If you were a regular viewer of “The Flash” television series last season, or just a reader of my episode-by-episode reviews of that series, you have heard the word “Crisis,” usually mentioned with more than a bit of dread. You’ve seen that holographic newspaper from the future in the Reverse-Flash’s Braille room, that also talked about a “Crisis” and red skies. Crises in the comics are usually bad news for Flashes. Meet me after the jump and I’ll try to enlighten you on the legendary Crisis on Infinite Earths.
The Golden Age Flash
Most of you out there, even if you aren’t comics historians, know that Barry Allen is not the first person to go by the name the Flash. The super-speed hero was first created back in 1940 by Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert in a comic book titled appropriately enough Flash Comics #1. This speedster, who wore a facsimile of the god Mercury’s winged helmet, was named Jay Garrick – and before you ask, yes, he’ll be appearing in the second season of the TV series.
Jay, who since then has become known as the Golden Age Flash (because of the era of comics he appeared in) and also the Earth-Two Flash (for reasons I’ll get to momentarily), was wildly popular. He not only had stories in Flash Comics, which was an anthology title featuring a handful of other characters, but he spun-off into his own title, All-Flash, with stories just about him, but was also a founding member of the Justice Society of America, participating in a majority of the team’s cases. As the 1950s began however, for a number of reasons, superheroes became passé, and the Flash vanished. For a while.
New Flash for a New Age
Whereas the period of roughly 1935-1951 was considered the Golden Age of Comics, it did not take long for a Silver Age to dawn, and Barry Allen was at the forefront. In 1956, the powers that be at DC Comics felt the time was right for the superheroes to return. Editor Julius Schwartz decided they should bring back the Flash, but he didn’t think readers would remember the original Flash, at least not in this time before the internet – he was wrong, as we’ll see. This new Flash, since they had a chance to create one for this new atomic age of science, was much different from the original, while still being the hero with super speed.
And so Barry Allen was a whole new character from Jay Garrick, with one little nostalgic nod in the mix. Barry himself was a comic book reader, and loved the Flash, so when he suddenly gained super speed, he naturally took his inspiration from this comic book version of the Flash who was portrayed as Jay Garrick. The problem was that readers did remembered the Golden Age Flash, and now that they had a new hero, and one who loved the original as much as they did – they clamored for an appearance by Jay Garrick.
Flash of Two Worlds
Gardner Fox, who had had experience writing both Flashes at different times concocted a tale in which the two speedsters met. “Flash of Two Worlds,” one of the most iconic stories in DC Comics history, appeared in 1961’s Flash #123. Barry Allen accidentally discovers a new power, the ability to traverse other dimensions, and journeys to a world that would soon be designated as Earth-Two, with Barry’s home world being Earth-One. Once he realizes he’s in Keystone City (Jay’s fictional comics hometown), not Central City, he tries to find his idol.
Barry soon finds that everything he had read in his favorite comics was real in this world. A later theory suggested that Gardner Fox had tuned into events on both Earth-Two and One in his dreams to write the adventures of both Flashes. Anyway, Barry makes fast friends with Jay, and together they battle three of the older Flash’s super-villains who had been on a crime spree to bring their enemy out of retirement. The plan works, along with Barry’s urging, and Jay becomes active again, protecting Keystone City once more as the Flash.
The Silver Age, as I had mentioned was based in science. Other characters from the Golden Age who had been revived – like Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom – all had new incarnations with scientifically based origins. Earth-One became very populated with heroes quite quickly. And just as the Flashes began to interact across the dimensional barrier and team-up more often, so did the Green Lanterns, the Atoms, and even the modern day Justice League and the Golden Age Justice Society began to meet. These last meetings became an annual tradition, these stories always being referred to with titles including the word “Crisis.”
Earth-One and Two, and the concept of parallel universes became commonplace in the DC Universe. But that wasn’t enough. Soon an Earth-Three was discovered, a world ruled by super-villains. Then the world where Gardner Fox wrote comics about those other earths, our world, was designated Earth-Prime. There was Earth-X, where the Nazis won World War II and heroes from Quality Comics continued the fight; Earth-S, where the heroes of Shazam from Fawcett Comics lived; and Earth-Four, home of the Charlton Comics heroes. Every time DC acquired another out-of-business comics company, they were deposited on a new parallel Earth.
