Wally West represents everything that has ever been great about DC Comics.
There are two things that set DC apart from Marvel and no, neither of them is “iconic characters.” Captain America is iconic. Spider-man is iconic. Get over it, DC.
The two things are thus: 1) Legacy and 2) Fictional cities. It is these two aspects of the DCU that truly sets their line of corporately owned superheroes apart from that other line of corporately owned superheroes. No other superhero so perfectly embraced these two characteristics like Wally West. He is, in many ways, the culmination of everything Jay Garrick and Barry Allen built before him.
The Flash is the one character that has a legacy that actually evolved. Barry Allen’s teen sidekick went from being the Kid Flash to stepping in when Barry died; Wally became the Flash, a new Scarlet Speedster for the new, post-Crisis DCU. And while his adventures initially were at least interesting to read about, it wasn’t until later, when Jay Garrick returned from the purgatory he’d been stuck in with the rest of the JSA, that Wally’s story felt whole. Wally having the original Flash to turn to whenever he needed advice was perfect, particularly for a character who was trying to desperately to live up to the image of his mentor.
And that’s the thing: for as much as older fans considered Wally to be an a poor substitute for Barry, Wally felt the same way. He was haunted by living up to a standard that really only existed for him. It’s what makes the moment when Jay stops calling Wally “Junior” and starts calling him “Flash” so poignant. The legacy is real and there’s actual emotion behind it. The Flash is unlike any other legacy character in comics.
Part of that legacy comes from the regular expansion of the Flash line, something that happened most frequently during Wally’s tenure as the Flash. It’s during that time that the Speed Force becomes a real focus, and through it we meet Max Mercury, zen master of speed, who becomes the guiding hand for Bart Allen, runaway from the 30th century, who originally calls himself Impulse, but would go on to be Kid Flash and, briefly (and unfortunately), The Flash.
It’s during Wally’s run (no pun intended) that we get an active Johnny Quick and his daughter, Jesse Quick. In fact, during Mark Waid’s long tenure as writer, it seemed like he wanted nothing more than to create an entire universe of Flashes. He took the legacy that was so important to the Flash mythos and expanded it forward and back, introducing us to past speedsters and future Flashes.
Mark Waid’s run on volume 2 of the Flash built up Wally to the point where he began, in the minds of some readers, to surpass Barry. What interesting about Wally’s time as Flash is how few creative teams worked on his series. There were ostensibly four main writers: Mike Baron, Wiliam Messner-Loebs, Mark Waid, and Geoff Johns. Even those four writers only worked with a handful of writers, with Jackson Guice providing pencils for most of Baron’s run, and Greg LaRocque providing pencils for all of Messner-Loebs and a heft portion of Waid’s. Mike Weiringo might be the most famous of Waid’s collaborators on the Flash, Ringo ultimately didn’t draw that many issues. He was replaced by a rotating team of Carlos Pecheco, Salvador Larocca, and Oscar Jimmenez, until Paul Ryan settled in for a lengthy run. And, of course, is there even a Geoff Johns run to talk about without Scott Kolins? Howard Porter drew a substantial portion of the remainder of Johns’ run after Kolins left.
If anything, Wally had the benefit of stable creative teams that were heavily invested in his long term story. Ultimately, people seem to remember the Waid and Johns runs the most.
Mark Waid may have done the most to establish the Flash legacy while writing about Wally, but Geoff Johns dug deepest into the other great aspect of Wally West: this base of operations aka the twin cities of Keystone City and Central City.
Johns made the twin cities a character in The Flash. He played up the working class roots, even installing a former Flash villain (Goldface) as a legitimate union leader. We saw the Flash at hockey games, at parades, at every day things that every day people do. And the snow! Kolins drew such wonderful snow, giving the book the Midwestern feel it had always needed.
Perhaps it’s because I was born and raised in the Midwest, but The Flash under Johns and Kolins felt like home. It felt like what my world would have been like had a superhero lived there. From the police department to the ominous prison to the reinvention of the Rogues, it all felt like Johns and Kolins had taken Wally West’s world and shined it through the prism of the Midwest. It felt so real, it’s almost hard to explain to anyone who didn’t grow up there.
The Flash was our hero. You big city folk could have Batman and Superman and the rest. We had the Flash.
And Wally represented a classic Midwestern archetype: the young man who leaves to experience the rest of the world, but comes back to start a family. He’s the hometown boy who did good. He’s the hero who made a name for himself and chose to come back to the humble Midwest. He is the classic Midwestern success story, a parable for all, good Midwestern kids. Yes, go out in the world, experience all it has to offer, but we’ll be here, we’ll be waiting when you want to come back and settle down.
This is why Wally was the best Flash: he had the shoulders of Jay and Barry to stand on. He grew the legacy and he embraced his roots. He was the perfect Flash for that moment in time.
He is sorely missed.