The Flash has had many incarnations over the years, starting with his first appearance in the aptly titled Flash Comics #1 way back in 1940. Since then, there have been many incarnations of the character over the years…
The original Flash (of the Golden Age) was Jay Garrick who was sort of a modern (err, retro?) version of the Greek messenger god, Hermes, also known to the Romans as Mercury. Jay was a college student / football player who became The Flash when he inadvertently inhaled some fumes in a lab that gave him incredible speed and reflexes. As the protector of Keystone City, Jay Garrick eventually joined forces with other Golden Age Super Heroes, like the original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, and formed the Justice Society.
Fast-forward to 1956 with the release of Showcase #4 – introducing Barry Allen as the Fastest Man Alive, which single-handedly kicked off the Silver Age of Comics!
The unique thing about this version of the Flash (and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern) is that unlike his Golden Age counterpart, his powers were much less magic, and much more scientifically plausible, well… more sci-fi less fantasy at least. Barry Allen was a nerdy ‘police scientist’ (forensic analyst) with a reputation for always running late.
One night in the lab, a lightning bolt strikes his work station, dousing him in random electrified chemicals, which should have killed him, but instead miraculously gifted him with uncanny super human speed and extremely fast reflexes! Naturally, Barry Allen does what any classic comic book character would do and creates a themed costume in which to fight crime… for some reason!
It’s later explained that Barry Allen is a conduit for a phenomenon referred to as ‘the Speed Force’ which he taps into. Unlike Jay Garrick, Barry also has the ability to vibrate his molecules so fast that he can pass through solid objects, rapidly retain massive amounts of information in his short term memory, create electrical vortexes, and eventually passes the speed of light itself. Barry also goes on a few time-traveling adventures with the help of ‘the cosmic treadmill’.
The Flash was also a founding member of the original Justice League roster in 1960’s Brave and the Bold #28, alongside Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. Barry eventually becomes good friends with Hal Jordan and teams up with numerous heroes like Green Arrow, Hawkman, and Zatanna.
Iris West is Barry’s long time love interest. She was a reporter who eventually discovered his identity. Throughout the Silver Age, they went from dating to marital bliss to time traveling cosmic convoluted tragedy (long story).
In issue # 110, Barry gained a sidekick in the aptly named ‘Kid Flash’ – Wally West, Iris’s nephew. Wally miraculously underwent a suspiciously similar electro-chem ‘therapy’ that also gifted him with ‘the speed force’. As Kid-Flash, Wally would team up with Robin, Aqua-Lad, and other sidekicks to form the Teen Titans.
Throughout his early career, Barry came up against numerous super villains who would eventually join forces as The Rogues! Their ranks consisting of: Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, The Trickster, The Weather Wizard, Heat Wave, and Mirror Master. The Flash has also had to contend with a super intelligent ape known as Gorilla Grodd and one of his most nefarious foes, the Reverse Flash, his time traveling foil.
In The Flash #123 (1961) – “The Flash of Two Worlds!”, Barry Allen crosses over to ‘Earth Two’ where he meets ‘the original’ Flash, Jay Garrick. In Barry’s world, Jay Garrick is a comic book character that inspired him to become The Flash. This story was a milestone, not only establishing the concept of alternate dimensions and timelines into comics, while simultaneously creating the concept of Earth 2, but it also led to the creation of the multi-verse concept, which has sense become a foundation for the entire Dc universe cannon.
Speaking of alternate realities, the next huge event in The Flash’s timeline would change everything: 1985’s epic (12 issue) crossover, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.
Long-story-short, an immensely powerful being known as the Anti-Monitor wants to destroy the multi-verse, which ensues a conflict across dozens of parallel worlds. During this Crisis (of Infinite Earths that is), Barry Allen sacrifices himself to stop an anti-matter weapon by running himself into oblivion… (It makes more sense within the context of the story, I promise).
In the wake of Barry’s tragic death, his sidekick, Wally West, takes up the mantle as the new Flash! Wally had some big shoes to fill in 1987’s The (new) Flash #1. As The Flash, Wally was not nearly as fast or powerful as Barry at first. He could barely outrun the speed of sound and needed to maintain his enhanced metabolism by consuming massive quantities of food. Eventually though, Wally become a master of the speed force and was able to push his powers beyond anything a speedster had done before.
