By John Broome, Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino & various (DE Comics)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Wholesome Entertainment… 9/10
No matter which way you look at it, the Silver Age of the American comic book began with The Flash. It’s an unjust but true fact that being first is not enough; it also helps to be best and people have to notice. MLJ’s The Shield beat Captain America to the news-stands by over a year yet the former is all but forgotten today.
America’s comicbook industry had never really stopped trying to revive the superhero genre when Showcase #4 was released in late summer of 1956. The newsstands had already been blessed – but were left generally unruffled – by such tentative precursors as The Avenger (February-September 1955), Captain Flash (November 1954-July 1955), a revival of Marvel’s Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and the aforementioned Captain America (December 1953-October 1955). Both DC’s own Captain Comet (December 1953-October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the end of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) had come and made little mark. What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was … well, everything!
Once DC’s powers-that-be decided to serious try superheroes once more, they moved pretty fast themselves. Editor Julie Schwartz asked office partner, fellow editor and Golden-Age Flash scripter Robert Kanigher to recreate a speedster for the Space Age: aided and abetted by Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert, who had also worked on the previous incarnation.
The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in exploding chemicals from his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comicbook featuring his predecessor (a scientist named Jay Garrick who was exposed to the mutagenic fumes of “Hard Water”). Designing a sleek, streamlined bodysuit (courtesy of Infantino – a major talent rapidly approaching his artistic and creative peak), Barry Allen became point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and an entire industry.
This splendidly economical full colour paperback compilation superbly compliments Infantino’s talents and the tone of the times. These stories have been gathered many times but here the package – matt-white, dense paper stock – offers punch, clarity and the ineffably comforting texture of the original newsprint pulp pamphlets.
This is what a big book of comics ought to feel like in your eager, sweaty hands…
Collecting all four Showcase tryout issues – #4, 8, 13 and 14 – and the first full dozen issues of his own title (The Flash volume 1 #105-116, October 1956 to November 1960) the high-speed thrills begin with the epochal debut tales from Showcase #4.
‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ (scripted by Kanigher) sees Barry endure his electrical metamorphosis and promptly goes on to subdue bizarre criminal mastermind Turtle Man after which ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier!’ – written by the brilliant John Broome – finds the newly-minted Scarlet Speedster batting a criminal from the future before returning criminal exile Mazdan to his own century, proving the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power. These are slickly polished, coolly sophisticated short stories introducing the comfortingly suburbanite new superhero and firmly establishing the broad parameters of his universe.
Showcase #8 (June 1957) led with another Kanigher tale. ‘The Secret of the Empty Box’, a perplexing if pedestrian mystery, saw veteran Frank Giacoia return as inker, but the real landmark was the Broome thriller ‘The Coldest Man on Earth’.
With this yarn the author confirmed and consolidated the new costumed character phenomenon by introducing the first of a Rogues Gallery of outlandish super-villains. Unlike the Golden Age, these new super-heroes would face predominantly costumed foes rather than thugs and spies. Bad guys would henceforth be as memorable as the champions of justice. Captain Cold would return time and again. Broome would go on to create every single member of Flash’s pantheon of classic super-foes.
Joe Giella inked the two adventures in Showcase #13 (April 1958). ‘Around the World in 80 Minutes’ was written by Kanigher and displayed Flash’s versatility as he tackled atomic terrorists, battled Arabian bandits, counteracted an avalanche on Mount Everest and scuttled submarine pirates in the specified time slot.
Broome’s ‘Master of the Elements’ then premiered the outlandish Mr. Element, who utilised the periodic table as his arsenal.
Showcase #14 (June 1958) opened with Kanigher’s eerie ‘Giants of the Time-World!’: a masterful fantasy thriller and a worthy effort to bow out on as Flash and girlfriend Iris West encounter extra-dimensional invaders with the strangest life-cycle imaginable.
The issue closed with a return engagement for Mr. Element sporting a new M.O. and identity – Doctor Alchemy. ‘The Man Who Changed the Earth!’ is a classic crime-caper with serious psychological underpinnings, as Flash struggles to overcome the villain’s latest weapon: mystic transmutational talisman the Philosopher’s Stone…
When the Scarlet Speedster graduated to his own title John Broome was the lead writer, supplemented eventually by Gardner Fox. Kanigher would return briefly in the mid-1960s and would later write a number of tales during DC’s ‘Relevancy’ period.
Taking its own sweet time, The Flash #105 launched with a February-March 1959 cover-date (so it was out for Christmas 1958) and opened with Broome, Infantino and Giella’s sci-fi chiller ‘Conqueror From 8 Million B.C.!’ before introducing yet another money-mad super-villain in ‘The Master of Mirrors!’
Issue #106 introduced one of the most charismatic and memorable baddies in comics history. Gorilla Grodd and his hidden race of telepathic super-simians instantly captured the fan’s attentions in ‘Menace of the Super-Gorilla!’ and even after Flash thrashed the hairy hooligan Grodd promptly returned in the next two issues.
Presumably this early confidence was fuelled by DC’s inexplicable but commercially sound pro-Gorilla editorial stance (for some reason any comic with a substantial simian in it spectacularly outsold those that didn’t in those far-ago days) but these tales are also packed with tension, action and engagingly challenging fantasy concepts.
