The Flash is one of the first “freak accident” superheroes. Superman was born with what he’s got, Captain America was created deliberately, and Batman is a hero formed by tragedy and willpower. The Flash inhaled chemicals in the Golden Age and got hit by lightning in the Silver Age. That means storytellers have to come up with other ways to make him interesting. Among the writers who have been most successful at taking the Fastest Man Alive and making him more than just the Justice League’s resident red blur is Mark Waid. In the early ’90s he took over the title, and both he and Wally West got a lot more popular.
To kick off his run Waid chose to set his first arc in a “Year One” context, telling the story of Wally West’s very first weeks with superpowers. For me (and probably most of you), the “Year One” term immediately conjures up Batman: Year One, arguably the best Batman story ever told. Don’t compare those two. It’s unfair to both of them. “Year One” was a popular term at DC in the ’80s and ’90s, but what Waid does here is more than just a standard origin story. (Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.)
We meet Wally West when he’s already established as The Flash. Waid drops him back into the past simply by putting a scrapbook lovingly made by his Aunt Iris in his hands. It takes him back to the summer he was 10, when he went to visit his aunt and met a her boyfriend, a man named Barry Allen.
At the end of Waid’s first issue lightning strikes West in the exact spot that it once struck Allen, giving him all the abilities of The Flash. What follows is a kind of Karate Kid story. The Silver Age Flash (Allen) begins to tutor the Modern Age Flash (West) in the ways of being, well…Flash-y.
If that were all this four-issue arc turned out to be, we’d be talking about an unremarkable comic. A well-written and well-drawn (by Greg LaRocque) comic, but an unremarkable one. What makes “Born To Run” an essential bit of reading for any Flash fan is what else Waid manages to do here.
Young Wally eagerly becomes the student of The Flash. He gets his own costume and takes the mantle of Kid Flash. He stops criminals, faces Mirror Master and has the time of his life. But things aren’t perfect in his life. His relationship with his father is strained to say the least. In Barry he finds a surrogate Dad, even before he knows his name (in those early days he is unaware that The Flash’s secret identity is that of his aunt’s squeeze). His superpowers become both a refuge and a source of freedom and power. But then Waid does something else remarkable. He puts them just out of reach.
This sets up a conclusion to Waid’s first arc that’s satisfying on a very emotional level. We’ve watched Wally West learn to control his speed, learn to vibrate himself through walls, learn to foil super villains. But in the end he’s faced with a greater challenge than any of those things, and it’s there that we’re shown that being a superhero is more than superpowers and vanquishing evil. It’s there that Waid finds a way to prove to us all that The Flash is more than just a Scarlet Speedster.
It’s very easy to make a character like The Flash all about his superpowers. His very name is a manifestation of what he does. But the writers who have defined the character best – writers like Mark Waid – have done so by bringing something extra to the table. It’s writers like those that keep characters like The Flash alive.