By Alan Kistler
The title of the Flash has been used by a legacy of different heroes who, through one way or another, have been blessed with powers of incredible speed.
It began on January 25 (my birthday, coincidentally) in 1940 when Jason “Jay” Peter Garrick, a college student in Keystone City, Kansas, suffered exposure to chemicals that granted him incredible speed powers. Able to outrun any catch bullets from mid-air, and vibrate his molecules at a rate that allowed him to phase through solid matter, Jay become the costumed hero known as the Flash, “Sultan of Speed.” A founding member of the Justice Society of America, history’s first superhero team, Jay eventually retired in 1951 due to government pressure against masked vigilantes.
Decades later, Barry Allen was a CSI in Central City, Missouri (Keystone’s “sister city”). One night, a lightning bolt crashed into his lab and caused a mixture of now-electrified chemicals to explode all over him, granting him abilities superior to those of Jay Garrick. Barry was actually faster and could even shift through time and space (though needed special equipment to control these journeys). Having grown up on stories about the original scarlet speedster, Barry became the new Flash and a founding member of the Justice League of America. Even in a world with other speedsters and guys like Superman, it became clear that Barry Allen was “the Fastest Man Alive.”
Barry was later joined by his nephew Wally West, who became Kid Flash. During the Crisis on Infinite Earths (also called the First Crisis), Barry sacrificed himself to save all of reality, running beyond the speed of light, his body shifting from physical matter into pure information. Wally adopted the guise of the Flash and served under the mantle for many years, briefly being replaced by his cousin Bart Allen (Barry’s grandson). Wally discovered that all speedsters drew their power from an energy field that existed outside of space and time, which he called the Speed Force. He also found out that the legacy of the Flash would last far into the future, with many heroes adopting the name over the centuries.
During the event known as the Final Crisis, Barry returned to life, his body reverse-engineered into a living, breathing human being. After the Final Crisis was ended, Barry discovered that he was actually the source of Speed Force energy, transmitting more and more of it across time and space with each super-speed step he took.
Jay, Barry and Wally all operate as heroes these days, each with their own distinctive Flash look. Now, there have been enough designs for Kid Flash and the Reverse-Flashes that I figured they deserve their own piece. So don’t be mad that they’re not here. And, as per usual, we are focusing on characters who really had adventures in the mainstream DCU.
Jay Garrick was the first Flash and was introduced in January of 1940, during the Golden Age of Comics. This was a time when most superhero costumes were not as skin tight as is the norm today. In fact, many of the costumes had more of an off-the-rack look, resembling something that could be cobbled together by raiding a thrift shop or the dressing room storage of a theatre, as opposed to costumes today which seemed to be custom-tailored spandex.
Jay fits into this category. The boots are a bit fancy, but the rest of the outfit seems to just be blue jeans and a red mock turtleneck. It’s a look that would be very easy and “realistic” to pull off in a live-action medium. But it’s still colorful enough to give us a sense that it’s a costume. The big lightning bolt on Jay’s shirt is simple yet also striking (pardon the pun) and memorable. I think the lightning bolts on the side of the pants are a bit much and evidently others thought so too, since these were quickly dropped.
Originally, Jay’s lightning bolt symbol was drawn similar to Barry Allen’s later symbol, hanging in the middle of the shirt. But it quickly became the practice to extend the lightning bolt to the belt. I think this later design looks better with the kind of shirt he’s wearing and it helps distinguish him from the symbol that everyone has come to associate with Barry.
The only truly outlandish elements in this design are the winged boots and the winged helmet. But these small touches serve a purpose. Jay was intended to be a “Sultan of Speed” and was introduced as a modern-day Mercury. The helmet alone makes that incredible clear and the boots can be seen as a modern equivalent of winged sandals from Greek and Roman myth.
The helmet was occasionally used as a weapon as well. In some of his early comics, Jay would frighten criminals by throwing a metal lightning-bolt shaped spear at super-speed, referring to it as his calling card.
