This week, CW released photos of actor Grant Gustin in his costume as the Flash, the scarlet speedster superhero soon to star in his own live-action series. You’re all likely chatting about what you think about the suit and whether it looks like a cool, sleek costume or something that is sure to chafe a man regularly running faster than sound. In any event, it seemed like a good idea to look at the character’s comic book counterparts.
But we can’t just talk about Barry Allen, the version of the Flash who will star in the live-action show. Barry’s great, but he’s just one part of a long legacy of lightning-themed champions of justice. So let’s look at the history of the heroes called Flash (and some related characters).
JAY GARRICK, THE GOLDEN AGE FLASH
Following the first appearance of Superman in 1938, the Golden Age of superheroes truly began. A few heroes mimicked Superman, but some decided to focus on one basic power rather than give their hero a vast array of abilities. Jay Garrick was introduced in Flash Comics #1 in 1940, in a story written by Gardner Fox and with art by Harry Lampert. This was originally a publication of All-American Comics, which was later bought by National Comics, which came to be known as DC Comics.
Jay Garrick was a college student focusing on chemistry. He was also known for being the slowest football player on the school team. One night, Jay was burning the midnight oil in the lab and decided he needed a cigarette break. Unfortunately, he knocked over a sample of hard water that he’d been studying (and possibly treating with chemicals). The fumes from his sample knocked him out and he continued breathing them in until he awoke in the morning. By the time he woke up, his body had changed. He had now incredible speed that gave him fantastic reflexes, let him run up the sides of buildings, and enabled him to catch bullets out of the air. By moving his hands at super-speed, he could increase their mass enough to slice through guns or punch through brick walls.
Now, some of you might’ve realized that, even in a superhero world, it seems pretty unlikely that hard water would cause mutagenic effects. Years later, the origin was retconned so that Jay was studying heavy water instead. Even later, writer Mark Waid retconned it further by saying that the heavy water Jay studied had been exposed to special chemicals and electrical treatment. To help further explain Jay’s origin, Mark came up with the idea of the Speed Force, which we’ll get into later.
After immediately telling his love interest Joan Allen about his new powers, the good-hearted and affable Jay Garrick decided become the first superhero called the Flash, a “sultan of speed” and “modern day Mercury” who patrolled Keystone City. He had many adventures, often with Joan aiding him. He also became a founding member of the Justice Society of America, the first superhero team in history.
Jay’s costume was very obviously inspired by Mercury AKA Hermes, the messenger god of merriment who is often associated with speed. We’ve got the same winged helmet that Hermes has. There are also wings on the boots, bringing to mind winged sandals of Greek and Roman myth. The rest of the suit is very much an off-the-rack look. It’s basically a red mock turtleneck and a pair of blue jeans that are decorated by lightning bolts. Hermes has no real association with lightning, but we tend to associate it with speed and power, so the symbol works for Jay.
After a few stories, Jay’s jeans became more plain and he only had a lightning bolt on his shirt (and sometimes his belt buckle). I think this is a good change. Too many lightning bolts just makes the outfit look busier than it should if you don’t arrange them right. Simplifying the outfit also emphasizes Jay’s carefree attitude. Some artists make the shirt and trousers skin-tight to make it resemble the spandex costumes of other superheroes. Personally, I prefer when it looks like just a pair of blue jeans and a mock turtle neck that Jay took out of his closet and then decorated slightly. Decades before anyone was worrying about the realistic nature of superhero costumes, this is a look that wouldn’t take much to translate to live-action film or television.
In his early stories, Jay also used lightning-shaped throwing blades as weapons. When facing an enemy, he’d toss the blade at super-speed. He never killed anyone with these weapons. Jay wasn’t bloodthirsty or grim, he just used these tools to disarm or scare criminals. In a way, the oddness of these weapons nicely reflected Jay’s whimsical personality. Unlike many other superheroes of the era, Jay was pretty laid back and often used his powers purely for fun. He’d play tennis with himself or put Joan into a taxi cab and then race her to a destination. Jay loved being the Flash, even when it involved fighting nasty criminals, Nazis, or immortal villains with bizarrely aggressive names like Vandal Savage.
Although Jay dropped the use of lightning bolt blades, he later used his hat as a weapon from time to time. Jay could toss the helmet like a discuss, knocking down multiple enemies, calculating angles at super-speed so he’d know where and when it would ricochet off surfaces. Decades after his introduction, it was revealed that Jay’s helmet had originally been worn by his father during World War I. When he’d decided to become a superhero, Jay painted the military helmet silver and added the wings.
