If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months or more, you’ll recall (I hope) our post back in June about Superman #199, the classic DC comic book that featured the first-ever race between Superman and the Flash. That race ended in a tie, but the end of the story promised us readers a “terrific rematch, coming soon in The Flash!” So when the DC house ads for Flash #175 began appearing a few months later, my ten-year-old self was pumped. Surely, when the second race was run in the Fastest Man Alive’s own series, he’d win the victory that he so obviously and logically deserved (in my mind, anyway. See that earlier post for more details of my reasoning). And regardless of the outcome, with Carmine Infantino (the artist who’d pencilled every single Flash solo story I’d ever read) drawing the book, it was bound to look great.
Well. Things didn’t quite work out as my ten-year-old self expected.
To address the latter point, first: Although Infantino had indeed pencilled not just every Flash solo story I’d ever read, but every one anyone had ever read — all the way back to the character’s debut in 1956 — the previous issue, Flash #174, had in fact been the final one of his run. Infantino had now moved on full-time to a behind-the-scenes role as Art Director at DC (with even more authoritative positions at the company waiting in the artist’s near future), and he’d had to pass on the torch of illustrating the Scarlet Speedster’s monthly adventures.
The cover of #175 didn’t really give any indication of a drastic change, however — at least, it didn’t to my ten-year-old self. No, it wasn’t signed by Infantino and his frequent collaborator Murphy Anderson, as the previous five issues of Flash had been — but if you’d told me that it was indeed the work of the same guys who’d produced those covers, not to mention Superman #199, I would have believed you. Even if Superman’s face did look a bit different on the current cover from that earlier one. (More about that in a moment.)
In truth, the cover wasn’t by the complete team of Infantino and Anderson, by virtually all accounts; but, here’s a funny thing — fifty years later, it seems no one’s 100% certain who did pencil and ink it. Most sources I’ve consulted do credit Infantino with the pencils, but cite Mike Esposito as having contributed the inks. Mike’s Amazing World, on the other hand, gives sole credit to Al Plastino, an artist who worked almost exclusively on DC’s Superman family of titles from the late Forties on through the Sixties. So, what’s going on here?
The Grand Comics Database may have the answer. The site’s page for Flash #175 credits Infantino as penciller and Esposito as inker (citing editor Julius Schwartz’s records as the authority for that attribution), with the exception of Superman’s face, which the site says was pencilled by Plastino, and inked by who-knows-who.
And that actually makes a certain kind of sense, when you think about it; even if it at first may seem unlikely that Carmine Infantino, in his new role as DC’s Art Director, would approve of (or at least acquiesce in) the redrawing of his own depiction of the Man of Steel — especially when he’d just had his version published on the cover of Superman #199 with no apparent problem. However, it’s known that on various occasions over the years, the management at DC has determined it to be “essential to their merchandising plans for certain trademarked characters to not deviate from the approved company model”. That’s how comics writer and historian Mark Evanier put it when describing how, just three years later, DC decided to have both Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson redraw the Superman heads of Jack Kirby, during the time that legendary artist was drawing Jimmy Olsen. And that was a decision that was made on Carmine Infantino’s watch, after he’d become DC’s Editorial Director (as he acknowledged in his 2001 autobiography*). So it’s conceivable that, in 1967, the veteran artist felt that there was something lacking in his own take on his employer’s flagship character — or at least considered that to be the case in this circumstance, when his pencils weren’t being inked by Murphy Anderson.
Of course, back in October, 1967 my ten-year-old self had no inkling of any of this. Indeed, as I’ve already said, the cover provided no clue that anything whatsoever had changed between the last issue of Flash and this one. I would soon learn, however, that quite a lot had changed — and it was evident as soon as I turned from the cover to the book’s first page:
“Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito”? Who were these guys?
In truth, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with this long-time artistic team’s work — they were the regular artists on Wonder Woman, after all, and as previously related on this blog, I’d bought and read issue #171 of that series earlier in the year. Still, theirs were the last names I expected to see in a credits box on a splash page of The Flash. Where in the world was Carmine Infantino?
