In his mostly fascinating, occasionally maddening genre-history-cum-autobiography Supergods, the acclaimed comics writer Grant Morrison describes the lead tale in Flash #183 as “one of the first stories I remember having a profound impact on my young mind.” He goes on to state that he “can trace many of my own obsessions and concerns as a writer back to this particular root.” Morrison would have been six-and-a-half years old when this comic book was published, while I was eight, closing in on nine. I figure my recollection of its advent upon the world should be at least as clear as his — but, y’know, I don’t remember it having nearly so profound an impact on me. But that’s probably just one of the many, many reasons why Grant Morrison is a rock star of the comics world, and I’m just a schlub with a blog.
I don’t doubt that the cover of Flash #163 did startle me, though, the first time I saw it. How could it not? That close-up image of the Scarlet Speedster, bold against a stark, black background, desperately shouting to the kid browsing the spinner rack to STOP! Morrison claims that this cover represents “the first time a superhero looked out from the flat picture plane into a theoretical higher dimensional space he could not see, only intuit, to ask his readers for help.” Is he correct? I’m not sure. Doubtless, there had been any number of instances of Superman winking conspiratorially out at the audience from a final panel, after having pulled the wool over Lois’ eyes yet one more time. But reaching across the worlds through “a membrane as hard and permeable as Alice’s mirror”, in Morrison’s phrase, to plead with the readers for assistance? This might indeed have been the first incidence of such.
“The Flash Stakes His Life — On — YOU!” was written by John Broome and illustrated by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella, who also contributed the classic cover. The story begins quietly enough, even innocently, with the second page following the splash presenting us with this scene:
The little girl’s emphatic “never, never, NEVER!” will, of course, eventually turn out to be the axis on which the whole story turns; but for now, the story leaves her as well as the Flash, so that we can meet the villain of our tale, one Ben Haddon, Haddon is another one of those brilliant scientists with an unfortunate bent towards criminality that fills the pages of Sixties superhero comics. He’s just perfected his new invention, a device whose radiation can make people forget anything or anyone he chooses. After successfully testing the invention by causing his housekeeper to forget the household’s pet cat, Haddon turns the radiation onto his primary target — the Flash!
Our hero first realizes something is wrong when he drops by Central City Police HQ to pick up his mail (!) and the desk sergeant doesn’t recognize him. Then an ex-convict just out of jail, who’s sworn revenge on the Flash, passes by him on the street and doesn’t give him a second glance. (You’d think that a guy in a bright red bodysuit with little wings on the side of his head would get a double-take from someone, even if they didn’t remember having met him before, but what the hey.) Concerned, Flash swings by the offices of Picture News to consult with his — or rather, Barry Allen’s — girlfriend, Iris West. I don’t think you need me to tell you how well that goes:
Almost immediately after this, the Flash notices that he can see through his hand — he’s becomig translucent. Most of us have seen this trope, where a character is being erased from reality through time-travel or other shenanigans, and begins to fade from sight. But Infantino and Giella take the conceit a step further, delivering a visual representation that seems as innovative (and as eerily disturbing) now as it did in 1966, as the Flash’s form becomes not only less visible, but less physically cohesive:
Having been alerted to a robbery in progress, Flash “races” to the scene as best he can — and we readers discover the bandit to be none other than the dastardly Ben Haddon, who proceeds to puff out his cheeks and blow the Flash all the way back to his hideout, where he intends to finish the hero off:
This is probably an appropriate point to step back and acknowledge that, in terms of rational, extrapolative science fiction storytelling, this premise makes absolutely no sense. How, exactly, does the city’s lapse of subjective memory regarding the Scarlet Speedster have this effect on his objective corporeality? And what about the memories of people outside of Central City? It’s been well-established, not only in this book but in Justice League of America and others, that the Flash has a worldwide reputation. And won’t the gig be up as soon as someone glances at a story about one of the Flash’s prior exploits in an old issue of Picture News? And, finally — does the nefarious device’s radiation eliminate everyone’s memories of Barry Allen, as well as of his alter ego? The story never says one way or the other — but that sure does look like a framed photo of Barry on Iris’ desk. What’s the “pretty newshen” going to make of that, hmm?
But you know what? None of that matters — at least, not enough to invalidate (or even significantly damage) the story. If you opt to read (or re-read) this tale, I recommend you set its science-fictional trappings aside, and consider it as being more in the slipstream tradition of Franz Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis. After all, in that story it doesn’t matter how Gregor Samsa is transformed into a giant insectoid creature — the author’s concern is with what happens to Gregor and those around him afterwards. Similarly, in “The Flash Stakes His Life — On — YOU!”, the story’s interest lies not in the mechanics of Haddon’s technology, but rather in the profound themes of identity and alienation that the Flash’s nightmarish situation evokes.