Now you might be wondering, “How did the guy have a secret identity? He’s not wearing a mask and surely the hat wasn’t enough to throw people off.” Well, that’s a good point and it was quickly explained. Jay could vibrate his body at an accelerated rate and when he donned his Flash costume he did this trick with his face. We the readers saw Jay Garrick, but the people who met the Flash saw only a blur where his face was. This vibration effect also disguised his voice a bit. It’s a neat trick and once again something that made Flash stand apart from other heroes.
Jay Garrick was around during the days of World War II and later writers developed just what he did to help the fight against the Axis Powers during that time. In 2010, flashback scenes in the pages of Justice Society of America revealed that Jay did the occasional covert mission in a G.I. version of his Flash costume. Basically, it’s a simple army outfit with the lightning bolt slapped on and Jay wearing his helmet. I’d like to see a little more red there, but it works and I wouldn’t mind seeing this in a flashback scene to WW II in live-action media.
Alas, superhero comics started falling out of favor after World War II and then things got worse when concerned parents and psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham attacked the industry. In his lecture tours and his book Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham argued that superheroes, by usurping the authority of legal authorities, taught kids to indulge in anarchy, the Nazi ideal of might equaling right, and other evils such as homosexuality, promiscuity, etc. Wertham based his ideas on research he conducted with juvenile delinquents. Decades later, it was discovered that he faked some of his research.
Thanks to the efforts of Wertham and others, by 1951 the Golden Age of superheroes was at an end. Jay Garrick vanished alongside many of his contemporaries. Only a few superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman continued, while most comics turned their focus to science fiction, crime fiction, romance stories, comedies, and speculative fiction. Wertham’s campaign also led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a new censorship body that comics needed to get approval from if they had a hope of being sold at newsstands.
BARRY ALLEN USHERS IN THE SILVER AGE
After some years of focusing on detective and science fiction stories, DC decided to try really bringing back superheroes. The Silver Age of comics began in the anthology series Showcase #4, in 1956, when readers were introduced to Barry Allen. The story was written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Carmen Infantino. This wasn’t a continuation of the same universe that had been featured in DC Comics during the Golden Age. This was a complete reboot. Barry Allen was the first superhero of his universe to be called the Flash. He was also a comic book fan and we saw that, as a child, he had enjoyed reading adventures of Jay Garrick. So this was definitely a different universe.
Remembering the concerns that superheroes by their nature promoted vigilantism and anarchy, DC made several of their Silver Age heroes legal authorities of some kind. The new Hawkman and Hawkgirl were cops on their home planet. The new Green Lantern served in an intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps. Martian Manhunter was law enforcement on his planet and became a police detective on Earth. And before all this, we met Barry Allen, a police scientist who worked in the Central City PD crime lab. Today, we consider this job to be a CSI. As the years went on, we learned that Barry was actually a brilliant chemist with great skill in engineering as well. The book The Life Story of the Flash revealed that he got job offers from Wayne Enterprises and LexCorp directly out of college, but chose instead to join the police department because he was more interested in directly giving back to the community than becoming rich and famous.
One night, the perpetually late yet otherwise reliable Barry was standing by a metal chemical cabinet when a lightning bolt crashed through the nearby window, striking him and the cabinet. The now-electrified chemicals exploded and bathed Barry in a unique mixture. He was surprised to see that he was unharmed, but quickly realized he now had super-speed, just like his comic book hero. So he became the Flash, fastest man alive! Barry’s adventures showed he was more powerful than Jay and had some new tricks, such as being able to vibrate his body to a frequency where he could pass through solid matter. Along with being the scarlet speedster hero of Central City, Barry became a founding member of the Justice League of America a few years later and served as the team’s first leader.
Chemicals and lightning. A combination that changed the world, jumpstarted the Silver Age of superheroes, and gave Barry Allen a new life. This is seriously one of the best origins of superhero comics, both in its visual impact and its strange simplicity. It’s as if the forces of modern science and mythical power combined to choose a champion.
Rather than copy Jay Garrick’s suit, Barry came up with a unique outfit. A later Flash comic hilariously said that Barry did this to avoid the comic book company suing him for infringement. With Jay, the lightning was symbolic of speed, but with Barry it’s also a reference to the literal source of his abilities. There’s a lot of lightning on this suit, but since it acts as trimming on the belt and gloves, it’s not overwhelming. The mask gives us a more traditional superhero disguise than Jay. Honestly, Jay’s trick should probably fail if you break his concentration or daze him, immediately exposing his true face. Along with wearing a mask, it was later said that Barry also used minor vibrations to alter his voice slightly. This was handy in keeping his identity secret from his very intelligent and observant girlfriend, photojournalist Iris West (though she learned after the two got married).
