Ah, here we are again, pondering the eternal question: Who’s faster, Superman or the Flash? Let’s see if I can recall where we’ve already been, and how we got where we are “now”, in October, 1970…
Oh, yeah, I remember. Way back in the June of 1967, when your humble blogger had not yet reached the tender age of ten years, his DC superhero-besotted self thrilled to the first ever race between the Man of Steel and the Scarlet Speedster, as chronicled by the team of Jim Shooter, Curt Swan, and George Klein in Superman #199. Thrilled, that is, up until the story’s last page, when the Flash was robbed — robbed, I say! — of his rightful victory, when the race ended in a tie. (Why was I rooting for the Flash? Essentially, because super-speed was his one and only thing, while Superman had a dozen other super-abilities he could be “best” at.) Shooter’s story might have framed this as a necessary move by the heroes to thwart two gambling syndicates that were illegally betting on the race — but my younger self knew a rip-off when he saw one:
A mere four months later, the two super-speedy champions of justice had a rematch. And since the first race had appeared in the Mort Weisinger-edited Superman, the second would naturally have to take place in Flash, edited by Weisinger’s old buddy and former business partner, Julius Schwartz. I didn’t enjoy this story quite as much as I had the earlier one, for a couple of reasons. One is that I thought E. Nelson Bridwell’s script had both Supes and Flash behaving somewhat out-of-character; another, and probably most important, was that Flash #175 was the first installment of Barry Allen’s adventures not to be drawn by Carmine Infantino, and the artwork by the new team, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, just didn’t look right to me.
And then, of course, there was the resolution to the race — which was no more conclusive than the conclusion of Superman #199, at least as far as I was concerned:
So… who did win? According to the story’s final panel, that was entirely up to you, dear reader:
Since I got to choose my own winner (I chose Flash, of course. Duh.), this outcome was slightly more palatable to me than that of the first race. Still, it hardly felt like we’d had the last word on this all-important subject.
Three years following Flash #175, quite a bit had changed — both for DC Comics, and for me as a comics fan. On the personal level, my tastes had expanded during that period to encompass the line of DC’s primary competitor, Marvel — though I continued to read DC’s books, as well. More recently, I’d gone through a period, beginning in 1969 and extending well into 1970, when my enthusiasm for comic books lagged, and I almost stopped buying them completely — though by October, 1970, I was pretty much back to my old ways.
Meanwhile, over at DC, Mort Weisinger — after having edited the “Superman family” of titles for decades, during which time he’d supervised the development of the extended mythology that defined the Silver Age Superman — had decided to leave the company in 1970. Rather than shuffle his assignments around so that all the books would continue to be shepherded by the same hand, Carmine Infantino (now DC’s editorial director) divided up the “family” among the existing editorial staff. Murray Boltinoff (who’d aalready taken over Superboy from Weisinger two years earlier) received Action Comics and Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen (although the latter title almost immediately shifted over to the editorship of its brand new writer/artist, Jack Kirby), while Weisinger’s former assistant E. Nelson Bridwell inherited Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane, and Mike Sekowsky took on Adventure Comics (then starring Supergirl). That still left two books to be picked up by Julius Schwartz: DC’s flagship title, Superman, and World’s Finest Comics.
World’s Finest had always featured Superman — all the way back to 1941, when it debuted as World’s Best Comics — but it hadn’t always been a “Superman family” title. Batman had also starred in the book since the beginning, with the two heroes teaming up for the first time in a story, as opposed to just on the cover, in issue #71 (Jul.-Aug., 1954); and for most of its run up to 1964, the series had been edited by Jack Schiff, who was also responsible for Batman and Detective Comics — making it, in effect, a “Batman family” title. An editorial shakeup in 1964 had shifted World’s Finest to Weisinger at the same time that Batman and Detective went to Schwartz. Now, six years later, Schwartz was getting World’s Finest as well; and instead of bringing that title back into the Bat-fold, as might have been expected, Schwartz decided to lean in to the “Superman family” aspect more than ever before — kicking the Caped Crusader out of the book, and turning it into the Super-equivalent of what Brave and the Bold had become for Batman: a series whose headliner would team up with a different DC hero every issue.
And once having settled on this new direction, what better way to launch it than with a third race between Superman and the Flash — the superhero whose solo adventures Schwartz had edited longer than any other, and with whom he might still have been most comfortable — especially since, as the cover copy of World’s Finest #198 promised, “this time there must be a winner!”
