Having been born in the late 1980s (1987 to be exact), I and others in my generation have shared many wonderful experiences. We saw the birth of the internet as we know it today. We remember the console war between the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. And, of course, we experienced the oft-criticized 1990s era of comics. But those that managed to sift through the pouches, impossible anatomy, and “x-treme” gimmicks could find a true diamond in the rough: The Flash. It’s truly remarkable that, despite the disdain given to 1990s comics, DC’s Scarlet Speedster managed to become a benchmark for longform, superhero comics. Of course, the quality of the creative teams had something to do with that, with William Messner-Loebs, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Geoff Johns taking turns writing the adventures of Wally West, making him arguably the greatest hero to ever carry the Flash mantle. However, this is where I differ from my peers. Despite the feats Wally achieved, he felt like my Flash. For me, that honor has always belonged to his predecessor, Barry Allen.
Now, despite the title of this piece, I’m not going to argue that Barry is better than Wally. Both have strong credentials, and it ultimately comes down to a matter of preference. And while I prefer Barry, I’m not blind to his flaws (or Wally’s strengths). The biggest criticism against the Barry Allen character is that he’s boring. Frankly speaking, that’s fair. From his first appearance in Showcase #4 through his death in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, Barry had a dearth of personality, or at least one that could carry an issue should the plot stumble. It’s been argued (mostly by myself) that this was a product of the era he existed in, that many pre-Crisis comics are a slog to read through. However, the work by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Marv Wolfman say differently. Even the hard work of Cary Bates, who wrote some of the most iconic Flash stories of the era, couldn’t make Barry an engaging character for readers. If anything, Barry’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths, made readers forget the painful, drawn out saga that was “The Trial of the Flash.”
So if the character is so boring, how did he become my preferred Flash? Well, the 1990s show on CBS was a big contributor. Though the effects don’t hold up to today’s standards, it remains a fairly enjoyable product of yesteryear. It was heavily influenced by the Batman movies of the period, right down to the muscle-molded costume and Danny Elfman theme. For me, it helped solidify this character like the Batman movies and Lois & Clark. Bruce Wayne is Batman. Clark Kent is Superman. Barry Allen is the Flash. When an episode of Superman: The Animated Series featured a race between Big Blue and the Flash, I just assumed that the guy under the mask was Barry (and because he was voiced by a different actor than Wally West in the Timmverse, I still adhere to that belief today).
Though I did read comics growing up, it mostly consisted of whatever was on the spinner racks at my local grocery store – so mostly Batman, X-Men, and Spider-Man. However, like most kids I eventually stopped reading comics. But what drew me back in was, unexpectedly, the closing of Borders. My local Borders was closing years before the whole company went under, and every week I would pop in an grab books from the graphic novels section which were marked down by 50-60%. I mostly picked up a lot of Batman comics, as he was my favorite childhood hero (my parents and a worn out VHS of Batman: The Movie can fully attest to this), until one day I took a chance on one hardcover that caught my eye. Among the black spines of Batman and Green Lantern trades, this was bright red with yellow lettering. Then I pulled it off the shelf and was enamored by the Ethan Van Sciver artwork. It was The Flash: Rebirth.
As someone that hadn’t really kept up with the full canon of the DC Universe for most of his life, The Flash: Rebirth was an eye opener. Many think it’s too confusing to give new readers, but that’s only if they want the story spoon-fed to them. For me, Rebirth opened my eyes to an entire mythology that I was completely (for the most part) unaware of. I knew Barry had died in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but I had no clue about the Speed Force, the Flash Family, his team-ups with Green Lantern, Wally’s rise to prominence, and his rivalry with Eobard Thawne. With all of these new elements thrown at me, I wasn’t scared off – I wanted to learn more!
Who’s that wearing the tin hat? What was the significance of the Black Flash? What’s the deal with all of these gorillas? I tracked down and read as many Flash comics as I could – initially those that featured Barry. The storytelling was dry, but the bizarre and downright weird scenarios captured my imagination. The art by Carmine Infantino in particular was sublime. Most of the covers which Infantino crafted ended up in the story exactly the way it was originally shown. Sure, Barry may not have punched Reverse Flash across centuries of time, but he did run with Jay to save that construction worker as shown on the cover of The Flash #123.
