What’s Retconned About Barry Allen’s Past?

With Flash: Rebirth complete, we can take a look at the changes the series made to the Flash mythos. I listed a lot of them in my review of issue #6 (resurrections, costume/identity/power changes, the re-imagining of the speed force itself, etc.), but I want to look at a specific set of changes: What the Reverse-Flash did to Barry Allen’s past, and the ripple effect from those changes.

Note that I’m specifically looking at things that contradict previous stories, not those that add new details that can be considered to have been hidden.

Spoilers for Flash: Rebirth, of course.

Definite Changes

The Allens moved from Fallville, Iowa to Central City, Missouri when Barry Allen was a child. Presumably this happened after the Reverse-Flash burned down their house. (In the original timeline, they remained in Fallville and Barry moved to Central City after college.)

Barry’s mother was murdered when he was a child, and his father was framed for it. Henry Allen was convicted, went to prison, and died there years later. Barry Allen shut himself off from life and dedicated himself to proving his father’s innocence. Someone else must have raised him, but we don’t know who. (In the original timeline, Henry and Nora Allen were still alive up through the end of Barry’s initial career as the Flash.)

Barry met Iris West much later — the same day that he gained super-speed. Assuming they married at the same time, their courtship must have gone much faster. (In the original timeline, they were already dating by then.)

Albert Desmond worked at the Central City Crime Lab with Barry Allen before Barry became the Flash and Albert became Dr. Alchemy, and the two of them never got along. In the original timeline, Desmond alternated between criminal and civilian industry, and the two of them became friends after his initial costumed villain career was cut short by prison and therapy.

Other changes at the Central City Police Department include Captain Darryl Frye and Patty Spivot being around much earlier, rather than arriving several years into Barry’s Flash career (both were specifically shown to be new when they first appeared), and the addition of James Forrest.

Probable Changes

Continuing with Al Desmond, Flash Secret Files 2010 indicates that his split personality was caused by the Philospher’s Stone, implying that in the new timeline, he may have skipped over his Mr. Element theme and gone straight for Dr. Alchemy.

Because Barry’s parents weren’t around, we can assume that the Top didn’t return to life by possessing Henry Allen when his heart stopped in a car accident. Because this led directly to Barry asking Zatanna to “fix” the Top and make him a hero instead of a villain, it’s possible that the Top never messed with the Rogues’ minds, preventing their on-again-off-again efforts at reform and changing the dynamic of the Rogues after Barry’s disappearance.

Depending on when the Allens moved from Fallville to Central City, Barry may never have met his childhood sweetheart, future actress Daphne Dean.

What’s Stayed the Same

Barry still became a forensic scientist and still went to work for the Central City Police. He still met and married Iris. He still became the Flash, joined the Justice League, picked up Waly West as a sidekick, and saved the universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

In any case, Geoff Johns has set up a plot device that he can use to explain away any change he (or DC Editorial) wants, not unlike Crisis on Infinite Earths was used to explain more differences than simply merging the Golden Age and Silver Age Flash characters into a single timeline.


23 thoughts on “What’s Retconned About Barry Allen’s Past?

  1. Mr Maczaps

    Good call, thanks for pointing these things out.
    I have been backtracking and picking up a lot of old issues with Barry as the star. Good to get a nice condensed ‘this is what changed’ look into things.

  2. Sean

    Great little overview, and i’m glad you wrote it – although I still think shoe-horning a variation of the Batman backstory into the Flash does little to help the character. Barry didn’t need “motivation” to be a hero before, he just did it because it was the “right thing to do,” something that spoke volumes about his moral character. They made it to make him more ‘complex,’ in some ways, but tragedy is not complexity. He was more interesting before.

    It’s like Zolomon Zoom got to the DC editorial team.

  3. Lia

    Great piece! I’d been wondering if anyone else noticed Patty and Frye were at the police station much earlier now. Does this mean the story of Barry’s corrupt boss (Frye’s predecessor) never happened?

    I’m quite displeased about the Top-Henry possession story being retconned out (since it was one of my favourites) but I guess everyone already knows that by now 😛

  4. West3man

    That breakdown makes me even more bothered by these changes. I will admit that others seem to have recognized and grasped points that have eluded me, but what I see illuminates just how odd it is that this huge thing was changed in Barry’s life without having more far-reaching repercussions.

    Something else I meant to bring up before now (and I really wish i had since I have forgotten which characters did this) was the statement that Thawne’s ability to change the past was mysterious due to the heroes’ own failed attempts to change the past. I remeberED (stressing the past tense) heroes changing the past I. Fairly recent memory and I am not just talking about Booster Gold since I don’t remember if he had some special device that slows him to do this impossible-within-the-impossible thing.

