Monday, November 10, 2014

The Flash Turns 75

It was 75 years ago today, on 10 November 1939, that Flash Comics #1 (January 1940) hit newsstands in the United States. To say Flash Comics #1 was a very historic issue would be a bit of an understatement. First, it was the first comic book published by All-American Publications (one of the companies that would form the modern day DC Comics) to feature superheroes. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it featured the first appearances of such characters as Hawkman, Johnny Thunder, and The Whip. By far the most important character to make his first appearance in Flash Comics #1 was The Flash. Not only was The Flash was the first superhero with super-speed as his power, but he also proved to be one of All-American's most popular characters. He was also one of the founding members of the first superhero team in comic books, the Justice Society of America. In a roundabout way it was also The Golden Age Flash who would spark the Silver Age of Comic Books in 1956.

Flash Comics was published by All-American Publications, a company that grew out of National Allied Publications (publisher of Superman) and Detective Comics Inc. (publisher of Detective Comics, the eventual home of Batman). The company was founded by Max Gaines, who had played a large role in the creation of the very first American comic book, and Jack Liebowitz, who with Harry Donenfeld was co-owner of  National Allied Publications and Detective Comics Inc. Max Gaines, who had been working for the McClure Syndicate, wanted to form his own company. To do he sought financing from Harry Donenfeld. At the same time Jack Leibowitz was anxious to expand beyond the four titles his companies were currently publishing. Mr. Donenfeld was not particularly anxious to do so, feeling the company already published enough comic books. Harry Donenfeld then killed two birds with one stone. He provided Max Gaines with the money to start All-American Publications on the condition that he take Jack Liebowitz on as a partner. All-American Publications was technically a separate company from National Allied Publications and Detective Comics Inc., with its own offices at its own address. Despite this, characters from National Allied Publications and Detective Comics Inc. were promoted in All-American titles and vice versa. Furthermore, for most of its history All-American titles would bear the informal DC logo or "bullet" that National and Detective Comics titles did.

All-American Publications' first title was All-American Comics, its debut issue having a publication date of April 1939. That first issue of All-American Comics, like many of All-American's titles, published a mixture of newspaper reprints and original material, including popular aviator character Hop Harrigan. The continued success of Superman and the emergence of other superheroes such as Batman made it inevitable that All-American Publications would have to start publishing superheroes, even though Max Gaines was not particularly fond of the genre. It was then that All-American published its first title to feature superheroes, Flash Comics #1, in November 1939.

While Flash Comics was an anthology title that featured several characters and was not devoted exclusively to him, The Flash soon became the most popular character in the title. The Flash was created by legendary writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert. Mr. Fox had been inspired by the Roman god Mercury, known for his great speed. Reflecting Gardner Fox's inspiration, Harry Lampert based The Flash's costume on Mercury, complete with a winged helmet and winged boots.

The Flash was Jay Garrick, a science major attending an American university at the time he gained the power of super-speed. Jay did very well in his classes and even worked with Professor Hughes in his studies on "heavy water." Unfortunately, Jay was not nearly so successful in his other pursuits. Although a member of the football team, he spent more time on the bench than on the gridiron. His love life was not much better. Joan Williams spurned him for the captain of the football team. Fortunately for Jay, his luck was about to change.

Working on an experiment in the lab late at night, Jay knocked over some heavy water and other chemicals. Overcome by the fumes, Jay lay there for hours until he was discovered by Professor Hughes. Hughes immediately rushed Jay to the hospital, where he lay for weeks in a coma. When Jay finally came to, the physicians at the hospital told Hughes that tests on Garrick indicated a highly accelerated metabolism. He said that Jay would be, "the fastest thing to ever walk the earth!" It was not long after his release from hospital that Jay learned he could move at super speed. When he saw Joan getting on a bus he was able to catch up to her in less than a second. Jay tested the extent of his powers and, for the first time in his life, led the football team to a win through the use of a bit of his super speed.

It was later that Jay decided to put his powers to good use and assumed the identity of The Flash. Shortly thereafter Joan visited him with the news that her father had been kidnapped by a gang calling themselves the Faultless Four. Using his super speed, The Flash was able to rescue him.

