RETRO REVIEW: Flash Vol. 1 #300 (August 1981)

by

Or – “Even Saint Barry Has Moments Of Badassery…”

Carrying on with my Anniversary celebration (for those who missed the first two posts, it’s been four years that I’ve been writing for Major Spoilers this week), we head to what may be unexpected pastures.  During the superhero Civil War at Marvel, I mercilessly beat both a dead horse and the characterization of Iron Man (“Herr Gruppenfuhrer Stark”) over the head because of my dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Lately, I’ve been less-then-thrilled with the characterization of Barry “It Didn’t Take!” Allen in his new series.  In both cases, it’s not because I HATE the character, but because I still remember how much more awesome the characters used to be.  In the case of the Flash, his Silver Age adventures were mind-blowing, followed by a pretty lengthy fallow period that led to an early-80′s renaissance for the character.  That return to greatness for The Flash started right here, in his double-sized anniversary celebration, an issue that puts the character and the very CONCEPT of The Flash in a whole new light…

Flash #300
Script: Cary Bates
Pencils: Carmine Infantino
Inks: Bob Smith
Colors: Carl Gafford
Letters: John Costanza
Publisher: DC Comics

Previous, on The Flash:  A freak lightning bolt arced through the window of his police lab, imbuing mild-mannered police scientist Barry Allen with superhuman speed and full control of his body molecules, and launched him into a career involving talking gorillas, time travel, a horde of super-villains, founding the Justice League of America, and standing against threat after threat that would destroy the fabric of the universe and life as we know it.  He’s taken his lumps, and even suffered the murder of his wife, Iris by the evil Reverse-Flash, a villain from the future who idolizes Barry in a “Single White Female” sort of way.  Even in tragedy though, The Flash has been a stalwart force for good, a crimson blur of justice, Central City’s protector against all that would threaten their way of life.

Except for the small problem that it’s all been in his mind, as Barry lies paralyzed and horribly burned by the electro-chemical reaction, slowly being poisoned and consumed by the various compounds his body absorbed.  His career as a super-hero is nothing more than a delusion, a fantasy created by his mind to protect him from the horrible day-to-day reality of his true life…

That, by the way, is the art of Carmine Infantino, who initially designed the red-and-yellow costume back in ’59.  By the 80′s, his work had become more stylized and angular, which seemed like kind of an odd choice for a character like Flash, yet it always seemed to work for me.  Given my strange dislike at the time for Jack Kirby’s work (I was 10, I didn’t KNOW any better) it’s odd that I liked Carmine’s similarly evolved work.  Either way, Barry’s doctor proceeds to explain what REALLY happened at Central City Police Headquarters the night the lightning bolt arrived…  It ain’t pretty.

Writer Cary Bates really sells the situation here, as well, giving us a perfectly rational real-world result for being doused in various acids and then electrified, and the doctor tells Not-The-Flash that he’s lucky to be alive.  Reading it now, I can’t help but be reminded of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again,” even  though this issue was created 20 years earlier.  (I guess both are reminiscent of the what-if questions raised by ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,” or even Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ 150 years before THIS.)  Barry’s mind is still able to race, though, and he desperately tries to find an explanation for his situation.  The doctor tells him that he has created the entire fantasy life around his childhood comic book hero, and rips up one of Barry’s copies of Flash Comics.  Barry (and any reader who knows what the book is WORTH) scream in agony, and the doctor leaves him alone with his thoughts.  As Barry tries to grapple with the reality of his new world, his friends and family arrive to visit, and Barry is initially thrilled to see them.  His joy proves short-lived…

Two things about this sequence fascinate me:  First, the “wall-of-text” nature of the balloons, a reminder of comics days gone past, actually works here, adding depth and pathos to Barry’s story rather than detracting from it.  More interesting, though, is Barry’s trying to involve WALLY in his delusions.  The kid listens to his paralyzed uncle’s ramblings, and leaves disgusted, remarking that Barry is now trying to support his delusions by dragging him into his fantasy life as Kid Flash…  The story is pretty ingeniously structured, as Barry’s thoughts end up being a retelling of the history of the Flash, including some of the most entertaining Flash moments.  Mirror-Flash gets melted, 1,000 Pound Flash, “I’m being turned into a puppet!” and more are retold as Barry tries to justify the life he believes is real.  A visit from Green Lantern and Elongated Man can’t break Barry’s stubborn belief that he is a superhero, so the doctor pulls out the big guns:  Enter Iris West, Flash’s dead wife.

