Once upon a time, in the long-distant, antediluvian past, comic books were a lot like movies, or television shows. You caught them when they first came out (or on), or you were out of luck. Eventually, as we all know, the advent of consumer videotape technology changed everything for TV and film. Similarly, the gradual development of the comics collectors’ market ultimately made it economically feasible to reprint old, ephemeral newsprint periodicals in brand new, designed-to-last, real-book editions, and then to keep them in print for, if not ever, then a lot longer than a month or two. These days, in fact, you can even download a digital copy of a fifty-year-old comic book for less than the cost of a new one. (What a world we live in. You kids today, you just don’t know.)
But even fifty years ago, comic book companies liked to mine their back catalogs for a little additional profit, and if you were in the right place at the right time, you could pick up reprints of stories that were five, ten, even twenty years old. DC Comics’ “80 Page Giants” were squarebound treasure-troves of such comics, with 70 or so pages of story material (the 80-page count included ads as well as letters pages, pin-ups, and the like), all in color for just twenty-five cents.
Flash #160 (alternatively identified by the publisher as 80 Page Giant #G21) was my first full exposure to this format. Like virtually all its peers, this 80-pager pulled its contents from a number of different issues, but most (if not all) of the stories were centered on a single theme — in this case, “the Flash’s greatest super-speed rivals!” There were six stories included in the comic, and we’ll take a look at each of them in turn, just as my eight-year-old self first encountered them a half-century ago.
The first tale, “The Amazing Race Against Time,” had originally been published in Flash #107 (June-July, 1959), and was written by John Broome, with pencils by Carmine Infantino. (The same duo were responsible for the three other post-Golden Age stories in the issue, as well.) It involved a amnesiac stranger who shows up unexpectedly in Central City and proceeds to show up the Flash by running faster than our hero. Eventually, it turns out that the stranger is an android named Kyri, who’s been charged by an alien race with preventing a dimensional rift from opening in the center of our galaxy; unfortunately, a procedure to cure his amnesia inadvertently robs him of the super-speed he needs to complete his mission. All ends well, however, as the Flash gladly accompanies Kyri into space and is able to repair the dimensional barrier in his place, thereby saving the galaxy.
Of the three “Silver Age” Flash stories reprinted in this issue, this story is probably the weakest I strongly suspect that editor Julius Schwartz commissioned its cover first (as he is reputed to have frequently done), then charged writer Broome with coming up with a story to fit the concept. The episode in the story “illustrated” by the cover takes place prior to Kyri losing his speed, and involves the android and Flash running a race for charity. It’s the only time in the story that Kyri’s not wearing a green-and-yellow bodysuit, and unlike on the cover, the track outfit that he’s changed into (for no particular reason) doesn’t have a number “7” on the back — and of course, there’s no reason it should, since there are only two runners in the race! I’d say that Broome probably did the best he could with what he had to work with here, but it’s by no means one of his most memorable stories.
Actually, the most interesting thing to me in the story occurs early on, when the Flash takes the mysterious speedster back to his place to try to find out more about him:
(Yes, the Flash keeps a nice, comfortable, fully-appointed apartment in addition to the home he usually lives in as Barry Allen, just for situations like this one. Apparently, the Central City police department pays its forensic scientists really well.)
The second story reprinted in Flash #160, “Duet of Danger”, was a tale of the original, “Golden Age” Flash, Jay Garrick. (First published in All-Flash #32 [December 1947-January 1948]; written by Robert Kanigher; illustrated by Lee Elias.) I was probably at least vaguely aware of Jay’s existence by this time — I had known that there were earlier versions of several of DC’s heroes at least since reading Green Lantern #40 in late summer, 1965, and was up on the current continuity that allowed Jay to co-exist with Barry by locating him on Earth-Two — but this is almost certainly the first time I’d seen him in action:
This story featured the first appearance of the Fiddler, a fairly big deal as far as Golden Age Flash villains went, though I didn’t know that at the time. His super powers, involving the use of sound waves to hypnotize people, shatter sold objects, and create force barriers, were sufficiently unique to be interesting, and his origin, involving his having learned how to use music in this fashion while serving time in an Asian prison with a snake-charmer, wasn’t any more ridiculous than those of the villains in the other comics I’d been reading. At the time, however, I was probably more impressed by the fact that Jay’s girlfriend, Joan Williams, appeared to know all about his secret crime-fighting identity — a state of affairs that the heroes in “my” comics seemed to be willing to do almost anything to prevent. In any event, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed the story, although I probably found Elias’ Milton Caniff-influenced art less polished-looking than what I was used to.