But later adventures had Jay throw the helmet as a discus, hurling it at such velocity that it would slice through gun barrels. Sometimes he’s catch bullets with it if there were too many rounds for him to risk catching individually with his bare hands, possibly breaking his wrists in the process. In recent years, we’ve learned that this helmet had sentimental meaning for Jay. It had been what his father had worn as a solider in World War I and he had painted it silver and added wings to it when he decided to become a superhero.
Now some of you might be asking, did Jay have a secret identity? After all, he’s not masked. Well, the answer is yes, he did. Although we the readers saw Jay’s face clearly, we were told that the hero used his powers to vibrate his face at a subtle frequency, making his features appear as a blur to anyone he encountered. Some stories said that this also affected his voice, giving it a deeper and almost echoing quality when he was operating as a superhero. Clever trick.
In modern times, Jay has worn the same outfit. The Speed Force energies (along with certain strange things the JSA was exposed to in a couple of adventures) have kept him younger and more vital than he should be at his age, so he just seems to be a man in his 50s with graying temples.
Many historians consider Barry Allen to be the first superhero of the Silver Age of Comics. Introduced in 1956, the idea was to keep the Flash name, elements of the outfit, and the powers but to redefine everything else. This was to be a Flash for the new, modern reader, a character whose adventures would be less about common criminals and gangsters and more about fantastic, high-level sci-fi.
Barry has a great outfit. It’s immediately recognizable and has great symbolic value. The lightning motif is a clever reference to Barry’s origin, making it a much stronger symbol for him than it was for Jay. Jay had a lightning bolt on the shirt, but the main idea you got from his costume was that he was Mercury. So adding lightning bolts on the trousers just seemed unnecessary. Here, there’s only a small hint at Mercury with the wings on his cowl. The stronger impression is that Barry is connected with lightning. And that’s a great symbol since lightning not only implies speed but also power. Barry’s a formidable opponent, not just someone who can outrun you.
Let’s get back to the wings. Although Jay was meant to look like a figure of myth, there’s no escaping he could look rather silly with those enormous wings on his helmet and the ones on his boots. But with Barry, the wings are more subtle. You could almost miss the ones on his boots since they blend in with the yellow (or gold) color. The wings we can’t help but notice.
However, they hint at Mercury/Hermes without becoming dominant. They’re small enough that we’re not afraid Barry might catch them on something. And they also serve a function. As a CSI, Barry was naturally interested in helping his brothers and sisters in the police whenever he could and so he built a miniature police scanner into the cowl. The wings also serve as a radio for contact with certain people, such as his friends in the JLA.
Of course, the wings still aren’t entirely practical. But it’s a comic book about a guy who can run faster than sound, fights criminals from the far future, and occasionally hangs out with talking gorillas who live in a secret city in Africa. I think we can forgive him on the mask.
Another thing that just made this costume very cool was how Barry stored it. Since he was often surrounded by police officers, the last thing he wanted to do was just wear his superhero uniform beneath his shirt and slacks. So Barry developed a special chemical treatment that would shrink his costume to a size so small he was actually able to fit it into a hollow ring he wore (decorated by a lightning bolt).
When Barry needed to go into action, he popped the ring open and a spring inside pushed the costume out. Exposure to air caused the specially-treated uniform to expand to full size and Barry would then change into his secret identity faster than the human eye could see. That’s just so wacky, you gotta love it!
After the death of his uncle Barry in 1986, Wally took up the mantle of the Flash. He wore a near-identical costume. The only change was the lightning bolt emblem. Wally’s emblem seems to be a flopped version of Barry’s.
It’s one small change, but honestly I don’t like it. The angle of this lightning bolt just makes it seem less dynamic to me than Barry’s symbol. Maybe I’m crazy, but this emblem doesn’t convey the same power to me. To be fair, a few artists drew Barry with this symbol on occasion as well, but that didn’t last long. The classic lightning bolt design is just too strong.
Wally later got a look that still paid tribute to his uncle but was now his own. The material of this costume was meant to be somewhat reflective and a darker shade of red. The mask now had blank eye-lenses similar to what Batman uses. We’ve gone back to Barry’s symbol, but we’ve altered the belt.
