Part One: Fleet Feet
Who was Wally West? Let’s start at the beginning, and then skip a lot of inconvenient stuff.
Barry Allen, the second Flash, debuted in DC’s Showcase 4 in 1956. A brilliant but slow-moving Central City “police scientist,” he stood one night before a neatly organized cabinet of chemicals when a lightning bolt struck, electrifying the chemicals as they spilled over him. For reasons known only in comic books, this endowed him with amazing speed. He could move so quickly that the rest of the world seemed to freeze; catch bullets, run up walls and across water, and vibrate his individual molecules so that he could pass through solid objects without damage.
Showcase 4 also introduced Iris West, Barry’s girlfriend and a reporter for Central City Picture News. Her job took her into all sorts of dangerous circumstances, prompting Barry to exercise his new abilities.
(It was put forth in Secret Origins Annual 2 ((1988)) that Barry was involved in a time loop. At the moment his body disintegrated during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, it was transformed into a sentient energy form, related to tachyons, that traveled back to the moment of Barry’s lab accident. There, the younger Barry was offered the choice of gaining speed and living a short life or remaining as he was and letting Iris die in a hostage situation. How much of this is valid in the post Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis timeline is unknown, years later, and largely mooted by DC’s New 52 reboot of 2011.)
Barry graduated to his own title in 1959; his first issue was 105, continuing the numbering of the Golden Age series Flash Comics, canceled in 1949. In The Flash 110, Iris West’s nephew, Wally, came to visit Central City. Wally was the president (and sole member) of the Blue Valley, Nebraska, Flash fan club, and was thrilled to be visiting his favorite aunt and the home of the Flash.
He was less than thrilled to be handed off to Iris’s poky boyfriend when Iris headed to work. Barry, however, told Wally that the Flash sometimes stopped at his apartment and was waiting in the next room. As Wally opened the door, Barry whizzed by and changed into uniform. (They’re not costumes, damn it. When filming the 1950s Superman TV series, everyone on set was required to refer to the long johns as Superman’s uniform.) The two talked as Flash demonstrated his powers, poor Barry forgotten as he supposedly waited in the other room.
Finally, Wally asked how the man in red gained his powers. Flash described the chemical accident as he and Wally examined the small laboratory Flash kept at Barry’s apartment, to use in emergencies. Wally was enthralled. He stood before a neatly organized cabinet of chemicals.
A lightning bolt crashed through the window, destroying the cabinet and soaking Wally in electrified chemicals. He quickly demonstrated most of Barry’s abilities. Barry took the kid under his wing; they made a kid-sized version of Barry’s Flash uniform and, at summer’s end, sent the boy home. In Blue Valley, Wally saved the day in a few small-town, 1950s sorts of crises, such as rounding up escaped zoo animals.
(Wally’s origin was embellished many years later to include the idea that Barry was no longer completely human and affected his surroundings in unknown fashion. This was used to explain the phenomenal coincidence of Barry’s and Wally’s origins and Wally’s periodic slowdowns, especially when he was not in regular contact with Barry. Another, less fanciful explanation was put forth in number 78 of Wally’s title.)
As Wally grew, distinguishing Flash from Kid became difficult as they rushed across the pages. The answer was a new uniform for Wally. In 1963’s Flash 135, an alien mind-over-matter device transformed Wally’s Flash-clone suit into the sleeker, hair-revealing togs he’d wear for the next 22 years.
A year later, in The Brave & The Bold 54, Wally joined Robin and Aqualad for an adventure. In 1965, Wonder Girl joined them to form the Teen Titans. The Titans got their own title soon after, which had two runs between 1966 and 1978. From 1980 to 1984, the title was revived as New Teen Titans.
By the mid-1980s Wally was no longer a happy teen sidekick. He became disenchanted with crime fighting when he learned the Titan empath, Raven, had manipulated his emotions in order to get Wally to join the New Titans. His aunt Iris was murdered by Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash. Barry later killed Zoom to protect another woman. Also, Wally’s speed was killing him. He’d been slowing down sporadically for a while, and now his health deteriorated each time he used his abilities.
Nonetheless, Wally was shamed back into harness for Crisis on Infinite Earths, the 1985-1986 miniseries that slimmed down DC’s reality from a multiverse to a single universe. Barry Allen died stopping the villain’s antimatter cannon, either beginning or continuing the time loop mentioned earlier. Time paradoxes make my head hurt. Wally was struck by a blast of energy from the villainous Anti-Monitor. Rather than killing him, it saved his life– but his powers were reduced from near-godlike to Marvel mutant level, his top speed around Mach 1. To honor his uncle, Wally pulled on the red uniform again.