The Flash proved popular from his first appearance in Flash Comics #1, and it was not long before he was appearing in other titles. He was one of the characters featured in All Star Comics #1, summer 1940, an anthology title that featured characters from both All-American Comics Publications and Detective Comics Inc. With All Star Comics #3, winter 1940-1941, The Flash became one of the founding members of the Justice Society of America. So popular was The Flash that he eventually received his own title All-Flash, the first issue cover dated summer 1941. He was also one of the characters featured in Comic Calvacade (the first issue was cover dated December 1942), which  featured All-American's most popular characters: The Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. So popular was The Flash that at one point he was appearing in four different magazines: Flash Comics, All Star Comics, All-Flash, and Comic Cavalcade.

The Flash inspired imitators as a number of high-speed superheroes followed in his wake. The first such imitator appeared only two months after The Flash's appearance, The Silver Streak in Silver Streak Comics #3, February 1940 published by Your Guide Publications (The Silver Steak could not only run fast, he could fly...literally). A third super-speedster was Quicksilver (not to be confused with the Marvel character of the same name), who debuted in National Comics #5, November 1940, published by Quality Comics. The company that would become the modern day Marvel Comics introduced their own super-speed hero, The Whizzer, in USA Comics #1, August 1941. Even All-American Comics' sister company, Detective Comics, would come out with a super-speedster, Johnny Quick in More Fun Comics # 71, September 1941. Of course, none of  them ever surpassed the original in popularity.

Over the years The Flash would also develop his own rouge's gallery. His first super-powered opponent was The Shade, a villain capable of manipulating shadows who first appeared in Flash Comics #33, September 1942. Unfortunately, The Shade would not appear again until 1961. It was only a few months later in Flash Comics # 36, December 1942, that The Flash fought The Rag Doll, a villain gifted with extreme flexibility (he was said to be triple-jointed). Like The Shade, The Rag Doll would not appear again for decades. While The Shade and The Rag Doll only fought The Flash once during the Golden Age, other supervillains fought him multiple times. Among these was The Thinker . Equipped with his "Thinking Cap", which could project psychic force, he first appeared in All-Flash #12, Fall 1943. Another recurring villain was The Fiddler, who played a fiddle that could control minds, create force fields and even shatter objects. He first appeared in All-Flash #32, December 1947-January 1948. Among the enemies The Flash faced more than once during the Golden Age was one of the rare female supervillains of the era. The Thorn was the alter ego of Rose Canton, a woman with dissociative identity disorder. Not only did she have fairly extensive knowledge of botany, but she was also able to control plants. She first appeared in Flash Comics #89, November 1947.

Although The Flash was a founding member of the Justice Society of America, he would be absent from the feature for part of the Forties. It was a policy at the time that once a character received his own title, he would no longer appear as part of the Justice Society of America. Having received his own title in the formof All-Flash, The Flash stopped appearing in All Star Comics with issue #7, October-November 1941. The Flash returned to the Justice Society of America in All Star Comics, #24 spring 1945 and remained in the feature until it ended with All-Star Comics #57, March 1951.

The Flash's return to All-Star Comics emerged from a period of estrangement between All-American Publications and its sister company Detective Comics. Co-owners Max Gaines and Jack Liebowitz found themselves increasingly at odds, to the point that All-American broke away from Detective Comics Inc. For a time All-American titles were published with the company's own "All-American" logo. At the same time various Detective Comics characters stopped appearing in All Star Comics as members of the Justice Society of America. To fill their spots, The Flash and Green Lantern (who had also stopped appearing in the title with All-Star Comics #7, October-November 1941) returned to the Justice Society of America. Max Gaines eventually sold his part of All-American Publications to Jack Liebowitz, who then merged it with Detective Comics Inc. This merger would lead to the company National Periodical Publications, which was eventually renamed DC Comics (the name by which it had been informally known for decades).

