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Ride the Lightning: the Life and Times of Barry Allen

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For the character many feel ushered in the Silver Age of comics, Barry Allen is a humble chap. A ‘Police Scientist’ (kids in the '50s wouldn’t have known what a forensic scientist was), Barry was mild mannered, honest and hard working, but notoriously slow…until the fateful day when a bolt of lightning struck the laboratory cabinet he was standing beside, showering him with electrified chemicals. Suddenly, Barry the slowpoke found he wasn’t so slow anymore. In fact, he was now the fastest man alive! Remembering his childhood hero the Flash (Jay Garrick), Barry decided to emulate him and donned a striking red and gold uniform designed by a scientist friend (which could be super-compressed to fit inside his signet ring when not being worn) to become the new Flash. Thus, a legend was born. (Showcase #4, October 1956).

For some years, Allen’s life was a never ending round of fun and adventure as he carved out a reputation as Central City’s chief superhuman protector, battling an endless round of colorful villains: the Mirror Master, the Weather Wizard, the Trickster and the Pied Piper... the frozen felon Captain Cold and his opposite number, Heat Wave... the treacherous Top and Captain Boomerang with his arsenal of trick boomerangs.

Collectively, these and others became known as the Flash’s Rogues Gallery, and other names became associated with it as time went on - Gorilla Grodd, the super-intelligent simian from the hidden Gorilla City, the time-travelling Professor Zoom and the frankly ridiculous Rainbow Raider among them. Only Batman had better bad guys, though there was always more fun than fear where the Rogues were concerned. It was as though they and the Scarlet Speedster were playing an endless game.

In The Flash #110 (December 1959; the book's numbering had continued from that of the Golden Age Flash Comics series when it was relaunched with #105 in February ’59) he gained a sidekick in Wally West, nephew of Barry’s journalist girlfriend Iris West. The indulgent Barry revealed the circumstances of his origin to Wally and took him to see the cabinet of chemicals which had given him his powers. In a coincidence a little too far fetched to be believed, lightning struck again - and this time, it was Wally who was doused and got super-speed as a result. Wally West became Kid Flash!

Then, in The Brave & the Bold #28 (February 1960), the Flash became one of the founding members of the Justice League of America, and his place in the first rank of America’s superheroes was assured.

Enter Iris West

At a time when Marvel Comics was on the rise across town, giving us ‘realistic’, anguished superheroes with endless problems, and his own contemporaries seemed to be forever unchanging, Barry Allen moved forward but never let life get him down. In The Flash #165 (November 1966) he married longtime girlfriend Iris, a reporter for Picture News who had debuted in the same issue as Barry and had learned his secret not long afterwards. Barry was one of the first superheroes to wed, and the domestic bliss he enjoyed with Iris proved that superheroes don’t need to be anguished to be interesting. But all good things must come to an end, eventually…

In The Flash #275 (July 1979) Barry and Iris attended a costume party (Iris went as Batgirl) but what should have been a fun event ended in tragedy. Iris was murdered. Barry believed her killer to be Clive Yorkin, a habitual criminal who had been given superhuman powers and driven irretrievably mad by an experiment designed to cure his homicidal tendencies, and who had been found looming over her dead body. He brought Yorkin down, but eventually learned (in The Flash #283, March 1980) that Yorkin had merely witnessed the crime; the real killer was longtime Flash foe Eobard Thawne, AKA Professor Adrian Zoom, the Reverse-Flash!

       

Professor Zoom, a criminal from the future who was obsessed with the Flash and had traveled back in time to don a Flash costume with the colors reversed, had been a recurring foe since The Flash #139 (September 1963) but despite being fairly high profile (he was even a member of the Secret Society of Super Villains) he’d never made much of an impact, until now. Zoom’s greatest impact on the traumatized Allen’s life though was still to come though.

The Trial of the Flash

It took time for Barry to recover from Iris’s death, but he eventually found new love with Fiona Webb, a woman in the witness protection program. They decided to marry, but Barry was late for the wedding. Not so late for it, unfortunately, was Professor Zoom, who was determined to kill Fiona. The Flash arrived in time to stop him but, panicked at the thought of losing Fiona to Zoom as he had lost Iris, miscalculated the force needed to stop him. Grabbing Zoom in a headlock, Barry snapped the villain’s neck, killing him instantly (The Flash #324, 1983). Fiona had a nervous breakdown and the Flash, publicly disgraced and forced to leave the JLA, found himself on trial for the murder of a man who hadn’t yet even been born!

The Flash’s trial dominated the Flash series for its final two years, with Barry Allen’s life gradually falling apart in the course of it. Eventually, he even lost his own identity as following facial injuries Barry (who had been told he would likely be unmasked in court) decided to resort to plastic surgery and dyeing his hair black in order to prevent the world from learning his secret (his original appearance was eventually restored, as revealed in Legionnaires Annual #3, 1996). In the ultimate betrayal, even Kid Flash testified against Barry (albeit unwillingly), stating that in his opinion it would have been possible for the Flash to stop Zoom without killing him.

       

But in the end, justice triumphed. Barry was found not guilty and better yet, reunited with his one true love. Long before, we had learned that Iris West was herself a time traveller, born in the future and sent back to the 20th Century as a child. Now, we learned that her real parents had saved Iris, transferring her mind into a new body as she died. With the trial over and the Flash exonerated, Barry Allen decided to leave Central City, traveling to the 30th Century to begin a new life with his wife in the series’ final issue (The Flash #350, October 1985). Sadly, fate had one last trick still to play on the scarlet speedster.

Crisis and Beyond

In Crisis on Infinite Earths #3 (1985), after only a month in the 30th Century, Barry Allen learned of the threat of the Anti-Monitor, and raced back through time to warn his fellow heroes. Abducted by the Anti-Monitor (Crisis on Infinite Earths #5; hey, it’s time travel, remember!) the Flash found himself alone against the villain and his henchman the Psycho-Pirate, watching as they prepared to unleash their ultimate weapon, an anti-matter cannon.

Barry raced to stop the cannon from firing, and succeeded -  but at the cost of his own life. Barry Allen died, apparently aged to dust by his own speed, in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8. His sacrifice has elevated him to near mythic status since then. And Wally West succeeded him as the Flash, leading to a whole new era of adventures and a whole new series of Flash.

But for Barry, death was not the end. He has reappeared repeatedly over the last 23 years, in flashbacks and untold stories. In Flash #s 74-79 (March-August 1993) he even appeared to return for real as a resurrected Barry appeared in an alley in Keystone City, but this ‘Flash’ turned out to be an amnesiac Professor Zoom from a time period before his death. Now, however, Barry Allen has returned for real.

It seems that sometimes, lightning really does strike twice…

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Comments

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Jun 10, 2009 at 4:24pm

    Nice piece Tony albeit one that only underlines how weird grim n' gritty Barry in FLASH: REBIRTH is.

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