The next year, everything changed. Wally was now the Flash. He got his own book. And he upshifted from somewhat difficult to complete jackass.
The 1987 Flash revival came from Mike Baron, a former journalist from Madison, Wisconsin. Two of his early comics creations, Nexus and The Badger, lost their homes when Capital Comics of Wisconsin folded. Baron landed on his feet at First Comics with editor Mike Gold. They formed a solid relationship and, when Gold moved to DC, he successfully pitched Baron as the new Flash writer.
Jackson (formerly Butch) Guice was starting penciller. His tendency to elongate legs was interesting on Wally but seemed out of place on the other characters. Guice didn’t last long — Mike Collins replaced him on issue 10 and was replaced himself by Greg Laroque at number 15.
From the beginning, the editors made it plain that The Flash was Wally’s book. Barry is dead, they said. Barry is not coming back. Wally is the Flash and will remain the Flash. It didn’t play well with some fans, but any major decision will anger a certain number of devotees.
Mike Baron quickly established his take on the character. Wally expended so much energy while speeding that he needed immense amounts of food and usually long periods of sleep following any extended use of his powers. Without the financial support of the Teen Titans, and with no useful skills, he became something of a mercenary. When asked to run a heart across country for a transplant, he requested a health insurance policy that would cover him for some months, air tickets home to New York, and a guarantee of food and a place to crash upon arrival.
Wally’s life changed drastically before the end of the first issue. He won the New York state lottery and Vandal Savage left a human heart (not the one Wally couriered) on Wally’s dining table.
Baron’s first story established Savage as a continuing antagonist. This Savage was just that – he seemed as much the caveman he once had been as the sophisticated villain seen in other titles. Dropping from sight after issue 2, he would lie in wait. Issue 3 introduced the annoyingly named Kilg%re, an alien electromechanical intelligence that had destroyed its home world and, having found Earth, hoped to settle down. Fleet feet and the assistance of fellow Teen Titan Cyborg seemingly put the Kilg%re away.
My first published LOC (letter of comment) was in 5. Editor Mike Gold cut it down to a one-sentence joke. Nice guy, good editor, utter bastard.
Baron stayed until 14 and introduced a number of new speedsters. Red Trinity and Blue Trinity were Soviet wards of the state subjected to genetic, chemical and technological enhancement to create superhumans. Red Trinity defected to enjoy the fruits of capitalism. Blue was sent after Red, to no avail. Later, Blue Trinity was captured by the Manhunters , then sold to Vandal Savage. One member of Blue Trinity was Christina, a woman so indoctrinated by her Soviet masters that she had only what identity was imposed upon her by her superiors and, to a lesser degree, her peers. The identity itself was not so important to her.
Meanwhile, Dr. Tina McGee of S.T.A.R. Labs was involved in a study of Wally’s speed. Her estranged husband, Jerry, conducted speed research of his own, using steroids and bioelectronics to make himself not only fast but strong and mean. As the Speed Demon, he nearly killed Tina, who had become involved romantically with Wally.
Then there was Velocity-9! A designer street drug, it gave ordinary humans temporary super speed but was instantly addictive and wasted addicts’ bodies each time they used it. Wally encountered dozens of V-9 junkies before he learned Savage was behind the drug. In the process, Wally was injected, causing him to lose his speed. Savage was injected as well. At the time, he showed no positive nor ill effects.
As if this weren’t enough, Wally was pressed to move from his new home because local officials thought his presence would attract crime. Then, presaging the 1989 real world collapse, the DC-USA stock market crashed and Wally was broke again. It was a big exit for Mike Baron, who later said he enjoyed writing the book but never felt he had a handle on Wally’s story.
William Messner-Loebs (sometimes credited as Bill Loebs) took over writing with 15. Best known for writing and drawing Journey, the story of a frontiersman in the early 19th century, Messner-Loebs worked steadily in mainstream comics for some years after leaving The Flash, writing Wonder Woman, Johnny Quest, and the Flash spin-off Impulse.. He created Epicurus the Sage for DC’s Piranha Press line..
His Wally, though still self-centered and a bit of a jerk, was not so callous as Baron’s. Wally still failed to understand why people weren’t always interested in his problems and showed little interest in anyone else’s needs. This had been understandable in a child, but Wally was now 20 and had responsibilities. He had to grow, or the title would be mired in self-pity.
Wally’s speed returned in 17, only to blip out again in 20 and return in 21. 20 also introduced readers to the philanthropic activities of Barry Allen’s former rogue, The Pied Piper. Issues 21 to 23 were tie-ins to Invasion!, that year’s DC crossover event. A number of alien races believed Earth’s many superpowered meta-humans posed a threat to the galaxy. They invaded (thus, Invasion!), seeking to gain control of the metas. One of their scientists, gone rogue, developed a gene bomb meant to strip metas of their abilities. When the bomb went off – you guessed it — Wally lost his powers again.
