Who’s faster — Superman or the Flash?
It’s one of those questions that comic book fans have argued about for ages — like who’s stronger, the Hulk or Thor? (Did someone just say “the Thing”? Please.) Essentially unanswerable — or, rather, the answer is “whichever one of them the creators at the comic book company that owns them has decided is the faster/stronger/better dressed in the context of the story you’re currently reading.”
Actually, I think the more interesting question — a question for which one fan’s answer is as valid as any other’s, and can’t be overruled by the characters’ corporate owners — is, who should be faster, Superman or the Flash?
As a nine-year-old in June, 1967, I had no doubt of my answer to that question. Superman was great, of course — he was the first superhero I’d ever encountered, after all, and after two years of buying and reading comic books he was still my single favorite Justice Leaguer, even if I didn’t pick up either of the books he headlined (Superman and Action Comics) very regularly — but the Flash was the Fastest Man Alive. I mean, they kept telling us that, in virtually every issue of the guy’s comic. Either the Scarlet Speedster was faster than any other person on Earth, including the Man of Steel, or DC Comics had been lying to us for years.
More to the point — speed was the Flash’s whole deal. Everything he could do, everything he was as a superhero, came down to speed. Superman, on the other hand, had all sorts of other things going on in addition to speed — strength, invulnerability, flight, heat vision, telescopic vision, x-ray vision, etc., etc. If Flash was a teensy-weensy bit faster than Superman, what difference did it make? Superman was still the most powerful superhero on Earth, obviously. It was only fair, I thought, that when it came to this one thing that the Flash had that made him special — running really fast — he should be better at it than the Last Son of Krypton. I mean, why not?
It still seems that way to me now, fifty years later, truth be told. The logic of my position is, I feel, unassailable — but I have encountered people (OK, one person) who feels the opposite — who feels that Superman, because he’s Superman, should be the very best at every single thing he does, including running fast. It’s a ridiculous notion, right? I mean, I’ve tried to make her see the error of her ways. (Luckily, she doesn’t care enough about comic books for it to threaten the stability of our marriage.)
In any event, back in the summer of 1967, when I put my twelve cents down on the convenience store counter for my copy of Superman #199, I had no doubt who ought to win — but that didn’t mean I knew who would win. I had probably been staring at that cover for weeks via DC’s house ads — but it was a whole other experience to have the book in my hands, and to savor that image full-size, at last. It’s one of the greatest products of Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson’s long and fruitful collaboration, and sadly, one that comes near the end of their time working together on a regular basis. As we’ve discussed in earlier posts, through most of 1967 Infantino was in the process of transitioning from working as a full-time artist into a high-level management role at DC — but he was also still at the top of his game, artistically, and was consistently knocking ’em out of the park, especially in collaboration with Anderson (Exhibit B: the cover of Batman #194 , published just a couple of weeks before Superman #199). If there’s any flaw to the cover whatsoever, it’s in the bit of dialogue attributed to Batman (which, in their defense, probably neither Infantino nor Anderson had anything to do with): “Show him up, Flash!” Why the heck would one half of the World’s Finest team of super-bros be rooting against the other one? My ten-year-old self knew that just couldn’t be right.*
When I finally got the book home and was able to read it, I discovered that the interiors didn’t feature the art of Infantino, Flash’s regular artist, as had the cover. Rather, the interior art for “Superman’s Race with the Flash!” was pencilled by Curt Swan, Superman’s primary artist, with inks by George Klein. (The art was uncredited both on the cover and within the book, but my ten-year old self knew the difference between Infantino’s and Swan’s styles by sight.) Swan was my favorite Superman artist, and even if he didn’t bring the same dynamic sense of movement to a speeding figure that Infantino did, I could hardly be disappointed by the simple but elegant realism of his work. The script, meanwhile, was by Jim Shooter (also uncredited; but though I’d read Shooter’s writing elsewhere, I certainly wasn’t capable then of recognizing it by his style — in fact, I’m still not, so I’m grateful for the historical credits supplied by the Grand Comics Database and other sources) — who was only 15 years old at the time, though he’d already been writing scripts for Superman editor Mort Weisinger for a year.
