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Flashback 1956!

Longbox Graveyard #41

Reviewing comics over half a century old doesn’t qualify as breaking news.

But here’s a news Flash, anyways.

The modern incarnation of the Flash burst to life in Showcase #4, with a cover date of October 1956.

Let’s think about 1956 for a minute.

Doris Day was singing Que Sera Sera, and Elvis Presley released his first gold album. Ike was in the White House, the Soviets were in Hungary, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, and playwright Arthur Miller was in Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn must have found brains REALLY sexy

Frank Miller hadn’t been born yet. Humphrey Bogart hadn’t died yet. It’s was a year before Sputnik, three years before the Barbie doll, and maybe most important, five years before Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny rode that rocket into space and changed everything about comic books.

There wasn’t a lot going on in comic books at the time (the smart guys were doing newspaper comic strips). Will Eisner had already wrapped up the Spirit, EC Comics was a smoking crater in the ground, and the superheroes of the day were golden age relics like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman, with the Last Son of Krypton more familiar as a paunchy black & white TV star than a comic book hero. The cool kids were more interested in science fiction anyway — Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, and B-movie classic Earth vs. The Flying Saucers all bowed in 1956.

It was to reach these saucer-watching, Elvis-listening, distracted youths of 1956 that DC Comics reimagined the Flash. They ditched the old Golden Age geezer in the air raid helmet and introduced a sleek new character design — The Scarlet Speedster! — and made their hero a chemist and “police scientist” who was a thoroughly modern man. With hindsight our beloved Barry Allen seems remote, square, and worse than your dad, but if you’re a kid in 1956, he was a vision of carefree adult freedom. Respectable, single, doing something cool for a living … yeah, sure, you wear a tie all the time and you’re whipped by your nagging girlfriend for arriving late for one tedious dinner date after another but it’s 1956, man! Beatlemania is still eight years away.

More to the point, your correspondent is still six years away. I was born in 1962, and came of comic book age in 1974, which makes me … really old. But not old enough to remember 1956. Not even old enough to imagine what 1956 might have been like. And because of that I can’t really review Flash. This “new” kind of superhero is half a century old and there’s no real way for me to appreciate what a fresh take Flash must have seemed smack dab in the middle of the button-down 1950s. If I’m reviewing a later Silver Age Marvel book like the Silver Surfer or the Avengers I can kind of get in the neighborhood — those books and those times weren’t so terribly far removed from my own youth. I feel like I can give them a fair shake from a then-and-now perspective. But the 1950s might as well be another planet, culturally, from the times I really knew and understood.

1956 also brought us Flash-Matic tuning (absolutely harmless to humans!)

So this review is a little different.

Reviewing the hero. As a superhero, the Flash is in the Hall of Fame, comfortably at the bottom of the top tier, or the top of the second tier, depending on your point of view. The story of the scientist bathed with chemicals and gifted with super-speed is part of our popular culture. He’s been in print forever, he’s had his cartoons, you could find him on pajamas and a lunch box (at least once upon a time), and your mom could probably pick him out of a lineup. He’ll get a movie when Warners shakes off their Green Lantern hangover. Yeah, DC has screwed up his comic a bunch of times (most notably sacrificing Barry Allen to the Moloch of Continuity in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths), but the modern Flash mythos is pretty strong and the character is nothing if not resilient. The Flash is going to be fine. He’s plenty of people’s favorite hero. I like him well enough but haven’t read a new Flash book in twenty years.

I have no idea who most of these guys are

Reviewing the comics for their own day. Well, see above, as regards my inability to truly understand the 1950s. About the best I can do is infer the impact of the comic by looking at the world around it — like detecting the presence of a black hole by looking for wobbles or distortion elsewhere in space. And to judge by the romance books, sanitized horror books, war books, westerns, and funny animals on the rack those days, then, heck yeah! The Flash must have been like someone spiked the lemonade.

Reviewing the comics for our day. Showcase #4 is a museum piece and a precious cultural artifact. The price guides say you could ask six figures for a top graded copy (good luck getting that, though!). As the herald of the Silver Age of comics and the introduction of a classic character, this is an Important Comic.

It is also a goofy comic. A very goofy comic.