This is actually a pretty cool look. It reminds us of Barry but now Wally can be his own kind of Flash. I’m up and down about the reflective nature of the suit. It is cool that it makes him look almost frictionless, but depending on the artist it can also come off as strange and gaudy. The new belt design is very strong, I think.
During an adventure with the JLA, Wally and his friends were sent into dream realities by the villain the Key. In his dream reality, Wally did not gain his powers from an accident with lightning and chemicals nor was he the protege to any Flash legacy. Instead, he was given a special, frictionless suit made of “condensed hyper-dimensional gel” by the New Gods (beings of celestial energy), which was connected to the Speed Source. This is a funky look and it’s mean to be a weird, off-beat design. The idea behind it is fun and it makes sense that a gift from the New Gods would resemble a figure of old myth. Now Wally is more like Mercury than Jay ever was, not just the god but also the metal. Of course, once Wally and the others woke up, this suit (which never truly existed) was gone.
Not long after he gained a stronger connection to the Speed Force, Wally wound up injured to a degree that he couldn’t run for a while, even with the enhanced healing that speedsters get. He had Jay fill in for a few days but then a situation came up where Wally had to step in. Inspired by the dream adventure he’d shared with the JLA, Wally was able to focus speed energy into a tangible form that wrapped around his body. This Speed Force suit propped him up and allowed him to run again.
Design-wise though, it was kind of lacking. This is like a weird, adult version of the Kid Flash costume. It’s good it only lasted a short time, because this is a very odd look and not nearly as attractive as the other uniforms.
Later, an adventure with Mirror Master caused Wally’s Speed Force suit to change. It now looked like Barry’s costume again, but with Wally’s distinctive belt design. Some liked this change, some didn’t. Some felt that Wally’s mask looked cooler when it was more similar to Batman’s. Some felt it made him look too mysterious when he was a friendly hero who, at that time, didn’t even have a secret identity.
I agree that Wally didn’t need to disguise his identity as much, but I kind of liked the blank eye look as a distinguishing feature from Barry’s design. And later on, thanks to some magical manipulation that was not at ALL similar to a later Spider-Man story, Wally did regain a secret identity. Either way, one cool thing about Wally’s Speed Force suit was that he would condense it into the shape of a ring and then when he needed to go into action, its energies would expand around him at will.
When Wally’s teenage cousin Bart Allen was temporarily turned into an adult (yeah, it was weird) and briefly took over as the Flash, he wore a costume that looked just like this retro look Wally had.
In 1990, CBS produced a live-action Flash TV series starring John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen. The show was a darker take on the Flash mythos, taking inspiration from Tim Burton’s highly successful Batman film. In this world, there were no brightly-colored superheroes for Barry to grow up on, just a few rumors of a vigilante or two that had operated in the past. Barry gained his powers in the same lab accident, but felt that they made him a freak and wanted a cure. When his brother Jay, a cop, was later murdered, Barry decided to avenge the death and become a vigilante in Central City.
In the comics, Barry and the other speedsters produce a strange aura around their body that protects it and their clothing from the majority of air friction. In the TV show, this was not the case so Barry’s costume was a matter of necessity. He got a special deep-pressure suit that could withstand his velocities and so we got this padded muscle look. It’s not bad and actually better looking than you might expect from a Flash costume.
The red boots may make more sense in real life. Gold boots with a red suit may appear gaudy, even if you have the gold lightning bolts accompanying it. The deeper color is darker than I would prefer for the Flash, but it makes sense in this darker world. Likewise, the Flash’s mask isn’t bad, but the face that his nose is covered make him appear more sinister than comic book Barry’s own,more open-faced look. But again, the Flash of this TV show was meant to be more intimidating, so I get it.
In the Superman Animated Series, and later in the animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series, Wally showed up as the Flash. His costume was basically the same as his second standard look in the comics, except not reflective and the lightning symbol was altered.