The artwork for that cover, by Curt Swan (who’d pencilled the story in Superman #199) and Murphy Anderson (who’d inked that issue’s cover), hearkened back to the heroes’ first race; the interior art, meanwhile, was provided by Dick Dillin and Joe Giella, neither of whom had worked on either of the previous super-speed contests, but both of whom had plenty of experience handling Flash as well as Superman in the Schwartz-edited Justice League of America. (Giella had also inked a whole lot of Carmine Infantino’s solo Flash stories.) Rounding out the creative team was scripter Denny O’Neil, who up until very recently had been the regular writer on JLA, giving him experience working with both characters as well; O’Neil was also about to begin a stint for Schwartz writing the Man of Steel in Superman, itself.
It all made for a very appealing package — one my thirteen-year-old self could reasonably have been expected to snap right up when it went on sale in September, 1970. Yet, even after having my appetite for the race whetted by a four-panel teaser Schwartz slipped into the middle of that month’s issue of JLA, I somehow missed buying this comic off the stands. Was there a distribution problem with the book? Was the until-recently comics-apathetic me still not yet back to a regular routine of checking the spinner racks every week? Or was it something else entirely? A half-century later, I have no idea.
Fortunately for me, Julius Schwartz decided that the third Superman-Flash race was such a big event that it deserved to run for two issues, not just one. And so, when the next month’s World’s Finest — this one sporting a cover by Neal Adams — came out, I was able to catch the second half of the story, and — most importantly — the end of the race.
Of course, since it was a continued story, I had some catching up to do…
The opening of “Race to Save Time” has much the same feel as the openings of the conclusions of a couple of recent Justice League of America two-parters (in issues #79 and #83, respectively) — not at all surprising, really, since those stories were by the same team of O’Neil, Dillin, and Giella.
Though I myself didn’t know this for sure until I scored a copy of WF #198 as a back issue years later, Jimmy Olsen’s dude-in-distress role in the story is indeed as entirely random as it appears here on this first page. The temporal anomalies that have started popping up as part of the present universal crisis could sweep up anybody, but poor Jimmy pulls the short straw just because we, the readers, presumably care more about a known, recognizable character than we would some nameless schmuck we’ve never seen before.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Jimbo had just crawled out of bed when he got transported through time to ancient Rome, so he gets to spend the whole adventure in his pajamas.
Believe it or not, Jimmy has landed right in the middle of a trial for witchcraft conducted by… the Spanish Inquisition! Bet he wasn’t expecting that, eh? (Sorry, not sorry.)
Incidentally, according to the logic of the story, the poor schmuck who Jimmy’s replaced in the box should have been simultaneously transferred to ancient Rome — not necessarily to be stuck full of arrows, as Jimmy and the Roman soldier he originally displaced (see below) hadn’t switched exact locations to begin with — but we’ll never know for sure, as we never meet him in the story.
That actually is a pretty “handy summary” of WF #198. In any event, I don’t recall feeling particularly lost when I first read WF #199, back in October, 1970. I mean, sure, I may have wondered a little about the Roman soldier hanging out with the Guardians of the Universe in the second panel above — but I’m fairly certain I just assumed it was connected to Jimmy Olsen’s earlier predicament in some way, and, of course, I was correct. (For the record, the never-named soldier got whisked to modern-day Metropolis at the same time Jimmy was transported to Rome; the Guardians then took him off Superman’s hands when they enlisted the Metropolis Marvel’s help in averting the present crisis.)
One thing my younger self couldn’t quite suss out (but probably didn’t worry about too much, either) is just how or why this “Race to Save Time” — or, if you prefer #198’s formulation, “Race to Save the Universe” — is or should be framed as a race between Flash and Superman. None of the exposition in #199’s first few pages suggests that it makes any difference which hero completes their “reverse circuit of the path of the Anachronids” first.
And, in fact, it doesn’t matter, so far as the fate of the universe is concerned. But, as those fans in 1970 who, unlike yours truly, had been fortunate enough to read WF #198 before WF #199 would have been aware, no sooner had Supes filled in the Flash about the details of their urgent, the-universe-is-at-stake mission in that issue, than the Crimson Comet had a swell idea:
OK, I can buy the “competition will spur us to do better” angle. But it still strains credulity that the two heroes would go to the trouble to retrieve Batman to officially start the race, even if it only takes “moments”. I have the feeling that that second panel was included primarily to justify Batman’s appearance on World’s Finest #198’s cover — an appearance which was itself probably included as a way of giving the Caped Crusader his props as he exited a title he’d co-starred in for all 197 of its previous issues.