Barry recalls Jay’s winged helmet and boots by adding wings to his own boots and cowl. Decades later, the cowl ornaments will be lightning bolts as well. But from the 1950s until the early 1990s, those were wings on the Flash mask. It’s a cute touch, although a bit impractical as Black Canary later pointed out in the story JLA: Year One. The cowl-wings didn’t stay ornamental, though. Later stories revealed that they housed radio communication, along with a police scanner. This was later updated to also be a Justice League communicator. In 2011, writer/artist Francis Manapul said that Barry built the ear-pieces with magnetized sound receptors so they’d function even when he ran faster than sound. SCIENCE!
This is seriously one of the best superhero costumes ever done, in my opinion (and got even better when the belt was altered slightly decades later, as we’ll discuss). The Flash is all about speed, lightning fast attacks, and a sense of freedom. The costume says all of that. He’s sleek, unadorned, bright like a race car. He wore skin-tight running gear years before marathon runners started wearing it themselves.
The bright colors and optimistic symbol of a lightning bolt over a white disc all fit wonderfully with the atmosphere of his stories. Barry Allen was a hero motivated by altruism rather than trauma or revenge and he loved his strange life that involved time travel, aliens, hidden cities inhabited by intelligent animals, parallel Earths, and a community of villains more interested in one-upping the scarlet speedster and acquiring cash than killing people. In one adventure, Barry would be turned into a living puppet by a magician from the 64th century. In another, he’d prevent a telepathic gorilla from dominating the Earth. In another, he’d encounter a race of sentient clouds. Whether with the Justice League of America or on his own, Barry’s life was a Doctor Who level of fantastic. He faced it all with a bright smile and enthusiastic curiosity, even when he had to occasionally deal with violent killers or would-be world conquerors.
Another thing to dig about this costume? How it was stored. As he was surrounded by cops during his day job, Barry decided not to risk wearing the skin-tight outfit underneath his civilian clothing. So he treated the fabric and material with a special chemical of his own design that, when coupled with an electrical charge, caused it to shrink drastically. (Once again, chemicals and lightning). The costume was then stored inside a lightning bolt signet ring. When Barry needed to go into action, he pressed a tiny button that caused the signet ring to open. A spring inside shot the costume out of the ring. Exposure to air caused it to immediately expand to full size and a super-speed wardrobe change followed. Neat!
WALLY WEST AND STOLEN ORIGINS
In Flash #110 (1960), John Broome and Carmen Infantino introduced Wally West, nephew of Iris West and a huge fan of the Flash. Barry told Wally that he and the Flash were friends and that the hero would love to meet him. Barry took the kid to his lab, then left his side and used his super-speed to become the Flash and make it appear as if he’d been waiting in the lab the whole time. Wally and the Flash chatted and Wally asked how the crimson comet had attained his superhuman abilities. As clouds gathered outside, the Flash arranged chemicals onto a metal chemical cabinet and explained that he had been standing in front of a similar combination of substances when he and they had been struck by lightning. Wally remarked that he’d love to suffer such a fantastic accident that had such great results and Barry laughed that the odds of this were pretty unlikely. And so, naturally, the universe said, “Oh, yeah?” And boom, a lightning bolt crashed through the window and hit the cabinet, causing Wally to be drenched in an electrified chemical bath.
Wally now had the Flash’s abilities. Deciding to mentor the youth, Barry quickly gave him his own costume ring and a smaller version of the Flash suit. Wally West became Kid Flash, the fastest boy alive. Just like Barry, he was a superhero fan who was now living the dream of getting to be just like his favorite hero. The only problem was that it wasn’t a great idea to make his costume identical to Barry’s. When Barry wasn’t around, there wasn’t always something to give Wally scale. Depending on the artist and how good they were at making it clear that Wally was a ten year old boy, readers were sometimes confused whether it was him or Barry in a scene. It also didn’t give Wally much of a chance to shine in his own identity. He was visually just a smaller version of the older hero.