As things turned out, Infantino himself would explain the situation (to some extent, at least), some 11 or so pages later, in a message that appeared at the beginning of the book’s second, “supplemental” letters page,”Flash Grams – Extra”:
This kind of direct-to-the-reader statement, from someone besides the book’s editor, was highly unusual for DC at the time, and speaks to the significance of Infantino’s departure from Flash after eleven years.
I’ll have more to say about the artistic change, and Infantino’s prediction that “these two wonderful artists” would soon make his own tenure “nothing more than a memory” later on. For now, however, let’s assume the initial shock felt by my ten-year-old self (and many other fans of the time) as a given, and plunge on ahead into the story — just like we did back in the fall of ’67.
The tale begins as police scientist Barry Allen picks up an emergency alert that the Weather Wizard is about to knock out Central City’s main power plant. Changing into the Flash, Barry races to the scene with a lightning rod that’s been specially designed to neutralize the super-villain’s bolts:
When I first read this story in 1967, my expectation — based on how the Flash, Superman, and their fellow Justice Leaguers all usually behaved around one another, in JLA and elsewhere — was that although Flash would naturally be surprised by, and curious about, Superman’s sudden appearance, he would nevertheless be appreciative of his fellow hero’s assistance, whether he truly needed it or not. However, that’s not quite how things play out on the next page:
Um, “making another try at proving he’s faster”, Barry? Are you alluding to your and Supes’ race in Superman #199 just a few months back? The one you both agreed to run for charity, at the behest of the United Nations?
The generally ungrateful and suspicious attitude towards his colleague Barry displays on this page was jarring to my ten-year-old self in 1967, and still feels off to me, fifty years later. I get the impression that writer E. Nelson Bridwell was attempting a more “Marvel-style” approach to characterization in this story, by having the heroes behave and react in slightly less exemplary ways than DC readers were used to. It’s not an approach one would necessarily expect from Bridwell, a fan-turned-pro best known for his co-creation of the superhero-group parody, The Inferior Five, as well as his work on Super Friends and the (Captain) Marvel Family — on the other hand, this was an era when DC’s sales had begun to slip from their Batmania-fueled peak, while Marvel’s were continuing to grow. It’s feasible, at least, that someone associated with Flash #175 decided to try something new in the interest of attracting new readers (or keeping current ones).
But to return to our story… the next scene takes us forward a day, and to Metropolis, where Superman attempts to thwart a gangland shooting by proving once again that, whether or not he’s faster than the Flash, he’s definitely faster than a speeding bullet:
And now, just in case you were wondering whether the Flash would be the only hero displaying a rather churlish ingratitude in this story:
Well, at least both heroes are bright enough to realize they’re being played. The very next moment, however, both pick up an emergency alert on their JLA signal devices, and so, together, they hustle to the team’s Secret Sanctuary (which was inside a mountain cave back in this era, just in case you’d forgotten), to find all their teammates waiting for them. None of them sent the emergency call — so who did?
Yep, it’s Rokk and Sorban — those alien super-gamblers who took on Superman and Batman in the classic World’s Finest #150! Never heard of them? Don’t worry — my ten-year-old self hadn’t either. And frankly, “rulers of the gamblers’ planet Ventura” tells you pretty much everything you need to know about these guys. Well, except for the fact that they’re willing to kill as many people as may be necessary in the service of their recreational pursuits — but you’ll pick that up in the next few panels, anyway:
Of course, Flash can’t run (or even breathe) in the void of outer space, as the Scarlet Speedster himself points out. But our Venturan villains have already planned for that, and super-charge the invisible aura surrounding his body (which normally keeps him from burning up from air friction when he runs) with a “special energy” that will provide him not only with oxygen, but with a cosmic runway!
About this time, Flash’s pal Green Lantern decides he’s heard enough:
Yes, Rokk and Sorban just took out the whole blamed Justice League of America in six panels. Way to show up all those villains who couldn’t manage that feat in sixty issues of the team’s own book, guys!