Incidentally, Superman and Flash don’t appear to have told Batman (or, presumably, any of their other JLA pals) what their race is all about, to judge by a scene that crops up later in WF #199. (More on that later.)
The Anachronids, whose origin remains unknown at this point in our tale, are actually robots who are moving too fast to be clearly seen, as Superman and Flash learned in #198 when they manged to grab and stop one…
…only to see it immediately disintegrate, thus revealing that the things can’t function at less than light-speed velocity (which, as you can probably imagine, will prove to be an important point later on).
Unfortunately, depicting the appearance of the in-motion Anachronids in a way that suggests their true nature seems to be somewhat beyond Dick Dillin’s gifts — his other strengths as a graphic storyteller notwithstanding, his visual imagination was never really anything to write home about — and so, the speeding menaces just end up looking like a swarm of ordinary meteors, more or less.
Weakened by the orange sun radiation, Superman is quickly overcome and knocked unconscious; and Flash fares little better:
At this point the story shifts scenes to follow Jimmy Olsen for a few pages. Having been found guilty of witchcraft by Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, Superman’s pal is sentenced to be executed at dawn. Jimmy actually manages to escape his cell, but then is almost immediately re-captured, so that by the end of the sequence we, as well as Jimmy, are right back where we started. In retrospect, these pages are obviously little more than filler; but in 1970, I probably didn’t mind the digression, since — thanks to what Jack Kirby was doing over in the guy’s own series — I was actually starting to kinda like Jimmy Olsen for the first time.
Anyway, we’re back to the main action soon enough:
At last, we meet the true villains of our piece — four not-quite-escaped Kryptonian convicts of the Phantom Zone, the prison dimension introduced by writer Robert Bernstein and artist George Papp back in 1961’s “The Phantom Superboy!” (Adventure #283), and a significant part of Mort Weisinger’s aforementioned Silver Age Superman mythology ever since.
All four of these bad’uns had appeared before our present story, of course. Just for the record (and because your humble blogger loves looking this stuff up and sharing it with you), here’s where they all debuted, and also which DC personnel were responsible for creating each of them:
Kru-El — who, as his name implies, is actually a black-sheep relative of our very own Superman (aka Kal-El) — first turned up in “The Forbidden Weapons of Krypton!” by Leo Dorfman (writer) and Jim Mooney (artist), published in Action #297 (Feb., 1963).
Criminal scientist and mass murderer Jax-Ur made his debut in “Clark Kent’s Super-Father!” by Otto Binder (writer) and Papp, published in Adventure #289 (Oct., 1961).
General Zod — who’d go on to become vastly better known than his three confederates here, thanks to his appearances in multiple major motion pictures — was one of the very first Phantom Zone villains readers ever met, back in Bernstein and Papp’s Adventure #283 (Apr., 1961) tale.
And finally, the self-described “scientific wonder” Professor Vakox first showed his mug in “The Babe of Steel!”, written by Bernstein and illustrated by Curt Swan and George Klein, published in Action #284 (Jan., 1962)
Obviously, my younger self had missed this little episode, in which Superman and Flash briefly (and, to all appearances, accidentally) tumbled into this alternate dimension; but readers of WF #198 would recall that they’d actually gotten a one-panel glimpse of our Phantom Zone Four — unnamed, and from the back — during that sequence; and might even remember that the villains had then had a chance to kill Superman while he was helpless, and blew it.
Just like you know they’re about to do again, right here and now…
“We will permit you to live until our task is accomplished!” These guys never learn.
Still, it doesn’t look good. Superman is powerless to break loose from his bonds, and Flash, without the Guardians’ medallion, lacks the energy to vibrate through his. But wait…!
“Must be a mix-up, Alfred…” As noted earlier, Superman and Flash apparently didn’t clue Batman in regarding their nature of their race when they enlisted him as their starter in the previous issue. And, again, Bruce Wayne’s cameo here could be seen as helping to justify Batman’s appearance on the cover, where Neal Adams has actually drawn his figure larger than those of the issue’s ostensible co-stars.
It’s interesting that the only other characters depicted on this “meanwhile, back on Earth” page are a couple of members of Superman’s supporting cast (Lois Lane and Perry White), which makes sense, and the “New” Wonder Woman (with her associate, I Ching), which… seems rather more random. On the other hand, Denny O’Neil had scripted the earliest adventures of this iteration of the Amazon Princess back in ’68-’69, and would return to the character again, in 1972 — so maybe he just really liked her.
