Jay Garrick is my favorite Flash. The first comic I remember reading was a Justice Society comic, and the more I saw of Jay Garrick, the more I liked him. He’s the quintessential Cool Old Guy. He’s kind, polite, generally cheerful . . . and more than capable of knocking someone’s teeth in if they threaten lives. He inspired the other Flashes, and is a father figure to many young superheroes. He has one of the most loving and sweet marriages in all of comics.
He also has a really cool hat.
Let’s look at his origin from January 1940: Flash Comics #1.
Since I am not rich, I do not own Flash Comics #1. I do, however, own the reprint found in The Golden Age Flash Archives.
Faster than the streak of the lightning in the sky… Swifter than the speed of the light itself.. Fleeter than the rapidity of thought… is The Flash, reincarnation of the winged Mercury… His speed is the dismay of scientists, the joy of the oppressed – and the open-mouthed wonder of the multitudes!!
But before he became known and feared as “The Fastest Thing on Earth”, Jay Garrick was an unknown student at Midwestern University…
We meet Jay as he is trying to ask a girl, Joan, to a dance. She declines, saying that she was asked by the football captain, and Jay’s just a football scrub. (Don’t ask me what that means. I’m still trying to figure out how many free throws they get when the goalie strikes out.)
“. . . a man of your build and brains could be a star . . . a scrub is just an old washwoman!! You won’t put your mind to football . . !!”
Wow, Joan. Shallow, much?
Unfortunately, Jay “Leadfoot” Garrick isn’t good at football. However, he is a brilliant student. While observing a chemistry experiment involving “hard water” gases, he is brilliant enough to start smoking and knocking over the beakers. He ends up inhaling the “deadly fumes” and being discovered by his Professor the next morning.
In two panels, we go from “Jay lies between life and death for weeks . . .” to “But the young, healthy body fights back to life!!” No time for suspense. We’ve gotta cram as much possible into this before we run out of pages.
The doctor tells Jay’s professor that Jay has become a “freak of science.” Apparently, doctor-patient confidentiality didn’t exist in 1940.
“Your boy will be the fastest thing ever on Earth!! The elements of hard water will speed up a person’s reflexes . . . the gas injects him like a vaccine.”
A vaccine against what? Slowness? Comic book science never changes. It’s always ridiculous, and doesn’t stand up to even a basic knowledge of science. Thankfully, the hard water fume origin was replaced by a more sensible origin decades later. A mystical extra-dimensional energy field that gives people super speed and then absorbs them into itself when they die. See? Much more sensible.
Jay discovers his new superspeed by running to reach Joan when he sees her on the sidewalk outside. He then runs to the library and picks up a library book for her in a few seconds (scaring the librarian in the process). He asks Joan to the dance, right after calling himself a freak of science. Joan agrees to go the dance with him . . . if he plays football in the state game. “All right, Joan . . . but – - it’s just for you!!”
Screw sportsmanship and fair play! Superpowers are the new steroids!
Jay spends most of the game on the bench until one of his teammates has to be carried off the field. His team is 30 points behind, and he manages to score 65 by using superspeed. Very obvious superspeed, since the other players say they can’t even see him move. Jay really sucks at keeping his powers secret. In his defense, he won’t become The Flash until four panels later. And it takes a couple more panels before he does stuff to blatantly give away who he is after that.
Later that year / one panel later, Jay and Joan graduate. Jay’s heading to an assistant professorship at Coleman University in New York. Joan is going to help her father with “atomic bombarder scientific researches.” Uh . . . are they talking about the atomic bomb? Because this comic is from 5 years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Wasn’t that research top-secret? Must be some other atomic research.
The next panel, Jay sees a story in the paper about some racketeers that the police couldn’t catch. He decides to do something constructive with his powers. Fight crime as The Flash! We don’t get to see what The Flash does, but he makes the boss of the racketeer give back the money and scares some of the henchmen into quitting. Back to Coleman University, where Joan comes with someone else to see Jay playing tennis with himself.
“Joan Williams! It’s great to see you again! What’ve you been doing?”
