Wally West can’t stop running

Tom Bondurant recounts the history of Wally West, from reluctant superhero to generational avatar.

For many superhero-comic readers of the 1980s and ’90s (not to mention viewers of the Justice League animated series in the 2000s), Wally West was the Flash – the fastest man alive. Created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino for January 1960’s The Flash issue #110, Wally gained super-speed just as his idol did, by being doused in Barry Allen’s laboratory chemicals and struck by lightning. Today Wally has become a symbol of DC Comics’ superhero legacies, so much so that his role in 2016’s DC Universe Rebirth special signaled a wholesale return to a previous timeline. However, when editorial fiat dispatched him in 2011, Wally had arguably done everything he’d set out to do. Indeed, Wally’s history includes a couple of prominent retirement periods already. Now he’s inherited Metron’s Mobius Chair and Doctor Manhattan’s powers, but the question still remains: What’s left for Wally West?

Wally started out as Kid Flash, sidekick and sometimes backup-feature star. At first he wore a kid-sized Flash costume, so his more familiar duds (acquired in March 1963’s Flash #135) represented a significant step in his development. He was a charter member of the Teen Titans from its primeval beginning (June-July 1964’s Brave and the Bold #54) to its February 1978 dissolution (Teen Titans #53). Shortly thereafter, in 1978’s DC Special Series issue #11, writer Cary Bates and artist Irv Novick had Wally tell his family that he would only be Kid Flash through the end of his college career; and upon graduation, he’d retire from superheroics.

Wally explains his 5-year plan; from Flash #266’s backup story by Paul Kupperberg, Alex Saviuk and Frank Chiaramonte

Kid Flash had a few more adventures after that, including with the Flash (January 1979’s Flash #269) and the Titans (May 1978’s Showcase #100 and April 1979’s Brave and the Bold #149); but in November 1980’s New Teen Titans #1, he described himself as “retired.” A well-meaning bit of Raven’s mind-control turned things around quickly; and Wally stayed with the group until February 1984’s New Teen Titans #39.

By then Wally had a better reason for giving up the superhero biz: His speed was killing him. Wally tried to help the Titans in their second battle with Trigon (NTT vol. 2 issues #2-5, October 1984-February 1985), but that proved futile. In the real world, Wally probably stayed retired because he frustrated Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. Pérez told Comics Interview in 1987 that

Kid Flash/Flash, he’s always been the one who’s been the most trouble, because he was a hard character to handle. If he’s so super fast, technically if handled correctly, he’d make the rest of the characters superfluous. No way he could ever be caught by anything, no one should ever get the upper hand on him. So he never was my favorite character, only because he was just difficult to handle in a group situation.

As it happens, Wolfman and Pérez would be the ones to re-activate him, but only after his uncle’s death in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Kid Flash ran again in December 1985’s COIE #9 and became the third Flash in March 1986’s issue #12. From there it was on to his own series, which lasted 232 issues from June 1987 to March 2006; and got a brief revival (#231-247) from October 2007 to February 2009. By that time Barry had returned, so the focus shifted back to him. Wally was still around, and still the Flash; but soon Barry had the Rebirth miniseries and the monthly spotlight.

Stay in school, Kid; from New Teen Titans #1 by Marv Wolfman, George Perez and Romeo Tanghal

It’s worth noting that Barry’s return came with its own set of continuity issues which never seem to have been addressed. Without going too deep into the weeds, Barry’s 1985 retirement as the Flash was pretty final, and he returned in 2008 to a much different environment than the one he left. Indeed, although DC seems to be hand-waving away Barry’s (and Iris’) convoluted continuity, Wally is extremely conscious of his own, because it’s now central to his characterization. Instead of trying to live up to his uncle’s legacy, Wally is now haunted by not being with his wife and children. In a way, it’s a middle ground between Wally’s historical reluctance to be a superhero and his acceptance of that role. Wally has seen too much across the Multiverse to simply step back, not least because he needs to make sure his family (from what is now another reality) are okay.

In that respect, cosmic-powered Wally is like once-and-future Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who after a few years as Parallax became the Spectre. However, cosmic entities in superhero comics tend to speak in very detached voices, explaining that they are not the people they once were, etc.; and whatever distinctiveness they had in those old lives gets washed out in the process. Thus, Green Lantern Rebirth was about Hal recapturing his old swagger. Assuming that DC wants Wally to be “a” Flash once all of its big-event dust has settled, his new/old life will probably involve those familial responsibilities.

Cosmic Wally from Flash Forward #6; by Scott Lobdell, Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund

Along those lines, Wally could start training the newer speedsters, from his children to the current Kid Flash (the New 52’s Wallace West, who definitely doesn’t need to be pushed aside for Wally’s sake) and Avery Ho, the Flash of China. This would leave Barry free to fight the Rogues and participate in the Justice League, while allowing Wally his own corner of the Flash franchise. It would also make Wally the center of DC’s speedster legacy once again.

Wally West’s development from standard-issue sidekick to generational avatar may be best appreciated over the range of his 60-year history. As he reached the end of his teenage years, creative teams from Bates and Novick to Wolfman and Pérez struggled with how to approach him. Even in his solo series, Mike Baron and Jackson Guice started him off as a 20-year-old making bad decisions. William Messner-Loebs and Greg LaRocque depicted him as more thoughtful, responsible and introspective; Mark Waid and his artistic collaborators restored him to full speed and established the Flash’s generational legacy; and under Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins, he became a blue-collar superhero. For many readers, though, Wally was an entry point not just into the larger Flash mythology, but into the DC Universe generally. Having been a superhero since childhood, Wally eventually took all of the attendant craziness and splendor in stride.

That’s very valuable in a world filled with driven crusaders, super-powered royalty and aspirational icons who still feel the weight of the world. The DC universe needs Wally West to get his head on straight again, because he’s become one of the best laid-back characters around. The Wally who graduated from high school in 1978 and left the Titans in 1984 always thought he had to choose between a family and a superhero career; but the Wally of 2011 realized he was making it work.

The Wests visit the Doom Patrol in The Brave and the Bold #8; by Mark Waid, George Perez and Bob Wiacek

There is certainly precedent for allowing him to retire again, this time into the ether of cosmic omniscience. That would be a mistake. When Wally reappeared in 2016’s DC Universe Rebirth special, he embodied everything that the New 52 had cast aside. Just as Barry Allen was the patron saint of the Silver Age, so Wally had become the symbol of the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint quarter-century. I could say more about Wally’s treatment in recent years, but basically it comes down to that.

Accordingly, since Barry is apparently back for good, so should Wally be. If his history has taught us anything, it’s that he never stays away for very long. Wally has already retired voluntarily (twice!) and involuntarily (via cosmic shenanigans); and since DC is rebuilding its shared superhero universe, it needs to find a place for the patron saint of its legacies.

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