    To be clear: someone else in the DCU has changed the past. Why are we supposed to believe otherwise? Oh. I just remembered that Wally changed the past during Chained Lightning, right. He changed The Crisis (which was the most confusing comic moment this side of Grant Morrison). I wish I could remember the original examples I had in-mind, though.
    .-= West3man’s latest blog post: Ridin’ Out =-.

    1. Omar Karindu

      Ah, but when Wally changed the past, he’d been drawn back by th Cosmic Treadmill, partially powered by….Professor Zoom.

      1. Xian

        That doesn’t fly because that Professor Zoom hadn’t gained “Negative Speed Force” powers yet, we know that, because Barry comes to fetch that Thawne and return him to his congruent timeline. Negative Speed Force Thawne is a much later version of Zoom who knows the full scope of Barry’s life, Wally’s life (and kids and their “knots”), such that he could walk through their lives at will…

        …and despite all this knowledge, with sloppy writing, simultaneously does not foresee his defeat at the hands of the Speed Force.

        For pre-Negative SF, Thawne, that makes sense because that Thawne didn’t have arbitrary time travel abilities (in fact, he NEEDED the Cosmic Treadmill unlike Rebirth Thawne)… but once Thawne gained time-travel omnipotence, his defeat becomes entirely senseless.

  5. yranigami

    I am so dissapointed in Johns. He claimed to love the Flash and yet he goes and does him like that man! Does an early child-hood tragedy make Barry (or anyone) more driven person or an emotional basketcase? The latter is more common, I think. Also, why is it that DC/Marvel editors think that everyone needs a Wolverine/Batman origin? Comics ARE changing and NOT for the better. Too much confusion, too many crossovers, waaay too many unfinished arcs (or badly plotted endings!) I’ve stopped buying all other comics for this reason. And now this! Et Tu Flash?

  6. Omar Karindu

    – Non-change: Dr. Alchemy’s entry does mention his Mister Element identity in its first paragraph.

    – Barry’s first encounter with Eobard Thawne was due to “blood spilled across the centuries,” rather than the original story’s plot involving an unstable atomic clock left in the time capsule Thawne uncovered.

    – Very minor change: Iris Allen was not a photojournalist for Picture News, but a crime reporter for the Central City Citizen.

    – Barry’s first trip through time is described as “unbelievably painful to achieve” and he “bounced uncontrollably” through time a la Waid’s take on Wally West. Showcase #4 shows Barry navigating time with ease to return the criminal Mazdan to his far-future era.

    – I wonder if the “Albert” who bullies young Barry in Central City is meant to be Albert Desmond as a child.

    – It may also be that iris Allen’s rather complex origins are being quietly swept under the carpet, as none of them are mentioned in the book.

    1. Kelson Post author

      Thanks for pointing that out. I went over that first box on Dr. Alchemy’s history repeatedly and didn’t see any mention of Mr. Element…because it was in a second box all the way at the bottom of the page.

      Interestingly enough, I stumbled on an article just this afternoon about how separation slows down perception in signs. This is not a good layout for actually finding information.

  7. Perplexio

    I wonder if Johns is influenced at all by Lost. Maybe Barry has both his altered memories due to Thawne’s meddling with his past along with some original memories of the pre-meddled past.

    This would give Johns the opportunity for stories where Barry goes back and stops Thawne from changing his past– allowing him to put the past right.

    That being said the Lost writers are borrowing heavily from Donnie Darko— two alternate conflicting timelines that can’t exist simultaneously so in one of those timelines the world comes to an end (sorry for ruining the ending if you haven’t seen the film).

    Maybe we’re either not giving Johns enough credit or I’m giving him too much– but maybe he’s changed Barry’s past not to retcon things for the new ongoing not just to “mesh” with his vision of the Flash but to give him future storylines to flesh out. If GL’s focus is space and the Flash’s focus is time– one aspect of time could be fixing the wrongs of the past and the reprecussions those changes have on the future. Maybe all of these retconned changes to Barry’s backstory are temporary and they’ll revert over time as Barry goes back and “fixes” things that Thawne has messed up.

    Just putting that out there as a possibility.

  8. Matt

    Wow, thanks for putting that up. Really interesting to see the changes.

    It’s not like this is really new to comics or anything. Every superhero’s past life has been changed at one point or another. We don’t have to like it, but it’s a part of comics, so I don’t see why anyone is surprised that it happened.

    I am 100% certain that things like The Top’s involvement in Barry’s life and how it affects The Rogues will be explored at some point in the new series. Geoff is too smart and too well versed in The Flash to overlook this. Plus it gives him more chance to use The Rogues in an interesting way, which we know he loves.