The third story in the book, and the first not to follow the “super-speed rivals” theme, was another tale of the “modern” Flash, Barry Allen. “Danger in the Air” had originally appeared in Flash #113 (June-July, 1960), and like the Jay Garrick adventure before it, it featured the origin and first appearance of a relatively major super-villain — in this case, James Jesse, alias the Trickster. The Trickster seeks to emulate his near-namesake, the famous 19th century outlaw — but, whereas Jesse James robbed trains, James Jesse robs planes:
Obviously, the ability to run on air is a big help to this modern-day desperado. How does he do it? Why, with special shoes that he invented himself, back in the days when he was only the junior member of a family troupe of circus aerialists, and suffered from a fear of heights:
(Jet propulsion by way of compressed air from tiny holes? That is pretty clever, James. Too bad you set your sights on achieving fame and glory as a notorious criminal, since you could probably have made a huge fortune selling your incredible technology to the aviation industry.)
Super-shoes or no, the Trickster gets taken down pretty quickly by the Flash, who deduces his circus connection from his harlequin-inspired costume. But, not at all surprisingly, the villain would return for multiple engagements over the next several decades, quickly expanding his bag of clever, gimmicky tricks. (Meanwhile, actor Mark Hamill would go on to successfully portray a rather more deranged and murderous version of the character in both the 1990 and 2014 Flash live action television series.)
Flash #160’s fourth story returned to the “other speedsters” theme, with a reprint of “King of the Beatniks” from issue #114 (August 1960). This tale starred Barry Allen’s protégé Kid Flash, a.k.a. Wally West, whom I’d already met in my very first issue of Flash, #156 — though in that story he’d worn his own unique costume, rather than the junior-sized version of Barry’s outfit that he sported in this adventure. (A helpful note added at the end of the reprinted story explained that Wally got his new duds in the March, 1963 issue of The Flash.) In the story, Wally’s classmate Jimmy King goes missing after being falsely accused of cheating on a test. Not only is Jimmy a close friend of Wally, but even more importantly, he’s their school’s star track and field athlete, and the big tri-state meet is tomorrow! So Kid Flash heads to the big city where he knows Jimmy’s older cousin Paul lives — only to find that Paul is now the leader of a gang of thieves, and they’re holding Jimmy prisoner!
Paul King’s gang’s gimmick is that they masquerade as beatniks (which explains the story’s title — get it?). At least, I think they’re masquerading. The story makes a point of telling us so; on the other hand, the gang members consistently behave and speak like beatniks (or, more accurately, how writer John Broome apparently thought “beatniks” should behave and speak) — even when they are, so far as they know, alone:
If these crooks really are just performing the role of beatnik, then wow, they are committed, man.
Kid Flash ultimately corrals the whole gang, and returns Jimmy to their home town of Blue Valley — just in time for the exonerated student to win the tri-state track meet. Hooray!!! (Oh, and the Beatnik Gang’s crime spree in York City has been brought to an end. That’s good, too.)
Our 80 Page Giant’s fifth story returned us to Barry Allen; and while “Space-Boomerang Trap” (reprinted from Flash #124, [November, 1961]) represented yet another departure from the issue’s supposed theme, from today’s vantage point it’s probably the most entertaining tale in the whole book. One reason for that is a guest-star turn from Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, whose presence more than compensates for the lack of a non-Barry speedster. I’d met Ralph already, of course, in Detective Comics #344, but outside of the Flash’s suggestion of him as a candidate for Justice League membership in JLA #42, this was the first indication I’d had of a friendship between the two heroes. And what foe do Barry and Ralph face in this tale? Why, yet another prominent member of the Flash’s Rogues Gallery, Captain Boomerang! And there’s an invasion by aliens from another dimension, to boot! (Hey, it’s a 16-page story. There’s plenty of room.) What else could my eight-year-old self have asked for?
If you’re about to say “plausible storytelling”, I advise you to bite your tongue. OK — I’ll admit, the proposition that Digger Harkness, a career criminal of Australian heritage who uses trick boomerangs to commit robberies, is able to invent a time travel device while sitting in his prison cell is a little hard to swallow:
No, it’s no more plausible than the Trickster’s invention of jet propulsion shoes (or, for that matter, the Fiddler’s learning to master sonic vibrations via “the lore of the East”). Did my eight-year-old self quibble over such details, fifty years ago? No, he did not. Does that mean he (and his fellow comic book readers of the era) were laughably gullible, perhaps even a bit dim? I don’t think so. We were all reading stories about a world where certain colorfully-costumed men and women could fly, or run faster than the speed or light, or breathe underwater; clearly, not the world we were actually living in. So why couldn’t a convict invent a time-traveling boomerang out of materials available in his jail cell? Of course, we knew such a thing could never happen in the real world, but this wasn’t the real world. It didn’t have to make sense in real-world terms.
All that said — could the creators of these old comic book stories have worked harder to make the fantastic elements seem more grounded in mundane reality, thereby enhancing their verisimilitude? Of course. Would they have tried to do so, if they’d anticipated their work would be read and re-read for decades to come, by adults as well as children? Maybe. Could they get away with such a cavalier attitude towards verisimilitude if they were making comics today? Come on, do I even need to answer that question?
Obviously, things have changed considerably in fifty years. Readers, young and old, have different expectations today. Creators have to work harder for their audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. How and why that has come to pass is definitely worth considering at length — but considering how long this post is already, that discussion will have to wait for another time. (We’ve still got one more story to cover following this one, after all.)
