The Flash is probably one of the most well-known superheroes of all time. In fact, even people who are not familiar with the comics can immediately recognize the name and power set.
The Flash’s true identity is a completely different topic though.
Not only because most people barely know the names of the actual superheroes but also because there have been several people who have held the mantle of the fastest man alive. That being said, if you’re a comic fan who started reading from the ’90s or even during the early 2000s The Flash who are you most familiar with is probably Wally West.
And Wally West is such a fascinating character to talk about. However one can’t start an article about him without mentioning everything and everyone who came before. In 1940, at the dawn of the Golden Age of comics, Jay Garrick was born from the minds of Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert and became the first Flash. Jay was a pretty simple character, which was pretty common for most heroes from that era, and he didn’t need much more than that. In fact, there’s a lot of charm in the innocence of his nature and how he did good simply for the sake of doing good.
Barry Allen would follow his steps during the Silver Age. Legendary creators Carmine Infantino and John Broome decided to reinvent The Flash in 1956. They made him much more sci-fi oriented having him become the fastest man alive due to a lab accident. Personality-wise, Barry was pretty similar to Jay: they both were good men who wanted to help others, but what made Barry different from Jay, and pretty unique for that era, is that Barry was actually a comics fan (Jay Garrick’s comics actually inspired him to adopt the identity of The Flash), which made him much more easier to relate considering the audience. Jay would eventually resurface as The Flash of Earth 2 where he interacted with Barry in the classic story ‘Flash of Two Worlds.’
One of the most important aspects from the mythos arrived in 1959, when Wally West was created.
The nephew of Iris West, Barry’s classic romantic interest, Wally was a pretty normal kid who admired both Barry Allen and The Flash. Barry decided to make this kid’s dream of meeting his hero come true by appearing in costume in front of him, going so far as to even — in a pretty contrived way — replicating that original lab experiment just to satisfy the kid’s curiosity. This, of course, ultimately granted Wally the same powers (this origin was so illogically funny at the time that later writers would retcon it so Barry replicated the experiment because he wanted Wally to gain superspeed.)
This was a pretty logical step at the time. Sidekicks have always been popular in the superhero genre and such decision could make an already popular character even moreso. Initially, Kid Flash’s costume was simply a smaller version of The Flash’s, a bit too derivative for its own sake. Fortunately, a few years later, Wally would adopt a new costume (in yet another contrived way) with the now classic yellow and red Kid Flash costume becoming an instant with a cool combination of colours. This look became so popular that it would be used for many future versions of Kid Flash with only a few alterations here and there.
Most importantly though, after his costume change, Wally became a founding member of the original Teen Titans. “Teen Titans” was a typical series from the Silver Age with crazy yet ultimately unremarkable stories (although some of them would become more complex when the title started to enter into the Bronze Age) which forced the cancellation of the book but the end of this era would start one of the most relevant times for this particular team.
Many people are familiar with “The New Teen Titans” series written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Starting in 1980, the book tried to give some relevance to a failed property by including some drastic changes, including altering the classic roster by including new characters while also giving it new and bold directions. It pretty much mirrored the X-Men during their reinvention in the ’70s, and, just like with the X-Men, this new take would become extremely popular. “The New Teen Titans” became so popular in fact that it became a serious rival for Marvel’s mutants for most of the ’80s.Continued below
That being said, while the title brought a lot of interesting characterization and, in many cases, progression for most of the cast, one of them didn’t fare so well. That’s right, Wally West wasn’t exactly the most popular character in “The New Teen Titans” and with good reason. Apparently, Marv Wolfman didn’t know exactly what to do with Wally. He gave him a few interesting traits, like making him conservative, but aside from that, most of the time Wally was pretty weak in terms of personality during this era. He constantly whined about his love life and life as a whole. Things didn’t get better once he learned his superspeed was actually killing him (which was most likely made because Wolfman wanted him to retire since he didn’t want to write him anymore). This portrayal became so prevalent during this period that it actually influenced his appearances in other books, most notably during the ‘Trial of The Flash’ storyline written by Cary Bates where Barry accidentally executed The Reverse-Flash and was put into court and Wally actually declared against Barry, saying things like, “There should have been another way.” (Fortunately, Geoff Johns would kinda retcon this portrayal when Wally became The Flash by making him say, “I would have done the same as Barry now,” basically admitting that he was pretty immature in his past).
