When I originally started buying comic books back in 1965, The Flash was one of the first titles I picked up; over the next couple of years, it was one of my most regular purchases. But my interest in the title fell off sharply following the end of Carmine Infantino’s tenure as penciller, and as of December, 1970, I hadn’t bought an issue of the Scarlet Speedster’s own title in over two years. I still liked the character, and enjoyed reading about him in Justice League of America and elsewhere (I’d especially relished seeing him win his third race with Superman in World’s Finest #199, published just a couple of months previously), but his solo series had lost its appeal for me.
Until Flash #203 hit the spinner rack — and its stunning Neal Adams-Jack Adler cover grabbed me by the eyeballs, not letting me go until after I’d plunked my fifteen cents down on the Tote-Sum counter and taken that bad boy home.
Truth to tell, though Adams was one of my favorite artists at the time, I’m not entirely sure I even realized he’d had a hand in the cover. For one thing, the light, airy rendering of the futuristic scene occupying the right side of the image represented a stylistic departure from most of his artwork I’d seen up to this point; for another, I hadn’t seen him work with photographs before. Of course, the photograph itself hadn’t been taken by Adams in the first place; rather, it was the work of Jack Adler, who was DC Comics’ assistant production manager as well as a skilled colorist, and someone Adams often worked with in the pursuit of innovative graphic effects. But whoever contributed what to both the original conception and the ultimate execution of the piece, the final result was spectacular.
I don’t recall if I was disappointed to open the comic and find that the art inside the book was, shall we say, not quite so spectacular as that on the cover; but, even if I was, I probably wasn’t all that surprised. After all, my lack of enthusiasm for the art team who’d initially followed Infantino on Flash, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, was a large part of why I’d drifted away from the title in the first place (though the scripts by Frank Robbins hadn’t exactly thrilled me, either). And while Andru and Esposito were no longer on the book, the “new” penciller, Irv Novick (who’d actually come on board with issue #200, following a brief run by Gil Kane), was someone whose work I knew from Batman and, frankly, felt fairly lukewarm about. The inker, on the other hand, was Murphy Anderson, an artist I’d admired since 1966, and I probably took that as a plus.
The story’s scripter was Robert Kanigher — a prolific and veteran writer at DC whom, as I explained in my Justice League of America #84 post a few months ago, I still didn’t have a good handle on even after five years of comic book reading, due mainly to the fact that so much of his work appeared in DC’s war comics, which I routinely ignored. Kanigher had, however, written the very first story of the Silver Age Flash (in Showcase #4 [Oct., 1956]), and he’d recently returned to the feature. Interestingly, the last Kanigher story I had read prior to this one — the aforementioned JLA #84 — had featured an odd scene in which the Flash’s wife, Iris West Allen, had walked in on her husband when he was being (innocently) embraced by another woman, and hadn’t taken it well. That scene may have come into my mind when I first glimpsed the title of Kanigher’s story for Flash #203:
In December, 1970, this scene between Flash and Superman, with the latter hero’s expression of alienation, seemed to fit right in with Jack Kirby’s Forever People #1 — which had explored a similar theme, and had come out just a couple of days prior to Flash #203. At the time, I assumed DC had done this on purpose — and I’m still inclined to think so, despite my knowing now that in 1970, DC’s different editors ran their assigned group of titles largely as independent fiefdoms (Julius Schwartz was the editor of Flash, while Kirby himself edited Forever People). My main reason for believing this may have been a rare instance of across-the-line coordination is that Superman’s sentiments would be echoed in yet another Schwartz-edited comic out this month, Justice League of America #87 (which the blog will be getting around to covering in just a couple of weeks). Even if I’m wrong, however, and the parallels were unintentional, they make for a nice bit of synergy.
Flash tells Superman how he searched the whole house and couldn’t find Iris, or any clue to her whereabouts — until he found a note she’d left him on their kitchen memo pad. Reading that note sent Barry right into his Flash duds, and then straight onto his Cosmic Treadmill:
Um, do you think maybe Flash should confirm that the suspension-tube is, in fact, carrying fresh water, and not some poisonous chemical, before drinking up? Oh, well, he’s telling the story to Superman later, so it must have worked out OK.
