Barry Allen is, or was, one of the most wholesome characters in superhero comics. He had a buzzcut, married his sweetheart, Iris Allen, was a criminologist with the Central City police department, and after witnessing his future nephew’s unexpected transformation into a speedster like him, agreed to take on the mentorship of Wally West, who would eventually (in a previous, better continuity) inherit the mantle of the Flash. As a child with an overly romanticized view of the world, the character of Barry Allen really spoke to me. He was a hero with a strong moral code, one who was easy to look up to.
The first Flash comic I picked up was #336. This issue fell smack in the middle of the overlong “Trial of the Flash” storyline – written by Cary Bates, with art by Carmine Infantino – and slightly more than a year out from the book’s cancellation. I only had a little while to become acclimated to Barry Allen, in his own book, before he walked off into the sunset with Iris (who had died, but came back from the future to help absolve Barry of his murder conviction for allegedly killing the Reverse Flash, when the rogue threatened to kill Barry’s soon-to-be second wife, Fiona Webb, on their wedding day – yeah, it’s convoluted; it’s time travel in comic books; but it’s so damn fun).
Those last fifteen issues were enough to solidify my appreciation of the Flash, as a character. But the book that locked it down was Crisis on Infinite Earths #8. When this series is discussed, the much-homaged cover and the sacrifice of Supergirl from issue #7 is a primary point of discussion. It’s the one that really shocked readers. But I find the following issue to be far more powerful. Throughout the first seven issues of Crisis, readers, and heroes, caught fleeting glimpses of the Flash, ghostly images the even unnerved Batman. It’s a mystery that does not get solved until the eighth issue.
In issue #8, “A Flash of the Lightning!,” the anti-Monitor’s ultimate weapon, an anti-matter cannon that will destroy the five remaining positive matter universes, is revealed to the Flash, who has been kept incapacitated on the planet Qward by the Psycho Pirate’s mood-changing powers. Barry understands the gravity of the situation and the fact that he is the only hero who can possibly stop this attack. Using his strong force of will, the Flash builds up superspeed and escapes from the gelatinous shackles with which he’s been held. Immediately, he drives for the Psycho Pirate, laying him out with one superspeed punch, and rushes the “pirate” from Thunderer to Thunderer, causing the guards to fear and hate their master. When they attack the anti-Monitor, Barry rushes for the cannon to examine it (his scientific background coming in handy), recognizes its power source as concentrated anti-matter, and realizes he must run against the flow of that anti-matter to force the energies back into the cannon, in order to destroy it.
He also understands that he will most likely die, if he does this. Without hesitation, the Flash jumps into the cannon. And he starts to run.
Racing against time, pushing beyond anything he’s ever experienced, Barry Allen’s life rushes across his vision. But this is no hallucination or spiritual journey – Barry is running so fast that he is actually going back through time. The images – the friends he sees for the last time – are paralleled by those earlier instances where Batman and others saw the “ghost” of the Flash. It’s overwhelming and emotional for this man who only ever wanted to do good and come home to his one true love, Iris. As he passes through his life, the Flash destroys the cannon, crushes the Anti-Monitor’s plan, and saves reality.
And Barry Allen dies, alone and unmourned.
This issue hit me so hard, as a kid. And for a very long time, the death of the Flash was one of the handful of “deaths” in comics that was irrevocable. Because of that, the character of Barry Allen’s Flash cast a long shadow over the heroes of the DC universe, none moreso than Wally West, who would take up the mantle soon after the “Crisis” passed.
But that’s an entry for another day.