Speed killed

Published Thursday, June 16 2022 at 11:59 pm
Speed killed
From left to right: The Flash #128 (1962, Infantino/Giella), The Flash #169 (2001, Brian Bolland), and The Flash #191 (1969, Joe Kubert).

Speed. Speed kills. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase. And what does it refer to? Drugs, driving, some combination of both? Its origin is basically unimportant to today’s topic: covers from The Flash where our titular hero is depicted dead. Or getting killed. Or costume shredded, empty, unoccupied. In other words: Speed killed.

I found at least two articles already covering this topic. One from 2006, the other 2009. So, yeah, I’m retreading a little ground. But these covers offer me so much; I had to write about them. Plus, there are a few newer entries in the Dead Flash canon that could be discussed. To honor the speedster, I’ll try to be quick.

So, what am I seeing? Let me save the violence of that reveal. First: context!

The Flash is the character who inaugurated the Silver Age of comic books in 1956. Almost every shitty MCU movie has its deepest roots in the Silver Age, when Marvel’s books attempted to take down their competitor, and Flash’s publisher, DC Comics. “Distinguished Competition” is how Stan Lee sarcastically referred to them. And thus the current zeitgeist has some roots in the footwork of the Fastest (fictional) Man Alive.

The Flash’s Golden Age incarnation, a.k.a. Jay Garrick, owed more to Hermes/Mercury of Greco-Roman myth. But the Silver Age incarnation seems to speak to the Atomic Age in which he first appeared. Garrick’s winged helmet is gone, replaced by a sleek red suit. Barry Allen, the second and Silver Age Flash, is a forensic scientist. That a literal gorilla is one of Barry Allen’s nemeses further outlines a theme of human reason subduing animality.

These innovations in narrative and publishing extended to the Flash’s artists, too; specifically, the use of motion lines to depict super-speed. An early use of motion lines can be found in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912). Flash artist Carmine Infantino grabbed the relay baton from Duchamp and made extensive use of motion lines in his Flash art. It’s sort of a reverse Lichtenstein: Infantino aped a technique from the ‘fine arts’ to empower his pop-cultural art. At the same time painters were embracing the nonrepresentational, Infantino gave abstraction a blue collar job and made it work in a way that even kids could understand.

Leftmost, an early Flash cover by Infantino with the OG Flash, Jay Garrick, in the background. The remaining three covers are all from Infantino's return to the title in the 1980s. You can see he had refined the speed line technique to powerful results by then.

Like music, comic books are a truly unique medium because of their use of time. Prose tends to induce a rhythm, but words and pictures together (or even pictures alone) are patient and allow us any pace we please. The movement of our eyes across a page is where the artist-as-technician can manipulate things. There is brilliance in using linework to directly simulate motion, as a panel becomes a timekeeping device with its own tempo. The reader can still enter this timeline as quickly or slowly as they’d like.  

The mark of an amateur painter is one who absolutely refuses to hold the viewer’s hand. A composition doesn’t need to baby us, but it must offer some entryway in, no?

Such is the case with the following compilation of covers, which tend to offer us entry via histrionic blurbs, technical finesse or dark seduction. I won’t claim it’s comprehensive, but it is at least organized by recurring imagery. The cover to The Flash No. 128 (1962), drawn by Infantino and inked by Joe Giella, is a literal illustration of deathly speed as the Flash blurs into an empty costume. It blends the two central notions here: “The Quick and the Dead,” to quote one cover that actually features a living Flash.

[1] Corpses: The most numerous category, which shows the Flash’s entire body in various states of dying or being dead. Crucifix-like positions. Becoming roadkill. The blasé non-reactions of passersby: A boy whistles as he steps over Flash’s corpse. Flash lies dead on a park bench, covered by newspapers. His wife goes “Honey, I’m home!” but he’s already dead. Or, the utter goofiness of two boys finding his skeleton at the bottom of a hole and going: “So that’s what happened to the Flash!” There are apparently many ways to kill a hero, and his dignity, too.

[2] Empty costume: This one doesn’t always equal physical death; it’s occasionally a symbolic death as the Flash hangs up his threads for whatever narrative reason. “I can’t run again! I’m afraid it will kill me!” reads the cover to no. 182 (1968). The completely empty costume makes for some astounding imagery: The rumples in the rubbery fabric. The way it drapes sadly over a coffin or concrete. The face behind the cowl often replaced by pure black. The clothes make the man, as they say, and here the man is unmade.

[3] Quitting: Similar to the empty costume trope, and I’ve classified some covers under both. The fetishism of the costume itself becomes especially obvious, and it seems as if Flash’s entire zest for life is tied up into those yellow latex boots. In no. 247 (2009), the grim reaper hovers over a shoeless Flash. Perhaps this is why, in the masterful cover to no. 189 (1969) by Joe Kubert, Barry Allen screams: “I never want to see this uniform again!” His identity has become skintight, suffocating.

[4] Shredded costume: A severe twist on the empty costume trope. Ripped clothing is rarely a good omen. Clothing ripped off by someone else? That’s even worse.

[5] Hands & feet: This one’s a small but ambitious category that isolates a body part to horrific results. A single appendage becomes a point of devastation.

[6] Imminent death: The Flash isn’t dead yet, but’s he about to be. All four of these have a magnificent sense of gallows humor. Quite literally in the case of no. 169 (2001), where a guillotine awaits the Flash.

Flash no. 762 (2020) resting on some comfy hotel sheets.

Thoughts from the finish line: It is hard to choose a favorite from these many gems, but a leading candidate is one of the most recent: issue no. 762. (It’s technically Reverse Flash who’s dead on the cover, for all you “Actually…” folks out there.) I bought this comic in when it came out in September 2020, while vacationing in upstate New York.

Written by Joshua Williamson and pencilled by Howard Porter, the issue is the finale of Williamson’s five year run. This was the first Flash run I read in full as I got back into comics during quarantine. It is very long, and full of all sorts of sentimental nonsense. But I did read the entire thing, about 100 issues worth, which does say something about its quality of entertainment.

So, no. 762: Could any other cover represent September 2020 better? A body dragged along, a trail of blood. It is so deliciously final. Morbid? I can see that interpretation, yes. But the cover also represents the triumph over an enemy, over the literal inverse of oneself. Is it wrong to want that our better halves triumph, knowing full well we still possess a devil inside?

Whoops, there I go again, leaping into the speed of the lovely idea. Back to the dirt under everything: White covers are always the hardest to keep clean. I bought a second copy of no. 762 for safekeeping. Good thing I did. Soon after, my original copy was hit by a stray water droplet. Here was wrinkled white paper, and drawn blood.

Some collectors are such killjoys about damage. I believe an object’s injuries are what test our love for it. I will hold onto my damaged copy of Flash no. 762 as long as I can. It reminds me of a transformative time in my life, and the narrative inside echoes that.

Like many other dead Flash covers, no. 762 is misleading, as no such scene happens in the issue. But the capacity to grab one’s eye, to invoke motion as the patron of one’s lines, is something Porter gratuitously indulges here. A trail of blood marks the passage of time. Call it linework. Call it speed.

[Note, 06.17.22, 00:30 – Fixed a few typos, fleshed out a few lines and dates, added some images. Will correct & caption images eventually, lol.]  

[30 days of June: No. 16/30]