Two years later, Wally got a new costume in Flash #135. In this adventure, Wally and Barry were investigating weapons left behind by a benevolent alien race to help Earth repel nasty invaders from another world. Barry was checking out a matter re-arranger when it activated. Wally was arriving on the scene at the exact same time and the machine shot a beam of energy at him, altering his suit into a brand new costume. Barry had been thinking Wally needed a unique costume rather than just a copy of his own, and the machine had evidently perceived the design he had imagining. This, by the way, is one of the strangest explanations I’ve seen for why a superhero changes their costume. These days, heroes will do it just because, but back in the day it sometimes was seen as a whole thing and needed to be addressed in the story.
So Wally finally got a unique Kid Flash costume. As far as many folks were concerned, including some Flash artists and writers, Wally’s suit was actually a better design than Barry’s. It’s definitely a sharp looking outfit. The shirt being a different color than the trousers makes it look less like long underwear with a belt added. The red thunderbolt looks pretty sharp and I can’t think of any other hero before Wally who painted lightning red rather than yellow or white (though the Reverse-Flash would use a red design too, starting that same year). Leaving the top of the cowl open to let Wally’s red hair fly loose is also a nice way of emphasizing the character’s youth and free spirit. A great look.
Just as Jay had been a founding member of the Justice Society of America and Barry had been a founding member of the Justice League of America, Wally helped start a brand new superhero team himself. When he, Aqualad and Robin teamed up against the villainous Mister Twister in Brave and the Bold #54 (1964), it was the beginning of a group that came to be called the Teen Titans.
THE FLASH FAMILY
A year after Wally West’s introduction, DC editor Julius Schwartz decided that it would be fun to have the Silver Age Flash meet his Golden Age counterpart. So in Flash #123, published in 1961, we got the now-famous story: “The Flash of Two Worlds.” The adventure begins when Barry Allen accidentally hits a vibrational frequency that transports him to a parallel Earth, a world co-existing with our own but operating on a different dimensional plane. Since he considered his own Earth home, or “Earth-1,” he designated this new world “Earth-2.” He also discovered that here, Jay Garrick was a real person and had actually been the Flash during the 1940s while writers on Earth-1 were writing comic books about him. Evidently, writers sometimes tune into the events of parallel worlds through dreams and subconscious insight. This has become a trope in many stories since, but at the time this concept was pretty damn trippy.
Anyway, the two Flashes teamed up and this became the first of many team-ups where one of them would cross the multiversal barrier. Pretty soon, this also led to the Justice League and Justice Society having regular team-ups. It suddenly wasn’t the DC Universe, but rather the DC Multiverse.
Minor point, “The Flash of Two Worlds” was actually not the first DC Comics story to involve a hero encountering a parallel Earth. Wonder Woman had discovered the existence of parallel Earths eight years earlier, in Wonder Woman #59 (1953).
With Jay Garrick now regularly hanging out with Barry and Wally, we got ourselves the beginning of what fans came to call the Flash family. This was truly a fun and interesting mix of heroes. The Golden Age Green Lantern and Silver Age Green Lantern didn’t hang out much and never seemed to feel that they had that strong a connection to each other. But Jay, Barry and Wally considered themselves three generations of the same legacy. There didn’t always need to be an emergency for Jay to meet up with the heroes of Earth-One. Sometimes, they’d just hang out.
But this is superhero comics so eventually eras have to shift. By the 1980s, it seemed more and more that Barry wasn’t connecting with modern readers and not even shocking events such as the murder of his wife Iris or the near-murder of his would-be-second-wife Fiona was enough to draw stronger sales. It was decided that Barry’s story would finally end. After being put on trial for killing his deadly enemy Eobard Thawne, the Reverse-Flash, Barry discovered that his first love Iris West was actually alive and living in her native era of the 30th century. After he was found not guilty by the court, Barry retired his Flash identity and went off into the future to live happily ever with Iris. Sadly, that was never meant to truly be the ending for our hero. Months later, he got involved in what was DC’s biggest crossover to date.
In 1985, DC Comics celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event that involved heroes from all their fictional universes (along with Earth-1 and Earth-2, DC had created other realities and also designated Earths to characters they had bought from other companies over the years). Since team-ups between the JLA and JSA were often called “Crisis on Two Earths” or “Crisis on Earths 1 and 2,” this crossover event was called Crisis on Infinite Earths. A pivotal moment came when Barry Allen sacrificed his life to save the universe, running faster than light and erupting into energy in the process. With him gone, Wally West took up the mantle and became the new Flash. And we’ll talk about the Post-Crisis takes on the Flash, Kid Flash and Impulse next time!
Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is an actor, feminist and writer who desperately hopes for super-speed anytime there’s a lightning storm. He is the author of Doctor Who: A History.