Showcase Presents the Flash volume 4


By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Frank Robbins, Carmine Infantino, Ross Andru & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3679-3 (TPB)

In the anniversary year of Comics’ Silver Age, it’s a true shame that so much superb material remains out of reach of nostalgia-afflicted fans or any young neophyte looking for a vintage treat.

At least the tales gathered in this old tome – spanning the close of the Silver Age and start of the Bronze Age – are available, but only in ludicrously expensive hardback Omnibus editions, rather than paperback or digital collections. Boo to you publishers, and here’s a cheap and cheerful recommendation to track down an old monochrome masterpiece stuffed with crazy fun and thrills…

Barry Allen was the second speedster to carry the name of The Flash, and his debut was the Big Bang which finally triggered the gleaming era we’re celebrating here. He arrived after a succession of abortive original attempts such as Captain Flash, The Avenger, Strongman (in 1954-1955) and remnant revivals (Stuntman in 1954 and Marvel’s “Big Three”, The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner & Captain America during 1953-1955).

Although none of those restored the failed fortunes of masked mystery-men, they had presumably piqued readers’ consciousness, even at conservative National/DC. Thus, the revived human rocket wasn’t quite the innovation he seemed: alien crusader The Martian Manhunter had already cracked open the company floodgates with his low-key launch in Detective Comics #225 (November 1955).

However, in terms of creative quality, originality and sheer style Flash was an irresistible spark, and after his landmark first appearance in Showcase #4 (October 1956) the series became a benchmark by which every successive launch or reboot across the industry was measured.

Police Scientist (CSI today) Barry Allen was transformed by an accidental lightning strike and chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity. Yet with characteristic indolence the new Fastest Man Alive took 3 more try-out issues and almost as many years to win his own title. When he finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash #105 (February-March 1959), he never looked back…

The comics business back then was a faddish, slavishly trend-beset world, however, and following a manic boom for superhero tales prompted by the Batman TV show, fickle global consciousness moved on to a fixation with supernatural themes and merely mortal tales, triggering a huge revival of spooky films, shows, books and periodicals. With horror on the rise again, many superhero titles faced cancellation, and even the most revered and popular were threatened. It was time to adapt or die…

At the time this fourth collection of his own hard-won title begins, the Vizier of Velocity was still an undisputed icon of the apparently unstoppable Superhero meme and mighty pillar of the costumed establishment, but dark days and changing fashions were about to threaten his long run at the top…

Reprinting transitional issues #162-184 (June 1966-December 1968), this compilation shows how Flash had set into a cosy pattern of two short tales per issue, leavened with semi-regular book-length thrillers; always written by regular scripters John Broome or Gardner F. Fox and illustrated by Carmine Infantino (with inker Joe Giella). That comfortable format was about to radically change.

Flash #162 featured Fox-penned sci-fi shocker ‘Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?’, in which an apparently bewitched fairground attraction opens the doors into an invasion-mystery millions of years old whilst stretching the Scarlet Speedster’s powers and imagination to the limit…

The next issue offered a brace of tales by globe-trotting author Broome, opening with ‘The Flash Stakes his Life – On – You!’, taking an old philosophical adage to its illogical but highly entertaining extreme as criminal scientist Ben Haddonuses his gadgets to make the residents of Central City forget their champion ever existed. That has the incredible effect of making the Flash fade away, if not for the utter devotion of one hero-worshipping little girl…

By contrast, ‘The Day Magic Exposed Flash’s Secret Identity!’ features a sharp duel with a dastardly villain as approbation-hungry evil illusionist Abra Kadabra breaks future jail and trades bodies with the 64th century cop sent to bring back to face justice, leaving the Speedster with an impossible choice to make…

Issue #164 offered another pair of fast fables. ‘Flash – Vandal of Central City!’ (Broome), sees the hero losing control of his speed and destroying property every time he runs. Little does he know old enemy Pied Piper was back in town… Kid Flash then solo-stars in Fox’s ‘The Boy Who Lost Touch with the World!’ as Wally West’s nerdy new friend suddenly becomes periodically, uncontrollably intangible…

With Flash #165’s ‘One Bridegroom too Many!’ Broome, Infantino & Giella made a huge advance in character development as Barry finally weds long-time fiancée Iris West. This shocking saga sees the hero’s sinister antithesis Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash attempt to replace him at the altar in a fast-paced, utterly beguiling yarn which also posed a seemingly insoluble quandary for the new groom…