This look is still the Flash, but the lightning bolt is a bit curious to me. Not against the new golden outline around the circle, but I rather liked the bolt looking as it did and so I was surprised to see it simplified a touch. Still, that didn’t break the costume by any means.
THE FASTEST WOMEN ALIVE
In one story, Barry saw that his lab assistant Patty was standing next to a chemical rack that was about to be struck by lightning. Within the span of a second, Barry observed that the chemicals on this rack were different than the ones that had granted him and Wally their own powers and predicted that if they gave Patty super-speed powers, those abilities would be highly dangerous and unstable. He imagined an entire sequence of events where Patty made herself a costume, called herself Ms. Flash, and then inadvertently destroyed Central City due to radiation and energy being discharged from her body as her powers went nuts.
To prevent this strangely specific scenario from happening, Barry pushed Patty out of the way and she never had a chance to see if she would become a speedster. So technically, this costumed identity never actually existed But we readers saw it and Barry imagined it and it seems that Barry is better at designing costumes for men than for women. I mean, this isn’t exactly creative, is it? It’s just a tamer, less interesting version of Barry’s costume without the same striking mask or chest symbol. Boring.
Christina Alexandrova was given super-speed by the Russian government and was part of a trio of speed-soldiers called Blue Trinity. Later, she became a slave to the immortal villain Vandal Savage, calling herself Lady Savage. Savage then gave her a duplicate of Barry Allen’s costume, calling her Lady Flash and ordering her to kill Wally West. She refused and after Savage was defeated, she attempted to become Wally’s partner and girlfriend. When he rejected her, she later wound up joining the super-speed terrorist cult leader Savitar, naming herself Lady Savitar.
Christina’s costume is pretty uncreative. It’s just Barry’s suit with the mask altered so her hair doesn’t have to be tucked in. She just seems like poser or a copy-cat. But even if we didn’t blame Savage for this for not altering the suit more before giving it to her, this makes sense because that’s what she is. Christina is a sad, pathetic person who relies on others for an identity and so we can’t expect creativity from her. Fortunately, another woman wore the lightning who is anything but weak.
Jesse Chambers was the daughter of Johnny Chambers (AKA the speedster hero Johnny Quick) and his wife Libby Lawrence (AKA Liberty Belle). By speaking and visualizing the speed formula that empowered her father, “3×2(9yz)4a,” she was able to access Speed Force energy and became the hero Jesse Quick. During “Terminal Velocity,” Wally explained to Jesse that he believed he was living on borrowed time and wanted her to be the new Flash when he died.
Jesse’s costume isn’t bad. It’s primarily based on Wally’s. Wally’s style of belt suits the female form pretty nicely, arching down from the hips. It’s the mid-90s, so like many superheroes Jesse felt the need to add buckles. But since they’re just at the top of the boots, it’s not a big deal and we can assume they’re actually functional.
Jesse’s own costume before this involved goggles and a jacket (another staple of many characters in the 1990s). This look is definitely a bit dated, especially with the rolled up sleeves. But it’s not terrible either. The blue harkens back to Jay Garrick’s old habit of using all three primary colors in his uniform. The goggles give Jesse her own look and would be fairly practical for someone running at high speeds every day. The gloves may seem a bit biker-style at first, but they go along with the jacket.
Removing the jacket, we see that Jesse’s shirt is sleeveless. I don’t mind this. It shows off her well-developed arms and this, along with the other minor touches such as the goggles and gloves, is another thing that helps us see her as her own Flash and not just a female version of Wally, the way that Christina was.
Wally wound up not dying, of course, and so Jesse Quick never officially became the Flash. But it’s a fun possibility to think about.
In the story “Terminal Velocity,” Wally learned a lot about the Speed Force and the connection he had to other speedsters. His teacher in this was the mysterious hero called Max Mercury. Max had operated during the Golden Age under the name Quicksilver and revealed to Wally that he had actually been born in the early 19th century. His connection to the Speed Force occasionally caused him to jump forward through time by several years and each time he’d wound up in a new era, he’d made it a habit to adopt a new alias and identity. His life as a speedster had begun in 1838 when a dying friend, a Blackfoot shaman, had painted a lightning bolt on his chest and said a prayer to the spirits of the storm and the wind that Max would be given the power to save his clan.