Upon discovering that his attackers’ ammunition came equipped with homing devices, our hero determined that his most prudent course would be to run for the hills, er, mountain:
After vibrating his way through the mountain, the Flash found himself facing another unexpected sight:
The Crimson Comet proceeded on into the city to begin his search for Iris, and then…
I have to admit that as a 13-year-old reader in December, 1970, I pretty much accepted this scenario as it was presented to me. As a 63-year-old reader in December, 2020, I have some quibbles. To wit: I can understand why, if the river-in-a-suspension-tube is the city’s only source of fresh water, that tampering with it would be a serious crime. But there certainly seems to be a lot of water coming in through that tube, and the city doesn’t appear to be seriously overcrowded, going by what Novick and Anderson show us in this as well as later scenes. So why is water rationed so stringently? Maybe the “river” doesn’t actually flow 24/7; it could be an artificial supply line, whose tap is only turned on for a limited time each day. That’s as reasonable an explanation as any, I guess, but surely it should have been Kanigher’s job to come up with it, not mine.
This might also be a good point to note another issue which didn’t concern me in 1970, as I wasn’t a Legion of Super-Heroes fan, but surely must have occurred to other DC readers of the time who were; the 30th century Earth that the Flash visits in this story doesn’t seem consistent with the peaceful and prosperous 30th century Earth regularly on view in the LSH’s adventures. And considering that Superman has made dozens (if not hundreds) of visits to that fabulous future, both as a teenager and an adult, one might expect the same question to occur to him, as he sits in the JLA satellite listening to his costumed colleague spin his yarn.
But, to return to said yarn: Before he’d even finished processing this “daily water dole” business, the Flash was startled by the sound of a siren that sent every citizen in sight racing for cover:
Gee, there’s something that feels familiar about this scene. And I don’t think it’s just because Murphy Anderson’s inking puts me in mind of the “Fabulous World of Krypton” tale he’d drawn for Superman #133, published just one month before. (Actually, Anderson’s style is pretty much submerged beneath that of penciller Novick throughout the story, anyway — or, at least it is to my eye.)
Yep, it’s the origin of Superman, redux — with a voyage through time substituted for one through space. (And since Supes himself is supposed to be listening to the Flash recount this whole tale up on the JLA satellite, one almost expects him to break in here with a “Now wait a minute…”)
For what it’s worth, the “Time-Vibrator” has a shape that puts me in mind of a Mercury or Gemini space capsule, though I suppose it could also be said to resemble a lab beaker.
Continuing on with her account, Iris told Flash how her dad and mom had gotten the whole story of her origins from the locket, in the same way she herself just had. According to Professor Ira West, he and his wife hadn’t told their adopted daughter the truth because they didn’t want her grieving for lost parents she could never see again; later, he had managed to blank the whole thing out of his mind. “Perhaps that was the onset of my absent-mindedness,” the prof mused to Iris, referring to to his own most distinctive trait as a member of the Flash supporting cast. Um, sure.
Apparently, in Kanigher’s world, women — even professional journalists who work full-time outside the home, like Iris — just naturally gravitate to domestic duties like table-setting and dinner preparation when they’re “under emotional stress”. Iris may have just received the most shocking news of her life, but hey, that’s no reason Barry shouldn’t expect a hot, home-cooked meal when he gets home.
Why, after 25 years, would the “time-vibrations” keeping Iris anchored in the 20th Century suddenly become unstable? One might assume that it’s some sort of reaction to her touching the locket — although that doesn’t really follow, considering that she was wearing the locket when she first arrived in our time as an infant, a quarter-century earlier. And one might also question how Iris could be so sure that what she was experiencing were unstable time-vibrations drawing her “back to the future” (hmm, cool phrase, that), and not some other weird phenomenon of the sort that happened in the pages of The Flash fairly often. But, whatever.
Since we’ve already seen Iris walk up on the Flash just about a minute after his arrival in the city of “Earth-West”, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see Iris’s birth parents, the Russells (who seem to have come through that “nuclear holocaust” Eric was worrying about on page 11 pretty well, all things considered), doing the exact same thing mere moments after her popping in from the past. Still, what are the odds? Ah, well, we’ve only got 9 pages left in our story. Gotta keep things moving, right?
And, of course, no sooner had Iris stepped out onto her parents’ penthouse balcony than the most powerful man in this world spotted her, deemed her the hottest thing he’d ever seen, and demanded her as his mate. Hey, we’re down to eight pages now, y’know? Time to wrap up this flashback.
As I mentioned earlier, Kanigher’s one and only Justice League of America story, published three months before, had suggested that trouble could be brewing between the Allens; his handling of the couple’s relationship here, however, takes the virtually opposite tone.