In 24, a reunited Jerry and Tina McGee recreated the conditions that first gave Wally his powers. After a chemical soak and a bit of an electrical shock, he was ready. Asked to run, he moved so quickly, without control, that the ground fused beneath his feet. He couldn’t stop until he’d traveled thousands of miles in just a few seconds. Refusing to believe Wally was dead, as others claimed, Tina and Jerry took to the road, following Wally’s burn scar across America. In the southwest they found the delirious “Porcupine Man.” Wally was badly injured and in serious emotional shock. Fortunately, proper treatment brought him back to both physical and mental health.
In the following issues, Wally seemed to grow up a bit, even wishing the McGees well in their future as they planned a move to California. In 28, he met a harsh TV reporter, Linda Park, who had reported on Wally’s cross-country wipe-out. Wally accused Linda of building her career on disasters and people’s misfortunes. Linda objected, but she gained no ground with Wally.
In 32, Wally moved to Keystone City, the more blue-collar town across the river from Barry’s home of Central City. Keystone, we were told, had until recently been hidden from all detection by villains who made the world forget the city was even there. In Keystone, Wally fought The Turtle and Turtle Man, Golden and Silver Age villains who had fought their respective Flashes with slowness — always without success. He also cemented his friendship with Joan Garrick, wife of the “late” Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick.
(For those of you too young to know about the DC multiverse, a quick note on the various Flashes. On Earth-1, on which DC’s Silver Age comics were set beginning in 1956, the Jay Garrick Flash existed only as a comic-book character. In Flash 123, Barry Allen vibrated off Earth-1 into Earth-2, where both Garrick and Keystone City were real. Following the compression of the DC multiverse into the DC universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Keystone was established as always having been on the new Earth-DC. Jay Garrick was “late” because he and most of the Golden Age superhero team the Justice Society of America were thought to be dead. Actually, they were caught in a miniature version of the legendary Ragnarok, fighting Loki and the evils of Asgard to save the universe — over and over and over and over and over. It wasn’t that interesting to most fans, but it kept the JSA from being summarily destroyed post-Crisis. Eventually, the JSA was rescued from its plight, allowing Jay to rejoin the world of Flashes.)
In what seemed an unfortunate turn for Wally, Linda Park left her position as a roving network correspondent to settle in the Twin Cities as a local news anchor. He came to her aid during her undercover investigation of a New Age cult; they grew to accept one another’s brands of arrogance, eventually forming a tight friendship. During the cult investigation, Linda began to channel the spirit of an 800-year-old Irish bard, Seamus O’Relkig, a more seemingly genuine spirit than the one “channeled” by the cult’s leader, who used special effects to bring in the suckers.
Kilg%re raised its head in 42, invading Tina McGee’s lab and infesting her coworkers with little tiny Kilg%res. (She and Jerry had unexpectedly taken positions at Central University.) Wally thought everything was under control — he could smash the little bastards quickly enough. He didn’t know they were a diversion; Kilg%re was in the university’s central computer and sucked everyone into “virtual space,“ which appeared to have been a full-spectrum VR experience. “Seamus” emerged and knocked Kilg%re on its virtual behind.
Wally thought it was too easy to be real. He was right. “Seamus” had always been a bit of Kilg%re inside Linda, though when it got there was not explained. “O’Relkig” was a rough anagram of “Kilg%re.” The machine intelligence thought if it appeared in an obvious way and seemed to have been destroyed, it would be able to wander the electronics of the world, unmolested. Though Wally learned its plan, Kilg%re went on its way, dissolving into the ether. What could Wally do, anyway? As the Kilg%re pointed out, it was too powerful to destroy and too powerful to catch. Before leaving, Kilg%re made Wally swallow a small object that, it said, would aid Wally when he most needed it.
Through this period, Wally’s confidence grew, as did his speed. While he could not approach the near-luminal velocities of his teenage years, he was faster than he had been since before the Crisis. He seemed no longer to need the long naps he’d once depended upon, but his appetite remained massive.
Issues 45-47 featured Grodd (a particularly super ape among the super-apes of Gorilla City, established early in Barry’s run) using the Mind Force to control and increase the intelligence of small animals throughout Keystone. Number 46 included the first modern appearance of Rex, the Wonder Dog, who described himself as “The dog at the heart of the world, the dog for whom the universe has waited.” Sounds a bit like something Grant Morrison would have dreamed up.
Messner-Loebs’s finest work may have been 48-50, which took Wally to the next level as a speedster and an adult.
