There’s a scene in this week’s episode of The Flash; it is brief and fleeting and it doesn’t advance the plot or contribute much to characterization. It might be mistaken for window dressing, a bit of atmosphere and nothing more. But it made me stop the program cold, made me rewind and watch the scene again, once at slow speed and once more at regular pace. It put a lump in my throat.
The Flash (Grant Gustin), races to the aid of Police Officer Patty Spivot (Shantel VanSanten). At his side is another figure in colorful costume, though one crowned by a winged Mercury helmet instead of a cowl. He is also the Flash (Teddy Spears), but the Flash of another world. Officer Spivot lifts herself from the floor where she has fallen during the battle with the super-villain known as the Sand Demon (Kett Turton).
At slow speed I was able to pause the action at just the right frame. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The image was almost an exact duplicate of a classic comic book cover from 1961. In that case, the two Flashes raced to save a man from a falling girder. “Flash! Help me!” he calls. Each Flash responds in kind: “I’m coming.” The cover, by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, introduced one of the most important and influential stories in the long history of comic book superheroes, a story that shares its name with this latest episode of CW’s superhero drama: “Flash of Two Worlds.” That comic book story, like this television one, introduced the concept of multiple Earths and doppelganger heroes. Both major comics publishers are still dealing with its influence even today.
The doppelganger scene that played out on television was, in the opinion of this lifelong comic book fan, one of the finest things ever seen in a television superhero drama. It was, at one and the same time, both remarkably new and astonishingly vintage, both a tribute and a dare.
This image of the two Flashes in action had already been released as part of the network’s promotion of the show, placed alongside the classic comic book cover in order to make sure that no one missed the point. But I had assumed that it was nothing more than a tease. Comic book fans have long understood that the scene on the cover may or may not appear in the issue itself. I imagined that this tribute to the iconic image from The Flash #123 (September 1961) had been drawn up by someone in the marketing department. I never expected it to make an appearance in the actual episode.
In a way, that one brief scene is emblematic of what made this latest installment of The Flash so rewarding. For that matter, it is emblematic of what makes this series so good. Last season illustrated that, rather than trying to distance itself from its comic book origins, this show is perfectly at ease with mining the long and rich history of the character. It seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do. After all, some of the most talented writers and artists in the entertainment business have been telling stories about Barry Allen’s version of the Flash since 1956, and about Jay Garrick’s Flash since 1940; ignoring that history would have been just plain dumb. But this series does more than borrow from that history; it embraces it, it celebrates it. In doing so, it makes it seem new.
That borrowing from the past to build narratives for the future has long been a part of the comic book tradition, and no character better exemplifies this tendency than does the Flash. The original Flash, Jay Garrick, was created in 1940 by Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert and starred in his own comic book, Flash Comics, until 1949. After that, superheroes went out of fashion and all but disappeared — with the exception of the big three: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Before the next decade was over, however, superheroes were poised to make a comeback and the character of the Flash led the way. The new Flash had a new origin story, a new alias (Barry Allen), and a new costume. Re-created by Robert Kanigher, John Broome, and artist Carmine Infantino, the new Flash was a modernized take on the classic hero. In the “Flash of Two Worlds” story, original Flash creator Gardner Fox made the connections explicit. The tale had the two heroes meet as citizens of two different Earths. It was at once a tribute to the Flash of yesteryear and an introduction of a new standard in storytelling for comic books. By looking to the past, Fox and Infantino were charting the future, not so much recycling as they were re-creating.
Just exactly, it seems, what the “Flash of Two Worlds” story was all about. It’s a story that harkens back to the fictional multiverse that was born in its namesake comic book and that has been at the center of DC Comics storytelling ever since. It harkens back to that other “Flash of Two Worlds,” which was itself a tribute to the Flash of an earlier day, a tribute and a reimagining.
As surprising to me as the recreation of that famed comic book cover is the fact that this episode embraced the multiple worlds framework itself, and not just the existence of the alternate Flash. The script took the time to slow down and explain all of those comic book science fiction concepts to an audience that might not be quite up to speed. Barry and the others, especially Joe (Jesse L. Martin), struggled along with the audience to make sense of it all. Professor Stein (Victor Garber) even drew a visual diagram of the concept. Right before our eyes The Flash was showing a new audience how much fun comic book fans have been having for the last 50 years.
Superhero stories have been unfolding at least since Superman made his grand appearance in 1938. These stories make up a perpetual fiction, a narrative that goes on and on and on — across time, across publications, across media. By their very nature, these stories must perpetually replay the past, must forever look back to all the many decades, all the many thousands of stories that have gone before. But they must do so in a way that is more than repetition, more than blatant thievery. They must do so out of love in order to make something new.
For all the world, that’s what the latest episode of The Flash felt like to me. It felt like a tribute to something old that pointed to something new. It felt like a taking and a giving. It felt like yesterday and tomorrow.