The Secret of the Speedster’s Success

An Analysis on why the Flash has until today proven more popular than the Green Lantern

January 18, 2004

By Avi Green

Many years ago, in the wake of the success of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman in the Golden Age, two characters – or superheroes – who’ve long come to rank proudly next to those titans of DC, made their debuts in the early 1940’s. One was the Flash, alias Jay Garrick (Flash Comics #1 vol 1), a scientist who could run at super-speed, which he got from accidentally inhaling certain chemicals in his college lab, and the other was Alan Scott (All-American Comics #16), an engineer who’d discovered a lantern that once belonged to a member of the Green Lanterns who, with its help, built himself a power ring that could control metal and such and used it for crimefighting.

Then in the Silver Age, along came two new characters with similar powers, but in different ways, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan (Showcase #4 and #22). The difference between them and their earlier counterparts was that this new Flash wore a mask and the Green Lantern acquired his power ring and recharging lantern directly from an alien member of the cosmic crimefighting force, the Green Lantern Corps (Abin-Sur), who contacted him by using his ring to lift Hal’s flight simulator into the air, depositing it near his wrecked spacecraft in the California desert.

Both of the above have since been replaced by two new crimefighters, one being Barry Allen’s own nephew, Wally West, the former Kid Flash, and the other, Kyle Rayner, an artist from New York. The difference between them and their earlier counterparts is that they’ve had to deal with more realistic problems than their predecessors did. (Hey, that’s one of the ideas that the post-Crisis era in the DCU was intended for!)

Both titles/heroes have had some very exciting adventures, both solo and together, in space and in time. Both have had some very appealing supporting cast members. Both have had an impressive rogues’ gallery of menacing villains who’ve proven quite capable of keeping them on their toes. And both even had a villainess and a semi-villainess who were far from being stereotypical (Golden Glider and Star Sapphire).

But, throughout all these years, what’s amazing about these two legends of the DCU, is that the Flash keeps beating out Green Lantern, not just in super-speed, but also in popularity! While even the Scarlet Speedster, like the Emerald Warrior, has been no stranger to sales slumps, his popularity always seems to be ahead of the latter’s. And unlike Green Lantern, which went through 2 periods of being in hiatus, once in the mid-1970’s, and another time during the late-1980’s, not to mention having the book’s title changed twice, (from simply GL to Green Lantern co-starring Green Arrow and also the GL Corps, as it was called from 1986-88, when the second volume ended) with the exception of the period between 1985-87 when the first volume ended and the second was being launched, Flash never went out of publication.

How is it possible that the Flash keeps winning over the audience more than Green Lantern does? Well, that’s what I am going to analyze as best as possible in this column. And I think I may have some pretty good theories and answers. And to start things off, here’s a letter moderated by Bob Rozakis from Flash issue #253 vol 1. that may give the best explanation about what makes Flash so popular:

‘…The key element was the characterization done by Cary Bates. In the past several issues, I have noticed a continuing emphasis on the home life of Barry and Iris, and quite frankly, I couldn’t be happier! Flash is the only DC super-hero that could be classified as “normal”. Superman and Hawkman are aliens. Wonder Woman was molded out of clay and Batman spent most of his life “preying on the vermin of the underworld”. Green Lantern spends most of his time planet hopping while Green Arrow is combing the streets, trying to put his life together. The Atom can’t come to grips with his responsibilities, Aquaman thinks he’s a fish. What the devil is Flash doing in the Justice League of Oddballs?

Barry Allen lives in the suburbs, with his wife who accepts his secret identity as commonplace. He works a 9-5 job downtown and plays bridge with his neighbors in the evening. This is a super-hero? Of course it is! Barry still has his own identity; his Flash alias has not brought any deep emotional scars. It’s been years since he’s even thought about the implications of a secret identity.

And that’s why I read The Flash. He has a solid durability about him, allowing him to be fresh today as he was 20 years ago. Under the guidance of Cary Bates, the Scarlet Speedster has become one of the most effective characters in all of comicdom and his magazine is the most consistently entertaining on the stands today. For this, I say thank you!’ –Dave Blanchard, Rochester, New York

Me too. I first read the Flash during the Cary Bates/Irv Novick years, and they were by far the best successors to the John Broome/Carmine Infantino team. And I think that the preceding letter to the editor may have given some of the best reasons, for starters, on why Flash seems to outdo Green Lantern, if not all the DCU’s super-heroes, time and again, which I’ll try to explain further.

-- Unlike the GLs, all the speedsters to date come from working to middle class backgrounds, something that many readers can probably identify with better than people who work in jobs like test piloting and aircraft designing (like Hal Jordan did), which can pay much more than a job in a laboratory can.

In other words, they’re from the same kind of communities and households that you and I could be from.

They’ve had their encounters with all sorts of bizarre other-worldly creatures, yet they still spend much more time in regular society than the members of the GL Corps do.

-- When the Flash first appeared in the Golden Age, not only did his own title prove to be immensely popular, it was awarded its own spinoff, All-Flash Quarterly, within just a year, making it the closest in popularity to Superman and Batman, the only two other superheroes back then with two ongoing titles.

Not only that, but a couple of notable characters, both big and small, have made their debuts in the pages of the Flash: Hawkman, the Golden Age Black Canary (mother of the BC we know today), and also the Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny, who went on during the 60’s to appear in his own backup stories in Detective Comics. He was also probably the second superhero in the DCU to get married (after Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle, who’re both parents of another DC speedster, namely, the beautiful Jessie Quick, who today has taken over for her late father as a crimefighter), namely, to Sue Dearborn, who, like him, had a penchant for being a detective just like him. In fact, even the predecessor for GL’s most notable female nemesis, Star Sapphire, first appeared in the pages of the Flash (in All-Flash #32, 1948), several years before Hal Jordan’s ladyfriend, Carol Ferris of Ferris Aircrafts LTD, would be brainwashed by alien forces into becoming the villianess of the same name. And when DC wrote that there were at least two alternate dimensions of earth, when bringing the Golden Age incarnations of their characters back into the spotlight, the Flash’s book was the first place that they showed it! “The Flash of Two Worlds!”, which debuted in 1961 in issue #123 of volume 1, featured the reappearance of Jay Garrick in a team-up with Barry Allen, and, like it says on the cover, until today, it’s been one of DC’s classic stories.

