The Flash may not be the only speedster in comic books, but he's by far the best known. His scarlet costume and lightning bolt symbol are among the most recognized icons of American superhero mythology.
Based on the simple idea of superspeed, the original Flash character first appeared in comic books in 1940. Since then, several DC comic characters have worn the mantle of "The Flash," but the one getting the most attention in recent years is the hero named Barry Allen.
As fans just found out, Barry Allen is not only the current Flash in comics, but the character will soon debut on CW's Arrow show, with plans for a potential spin-off TV series. He's also the star of the just-released animated DVD, The Flashpoint Paradox, and he's rumored to have a feature film in the works, as well as an almost-guaranteed spot in the planned Justice League movie.
So who is Barry Allen? And why has The Flash become so iconic, enduring more than 70 years in pop culture?
The Need for Speed
At the very core of Flash's popularity is a simple concept: Speed. "Everyone can identify with 'speed' and the ability to go really fast," said Brian Buccellato, who's currently co-creating The Flash comic with Francis Manapul. "It requires no explanation at all. Running really fast is something we can all understand, and who wouldn't want to be able to run as fast as light?"
Kelson Vibber, who runs the Flash fan website speedforce.org, said it also ties into our desire to get things done faster. "We all want more hours in the day, we all want to get boring tasks out of the way quickly, and the exhilaration of moving fast is something primal that everyone can relate to," he said.
Paul Levitz, legendary writer and former publisher at DC Comics, said the concept of achieving "superspeed" was also very timely when the Flash was first introduced, because it was a new idea.
"Someone once said that speed is the only modern vice," Levitz said. "It always struck me that that was an interesting insight into why we reacted as powerfully as we did to The Flash. Speed was something that was only really available to humanity the last, well, 150 years, and only really available for individuals to control on any wide basis in the last 100 years."
Barry Allen, the second character to wear the mantle of The Flash, has been around since 1956, but the speedster has transitioned well into modern times.
In fact, Geoff Johns, the DC chief creative officer who's co-writing the new Flash TV show, said Barry Allen's "secret identity" as a forensic scientist is surprisingly modern. "He's this cop who is more relevant now than he was back then," Johns said. "Everyone understands now what a police scientist is."
"Thanks to CSI, it's something that's in our current vernacular. Everyone knows what that means," Buccellato said.
It was his work in the science lab that led to him getting superpowers —as he was about to leave work one night, a lightning bolt hit some chemicals, which then spilled all over Barry. The accident gave him superspeed and a host of associated abilities.
"He's always had the ability to run fast," Buccellato said. "And that led to him discovering that he could vibrate through objects. And then time travel is something that's been part of Barry's character from pretty early on. The whole concept of other dimensions lent itself to the idea of speed being connected to time.
"So what you have with Barry is this guy who is a cop, and he uses his brain and science to solve things," Buccellato said. "And when the going gets tough, he obviously has an incredible fallback: He can turn into The Flash."
Manapul said that, as a police officer, Barry has a strong sense of right and wrong. "He's this very black and white type of hero," he said, calling him an "idealist" and "optimist."
Barry also has an ongoing love interest named Iris West, a television reporter in his hometown of Central City. In the comics, Barry and Iris have been married before, but a reboot in 2011 finds them young again in current comics — and single.
But to really understand the importance of Barry Allen as The Flash, it's necessary to look at comic book history. When superheroes were first introduced in the 1940's, the very first Flash was a hard-helmeted guy named Jay Garrick, known now as the "Golden Age" Flash. But the popularity of his comic — as well as most superhero books of the time — fell out of popularity after World War II. Instead, best-selling comics were mostly horror, crime and romance.
In the mid-50's, the public became vocally concerned about alleged links between these comics and juvenile delinquency. To waylay the backlash, comic book publishers promised to regulate comic book content — and were forced to find more kid-friendly genres. As a result, publishers decided to start introducing superhero stories again.
The first of these new superhero stories was a revival of The Flash (in a comic called Showcase #4) that featured a young, new hero named Barry Allen. The book was not only a huge hit, but it is now recognized as the first issue in what's become known as the "Silver Age" of comics.
With the debut of Barry Allen came a new type of hero — one that reflected the Nuclear Age. Mark Waid, the Thrillbent Comics founder who's also one of the best-known former writers of The Flash, said one of the "hallmarks " of the Silver Age as marked by the Flash was the era of the "science hero."
"At DC — and then at Marvel — new heroes [of the Silver Age] weren't blue-collar workers," Waid said. "They were Jet Age/Atomic Age scientists or adventurers — or, mostly, both."
Waid said The Flash also represented a change in superhero costumes, with a new, "sleek" look. "It's easy to forget almost 60 years later, but at the time, the Silver Age Flash costume was unlike anything else out there — no cape, no utility belt, no domino mask — just a super-streamlined silhouette that carried over into Green Lantern, Atom and others," Waid said.
Levitz agreed that the costume was important to the success of the character. "They handed [the job of designing the costume] to Carmine [Infantino], who was just coming into the peak of his powers, and he designed this wonderful costume," Levitz said. "The thing that comic fans, I think, have forgotten about the history of that character from the period [is that] The Flash and Carmine dominated the first sets of fan awards.
"It clearly shows the degree to which, at least a measure of fandom was enormously moved by what was going on in Flash," he said.