Luckily for Supes, Flash kicks Zod’s raygun out of his hand before he can use it. This puts the two Kryptonians on an even footing for fighting hand-to-hand — although, as the Man of Steel quickly discovers, his reflexive habit of pulling his punches puts him at something of a disadvantage against his militarily-trained foe.
At this point, it’s time again to check in with Jimmy Olsen — who, as he was at the beginning of the issue, is once more facing imminent public execution. Unlike the last time, however, the circumstances of this particular state-sanctioned killing allow scripter O’Neil the opportunity for a bit of sermonizing:
Wait — if Jimmy has to surmise what Torquemada might be telling the crowd of onlookers because he doesn’t understand Castilian Spanish, how come he suddenly recognizes the word “pray”? Um… well… OK, moving right along…
After distracting Jax-Ur and Prof. Vakox by tossing a stone against the side of the shack, the Flash and Superman crawl all the way over to them without being detected and then pull the villains down to their level so they can slug them. You know, as one does. (Look, at this point we’re just going to have to go with it, all right?)
My thirteen-year-old self’s reaction on first reading this page, fifty years ago, is pretty well summed up by that cheering kid on Adams’ cover: “Yay! My hero won!” (Also implied, if unspoken: “Suck it, you crying Superman fans!”)
OK, sure, this victory didn’t really prove anything. Not only had the competitors been unable to use their superpowers on that last leg of their race, they couldn’t even run (or walk, for that matter). Nevertheless, far as I was concerned in 1970, DC had finally and officially settled the question of who was faster, Superman or the Flash — and that was that.
Jeez… I know that this story has been all about speed, but I have to say that last page still feels just a little rushed. (At least, it does to me in 2020; I don’t recall whether I felt the same way in 1970.) If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that this story had been created using the “Marvel method”; but since that seems highly unlikely, I’ll just opine that maybe O’Neil’s script could have stood to lose a couple of those Jimmy Olsen pages.
But, whatever. This may have not been the best comic book DC put out in October, 1970, but it was pretty entertaining, nevertheless — and still is, at least as far as your humble blogger is concerned. As to how it stands up among the first three Superman-Flash races — well, in my opinion, while Superman #199 naturally takes the first place prize on the basis of both novelty and pure Silver Age charm, World’s Finest #198-199 unquestionably runs rings around the disappointing Flash #175.
At least, that’s how it looks from my angle.
World’s Finest Comics continued with the Superman-and-guest format for another two years, until issue #215, at which time the title passed from Julius Schwartz’s editorship to that of Murray Boltinoff, and immediately reverted to regularly featuring the Superman-Batman team. But the idea of a Superman-focused team-up book didn’t go away; and in 1978, DC re-launched the concept in an entirely new title, DC Comics Presents — edited, naturally enough, by Schwartz. And how better to start this new series off right than with yet another two-parter featuring Superman and the Flash?
However, the tale told in “Chase to the End of Time!” (DC Comics Presents #1) and “Race to the End of Time!” (DCCP #2) — both chapters being produced by the team of Martin Pasko (writer), José Luis García-López (penciller), and Dan Adkins (inker) — doesn’t really count as a bona fide Superman-Flash race, at least as far as I’m concerned. The two heroes spend most of the adventure chasing after the alien gentleman you see there on DCCP #2’s cover, at right; and though there is a part of the story where Superman is trying to catch up with their quarry ahead of Flash, the good guys ultimately end up cooperating to save the day. There’s no mention of competition, there’s no finish line, and finally, there’s no winner. So… not a race, in my humble opinion. But for several reasons — such as, it’s invariably included whenever someone posts an online listicle about the history of the Superman-Flash races, or whenever DC collects the race stories in a bunch (e.g., 2005’s Superman vs. Flash TPB) — I feel obliged to make note of it here.
Another reason for highlighting this 1978 tale is that it was the last race-themed, one-on-one team-up between Superman and this Flash, i.e., Barry Allen. (Well, the last until very recently, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) Following 1985-86’s Crisis on Infinite Earths event, in which Barry Allen died. DC would publish stories in which Superman ran races against Barry’s successor, Wally West (in Adventures of Superman #463 [Feb., 1990]), as well as his predecessor, Jay Garrick (in DC First: Flash/Superman #1 [Jul., 2002]). For the record, the Metropolis Marvel lost both of those contests, which seemed to further cement the notion that, regardless of who bore the name, the Flash remained the Fastest Man Alive.
