Dennis O’Neil: Beginnings, Myths, & The Flash
I guess that now we know because – correct me if I’m wrong – last Tuesday we were all hunkered down in front of our television sets watching the latest addition to broadcast video’s superhero pantheon acquire his powers. ‘T’was lightning mixed with some other stuff that made the Flash the Flash.
Can we all just relax a bit?
We seem to have a need to know from whence we came, we noble mortals. Most of the word’s religions/mythologies have an “in the beginning” chapter and, funny thing, it doesn’t seem to matter much what the particulars of those creation myths are. A bird brings up a speck of mud from deep in a primordial ocean and that morphs into our planet; the earth emerging from the cracking of a cosmic egg; the dismemberment of a primordial being whose body parts become flora and fauna…and on and on and on. These tales and many, many more have all, at one time or another, sufficed to answer the question of our Beginnings. We seem to want to know our heroes’ origins, too, and so “origin stories” have been staples of comic books (which are what we’re concerned with here) from the first pages of the first appearance of the first mega-popular superhero and of course we could mean none other than Superman. That origin, as movie producer Michael Uslan pointed out decades ago, is quite similar to a story found in the Bible, and you can take that anywhere you want it to go.
Where were we? Ah, I remember: flashing.
The creators of the program under discussion chose to use science to explain how Barry Allen can move so darn fast. Nothing new: there have been four comic book iterations of The Scarlet Speedster and all owe their special traits to science… or maybe we should make that “science.” Briefly: Jay Garrick inhaled hard water vapors to acquire his power; Bart Allen got his after a sojourn in a time machine; Barry Allen and Wally West got their superspeed after being near a lightning bolt that struck some lab chemicals in two separate incidents. (And hey, you carpers – the word “coincidence” exists for a reason.) The teevee folk chose a variation of the Allen-West scenario.
There are, of course, other comics heroes who owe their uniqueness to “science” – we’re not forgetting The Hulk’s exposure to gamma rays, The Fantastic Four’s being zapped with cosmic rays, Spider Man’s encounter with a radio active spider and if you’ve a mind to, you can add your own favorites to the list, but I want to get back to the Flash.
If comics had existed before, oh, say, the Renaissance, our heroes powers would probably been explained by magic because, although science – without the quotation marks – existed back then, I doubt that the varlet on the street thought of it when he considered the miraculous. Magic, or contact with the Almighty, were what caused miracles to happen. Label something magic and… case closed. “Science” served the same purpose for comics (and pulp) writers. As suggested above, we mostly don’t care about the particulars of our origin stories, we just want them to exist.
Then: abracadabra. Now: quantum physics.
As for that label we use to explain the marvelous…we have to be careful if we plan to call it bogus. The nifty – and frustrating – thing about scientists is that they’re never absolutely sure of anything. They always allow for the possibility that they’re mistaken, that something will happen tomorrow that will completely invalidate what they “know.” Radioactive spider? Wellll…