Once again, it is time for me to continue a proud tradition of celebrating this special day of the year by taking an incisive look at a classic comic book.
The general idea is this: I scrutinize a Golden Age Superhero Debut Story with a modern eye, trying to evaluate it entirely on its own merits, as if I literally had never before
seen or heard of the superhero in question. Then I post the results of my careful study of this material, describing what it actually got right (or often wrong).
In past years, I have offered my no-holds-barred opinions about the debuts of the characters known as "Superman," "Batman," "Captain Marvel," "The Sub-Mariner and The Human Torch"
(since they debuted in the same issue), and "Plastic Man and Phantom Lady"
(since they, too, debuted in the same issue). Now I've finally worked my way around to Flash Comics #1,
specifically the debut story of The Flash (Jay Garrick), scripted by Gardner Fox and drawn by Harry Lampert in a tale which seems to lack a story title. (Note: I thought I was going to do the Hawkman debut too, but decided it was actually sufficiently well-plotted that I wouldn't have much room to let myself run wild. Also, the Flash thing ran longer than I expected.)
I'll run you through the plot.
The top part of Page One shows us the hero in his spiffy costume (heavy on the red and blue, with a yellow lightning bolt on his chest, and other accessories). A caption describes his speed in glowing terms; then we back up to learn how he became so incredibly fast.
Jay Garrick is "an unknown student at Midwestern University." A girl named Joan is refusing to go on a date with him. She initially cites the fact that he's a "scrub" on the school football team, then insists that the problem runs deeper than that. With his build and brains he could be a star (she says confidently, though I'm not sure she's hit upon the complete winning formula).
Note on the jargon: I don't know if athletes still call each other "scrubs" today. I think the last time I ran across that usage of the word was many years ago when I reread the juvenile novel Horace Higby and the Field Goal Formula
by William Heuman. The "scrubs" seemed to refer to every player who wasn't
part of the starting line-up for the school football team. What I think of as "second-stringers" and "third-stringers."
Anyway! In the next (single-panel) scene, we see Jay on the practice field, and we learn he has acquired the nickname "Leadfoot" (not meant as a compliment). On the other hand, we are assured that he's "a brilliant student" in the laboratory. He stays up all night working on something with "hard water gases" . . . and at three thirty, he pauses to smoke a cigarette.
(So Jay knows he isn't all the athlete he can be . . . and his way to cope with stress is to occasionally relax by poisoning his own lungs with carcinogenic smoke? It doesn't seem to occur to him that there might be a cause-and-effect relationship between these two things?)
While smoking, he accidentally knocks over some glassware which shatters on the floor, releasing the aforementioned hard water. (Gee, wasn't it just a few panels ago that we were assured he's brilliant
when doing lab work?) Jay inhales the fumes and passes out . . . until his professor comes in a few hours later and yells for help. In one panel, we see Jay in a hospital bed, eyes closed, while the caption explains: "Jay lies betweeen life and death for weeks . . ."
Then, in the next panel, he's sitting up, wide awake, looking at the meal served to him by a nurse, and claiming he could eat a horse! The implication seems to be that there was precious little the doctors could do for him, other than just monitoring his vital signs and waiting for his body to recover on its own.
One white-bearded, bespectacled doctor assures Jay's mentor (Professor Hughes) that twenty different tests all indicate that Jay Garrick will soon be "the fastest thing that ever walked on Earth!" He adds helpfully that "Science knows that hard water makes a person act much quicker than ordinarily . . ." (I have no idea whether or not that is loosely based on anything that scientists were actually saying circa 1939.)
