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?

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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9 Comments

  1. arcee
    October 11, 2010 at 4:30 pm — Reply

    That comic was my first experience with the whole “everything you knew is a lie (i.e,) all in your mind” and ever since when I see this specific story telling plot used in other mediums etc., I always remember Flash 300.

  2. brainypirate
    October 11, 2010 at 7:09 pm — Reply

    re: Infantino and Kirby

    I’m so glad you made the comparison. I’ve always really liked Infantino’s work during this period, even though I otherwise preferred a more realistic style of art (e.g. Dillin & Giordano, Irv Novick, et al.). But I still haven’t warmed up to Kirby’s Fourth World aesthetic.

  3. Antonio Sanciolo
    October 11, 2010 at 7:59 pm — Reply

    yeah I wish I could kill most of the X-men, notably Colossus and Gambit.

  4. October 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm — Reply

    I love Barry Allen Flash. Flash, the Atom, and Batman from the 70s are great.

  5. October 11, 2010 at 9:06 pm — Reply

    I need this comic now! I have never even been told about this comic, the characterization seems to be great, and the art is very fitting.

    The characters on my dead is dead list are as follows…Barry Allen, Captain Marvel(Mar-vell), (in hindsight)the X-Men that died in Dallas, Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy(a given).

  6. Armaan
    October 12, 2010 at 8:14 am — Reply

    Frankly? That’s the weirdest comics book question I’ve EVER heard.
    I mean, in a world where “So when he met himself for the third time was he alive or had is existence been erased already?” is a pretty normal question.

    I’m sorry, I DO hate that they just bring characters back from the dead like they’re bobbing for apples, but I can’t bring myself to not be happy that a good person is alive again. I see comics from like, a people point of view rather than an editorial one. I mean, yes, things would be cooler if some resurrections hadn’t happened. Like Hal Jordan… dude. His legend – the darkest lantern of them all – would have been the MOST legendary in the DCU! I was just watching First Flight yesterday, watching it AS an origin story for the Green Lantern’s evillest member, and it was AWESOME.
    And I feel annoyed that none of the JSA founders have gotten around to dying.

    I mean, someone always dies in a crisis, and I feel like it is an insult to legends that they’re never important enough to give their lives to save the DCU.

    But I just believe that they have much more potential to inspire dead than alive. Cue Batman quote from Infinite Crisis, “Face it, Clark. The last time you really inspired anyone was when you were dead.”
    Even so.
    Glad he’s not.

  7. October 12, 2010 at 9:53 am — Reply

    I’m a little scared to answer, but you did ask so I can always blame you, right? ;p

    I’m not sure if this counts, but I would have preferred if Ben Reilly would have stayed as Spider-Man. Looking back, he was the perfect compromise and pretty good Spider-Man to boot. Wolverine would also be on my death list as well as the Punisher in 616 continuity.

    If I look at the DC side, Hal and Barry definitely. I wanna say Bruce Wayne, but I just want him to not wear the cape anymore. I also feel that Wildcat shoud step aside at some point to allow his kid to grow.

  8. October 12, 2010 at 10:38 am — Reply

    Wow. I’ve got to find this issue, if only because of that amazing art (I never could’ve imagined that Infantino could draw like that, so much like Simonson).

    I’d like to second Larry King’s suggestion that the X-Men I considered the strongest died in Dallas. That seemed to be the turning point where the characters just went downhill – and took the majority of the franchise with it (about the only one I liked from that period is Excalibur, the oddity of the 80s X-line). And as much as the death bugged me (the only true casualty of “Fall of the Mutants”), I’m afraid that reviving Doug Ramsey will turn him into a male blond Cass Cain instead of the non-combatant nerd I liked.

    I’d also say Supergirl’s death in Crisis should’ve stuck AND been remembered; no one knew what to do with her until recently (or so I’ve heard – I gave up on her title a while back), and her death was part of the larger Super-family reboot that eventually made a hash of the Legion. That lovely Baxter story where Brainiac 5 knew she was fated to die but still couldn’t help save her or stop falling in love with her alone makes me wish they’d just let it stick and have more than shock value.

  9. Mike
    February 2, 2014 at 11:29 am — Reply

    That “fallow period” is some of my favorite comics. Love late-period Flash. Great Infantino art.

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