Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Flash: The Four-Color Hermes of the 1940s

The comparative religion scholar Joseph Campbell famously said, “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”
That being the case, I suppose no one should have been surprised to find the latest incarnation of Hermes zipping around a comic book in January 1940, complete with winged petasos.
Created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert, the Flash was among the first of the shtick superheroes.
In just two years, Superman, Captain Marvel and their various copycats had already covered the ground of the all-purpose superhero who wielded an array of powers. By 1940, to get ahead, a super being had to have a gimmick. So The Human Torch burned and the Submariner swam, Hawkman could fly, Doll Man could shrink, Wonder Woman could be female and the Flash could run really, really fast.
College student Jay Garrick was one of only three characters who became a superhero by smoking, by the way. In a chem lab, while breaking football training with a cigarette, Jay accidentally knocked over some beakers and further polluted his lungs by breathing in the fumes that turned him into the Flash.
As wish fulfillment, speed rated high with kids. Speed, fueled by their boundless energy, was after all the one area where children could outdistance the somewhat worn-out adults who talked down to them, punished them and generally looked after them. But just think what you might do with some real speed…
Artistic restriction can often be the parent of creativity, and the decade of the Flash’s initial run gave the writers plenty of time to come up with satisfying variations on the theme of speed. The Flash could run up the sides of buildings and across water. He could catch bullets, vibrate through walls, create multiple images of himself and become invisible. His one power turned out to make him nearly as omnipotent as Superman’s many. The popular character raced around in Flash Comics, All-Flash (a title devoted to his adventures), Comic Cavalcade and All-Star Comics with his fellow members of the Justice Society of America.
The feature was initially marred by crude art, and the early adventures of this seminal superhero are difficult to enjoy for that reason. But by All-Flash 31 (Oct.-Nov. 1947), an artist named Carmine Infantino had arrived to make the Scarlet Speedster’s adventures a pure pleasure. Infantino would carry the character, in his second and even more successful incarnation, right through the 1950s and 1960s.
I’m sure, dear reader, that you already recall the other two characters who got their super powers from smoking. But at the risk of appearing pedantic, I will remind you of them. In 1963, the Japanese robot superhero 8 Man restored his powers with “energy cigarettes” carried in a cigarette case on his belt. And in June 1974, Daily Planet editor Perry White acquired Superman-like powers from some cigars given to him by grateful alien mutants.

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