Back Issues [Multiverse Madness]: The Flash #123

In September 1961, DC Comics published a little story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that featured in The Flash #123 and brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen. In the process, DC Comics created the concept of the multiverse, the idea that DC Comics continuity was comprised of an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to exist and, more importantly, interact and I’ll be celebrating this ground-breaking concept every Sunday of this month!

Story Title: “Flash of Two Worlds!”
Published: September 1961
Writer: Gardner Fox
Artist: Carmine Infantino

The Background:
In the pages of Showcase #4 (1956), writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino introduced readers to Barry Allen/The Flash, the Fastest Man Alive. However, Barry wasn’t the first character to carry the name of the Flash; back in the 1940s, Jay Garrick operated under the codename before superhero comics saw a decline in popularity due to World War Two. Interestingly, although Jay’s solo Flash title was cancelled in 1948, the character’s last appearance was in 1951, a mere five years before the character was dramatically reimagined for the “Silver Age” of comics. To Barry Allen, Jay Garrick wasn’t some long forgotten hero of a bygone era; he was a mere comic book character, a work of fiction, and, while the idea of parallel versions of DC’s heroes had been previously hinted at, it wasn’t until “Flash of Two Worlds” that DC began to really explore, and expand, the concept. The story led to the discovery of an infinite number of parallel worlds, regular crossovers between teams like the Justice Society of America and the Justice League of America and, of course, epic cosmic crossovers that gave DC the perfect excuse to shake up their continuity. So influential was “Flash of Two Worlds!” that it’s iconic cover art has been parodied and replicated numerous times, and it directly inspired not just one episode of The Flash (2014 to present) but directly led to that series, and the entire “Arrowverse”, exploring the vast complexities of the multiverse.

The Review:
“Flash of Two Worlds” begins innocently enough with Barry Allen once again characteristically late for a date with his long-term girlfriend, Iris West. I’ve always been more of a Wally West fan when it comes to the Flash since Barry was long dead by the time I started reading comics but there are a couple of things about Barry’s Flash I always liked and which make him unique, in my eyes, compared to other heroes and characters of the same name. For one thing, he might be the Fastest Man Alive but he was constantly late in his civilian guise, which was the perfect way to keep anyone suspecting his true identity; for another, Barry actually worked for the police department as a forensic scientist and there weren’t a great many superheroes who actually worked within the system.

Barry is stunned to find himself on another Earth where the fictional Jay Garrick was once the Flash!

Like all good superheroes, of course, Barry is currently keeping his dual identity a secret from Iris and is able to use his position with the Central City Police Department to explain that he is “friends” with the Flash. This allows him to arrange for the Scarlet Speedster to make an appearance at Iris’s show for local orphans and also gives the Flash an opportunity to show off the near limitless potential of his superhuman speed but, in the middle of vibrating a rope at super speed, the Flash suddenly vanishes from sight! Though momentarily disorientated, the Flash quickly surmises that he must have vibrated his molecules so fast that he passed through “some sort of space-warp” but, when he attempts to return to the community center, is shocked to discover he’s now in a strange, vaguely familiar place named Keystone City. Recognising the name, Barry confirms his suspicions by looking up Jay Garrick in a telephone book and paying him a visit (as an interesting side note, Garrick’s house number is 5252, which goes a long way to explaining DC’s later obsession with the number fifty-two). Rather than introduce himself and get Jay, and us, up to speed, Barry decides to regale us, and Jay, with Jay’s origin story: while a student at Midwestern University, Jay inhaled fumes of “hardwater” and, somehow, gained super speed and began a career as the Flash.

Barry explains his multiverse theory that, while ridiculous, also makes a crazy kind of sense.

Jay and his wife, Joan, are shocked at Barry’s expert knowledge of Jay’s history and even more awestruck when Barry explains that he is the Flash of a parallel world. Barry goes on to explain the basic fundamentals of DC’s multiverse: their two worlds exist in the same space and at the same time but are separated by different vibrational frequencies. He theorises that both Earths evolved almost exactly the same but that “destiny must have decreed there’d be a Flash — on each Earth!” It is only after explaining his multiverse theory that Barry brings Jay and Joan up to speed on his origin; during an experiment, he was struck by a errant lightning bolt (a common occurrence, as you well know…) and bathed in a mysterious chemical concoction. The result was the development of his own super speed but he was directly inspired to become the Flash after reading of Jay’s adventures in comic books on his world. Barry even further speculates, ridiculously so, that real-world writer Gardener Fox must have somehow been attuned to Jay’s world to dream up stories of the Golden Age Flash’s adventures.