When he was given these powers, Max was called Ahwehota – “He Who Runs Beyond the Wind.” To the white man, he was Windrunner. Max did his best to prevent American natives and American settlers from warring with each other. He was the first Western white man to be given powers by the Speed Force and so, in a way, he was the first Flash. His look is very simple. Trousers, shoes and red paint over his face. This is an effective design for what it’s trying to do. It evokes those who’ve been known as the Flash but it also fits into the context of its times. And it didn’t go over the top with Native American decoration, which could’ve made him seem like a parody character.
At one point, in one of Mark Waid’s final stories during his first run on the Flash title, Wally was gone and replaced by an aged version of himself from a parallel universe. Although our Wallace “Wally” West was an optimistic guy, despite the tragedies he’d seen, this Walter West had become a darker hero due to his own experiences.
The red had been replaced with black now. Red highlights give it some texture, but no denying that this is a darker character. The gold is now silver and a very different design. And the shape of the mask now gives a sterner impression. It fact, it seems to be an actual helmet. This, added with the boots and metallic bracers on the arm make this a Flash who isn’t just a hero, he’s a warrior.
It’s not what I want for the scarlet speedster I’d be reading about every month, but for Walter West this makes sense. And hey, it definitely is a good look in itself.
This wasn’t the only time we saw a red and silver Flash. In another Mark Waid penned story (with Bryan Hitch on pencils), the JLA were physically split into separate beings, dividing their superhero identities and their civilian alter egos. The new Flash-minus-Wally had a different outlook on life and decided he didn’t want anyone confusing him with Barry Allen. He made this new look.
This reminds me a lot of what artist Bryan Hitch later designed in Marvel’s Ultimate comics. For a movie, this would probably seem more realistic. It’s basically a simplistic red jumpsuit with slightly spikey bracers. The goggles make sense for anyone traveling at high speeds (even if you’re protected from air friction, surely bugs and dust must occasionally get thrown into your eyes). But the fact that the silver wings and chest emblem are the only decoration make it seem not quite as cool as the classic Flash look to me. Of course, it wasn’t really meant to be, this was just an amusing diversion into a different kind of hero.
Not long after his return to life, Barry wound up helping Earth’s heroes during the Blackest Night saga. During this adventure, he was selected to wield a Blue Lantern ring, powered by hope and given to those who inspire hope in others. Barry is a natural selection for this and that suit is pretty cool. It’s a great mesh between the Blue Lantern uniforms and his own Flash costume. And I like that the lightning motif is still the strongest element, so Barry still reminds us exactly who he is. Very fun.
WALLY’S NEW SUIT
During the mini-series “FLASH: Rebirth,” Wally used his command of the Speed Force to make himself a new suit that was a stronger distinction from Barry’s, now that his mentor was alive and well again. Interesting, this is basically the animated series look that Wally sported. And the mask seems to be taken from the live-action TV series where the nose was covered. Since he’s got a secret identity again these days, covering as much of his face as possible makes sense.
This is a great look for Wally in the context of the Flash today. Barry gets to wear his classic suit and now Wally wears something ripped from the cartoon that made him popular to many people who never a Flash comic in their lives. Now if Barry and Wally race side by side, you don’t get confused who is who. The masks are different, one has his eyes hidden, the symbols are different, the belts are different, one has wings on his boots, and even the shade of red is different between the two. Once again, Wally is a Flash in his own right, but not just “Barry Lite.”
And that brings us to a close, folks. But be on the look out for our look at the Reverse-Flashes and the Kid Flashes. They’ve definitely got some interesting takes on the what kind of style a speedster should be sporting (enjoy that alliteration there). So until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler is an actor and writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series” (check out the Facebook fan page!). He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who and vampires who don’t sparkle. Alan can be followed via Twitter: @SizzlerKistler. His work can be found at http://KistlerUniverse.com or http://www.youtube.com/user/CrazySexyGeeksSeries