Wally West was an extremely effective replacement, prompting a series of DC hero-replacements across the board: Azrael as Batman, Donna Troy as Wonder Woman, Conner Hawke as Green Arrow, Kyle Rayner and John Stewart as Green Lantern, several replacement Supermen, etc
What’s really unique about Wally is that he’s one of the few sidekicks to actually grow up and take up the mantle of his mentor. Sure we see Dick Grayson go from Robin to Nightwing, but he didn’t replace Batman for over 20 years!
For many fans, Wally West IS The Flash.
He was truly a modernized take on the Scarlet Speedster and drastically different from the Silver Age Barry Allen.
Wally was a different kind of Flash. He was less by the book, funnier, and was more of a family man. Wally injected new life into The Flash comics and was more relatable than Barry, or at least that’s how he was written. Wally married Linda Park and eventually joined forces with a team of other meta-humans with the ability to tap in to the speed force, including Bart Allen, the grandson of Barry – from the future.
Bart later became the New Kid Flash, joining up with the Teen Titans, and eventually took on the alias of Impulse. When Wally and his family left for an alternate universe during Infinite Crisis, Bart stayed behind as The (fourth) Flash, operating out of LA.
Then he died.
In 2008, during Final Crisis, Barry Allen finally made his epic (long overdue) return to the land of the living, which was later explained in Geoff Johns’ “Flash: Rebirth”!
Barry’s inevitable return to comics was handled in style by artist, Ethan Van Sciver and Geoff Johns, the master storyteller himself. Johns also revamped Green Lantern with Hal Jordan’s subsequent resurrection in the aptly titled, “Green Lantern: Rebirth” (also with Sciver). The most significant change to cannon was a three dimensional take on Barry’s personality and a more in-depth back-story. Johns would later go on to write a must-read, but short-lived Flash series where he fleshed out many of Barry’s supporting characters, like Iris and Officer Darryl Frye.
One of the more significant changes was an in-depth back story about Barry’s mom being murdered under mysterious circumstances, with his father as the prime suspect, which lead to Barry growing up to become a forensic scientist and eventually The Flash, later discovering that the time traveling Reverse Flash was behind it.
During The Blackest Night, Barry was chosen as the herald of the Blue Lantern Corps, the galactic champions of Hope, to fend off an apocalyptic zombie invasion of Black Lanterns!
Then came one of the absolute best (and darkest) Flash stories ever told: Flashpoint!
Flashpoint is a work of genius. It’s a story based around an alternate universe created by a time travel paradox instigated by The Reverse Flash… or did he? Barry Allen wakes up without his powers, in a world where his mother is alive, BUT the rest of the world is entirely different, and not for the best. Tiny changes in the timeline have altered the destinies of the entire DC universe (Batman is a gun-toting / alcoholic Thomas Wayne and Superman is being tortured by Lionel Luthor as a lab rat in an underground bunker), so Barry has to race against time to set things right before a war between Atlantis and Themyscira destroys the planet!
The fallout of events in Flashpoint directly lead to an all new reboot of DC’s entire line with The New 52, where many characters were reworked and redesigned from the ground up for more modern sensibilities. In some cases this worked very well (Azzarello’s Wonder Woman / Scott Snyder’s Batman), and in some cases it didn’t quite gel… (Lobo / Green Arrow). Regardless this gave many writers a fresh start to make original stories without the constraints of convoluted continuity.
In the current comics, Barry Allen is once again The Flash (younger, with a modified suit, single, and with the new power to slow down his perception of events around him). Bart Allen was reintroduced as Kid Flash (from the future) in Teen Titans. Jay Garrick is now a younger Flash from Earth 2. And more recently Wally West was re-imagined as an African American street kid. Also Captain Cold had freeze powers for some reason, which was luckily changed in the awesometacular Forever Evil saga.
But for those who miss the classic Wally, fear not! In a few months time, Dc’s latest crossover event, Convergence, will revisit the classic Dc universe (and other Else-world timelines) including one story about everyone’s favorite red-haired speedster.
Right now is a great time to be a Flash fan considering the consistently great new CW series starring Grant Gustin as Barry Allen and the recent casting of Ezra Miller in the Justice League movie following next year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”! (which can’t get here fast enough)
I don’t know about you, but I already can’t wait for the next 75 years!
Erik Slader is a blogger, barista, web tech, digital artist, gamer, comic book aficionado, history buff, part-time nerd, and full-time husband. Creator of “Epik Fails of History” (@EpikFails.com) and writer for SuperheroBeach.com, MovementMagazine.com and ComicZombie.net – check out his digital design portfolio at ErikSlader.com