Even after Barry Allen ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, “got better”, returning to action in The Flash: Rebirth (2009-10), DC seemed content let the pre-Crisis victory tally of Barry-Flash 1, Superman 0 stand. While they did publish a couple of stories which touched on the idea of a race between the heroes, without actually focusing on such (the most notable examples being Flash: Rebirth #3 [Aug., 2009] and Superman #709 [May, 2011]), these stories merely reinforced the idea that, yes, the Flash was faster than Superman — which in turn suggested that World’s Finest #199 remained DC’s official last word on the subject, even if the story itself was technically no longer canon.
This status quo remained in place all the way through Flashpoint, DC’s 2011 crossover event which set off an ongoing cascade of drastic continuity revisions. (Indeed, after “the New 52”, Rebirth, and Doomsday Clock, not to mention smaller events in individual titles over the last decade, it’s almost impossible to think in terms of a single, “clean” DC Universe reboot anymore). In the present continuity — as of this writing, anyway — Barry Allen never died in the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and who knows if he’s ever even run a race against Superman, let alone who might have won.
At least that was the status quo until 2019, when writer Tom King and artist Andy Kubert revisited the classic original Superman-Flash race scenario — they’re racing multiple laps around the Earth for charity! — in the seventh chapter of their “Superman: Up in the Sky” serial.
Originally published in the Wal-Mart-exclusive Superman Giant #9, and later re-issued for a wider audience in Superman: Up in the Sky #4 (Dec., 2019), this story approaches the race from what I believe is an entirely novel angle: it casts Superman as the underdog — because, as the story’s narrator explains it, “everyone thought Flash would win ’cause he’s the fastest person alive.”
I’ll be honest; as much as I love Big Blue, after more than half a century of reading and watching his adventures, I have a hard time thinking about him being an underdog in any context, let alone that of a race against the Flash. Seriously, my inner nine-year-old is still aggravated with DC for allowing Barry Allen to be called the Fastest Man Alive in his own series back in the Sixties, but then making him prove it by running a race against Superman. (And then making him do it two more times before they finally let him have the win.) I mean, either he is the Fastest Man Alive, or he isn’t, right? And as I noted at the beginning of this post, I’ve always figured that Superman has everything else in the world to excel at, while Flash just has his speed; so for the latter to be the fastest just seems fair.
But, of course, if the majority of comics fans feel similarly to how I do — then maybe Superman is something of an underdog, in this particular context. Hmmm… maybe Tom King is on to something here, after all.
In King’s story, at a point when it appears that Superman will indeed lose to the Flash, the Man of Steel’s arch-enemy Lex Luthor decides to twist the knife a little. He declares mid-race that he intends to double the amount of money the race is raising for charity, but only if Superman wins. Superman overhears this with his super-hearing, and realizes that even though he can’t beat the Flash, he has to, somehow. And so…
The narrator, incidentally, is a young named Alice who’s been abducted from Earth and is being held prisoner somewhere far away in outer space, and she’s telling this story to her fellow prisoners by way of explaining why she has faith that Superman, against all odds, is coming to rescue her and take her home. Which, of course, he is; indeed, that very quest is what “Superman: Up in the Sky” is actually all about.
So what am I going to do with this story? Simply looking at it a standalone comic book, I can’t fault it. Andy Kubert is a fine artist, and Tom King is one of the very best writers working in comics today. Without a doubt, this is a very well crafted piece of comic-book storytelling.
Nor can I find any fault in it as a Superman story; far from it. Rather, I believe that King has done a wonderful job here illustrating what Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (Wiley, 2013) identifies as the character’s two most essential attributes:
1. He puts the needs of others over those of himself.
2. He never gives up.
In fact, the whole “Superman: Up in the Sky” storyline is a terrific expression of what makes the Man of Tomorrow so special. It’s one of the best Superman stories in years, hands down.
So, then, to sum up: as far as I’m concerned, this tale works just fine as a comic-book story in general, and even better as a Superman story in particular.
But as a Superman-Flash race story?
Sorry, DC — but you lose me there. The Flash is just faster, OK? Always has been, always will be — and that’s true from any angle.
At least, it’s true in my headcanon. Your mileage, faithful reader — or should that be miles per hour? — may, as always, vary.