Turns out her father, Major Williams, was kidnapped. Someone tries to do a drive-by shooting to kill her, but Jay catches the bullet. The car gets away, not realizing that the bullet was stopped and assuming that she’d been killed. Jay agrees to help Joan find her father. We then switch to the four men responsible for the kidnapping and attempted murder: Serge Orloff, Duriel, Smythe, and Sieur Satan. Together they are the Faultless Four. (I swear I didn’t make those names up.)
The four men hope to get a million dollars each by selling the information about the “atomic bombarder” to foreign nations. [Insert your own Austin Powers joke here.] One of the men decides to get Joan’s father to talk by showing Major Williams his daughter’s dead body. Well, that’s incredibly dark. He plans to do this by disguising himself as an undertaker and picking up Joan’s body at her home.
Naturally, the fact that Joan is alive makes Jay realize that the man is with the kidnappers. He follows him, and gets shot at once he arrives at the four’s hide-out. The Flash catches the bullet. Then we get a panel of exposition about why Jay can catch bullets without his hand getting pulped.
“His process of thought and action due to his inhalation of the hard-water gases have been so quickened, that he has the speed of light itself! As a result, he can easily match the speed of a bullet . . . When two bodies travel along together at equal speed even tho they meet, there is absolutely no friction, and therefore no injury!!”
That’s why high-speed racing accidents never do any damage to the cars. Because they’re going the same speed, so there’s no friction. As far as made-up science goes, I’ve seen much worse.
Jay rescues Major Williams, carrying him out piggyback style. Joan and her father are reunited, and Jay goes back for the men. He finds the four men planning to throw people into a panic at Coney Island somehow. Jay decides to ambush them there, so he can catch them in the “act of murder”. Their method of causing panic? Doing a strafing run on the beach with a fighter plane.
Since this is the early 40s, some of the panicked cries involve people wondering if it’s a war. Thankfully, Flash catches all the bullets, so no one on the beach is killed. He then follows the pilot back. (After stopping back to see if Joan and her father are okay. Superspeed comes in handy.)
“This time . . . no mercy!!”
He ambushes the men, but Sieur Satan runs out of the room and electrifies the floor. This kills his three cohorts, but The Flash is too fast to be caught in the trap. Satan tries to escape in his car. “You shall also die . . . even as Duriel, Orloff and Smythe!”
Satan panics and ends up driving off the road and falling into a ravine. It reduced his car to what looks like a mass of melted wax. Flash gets to the bottom of the ravine and watches Satan die. He shows zero remorse about it.
Yeah. Next time someone tells me that Golden Age comics were all sunshine and roses with no real danger and heroes who were perfect, I’m going to laugh in their face. Golden Age comics often had heroes willing to kill. It’s just that it wasn’t nearly as graphic as the comics that come out today. We don’t get to see the three men electrocuted, but we do get to see Satan half-emerged from his melted car.
We then cut to Joan, Major Williams and Jay talking. Joan’s father asks Joan is she knows who The Flash is, but she doesn’t tell, winking at Jay as the story ends.
Jay had his girlfriend in on the secret identity in his first issue. That alone makes him awesome. I wonder if that makes Joan the first love interest in superhero comics to know her boyfriend’s secret.
Joan is an assistant to her father, who is working on an “atomic bombarder” in 1940. She’s also a college grad, presumably with a science degree given her father’s work. Considering the attitude towards women in the workforce in that time period – and how few were college grads and not going into teaching – that is pretty darn cool. I guess this either got dropped or forgotten because I’ve never seen any hints that Joan had a science background in modern comics.
Comparing Jay’s modern appearances with this one is pretty jarring. Jay isn’t an anti-hero and he’s one of the last heroes you’d expect to use lethal force if he had any other option. Here, he is more than willing to let the criminals die.
It’s amazing how much gets accomplished in Golden Age comics. They waste no panels, and get as much story told in 20 pages that today’s comics take several issues to get across. It’s why my description of the comic probably seems so fragmented. The comic switches scenes constantly, often more than once in the same page. Admittedly, that’s just the way comics were back then. Story arcs were rare – if they occurred at all. Each story had to be self-contained, which forced the writers to cram as much as possible in their limited page space. Flash actually got off easy. Plastic Man’s first appearance was six pages.