Thanks to decades of stories about Flash villains — under the direction of now legendary comic greats like Cary Bates, Julius Schwartz, Robert Kanigher and John Broome — the character has one of the most beloved rogues galleries in comic books.
"Flash actually has, I think, the second or maybe third best list of villains in the DC Universe," said Scott Kolins, a long-time Flash artist. "The only one who honestly beats him hands down... is Batman."
"Flash has great, great villains," Johns agreed, pointing out Flash villains like Captain Cold, Gorilla Grodd, and Zoom, the Reverse Flash. For readers of DC Comics, just the word "Rogues" is equivalent with the Flash villains, who often band together under the leadership of Captain Cold, scheming to steal something from Central City without getting caught by The Flash.
"These guys are really blue collar criminals," Johns said. "Sure, they're [jerks] and they kill people and do really bad things. But...they can deal with Flash. Cold sees him as just an annoyance. And Flash sees the Rogues as — they're never going to rule the world. They're going to hurt people and steal from people and need to be dealt with."
But early stories about the hero also introduced another challenge for The Flash — racing against Superman. Although the two have raced many times over the years, readers got their first glimpse at Superman vs. The Flash in 1967 — in a comic Waid remembers well. "The image of Flash running up the side of a moving train, across the top, and down the other side, all in a nanosecond," Waid said, "will stick with me until the day I die."
Yet his races with Superman weren't as frequent over the years as the Flash's appearances with the Justice League, a team of superheroes that became yet another DC icon. Most incarnations of the League over the years have included the five key team members: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and The Flash.
Broome and Infantino also created other Flash-related characters, including a "Kid Flash" counterpart to Barry. The character was Iris West's nephew, Wally West. When he was visiting the police lab where Barry worked, the same freak accident that gave Barry his powers repeated itself to give Wally powers too.
Another now iconic image associated with the Flash was introduced years later — that of the Black Flash, which Johns explained as "a grim reaper, a dark entity... that appears whenever a speedster is about to die."
Death and Speed Force
When an impressive 14-year run by writer Cary Bates ended in the mid-'80s, the future of the Flash comic was in question, and the "powers-that-be" at DC decided it was time for Barry Allen to stop outrunning death. During the high-profile DC mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, Barry Allen sacrificed his own life to save the universe. And although many well-known comic book heroes have died and come back to life over the years, the death of Barry Allen was so high-profile and meaningful that he stayed dead for decades.
"The guys who were doing Crisis absolutely believed that they had to kill more than one major character in the DC Universe in order for the series to be important," Levitz said. "Part of the reason I think why Flash made the list is that his only book had, pardon the phrase, kind of 'wound down' creatively at that point....And it needed something new to happen.
"And of course, there was a Kid Flash character literally standing in the wings as a way of giving it a new generation and energy," Levitz said.
After Barry's death, Wally West took over the mantle of the Flash. "Flash editor Brian Augustyn liked to point out that Wally West was the first comics sidekick to 'fulfill the promise' — to actually, permanently assume the mantle of his predecessor," said Waid, who wrote The Flash while Wally was in the title role. "But I can tell you, that didn't go down well with fandom at first; it took years and years for the cries of 'when will Barry Allen be back?' to die down. A big part of the motivation for our story 'The Return of Barry Allen' was to help quell those nostalgic pleas once and for all."
In "The Return of Barry Allen," Waid laid the foundation for a new concept that would tie all the speedsters together: The Speed Force. Now part of Flash mythology, the Speed Force has always been somewhat enigmatic.
Vibber took a stab at explaining the concept: "It's an energy field that the Flash draws power from, and the lightning strike connected it to him. That energy field can absorb people and objects when overused (for example, by the Flash running too fast) or misused," he said.
"It's more complicated than that, just as gravity is more complicated than 'What goes up must come down,'" Vibber said, "but for the basics, that's what you need to know."
"[The Speed Force] was [created], in part, [as] a way of unifying the different fast characters that had been in the DC mythology for awhile, in a more structured way than, 'Gee everybody just got hit by lightning on the right day,'" Levitz said. "Why can all these people do the same thing?"
But the creation of the Speed Force as a mystical "place" where speedsters could actually go, opened the door for the Barry Allen to be seen in glimpses from within the Speed Force — and also made it possible for the hero to eventually return.
In the 2008 mini-series Final Crisis, Barry Allen was resurrected from within the Speed Force. Eventually, he became the main character in The Flash series, replacing Wally West after his return.
Fans were surprised to see Barry return — after all, he'd stayed dead for 23 years —and Vibber said "his return was heralded with a mix of excitement and dread from different parts of the fandom, and overall nervousness as we wondered whether DC was actually going to follow through on their latest change indirection."
Levitz, who was publisher at the time of Barry's return, said the return of Barry Allen as The Flash reflected a desire to stick with the most iconic versions of DC characters. "We were at a point where a number of the books were on second or third generation versions of DC heroes," he said. "And there was a general feeling among the editors that the way to make it cool again would be to go back to the most iconic versions of the characters."
The return of Barry was further solidified in 2011, when DC rebooted its entire universe, returning many of the more well-known superheroes to their mantles — making them young and new again. In current comics, Barry Allen is actually a young, new superhero, discovering his powers for the first time.
And soon, the hero will get to be reborn again in television and movies, bringing the notion — and thrill — of superspeed to mainstream audiences.