Still, there were some “firsts” that Green Lantern had in his own title: when it came to guest starring, the Flash appeared in his book first! Plus, his archnemesis Sinestro debuted before the Reverse-Flash did.

-- The Flashes were also among the first characters in the DCU to marry, with Barry Allen being probably the first major character in an ongoing title to do so, and all their wives so far have been ones without superpowers. What may appeal to many fans is the fact that the Flashes have all been family/neighborhood kind of folks, whether or not they’ve had children. Barry Allen was both the mentor and uncle to Wally West, teaching him how to be a good crimefighter and use his powers responsibly, and together they went on some of the most memorable adventures in the Silver Age, including "Land of the Golden Giants!", "Conquerors of Time!", and even "Domain of the Dark-Eyed Dragons!" years later. Theirs was one of the best father/son relationships of the Silver Age. And after Barry’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Jay Garrick then took up the role of a mentor and even guardian for Wally’s own future-born cousin, Bart Allen, known to some readers as Impulse.

In fact, unlike a lot of the other superheros during the Silver Age, it’s interesting to note that Green Lantern never had a teen sidekick. I’ve often found it odd that he didn’t, but, that’s what was established at the time.

Readers of those times must’ve also surely liked the tongue-in-cheek approach used in the Flash, one of the key elements that’s made it work so well over the years, in contrast to the more serious approach used in Green Lantern, and even the colorful Rogues’ Gallery, which is also notable for the fact that its members actually called themselves Rogues, and seemed to take it as an honor! The most popular of the Rogues includes Captain Cold, the earliest of them, who first appeared way back in 1957 in “The Coldest Man on Earth!”, the Pied Piper, who used musical instruments for weapons, Heatwave, the flamethrowing version of Capt. Cold, who also formed a friendly rivalry with the latter, Captain Boomerang, who wielded those very weapons as his form of villiany, Gorilla Grodd, one of the wackiest creations in DC’s line of villains, a mind-controlling gorilla from a secret city of talking apes in Africa, Abra Kadabra, the crooked magician from the 64th century, the Reverse-Flash, Barry Allen’s archnemesis, who’s regarded by many of the Scarlet Speedster’s fans as one of the best arch-villains of all times, and even my personal favorite, the Mirror Master, who came up with quite a storeful of technologically advanced mirror devices that he used for many of his schemes. Certainly even Green Lantern’s had some very good nemeses too, such as Sonar, Goldface, Evil Star, Lord Malvolio, the Black Hand, and, most importantly of all, archnemesis Sinestro, a former member of the GL Corps himself who became an evil member of the Weaponers of Qward, yet somehow, the tongue-in-cheek quality of the Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery and even his own more sinister archnemeses such as Professor Zoom, seem to have won over the fans even more.

-- And when Barry Allen passed on, what pleased many fans is that DC has until today respected his very honorable personality and image, in sharp contrast to that of Hal Jordan’s, which has been among the most shabbily treated in the DCU. For example, in the early 1990’s, in the Emerald Dawn miniseries, in a very awkward attempt to make Hal more relevant to the times, the editor attempted to tack on some very badly thought out moral flaws, such as Hal’s supposedly having once been arrested for drunk driving in his early years of being a test pilot, and when it was decided that the time had come to retire him from his role as the Emerald Warrior of earth, they once again let down fans by turning him into a villain called Parallax and wiping out tons of fellow GL’s within the galaxy, such as the Corps member Kilowag, even going so far as to destroy his own hometown of Coast City, apparently because that’s supposedly what qualifies him for his new role as the new Spectre. Not to mention that the recent work on his book, which is currently represented by his successor, Kyle Rayner, seemed to suffer from writing that, while it may respect the lead character, doesn’t seem to be interested in any way with the rest of the cast appearing in the book, nor did it try to offer any true excitement in the ways of adventure.

By contrast, the Flash’s book has been very well and consistently handled in past years, with Mark Waid having turned out some of the best work on it during the 90’s, and it maintains a very good balance of action and family/friendship. Under Waid, Wally West slowly came out from behind the shadow of his uncle and came in on his own as a superhero, Aunt Iris returned from the 30th century she’d been born in, as was discovered in 1971, in a story that was meant to recall Superman’s own origin, and with her came Wally’s successor as a teen sidekick, Bart Allen, aka Impulse, Iris’ grandson and Wally’s cousin, who had his own title that ran for almost 7 years. Likewise, Geoff Johns has currently proven himself a good successor, revitalizing the use of the Rogues’ Gallery, including the introduction of new members as well as the old ones, and in structuring Keystone City as the blue-collar capital of the world.

There were some steps taken to repair some of the damage done to Green Lantern in the past decade, such as in GL #100-106 Vol 3, in a time-travel story that told how Hal had first learned to be a test pilot when in the Air Force, a story that effectively retconned Emerald Dawn away, and I certainly hope, as well, that more can and will be done to fully repair any damage done during the time that Hal was transformed into Parallax. But until then, whether or not it leads in sales, the Flash still seems to be leading artistically, and is likely to do so for many more years to come, and it shows.

Copyright 2004 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

Home FAQ Columns Reviews Links Favorite Characters Special Features Politics Blog Comics Blog Food Blog