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Flash Fridays – Showcase #13

posted on November 7, 2014

I’ve got to admit that the cover to Showcase #13, the Flash’s third tryout appearance, is pretty cool. When you’ve got a skull and crossbones painted on the nose of a torpedo that’s chasing after your hero… what’s not to like? Again, while the cover is credited to Infantino and Giella, it looks a little odd to me and makes me wonder. I wondered about it when I was twelve and I wonder about it now. The handling of the (for want of better words) ear wings and boot wings seem very un-Giella like to me. But who am I to argue with the credits in The Flash Archives? Chalk it up to everyone still getting a feel for the new character.

Which is what I did when the splash page shows the Flash referring to Center City rather than the Central City it’s supposed to be. Mistakes like that don’t bother me though because it tends to humanize the artists and writers. It’s reassuring to know that my heroes make mistakes like calling Peter Parker, Peter Palmer. Plus it provides me with a little cover whenever I refer to Crankshaft’s home town as Circleville rather than Centerville, or spell the last name of the science teacher in Funky as Kablichnick rather than Kablichnik (or vice versa?). It’s times like these that will send me to a Funky fan site to see what the correct spelling of my characters names really are.

The splash page is the symbolic splash that editor Julie Schwartz will explain to me in the letter column of issue #115. It was my introduction to the vernacular of comic books and what made Julie’s letter cols so special, and I will have much more to say about that when we reach that halcyon issue. We see the Flash running around a figurative world apropos the title Around the World in Eighty Minutes!, a take off on Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days which had been made into a popular movie at the time. The set-up is a fairly simple one opening with Barry Allen and Iris West agreeing to a date the next day and Iris chiding him to be on time. The monkey wrench in the plan is special watch that Barry has created that allows him to monitor police calls around the world. This allows the writer, as the first calls for help from around the world come in, to begin to expand on the Flash’s bag of speed tricks as well as the scope of what he can do. So we see the Flash racing around the world to Paris and up the side of the Eiffel Tower to foil a mad bomber, race to Egypt where upends a kidnapping by using his speed to tear down and reassemble a pyramid, stopping an avalanche in Tibet, and foil some pirates at sea. Pirates who have a submarine and the aforementioned skull and crossbones torpedo. It all serves to to demo Flash’s expanding skill set which Barry seems to be mastering at an almost alarming rate. The writer makes us think that Barry has missed his date with Iris by a day because of all of his around the world crime fighting, but all ends well when we find out that he has only crossed the international dateline allowing him to meet with Iris on time. The story does a good job of advancing the Flash’s powers, but contributes little else to the nascent Flash canon.

In the second story Master of the Elements however, writer John Broome adds a new member to the still small cast with the creation of Mr. Element. Once again building on a scientific fact, the table of elements, he creates a character who gains “mastery over the elements”. He uses those elements to launch a criminal career and bedevil the Flash. He’s also the first villain who tries to get rid of the Flash by shooting him off into space. Yes, this will happen more than once believe it or not and I’ll try to remember to keep a running tab as we roll along. Somehow providing a villain with an established background and motive, along with the ability to possibly return at some time in the future seemed imminently more interesting at the time and even today in rereading the stories. To a child reading these stories, the villain becomes a stand-in for whatever real life villains they face, and the story becomes an allegory for life’s real battles. Just like football is often touted for teaching life lessons, these comic book stories taught life lessons as well. Except that you solved things by using your head rather than getting your head traumatically bopped. In any event, Mr. Element fills that role quite nicely and immediately becomes a keeper. By the way, the Flash saves himself disappearing into outer space by vibrating enough to be captured by the moon’s gravity and to use that gravitational pull to slingshot himself back to Earth. Just like NASA would later do to sling exploratory probes through our solar system. Hmmmm. Maybe there’s a little more going on here than we thought. Stay tuned.