Confusion and Solution
While it never confused me – I understood the multiverse at six years old – there were some folks writing comics at DC who could not keep up. Or more accurately, they couldn’t be bothered to do a little research, and let’s face it, when I say do a little research, I really mean read a few comics. And if you’re a comic book writer, and reading a few comics to research what you’re writing about is too hard, well… I really don’t know what to say about that. Either way, in the summer of 1985, a Crisis was coming, a decidedly final one for the Multiverse.
A plan was underway to end the confusion. What may have started as a history of the DC Multiverse started to transform into the bullet to destroy it, and thus the Crisis on Infinite Earths was born. The story, a 12-issue maxi-series, written by Marv Wolfman and mostly penciled by George Perez, with a little help from Jerry Ordway and others, depicted a villain called the Anti-Monitor destroying the universes one by one with a wave of anti-matter. Only one Earth would remain in the end, an amalgam of five of the main Earths, and in the process, heroes would die.
This would be the ultimate story told in the DC Universe at that time. Every character supposedly be involved or at least appear, from all through time – past, present, and future – outer space, the old west, World War II, and every iteration of parallel worlds. This event would appear in every DC comic as well, the first crossover event of its type. Whether it was actual story details or just red skies (a symptom of the destructive anti-matter wave), the Crisis would be felt everywhere.
What would make this event resonate as important and final to readers, the powers that be wondered? They would kill some of their characters in this epic battle – major characters. They talked of characters who might be redundant in a post-Crisis world, some created characters to die in the story, some suggested they off those whose continuity might be hard to reconcile with only one universe, and some characters were killed off because they just didn’t know what to do with them any more. In that last category was the Flash.
At the time that the Crisis on Infinite Earths series was being planned, the Flash was not in good shape. In just a few years, Barry Allen’s life had been turned upside down. His wife, Iris West Allen had been murdered by the Reverse-Flash, who had in turn been apparently killed by Barry. His face had been surgically reconstructed after a particular nasty combat. There was an aborted wedding and an angel dust freak out as well, not to mention the comic’s flagging sales. The Flash was a mess.
There was more to it though, in my estimation. For over a decade The Flash had been written by Cary Bates. It was his suburban married Flash that I grew up with and loved. Editorial interference brought on the death of Iris, and ongoing stories that never seemed to end – especially the “Trial of the Flash” for the murder of the Reverse-Flash. Bates had gotten stale, and didn’t know what to do with the character, why not kill him off, right? And of course, because he was at the core of the Multiverse in the beginning, he was the perfect martyr in destroying said Multiverse.
Savior of the Universe
Before pulling the trigger on everyone’s favorite scarlet speedster, at least Bates and Wolfman attempted to give Barry Allen somewhat of a happy ending. Iris had been restored to life in 30th century where she’d come from originally, and Barry joined her there, the future technology fixing his face as well. They lived for a time there (or is that then?), had twin children, and not one, but at least two grandchildren.
Happily ever after, yes, until he was pulled back in time to our present and captured by the Anti-Monitor. Barry, before burning himself out and reputedly becoming part of the Speed Force, destroyed the machine the Anti-Monitor was using to destroy universes. In the aftermath of a battle that also killed Supergirl (offed for similar bad writing reasons), Wally West, then called Kid Flash, took on Barry’s superhero name and became the new Flash, the first superhero sidekick to take their mentor’s place.
In the intervening decades, string theory made multiversal thinking real science, and eventually the post-Crisis DC Universe slowly became once again the DC Multiverse. Barry Allen returned from the dead, because comics, and we all know that comic book death is never permanent. He’s the Flash we see in the comics today, as well as the one on both the small screen and the future big screen.
Previews of the upcoming second season of “The Flash” suggest we’ll be seeing Jay Garrick, parallel Earths, and even Wally West. How their television counterparts differ or resemble their comics incarnations is still up in the air. We’ll just have wait and see. Perhaps the Crisis on TV has been averted, or perhaps it’s just starting… time will tell…