The stories will melt your mind, so I won’t bother to summarize them. Suffice to say they are from that blissful pre-continuity era when the creators were clearly making things up as they went along. Aliens who grow every second! Ancient conquering robots buried beneath the earth! Spring-heeled supervillains who leave birthday presents all around town. And super-intelligent gorillas hailing from a secret African city.

(yes, that’s Gorilla Grodd)

That same sense of wonder is harnessed to create the modern world of comic books. You can see the story conventions of later books take root on seemingly every page. I was particularly struck by how “Science!” (exclamation point is mandatory) is invoked to justify everything. It’s like some bizarre inversion of Clarke’s Law, where any magic, however outrageous, will be accepted as science if sold as such to 1950s tweeners.

For instance, because heat causes mirages, then the same must be true of cold. Science!

And of course the Flash’s uniform expands on contact with air. It’s just like one of those Navy life rafts. SCIENCE!

In this last bit we see another common storytelling trick from this series that has lasted into the present age — using multiple panels in a kind of slow-motion to show us Barry’s various speed tricks. This triptych storytelling style is additionally notable because it is possibly unique to the comic book form.

It is first seen when Barry is discovering he’s received the gift of super-speed …

(and this was half a century before Toby Maguire pulled the same stunt in the cafeteria scene from Sam Raimi’s delightful 2002 movie, Spider-Man, by the way)

… then the technique is used to show how Barry thinks faster than the rest of us …

… and finally as a means for the audience to keep up with Barry as races through the sound barrier and beyond.

As well as emerging storytelling conventions, all the assumptions of old time comics are on display in The Flash, such as when Barry gets his obligatory teen sidekick in Flash #110.

Yep, that’s Wally West in the miniature Flash costume. In our current century, where all the subtext is on the outside, you can read all sorts of improprieties into Barry’s interest in young Wally, but for 1950s readers it was innocent, wish-fulfilling fun.

It really is treacherous to read too much into these Silver Age comics, but the relationship between Barry Allen and Iris West deserves special consideration. I understand the tropes. Lois Lane was an oblivious pain-in-the-butt for Clark Kent, so they went to the same playbook for Barry and Iris. But Iris is a genuine harpy. The way she picks on Barry … well, I’m tempted to believe there’s some kind of sadistic power exchange going on here. Barry is so whipped in this relationship that the only explanation is that he likes it this way.

Being “the fastest man alive,” the series wrings a lot of irony out of Barry being late all the time, and having Barry arrive late for another dinner or lunch with Iris is the go-to, wink-at-the-camera formula for concluding several stories in this series. But the hectoring Barry absorbs from Iris goes beyond an adolescent sense of dating (it must be like dressing up and going out with your mom!) and into a realm where it’s genuinely hard to understand why Barry puts up with it. Carmine Infantino draws elegant and fashionable women (and no one fills an evening gown like Iris West), but there’s a limit.

Consider this sequence from Flash #111, where Barry first puts up with Iris complaining that she’s being dragged to a lecture …

… then gets blasted by Iris becase she was bored, and thinks the lecturer was a crackpot (and to be fair, who could believe those lame-ass cloud monsters?) …

… but then, abruptly, Iris throws Barry over for this doctor she wouldn’t have known existed if Barry hadn’t introduced her to him. Mee-OW!

It’s probably nothing. Or maybe writer John Broome was working through issues. Or maybe this is just another example of the weird sexuality (identified by Grant Morrison in Supergods) that characterized the Mort Weisinger era at DC.

I prefer to believe that Barry put up with it because he was a playa. The Fastest Man Alive usually plays it right down mainstreet, but in Showcase #13 he flirts with the continental rule, getting a kiss on behalf of the ladies of Paris …

… before racing across the Mediterranean for an Egyptian booty call.

Look, when your only weapon is super-speed and about the best you can do is race Superman to a tie, then you’ve got to strike a blow whenever you can. And if that means that the Flash is the Fastest Man Alive in more ways than one, then who am I to deny him?

But that’s another one of those modern reinterpretations of an innocent adventure strip from a lost age. There’s a certain charm to an era where a kiss was a grateful North African princess was just a kiss from a princess.

I’m not convinced we’re better off today, for all of our sophistication and more worldly entertainments. This is a fun and nostalgic run of Flash comics, full of character first introductions and history. It’s worth slowing down to enjoy the Flash.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #42 Panel Gallery: Jack Kirby’s Gadgets of S.H.I.E.L.D. (And HYDRA Too!)