Shooter’s story begins with a pair of scenes set in Metropolis and Central City, in which both Superman and the Flash are shown speedily responding to local emergencies while ordinary citizens clock their time and speculate about the upcoming race, before shifting to a flashback sequence explaining how this race has come about. We see Superman and Flash meeting with the Secretary General of the United Nations, at the U.N. headquarters in New York:
Obviously, busy, responsible heroes like Superman and the Flash can’t run a race just to, y’know, find out who’s fastest. They have to have A Good Reason. And raising “money for schools, hospitals, food and clothing for poverty-stricken lands” is a really good reason.
Once they’ve agreed to his proposal, the Secretary General has his assistant explain to Supes and Flash just how a footrace between two men who can exceed the speed of light is going to work, by showing them a model of the planned course:
Shifting back to the present, we see how the whole world is anticipating the race. Presumably the U.N. is selling a whole lot of sweepstakes tickets, though, as a bit of expository dialogue from an unnamed citizen informs us, the organization “has limited the number… that anyone can buy, so no one can lose much!”
But, of course, any sporting event this huge is going to attract gambling, whether legal or not. And, in fact, two different gambling syndicates, one in America and another in Europe, are betting against each other on the outcome of the race, to the tune of one billion dollars — and each, unknown to the other, is scheming to “fix” the race in their own favor.
But our public-spirited heroes won’t have to worry about that problem until a bit later in the story. In the meantime, the worldwide excitement for the race continues to build until, at last, the big day arrives. The rest of the Justice League of America shows up for the occasion, of course (thankfully, Shooter and Swan know that Batman [and Robin] should be among the Man of Steel’s boosters, unlike whoever wrote the book’s cover copy*):
(Um… their “speed will be limited“? How does that work, exactly? Oh, never mind. They’re starting.)
The story doesn’t say where the race’s starting point is, though either Metropolis or New York would seem to be the best bets. Wherever it is, it’s on the eastern seaboard of the United States, as the first leg of the course takes the heroes out across the Atlantic Ocean (Supes swimming through the waves, while the Flash skims over the top of them). Then it’s onto the African continent, where the Sahara Desert presents the speedsters with their first major physical obstacle:
From Africa, the race takes the Flash and Superman through the Middle East, across the Himalayan Mountains, into the forests of Burma (Myanmar), and on through Thailand, until at last they’re back out on the ocean (the Pacific, this time):
What a great sport that Man of Steel is, huh? Of course, as you might expect, the Flash will soon get a chance to return the anonymous favor…
Now those are some role models, folks!
Speeding across South America, the racing heroes complete their first circuit of the globe, and then return to the Atlantic for their second. This time, their route takes them through the African rain forests, then across the Indian Ocean, then through the Australian outback. But even as they race across the Pacific, heading for the third and final lap, the two competing criminal syndicates are closely monitoring their progress, preparing to spring their individual traps.
Superman and the Flash finish the second lap by crossing Canada, then race across the North Atlantic Sea, Europe, and the Soviet Union (traveling “at 140 miles a second”, a caption helpfully tells us), before crossing the Pacific one last time, to enter the home stretch — just a quick sprint across the contiguous United States:
Oh, no! And there’s no TV coverage way out there in the desert. But what about Green Lantern’s nifty power-ringed monitor? Unfortunately, it’s been temporarily knocked out of commission, as GL explains: “Apparently the heat of the Nevada desert formed a yellowish haze! Anything yellow affects my power ring!” Gahh!
As Superman and Flash round up the crooks, the two impostors, each trying to lose to the other, keep going slower and slower until, at last, they come to a dead stop:
A tie?!? What a rip-off!!
Actually, if I recall correctly, my nine-year-old self — while disappointed that this story didn’t provide a definite resolution to the “Fastest Man Alive” question — wasn’t too terribly surprised at this outcome. And, thanks to the final caption’s promise, I knew we were going to get a rematch “coming soon in The Flash!” Surely, in his own book, the Scarlet Speedster would finally be given his just deserts.
Ah, what a naive young fan I was. But to learn how that second race turned out, you’ll have to check back in about four months — when I’ll be blogging about “The Race to the End of the Universe!” in Flash #175. See you then!
UPDATE: A few hours after this post went up, a bit of additional research turned up the fact that a fan raised an objection to Batman’s behavior on the cover in Superman #201’s letter column — and received the answer that it was, in fact, a mistake!
Green Lantern? Well, sure. That makes perfect sense!