Flash Fridays – Showcase # 8

posted on October 24, 2014

Showcase no.8

The cover to Showcase number eight featured the second appearance of the Silver Age Flash (henceforth I will eschew the use of the appellation Silver Age since for my money this is the Flash… period). It’s an Infantino/Giella cover and, if I didn’t already know who had drawn the cover, I’d have sworn it was by Gil Kane. Which, of course is why Heritage Auctions has never asked me to moonlight as one of their art experts. Still looks like Gil Kane though. This only serves to underline the fact that everyone is still working to get a handle on the character’s look (and anatomy, it sorta looks like he just broke his right leg). The thing I find most interesting about the cover is that it has absolutely nothing to do with either of the stories inside. At no point in either story does a villain or anyone else for that matter point a finger at the Flash and say that he can beat him with one finger. Kind of odd for a Julie Schwartz edited book but there you have it anyway sports fans.

Moving on from the mysterious cover to nowhere, we come to The Secret of the Empty Box which follows a pretty typical pattern for the super hero stories of this era. It’s a four beat piece with beat one being the set-up, beats two and three showing the villain best the hero and beat four when the hero figures things out and captures the bad guy, with the ends being wrapped by the B story which in this case is the relationship of Barry Allen and Iris West. Bob Kanigher, the story’s writer, does a nice job using the front part of the B story to humanize Barry’s character and show off some speed tricks at the same time as he helps a young girl who has dropped her ring in a grate in the sidewalk. It’s a nice establishing bit that walks Barry right up to his meeting with Iris and the problem posed by the villain. A mysterious box has shown up in the Central City Square with apparently no way to get inside. Iris has phoned Barry to meet her there and because he helped the little girl recover her ring he predictably arrives late. He immediately deduces that that box is a ruse to distract from a crime being committed elsewhere and rushes off to find it. Again Kanigher demonstrates the Flash’s speed by having him change to his Flash garb in an arcade photo booth so fast that he can’t be captured in a photo. Also again proving that the Flash is faster than film.

The Flash captures the villain who as we learn later is merely one of two henchmen working for the main villain. The best thing about the villains are their costumes which consist of top hats, tails and a mask, but there’s no emotional investment in the character. Actually, there’s no character in the character. We’re not given a name, a backstory or even a motive (other than greed) for the showy thefts. As a result, the character became a one-off never to be seen again.

Contrast that with the villain in the second story The Coldest Man on Earth and the difference and the difference is pretty dramatic. Here we have the first appearance of Captain Cold who not only has a cool name but an equally cool Infantino designed costume and even cooler backstory. In it, Len Snart, a small time crook looks for a way to up his game by developing a weapon to defeat the Flash. Just a slight digression here… science and technology ruled the 1950s and to someone growing up in that era they were the magical answer to the world’s problems. That could also be flipped to science and technology proving the world’s undoing if used badly. So any skinny premise that involved science, even bad science, was granted plausibility by the comic book readers of the day. We, of course knew better, but if the writer involved science, sometimes just the word science, the audience would immediately buy-in for the sake of the story. Science and technology just provided a reasonable jumping off point. So when Len Snart bones up on cyclotrons, breaks into an actual cyclotron and jiggers it to turn his homemade gun into a weapon that can among other things freeze people into a block of ice, we were pretty much okay with that (my dad, other the other hand who was an engineer, didn’t think very much of the book in part because he knew way better. More on this later on down the line.) Unlike the villain in the first story whose feats go unexplained, Len Snart aka Captain Cold now has a raison d’être. The story then follows the almost catch, almost catch, finally gotcha pattern, but it’s done with a villain we can believe in and for whom we can feel something, and, most importantly, would like to see again. With this story, writer John Broome starts writing the bible for future Flash stories to follow.

One thing I found interesting is that in the last two panels we find that Barry Allen has a lab partner named Stan. This is the first and last time we’ll ever see Stan, but I’ve often felt that there was a story there, narrated by Stan, just begging to be told. Maybe someday.

Flash Fridays – Showcase # 4

posted on October 17, 2014

Showcase no.4

When I was participating in Tony Isabella’s driveway panel back in the summer, one of the questions I was asked was who my favorite superhero was. Without a moment’s hesitation I said The Flash (as did fellow panelist Mike Barr). Back when the time came to sell of the bulk of my comics collection, the books I kept were my Flash comics, and, in fact as part of the deal, I had the dealer fill out some of the holes in that hallowed run. I think the response would be pretty much the same for any other comic reader whose golden age (12) came when the Silver Age Flash exploded onto the scene. It was a special book for a whole host of reasons, and a seminal book for me personally.