The earlier revelation that, following a nuclear world war, the one nation that came out on top was Laos is actually one of the most interesting bits Kanigher came up with in imagining his dystopian future-world. In late 1970, American readers would have known Laos as one of the several small countries in Southeast Asia where America was then fighting what we usually refer to as the Vietnam War. In that conflict, those countries essentially served as the staging ground for a bloody, devastating proxy war between the United States and its rival world superpowers; it would indeed have been “ironical”, as Fran Russell put it, for Laos to one day eclipse all of those great powers. For this reason, it’s a little disappointing that, when the Laotian bad guy Sirik finally shows up in person, he comes across as nothing more than a stereotypically “Oriental” villain:
Making the wise decision to keep his super-speed powers under wraps for as long as he could, Flash obligingly entered the rotunda. Once Sirik’s guards followed him within its walls, however, he proceeded to handle them just about as easily you’d expect (though Kanigher’s script allows this lop-sided conflict to consume over two precious story pages, making you wonder why the writer was in such a hurry to move the plot along a short while earlier). Eventually, however…
Not only had the Flash saved Iris from having to marry icky ol’ Sirik, but he’d also brought peace to the Earth of the 30th century. Not bad for a day’s work (or, more likely, a half-hour’s work, as he really didn’t seem to have been in 2970 for much longer than it’s taken us to read about it). This latter accomplishment is, of course, the sort of thing that superheroes are always managing to get done when visiting far-future eras or distant alien planets, but which they hardly ever attempt here at home, for whatever vague and usually not-terribly-convincing reasons.
Is it just me, or does Flash seem less than wildly enthusiastic about those projected future visits with the Russells? You can almost hear him thinking, “Great, just what I needed. Another set of in-laws.”
The story ends where it started, with Superman musing about feeling like a loner on Earth One has to wonder if this entire framing device, as well as the concluding “Editor’s Note”, got tacked on to the original plot as a way of making the story seem like a sincere tribute to the origin of Superman, rather than simply a sneaky appropriation of its central idea. Whatever the case, I think the story works better for having embraced the connection — though, admittedly, it’s still one damn weird story.
Indeed, “The Flash’s Wife Is a Two-Timer!” is the kind of wild, high-concept tale that might well have been quickly consigned to DC’s “just forget it, that never happened” continuity dustbin — joining other such classics as that story where we learned that the accident that gave the Flash his powers was actually caused by a Heavenly Help-Mate named Mopee (Flash #167 [Feb., 1967]); or the one that revealed that, following the explosion of Krypton, Superman lived a full 100-year lifetime on another planet before being de-aged back to infancy and rocketed onward to Earth (Action #370 [Dec., 1968]). The notion of the Flash’s wife having been born 1,000 years in the future is just about that far out there, at least in my opinion.
But, perhaps because this major interpolation into the Flash’s legend ultimately concerned a supporting character (albeit an extremely major one) rather than the hero himself, it was rapidly codified, with a direct sequel by the same creative team appearing in the very next issue. In “The Great Secret Identity Exposé”, Iris’ time-travel jaunt was shown to have given her temporary telepathic abilities, leading her to (almost) reveal the secret identities of the Justice League of America to the world. Oops! That one was followed just a few months later by Flash #210’s “An Earth Divided!” which found Barry and Iris heading, yes, back to the future, to help apprehend the murderer of Earth-West’s new President, an android duplicate of Abraham Lincoln. This time, the story wasn’t written by Kanigher, but rather by Cary Bates — a much younger writer who had just taken over as the series’ regular scripter. Bates would return to the 30th century another time or two over the course of his fifteen-year tenure on the book — just often enough, one might say, so that when it came time for Bates to craft the concluding chapter of his run — which, as it happened, also marked the end of The Flash‘s run as a series — he could use the setting to craft a happy ending for his hero, even if it was only a temporary one.
The final issue of Flash, #350 (Oct., 1985), presented the conclusion of a lengthy multi-part storyline in which the Scarlet Speedster found himself on trial for the murder of Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash — the long-time enemy who, some years before, had himself murdered Iris West (in Flash #275 [Jul., 1979]). As both the Flash and this story’s readers ultimately discovered, however, Iris had actually been alive all this time, though in her “home” century. It turned out that Iris’ birth parents, the Russells, had managed to extract her soul from her body at the moment of her death in the 20th century, and had then immediately transferred it into a replacement body in the 30th. This unexpected twist allowed Barry and Iris to be happily reunited in the closing pages of the series’ final issue — though, as alluded to in Bates’ last narrative caption, their “happily ever after” would only be “for awhile”. For, as virtually everyone reading this blog probably already knows, the Flash was about to meet a suitably heroic, but nonetheless quite final end, sacrificing his life to help save the universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 (Nov., 1985).