Here’s where Cary and Carmine really pull out all the stops, as a tearful Iris and her family try to talk sense into their old friend, reminding him that she never actually died at all, but that his subconscious killed her off rather than deal with the reality that she chose another man over him.  Iris’ adorable kids are the last straw, throwing Barry over the edge of sanity.  His will breaks, and he laughs maniacally, finally believing the truth about his situation:  The Flash is merely a coping mechanism for his broken mind, and he has been lying paralyzed in an asylum for nearly a decade.  Ironically, the moment where Barry accepts his situation is the moment where his doctor reveals that something IS up, as he gathers all of Barry’s visitors together to witnessa bizarre ceremony…

When I first read this comic, I wasn’t as jaded as I am now, and part of me still thinks that the idea of Barry having created the Flash to escape from the horror of his day-to-day life is a pretty cool one…  for a one-shot, or a single movie.  An ongoing comic series, though, would require a more sustainable premise, and Cary Bates waits until the last possible moment to give us the reveal that the doctor is the villain.  As his final argument that The Flash doesn’t exist, the evil doc uses his faux-Professor Zoom to finally convince Barry that the Flash doesn’t exist, by having Zoom arrive to explain that he’s never even HEARD of Barry Allen.  It proves to be the final proof that Barry needs…

…the proof that this is all a scam by one of his oldest foes!  But, how can the Flash be two places at once, when he’s not anywhere at all?  Super-speed chicanery, Faithful Spoilerites, super-speed chicanery.  The real Flash lays the smackdown on Professor Zoom and grabs the doctor by the scruff of the neck, shaking him like a British nanny until he reverts to his real self:  Abra Kadabra, 64th century time-traveller, sorcerous madman, and general putz.  It seems that Barry heard the symbionts applauding the creation of Professor Zoom the night before, and realized that only Kadabra had the pathological nature that would make him need to be applauded in his evil duties.  But there was one OTHER small flaw in the otherwise perfect 3-D illusion…

Why would there even BE a REVERSE-FLASH without the presence of the actual Flash?  It’s a clever fillip to end the book, the kind of brilliant little twist that put the Flash’s original Silver Age adventures on the map back in ’59 or so, and the perfect ending to a nicely handled issue.  The “clip show” aspect retelling 30-odd years of Flash history could have felt cheap (like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Riker was stuck in an asylum, another instance of a story like this in pop culture) but it came off as both a loving tribute to creators that came before and an important part of the plot.  Barry uses his mind to beat the villain in this one, rather than his superhuman powers, a clever way to get around the fact that Flash, more than any hero save maybe Superman himself, is nigh-impossible to create a realistic challenge for.  This issue serves as a clear reminder why DC editorial is bound and determined to give us more of Saint Barry, and almost convinces me of the argument as well.  Carmine’s art isn’t quite up to his sixties standards, to be honest, but Cary Bates’ plot more than makes up for any possible limitations in that area.  This wasn’t the first Flash comic I ever read, but it’s the first Flash comic that I clearly remember reading, and it’s a primary reason for my affection for the character (coupled with his death scene in Crisis on Infinite Earths.)  Flash #300 is one of my favorites, earning a very strong 4 out of 5 stars overall.

Barry still shoulda stayed dead, though…

Rating: ★★★★☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Rodrigo always says that he wishes he could kill Psylocke to protect her character legacy, and I feel the same way about Barry.  Are there any other characters you wish you could kill or keep dead because of inferior portrayals?