Retro Review: Flash Comics #1 (1940) – “Origin of the Flash”

Retro Review takes a look at influential issues of DC Comics books and measures their artistic integrity against their cultural and symbolic importance to the DC Universe and comic books in general.

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Flash Comics #1 (1940) – “Origin of the Flash”

Written by Gardner Fox

Art by Harry Lampert

Published: January 1940 (DC Comics)

Grade: C+

This year marks the 75th anniversary of a number of characters across the DC Universe, but arguably the most iconic among them is the Flash. And though many are now familiar with Barry Allen thanks to the critical success of The Flash television show and his inclusion in the upcoming cinematic universe, it was not Barry that originated the mantle of the iconic hero. Long before the red and yellow one piece suit, before the Cosmic Treadmill and well before the existence of the Speed Force, there was another speedster who began it all. In fact, throughout the first 16 years of the character’s run, Flash Comics followed the exploits of Jay Garrick, otherwise known as the Golden Age Flash.

Penned by Gardner Fox, Jay Garrick made his debut as the feature story in Flash Comics #1, in the somewhat obviously titled story “Origin of the Flash”. As promised, Fox takes the reader through the events that allowed Jay Garrick to become the “fastest thing on Earth”. A student at Midwestern University, Jay was a lead-footed football player trying to win the heart of Joan Williams. He made up for his failures on the field as a promising scientist experimenting with “hard water vapours”. Late one night, while working in his lab, Jay accidentally knocks over his experiment, inhaling the hard water fumes and passing out. The vapours enhanced Jay’s speed, allowing him to run, move, speak, and think at superhuman speeds.

Origin of the Golden Age Flash - Flash Comics #1, DC Comics

Origin of the Golden Age Flash – Flash Comics #1, DC Comics

Fast-forwarding to the present day, Jay runs into Joan, who informs him that her father has been kidnapped. In that moment, Jay is forced to use his speed to save Joan from an attempted drive-by assassination, after which point he joins the search for her father, who is being held and tortured by criminals seeking his secret military base. Joan explains to Jay that the criminals, known as the Faultless Four, are scientific geniuses after the atomic capabilities hidden at her father’s base. The Flash tails one of the Four to their hideout, rescuing Major Williams and eventually foiling the schemes of the Faultless Four.

The Flash rescuing Major Williams - Flash Comics #1, DC Comics

The Flash rescuing Major Williams – Flash Comics #1, DC Comics

In broad strokes, the story is enjoyable, moving somewhat predictably from beat to beat; origin to conclusion. But broken down further, Gardner Fox’s script is surprisingly flawed. First and foremost, the story’s structure is awkward, at best. Instead of weaving the criminal element into the Jay’s origin of the Flash, the two plots form almost entirely separate stories. The only real link between the two is Joan, but the part she plays in the origin plot is all but non-existent.

Moreover, once the story properly launches into the criminal plot, it feels as though there are too many beats. Joan tells Jay the situation, Jay saves Joan, criminals gloat, Jay catches criminal in a lie, Joan describes criminals, Jay finds criminals and saves the Major, Jay returns to criminal hideout and overhears plans but does nothing to stop them, Jay waits to catch them in the act and saves civilians, Jay finds criminal hideout again, Jay chases one criminal, criminal dies, Jay and Joan share a cheeky final moment. The story does so much useless jumping back and forth between scenes, inexplicably adding steps where there should be none, that it almost feels as though Fox did not have enough story to fill his page allotment.

Where Fox’s script takes what could be one or two simple stories and makes them needlessly more complicated, Harry Lampart’s art is refreshingly simple. His lines are strong, with vibrant, solid colours throughout. It should come as little surprise that the best example of this vibrancy is in the Flash himself – the blue pants and red shirt, each with their yellow lightning bolt, and the winged helmet are now iconic in terms of the “classic” Flash. Lampart’s art is equally strong in close-up frames or panels of dialogue, where he manages to give each character a look that is all their own. If there is a point of weakness in terms of Lampart’s contributions, it is in scenes of action. There are a few frames where the positioning of figures and perspective of the artwork are completely off, which are made all the more noticeable in contrast with his capable handling of faces and calmer scenes.

The Flash saving a crowd from a spray of bullets - Flash Comics #1, DC Comics

The Flash saving a crowd from a spray of bullets – Flash Comics #1, DC Comics

Reading “Origin of the Flash” is an exercise in irony. The fastest man alive, the Flash is quite literally a symbol of expedience and efficiency. And yet, the story refuses to take a cue from its eponymous hero, meandering in and out of relevant plot points seemingly at random. And in the moments where the story can distract the reader from the troubled plot with action scenes, Lampart’s artwork fails to live up to the awe and wonder of witnessing the Flash’s speed. In one instance, an entire panel of solid text explains how the Flash can catch a bullet. It is as if they recognized that neither the story nor the artwork were adequately conveying the abilities of their new character.

Of course, as readers of the comics 75 years later we have the benefit of hindsight when analyzing the artistic components of the story. But what is clear is that in spite of its obvious faults, “Origin of the Flash” struck a chord with its readers. It became not only one of the most popular comics of its time, but the legacy of the character is one of the most robust in all of comics. Since 1940, there have been four Flashes, a number of Kid Flashes, and several other speedsters both good and evil. And even after Barry Allen replaced Jay as the Flash in the Silver Age of Comics (relegating Jay and his Golden Age adventures to Earth-Two), the influence of this first appearance was felt. Jay is cited as the in-continuity as the inspiration to Barry adopting the mantle of the Flash – post-Crisis they were made part of the same timeline, but pre-Crisis Barry literally was influenced by issues of Flash Comics he himself read. Those comics would later form the foundation of the groundbreaking “Flash of Two Worlds” story and the birth of the Multiverse itself.

Perhaps that long history is owed to the relative simplicity of the Flash’s power set. Super-speed is an intuitive superpower that does not require much explanation. Or perhaps readers liked the idea of a character that relied equally on his mind as on his body (much like Batman). Personally, I believe that the kernel of success in Flash Comics #1 is the fun of the issue. The surprise of people as a blur rushes past them, the silliness of Jay playing tennis by himself, and the coy secrecy of his identity all reinforce the lighthearted nature of the character – something which remains to this day.

Bonus thoughts:

Major Williams in the Faultless Four's mirrored torture room - Flash Comics #1, DC Comics

Major Williams in the Faultless Four’s mirrored torture room – Flash Comics #1, DC Comics

– I’m not sure that I understand the science behind the “mirror room” torture. I certainly don’t understand how all the mirrors are “stealing” the mind of the Major.

– Obviously, comic books rely on a certain suspension of disbelief. That has never been put to a greater test than the shotty “science” behind hard water vapours granting Jay Garrick his speed.

– Unlike Lois Lane’s debut two years earlier, the first appearance of Joan Williams leaves a lot to be desired. Vacuous, superficial, and largely inconsequential are the best ways to describe her.