns, with a dash of a good old-fashioned ego war thrown in, but nobody really saw it that way at the time. The Space Race had its roots in the Cold War nuclear arms race, and both countries were convinced that if they could prove their dominance in outer space, they’d have an edge in national security. But also, the space race was ideological. The two countries were fresh off of significant victories in the Second World War and wanted to solidify their claims to being global leaders. The space race was more than just a quest to see which country could get to space faster. It was a quest to see which country was better.
With this backdrop, it’s easy to see why Marvel and DC’s brand new waves of superheroes were a bunch of scientists. The Golden Age of Comics, during World War II, featured superheroes like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, who were either blue-collar everymen or fabulously wealthy playboys. But the popularity of those heroes took a beating after World War II, and when superhero comic book characters started appearing again in the ‘60s, America was growing obsessed with technological geniuses. Marvel’s first three superheroes – the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and Spider-Man – were all avowed science whizzes. DC relaunched Batman, but this time, Bruce Wayne wasn’t just a strong guy in a bat costume, but a capable inventor, whose Batcave had a super computer from where he could research Gotham City’s crime activity. But perhaps the most significant scientist in DC’s new batch of superheroes was Barry Allen, a chronically tardy forensic scientist who, through a strange, science-y accident, would become The Flash, the fastest man alive.
DC had actually come up with The Flash back in 1940, where a young New York native named Gardner Fox channeled his obsession with Greek mythology into what he called a “modern-day Hermes” who he simply called The Flash. In his story, a college student named Jay Garrick accidentally acquires super speed powers by inhaling hard water vapors while on a smoke break. The character had been popular, but never reached the same heights as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had during World War II. Some of this may have had to do with the Flash’s costume. It featured a tin hat with little wings on the sides, and it was very dumb. The character faded from popularity along with the rest of DC’s lineup after World War II ended. After beating the likes of Hitler and Stalin, bank robbers just weren’t all that interesting anymore.
But DC had a hunch that the superhero craze could be kicked back into high gear, and an editor named Julius Schwartz hired writers Robert Kanigher and John Broome to update the Flash with a new, science-fiction bent that they thought would be more in step with the times. Strange to say now but, before this, superheroes weren’t really thought of as science-fiction material. Kanigher and Broome saw the opportunity. They realized that the Space Race had made scientists sexy and at the time, the promise of science seemed infinite. In the minds of the public, 1950’s scientists were all working on huge, world-changing experiments with futuristic chemicals and alien-like technology. It didn’t seem like that much of a stretch that even a simple forensic scientist like Barry Allen could have had the right mix of chemicals in his laboratory to transform him into the lightning-quick Flash.
Kanigher and Broome wrote the story in a 1956 issue of a comic called Showcase, and it was intended as a one-time story, but it was so popular that it ended up rejuvenating the entire superhero genre and, eventually, inspiring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to start making superheroes for Marvel Comics. In a very real way, The Flash is the reason we still have superheroes today, and how they became more tied to science fiction literature than just comics for kids. It would be the first innovation Flash brought to the superhero genre, but it was not the last.
By the time the 1980s hit, superhero comics were undergoing more turmoil. Frank Miller’s work on Marvel’s Daredevil had inspired a new wave of darker, grittier comics. DC responded with a massive crossover event called Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was the first superhero story to result in real, cataclysmic changes to its lineup. The whole thing is too complicated to sum up here, but it did feature the death of Barry Allen, who heroically perished. The role of The Flash was taken up by another super-fast hero named Wally West, who gained his hyper-speed by rather improbably suffering the exact same accident as Barry Allen had. Of course, in comics books, nobody ever really stays dead. Barry continued to pop up over the next few years and in 2009, was reinstated as the main man behind the mask.
Barry Allen’s characterization underwent a number of iterations over the years, as different writers and artists took a crack at putting a different spin on the character, but throughout it all, the Flash has remained notoriously upbeat. Even in the ‘80s, as comic books started to trend towards darker, more morally ambiguous fare, the Flash abided by a strict moral code, retained a chipper outlook and abided by a set of relatable principles. In his fictional hometown of Central City, he usually had a good relationship with the police force and fought crime with their blessing. Even as the Flash became one of the founding members of the Justice League and got involved in massive, universe-spanning conflicts, the Flash tended to act as the occasionally impulsive but usually dependable moral code. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were like gods, whose own sense of self-importance could occasionally make them seem unapproachable. The Flash was always one of us. In fact, in one issue, Batman says “Barry is the kind of man I would’ve hoped to become if my parents hadn’t been murdered.”