Soon Jay is up on his feet again, and showing off by moving very
fast. Literally faster than the human eye can see, in fact. When his football team is playing "the state game," Jay spends most of it on the bench, presumably because he forgot to mention
to the coach that he is a great deal faster now. But then Bull Tryon (the captain of the team) gets hurt, and Jay is sent in to replace him because nobody else is left to fill that slot. His teammates greet this news with all the enthusiasm you'd expect, based on their painful memories of his previous "Leadfoot" performance on the practice field. One player says dolefully: "It's 30 to 0 against us now!! It'll be 90
Then Jay gleefully hogs the spotlight by scoring touchdown . . . after touchdown . . . after touchdown, with the opposing team never having a prayer of seeing him coming and tackling him short of the goal line. Midwestern University wins, 65
to 30. His new best friends (the other players) carry him triumphantly off the field. Furthermore, Joan agrees to go on a date with him! (I'm not sure if she understands
that he didn't really take her previous advice about applying himself to become much better at the game; he just benefitted from sheer dumb luck.)
Then they both graduate. It appears that while they may have gone on one or two dates, they do not regard themselves as a "couple." No suggestion, for instance, that marriage has even been discussed as a possibility. Joan says she'll be helping her father in his "atomic bombardier" research, and Jay says he's taking an assistant professorship at Coleman University in New York (apparently somewhere in New York City, judging by later evidence). After he's settled in to his new job, he starts amusing himself by terrifying a gang of robbers with his incredible speed (in a scene we basically don't even get to see! Just the aftermath). It seems to be at this time that he invents the costume and alias of "The Flash." (We see his costume in the bottom right-hand corner of Page 6, and then he won't wear it again until Page 10.)
One day Joan comes to visit him at Coleman University, arriving just as Jay is flaunting his super-speed by playing tennis with himself,
darting from one side of the net to the other much faster than the ball does . . . (who needs a secret identity, anyway?). Joan says she has come to ask for help because her father has been kidnappened. She's barely said that when a passing car tries to turn her into the victim of a drive-by shooting. Jay, of course, catches the bullet in mid-trajectory -- and then assures her she can tell him all about it tonight. Why he can't start working on the case right now
-- chasing that car, for instance -- is, of course, left unexplained! Fortunately, Joan doesn't seem to mind
being told to wait a few hours. (After all, it's not as if her own father were in mortal peril or anything . . . oh, wait . . .)
We now cut to the secret hideout of some bad guys whom we soon learn are called "The Faultless Four." Over the next few pages, we will learn that they are all brilliant scientists (but amoral). We also learn that their current plan is a bit odd.
First: They wanted to capture Joan's father, the atomic researcher. (This has already been accomplished as we first meet them.)
Second: When they couldn't persuade him to tell them everything (not even after taking the extreme step of putting him in "the room of mirrors" -- the fiends!), they decided it was time to kill his daughter. Which they mistakenly believe has now been done. (The driver simply reports Joan is dead; he didn't linger on the scene to make sure she had fallen down with a lethal wound.)
Third: One of them, Sieur Satan, believes that the next logical step is for Williams to spill his guts about his research project!
That made me blink, because it seemed to me that killing Williams's darling daughter, and boasting of having done so, was more likely to make him even less
inclined to cooperate. My approach might have involved capturing her alive, and then threatening
to make her die a slow and painful death if her father didn't crack. (Ahem. If
I were a greedy psychopath, I mean.)
But it turned out that there was method in the Faultless Four's madness! The next part of the plan went this way:
Fourth: The master surgeon of the group, Serge Orloff, says he will offer to bring Joan back to life
as soon as her father tells all! Then (says Sieur Satan) the Four will sell the secret of the atomic bombardier (whatever that is) "to several foreign nations . . . for a cool million from each!"
How would Dr. Orloff achieve that remarkable trick of raising the dead by adroit use of his trusty scalpel? Does he have authentic magic powers? I have no idea!
And apparently neither did writer Gardner Fox, since that alleged ability is never referred to again after the one panel in which Orloff mentions this part of the plan. But at least we've been assured that the Four did have something remotely resembling
a coherent plan for using Joan's death to gain additional leverage over her father, as opposed to just making him angrier!
One of the four, posing as an undertaker, goes to the Williams home to collect the corpse. (He is still taking it for granted, without any confirmation, that the attempted shooting had been totally successful -- not just wounding her, but killing her!)