The two Flashes join forces, unaware that three of Jay’s villains have also teamed up!

Jay is intrigued at the concept and in awe of Barry’s fourth dimensional Flash ring; he reveals that, despite no longer having the endurance of his prime years, he’s as fast as ever and in the midst of mounting a dramatic comeback thanks to a series of mysterious robberies that have been happening all over town. Ever the helpful chap, Barry offers to assist and the two solidify their partnership and newfound friendship with a hearty handshake. It’s then revealed to the reader that the perpetrators of these crimes are three of Jay’s most notorious rogues: Isaac Bowin/The Fiddler, Clifford DeVoe/The Thinker, and Richard Swift/The Shade. All three have a personal grudge against Jay for apprehending them “more than a dozen years” ago and, since their release (or escape, it’s not made entirely clear which), each has refined their abilities and gimmicks to take their revenge (the Thinker’s “thinking cap” allows him to cause anything he thinks of to happen within fifty yards of himself, the Fiddler’s Stradivarius violin allows him to generate destructive sound waves, and the Shade can conjure absolute darkness with his special cane).

Jay is outwitted by the Thinker’s mental images and collapses from exhaustion.

In the process of their revenge, the three villains are also indulging in elaborate crimes to bring themselves notoriety, fortune, and, presumably, to attract the attention of the Flash and the two Flashes immediately divide their efforts in order to uncover the culprits behind these crimes. The Thinker heads to the home of millionaire Edward Jarvis to steal the priceless Neptune Cup; he uses his thinking cap to persuade Jarvis’s guard dogs to lure the Flash into his trap and is easily able to manipulate Jarvis into handing the treasure over to him. When the Jay conveniently races by, the dogs literally follow the Thinker’s command by talking in English! Jay rushes into the house to confront the Thinker but is shocked to find that the villain continuously eludes his grasp; driving himself to near exhaustion in the effort, Jay laments what he believes to be a by-product of his advanced age but it turns out he’s only half right. The Thinker has been conjuring “mental mirages” to distract and tire out the Flash and, with Jay too weak to pursue him, is easily able to slip away with his prize as Jay blacks out from fatigue. Why the Thinker didn’t use his special cap to control Jay like he did Jarvis is beyond me, though…

It’s nice to finally see some context for the issue’s iconic cover art.

Meanwhile, at the waterfront, Barry investigates a strange black fog surrounding a private yacht and is drawn into a confrontation with the Shade. Thanks to the Shade’s ability to summon thick, pitch blackness, Barry is unable to stop the villain from stealing especially rare and extortionately expensive “historical curios”. When he spots the Shade making his escape in a speedboat, Barry gives chase by running over water but is easily knocked off balance by the Shade’s darkness and returns to Garrick’s house humbled but no less disheartened. Galvanised by their individual failures, the two Flashes decide to team up to stop the villainous duo but, in the process, find the Fiddler (on his Fiddle Car, no less!) causing panic and destruction in downtown Keystone City. This finally provides context for the issue’s memorable front cover as the two Flashes race to save a man from being crushed from a falling girder.

The Flashes subdue the villains and Jay is left pondering the secret of dimensional travel.