Should the nervous newlywed reveal his secret identity to Iris – who has no idea she’s marrying a superhero – or say nothing, maintaining the biggest lie between them and pray she never, ever finds out? Every married man already knows the answer* but for us secretive little kids reading this the first time around, that question was an impossible, imponderable quandary…

Building soap opera tension by fudging the issue like a national government, #166 carried on as usual with Broome’s delicious comedy ‘The Last Stand of the Three-Time Losers!’ wherein a cheesy bunch of no-hoper thieves accidentally discover an unlikely exploitable weakness in Flash’s powers and psyche, before the Monarch of Motion becomes a ‘Tempting Target of the Temperature Twins!’ after spraining his ankle just as Heat Wave and Captain Cold renew their frenemy rivalry…

With #167, Sid Greene became series’ inker, kicking off his run with a light-hearted but accidentally controversial Fox/Infantino tale that utterly incensed the devoted readership. ‘The Real Origin of The Flash! introduced Heavenly Helpmate – and Woody Allen look-alike – Mopee who had long ago been ordered to create the accident which transformed a deserving human into the Fastest Man Alive.

Typically, Mopee had cocked-up and was now back on Earth to rectify his mistake. It takes all Flash’s skill, ingenuity and patience to regain his powers. The story is a delightfully offbeat hoot, but continuity-conscious fans dubbed it apocryphal and heretical ever since…

Less contentious was Fox’s back-up yarn ‘The Hypnotic Super-Speedster!’ allowing Kid Flash an opportunity to bust up a gang of thieves, prank a theatrical mesmerist and give a chubby school chum the athletic thrill of a lifetime.

Broome then produced for #168 a puzzling full-length thriller in which the Guardians of the Universe sought out the Flash and declared ‘One of our Green Lanterns is Missing!’ Even as the Scarlet Speedster hunts for his missing best buddy, he is constantly distracted by a gang of third-rate thugs who have somehow acquired futuristic super weapons…

Flash #169 was an all-reprint 80-Page Giant represented here by its stunning cover and an illuminating ‘How I Draw the Flash’ feature by Infantino, followed by a full-length Fox thriller in #170. ‘The See-Nothing Spells of Abra Kadabra!’sees the Vizier of Velocity hexed by the cunning conjuror and unable to detect the villain’s actions or presence. Sadly for the sinister spellbinder, Flash has help from visiting Earth-2 predecessor Jay Garrick and Justice Society of America pals Doctors Fate and Mid-Nite

‘Here Lies The Flash – Dead and Unburied’ (Fox, Infantino & Greene) pits the restored speedster against Justice League foe Doctor Light, attempting to pick off his assembled enemies one at a time, whilst #172 offers a brace of Broome blockbusters beginning with Grodd Puts the Squeeze on Flash!’, in which the super-simian blackmails his nippy nemesis into (briefly) busting him out of a Gorilla City cell. Following up, ‘The Machine-Made Robbery!’ saw the return of that most absent-minded of Professors Ira West. Luckily, son-in-law Barry is around to foil a perfidious plot by cunning criminals. The genius’ new super-computer is public knowledge, and the crooks – intent on designing a perfect crime – want to hire the device,

Issue #173 featured a titanic team-up as Barry, Wally West and Jay Garrick were separately shanghaied to another galaxy as putative prey of alien hunter Golden Man in ‘Doomward Flight of the Flashes!’ However, Broome’s stunning script slowly reveals layers of intrigue as the Andromedan super-safari masks a far more arcane need for the three speedy pawns…

In 1967, Infantino became Art Director and Publisher of National/DC and, although he still designed the covers, Flash #174 was his final full-pencilling job. He departed in stunning style with Broome’s ‘Stupendous Triumph of the Six Super-Villains!’ wherein Mirror Master Sam Scudder discovers a fantastic looking-glass world where the Scarlet Speedster is a hardened criminal constantly defeated by a disgusting do-gooder reflecting champion.

Stealing the heroic Mirror Master’s secret super-weapon, Scudder calls in fellow Rogues Pied Piper, Heat Wave, Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang and The Top to share their foe’s final downfall, but they aren’t ready for the last-minute interference of the other, evil, Barry Allen…

When Infantino left, most fans were convinced the Flash was ruined. His replacements were highly controversial and suffered most unfairly in unjust comparisons – and I count myself among their biggest detractors at the time – but in intervening years I’ve learned to appreciate the superb quality of their work.

However, back in a comics era with no invasive, pervasive support media, Flash #175 (December 1967) was huge shock. With absolutely no warning, ‘The Race to the End of the Universe!’ proclaimed E. Nelson Bridwell as author and introduced Wonder Woman art-team Ross Andru & Mike Esposito as illustrators.

