Origins: Only as Complicated as You Want Them To Be

Secret Origins Annual 2Back in February, DC’s Executive Editor Dan Didio stated that one of the reasons they are bringing back Barry Allen as the primary Flash is because “you can’t tell the origin of Wally West without Barry Allen.” I have to agree with Comics Should Be Good that this isn’t a valid reason. It doesn’t take that much more time to explain Barry’s involvement in Wally West’s origin.

I had the same problem with complaints that Bart Allen’s origin was too complicated.

The origins are only complicated because we, as fans, want to include every little detail.*

Up to Speed

When it comes down to it, all you really need to explain the Flash — any Flash — is that he’s really, really fast, and he helps people (as Marc Guggenheim pointed out in his brief run on Flash: The Fastest Man Alive).

Flash v.1 #309How about an origin? For Jay Garrick, Barry Allen and Wally West, the key element is: “A laboratory accident gave him super-speed.” You can get a little more specific if you like, say, “Gained super-speed after being struck by lightning and splashed with chemicals.” As for Bart Allen? “Inherited super-speed from his grandfather” — kind of like Zatanna, who inherited her magic from her parents, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complain that her origin is too complicated.

Sure, you can go into all the time-travel and accelerated aging for Bart, but you don’t need that for the sales pitch. It might help explain his personality during his years as Impulse, but even then, all you have to add is, “He was raised in virtual reality and has no concept of danger.”

Of course, if you’re going to tell a 7-part, 150-page epic Secret Origin story, I think there’s plenty room to cover a mentorship with a classic hero.


Flash v.2 #62Now, if you’re going to do a Wally West story that really focuses on the fact that Barry Allen was his idol, his uncle, and his mentor, then yeah, you need to explain that relationship. But for the typical Flash vs. some Rogue story, the reader doesn’t need that level of detail. It’s enough to know that he trained under the previous Flash and later succeeded him. Kind of like how Hal Jordan trained under another Green Lantern (Sinestro), and succeeded a third Green Lantern (Abin Sur). Not only does the training under Sinestro seem to factor into most retellings of Hal’s origin, but the history between Hal and Sinestro seems to be extremely important to the current Green Lantern mythology.

Green Lantern #33And yet I’ve never heard anyone claim that since you need to know Sinestro in order to know Hal Jordan’s origin, you might as well focus the Green Lantern series on Sinestro.

Or, for that matter, that since you need to know Obi-Wan Kenobi in order to understand how Luke Skywalker became a Jedi, then you really ought to focus on Obi-Wan instead of Luke. (Though given the current focus of the Star Wars franchise on the prequel era, perhaps that’s not the best example.)


So, is Barry Allen important to Wally West’s origin? Absolutely, no question about it. Does it make his origin more complicated? A little. Does it mean that DC can’t tell compelling, comprehensible stories about Wally West as the Flash? Of course not. Admittedly DC hasn’t been telling the best Flash stories possible lately, but having Barry in Wally’s background certainly didn’t stop them from telling good stories over the previous 20 years.

This is not to say that DC shouldn’t tell stories with Barry Allen instead of Wally West. Just that if they want to claim that it’s somehow necessary or better to focus on Barry, this particular rationale doesn’t hold up.

*Update: It’s not just comics fans, either. I once asked a family friend what Les Misérables was about, and she spent at least twenty minutes describing the plot of the three-hour stage version. And consider this tribute to “excruciatingly detailed” movie plot summaries on Wikipedia.) I don’t know if it’s our attention to detail, or our love of storytelling, but it’s just so easy to pile things on that a new reader doesn’t really need to worry about until a story warrants it.

(Thanks to for the cover scans.)


25 thoughts on “Origins: Only as Complicated as You Want Them To Be

  1. Michael Bailey

    If I have learned anything about the current Powers That Be at DC it’s that the order of the day is bring back the things we really liked and muck with everything else and at the very first sign something isn’t working back peddle immediately. Oh yeah, let’s not forget if we publish it and it doesn’t fit into something we want to do down the line just ignore it.

    I agree with you, though. Bart’s origin is not complicated. The Linda Lee Supergirl’s origin wasn’t all that complicated. They going to do what they want to do no matter what.

