Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the mysterious Speed Force.
Since nearly the birth of superhero comics in 1938, there have been heroes whose only special ability was to move quickly. Jay Garrick, the first character known as the Flash, first appeared in January of 1940. A few months later, a character named Quicksilver showed up in a story published by Quality Comics. They were simply supersonic do-gooders, happy to help those in need around them. As was the case for many Golden Age characters, explanations about their powers were deemed fairly unimportant.
In Jay Garrick’s first appearance, he was a college student who played football and, occasionally, looked after science experiments. One particular day, Jay was asked to look after a hard water experiment which he promptly destroyed while idly smoking a cigarette.
The fumes from the hard water experiment knocked Jay out and when he came to, he was a speedster. Now, we have hard water in my town and my dehumidifier has never given me superspeed, much to my continual disappointment. Jay must have been very special.
Sixteen years later, Barry Allen made his debut as the Flash. Just like Jay before him, Barry’s abilities were seemingly caused by science gone wrong. While working late at night in the Central City Police Station, a rogue lightning bolt shot through a window, overturned a shelving unit full of chemicals, and dropped the whole mess directly onto Barry. Instead of killing him instantly, the chemicals and lightning gave him powers.
The process would repeat itself a few years later when Barry’s nephew Wally West got electrified chemicals dumped on him, gained superspeed, and became Kid Flash.
The speedsters tended to be incurious as to where their powers came from. How could inhaling hard water fumes produce the same results in a person as getting doused in electrified chemicals? There was simply no time to ask these types of questions between adventures. These heroes had lives to lead.
In 1985, the various Flashes in the DCU had their lives turned upside down when Barry Allen died. During his final adventure, Barry ran so fast that his body seemed to crumble into his costume. In all of his previous adventures, nothing had come close to having this effect on him.
Shortly after Barry’s death, his nephew Wally took over the role of the Flash. Over time, he finally began to question where his powers came from. After Barry’s grandson, Bart, came on the scene, Wally’s questions shifted into high gear. Bart also had superspeed, a trait that was genetically passed down from Barry. In an attempt to coach Bart on the use of his powers, Wally called in all the speeders he knew, including Jay Garrick and the elder Quicksilver. Now known as Max Mercury, Quicksilver told the group about where he believed their powers came from. Max spoke of a feeling, a drive, that he felt in his soul when he was first starting out which compelled him to run faster than he ever had before.
Using the name Windrunner, Max ran faster than the speed of light and felt himself in a heavenly presence. Dubbed the Speed Force by Max, this was the source of the speedsters’ abilities. Occasionally, the Speed Force would call out to those whom it powered and compel them to become one with it. Max’s early run ended with him flinching away from the Speed Force, resulting in his being shoved forward in time instead of allowing him to enter.
In the end, it wasn’t the hard water fumes that gave Jay his powers or the chemicals that helped Barry. It was this fundamental force of the universe that had reached out and gave these men their abilities. The Speed Force is not only the power which drives various speedsters, but it is also the final destination for most of them. It’s described as speedster heaven and it’s a place from which no one returns. Or so Max claimed.
During Wally’s very next adventure, he found out more about the Speed Force. In a moment of great peril, Wally had to move so quickly in an attempt to save Linda, his fiancee, that he was sucked into the Speed Force. According to Max, that should have been the end of Wally’s story. He’d entered heaven and would never return. But, Wally’s love for Linda was so strong that he was able to find his way home when she most needed him.
Wally was the first person to ever leave the Speed Force. It turned out that he wouldn’t be the last.
Shortly after Wally touched the Speed Force, another Golden Age speedster named Johnny Quick felt the Speed Force calling him. In the middle of a fight, while Max watched, Johnny couldn’t help but enter the place where he’d remain to this very day.
The Speed Force turned out to not play favorites. The villain that Johnny had been fighting alongside Max, Wally, and Jay was another speedster named Savitar. Savitar was a killer, willing to do whatever it took to gain even more speed. He, too, felt the pull of the Speed Force but lacked the ability to gain access to it. Finding it nearly impossible to stop him with traditional methods, Wally eventually lent the villain the speed needed to get what he wanted. The Speed Force took the speedster, incorporated him into itself, and gave him peace.