But to return now to our story: Haddon goes on to tell the Flash that the only reason he hasn’t already completely dissipated into nothingness is that one person still believes in his existence — Haddon, himself. He’s about to rectify that, however, by exposing himself to his own forget-the-Flash radiation before skipping out of Central City to live like a king on a faraway island. The Flash can only watch helplessly as Haddon flips a switch on his device, grabs his hat and suitcase, and exits the lab — leaving our hero to wait, alone, for a demise which he believes will not be marked by another living soul.
Except, after waiting for a good long while, Flash discovers that although he’s lost a bit more substance since Haddon departed, he’s not fading away completely. It appears that at least one single person in Central City does remember him — but who?
Realizing that the little girl is his only hope, the Flash exerts his will to force what’s left of his physical form down to the riverside, a sequence expertly portrayed with both eeriness and poignancy by Infantino and Giella:
Thankfully, the Flash has his powers as long as he’s near the girl, and he soon comes up with a plan for making the rest of the city’s populace believe in him again. First, he writes up hundreds and hundreds of leaflets at super-speed…
And so, here at last, we have the scene from the striking cover, realized within the story itself. Well, sort of. As it turns out, it’s random passersby on the street who end up saving the Flash — not me, the faithful comic book reader who bought this issue in response to the hero’s plea. That might be considered a bit of a cheat — after all, the story’s title isn’t “The Flash Stakes His Life — On — THE CITIZENS OF CENTRAL CITY!” is it? I mean, whatever happened to looking out from out from the flat picture plane into a theoretical higher dimensional space? Never mind, let’s just roll with it. (But don’t tell Grant Morrison, OK?)
The Flash’s gambit is a complete success, of course, and our hero is soon entirely restored by his city’s renewed belief in him. The remaining action of the story is practically anticlimactic, as Flash speedily locates Ben Haddon on his island hideaway and apprehends him with minimal resistance from the latter’s hired guns. There follows a rather superfluous coda in which we see that the faithful (and now famous) little girl, Alice, is receiving both monetary donations from a grateful populace and personal attention from Iris West, which means Flash won’t have to worry about her homeslessness — superfluous, because until the last page we’ve had no reason to suspect Alice is homeless. (It reads rather like the creators got to the end of the story and realized, “hmm, we need just a little something more here with Flash and the little girl,” and invented the homeless-waif angle on the spot.) And that’s that. The end.
Trying to explain the continuing resonance of this story even after more than forty years, Grant Morrison asserts in 2010’s Supergods that the tale depicts “the end of the trip, the spacey, terrifying loss of self and volition that would be experienced by so many young people unprepared for the psychoanalytical effects of Albert Hoffman’s chemical child in a time of war.” Hmm. Morrison thinks that scripter John Broome was anticipating the negative effects of “bad” LSD trips on unprepared young minds in the psychedelic era just a-borning in 1966? That seems a stretch. But then he goes on to add: “And it showed them that the only way back was through kindness, connection, and community.”
Well, OK. Hard to argue with that.
The lasting influence of Flash #163 on Grant Morrison’s work has been well documented in articles by Rikdad and “Need to Consume”‘s Michael, so I won’t go into all of that in detail here. I’ll simply offer you this image of Doug Mahnke’s cover for 2015’s The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1, which functions both as an homage and as a direct inversion of the classic Flash cover:
… with the titular hero commanding the prospective comics buyer to do the opposite of what the Flash implored of us back in June, 1966. (Or is he? That “NOT” looks like it might have been scrawled in after the fact. Guess you’ll just have to read the story to find out.)
Comic books of today, riffing off comic books a half-century or more old. Just part of what makes this medium so great, right? And may it always continue to be so.
I would be remiss to take leave of Flash #163 without at least acknowledging that the issue included a second story in addition to the one featured on the cover. “The Day Magic Exposed Flash’s Secret Identity!” was a 9-pager by the same creative team of Broome, Infantino, and Giella that contributed the opener. It featured the time-traveling villain from the 64th century, Abra Kadabra. And — that’s just about all I have to say about it. It’s not a bad story, by any means; there’s simply nothing especially memorable or distinctive in it that I’m interested in discussing.
It occurs to me that one reason for my lukewarm reaction to this tale (fifty years ago as well as now) was that the villain was Abra Kadabra, probably my least favorite character in Flash’s classic rogues gallery. His shtick of pretending to be a magician, but actually using technology of the far future to simply emulate sorcery, always irritated me. Science was science, after all, and magic was magic. My eight-year-old self was adamant that if a character was going to call himself a magician, he’d better be prepared to demonstrate real magical powers.
Luckily for me, I was on the verge of making the acquaintance of just such a character. But more about that in a near-future post.