This was not a favorite time for Wally West’s fans, with many considering it the worst depiction of the character. Thankfully things changed a few years later.
In “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” from 1985 handled by “New Teen Titans” team of Wolfman and Perez, Barry Allen met his ultimate fate (at the time) by facing the Anti-Monitor who was planning to erase the whole Multiverse. He managed to stop him by sacrificing his life. Wally would find the only thing left of his uncle, his costume. Due to the confrontation with the Anti-Monitor, Wally learned his speed is no longer killing him and so he adopted Barry’s costume and identity as The Flash to honor him.
Credit where credit is due, despite of Wolfman’s treatment of Wally during the “New Teen Titans,” he at least knew how to give the character some respect by accepting his destiny as the new fastest man alive. Sure, DC editorial had a lot to do with it (although some rumours mention that they were planning to replace The Flash concept altogether with a light-based superhero) and this worked for the better in many instances.
“Crisis on Infinite Earths” ended-up rebooting the entire DC multiverse to be condensed into a single Earth. The Flash’s history was mostly kept intact, with only a few things altered, including making it so Wally only ran as fast as the speed of sound, which was much slower than Barry. This would become one of the most prominent plot-points from the upcoming series.
In 1987, “The Flash” vol. 2 launched, written initially by Mike Baron. Baron would explore different concepts like Russian speedsters, Wally becoming rich by winning the lottery, and dealing with villains like Vandal Savage. Sadly, while some of Baron’s concepts were interesting enough, most of them were executed in a rather unremarkable way that didn’t make readers invested in them and therefore, they didn’t bring much attention to the series. However, Baron did create a few characters that lasted quite a bit, most notably Tina and Jerry McGee. Wally became romantically involved with Tina while her husband created a drug that gave him super speed and made him violent and abusive to his wife. He became the villain Speed Demon. Chunk was another of Baron’s creations, an obese man who was basically a human black hole able to absorb anything, Chunk initially was Wally’s enemy but ultimately and ironically would endup becoming his best friend (at least for a while).
Baron’s run only lasted for 14 issues but it worked for the better since it would lead the way to one of the best writers that has worked in the character of Wally West.
No, I’m not talking about Mark Waid, he would arrive much later, I’m talking about the highly underrated William Messner-Loebs.Continued below
Messner-Loebs quickly realized that many of Baron’s ideas, while creative, were not executed in the best way. He decided to get rid of some of them and improve the rest. Just at the beginning of his run, he not only made Wally lose his fortune but also be completely in debt. This became a pretty interesting plot-point during the rest of Messner-Loebs’s work since Wally was forced to find ways to get his money and life back in the most desperate ways. There’s even a story where he had no money left and his fast metabolism was literally killing him and he didn’t have any other choice but ask people for food. At the end he’s ironically saved by a homeless man who shared the little he had with him — a quite emotional tale that I can recommend to anyone.
But I digress, if losing his money wasn’t enough, Wally started to lose his powers constantly during this era. This lead to the a series of diverse methods to get it back, ultimately culminating in the outstanding issue 50 where Wally not only recovered the speed he had before, but he also managed to finally reach Barry Allen’s speed.
It is relevant to mention Wally’s personality here since it was one of the most remarkable aspects in this run. This is basically where the “classic” personality of Wally was constructed, the one that you usually see depicted in the DCAU. Wally was basically a jerk with a heart of gold, a sarcastic guy who always knew what to say, a bachelor who constantly dated several women and, despite of how cool he often acted (or pretended to be), he still cared a lot for the people around him.