Offering an encore here is ‘The Pied Piper of Peril!’: a mesmerising musical criminal mastermind, stealing for fun and attention rather than profit…
Issue #107 led with the ‘Return of the Super-Gorilla!’ by regular team Broome, Infantino and Giella, a multi-layered fantasy thriller that took our hero from the African (invisible) city of the Super-Gorillas to the subterranean citadel of antediluvian Ornitho-Men, and closed with ‘The Amazing Race Against Time’ which featured an amnesiac who could outrun the Fastest Man Alive in a desperate dash to save all of creation from obliteration. With every issue the stakes got higher whilst the dramatic quality and narrative ingenuity got better!
Frank Giacoia inked #108’s high-tech death-trap thriller ‘The Speed of Doom!’ featuring trans-dimensional raiders stealing fulgurites (look it up, if you want) but Giella was back for ‘The Super-Gorilla’s Secret Identity!’ wherein Grodd devises a scheme to outwit evolution itself by turning himself into a human…
The next issue saw ‘The Return of the Mirror-Master’ with the first in a series of bizarre physical transformations that would increasingly become a signature device for Flash stories, whilst the contemporary Space Race provided an evocative maguffin for a fantastic undersea adventure in the ‘Secret of the Sunken Satellite’. Here Flash encountered an unsuspected sub-sea race on the edge of extinction whilst enquiring after the impossible survival of an astronaut trapped at the bottom of the sea.
The Flash #110 was a major landmark, not so much for the debut of another worthy addition to the burgeoning Rogues Gallery in ‘The Challenge of the Weather Wizard’ (inked by Schwartz’s artistic top-gun Murphy Anderson) but rather for the introduction of Wally West, who in a bizarre and suspicious replay of the lightning strike that created the Vizier of Velocity became a junior version of the Fastest Man Alive.
Inked by Giella, ‘Meet Kid Flash!’ introduced the first teenaged sidekick of the Silver Age (cover dated December 1959-January 1960 and just pipping Aqualad who premiered in Adventure Comics #269 which had a February off-sale date).
Not only would Kid Flash begin his own series of back-up tales from the very next issue (a sure sign of the confidence the creators had in the character) but he would eventually inherit the mantle of the Flash himself – one of the few occasions in comics where the torch-passing actually stuck.
Anderson also inked ‘The Invasion of the Cloud Creatures’ in # 111, which successfully overcomes its frankly daft premise to deliver a taut, tense sci-fi thriller which nicely counterpoints the first solo outing for Kid Flash in ‘The Challenge of the Crimson Crows!’
This folksy parable has small-town kid Wally use his new powers to rescue a bunch of kids on the slippery slope to juvenile delinquency. Perhaps a tad paternalistic and heavy-handed by today’s standards, in the opening months of 1960 this was a strip about a boy heroically dealing with a kid’s real dilemmas, and the occasional series would remain concerned with human-scaled problems, leaving super-menaces and world saving for team-ups with his mentor.
In Flash #112 ‘The Mystery of the Elongated Man’ introduced an intriguing super stretchable newcomer to the DC universe – who might have been hero or villain – in a beguiling tantaliser whilst Kid Flash tackled juvenile Go-Carters and corrupt school-contractors in the surprisingly gripping ‘Danger on Wheels!’
Mercurial mania The Trickster launched his crime career in #113’s lead tale ‘Danger in the Air!’ and the second-generation speedster took a break so that his senior partner could defeat ‘The Man Who Claimed the Earth!’: a full-on cosmic epic wherein the ancient alien Po-Siden attempts to bring the lost colony of Earth back into the galaxy-spanning Empire of Zus.
Captain Cold and Murphy Anderson returned for ‘The Big Freeze’, where the smitten villain turns Central City into a glacier just to impress Barry’s girlfriend Iris. Meanwhile her nephew Wally saves a boy unjustly accused of cheating from a life of crime when he falls under the influence of the ‘King of the Beatniks!’
Then Flash #115 offered another bizarre transformation, courtesy of Gorilla Grodd in ‘The Day Flash Weighed 1000 Pounds!’, and when aliens attempt to conquer Earth the slimmed down champion needs ‘The Elongated Man’s Secret Weapon’ as well as the guest-star himself to save the day. Once again Murphy Anderson’s inking gave the over-taxed Joe Giella a breather whilst taking art-lovers’ breath away in this beautiful, fast-paced thriller.
This gloriously rewarding volume concludes with Flash #116 as ‘The Man Who Stole Central City’ sees a seemingly fool-proof way of killing the valiant hero, which took both time-tinkering and serious outwitting to avoid whilst Kid Flash returned in ‘The Race to Thunder Hill’; a father-son tale of rally driving, but with car-stealing bandits and a young love interest for Wally to complicate the proceedings.
These earliest tales were historically vital to the development of our industry but, quite frankly, so what? The first exploits of The Flash should be judged solely on their merit, and on those terms they are punchy, awe-inspiring, beautifully illustrated and captivating thrillers that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old devotees. This lovely collection is a must-read item for anybody in love with our art-form and especially for anyone just now encountering the hero for the first time through his TV incarnation.
© 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.