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 various footraces between the Fastest Man Alive and the Man of Tomorrow.
The problem with superheroes with similar powers is that readers will immediately want to know who is better at an ability. Is Hulk or the Thing stronger? Who can stretch farther: Elongated Man or Plastic Man? Would Power Girl or Supergirl win in an arm wrestling match? And who exactly would win in a race between Superman and the Flash? Luckily, this last question has been answered many times over.
For decades, Superman had been growing steadily faster. When he first debuted, Superman was a strong man, capable of superhuman feats of speed but nothing truly supersonic. Barry Allen, the Flash, was immensely fast from the beginning, able to break the laws of physics from the instant he gained his powers. Over time, the nature of Superman’s stories caused his speed to increase to the Flash’s level. Eventually, he became fast enough to break the time barrier without sweating. The two seemed to be equals. To find out just who was quicker, a storyline was launched which meant to finally settle this question.
In 1967, the U.N. Secretary-General approached the heroes with an idea. He proposed a race around the world to help raise money for a fund meant to help developing countries.
Realizing the good that their race would do for the world, the pair agreed. Their race began in America but it was a worldwide race. Superman wasn’t allowed to fly and had to swim through the oceans while Barry had the skills to actually run on top of the waves. On dry land, the runners were neck-and-neck.
The race was a close one all the way through until Superman and the Flash stumbled upon the fact that gangsters had set up illegal wagers on the race. It didn’t matter who won, the world’s black markets would benefit. Not wanting that to happen, the two super-marathoners decided to end the race with a tie.
This was a sad outcome for those hoping to get a definitive answer as to who was faster. However, these types of crossovers are notorious for their attempts to bend over backwards so that fans of either hero aren’t disappointed over the outcome. By having neither hero win, it kept fans of both from being too disappointed. Of course, the downside to that is that no fans were truly elated either. In any case, the pair should have been ashamed for themselves for fixing an athletic contest. That’s a very unsportsmanlike ending.
Later that same year, events conspired to force the Flash and Clark into a second race. While the first race had been in the pages of Superman, this followup took place in the pages of Flash. After making their way back to the Justice League’s headquarters after a case, the heroes found a pair of alien criminals named Rokk and Sorban waiting for them. A pair of aliens whose culture revolved around betting, the duo claimed that if the Flash and Superman didn’t race again, this time across the entire Milky Way Galaxy, then both Central City and Metropolis would be vaporized. If the heroes kept this second race clean, only the loser’s home city would be destroyed.
Reluctantly, the two supersonic heroes agreed. After blasting the Flash with an invisible aura that allowed him to move and breath in outer space, the race began.
How the Flash managed to run in the vacuum of space was never satisfactorily answered. It was the Silver Age. Just roll with it.
During the race, Clark realized that the two villains back on Earth weren’t actually who they said they were. It turned out that two Flash villains, Professor Zoom and Abra Kadabra, were really behind the race. The whole thing was a trap to kill both the Flash and Superman in deep space. Only by working together did the heroes survive. However, just like last time, no one knew who actually won the race.
So, after two races, the competitors were all tied up by neither having won either race.
Three years later, another race was set up. This time, the Guardians of the Universe, the beings who the various Green Lanterns worked for, asked the heroes to once again race across the universe. It seems that a large group of anachronids, beings who move faster than light, were making their way across the universe. The speeds at which they were traveling seemed to be disrupting the very fabric of the universe. Only having having someone else move in an opposite pattern across the night sky would keep the universe from collapsing in a fold in the space/time continuum. Superman and Flash agreed to help. In order for Barry to survive in space, the Guardians granted him a medallion, powered like the various Green Lantern rings. The medallion kept Flash alive in space and give him an energy track which he could run on.
And yes, Barry said that he dyed the bottoms of his boots so that his yellow feet didn’t simply pass right through the Guardians’ energy beam.
Eventually, it was revealed that the anachronids were actually set about their task by a collection of madmen housed in the Phantom Zone. By the time that Barry and Superman escaped the clutches of the Phantom Zone villains and shut down the machine that controlled the anachronids, their strength had been considerably weakened. They could only crawl to their destination. Barry’s endurance lasted longer than Superman’s and he was the one who actually shut down the machine.
While there was no finish line or ticker tape parade, Barry clearly won that race. It was too bad that only Superman was there to witness it. In any case, Flash had won his first race against the Man of Steel.
Another eight years passed before the pair raced again. This time, instead of simply racing across Earth or across the universe, this race took place across all of time. However, this time there was no starter pistol and no real end goal. Flash was attempting to help out an alien who was traveling through time in an attempt to end a civil war raging on his home planet. However, if the civil war never happened, apparently Krypton would have blown up centuries earlier, causing Superman’s life to evaporate. He raced after his friend in an attempt to stop the Flash. In the end, the timeline was kept as it was and the duo sent the aliens packing but not before they raced from the beginning of time back to 1978.
