Looking back at classic comics is the primary purpose of this blog, but I will often find inspiration for such posts from contemporary events, as is the case today. The Flash has been making a lot of news this year, with his movie coming out last month and his CW show wrapping up just a short time earlier, near the end of May (after a run of NINE seasons, incredibly enough), so I figured I’d cover the Flash today. And I can think of no better place to start than the first issue of his that I ever bought, The Flash #243 (Aug. 1976), “If I Can’t Rob Central City, Nobody Can!” by Cary Bates with pencils by Irv Novick.
I should note that while this was my first purchase of the regular Flash title, it was not my first purchase of a Flash comic book. The latter happened a month earlier, with DC Super-Stars #5 (Jul. 1976), a double-sized, 50ȼ issue reprinting stories of “regular” Flash, along with Golden-Age Flash, and Kid Flash. The story of our “regular” Flash therein was “The Day Flash Aged 100 Years” by Gardner Fox & Carmine Infantino, originally published in Flash #157 (Dec. 1965). The bad guy of the story was the Top, a colorful and entertaining villain that I quite enjoyed.
In hindsight, this was a clear portent of things to come in my comics-buying future, as this villain I so enjoyed would turn up dead a month later in Flash #243. The issue opens on his wake, with most of the Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery having gathered to mourn the passing of one of their own. Rogues present are Mirror Master, Trickster, Captain Cold, Heat Wave, Captain Boomerang, and Weather Wizard. A wake was a rather unusual way to kick off a comic-book story back then, but as a six-year-old still learning to read, I don’t recall being too put off by this at the time (aside from losing the Top, a character I had really liked).
After this opening scene, we go back and it’s explained how we got here. It starts with the Mirror Master coming across the Top’s body, and alongside the body a tape recorder. On the tape, the Top recounts all the events that have led to his demise. From this point forward, the story is told primarily from the Top’s POV, with other members of the Rogues’ Gallery chiming in from time to time.
The Top begins by describing a recent train robbery. He’s about to make off with ten-million dollars of gold from this heist when the Flash appears. At this point, he speculates how the Flash changes into his superhero costume, hypothesizing that he keeps his costume compressed in the heel of his shoe. The next panel then reveals how the Flash actually does it, releasing his costume from his ring.
Then the Top details how he managed to escape the Flash by using his new telekinetic powers to create a top-shaped wedge of Earth that takes off with the Flash on it, spinning at an amazing speed. While the Flash manages to escape this death trap, the Top also has managed to escape—with his loot. And again, our villainous narrator indulges in some speculation about the Flash’s secret identity, positing that he works as some kind of news reporter.
The first side of the tape runs out at this point, and while Mirror Master takes it out and flips it over to continue, the other Rogues offer their own ideas on the subject. Captain Boomerang thinks the Flash is some kind of “millionaire playboy.” Weather Wizard thinks he works for the District Attorney’s office, “that way, he prosecutes the crooks he nabs.” Heatwave comes closest to the truth when he declares, “I say Flash is a cop! He smells like one!” (As Barry Allen, Flash works as a police scientist.)
After turning the tape over, the Top goes on to reveal that his spinning power has affected his brain, giving him his telekinetic abilities but also damaging his brain, which will eventually lead to his death. Knowing he only has days to live, the Top comes up with a devious plot, proceeding to go on a crime wave, using his telekinetic powers to stay one step ahead of the Flash at every turn. In all, he commits a half a dozen crimes. For his sixth and final crime, all he steals is a portable tape recorder, which he uses to dictate this message to his fellow Rogues.
At the end of the tape, he tells the Rogues that his crimes were merely diversions and he planted something into those six places he robbed: A bomb. And all of them are set to detonate at midnight on June 30th. The only way to stop them is to recover all six and stack them on top of each other.
The Top then acknowledges that they’re all likely to try and recover the bombs (which are all frisbee sized and shaped), but points out that the Flash is bound to stop at least one of them, which will doom the city. The tape ends with his mad declaration, “If I can’t rob Central City, nobody can!”
To my surprise, there’s also a Green Lantern back-up to end this issue: “Dust of the Earth!” by Denny O’Neil, with pencils by Mike Grell, and inks by Terry Austin. In this seven-page story, The Ravagers of Olys de-evolve Green Lantern into a feral, animal state before GL ends up turning the tables on them. I said I was surprised by this story because I thought they had already launched the new Green Lantern-Green Arrow comic by this point. Double checking, I see that issue, Green Lantern #90, has a cover date of September, so that actually started a few months after this issue of The Flash. I know I bought a lot of comics in the spring and summer of ’76, and I guess that all these years later, they’re just sorta blending together in my memory.
I was rather fortunate when I started out buying comics. The first issue of Amazing Spider-Man I bought off the stands, #136 (Sept. 1974), pit the web-spinner against his archenemy, the Green Goblin (behind an awesome John Romita cover). My first issue of Superman, Superman #292 (Oct. 1975), not only pit Supes against his archenemy, Lex Luthor, but also offered a rather detailed history of the rivalry between the two characters.
Along similar lines, this issue of the Flash was a pretty good issue to start with for a new reader. It introduces not only the Flash, but almost all his main enemies as well. Through the clever device of the villains’ speculation about his secret identity and such, we also learn a lot about the Flash’s background and how he operates.
Let me add just how great I believe the narrative choice was here. On the surface, it’s your standard superhero story, but having the Top (along with the other villains, to an extent) serving as narrator, it really freshens things up; makes it feel different and intriguing.