And although the dialogue was clunky, and character development was non-existent (especially in those early issues of The Flash), I fully identified with Barry. Like me, he was a bit of a nerd, a bit of an outcast, and he loved science. Moreover, he possessed a strong moral compass thanks to a relatively carefree childhood with loving parents. Unlike other superheroes, Barry didn’t have the tragic backstory that continues to plague his caped colleagues. As much as I enjoy reading Batman stories, the emotional trauma brought on by his parents’ deaths makes him difficult to fully relate to. The same can be said for Spider-man, Superman, and many others. In retrospect, the true tragedy of The Flash: Rebirth was that Geoff Johns stripped away one of Barry’s truly unique features.
Moreover, those Silver and early Bronze Age comics were filled with so much imagination. Ideas were given a shot that would never fly today (at least at DC). Want to see Barry talk to one of the folk at DC? Check out The Flash #179. How about seeing him turned into a puppet? The Flash #133 has you covered. Accidentally destroying Central City? You can see that in The Flash #184. How about a psychedelic head-trip? The Flash #300 is one of the best. Even before the Speed Force was ever created, the pages of The Flash held limitless possibilities. And, of course, there’s that whole concept of jumping around the Multiverse that was introduced in The Flash #123.
Of course, I haven’t read only Barry Allen stories. There’s no doubt that Wally West’s tenure as the Flash yielded some of the greatest superhero stories ever crafted – an even more impressive feat considering the bulk of those stories occurred in the oft-criticized 1990s. However, the first couple of years of Wally West Flash comics featured the same clunky, lifeless writing as some of Barry’s comics. Hell, the letters columns were filled with complaints that Wally West lacked the personality that Barry possessed. Though some of William Messner-Loebs stories are pretty good, it was only when Mark Waid took over, bringing with him modern storytelling sensibilities, that The Flash took off. And as much good as he did for Wally West, he also built up Barry.
Waid’s work with Barry is great a the miniseries JLA: Year One and The Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold. However, one doesn’t need to look outside of the main Flash book for their Barry Allen fix. The Return of Barry Allen is arguably the best Flash story ever told. Though it is credited with enabling Wally West to move beyond the specter of his mentor, it further highlights the heroism Barry Allen possessed, and why he continues to serve as Wally’s biggest influence. Barry’s greatness looms over Waid’s run, validated in several stories penned by him, and later Geoff Johns. “Chain Lightning” is an ambitious, time-travel story which features the entirety of the Flash legacy. “Rogue War” was the culmination of Geoff Johns’ entire run at the time. Both stories showcase the enormity of the stakes by bringing in Barry.
While many today loathe Barry Allen’s return because the Flash Family, built up during his death, is nonexistent, that was not the original intention. When Barry returned, Geoff Johns intended to build upon the Flash mythology in a similar manner as his acclaimed Green Lantern run. There were plans for two ongoing Flash books: The Flash and Speed Force. Unfortunately, those plans were scrapped when The New 52 – the reboot that publisher Dan Didio had wanted to do as early as 2008, finally happened. Readers never had the chance to see Barry operate alongside Wally, Bart, and the rest of the Flash Family.
If there is a silver lining to the state of the franchise after The Flash: Rebirth, it’s that readers were treated to perhaps the most visually dynamic version of the Scarlet Speedster thanks to the art team of Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, who took over writing after a brief stint with Geoff Johns in 2011. Though their writing never reached the heights of Waid’s and Johns’ Wally runs, it provided a solid foundation to the new Barry Allen, much like Mike Baron did for Wally back in 1987.
Barry Allen is my Flash. But the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which speedster is considered “the best.” Whether it’s Jay, Wally, John Fox, Max Mercury, Jesse Quick, or Barry Allen, they’re all heroes, exemplifying the same traits of selflessness that we should all aspire towards.