    I’ll stop complaining now.

    .-= Michael Bailey’s latest blog post: YOUTUBE TUESDAYS: MORE TRAILER PARK FUN =-.

  2. Javi Trujillo

    well, Barry was inspired to take on the Flash mantle because of the precedent set by Jay, otherwise he could’ve been the Red/Yellow Blur! Didio’s argument is pretty weak. I was pretty anti-Wally at the time of the tv show, but now he is my favorite. I figured one day I would have to let him go, but I can’t stand that it is to step backwards. One thing I really like about DC is the legacy heroes. I think the DCU loses something special when they go back to the older versions as the main characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hal, Barry, and Ollie, but if they take the spotlight all the time, everyone else gets put on the backburner. I would rather read a book whose main character is Kyle, not one where he is one of many main characters, no matter how good GL and GLC are right now, I guess I’ll have to wait for someone of my generation to take over DC

    1. Kelson Post author

      @Javi: I agree on the legacy concept. As much as I want to keep reading about Wally, if I had to give him up I’d rather have seen Bart’s series find its footing and take off and move the legacy forward than watch them step backwards twice, killing Bart in favor of Wally and then sidelining Wally in favor of Barry.

  3. West

    I agree with DC about the complexity of some of these legacy characters’ origins if only because the characters aren’t limited to comic books. They end up in cartoons, live-action tv shows, movies, etc. At those times, they have to be reinterpreted, thus risking/removing three big benefits of using existing properties: 1) a built-in fan-base and 2) a rich and 3) a strong idea what does and doesn’t work.

    Ultimately, I don’t agree with their methods, but I understand their reasons. Having Bart show up in a show saying he inherited his speed leaves all sorts of questions (which can be a good thing) but it also means that the general public shouldn’t be as surprised by his speed since he’s not the first.

    That’s the best I can explain my take without a super-long post. I hope that makes sense.

    .-= West’s latest blog post: Hulk Fly! =-.

  4. Andrew

    @Kelson: I understand that you are more of a Wally West fan than a fan of the Flash, generally speaking. I was just wondering if you plan on continuing this site after the Flash relaunch with Barry Allen?

  5. Kelson Post author

    @West: Clark Kent inherited his powers, too. Smallville seems okay with that. Actually, maybe Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a better comparison, given that she (essentially) inherited her powers from the previous Slayer. Talk about a legacy character: the Slayer legacy goes back thousands of years!

    @Andrew: I’ve given a lot of thought to that question, and the short answer is: I don’t know yet. It’ll depend on whether I like the new series — assuming, of course, that later issues of Rebirth itself don’t kill off my interest.

    1. West

      I’m not the biggest fan but as far as I know, Buffy’s not part of some gigantic shared universe that has existed for over 50 years and gets licensed left and right.

      It’s a different scale, for one thing. When Buffy’s show went to comics, they just picked up where the tv show left off. There were no related characters with complicated licensing histories to be untangled and referenced and retconned to death to make a coherent product.

      Even if they made a Buffy movie, tomorrow, I think it’s a no-brainer that it would not radically change their histories or origins due to legal red tape and too much history.

      Even her own past stories would only need to be referenced or changed so much. Bart’s from the future that his grandmother came from the future went to the present then went back to the future after being killed by a super-vllain from a more distant future because of his feud with her husband from the past/present.

      It really gets worse from there unless they’re going to try to tell the story of a new superhero in a world where they’ve already publicly existed before. They could do that, but from what I’ve seen, that’s generally not the way they want to go. I think it takes away from how special and original this character’s is supposed to be.

      Of them all, Barry’s Flash is less connected to his predecessor – especially if you consider that he originally was inspired by the Flash from a comic book. He wasn’t a sidekick or grandson to another speedster that his world knew. Minimal necessary changes.

      I hope that wasn’t too much of a ramble. I’m kinda drowsy.

      .-= West’s latest blog post: Hulk Fly! =-.