I would end up buying The Flash with regularity and even had a subscription for a couple years circa ’79 to ’81. Flash has a lot of natural appeal, as it’s a common fantasy among kids to imagine what it would be like to move at super-human speed. And there’s certainly a lot of fun and entertaining super-speed action to enjoy in this issue, from both the Flash and the Top.
But I wonder if I would have been as into the Flash this much without the influence of my next-door neighbor and close childhood friend, ’Rice. In the circle of kids that played together on my block, three of us were in the same grade, while ’Rice was two grades ahead of us. As the eldest boy in our clique, the rest of us all looked up to ’Rice and often tried to emulate him, and his favorite superhero was the Flash, so I’m sure this played a role in my purchasing The Flash with such frequency back in those days.
“The Last Day of June Is the Last Day of Central City!”
As long as we’re here, I may as well cover the conclusion to this two-part story, “The Last Day of June Is the Last Day of Central City!” from The Flash #244 (Sept. 1976), once again by Cary Bates and Irv Novick. In this issue the Rogues—Captain Cold, Heat Wave, Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, and Weather Wizard—must retrieve and neutralize the six bombs left behind by the now-deceased Top.
As I just mentioned, the narrative choice of the previous issue made it feel fresh and original, and the circumstances of this issue lend it a great deal of freshness as well. I’m talking about the villains essentially taking on the roles of heroes in this story, as they’re trying to save Central City, while the Flash is actively trying to stop them. At this time, I was buying Secret Society of Super-Villains religiously, where three of the Rogues (Mirror Master, Captain Cold, and Captain Boomerang) were playing heroic roles fighting against Darkseid, so rooting for them here did not feel the least bit awkward or unnatural.
The issue kicks off with Barry Allen and his reporter wife Iris attending the Top’s funeral when they hear a police report that Captain Boomerang is robbing a bank. Before Iris can blink, her husband is gone, off to catch Boomerang as the Flash. Fortunately for Central City, Boomerang is able to keep Flash occupied with some remote-controlled boomerangs and escape with the Top’s bomb. Returning to the bank after disposing of the boomerangs, the Flash is utterly puzzled when he learns that Boomerang took no money. In fact, as far as bank officials can tell, it doesn’t appear he took anything at all.
Back at the Rogues’ hideout, the news gets better, as we learn that while Captain Boomerang was keeping the Flash busy, the Weather Wizard and Heatwave both retrieved their assigned bombs as well, so we’re halfway home. But then they run into trouble when Captain Cold fails to get his assigned bomb at the Jewelry Mart, being foiled by the Flash. Once again, no jewels or money was stolen, so what’s Captain Cold got in his sack? Just a strange green disc, which police scientist Barry Allen will examine back at police headquarters.
Barry eventually realizes the disc is some kind of bomb only after looking over some research material Iris has gathered for her article on the Top. When he gets back to headquarters though, the bomb is missing. One thing Barry is sure of at this point is that one the Rogues must have taken it. (And he’s right—for the record, it was the Weather Wizard.) Meanwhile, the Trickster has hit the Ace Fur Company and retrieved another bomb. So the Rogues have five bombs at this point; just one more to go.
Now Barry’s got the whole thing figured out. Checking on the Top’s recent crime wave, he realizes that there’s just one spot left that the Rogues need to hit: Central National Bank. So when Mirror Master hits the bank, the Flash is there to help him, disarming the police and disabling a megaphone so police orders cannot be heard. As Mirror Master is making his getaway, he spots the Flash in his rearview mirror (because of course MM would have his jet pack equipped with a rearview mirror) and blasts him with one of his weird mirror gimmicks, a “distorter gun.” In this instance, he’s distorted the Flash’s physical body into a funhouse-mirror shape.
Sidebar: Discounting the deceased Top, Mirror Master is by far my favorite villain from the Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery. Those mirror gimmicks he uses are just so wonderfully weird that they’re irresistible to my oddball sensibilities. And of all those glorious Flash covers from the 60s, my favorite has to be The Flash #126 (Feb. 1962), where Mirror Master has turned the Flash into an actual glass mirror and is firing a bazooka at him.
Predictably enough, Mirror Master would eventually be killed off in the Crisis on Infinite Earths. I gave up on declaring favorite Flash villains after this. End Sidebar.
So by the time Mirror Master returns to the Rogues’ hideout (with the distorted Flash in tow), there are three minutes left before the bombs explode. They quickly stack the bombs, but this doesn’t disarm them—instead, it activates a recording of the Top’s voice, informing them that the bombs must be stacked in a specific order before they’re deactivated and “there are 720 possible combinations.” And a new countdown of one minute has just started. “Central City has exactly sixty seconds to live,” the Top declares with a cackle.
The Rogues being Rogues start arguing over how to arrange the discs. Blinded by their own infighting and terror over being blown sky high, they fail to notice the Flash literally getting himself together, as he rearranges his atoms into their proper configuration. Once recovered, going through all 720 combinations in one second is a task tailor made for the fastest man alive.
Confession: I did not buy this issue of The Flash when originally published, though I did read it around that time—I believe ’Rice bought it and then let me read his copy. One thing I do distinctly remember was not getting the ending. I gave it back to ’Rice and asked if he could explain it to me.
“You don’t get it?” he asked me with no small amount of incredulity.
“No,” I said. “What’s he going to do in one second?”
’Rice responded with something along the lines of “Never mind,” and I let it drop. I was still six years old and ’Rice was eight, probably closer to nine at that point. That’s a much bigger gap in maturity and awareness than it is in years, clearly.