It is unclear why this man assumes that the fresh corpse of a young lady will probably be stored inside her home, just waiting for an uninvited undertaker to pop in and offer to take it off the hands of whomever has custody of it. Wouldn't the corpse in a homicide case be far more likely to have been rushed to a morgue, and now be undergoing an autopsy? At any rate, when the "undertaker" discovers Joan is still alive and well, he leaves hastily. But Jay is on the scene, and the "undertaker" has already acted suspiciously enough that Jay follows him -- having changed into his Flash costume in the proverbial blink of an eye (between panels) after casually mentioning to Joan that "This looks like work for The Flash!
" (As far as I know, that is the moment when she first learns of his dual identity.)
The next part is predictable. Jay Garrick trails the bad guy's car, finds the lair of the Faultless Four, and rescues Joan's father, carrying him at super-speed back to his home. Then Jay runs right back to the lair of the Faultless Four (whom he taunted on his first visit by plucking another bullet out of the air, but didn't really fight or try to subdue). On the return trip, Jay is unseen by the Four as he overhears them planning to stage an incident at Coney Island tomorrow to stir up a panic and distract the police. So he decides to wait to catch them red-handed "in the act of murder!!"
(I blinked again. Why not just arrest them now? Tie 'em up at super-speed and call the FBI to take it from there? With Major Williams's testimony, you've already got them cold on the federal raps of kidnapping and espionage. And the attempted murder of Joan could probably be proved in court, too. Doesn't all that count for anything? Why allow additional risk to a great many other innocent lives before you wrap up the case?)
So one of the bad guys uses a plane the following morning to try to strafe the crowds as Coney Island Beach. Jay was standing there just waiting for this opportunity. He grabs all the bullets in mid-air, and the pilot realizes what's going on and flies away.
When Jay finally confronts the full membership of the Faultless Four in their hideout (the pilot somehow got back to base faster
than The Flash did?!), all four soon die. Three of them are killed by their comrade-in-arms, Sieur Satan. Apparently he had not mentioned to the others that he had rigged up one room to electrocute anyone standing within it at the moment he threw a switch in the next room. Naturally, Jay Garrick zipped out of the booby-trapped room in the nick of time. Then Sieur Satan tries to get away in a fast car, loses his composure, and has his car go right through a railing and down into a ravine, where he dies in the crash.
In the last panels of the tale, it is clear that Major Williams is still clueless about the identity of The Flash, and his daughter Joan Williams is playing dumb on that topic (but gives Jay a wink to make sure he realizes she picked up on it when he previously referred to himself as "The Flash").
So that's the plot. Let's take inventory. What have we learned
Several valuable lessons! I'll number them for your convenience.
1. If your athletic performance in school is disappointing to you (or to that special person whom you wish to impress), then the best course of action involves exposing yourself to performance-enhancing chemicals to transform you into the new superstar of the team! (But would you believe that some
people in the real world are so narrow-minded about these things that they call it a "scandal" whenever college football coaches are caught distributing anabolic steroids to their players?)
2. Even when you, in your civilian identity, make a point of repeatedly demonstrating on the football field and
on the tennis court that you can run back and forth with blinding speed, nobody will figure out that this strange new adventurer known as "The Flash" might have some close connection to yourself! Even though "Flash" doesn't wear a mask, or even a false beard. In other words, you can be as stupidly self-indulgent as you please, and it won't come back to haunt you, because everyone else is guaranteed to be dumber
than you are! (Don't we all wish that were true?)
3. The first time you do the "superhero" bit, there's no need to actually turn the gang of robbers over to the police. Just terrorize them with your stunts, and reclaim the stolen loot, and then leave the robbers alone to rethink their lives. What could possibly go wrong with such a brilliant plan?