The irony there is that Barry’s mother was murdered, and his father was falsely accused and jailed for the crime. Batman blames his own inner darkness on the death of his parents, but the Flash chose to rise above his family tragedy. Even before gaining super powers, he chose to go into forensics to fight crime the old fashioned way. For him, fighting evil is not an inescapable destiny, but a choice he made because he’s naturally a good person. The super speed is just a freak coincidence that makes capturing bad guys that much easier. And unlike some other heroes from the Marvel and DC roster, the Flash has never been a brooding loner. He’s well-adjusted and even likable, enjoying a frequently drama-free relationship with his longtime romantic partner, Iris. Barry may have been able to travel faster than the speed of light, but his feet were always on the ground.
This became even more evident as the Flash’s comics started to get wilder and wilder to read. The Flash was one of the first characters to get into the idea of parallel universes. In these stories, Jay Garrick, Barry Allen and Wally West could all exist as a different version of the Flash on different earths. And by breaking the speed of light and fudging Einstein’s theory of relativity, they could end up visiting each other’s planet, traveling in time and engaging in all sorts of reality tweaking. It sounds pretty complicated, and it is, so it’s saying something that the writers were generally able to explain it all in relatively straightforward terms. Time travel and the moral conundrums that it brings have become an important part of Flash stories. In one major comic book arc called Flashpoint, Barry travels into the past in an attempt to save his mother from being murdered. This action sets off one hell of a butterfly effect in which Barry never acquires his powers, and the world is a much darker place for it. Aquaman and Wonder Woman end up on opposite sides of a devastating war between Atlantis and Amazon. Superman is taken into government custody for experimentation instead of being adopted by Ma and Pa Kent in Smallville. And a young Bruce Wayne is shot and killed in a Gotham alley, leaving his father, Thomas Wayne, to become the Batman. Through this story, Barry comes to realize that his mother’s death was a key event in history, and his choice to let her be sacrificed for the greater good of the world at large provided one of the most profoundly emotional moments comic books have ever produced.
The Flash’s world isn’t immune to the overall trend of grim and gritty comics. Even the CW show has Flash spinning off from their Green Arrow show, which is about as dark as superhero television gets. But all that serves to showcase just how determined Barry Allen is to remain hopeful in the face of a pessimistic world.
Starting in the ‘80s, DC came up with a tagline for the Flash: “My name is Barry Allen, and I am the fastest man alive.” Not the most creative sentence in the comic book canon, but it gets the point across. More importantly, it contains something crucial about the Flash’s character. Barry sees himself not primarily as the Flash, or a superhero, or as a mythic hero burdened with glorious purpose, but as, above all, Barry Allen. He may have more powers than Batman and weirder, more sci-fi adventures than Superman, but the Flash’s true strength has always been his deep connection to his own humanity. He keeps the human in superhuman.
The CW’s series of The Flash series has been garnering rave reviews, and the series star Grant Gustin has been praised for his warm performance. When the New York Daily News asked Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder about why he didn’t cast Gustin as The Flash in his own movies, he said that he was “very strict with this universe, and I just don’t see a version where…that (tone is) not our world.” He’s probably referring to the fact that the CW show has a lighthearted touch while Snyder prefers his superhero movies to be almost suffocatingly grim. The public and critical reception to Batman v Superman might have DC rethinking that strategy, and it should, particularly where The Flash is concerned. The world definitely has a need for dark anti-heroes like Batman, but these days, it may have an even greater need for anti-anti-heroes.
It’s hard to say who won the space race. The Soviet Union was the first country to launch an orbital satellite, and the first to put a human in space. But the US beat the Soviets to the moon and in 1972, the two countries ultimately agreed to work together. A group of American astronauts docked with a team of Russian cosmonauts. The cooperation was symbolic of a larger cooling of Cold War tension, prompting one Soviet leader to say “The Soviet and American spacemen will go up into outer space for the first major joint scientific experiment in the history of mankind. They know that from outer space our planet looks even more beautiful. It is big enough for us to live peacefully on it, but it is too small to be threatened by nuclear war.”
Without science, the Soviet-American partnership would have been impossible. But without recognizing their common humanity, it would have been unthinkable. The Flash’s creators realized how valuable science would be to their hero’s creation, but their true stroke of genius was in making him, first and foremost, a hero. Barry Allen may be the fastest man alive but the thing that has made his stories riveting for over fifty years now is simply this: he’s a man.