The next few panels ought to show the two heroes achieving liftoff from terra firma, racing into the sky and from there, into space and out of sight. That would be really cool, right? Unfortunately, whether due to Bridwell’s script or an artistic choice by Andru, we don’t get that — instead, when we turn to the next page, we just get tight head-shots of our two speedy heroes:
And here’s another sequence where Bridwell’s characterization feels off. Of course, Flash and Superman should both be worried about what will happen to their friends back home if they lose — but shouldn’t each also be worried about what will happen to the other guy’s friends (not to mention hundreds of thousands of other innocent people) if they win? Shouldn’t they already be trying to think of a way out of this mess that will save everybody? They’re supposed to be heroes, after all.
In any event — the race stays neck-and-neck for some “dozens of light-years”, until Superman is forced to make a detour around a solar system with a red sun. Soon afterwards, he realizes that he’s entered the solar system of Rokk and Sorban’s home world, and decides to have a quick look-see with his telescopic vision:
Meanwhile, as Supes is having his great revelation, Flash is running into trouble. Coming upon an apparently incapacitated spaceship, he boards it to see if anyone needs help — and then…
It’s pretty cool that both Flash and Superman are fluent in sign language (ASL, I assume). Not so cool that Flash is still acting a bit of a dick.
This scene is followed by a brief interlude back at the Secret Sanctuary, where it briefly appears that the Man of Steel has returned on his own to take down Rokk and Sorban — though this “Superman” actually turns out to be the Martian Manhunter, whose shape-shifting abilities haven’t been 100% stymied by his fiery cage, but who is nevertheless defeated while in disguise when the Venturans deploy gold kryptonite against hime (no, you’re right, it doesn’t make any sense). Meanwhile, the Flash finds himself in another predicament, just as Superman anticipated, when he gets caught by a meteor with a quicksand-like surface. Superman gets him out of this jam by throwing a piece of space rock which knocks the sticky meteor into a nearby planet’s atmosphere, causing it to burn up around the Flash, who remains protected by his aura.
But when Superman again tries to warn the Flash that the whole race is a setup, the Scarlet Speedster — unaware of how his opponent has just helped him — once again assumes that Supes, his longtime friend and ally, is trying to pull a fast one, and refuses to listen. (When first reading this story in 1967, I expect that even my Flash-favoring ten-year-old self may have been exasperated enough by this point to start rooting for Kal-El.) Flash even declines when Superman offers to wrap him in his indestructible cape and carry him straight through a yellow sun, choosing to take the long way around, instead. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but why take chances?”
OK, sure, Barry’s been behaving pretty obnoxiously, but it still seems awfully petty and mean-spirited for Clark — who, over the last few pages, has been constantly warning his comrade about danger, and doing his best to convince him to return to Earth as soon as possible — to taunt him now about being a quitter, and then to leave him behind on an alien planet. But, unfortunately, it’s par for the course with how our “heroes” have been characterized throughout this story — like a couple of Kryptonian babootches, you might say.
But, while the Flash is getting an earful from his mysterious new friend, Superman is heading down the home stretch — when, finally, he runs into some trouble of his own:
Wait, what? How can they both have won?
But before the story can address that issue, it has to wrap things up with Rokk and Sorban (whom, you’ll recall, captured the whole blamed JLA in less than two pages earlier in the story):
Well, that was fast. And not entirely plausible. But whatcha gonna do when you’ve got to wrap up your story in the next page and a half?
And that’s how it ends, folks — with a “break the fourth wall” finale (the kind DC indulged in regularly, and unironically, in the Silver Age) inviting the reader to Choose Your Own Race-Winner. In 1967, my ten-year-old self chose Flash (of course), and considered the ending to be at least slightly more satisfying than the unequivocal tie that concluded Superman #199.
Eventually, we fans would get a third Superman-Flash race, and this one would, at last, give us a definite winner. Well, kind of. But that tale wouldn’t be published until 1970, so you’ll have to check this space three years from now to read my take on that one.