4. If you are The Fastest Man Alive, and if you are right there on the scene when someone shoots at a young woman from a moving car, the correct course of action is to catch the bullet in mid-air (okay so far) . . . and then make no effort to use your superior speed to catch up with the car and yank the driver out from behind the wheel . . . nor to follow the car back to the driver's secret headquarters . . . nor even to tag along behind the car just long enough to read and write down the license plate number so you can share it with the cops and let them handle the rest! No sirree, Bob! The reasonable thing to do is to impress the pretty girl and her unnamed companion by smugly showing them the bullet in the palm of your hand . . . while blithely ignoring the fact that a murderous gunman, almost certainly connected with the gang that recently kidnapped the lady's father, is making a getaway in his automobile at the same time!
5. Later on, after you have finally made some slight effort to track the villains to their lair (as you could have done hours earlier), there is absolutely no need to use your powers to subdue them right then and there. Far better to wait for them to attempt a massacre the following day, and then you can finally get down to business!
There is a nasty, nasty pattern forming here. Shameless self-indulgence, or perhaps I should say "sheer narcissism"? Jay Garrick seems to feel no urgency about actually getting violent criminals off the streets after catching them red-handed. (Not for him that quaint nonsense about "with great power comes great responsibility.") But if there's a chance to grandstand
by ostentatiously saving a pretty girl's life . . . or the lives of lots of people at once on Coney Island Beach . . . then that approach, of course, takes priority! In other words, it's far more important to Jay to be seen
as "heroic" than it is to actually do
whatever is needed to make the world a safer place for honest citizens, as quickly as possible!
6. Cops are useless in Jay Garrick's world. Who needs them?
I just looked through the story again, to check my previous impression, and I still don't see a single police officer anywhere in the tale. (Not even in plainclothes.) The word "police" is used in dialogue, but they don't actually do anything. An important scientist working for the U.S. government gets kidnapped . . . his daughter gets shot at . . . someone in a plane tries to strafe a bunch of civilians on Coney Island . . . four bad guys die violently . . . and at no point does it appear that anyone from a law enforcement agency is even lifting a finger to investigate
any of the above! It's not just that The Flash is reacting to new developments more quickly than the cops (that's inherent in the premise); it's that the cops don't seem to be reacting at all!
Hmmm. I want to be fair to the regular guardians of law and order. As I think it over, I am compelled to admit that, in at least some of those instances, the conspicuous lack of a police investigation may mean that the cops were never told
that there was anything to investigate in the first place. For instance: If Joan Williams ever bothered to report her father's abduction (and/or the subsequent attempt on her life) to the proper authorities, then that fact is carefully kept secret from us!
So there we have it. This "Flash" character is not the gullible, hypocritical, fascist torturer that "Superman" was in his debut (as I've explained before) . . . but he sure ain't admirable! Too much of a lazy, self-indulgent glory hound. He's a living testament to the power of performance-enhancing drugs as a way to achieve athletic superiority . . . he only apprehends criminals on the rare occasions when he feels like it . . . he figures it's perfectly reasonable to say to a girl, "I can't be bothered to look for your missing father now, nor for the guy who just tried to kill you . . . but if we see each other tonight you might
be able to coax me" (I admit that's a paraphrase), and he takes it for granted
that the cops are useless and that the rest of the human race is too dumb to figure out who he really is even when he shows the world his unmasked facial features (and his incredible speed) in both identities.
This "hero's" smug sense of entitlement
is just dripping off the page!
I wish I could express confidence that this "The Flash" feature will crash and burn, getting lots of hate mail, and quit being published within, say, the next six months . . . but I have a nasty feeling that the character concept will resonate with a great many emotionally immature readers who feel it's good to watch a privileged young fellow get to act that way without any fear of repercussions from the people around him. I wouldn't be surprised if "Flash" became a much bigger hit than another Golden Age superhero whose debut I reviewed, "Batman." The latter is much more low-key . . . instead of flaunting his "greatness" for the masses in Detective Comics #27
, he simply concentrated on getting the job done, saving lives where he could, subduing any bad guys he could find, and then quietly going home to take off his mask while the regular cops handled the leftover details. It's pretty clear which character was created to pander to childish fantasies!
P.S. And just in case you took all of the above far too seriously, I just want to say: