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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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