Getting back to the drastic artistic changeover on Flash represented by this issue, and departing penciller Infantino’s prediction that Andru and Esposito would soon attain such heights of acclaim as to make his own eleven-year run “nothing more than a memory” — well, of course, after fifty years the creative contributions of all three artists have become part of our memories. The real issue, I suppose, is whether or not we have good or bad memories of the works in question — and also how they look to us today, after the passage of so much time.
Jason Sacks, writing in The Flash Companion nine years ago, probably spoke for many if not most Fans of a Certain Age with his assessment that “…Andru and Esposito’s run on The Flash would be a low point of the pair’s career, a tenure that many fans would remember with disgust for years to come.” OK, “disgust” is a pretty strong word. But I can’t deny that, in the months after #175, Flash went from being a series that I bought regularly to one I hardly ever bought at all — a state of affairs that would continue all the way up to the “death” of Barry Allen in 1986.
The next issue of the Flash that I bought was #178, an 80-Page Giant full of Infantino reprints (though Andru and Esposito did contribute the cover). After that came #180 and #181, a two-part tale written by Frank Robbins that I remember mostly for Robbins’ coining of the word “ue” — an alternative to “ish” as an abbreviation for “issue” (yes, you may groan; in fact, I insist) — and other attempts at humor that were highly racially insensitive, to say the least. (Those two books are still in my collection, but it’s unlikely I’ll be devoting a blog post to either of them — unless the Flash TV series’ interpretation of the Samuroids (an ongoing storyline as of this writing) turns out to be such magnificent television that I just can’t resist. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you, though.)
Although I wasn’t knocked out by these two issues by any means, I wasn’t quite done with Flash yet. A couple of months later, I added yet one more issue from Andru and Esposito’s run to my collection, namely #184. Today, I can’t remember a thing about the story (or stories) featured in that book — but what a cover, right? And that’s one thing about this era — even if the work Andru and Esposito did for the books’ interiors wasn’t all that memorable, their covers were generally pretty strong. With all due respect to those artists, however, I’m inclined to give a good share of the credit for that success to Carmine Infantino, whose responsibilities as Art Director included designing all of DC’s covers.
That issue of Flash was the last by Andru and Esposito that I picked up. Their run continued for another entire year, until #194 — but I didn’t buy another issue of the book until #203, published at the tail end of 1970, and over the next decade and a half, I bought no more than a handful of issues — a state of affairs that didn’t change even after Infantino returned to pencilling the book, with #296 . For me, at least, the thrill was gone.
I don’t mean to imply that Andru and Esposito ruined the Flash series, either for me or for anyone else. My taste in comics would evolve over the years, as you’d expect, and what thrilled me as a ten-year-old wouldn’t necessarily have the same effect on me at age twenty, or thirty. (Or sixty, for that matter.) Similarly, the changing tastes of comics fandom as a whole over the decades may largely be responsible for the decline in Flash sales which ultimately led DC, in 1985, to pull the plug on the character who’d launched the Silver Age of Comics twenty-nine years before. In any event, it would be unfair to lay all (or even most) of the responsibility for the series’ decline and fall on the couple of years of work Ross Andru and Mike Esposito did on it in the late Sixties.
Still — there’s comic book art that I didn’t like much when I was a kid that I’ve grown to appreciate more over the decades — and the Flash art of Andru and Esposito doesn’t quite rise to that level for me, even in 2017. I think it’s fair to say that regardless of the merits of their work on other features, they were never a good fit for the Scarlet Speedster. Mike Esposito himself said as much, in a 2005 interview in Alter Ego:
I appreciate that Carmine gave us the book, because he showed respect for Ross and me as a team, but when Ross heard about it, he had problems. He knew he wasn’t getting the speed out of the character. He wasn’t lithe and swift. When Carmine drew him, The Flash was going 90 miles an hour; when Ross did it, he was chuckin’ along at 35. Never got a ticket.
That sounds about right. Andru and Esposito were asked to do a job fifty years ago. They gave it their best shot, but it didn’t quite work out. That’s how it goes, sometimes.
At least, that’s how I see it. But who knows? Maybe I’m just another big ol’ Kryptonian babootch.
*The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino: An Autobiography, p. 111-112.