When it comes to Silver Age comics, most comics historians tend to peg the beginning of the period known as the Silver Age to a very specific point in time: the introduction of Barry Allen, DC Comics’ second Flash.
As DC editor Julius Schwartz searched for a new feature for his new anthology series SHOWCASE, a revival of the Flash seemed to fit the bill. After all, it had been roughly five years since the last FLASH comic in 1951, and the general belief at the time was that kids only read comics for about five years, so therefore, there should be a whole new audience ready once more for the fastest man alive. Schwartz turned the Flash revival over to writer/editor Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino. Kanigher and Infantino had both worked on the first FLASH series toward the end of its run, but Schwartz instructed them that everything for the new Flash series had to be different: secret identity, origin, costume, the works. In SHOWCASE #4 (October 1956), Kanigher and Infantino delivered.
“Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt” opens with police scientist Barry Allen chuckling over an old issue of FLASH COMICS. Returning to his lab, Barry is standing in front of a cabinet full of chemicals when a bolt of lightning strikes the cabinet through an open window, drenching him in chemicals.
On the way home, Barry sprints to catch a cab and finds himself hurtling past it. Later, in a diner, when a waitress drops a tray of food, Barry’s newly enhanced reflexes kick in and he’s stunned to see the food appear to be hanging in midair. With his newfound speed Barry easily catches everything in the blink of an eye.
Finally, Barry heads off to meet his girlfriend Iris, and watches in horror as a bullet slowly makes its way toward her head. Barry knocks her out of harm’s way, now fully realizing that the combination of the lightning and the chemicals had granted him unthinkable reflexes and speed. (The bullet heading for Iris? Just a stray bullet from a getaway by the Turtle Man, the criminal known as “The Slowest Man Alive.” He’s a pretty unremarkable villain, so let’s just take for granted that Flash puts him away and move on.)
Inspired by the old FLASH COMICS, Barry resolves to carry on the Flash identity. They don’t call Barry a police scientist for nothing. Soon enough, he’s devised a costume for himself made from the same material as Navy life rafts, which can be stored inside a ring, and swells to full size with the touch of a button.
A word about the costume: Carmine Infantino’s re-design of the Flash was truly inspired. Streamlined and slick, the lightning bolts on the costume’s wrists, belt and boots served as the perfect visual cue for Infantino’s illustration of super-speed. As the Flash streaked across the panel, his blurred crimson figure would be highlighted by the yellow streaks indicating his movement.
Infantino’s style became the generic style for illustrating speedster characters in comics, and the Flash’s costume is one of the few Silver Age designs that has remained unchanged for over 60 years.
Kanigher left THE FLASH after the four early appearances in SHOWCASE, and when the new Flash was awarded his own magazine in February 1959 (FLASH #105, picking up where the original series numbering had left off), writer John Broome took over the series. Broome brought a new focus to the series: Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery. Month after month, Broome and Infantino would introduce new supervillains, each more outlandish than the last. Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery was probably the best in comics. To put it in baseball terms, they had a really deep bench. And the genius move in regards to characterization was the fact that the Rogues all hung out together, would have competitions about who could bust out of jail first, have the best heists, devise the best deathtrap for the Flash. Hell, it was even revealed that they all went to the same tailor! Almost a little homicidal family.
Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery consisted of:
Captain Cold, whose cold-gun gave him complete mastery over snow and ice.
Heat Wave, whose heat-gun gave him — well, you get the idea.
Mirror Master, a criminal whose fiendish use of mirrors kept him one step ahead of the law.
Mr. Element, an evil scientist with total mastery of the periodic table of elements (in a neat twist, Mr. Element would occasionally develop a split personality and fight the Flash as “Dr. Alchemy” with the fabled Philosopher’s Stone).
Captain Boomerang, an Australian boomerang expert who goes from toy-company publicity shill to bank robber extraordinaire.
Weather Wizard, a burglar who utilizes his dead brother’s scientific research to create a wand that allows him to control meteorological conditions.
The Trickster, a former circus aerialist whose invention of “air shoes” allows him to walk through the air.
The Top, who could spin around in circles really fast (hey, they can’t all be winners).
The Pied Piper, master of sonics. Much later in the series, the Piper would turn over a new leaf, and eventually be revealed as one of DC’s first openly gay characters.
Then there were the Rogues who didn’t quite hang out so much at the reunions. Sure, everyone wanted to kill Flash, but these guys were a little more serious about it.
Many of Barry Allen’s adventures involved time travel. In fact, one of John Broome’s greatest concepts was the Cosmic Treadmill. Follow along: Since the Flash can run at near light-speed, what would happen if he were to get on a treadmill and run in place? Well, obviously, he’d begin to time-travel. Pure scientific gibberish, yet it makes perfectly satisfying sense according to comic-book logic. One of Barry Allen’s far-future foes was Abra Kadabra, a miscreant from the 64th century whose technology was so advanced, it looked like magic to us 20th-century types. Not satisfied with merely killing Barry, Kadabra delighted in torturing him, often subjecting his body to bizarre transformations, such as a living marionette.
In fact, transmutation was something of a running theme in THE FLASH, with Barry Allen being transformed into a mirror, into pure electricity, into a video-game character, and the list goes on and on, so much so that it was eventually explained that Barry Allen had complete control over every molecule in his body, allowing him to survive all of these bodily traumas.
Scarier than Kadabra was Gorilla Grodd. Grodd was a refugee from a colony of super-intelligent gorillas hidden from the world by telepathy. Grodd sought nothing less than world domination, and would utilize his powers of telepathy, telekinesis and hypnotism, or “force of mind,” as he called it, to that end. Flash was the only human who knew about Gorilla City, and every so often Grodd would bust out of prison and head straight for Central City to put a serious hurting on Barry Allen.
But probably the most dreaded of Flash’s foes was Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash, a.k.a. “Professor Zoom.” Another resident of the far future, and bearing a centuries-old family grudge against the Allen bloodline, Thawne discovered one of Barry Allen’s Flash costumes, and scientifically treated it so as to extract the residue of Flash’s powers, transferring them to the wearer.
Now just as fast as Barry Allen, Zoom used his historical knowledge of Barry Allen’s life to come to torment Barry, appearing at the happiest moments of his life and trying to snatch that happiness away. After numerous tries, Zoom finally succeeded, murdering Iris, Barry Allen’s wife. (Yes, the Flash was a happily married super-hero, another of writer John Broome’s innovations.) Barry Allen mourned, grieved and moved on, eventually meeting someone else, a young woman named Fiona Webb. Barry and Fiona’s relationship grew over time, and on their wedding day, you can probably imagine who showed up. Only this time, Barry was playing for keeps as well:
Flash’s murder of Professor Zoom set off a lengthy storyline in which Flash stood trial for manslaughter. Written by Cary Bates, the story was well-thought-out and compelling, but did run a little too long. The end of the storyline coincided with the end of the series, as Barry Allen left the 20th century forever, to live with his miraculously resurrected wife Iris in the 30th century, where, it turned out, she was born. According to later accounts, Barry and Iris only enjoyed a few weeks of renewed marital bliss before the Crisis on Infinite Earths hit, in which it didn’t end well for the second Flash. After 29 years of publication, Barry Allen was dead. The Flash, however, was destined to keep running.