Following World War II the popularity of superhero comic books went into decline. Several superhero titles were cancelled, among which were titles featuring The Flash. All-Flash ceased publication with issue #34, December 1947-January 1948. Flash Comics ended its run with issue #104, February 1949. The Flash continued to appear as a member of the Justice Society of America until All Star Comics #57, March 1951. The title was then retitled All Star Western and the Justice Society of America no longer appeared in its pages.

The Flash--or at least a Flash--would not be absent from comic books for long.  Only a little over five years after Jay Garrick's last appearance as The Flash in All Star Comics, editor Julius Schwartz assigned writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino to create a new version of The Flash. The new version of The Flash was police scientist Barry Allen, who while working late one night is splashed with chemicals and struck by lightning. He learns that he can now move at super-speed as a result. In fact, he can even vibrate his molecules at high speed. He took the name "The Flash" after his favourite comic book character (The Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick).

This new Flash first appeared in  Showcase #4, October 1956. Sales for that particular issue proved to be so good that The Flash would appear in a few more issues of Showcase before being given his own title, The Flash. Fittingly enough The Flash took up the numbering of Flash Comics, starting with issue #105, March 1959. The new Flash proved so successful that National Periodical Publications also created new versions of a number of their Golden Age superheroes, including Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Atom, and so on. In fact, the first appearance of Barry Allen in Showcase #4, October 1956, is considered the beginning of the Silver Age of Comic Books.

While the origin of The Silver Age Flash established that The Golden Age Flash was only a comic book character, Jay Garrick would appear again in the pages of comic books. The Flash #123, September 1961 featured the story "Flash of Two Worlds", which would be Jay Garrick's first appearance in a comic book in a little over ten years. In the story Barry Allen, performing tricks for children at a charity event, vibrates his molecules in order to disappear and finds himself transported to another reality (later called "Earth Two"). It turns out that in this reality Jay Garrick--The Golden Age Flash--actually exists. The two Flashes, Jay Garrick and Barry Allen, then team up to battle three of The Golden Age Flash's old enemies: The Shade, The Fiddler, and The Thinker.

The response of fans to "Flash of Two Worlds" was very good. Both older fans who remembered Jay Garrick and younger fans for whom he was a new character wanted to see more of The Golden Age Flash. Jay Garrick then appeared again in The Flash #129, June 1962, which would also mark the first time the Justice Society of America was ever mentioned in the Silver Age. The Justice Society of America itself appeared for the first time in over twelve years in The Flash #137, June 1963. Thereafter Jay Garrick would make regular appearances in comic books during the Silver Age and in the Seventies, both in the pages of The Flash and as part of the Justice Society of America in their regular team ups with the Justice League of America.

Since that time Jay Garrick has appeared in various comic books over the years. He appeared as part of the Justice Society of America in the short lived revival of All Star Comics in the Seventies.  He also appeared in issues of All-Star Squadron, a comic book set in World War II, in the Eighties. Starting in the Eighties he appeared as one of the supporting characters in The Flash, the title starring the third Flash (Wally West, who had been Kid Flash when Barry Allen bore the title). As might be expected Jay Garrick appeared in various revivals of the Justice Society of America through the years, including the short lived Justice Society of America in the Nineties and the somewhat more successful JSA and Justice Society of America in the Naughts.

While the original Flash may not be as well known as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or even his Silver Age counterpart, his impact on comic books is perhaps as great. The Flash was the first character in what became a superhero archetype, that of the the hero whose sole power is super-speed. Every super-speedster ever since, from The Silver Streak to Quicksilver of Marvel's Avengers, then owes The Flash a debt. As one of the most popular characters of the early Forties, The Flash insured the popularity of the Justice Society of America in the pages of All Star Comics, thus establishing the trope of the superhero team. In a roundabout way The Flash of the Golden Age was even responsible for sparking the Silver Age of Comic Books. After all, had Jay Garrick never been created, then neither would Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash. Of course, had the Silver Age Flash never been created, it is questionable if DC Comics would have ever rebooted any of its other Golden Age characters. Perhaps the Silver Age would have taken place had the original Flash never been created, but it would have been very, very different. Although the average person might not know who the Golden Age Flash is (or even that there was a Golden Age Flash), he is one of the most important characters in the history of comic books.

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