Moreover, the story was another big departure. DC Editors in the 1960s had generally avoided such questions as which hero was strongest/fastest/best for fear of upsetting some portion of their tenuous and almost-certainly temporary fan-base, but as the superhero boom slowed and upstart Marvel Comics began to make genuine inroads into their market, the notion of a definitive race between the almighty Man of Steel and the “Fastest Man Alive” had become an inevitable, increasingly enticing and sales-worthy proposition.

After a deliberately inconclusive first race around the world – for charity – (‘Superman’s Race with the Flash’ in Superman #199 (August 1967)), the stakes were astronomically raised in the inevitable rematch in Flash #175.

The tale itself sees the friendly rivals compelled to speed across the cosmos because ruthless alien gamblers Rokk and Sorban threaten to eradicate Central City and Metropolis unless the pair categorically settle who is fastest. Bridwell adds an ingenious sting in the tale and logically highlights two classic Flash Rogues, whilst Andru & Esposito deliver a sterling illustration job in this yarn – but once again the actual winning is deliberately fudged.

Broome produced a few more stories before moving on and #176 features two of his best. ‘Death Stalks the Flash!’tapped into the upsurge in spooky shenanigans when Iris contracts a deadly fever and her hyper-fast hubby runs right into her delirious dreams to destroy the nightmarish Grim Reaper, after which ‘Professor West – Lost Strayed or Stolen?’delightfully inverts all the old absent-minded gags. Barry’s Father-in-Law successfully undergoes a memory-enhancing process but still manages to get inadvertently involved with murderous felons…

Fox then scripted one of the daftest yet most memorable of Flash thrillers in #177 as The Trickster invents a brain-enlarging ray that turns his arch-foe into ‘The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!’, after which #178’s cover follows – another all-reprint 80-Page Giant…

Written by newcomer Cary Bates and Gardner Fox, Flash #179 (May 1968) was another landmark. The prologue ‘Test your Flash I.Q.’ and main event ‘The Flash – Fact or Fiction?’ extends the multiple Earths concept to its logical conclusion by trapping the Monarch of Motion in “our” Reality, where the Sultan of Speed is just a comic character! Simultaneously offering an alien monster mystery, this rollercoaster riot was a superb introduction for Bates, who eventually became regular writer and the longest serving creator of the legend of Barry Allen.

First though, jobbing cartoonist Frank Robbins added Flash to his credits, scripting an almost painfully tongue-in-cheek oriental spoof accessing everything from Kurosawa to You Only Live Twice to his own Johnny Hazard newspaper strip.

In #180, Barry and Iris visit friends in Japan and are soon embroiled in a deadly scheme by fugitive war criminal Baron Katana to turn the clock back and restore feudal control over Nippon using ‘The Flying Samurai’. The sinister plot unravels after only the most strenuous efforts of the newlyweds in all-action conclusion ‘The Attack of the Samuroids!’

Broome’s last hurrahs was in #182, with the return of Abra Kadabra whose futuristic legerdemain and envy of genuine stage magicians compel him to turn the speedster intoThe Thief Who Stole all the Money in Central City!’ whilst ‘The Flash’s Super-Speed Phobia!’ sees an unlikely accident inflict a devastating – if temporary – psychological disability on the fleet thief-taker.

The tone of the stories was changing. Aliens and super science took a back-seat to more human-scaled dramas. Robbins scripted the last two tales here, beginning with a devilishly deceptive case of bluff and double-bluff as Barry Allen becomes ‘The Flash’s Dead Ringer!’ in a convoluted attempt to convince crime-boss the Frog that the police scientist isn’t also the Fastest Man Alive, before proving that he too was adept at high-concept fabulism in #184, when a freak time-travel accident traps Flash millennia in the future after accidentally becoming the apparent ‘Executioner of Central City!’

These tales first appeared at a moment when superhero comics almost disappeared for the second time in a generation, and perfectly show the Scarlet Speedster’s ability to adapt to changing fashions in ways many of his four-colour contemporaries simply could not. Crucial as they are to the development of modern comics, however, it is the fact that they are brilliant, awe-inspiring, beautifully realised thrillers which still amuse, amaze and enthral new readers and old lags alike. This compendium is another must-read item for anybody in love with the world of graphic narrative.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

* In case you’re not married, or not a man, the answer is: Fake your own death and move to Bolivia. And if you find a partner there, always tell them everything before they ask or find out.

Extra credit answer – also try not to be a dick.