Thanks to the Fiddler’s outrageous vehicle, the Flashes are easily able to track him down to the Keystone City Museum, where the villain is in the process of stealing the “European crown jewels”. Despite the partnership of the two Flashes, the Fiddler is easily able to subdue them with his magical music, much to the shock of his fellow villains, who rushed over to assist as soon as they figured out that there were now two Flashes. The Fiddler rubs salt in the wound by compelling the Flashes to steal the jewels for him and plans to cover their escape by freezing the Flashes solid for twenty-four hours. Somehow, though, the spell doesn’t work and the Flashes break free; in the blink of an eye, Jay sends the Shade spinning like a top, Barry handcuffs the Fiddler, and the two Flashes disassemble the Thinker’s thinking cap to subdue and summarily defeat the three villains. The Flashes then reveal that they escaped the Fiddler’s spell through a convenient and obtuse loophole (he never specified that they shouldn’t try to escape and they placed tiny gems not their ears to distort the effects of his fiddle). With the villains defeated, Barry and Jay part ways amicably, with Jay admiring Barry’s ability to vibrate between dimensions and vowing to learn the secret of dimensional travel to visit Barry’s world in the near future. Barry is so ecstatic to return home that he doesn’t even mind getting an ear-bashing from Iris for leaving her, and the orphans, in the lurch and the issue ends with Barry breaking the fourth wall to encourage readers to write in with their appreciation of the story and the Golden Age Flash.

The Summary:
“Flash of Two Worlds” is a pretty fun, if incredibly random, little tale; the way that Barry just happens to slip between dimensions whilst performing the most minor of tasks is extremely convenient and underwhelming and it definitely feels like Barry could have been undertaking a better, more exciting physical feat. It’s also incredibly opportune that Barry, a forensic scientist, is apparently an expert in dimensional theory; I get that he’s smart and scientifically minded but I would argue that quantum mechanics and multiverse theory is a little outside of the training for a forensic scientist. Like many comics books at the time, the issue also suffers a little by stopping to catch readers up not just on Barry’s origins but Jay’s, too; I get recapping Jay’s origin since he had been absent from DC Comics for about five years but it seemed a bit unnecessary and a waste of time to recap Barry’s in such detail.

The issue’s three villains are largely portrayed as being quite formidable and competent.

Still, the selling point of the issue is the return (or introduction, depending on your experience) of Jay Garrick and the discovery of a parallel world. The logistics of the multiverse are a bit hokey but I can chalk this up to Barry’s conjecture and the concept being in its infancy and it’s still pretty cool to see Jay, now a bit older and more seasoned, teaming up with Barry. I find it interesting that Fox decided not to have to two come to blows or even engage in a race to find out who was better; he had the perfect opportunity to do this when Jay was defeated by the Thinker but declined, preferring to focus on the two Flashes co-operating amicably instead. The villains are an interesting dichotomy; technically, the combined abilities of the Thinker, the Fiddler, and the Shade are quite formidable and the three are shown to be more than a match for both Flashes, both separately and as a group. Indeed, any one of the villains seems capable of subduing the Flashes and this really helps to keep the stakes reasonably believable and high. Sadly, the Flashes are able to defeat all three in no time at all with a pretty laughable plot convenience; it might have been more interesting to have the Thinker control Jay and turn him against Barry and then have the two overcome this and turn the villains’ gimmicks against each other but I get it, the comic is more about the gimmick of the two Flashes meeting and the exploration and re/introduction of Jay and his world over anything else.

The Flash is a colourful, appealing character and seeing the two team up is pretty cool.

While I am a fan of the Flash, like I said I generally prefer Wally and his adventures in the mid-nineties to early 2000s so, as a result, I haven’t really read that much of Barry Allen, especially his early adventures. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed “Flash of Two Worlds”; the Flash is such a unique character, one that is, at times, more overpowered than even Clark Kent/Superman, and it’s interesting seeing him balance his dual identity and come up with new ways to use his powers. Flash stories also tend to be much more whimsical and wacky than other superheroes so it’s not too surprising that he was able to pass between dimensional barriers; I could definitely see the all-powerful Superman of the time being capable of such a feat as well but it’s somehow more charming when the Flash does it and seeing him be awestruck at meeting his hero and inspiration and the two generations of heroes immediately getting along is refreshing, despite my belief that the story may have been improved by them coming to blows at least once.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever read “Flash of Two Worlds”? If so, what did you think of it? Were you a fan of DC’s decision to introduce the multiverse or do you find the concept daunting and overwhelming? Which of the two Flashes is your favourite; perhaps you prefer a different Flash or speedster, if so who is it and why? What is your favourite Flash story? Which of DC’s infinite parallel worlds is your favourite? How are you celebrating the birth of the DC multiverse today? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to check back in next Sunday as Multiverse Madness continues!

11 thoughts on “Back Issues [Multiverse Madness]: The Flash #123

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