Vandal Savage was dying, a victim of the Velocity-9 injection he received in 14. He moved no more quickly, but his body aged rapidly. Though Savage had lived 10,000 years, he had remained vital. That was over. In a final fever, he worked to monopolize the drug trade in the United States and drove prices into the basement. More addicts would overdose, the mob would tear itself apart, and society would reap the benefits, he said. Vandal really was a man of vision. At his side was Blue Trinity’s Christina, now called Lady Savage — a V-9 addict and Savage’s toy.
Savage kidnapped all of Wally’s loved ones (including his dog) and challenged Wally to a duel of sorts. With his friends booby-trapped with explosives, Wally was forced to stand on an energy-leeching plate that reduced him to normal speed. A short distance away stood Savage, with a pistol. Wally needed only to run a few steps to regain his speed. When he reached Savage, the hostages would be freed.
Savage gave the signal and raised his gun. Wally ran. His feet hit the sand. Savage’s bullet tore through Wally’s heart. End of issue 49.
As issue 50 opened, Wally lay like a man crucified, resting on metal, surrounded by metal, machinery deep in his chest. The Immortal One, a powerful young mystic who had replaced the Immortal Man post-Crisis, arrived and recognized the technology as alien, at which point Wally woke from an extended hallucination and screamed, “Kilg%re!” Keeping the promise made in its last appearance, Kilg%re had come to Wally in the moment of his greatest need. Having repaired Wally’s body, Kilg%re collapsed into itself and disappeared in puff of smoke and crackling electricity, never to be seen again (I hope).
Being “dead,” Wally took advantage of his situation. With the help of the Immortal One, he appeared before Savage and challenged him to another duel – all of Savage’s weapons and minions against one man who ran very, very fast.
Wally’s home had been looted, his uniforms stolen and the materials he used to create them destroyed. Coming to his aid, Tina McGee and her colleagues constructed a high-tech suit (inspired by the Dave Stevens-designed suit from the 1990-91 TV series) that would allow Wally to take full advantage of his speed. The uniform featured a larger chest emblem and an altered lightning-bolt “belt” that pointed down at front and rear. It dropped the wings on the boots. It was shiny. And it gave Wally white eyes like Batman. It was cool.
At Savage’s compound, Wally tore through everything he faced, sand fusing to glass beneath his feet. Ordered to kill Wally, Lady Flash (Christina, in a stolen uniform and yet another imposed ID) found the strength to turn on Savage, who shot her at point blank range. It looked that way, at least. Wally, from a dead stop twenty feet away, had caught the bullets. “I could’ve stopped them fifty feet away … two miles away … ten miles away! I can always stop you, Savage … even if you live another ten thousand years.”
Savage revealed a vest of explosives but was taken by the Immortal One. The two vanished in a traditional flash of light. Returning with his mom to their humble apartment, Wally was told by lawyer Ben Hayes that he was rich – again.
Through the next half-dozen issues, Wally learned that he was an heir to the estate of the Golden and Silver Ages villain, The Icicle (Joar Mahkent) – or, at least, “The Flash” was. Since Mahkent had battled both Jay Garrick and Barry Allen, it was obvious he knew there was more than one Flash and there could be others – or so Hayes argued. Mahkent’s relatives took exception. In time, Mahkent’s granddaughter told Wally she wouldn’t surrender the estate but would cancel his debts, which Wally considered a fair deal.
Issue 54 featured an outstanding story, “Nobody Dies,” in which Wally jumped from an airliner to rescue a flight attendant who was sucked out of the cabin after an explosion. Power Girl visited in 59, wearing the worst uniform of her career. I don’t say that because everything was covered but her head. It was just ugly. In Messner-Loebs’s closing bow, the last page of 61 showed Wally, dejected at the lack of romance in his life, getting the merest hint of a flirt from Linda Park.
Mark Waid arrived with 62. He had moved from comics fan to comics journalist as the editor of Fantagraphics’ Amazing Heroes, then to comics pro as an editor at DC, where he worked on Legion of Super-Heroes and Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. In 1990, he left editorial work and became a freelance writer. In 1992, he pushed The Flash in a whole new direction. Put plainly, Waid revved things up. Over the course of just a few stories, Wally stopped being a speedster and became a student of speed. Waid also brought a new narrative voice to the book. Nearly every issue Waid wrote was narrated by Wally.
“Year One: Born to Run” expanded on Wally’s origin and explored the idea that Barry may have been more than human, or at least different. After that the book was pretty standard hero/villain stuff until 73, which was a traditional comics Christmas story with some action and “good will to all” sentiment.
On the last page, Wally answered the door to see Barry Allen, in full uniform, very pleased to be back.