Monday, June 11, 2012

The Origin of The Earth-2 Flash--Take 1

When I started this blog some two and a half years ago, I gave it the tagline "All Things Sequential" and set out to write about, as I say in my mission statement over there in the sidebar, "anything...even remotely related to comics.  That's a pretty broad mandate, but I think I've done a fairly decent job of living up to it.  Thus far, I have written about comic strips, reviewed classic comics from the Silver and Bronze Ages as well as the latest releases, looked at TV shows based on or inspired by comics, and given my opinions on the latest news and developments in the industry.  One thing I have not done in the 250 posts prior to this one, however, is to take an in-depth look at a comic from the Golden Age. 
Well, the time for that has at last come.  With the just released Earth 2 #2 relating the revamped tale of how Jay Garrick becomes the Flash, I thought I would take another look at the original version of the story as told in Flash Comics #1. So, I pulled my copy of the Famous First Edition reprint of the issue out  of its over-sized Mylar sleeve and set out to reread it for the first time in at least a couple of decades. 
You certainly got a lot for your dime back in 1940.  Even for the dollar that I originally paid for the reprint in 1975, the book is quite a value. At sixty-four pages, the first issue of Flash Comics contains six comics stories featuring, in addition to the Flash, the debuts of the Hawkman, Johnny Thunder, the Whip, and Cliff Cornwall: Special Agent, as well as the first installment of a two part story of a ventriloquist falsely accused of murder.  There's also a two page prose story that, in all the years which I have owned this comic, I don't believe I've ever read.  I'm probably not the only one.  If I remember correctly the story was only included because of some bizarre postal regulation that mandated that magazines had to include a page or two of text in order to qualify for third class rates. 
I'm just going to cover the lead feature here.  I sincerely hope all the Cliff Cornwall fans out there won't be too disappointed.
Titled simply "The Flash," the story was written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Harry Lampert.  Fox was a mainstay of DC Comics throughout the Golden and Silver Ages and was still writing comics into the 1970's.  The last thing I know of that he wrote was an early issue of Marvel's Tomb of Dracula.  Lampert began his artistic career with the Max Fleisher animation studio, going on to a long career as a comic book artist and gag cartoonist.  Following his retirement from cartooning, he embarked on a second career as an author of books on how to play bridge. 
The story moves at a rapid clip, packing Jay's origin and first adventure into fifteen briskly paced pages.  It begins by introducing us to university student Jay Garrick and his female acquaintance--not yet girlfriend--Joan Williams.  
Of Joan's brief appearance in last month's Earth 2 #1, Martin Gray wrote at Too Dangerous For A Girl, "James Robinson makes a longtime supporting cast member thoroughly unlikable."  To be fair to Robinson, however, he was merely following Gardner Fox's lead.  True, in her brief scene in Earth 2, Joan comes off as shallow and bitchy, but she fairs just as badly here.  She turns Jay down for a date because he's merely a benchwarmer on the football team, calling him " old washwoman."  Never mind that he's a good guy and a brilliant science student, all she cares about is how many touchdowns he scores. 
Later, Jay is in the lab to conduct an important experiment, the culmination of his three years of research into the gases produced by "hard water."  After working deep into the night, Jay pauses for a smoke break at three thirty a.m.  (That may be why he's a washout on the football team.)  While enjoying the feel of the smoke filling his lungs, he accidentally knocks over a beaker of "hard water" and is overwhelmed by the fumes.  
Discovered by his mentor Professor Hughes, he is taken to a hospital where he lies in a coma for weeks before making a miraculous recovery.  His doctor tells the professor that Jay may have become the fastest thing that ever lived because, "Science knows that hard water makes a person act much quicker than an intake of its gases, Jay can walk, run, and think swifter than thought..."
Science, of course, knows no such thing.  This "explanation" is pure B.S.  Hard water, in the real world, will clog your pipes, not give you super-speed.  Fox often used real scientific principles which he would then twist to suit the needs of his story, but this time he was pulling it straight out of his ass.
And just how is it possible for anyone to think faster than thought?
Its best not to dwell too long on it, however.  Fox certainly doesn't. Soon, Jay discovers his powers for himself and uses them to impress Joan. He asks her out again, and she, having a one track mind, accepts on the condition that he use his powers to help the football team win Saturday's game.  
The story skips ahead to Jay and Joan's graduation, as the couple prepare to go their separate ways, he to an assistant professorship in New York and she to assist her father in building his "atomic bombarder."  Soon, Jay is reading in a newspaper of gangsters who have eluded capture by authorities and decides to go after them himself, donning the costume of the Flash for the first time.  
Shortly thereafter, he receives a visit from Joan, who seeks his help in finding her kidnapped father.  The elder Williams has been abducted by a group calling themselves "The Faultless Four."  The Four want the secret of the atomic bombarder to sell to a foreign government.  As the Flash, Jay rescues Major Williams and defeats the Faultless Four.  Actually, they kind of defeat themselves.  One of them kills the other three in a failed attempt to destroy the Flash, then crashes his car and dies while fleeing from the speedster. 
Super-heroes were a bit more cold blooded back in the old days than they are now.  If not actually killing the villains themselves, as Hawkman does in his story in this issue, they show no remorse when the bad guys end up dead.  After watching a corrupt businessman plummet into a vat of acid in his initial adventure, the Bat-Man calmly remarked, "A fitting end for his kind."  Here, Flash races to the bottom of a ravine in order to witness the demise of the final member of the Faultless Four for himself. Standing triumphly, arms akimbo, over the wreckage, he declares, "Thus ends the threat of the Faultless Four," then heads home for a celebratory drink with Joan and her father.
The art in Golden Age comics has a reputation for being crude, however Lampert's art in this issue, while it may not be up to today's professional standards, isn't half-bad.  Sometimes he skimps a little on the backgrounds, but he conveys the story pretty well.
That's all I've got to say about Flash Comics #1 for now.  Perhaps I'll revisit this issue when and if James Robinson brings back Johnny Thunder.

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