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Iris is definitely in the room for worst girlfriend in comics. But, the #1 worst of all time? Frankie Raye. She dumped Johnny Storm like he was nothin’ so she could roll with Galactus. I still feel for Johnny.

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  2. Not sure I agree, Horace. I think even Johnny Storm comes up second best against the wonders of a limitless cosmos. If Frankie dumped Johnny for Wyatt Wingfoot or something, then Match Head has a beef. But offer a girl the literal moon and the stars and I think you’re going to turn her head.

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  3. I’m sure it’s arguable, but I think the male-female dynamic of most of the DC comics of that era sprout from Weisinger’s door. All of the comics he edited have – as Supergods points out – these weird dynamics of husband-wife/boyfriend-girlfriend where the women are scheming little anchors pulling the heroes down. They complain, are treacherous, always scheming to get their men to fall in line. And the men are no better – they’re always trying to trick the women right back (to “teach them a lesson”) usually by putting the women in situations that seem appallingly abusive. It’s so pervasive, it’s hard to believe it’s not the work of an editorial hand working through his issues in each issue. Julius Schwartz’s comics – and I think the Flash is one of his – have similar dynamics, but none really match Weisinger’s Superman titles for their astoundingly childish mean-spiritedness.

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  4. It really is a peculiar kind of treehouse adolescence, boys vs. girls thing, isn’t it?

    I’m sure you’re right that Julius Schwartz was at the helm of Flash editorial, rather than Weisinger, but wasn’t Weisinger the top guy at DC in that era? Either way, I hope this particular pathology was limited to DC comic books, and not 1956 in general, or else that year is even more remote in time and space than I surmised.

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  5. It’s very peculiar. The comics of that era were clearly targeted at kids, so let’s say 12-year-olds. Yet a majority of all the characters were adults (like the audience’s parents) in relationships with other adults – Superman/Lois, Bruce Wayne/socialites, Flash/Iris, etc. But even though they were adults, they still acted like children, all using each other as chess pieces to see who can be the biggest jerk. [The hero with the most stable relationship in the DCU was Elongated Man and his wife Sue, so naturally, she eventually had to be killed]. It’s no wonder that Spider-Man took off the second he appeared.

    Schwartz used to belong to older Weisinger’s SF fan club in the early 1930s. At DC Weisinger certainly had seniority. He was editing in 1941, took a break to fight in WWII, then returned in 1946, editing both Batman and Superman titles. So I think it’s safe to say that Weisinger’s attitudes became entrenched in his comics over a long 30 year period.

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  6. I think it was pretty common for children’s popular entertainment to have adults that acted like children — either overtly (Captain Marvel) or as a means of relating to young readers (as in these DC “romantic” relationships). Aside from Mark Twain and the Little Rascals, where could a kid of that era see kids that kinda sorta acted like actual kids?

    Leave It To Beaver went on the air in 1957 and became a giant hit because (I propose, adjusting my glasses) it broke the mold and told its story from the kids’ point-of-view … and those kids were all kinds of flawed, hiding things from their parents, breaking windows, getting stuck in moral dilemmas every week. Before kid audiences had actual kids they could relate with, maybe Barry Allen & Iris West looked like a pretty good deal (an adult fantasy like Tom Hanks in Big, without the knowing subtext about arrested development).

    None of which lets Weisinger off the hook, unless he was WAY ahead of his time.

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  7. These Silver Age DC females are attracted to the male when he is in super-hero mode. There, he represents their ideal man. In ‘normal’ mode, the guy is a wimp, a loser, a schmoe. This dynamic points to two things. One, a recurring male fantasy that “if she only knew the real me, what I was capable of really doing, she would be head-over-heels for me!” The male sees his true identity not as the face he wears in the world, but his own idealization. Two, we can view the gaining of superpowers as a metaphor for the development of sexuality – expressed nowhere as clearly as the X-men’s pubescent realization of mutant powers. The secret identity, therefore, represents the clumsy, ineffectual nature of the child. But, the superhero represents him in the full blossom of his sexual being – and the resultant attraction of the female he believes or hopes awaits him there.