Because this wasn’t a book about Wally anymore, it was a book about all his family and friends. Wally’s mom lived with him for a long time during this run while his father also made constant appearances. Just as mentioned before, Tina and Jerry McGee became members of the cast as well as Chunk. That’s not the best part though, the best part is that all of these characters were developed just as much as Wally.
That’s something common in Messner-Loebs’s stories, where people actually act like people. Wally’s mother was flawed in many ways, going from overbearing to showing a lot of sympathetic moments. Wally’s father was a complete bastard who even tried to kill his wife once but he eventually started to reveal more understandable and entertaining traits. Tina and Jerry’s relationship was a running plot-thread since Jerry worked hard to try to gain his wife’s forgiveness and love back; it was so well-written that it automatically made you care about the two. Chunk stopped his hate and envy for Wally and formed a close relationship with him, they quickly became best friends and Chunk even ended up dating one of Wally’s exes, which demonstrated the amount of confidence and development he gained over the years.
Hell, even the villains who appeared were more than one-note stereotypes. Whenever Messner-Loebs wrote The Rogues he played with the “everyman” angle of most of them and showed that despite of their criminal behavior and silly outfits, they were still human.
Oh, and he also created a little character that would become important later on: Linda Park.
The writer managed to reunite all the character development and plot-points he created during his run just in his last chapter whose focus was the wedding of Wally’s mother.
Then of course, Mark Waid arrived with issue 63 and I have to be honest here, I’ve never been that much of a fan of this era compared to what came before and after.
I mean, I understand why it was so popular. Waid further developed the character work Messner-Loebs started and, in many ways, he made the next logical step by making Wally surpass Barry in his achievements as The Flash. He also created the Speed Force which became one of the most important mythos from the series. Waid reintroduced several speedsters like Jay Garrick who was now part of The Flash’s history thanks to “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” and Quicksilver, better known as Max Mercury who teaches Wally the secrets of the Speed Force.Continued below
There’s also a bigger sense of scale in Waid’s story arcs that was kinda lacking during previous works. The fact that this came in the ‘90s, where the most exaggerated superhero trends were created, makes it not surprising that the bombastic nature of the stories were more appealing to this generation in particular.
But that’s the thing about Waid’s storylines, everyone remembers them but nobody ever remembers the one-and-done tales nor little stories he did.
Because they were massively unremarkable and forgettable.
I have always liked to make this comparison: while Messner-Loebs’s single issues served to develop Wally and company’s characters, and later on, Johns’s single issues served to progress the overarching story he was constructing, Waid’s single issues didn’t serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever, they were at best passable superhero stories you could have found in the Silver Age which ultimately made the whole run wildly inconsistent.
‘The Return of Barry Allen’ is a legendary Flash story, and with good reason. It has a great build-up that escalates towards the surprising reveal at the end and concludes in a pretty satisfactory manner.
Sadly, everything after it wouldn’t meet such standards.
‘Terminal Velocity,’ while enjoyable, didn’t manage to reach the same levels of engagement as ‘The Return of Barry Allen,’ mostly due to its lack of plot and villain. ‘Dead Heat’ expanded the mythos of the Speed Force but, as a story, it wasn’t that engaging either, especially because Savitar wasn’t too strong an antagonist. ‘Race Against Time’ was admittedly entertaining, due to Waid deciding to explore other speedsters with John Fox.
Even Grant Morrison and Mark Millar contributed with a little story called ‘The Human Race.’ While fun, it never grabbed readers’ attention, which is odd since this was the time where anything Morrison touched turned into gold. Even more strange, Millar’s solo story had the more lasting impact since it was about the incarnation of the death for the speedsters called ‘The Black Flash.’