In yet another example, Max Mercury himself entered the Speed Force near the end of Bart’s solo series. That’s how the Speed Force existed for the next decade. It continued to power all of the various speedsters and was still a place from which no one but Wally could break away.
Then, everything changed with Infinite Crisis.
During the events of that Crisis, Bart found himself fighting Superboy-Prime. A Kryptonian from a parallel dimension who had none of Superman’s love of life, Superboy-Prime couldn’t be stopped by even the mightiest coalition of DCU heroes. Desperate, Bart grabbed Superboy-Prime and ran with him at top speed. As the pair approached the Speed Force, Prime began to fight back. Just as he was about to take Bart out, Barry, Johnny, and Max broke through the Speed Force wall, grabbed Prime, and pulled him inside. Bart followed in Prime’s wake.
This finally proved that Barry hadn’t actually died at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths. He’d simply been pulled into the Speed Force. His body had only appeared to crumble from those observing his run from afar.
As I’ve said, no one had ever escaped the Speed Force except for Wally West. Surprisingly, Superboy-Prime was held by it for only a single issue. He appeared back in the DCU ready for another round shortly after his being shoved inside of the Speed Force. Even more surprising, Bart followed after him. So, now there were three people who had broken free.
Another person was added to that list two years later when Barry Allen appeared out of no where to warn Jay and Wally to look out for a radion bullet that was coming at them.
Barry’s return meant that he was able to help Earth’s heroes to defeat Darkseid after he had taken over the world. The moment of his return was never really fleshed out. He just sort of reappeared in the DCU and that was that.
After Final Crisis, Barry tried to find his place in the world for the first time in twenty years. Things had changed but he was slowly finding his way again. Well, he was until his arch nemesis, Professor Zoom, returned to torment him. During their encounter, Zoom revealed to Barry that the source of the Speed Force, the reason that it even existed, was Barry. While Barry was traveling in the Speed Force again, Max confirmed this.
This part just made no sense to anyone. Longtime readers of the Flash, like myself, were confused. Apparently, Barry created the Speed Force with lightning, chemicals, and forward momentum but the Speed Force also existed in every single time period and dimension. So, even though Max and Jay were running for decades before Barry was the Flash, Barry created the thing that powered them. This paradox was never fully unpacked. For readers new to the Flash, like Jimski, this explanation was a barrier between the reader and an enjoyable story. It was an excuse for why Barry had to come back but it was also a dense piece of fiction that lead nowhere.
At the end of the story, Max, Barry, and Professor Zoom all left the Speed Force. So, once again, people were penetrating the once unbreakable wall around the Speed Force like they were driving through a light fog on their way to the grocery store. The Speed Force had officially lost its mysterious allure. I’m surprised Bart didn’t start bringing his friends into it just to show them a neat light show.
Immediately after the Flash: Rebirth miniseries wrapped up, there appeared to be plans to change the meaning of the term Speed Force. In a one-shot which contained Who’s Who pages at the end of it, all of Barry’s speedster supporting cast members were presented under the banner headline ‘The Speed Force.’
If that name had been kept for Barry’s supporting characters, I’d have loved it. That would have been a great name for a spin-off series. Sadly, in no other comic was this term used. DC’s plans for the Flash Family seemed to change mere days later as Flashpoint and New 52 plans were finalized. These days, Jay, Max, John Fox, Jesse Quick, Wally, Impulse, and Jai are all out of continuity. The Flash Family is no more.
Today’s issue of Flash sounds like Barry is headed into the Speed Force. Here’s hoping that he finds Wally West while he’s in there. Man, I miss Wally. In any case, the Speed Force is still powering Barry in the New 52, where I’m assuming it’ll remain for years to come.
Jeff Reid’s love for the Flash Family is hard to underestimate. Find out about other things he loves on Twitter.