      1. Kelson Post author

        I was thinking less of Buffy’s move to comics and more of her original appearances in film and the TV reboot. They established right away that the slayer legacy existed, and that there was a huge mythology, but they didn’t need to drop all the details at once. It came down to: vampires exist, every generation has a slayer, and every slayer has a watcher. Details were revealed as needed over the first season arc.

        As for Bart, my whole point is that you don’t need all those details. To what extent does it matter that his grandmother came from the future, that she died and came back to life, that Bart came from the future? To make a Superman analogy, that’s not Krypton-level, it’s Phantom Zone–level.

        1. West

          Because of the scale of the Buffy-verse, that sort of thing is much more manageable. But regardless, Buffy’s existence is not tied to any other person’s existence (unless one wants to count the Watcher).

          Not so with Bart. How much does it matter that he came from the future? It depends on who you think the real Bart is. If he’s the “impuls”ive Bart, then part of his character is the fact that he doesn’t treat the world as if it’s real, since he was raised at hyperspeed, in the future, in a virtual reality environment.

          And why does he have powers? Because of his grandfather. That connection is substantive.

          Buffy’s a slayer for whatever reason that there ARE slayers – not because some previous slayer gave her powers through magic or genetics or a lab accident.

          She is an island in a way that most DC characters – like the Flashes – are not.

          .-= West’s latest blog post: Hulk Fly! =-.

          1. Kelson Post author

            Given the amount of super-high-tech in comics, I wouldn’t even say that Bart being from the future is critical.

            Here’s my idea for how you could take Bart Allen and build a TV series around him:

            Some science lab has this kid with super-speed who’s been hooked up to virtual reality for years. No one knows who he is or where he comes from beyond his name. They’re just studying him. He gets out, or someone breaks him out, and the series is about him figuring out how to deal with real life, and using his powers to help people. Over time, he starts to learn about his past, his parents, previous generations of speedsters, etc.

            But the essence of the concept is “a kid who grew up in a video game because he has super-speed.”

  6. Quiztzhadrch

    Wally doesnt need Barry retold to be successful. it takes less than a paraghraph to tell the early Wally/Barry relation. Lets call it what it is: DC just can’t seem to find a writer besides Waid or Jhons to write The Flash. For being the Fastest Man Alive, the Flash stories are painfuly slow and clumsily told. (Not counting Waid/Johns) Barry’s return means what it was always meant to mean: S.O.S.

  7. Seven.Ride

    “Wally doesnt need Barry retold to be successful.”

    No, he just needs Barry’s costume, villains, and commandeering his history within the DCU at large to be successful. Basically whoever is the Flash, needs to look and act like Barry.

    THAT is what Didio is trying get across WITHOUT saying it. I’d guess he can’t say that without hurting a lot of modern fan’s feelings. Ergo all these weird justifications he keeps throwing out, hoping it will get the message across.

  8. Kelson Post author

    The costume is debatable, but…

    1) Wally West did quite decently during the 1990s when Mark Waid was writing it, and aside from Abra Kadabra, he only rarely used villains from Barry’s series.

    2) What do you mean by “commandeering his history within the DCU at large?” It’s not as if DC has been going around and saying, “Oh, that story with Barry? That was really Wally. And Barry wasn’t important here, it was really Wally’s idea. And Wally went back in time and caused the accident that gave Barry his speed. And Wally built C3PO.” etc. Barry’s place in DCU history has been enshrined, not commandeered.

  9. West

    I think you’re both right.

    Within the DCU, Wally’s origin and early history are tied to Barry.

    Outside of the DCU, in cartoons, Wally kinda becomes Barry – or at least that’s what tends to happen with legacy heroes in new media.

    .-= West’s latest blog post: Hulk Fly! =-.

  10. Seven.Ride

    At base, the Flash concept is still what it was in 1980 or 1960, basically all the things DC did in those old stories. Wally’s stories over the past decade plus are heavily informed by that sensibility, the history, the “legacy”. Wally’s a very different man than Barry, of course. But what is the Flash concept today vs. then is the same.

    That’s why in cartoons they’re interchangeable, virtually indistinguishable except to nerds like me, who can spot the differences in eye color or belts, or how snappy the banter is.