As you might have already surmised, Captain Boomerang confounds the Flash by hanging around at museums at the exact same time that his time-traveling boomerangs show up to commit robberies. Barry calls on his pal Ralph, the “Stretchable Sleuth”, for help unraveling this mystery. And although the Elongated Man does not in fact solve the puzzle (in fact, neither hero ever discovers the secret of these larcenous throwing tools), with his help the Flash is able to capture one of the boomerangs before it disappears from the scene of the crime.
Standing close by, Digger Harkness overhears the heroes discuss checking the item for fingerprints. Whoops! Although he’s brilliant enough to have devised a way to send an indigenous Australian throwing weapon through time, the good Captain hasn’t always remembered to wear gloves when handling same. He makes a dash for it, but is quickly nabbed by our heroes.
However, before they can take him off to jail, Central City is invaded by aliens from an “super-scientific dimension” adjoining Earth’s. It turns out that one inadvertent side-effect of Cap’s time-traveling boomerangs is that they’ve passed through the dimension next door as well, an act that has been perceived as a prelude to hostilities by its highly advanced inhabitants. Flash, Elongated Man, and Captain Boomerang call a temporary truce so that they can save the planet from these invaders — and within the space of a little more than two pages, they put the enemy to rout:
Of course, as soon as the alien threat is over, Digger turns on his erstwhile allies and downs them with one of these energy-sapping rayguns. He then ties Barry to a giant boomerang that he intends to launch into space to orbit around the moon — hence, the story’s title. (Apparently, Digger’s brilliance extends beyond time-travel technology to include rocket science.) Unfortunately, he hasn’t accounted for Ralph, who recovers from the ray blast just as the boomerang is launched moon-ward. Making a tremendous effort, Ralph stretches into the sky and just barely manages to free Barry in time, leaving the space-boomerang to continue on into space (where it’s circling the moon to this day, I guess). Our heroes recapture Captain Boomerang and deliver him to the authorities without further incident. As noted earlier, they never do find out about the villain’s boomerangs traveling through time, nor do they learn about their connection with the extradimensional alien invasion — but hey, you can’t cover everything in 16 pages, right?
And that’s how they did it in 1961, y’all.
The sixth and final story in Flash #160 took us back to the Golden Age, and brought in a costumed speedster with no connection whatsoever to any hero with “Flash” in his name. (At least, none that we’d learn about until decades later.) Johnny Quick had been created by Mort Weisinger in 1941 as a pretty obvious imitation of the original Flash. A news photographer named Johnny Chambers in civilian life, he gained super-speed whenever he recited a mathematical formula, “3X2(9YZ)4A”, which a professor friend of his had derived from an ancient Egyptian scroll.
His tale “Adventure of the Antelope Boy!”, written by Don Cameron and pencilled by Mort Meskin (reprinted from Adventure Comics #123 [December, 1947]), is a brisk 9-page affair which finds Johnny and his comic-relief pal Tubby Watts heading to “Africa” (no actual country, or even region, specified) on the trail of a mysterious, leopard-skin-clad white boy (of course) reputed to run as fast as an antelope. Unfortunately, an American gangster named Mobs Bracket captures the boy before Johnny and Tubby can reach him, and transports him back to the United States, where he christens him “Feets” and quickly sets him to work committing speedy robberies. Johnny (also having returned to the U.S. by now) springs into action upon hearing about one of these capers over a police radio, and, as these things tend to go, he ultimately finds himself chasing Feets into the middle of an actual competitive race going on in the city’s sports arena:
Feets is fast, but obviously not as fast as our formula-driven hero. Once he’s led Johnny back to the gang’s hideout, the case is quickly closed, and the story ends on a happy note, as the young foreign national explains that he has been offered full athletic scholarships to several colleges whose representatives saw him on the racetrack. Does the story ever explain how this white kid ended up in the jungle in the first place, or why he can run so fast? What do you think?
I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this story well enough in 1966, though it didn’t make me especially eager to read more stories about Johnny Quick (which was just as well, since I wouldn’t see much more of him until 1981, when writer Roy Thomas drafted Johnny into his “new” 1940s super-team, the All-Star Squadron — and in fact, the character’s most lasting legacy would be in the form of his daughter, the contemporary superheroine Jesse Quick). I suspect that I was not terribly impressed with Mort Meskin’s art, which likely looked “scratchy” to me (in retrospect, Meskin’s pencils were probably not well served by the limitations of comics printing technology in 1966).
And that was that for Flash #160 — or, if you prefer, 80 Page Giant #G21 — a mixed bag, to be sure, but well worth the 25 cents. My eight-year-old self must have thought so, at any rate, based on how tattered my copy is today. It gave me what was probably my first sustained look at comic books stories that were older than I was, and whetted my appetite for more. It was my first 80 Page Giant — but it certainly wouldn’t be my last.