    Spider-man turned this dynamic on its head. The females (Gwen Stacy, Aunt May) feared the hero, but loved the secret identity. These characters represented the adult fears of the sexual development of the young male (Aunt May) or the concerns that the developed male would be up to no good (Gwen Stacy re: the death of her father.) Mary Jane is attracted to the young Parker, but has no fear of Spider-man in any of her encounters with him. That’s probably why they ended up married! Interestingly, the person who hates the wimp but loves the hero is another male, Flash Thompson – in the Silver Age days, at least, when he was head of the Spidey fan club. Here we see the other side of the male fantasy: if the other guys knew what I was really like in my post-pubescent state, they would honor me for my prowess.

    Admittedly, this analysis may be too reductionist – the mistake Freud made in reducing everything to sexuality. For as Grant Morrison reminds us, the heroes are more than that. They are reminders of the powers all of us have to be better than we are now, to tap into our full heroic potential as human beings. That the powers appear as libidinous energy may say more about raw life force than sexuality. But in the transformative stages of adolescence, it can be hard to see the difference. Everything is changing, transforming, all at once – mind and body.

    We are big fans of what Geoff Johns did with Kid Flash in the early days of his Teen Titans run. Bart learned ways to use his powers that no ohter Flash had considered. For example, every morning he would speed-read every major newspaper from around the globe. Or one day, he went to the library and read every book on the shelves. He used his physical power to educate himself!

    John Byrne’s treatment of a speedster in Next Men is amusing. Danny’s legs swell up to massive proportions from all his running, and he annihilates every pair of shoes in a matter of hours so he has to run barefoot and build up callouses. It’s a somewhat more realistic treatment of what would happen if you ran everywhere at super-speed day in and day out!

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    • Wow, leave it to Mars to sweep in and raise my rent.

      Excellent and insightful comments … I agree that this is what might be happening, but I don’t think this is what those Silver Age creators were doing, unless it was on some kind of deep, subconscious level. I think Silver Age creators just accelerated the tropes that were already working for an adolescent audience (and Lee/Ditko reversed those tropes, just to see what would happen) — I don’t think any of these guys looked deeply enough at their work to pull these kinds of levers, or even knew the levers were there. But I have no doubt these patterns were and are present, influencing storytellers even if they would reject the suggestion if it were brought to their attention.

      If you accept that the costumed identity is the sexual being, and the civilian identity is the adolescent identity, then it makes it even more creepy that Superman (the “true” identity) keeps turning himself back into a childish construct to chase Lois Lane. Yeesh. No wonder Weisinger was whacko.

      And here’s an interesting way to evaluate our present, media-driven, and hyper-sexualized society … re-read your analysis and for every instance of superpowers, substitute “fame” or “celebrity” instead. The mystery of sexual awakening has been taken out of our society — now we have grade schoolers wearing makeup in beauty pageants and porn on every iPhone. It’s like we’re in a world where everyone is going to get super powers, and they know it, but fame is the elusive thunderbolt granted only by radioactivity or the whim of the gods.

      I suspect more young people today would prefer celebrity to being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Fame is currency now, whereas in the Marvel Silver Age it seem more like a curse or inconvenience (Spidey can’t cash in on his identity because he can’t cash a check, the Fantastic Four have a fan club but also all kinds of public grief, the Hulk is powerful but hunted everywhere as a monster and has to hide from his identity).

      Meanwhile, on the DC side, Barry was still getting reamed for being late for dinner. No wonder Marvel ate DC’s lunch in the 1960s!

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  8. For all the bragging that Stan Lee does about how “modern” Marvel was, the DC ladies of the time all had modern jobs, from reporter to running an aviation company, while the Marvel ladies of the era tended to be secretaries and office workers. Not that there is anything wrong with office work, my wife is a church receptionist.

    And let’s not talk about exactly how young Sue Storm was in early FF … the age difference is (to put it in the best light) somewhat creepy.

    And of course Iris West was the most modern of these DC ladies, having been born in the the year 2945 (spoilers).

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    • Those Fantastic Four age differences get weirder with each passing year. There was a Sgt. Fury issue that had Reed fighting with an underground resistance cell during WWII, and as recently as Marvel Two-In-One (mid-seventies) there was a tale referencing Ben Grimm’s service as a fighter pilot during the war. Reed is kind of a special case, as he’s the only Marvel hero (aside from Dr. Strange) that appears to be in his forties or even fifties, while everyone else is locked into their teens or twenties (maybe thirties for Cap).

      And of course the women are all perpetually 23 years old.

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