    I think comic fans are often focused on those minor distinctions, because they differentiate the playing field and denote change. But they’re also pretty superficial. Barry fighting Grodd ain’t that different than Wally or Bart doing it. Sort of the ‘illusion of change’. Instead of the last 20 years of having Barry around (and likely being killed off in the 90s, like all his peers were), DC instead had Wally become more and more entrenched in his trappings. Which was a good thing for Wally’s popularity: The villains, the time travel, all that stuff makes the Flash work. (Which also explains the failure of the recent Incredibles-esque relaunch. Who wants THAT from the Flash?)

  11. papa zero

    even the incredible-esque circumstance can be viable as long as it fuels the engine that drives the character. using the family setting as the the motivating factor may not work on it’s own.

    I do agree with your assessment of the “illusion of change” in what amounts to minor details with an important exception – the way they use their powers to take on their respective challenges speaks to their individual personalities as characters. Of course the personalities are measured by their behavior in a story… While stories are limited to the imagination of the writer, cumulatively over time the stage is set for a sense of who that character is and how they behave – making them unique.

    I liked Barry’s character better – but I think Wally had a better character engine.

  12. Javi Trujillo

    In what issues did barry fight Savatar, Black Flash (until this year), Cicada, Tar Pit, Peekaboo, Razer, Argus, Handsome Jack, Lady Flash, Magenta, Girder, Plunder, etc?

    How did Wally act like Barry in the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series?

    Did Barry charge people for his services? Did Barry have to deal with bankruptcy? Did Barry “sleep around” and act immaturely? Could Barry lend his speed? Did Barry spend most of his adult life with his secret identity revealed?

  13. West

    Javi you didn’t say who you were talking to. Maybe you were asking me.

    I never said Barry fought all those people so maybe what you’re really asking is how legacy heroes and their predecessors are interchangeable, at times.

    I think that any time the legacy hero is presented in new media as the original speedster, ring-slinger, etc. and especially when they fight the bad guys of the “actual” original, they represent that original character, to a degree.

    That was the case (to varying degrees) with Wally/Flash in JLU and the very amalgamated John/GL from the same series.

    The character becomes a sprinkle of the old and a dash of the new. Often, it’s a way of simplifying the comics origins and/or placating some reasonable and some rabid fans of those characters.

    .-= West’s latest blog post: Hulk Fly! =-.

  14. Pingback: Getting caught up « BW Media Spotlight

  15. Yranigami

    Maybe we should stop worrying about Barry’s legacy/return VS Wally’s origin/continuity… Someone somwhere in this blog suggested a wonderful idea! THE SPEEDFORCE; a team of super-speedsters working together, making the world safe, one pico-second at a time! I guess nobody but us Flash freaks really give a crap about this or that origin anyway! Whaddaya guys/gals think about this idea?

  16. Steve

    Well, you can’t tell Superman’s origin without the Kents, so if they’re gone, I guess DC will soon stop telling Superman stories.

  17. Kyer

    0.0! Time Warp! Professor Zoom strikes beloved Speed Force Org Site! News at 5am last Wednesday!

    The heck? Comment section said 0 and now there’s gobs of ’em and all from 2009?

    -_-;; I hates time travel.

    1. Kelson Post author

      That would be the Wayback Wednesday feature.

      For the last month or two, I’ve been spotlighting an older post each Wednesday, sometimes linking to it from a newer article, sometimes just posting it at Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

  18. Realitätsprüfung

    I don’t think anyone really thinks it’s all about the complexity of origins, though. It’s a factor for sure, and I understand it’s often the excuse offered.

    The bottom line is that DC’s most marketable characters are its primary JLA characters. At every turn, you see characters that have been solidified in those roles, identifiable in those roles, for 40-50 years. Not their nephews and grandchildren. That’s an exercise in continuation via increasing insular storytelling. Which is why there are so many resets, reboots and re-imaginations; they get off concept quickly.

    But ultimately…so what. The truth is no excuse is ever going to change the disappointment in a favorite character being shelved. So there’s no rationalization – pro or con – necessary. For some it simply sucks that Wally’s time as Flash (appears to be) over. Just like for some, it sucked that Barry was gone (seemingly permanently).


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