If you’re older than fourteen years old, and you read superhero comic books today it is because of a single comic book from 1961 – even if you’ve never read it. It can be contended that the single most influential superhero comic book of all time is the Flash #123: ‘The Flash of Two Worlds.’
The Flash of Two Worlds
During the so-called ‘Golden Age of Comics’ in the 1940s, superheroes were a dime a dozen. They were featured in short simple stories written for children. They had simple moralistic plots with quick resolutions. The plots frequently made little sense, and almost never acknowledged the events of previous comics. There were of course exceptions, notably Will Eisner’s The Spirit, but most of these stories couldn’t have held the attention of an adult.
Amongst the crowds of superheroes was one called The Flash. The headliner of the anthology series, Flash Comics, was a supersonic scientist named Jay Garrick whose exposure to heavy water led him to fight crime in a polished helmet akin to that of the Roman god Mercury. Debuting in January 1940 The Flash was something of a success. He soon gained a solo comic, All-Flash Quarterly and was a founding member of the first superhero team, the Justice Society of America. But after the end of the war, the popularity of superhero comics declined. By 1948, All-Flash had been cancelled, and Flash Comics followed suit the next year. When the Justice Society’s title, All-Star Comics, was cancelled in 1951, The Flash disappeared from newsstands for half of a decade.
Introduction of the First Flash
When the Flash did return, he would have been virtually unrecognizable to the children of the 1940s. In the pages of Showcase #4 in October 1956, writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino introduced audiences to a new Flash, police scientist Barry Allen. Struck by lightning and bathed in chemicals, Allen was featured in far-out sci-fi adventures which drew on the tradition of fifties science-fiction movies more than on traditional superhero comics, largely thanks to writer John Broome. Broome’s Flash played with fictionalized physics, travelling through time at faster than light speeds and vibrating his molecules through solid objects. While the storytelling of the fifties was moderately more inventive and interesting than the forties had been, these stories were still squarely aimed at children.
One of the easy ‘cheats’ of writing in a medium aimed at children was that the writer didn’t have to maintain much internal continuity. If Jay Garrick said that his favorite sandwich was ham and cheese in a 1941 issue – but then said he hated ham in a 1948 issue, no one would know the difference, because the 10 year olds who had read the first story in 1940 were 18 in 1948 and had left their comic reading days long behind them.
The writers of the ‘new’ Flash in the fifties mostly ignored the Flash of the forties save for a reference in the first issue to Barry taking the name from a comic book superhero he had read about as a kid. In 1960, Barry would help found the modern counterpart to the Justice Society, the Justice League. Suddenly, DC editor Julius Schwartz was bombarded by surprising letters from a small fan community that the creators had only been marginally aware of: adult comic fans. Some of the 1940s kids who grew up on superhero comic books had never stopped reading after all. They were few in number, but this small community of outcasts, viewed as some sort of puerile regressives by their friends and families, had been paying very close attention. Now they wondered how, if Jay Garrick had been a fictional comic book character to Barry Allen, could he interact with Wonder Woman in the pages of Justice League since she had also teamed up with Jay Garrick in the 1940s Justice Society stories?
In response to an audience they barely knew existed, writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino crafted a special issue of the Flash entitled “The Flash of Two Worlds.” In the story, Barry uses his super speed to vibrate his molecules at a different frequency and finds himself on another Earth, one very much like his own but subtly different. On this world, dubbed Earth Two, Jay Garrick was the Flash.
The rather prosaic interiors on the Flash of Two Worlds
In many ways there was little special about this comic. The characters are one-dimensional. The plot is fairly standard: the two heroes unite to defeat a team of Jay’s foes who have been ruling his hometown since his retirement. Even Infantino’s art, while charming, is nothing revolutionary. Despite this, the story became an instant classic. Why? Well, there are a couple possibilities.
Flashes of the Multiverse
This was the first real attempt by a sci-fi superhero comic to explore physicist Hugh Everett’s Many World’s hypothesis for existence: that there existed an infinite number of different universes occupying the same space as our own but where events had occurred differently. In time the two Earths would spawn dozens of other fictional Earths for DC superheroes to explore. Multiple Earths became a fairly classic part of superhero lore accounting for various disparate portrayals of characters over the years, while simultaneously being infinitely confusing to new readers. Considering the divisive legacy the multiverse has among fans, it is doubtful that this alone is what made this issue so important.
The Flash of Two Worlds also introduced the thought that perhaps the events of the comic books we read actually occur. Jay and his friends had been ‘real’ people on their own Earth, while certain sensitive individuals (comic creators) had subconsciously channeled their likenesses into being fictional characters on Barry’s Earth. If Jay’s adventures were fictional on Barry’s Earth, but actually existed in another dimension, then it stood to reason that Barry’s adventures – which are fictional on the reader’s Earth, may actually occur in another universe. This possibility was first explored in The Flash #179 in May 1968 in which Barry Allen visits another Earth, our own, where he is a fictional comic book character. In a way, one could argue that this is the most direct form of realism in comics as it is the only method that actually purports to portray actual events. As many mind-bending adventures and quality stories as this has generated, it still requires the ultimate suspension of disbelief, as it forces the reader to literally believe the story.
Barry Meets Jay
No, what made The Flash of Two Worlds such an important turning point in the history of superhero comic books is that it attempted to explain a discrepancy. In past-eras, conflict between the stories of two different comics separated by years wouldn’t have been addressed. By attempting to reconcile two vastly different comics, DC set the precedent that their comics were supposed to, on some level, make sense. For the first time creators acknowledged that the events of one story could affect the events of another. In doing so they opened the door to all new types of storytelling. Rather than being one-off stories, these comics were now telling ongoing serialized stories which interacted with one another. This allowed them to write more complex stories than ever before. If readers were familiar with what had come before, they could write more daring stories with the assumption that the reader already knew the backstory.
This assumption of familiarity allowed creators to give characters more depth motivations and unique personalities. It also allowed them to tell ongoing multi-issue epics with more nuanced plots than had been possible in the single issue stories of the previous generation. Now that superhero comics began to feature interesting characters in compelling plots they began to attract an older demographic. Many of the kids who read comics in the sixties, now never stopped doing so when they got older. As comics began to lose their reputation as being ‘for kids’ adolescents and adults who had never picked up a superhero comic were drawn into the growing subculture of folks who viewed comic books not only as entertainment but as art. The creators of the 1980s, frequently attributed with making comic books palatable to adults, were all raised on the comics of the 1960s but never lost their love of them because The Flash of Two Worlds had created worlds of superheroes with their own unique histories and casts that managed to remain entertaining, even to adults.
The Two Flashes Together
So where does that leave us? Think back to the first superhero comics you read as an adult. If you had been a fan as a child these were the comics that either retained you as a fan or returned you to the fold. If you were a new reader, these introduced you to the genre. The reason these comics had the depth and necessary resonance to hold your attention as an adult is because The Flash of Two Worlds created the worlds which created the fans who made the comics that brought you into the fold of comic book fans. How’s that for a flashpoint?