Life In A Four Color World column on FLASH #DC-22, 2003

As anybody who knows me will tell you, the Flash is my favorite super hero. This love for the Scarlet Speedster goes back to what was probably the second comic book I ever bought, the Flash 100-Page Super-Spectacular #DC-22. I don’t have any clear memory of purchasing the book in question (other than that the buying must have been done at that same 7-Eleven) but I think I can easily put my finger on exactly what it was that attracted me in the first place: the format. This was one big honkin’ comic book, of the sort that they really just don’t make anymore. It felt chunky, heavy, and chock full of material. And while it cost fifty cents rather than the standard twenty, that wasn’t much of a consideration when I wasn’t the one actually paying for the thing.

This was at the tail end of DC’s first attempt to create a larger, pricier package, one that would be of greater appeal both to retail outlets (who stood to make more profit on each copy sold) and to readers. Soon hereafter, the price on the Super-Specs would jump up to sixty cents a copy, and you’d get the usual assortment of ads among your 100 pages (96 plus the outer and inner covers, as it turned out.) But at this point, the 100-Page Super-Spectacular format guaranteed you cover-to-cover entertainment—and what did it matter that all of it was reprints?

People ask me, when I say I like the Flash, which character am I referring to? Barry Allen? Wally West? Jay Garrick? And the real answer is all of ‘em—they were all represented in this issue, and so I have no difficulty accepting any of them as the Flash. And at their core, they all share the basic appeal of the character and the series, to one extent or another. But when you drill right down to the heart of the matter, it’s really the Julie Schwartz-edited Flash that I like the best—an appeal having as much to do with the tone and style of the series as the particulars of its protagonist.

Julie’s Flash lived in a comfortable world of open spaces and towering vistas, in the sort of middle-class existence reflected in programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show. It was urbanized, but always clean and safe—and even the villains weren’t too bad, more colorful than dangerous, and each with their own particular hang-up or M.O. that was simple enough for a six-year-old to grasp. Faced with a restrictive Comics Code that wouldn’t even allow for an extended punch-‘em-up between the hero and his enemy, Schwartz made plot and puzzle the centerpiece of his Flash issues. Each story was less about the Flash whaling on the villain and much more about puzzling out the villain’s plan, coming up with a scientifically-plausible way to counter his master weapon, or devising an escape from his ultimate doom-trap. Primary Flash scripter John Broome kept it all moving forward in a breezy homespun manner.

This three-ring circus was conducted for its first ten years or so by artist Carmine Infantino, who gave the series a distinctive, ultra-streamlined style. I happen to think that Carmine’s silver age Flash costume is just about the best designed super hero outfit ever—and it’s no surprise that it’s still in use today, albeit with a couple of minor modifications. It’s slick and simple and functional, and readily identifiable, even if you only see a piece of it in a given panel. The same sort of design sense was applied to Flash’s rogues gallery, and while some of their outfits may seem a bit silly or childish today, it’s worth remembering that these were and are characters designed specifically to appeal to children. Beyond that, Carmine’s depiction of velocity made all of the Flash’s super-speed stunts work visually, and his sparse, design-oriented environments gave the Flash an elegant backdrop against which to play out his brain-teasing dramas. What’s more, he gave the Flash motion, evolving a graphic shorthand for super-speed that became the standard of the industry, and which was copied outright by assorted lesser swift-moving characters.

Flash #DC-22 contained five stories, the newest of which was then almost a decade old. The book started off with a three-part saga, “Secret of the Three Super-Weapons”, that pitted the Flash and his protégé Kid Flash against invaders from a nearby dimension—and in which Kid Flash got his now-familiar yellow costume when one of the aforementioned super-weapons, acting through the Flash, transmogrified his attire.

This was followed by a Johnny Quick story illustrated by the super-talented Mort Meskin. I have to admit, I never really warmed to Johnny Quick. While the artwork on the strip was generally superior to that of the Flash stories being done at the same time, it always had a rougher, dirtier feel to my youthful eyes. Me, I liked my super hero books to look clean and sharp. Also, Johnny’s adventures never seemed quite as colorful to me, nor did he seem quite as personable. In short, I didn’t like him.

On the other hand, the big four-part novel that followed made me quickly perhaps the only big fan of the work of Everett E. Hibbard on the golden age Flash. Hibbard wasn’t the first artist ever to draw the Flash, but he became the mainstay with the third issue of Flash Comics back in 1940, and he defined the look of the character and the series until well after the war. Many have said that Hibbard’s work lacked motion, that his Flash was often quite sedentary, and I can see that. But he also imbued Jay Garrick with a certain sense of fun, and gave the series an anything-can-happen feeling that, couple with the scripts of Gardner Fox, made it one of the most consistently entertaining reads of the golden age. And on the splash page of the story in question, “Campaign Against the Flash”, Hibbard produced a stunning black and white stippled illustration of the Flash that looked incredibly realistic to my young eyes—it was like a photograph of the guy, and had the same impact on me that I imagine Alex Ross’s work has on today’s generation.

After that came an Elongated Man short from the back pages of Detective Comics. It was a solid entry in the series, and Murphy Anderson’s artwork was crisp and polished. But there was something missing—Anderson’s stuff was a hair TOO polished, which tended to eliminate any motion from the images. It felt a little like watching a string of dioramas, of moments frozen in amber rather than lively characters going through their paces. Still, I found it more entertaining than Johnny Quick.

And finally—no, we weren’t done yet—there was a final tale that paired up Barry Allen with the aforementioned Elongated Man to take on Captain Cold. In my early dealings with the Flash, it seemed to me that Captain Cold was his arch-nemesis, so often did he seem to turn up. And in this tale, defeating Captain Cold was almost the secondary problem—the primary concern was to figure out why the Elongated Man was constantly running interference for the absolute-zero felon. (He was being accidentally influenced by radiation given off by a malfunctioning computer—I never said these stories made a whole lot of sense…)

I read that book to the point where it literally fell apart, and the Flash became instantly my favorite super hero. It wasn’t long until I had a subscription to his regular title (after missing an issue), which in those days sent you the comics folded in half. And you can imagine my enthusiasm when a promo for the then-new Super-Friends cartoon indicated that the Flash would be guest-starring on the series the following week. That was a long seven days, let me tell you.

I fell out of touch with the Flash a couple times over the years. The first coincided with when Julie Schwartz stepped down as editor. I wasn’t really consciously aware of his passing, but I did know that the book was somehow missing something, and I read it only intermittently for the next year or so. And I dropped it completely some time later during what I still think of as “The Great Title-Purge of 1982”, which I’ll no doubt cover in some greater depth at a future date. I did like the first few issues of the Mike Baron/Jackson Guice-produced Wally West Flash series that debuted in the aftermath of Legends, but as time wore on, while I continued to read the book, I wasn’t all that involved in it. It was something I did by rote.

It would take Mark Waid to remind me of all the things I enjoyed about the character, and to bring me back into the fold more permanently. And I haven’t left it again yet.

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