Waid returned later with the infamous storyline ‘Chain Lightning,’ where he created Cobalt Blue. Colbalt Blue turned out to be the evil twin of Barry Allen. He was given to a different family at birth and always resented his brother for that. There are several problems with this storyline, including an implication that the only reason Barry became a hero is because he internally always felt a void due to the loss of his unknown brother and needed to create a second identity to fill it (which pretty much means he was motivated by a mental illness). And if cliché villain wasn’t enough, it needed a complete retcon to justify his importance as well. This is such a shame since this had the potential to be a quite creative story about The Flash’s mythos but it suffers from such an erratic pacing, poor plot, and weak antagonist that it just becomes underwhelming.
Another issue from Waid’s run is that it ultimately ended up repeating several themes. Most notoriously the whole “Wally will surpass Barry as The Flash” idea, which is not bad by itself but was overused to the point of ridiculousness. It was referenced in most of the storylines from his run whenever Wally needed to overcome an obstacle and it became quite heavy-handed.
Then the last storyline from Waid, ‘The Dark Flash,’ was a solid way to conclude his work on the title . . . or it would have been if his actual final story wasn’t a mediocre team-up with Captain Marvel.
Again, I can understand why people remember this run fondly due to the scope of the storylines, but if we’re talking about pure character work, I think it was downgrade from Messner-Loebs. Yes, Wally ended-up surpassing Barry but he did it in a pretty superficial way. Waid’s Wally lacked a lot of the complexity from Messner-Loebs’s Wally and became more like a typical superhero (which ironically made him more like Barry) to the point that he became a comic book character instead of simply a character. However, Waid did at least develop his romantic life by making the relationship between Linda Park and Wally a central aspect of his work. He even had them get married toward the end.Continued below
And this is a relevant point since it marked the direction that Geoff Johns followed later.
“The Flash” #164 marked the arrival of Johns and he certainly had a different vision from what came before. For one, Johns understood that Waid hadn’t done much with Wally’s characterization, so he decided to focus on the world around him instead. Keystone City essentially became an actual character. For the first time, The Flash’s home was a relevant part of the stories often serving to define the theme of the book as well as the people living in it.
And there were so many interesting people living in it. The Rogues, often maligned during Waid’s run (either by mentioning how ridiculous they were or even killing them), but Johns opted to give them a much deeper characterization than ever before, turning them, and especially their leader Captain Cold, into some of the most complex villains from the DCU. This doesn’t come as a surprise since Johns always had a strong grasp at writing antagonists which in many instances Waid lacked.
Besides, there was a quite meticulous structure about the stories Johns created. There were several plot-points from the beginning of his run that were carefully progressed until the end, one of the best examples being the creation of Wally’s archenemy Zoom. Hunter Zolomon was introduced as a disgraced FBI agent who regretted the decisions he made in his life and tried to help Wally to be better, sadly tragedy hit Hunter constantly and forced him to use Barry Allen’s Cosmic Treadmill to travel to time and make things right, ultimately turning him into the new Reverse-Flash. This particular development took its time and made you appreciate a lot of Johns’s long-term planning.
All the multiple concepts and characters end up reunited in Johns’s final storyline, ‘Rogue War,’ that focused on the battle of Flash’s enemies.. A great send off to a nicely thought era that even gave Wally and Linda twins which showed their development and a great promise for the future.
Unfortunately that promise would never be fulfilled since Waid himself returned to the title to write about Wally’s family with less than favorable results. Johns would follow a similar path with the rebirth of Barry Allen that ignored Wally during a long time, Wally wouldn’t be a part of the DCU for years.
Fortunately though, fans’ demand was strong enough and forced Johns to redeem himself by reintroducing Wally to the DCU thanks to the new Rebirth initiative and so far it seems like is in the right path.
That’s the history of Wally West up to this point. The characters has seen several interpretations over the course of the years but there’s a theme that is always preserved, he’s the kid who managed to make his dream come true by meeting his hero, working alongside of him, replacing him and ultimately surpassing him. Is the story of a lifetime full of achievements that any person can appreciate.