Though it wasn’t much of a true race, it was the final time that Barry and Clark faced off. A few years later, during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Barry died. The universe’s continuity was reset and Wally West, Barry’s old sidekick, took over the name ‘Flash.’ In the course of the DCU’s reset, both Superman and Wally’s powers were vastly reduced. Each could, perhaps, run at the speed of sound if they really pushed themselves, but that was about it. Even so, Superman seemed oddly cocky when Mr. Mxyzptlk showed up and demanded that they race each other.
In an aside during these panels, Superman claims that he and Barry had never raced. Apparently, the Crisis wiped out their previous runs mostly to keep Superman drastically under-powered when compared to Barry. If Clark could give Barry a run for his money years earlier, why was he struggling to keep up with his relatively under-powered protege?
With that, the two took off in another race around the world. This was a decidedly different battle than the earlier races, as each was actually trying his hardest to win. For Wally, it was about pride. For Superman, it was about getting that pesky imp from the Fifth Dimension out of his hair. In the end, it was Wally who managed to eek out a win.
It was for the best that Wally won that race. After all, that’s literally all Wally had. If Superman could fly, was superstrong, and was the fastest man alive Wally didn’t have much reason to get up in the morning. This allowed Wally to keep that one thing.
Mr. Mxyzptlk had lied. He was only going to leave if Flash won the race. When Wally crossed that finish line first, Mxy disappeared back to his home dimension.
Over time, both Clark and Wally began to ramp up their top speeds. That’s just the nature of the beast. Every time you depower a hero, each successive threat will make the hero push him or herself to greater and greater heights. Eventually, those heights become that hero’s new plateau and that plateau continues to rise after each huge adventure. In any case, by the time Superman had to attempt to outrace Wally again, both could now travel through time under their own power.
This second Wally / Superman race came about due to Abra Kadabra. He appeared to curse Wally with a spell, causing him to age. He also compelled the speedster to race off at top speed. Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, and Superman attempted to stop Wally from burning himself out. However, each knew that touching Wally meant that this aging curse would strike them. As Jay and Superman approached Wally, Jay tapped into the Speed Force and stole Superman’s kinetic energy, causing him to leap forward and beat the Last Son of Krypton to the punch.
This officially meant that Jay Garrick was also faster than Superman, but only because Jay cheated.
Finally, Barry came back to the DCU in the pages of Final Crisis. As he began to investigate just why he’d come back, he began acting a bit erratic. Concerned about his revived friend, Superman attempted to race alongside Barry and see how he was doing. Not wanting the company, Barry blasted away from him, proving once and for all who was really faster when push came to shove.
By the way, Clark has some revisionist history going on here if he’s claiming that he won some of the races that he and Barry participated in. Either that, or the various crises resulted in some Superman / Flash races that were never actually published.
It wasn’t just Superman and the Flash who have raced several times. Their proteges have raced a time or two as well. When Superboy and his team the Ravers showed up in California during an adventure, they ran into Bart Allen, then going by the name Impulse. Quickly, the bluster between the two teens turned into a race with the winner getting bragging rights. Unlike many of the Superman and Flash races, Superboy choose to fly as he didn’t then possess superspeed.
It seemed clear that Impulse was going to win but the whole thing was shut down when the heroes stumbled into the memorial built on the remnants of Coast City. That city, which had been destroyed years earlier thanks to the Cyborg Superman and an intergalactic menace named Mongul, caused the heroes to pause and decide that their game wasn’t worth it.
Over a decade later, the two tried another race. By this point, Bart was going by the moniker Kid Flash. During a race in and around the streets of Smallville, it appears that another tie was going to be in order before a late entrant took the win. In the race between Superboy and Kid Flash, Krypto the Superdog was the winner.
Another homage to the various Superman / Flash races happened during the Villains United storyline which lead into Infinite Crisis. There, the latest Zoom attempted to recruit the monstrously strong but dumb Bizarro into the Secret Society of Super-Villains. Bizarro said he’d only join if Zoom could outrun him. Thus, the supervillain version of this race was run.
In the end, Bizarro joined the group though his logic for doing so was a little hard to understand.
With all of the many different versions of the Flash / Superman race and the homages to it, there seems a fairly likely chance that a race between the two allies is coming at some point in the New 52. I, for one, can’t wait for it. Even if the event ends in a tie, it’s always fun to see two friends battle in the spirit of competition.
Jeff Reid has money on the Flash during every race. He’s called the Fastest Man Alive for a reason. Jeff’s nickname is “Please follow me on Twitter.”