I’ve decided to take a comics page from my buddy Tony and try to institute something I’m calling Flash Fridays. Starting with the character’s first Showcase appearance, every Friday (kinda sorta) I plan to write about each successive issue until I’ve made my way through the entire Silver Age run. A task of biblical proportions for sure. These comments and observations will be completely free ranging and not a strict critical analysis. There are many sources out there that can provide much more detailed and analytical insights. What this is going to represent is my personal journey with these comics as much as anything else. Where I encountered them, what they meant at the time, and how they affected my artistic and career choices along with what I thought about them using a set of standards purely of my own invention.

So let’s, as they say, start at the beginning which would be with the first Flash tryout in Showcase number 4. The problem with this beginning is that it wasn’t my beginning. I came on board with The Flash number 115 (which isn’t as far down the road as it sounds and will be a story for a future Flash Friday.) But that means that this issue will always remain a bit distant to me because it wasn’t the one I first fell in love with. I didn’t encounter it until the first Silver Age Flash annuals came out and it was just different enough to always seem a little alien to me. Which is strange because it was drawn by my favorite artist at the time, Carmine Infantino and inked by an equally amazing artist, Joe Kubert. It should have been a match made in heaven, but Kubert’s inks lent a much darker tone to my favorite hero turning it into more of a noir piece which on hindsight wasn’t totally inappropriate. He just didn’t look like my Flash. All of the signature elements are here, the fact that Barry Allen was a fan of the old Flash comics, the lightning strike that bathes him with various chemicals, the slow discovery of his powers and the unfolding of his relationship with Iris West.

Here’s where it gets a little personal. I don’t get the cover. Never have. The cover shows the Flash bursting forth from a roll of (I’m just guessing here) movie film. The question that begs for an answer is… Why? Is he supposed to be faster than film? Film isn’t very fast. I never got the connection. Plus, the figure of The Flash is running straight at the reader which makes it that much tougher to illustrate and convey the feeling of speed. For my money, the picture that should have been the cover is the splash page from the first story, Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt!. Here we see The Flash symbolically bursting forth from a comic book… his comic book actually, and the symbolism makes much more sense (I learned what a symbolic splash was from Julie Schwartz in the Flash letter column in number 115). Plus the figure of The Flash is running at a three quarter angle which allows for a much more dynamic depiction of foreshortened speed. The splash beautifully says it all.

Then there’s the scene in the diner when Barry the waitress drops a tray full of food and Barry snatches it out of the air. We see it as if it’s happening in slow motion and the conceit is brilliant. The POV switches to Barry and we see it as it would appear to him. To a man moving very fast, the world around him would seem to be moving much slower. This concept would be little used (I think) moving foreword where The Flash would mostly be shown from the reader’s POV as multiple figures moving through the panel. That’s my impression anyway, but we’ll see if it holds-up as we move along on this little journey. It wouldn’t be used again as effectively until the movie X-Men:Days of Future Past when Qucksilver’s speed is displayed in a similar manner.

The fact that Barry is inspired to become the Flash from reading Flash comics is a great touch. Whether Bob Kanigher the writer or Julie Schwartz the editor had in mind what it would eventually become is sadly left to the ages to debate, but, for my money, I’d be willing to bet the pharmacy that Julie had that one in his back pocket all along. Flash’s foe the Turtle Man is a nice counterpoint, and the turtleneck sweater is cute, but I was already used to the Flashy (pun intended – just for the record, from here on out, they’re all intended, kids) costumed foes I’d already encountered by the time I’d read this so he came off as a little quiet to me. As an origin story, though, it did a near perfect job of introducing the new iteration of The Flash.

The second story The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier comes off as, well, a second story. John Broome’s initial take on a time travel story would soon evolve into a more sophisticated approach. The villain is a bald headed guy from the future which would become (trust me on this) an unfortunate Infantino trope when it came to representing people from the future as well as human identities for Grodd the super gorilla. What is fun to observe art wise is Infantino’s early attempts to show the new Flash running. While traditional running poses were fine for the older Flash, the sleeker Silver Age model called for more streamlined poses, and, while Carmine would eventually own those looks, these early attempts were still a little awkward. The actual story is rather pedestrian and, had things continued in this vein, the long term outcome for the new character might not have been as rosy. Fortunately changes in the approach were in the offing, but let’s save that story for another Flash Friday.

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