Of course, the death of Barry Allen was hardly the death of the Flash franchise. Still, one might have expected that whole 30th century business to slip back into obscurity as Iris’ nephew Wally, the former Kid Flash, took up the mantle of the Fastest Man Alive. Such proved far from the case, however, as Wally’s writers of the 1990s, most notably Mark Waid, leaned heavily into the hero’s rich legacy, mining all eras of DC history to develop an engaging and coherent mythos centered on a mysterious “Speed Force” that proved to be the ultimate source of all DC’s speedster characters’ powers. Along the way, Waid and co. even managed to integrate the apparently incompatible timelines of “Earth-West and Earth-East” and the Legion of Super-Heroes, as Don and Dawn Allen, the Tornado Twins — characters who’d first appeared way back in 1968, in a Jim Shooter-scripted LSH story which had identified them as distant descendants of Barry Allen — were re-imagined as the future-born children of Barry and Iris, conceived during the one single month of “happily ever after” the couple had enjoyed between the events of Flash #350 and those of Crisis. In the new timeline, Don and Dawn grew to adulthood a generation before the Legion was formed (a change which allowed time for the rather dark 30th century Earth of the Flash stories to transition to the LSH’s sunnier version) — though Dawn’s daughter Jenni would ultimately join that organization of young heroes as the speedster XS. Somewhat more significantly, at least to the Flash mythos, Don’s son Bart would eventually relocate to the 20th century — accompanied by his Grandma Iris — where, as the superhero Impulse, he’d star in his very own title for over seven years, as well as become a charter member of the teen hero group Young Justice.
I have to confess here that, following DC’s multiple reboots, I’m unsure of how much of this “future history” remains in canon as of December, 2020. In 2011, virtually the entire past of the whole Flash family of characters was jettisoned from continuity as part of the publisher’s “New 52” initiative (while, of course, remaining available to be mined by contemporary creators for “new”, if not necessarily better, stories), with both Wally West and Bart Allen no longer around at all. Wally came back with 2016’s “Rebirth”, however, and, more recently, Bart too resurfaced, in the pages of the briefly revived Young Justice title (since cancelled again, alas) — although, as with so much else in “Rebirth”, it’s not quite clear how much of either hero’s earlier history has already, or ultimately will be, restored. For what it’s worth, however, Bart Allen still appears to have the far future as his point of origin. So, there’s that.
But now, having brought the discussion all the way up to the present, I’d like to rewind the clock back to December, 1970, one more time.
As I noted at the outset of this post, Flash #203 was the first issue of the title I had bought in more than two years. I don’t really recall in detail what I made of the story the first time I read it; but I guess I must have liked it at least OK, since I picked up another issue, #208, around six months later. This one featured another Flash tale by #203’s team of Kanigher, Novick, and Anderson, as well as an Elongated Man back-up story by Len Wein and Dick Giordano; to top things off, there was a reprint of a classic John Broome-Carmine Infantino Flash tale from 1964. Not too shabby a package at all, but I guess my thirteen-year-old self was less than impressed, as I pretty much turned my back on the title once again after that, not returning until the 300th issue in 1981. By that time, Carmine Infantino, who’d been dismissed from his position as DC’s Publisher in 1976, had returned to Flash as penciller. I hung around for a little while after that for old time’s sake (and for the Dr. Fate back-up stories by Martin Pasko and Keith Giffen), but eventually lost interest once again. I returned one last time with issue #349, just in time to bid the Flash a final farewell with #350. You could fairly say that I was one of those mid-Eighties comics fans who may have had a lot of affection for good ol’ Barry Allen, but whose indifference to his monthly adventures would, in the end, help guarantee both the cancellation of his series and the termination (for the next twenty-three years, anyway) of his character.
But, as you might have already inferred from earlier paragraphs, the work done by Mark Waid and others during the Wally West era of Flash ultimately lured me back. In the late ’90s I once again became a regular Flash reader — in fact, I became the most regular Flash reader I’d ever been. That lasted up through Barry Allen’s 2008 return and beyond — but, as you might expect, it didn’t survive 2011’s Flashpoint. The Barry Allen of the “New 52” — who’d never befriended an older predecessor named Jay Garrick, never married Iris West, never died, never bequeathed his legacy to Wally — wasn’t a character in whom I had any emotional investment. So, once again, I bailed.
And that’s pretty much where things stand today. While I was happy to see some of the characters I loved brought back with “Rebirth” in 2016, my general impression is that even four years later, Barry, Iris, and the rest of the cast remain closed off from most of their pre-Flashpoint history — and so, I continue to keep the current series at arm’s length. Still, if I’ve learned anything in over 55 years of reading comic books, it’s that things go in cycles, and… hmmm. I’m just now taking a look at some recent Flash solicitations online, and it seems DC’s brought back the Tornado Twins… and they’re still Barry’s kids, from the future! But — now they’re evil, thanks to Professor Zoom?! Holy shit.
That’s it for this time, gang. I need to go check out some recent Flash comics.