    1. West3man

      I’m surprised that you’re surprised that we are surprised. 🙂

      It is not just that changes took place – it is rarely about that. The problem is often about degrees or the form that the changes take.

      To me, there is no way to change something so fundamental about Barry’s formative years without changing Barry by proportionate degrees. Changing Barry’s personality, especially while bringing him back to life after decades, seems counterproductive. You’re not bringing back the same man AND you’re Nootka giving the readers a chance to get to know him (again, in some cases).

      But hey, maybe Johns’ attempts to mirror Hal’s rebirth through Barry’s go deeper than resurrection, forming a team/Corp, and replacing one’s long time successor.

      Maybe this will be Barry’s “yellow fear” monster, taking control of him *after* his return instead of before it.
      .-= West3man’s latest blog post: Ridin’ Out =-.

  9. EJ

    It truly amazes me that even thought people read Flash Rebirth they don’t seem to understand what happened in the book. Johns’s didn’t change Barry into Batman or add tragedy in his past to make him more interesting.

    Flash is about Barry being a guy who isn’t held back by anything, no matter what he moves forward the retcon about his mother is a plot point to be dealt with later on. The fact that people think Barry has been ultimately changed when it Blackest Night Barry Allen is his classic self truly shows that people either simply didn’t understand the story or are just looking for things to complain about.

    Because nothing that Johns has written has changed who Barry Allen is as apparent by the way he acts after dealing with the return of Zoom and the revelations about how things aren’t supposed to be the way they are now.

    1. Kelson Post author

      From an April 2009 IGN Interview:

      “IGN: Why did you think it was important to bring some tragedy into his back-story?

      Johns: What we’ll find out is we’ll see what drove him to adopt such a strong sense of justice. I really want to explore what drove Barry Allen to adopt his uncanny sense of wrong and right. You’re not just born with that. Barry Allen strove for that and was somewhat obsessed with it. Also, it’s about why he got into forensics. What led him to that area of work? Why not become a cop or a prosecutor? Why forensics? That’s something I really wanted to explore – what drove Barry Allen to this life that he chose? What made him Barry Allen before he was hit by the bolt of lightning?”

      It’s absolutely about adding depth to the characterization. It may also be a setup for a future plot point, but that doesn’t make it any less an attempt to make Barry more interesting by adding tragedy to his past.

  10. kyer

    Reading this has made me bemoan GJ’s changes all the more. If Reverse Flashes can change history while regular Flashes [suddenly retconned] can’t, then what’s to stop the RF’s from continuously going back and changing everything? Nothing would be the same. All the Flashes and their allies could be murdered in their cribs. So could all of the JLA/Titans/ect good guys.

    Add this to the whole stomach churning idea that (New & Definitely Worse-For-It Barry is the sole creator/generator of the Speed Force (Light Side) and I’m ill and thinking that the Flash universe for all intents and purposes ended before Final Crisis. At least that’s where I’ve stopped thinking of the stories as cannon. Everything else is Elseworlds to me. DDGJ Elseworlds.

    1. Xian

      I think this is one of the biggest plot-holes or questions coming out of Rebirth… how could they have possibly defeated Professor Zoom?

      Zoom didn’t have to reveal himself. Zoom clearly had glimpsed into their futures (he shares his knowledge about Barry and Wally having unhappy endings). So are we to believe that Zoom didn’t peek into his own future to see how this entire endeavor would turn out (or know how it works in the context of Barry/Wally’s life)?

      The alternative is that this is entirely Zoom’s plan but somehow Barry completely ignores this (despite believing all of Zoom’s explanations about the Negative Speed Force and Zoom claiming credit for Barry’s misery) and does nothing to avoid Zoom’s plans.

      So either Zoom or Barry or both are completely incompetent/oblivious!

      1. Golddragon71

        I’m not so sure about that.
        Bacxk when they did the Fall of Green Arrow storyline Thawne’s attack on Fiona Webb was retconned out with Barry saying “Iris was in danger” Then, in the Flashpoint special issue spotlight on RF it show him attacking Iris West-Allen and Barry killing RF to stop it (i.e. no “The Last Dance”)
        Barry’s original motivation towards forensic science is shown in The Life Story of the Flash.

        As to Barry’s original motivation (pre-Rebirth)
        Barry grew up a farm kid with a strong aptitude towards chemistry. as a fan of the Golden Age flash Jay Garrick he took a Minor in criminology while majoring in science. Barry made newspaper headlines as as Senior when he traced soil samples that led the police to a major arrest. the central city crime Lab sent him a job offer which he jumped at.


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