Thursday, 5 March 2015

Celebrating the coolest Silver Age comic-book hero of them all - The Flash

The appearance last year of two live-action superhero American TV series - Gotham and The Flash - took me back to my youth. The first is a reworking of the Batman story, centering on the clean-cut young policeman who ends up as Commissioner Gordon, while the second is a new take on the story of the fastest man on earth, from the moment where Barry Allen (a crime-scene investigator in his latest incarnation) gains his super-powers. 

I gave up reading comic books many decades ago (I swapped my collection for stamps in my mid-teens, which turned out to be a bad financial investment), I'm not a fan of superhero films, and, apart from occasionally tuning in to ogle the magnificently strapping Kiwi actress, Lucy Laweless in Xena: Warrior Princess, I've generally avoided superheroes on TV. And these two new series haven't changed my viewing habits: they're well-made and fun and, thanks to CGI, the effects are fairly convincing, but I'm just far too old to rekindle my ten-year old self's enthusiasm for the genre. But watching the TV version of The Flash certainly reminded me of how much those 1960s comics meant to me - and how marvellous they looked

As American animated cartoons moved from the silver screen to the TV set in the mid-1950s, the artwork became utterly spastic. The opposite happened with comic-books. Golden Age US comics (mid-1930s onwards) now look a bit crude and, well, childish. But that changed dramatically in the mid-1950s, and by the early 1960s, comic book art had reached some sort of apogee. 1956 saw the birth of the Silver Age of American comic books, when DC Comics’ decided to reintroduce snazzed-up versions of some of its Golden Age super-heroes. The first to receive a makeover was The Flash. Out went the Mercury-style hat which looked like a British army helmet with tiny wings on the sides and the red bootees with the wings on the back and the T-shirt collars and what looked like tight blue dungarees (all rather Village People gay construction worker) - and in came a chap dressed in the sort of all-in-one figure-hugging lycra outfit in which a modern sportsman in some exotic speed event would feel perfectly at home. The little wings were still there, but, nevertheless, the new guy didn't look like a gay icon - in fact, when he was in his civvies, Barry Allen, with his short blond hair, looked rather like Steve McQueen, who I've always assumed to be more an icon for the hetero community.

Of course, back in the early '60s, we used to buy Superman and Batman comics and most of their offshoots and imitators – but, for me, The Flash was the pick of the bunch (although I was always fond of The Atom). Of course, back then, I didn’t know why they appealed to me. Partly, I suppose, it was because I was already a big, slow, porky lump of a boy – and one of my heroes was the fastest man alive, and the other was tiny. But I suspect the real reason for my enthusiasm was the artwork: both comics were brilliantly drawn and coloured (in the case of The Flash, the great Carmine Infantino did the pencil-work and Joe Kubert did the inking.)

In fact, the silly stories didn’t matter (we knew they were bloody ridiculous, even then). The Flash was all about sleek, minimalist city-scapes and pastel shades and uncluttered backgrounds. And I rather fancied Barry Allen's lifestyle (without all the danger and whizzing around, of course) much as I later hankered after an ultra-chic young guy's San Francisco existence like Steve McQueen's in Bullitt (again, without the being shot at bit - I just fancied hanging around in cool duds, having uncomplicated relationships with beautiful, sexually-liberated girls, packing a rod and driving a Corvette while looking moody in an interesting way). The appearance of the new Flash fitted in with the sleek look of the '60s - skinny trousers and tight suits and sleek, sharp-edged cars. 

I never made the transition to graphic novels. Yes, they were moodier and darker and the themes were certainly more adult - but my feeling was that, if you want something more serious and grown-up, read a proper novel. There have been a few notable exceptions, such as Art Spiegleman's extraordinarily powerful Holocaust tale, Maus, published in 1991, and I went retro on a visit to the US in my mid-twenties, when I bought a stack of reissues of Will Eisner's 1950s' amusing and brilliantly drawn comic-book character, The Spirit - and, last month, I spent an evening reconsuming Tin-Tin, and I'll occasionally revisit paperback compendiums of the best of Mad Magazine from the '50s. But, on the whole, I've steered clear of comics and whatever they've morphed into. Which means that when I think of comics, I think of DC Comics (I couldn't be doing with Marvel), and, specifically, the coolest of them all - The Flash: 

1 comment:

  1. It was the artwork for me.At the same time as these magnificent Flash 'silver age' were published Batman was still being drawn as in caricature with that absurd square jaw.