Reader Questions: Explain the Speed Force

Steven Ogden asks:

I’m a huge Flash fan. He’s without a doubt my favorite superhero. Unfortunately, there’s only one thing I don’t understand: the Speed Force. I don’t understand how Barry Allen created the Speed Force. Is it some kind of magical force? Hope not, not a big magic fan. If anyone can take the time to help a Flash fan out I’d appreciate it.

Well, Steve, there are a couple of ways to look at the speed force, from simple to complicated. Let’s start with simple.

The name is a little misleading. The speed force is basically a field of energy which exists just outside reality. Speedsters like the Flash can tap into this energy, which makes it possible for them to perform feats of amazing speed. With practice, they can learn to manipulate this energy as well, stealing and lending speed from other objects (or people). It also produces an aura that protects them from friction, so they don’t burn up running through the air at a zillion miles an hour.

If the Flash draws too much energy (basically, by running past the speed of light, the cosmic speed limit), he risks losing himself in the field. In the pre-Flashpoint universe, this has happened to Max Mercury, Johnny Quick, Barry Allen, Wally West and Savitar, among others. Wally was the first to return from this fate, but not the last.

Then things get complicated.

The speed force — or speed field, if it makes it easier to visualize — lines the boundaries between universes, and exists throughout time. Think of it as the soap in a foam of soap bubbles, where each bubble is a universe. This gives the Flash the ability to travel between universes, and forward and backward in time.

And then we start getting into the weird stuff.

According to Professor Zoom in Flash: Rebirth, the speed force is time. Manipulation, either deliberate or accidental, sent Bart Allen (in “Reckless Youth” and Flash: The Fastest Man Alive) and Iris & Jai West (in “The Wild Wests” and “Fast Money”) up and down the age scale. Perhaps this cancels out relativistic problems?

Wally West was somehow able to convert speed force energy into a costume. (Assuming the standard e=mc2 equation applies, that means he’s using a lot of energy to cover up his street clothes. It’s a wonder he has any left to run.)

And I have to apologize for waiting this long to tell you this, but as for explaining how Barry Allen generates the speed force…? I can’t, because it doesn’t make any sense. Fortunately, judging by the first few issues of the New 52 Flash series, it sounds like he doesn’t in this universe, so neither of us will have to worry about it anymore.


6 thoughts on “Reader Questions: Explain the Speed Force

  1. observer

    Buccelato told me EXACTLY the opposite when I asked him this at a signing in Redondo Beach at the Comic Bug. He said it IS magic and that DC has no plans to change that.

      1. YraniGami

        As he was signing a couple of comics for me and was nice enough to create a sketch of the Flash for me, I asked him if he ever considered that The Flash’s magic-laced origin story wasn’t incongruous to Barry Allen’s pragmatic-scientist character. He responded that the magical source of Allen’s powers and the Speed Force were not at all incongruous and that as far as he knew, DC had no plans to explore the details of the “Speed Force” in the story arcs. I thanked him, but needless to say, I was disappointed at the lack of interest in the science behind one of the most interesting science-fiction characters in comics.

        Ironically, this happened the same day that particle physicists in Cern announced the discovery of Neutrino particles actually traveled at FTL speeds.

        I just think that even though it’s all make-believe, writers (science-fiction writers especially) ultimately have a responsibility to entertain AND educate via their knowledge (esoteric or general) and literary abilities.

  2. Kyer

    I don’t like ‘magic’ for the explanation. Much prefer science…just an unknown-as-yet science…preferably to stay that way for a long while.

    Magic or natural force, though, you still eventually come down to the question of origin.

    I dunno…

    Maybe this time The Speed Force is being generated by *Wally*. (Goes laughing her head off because she finds that thought terribly funny.)

  3. Lia

    Back in the late ’90s, I was new to comics and only read Marvel. I remember reading an explanation of the Speed Force, and found it so utterly ludicrous and needlessly complicated that I decided never to read the Flash. While that changed about a decade later (thanks to seeing scans of Rogue War at scans_daily), I still feel it’s needlessly complicated. And it’s one of several reasons I heartily dislike Waid’s run…not that he’s the only offender, but he started it and made it such a big part of his run. It’s a huge barrier to people getting into the mythos.

    I’m not suggesting the Flash’s powers should get dumbed down, or remove the concept of the Speed Force entirely, just don’t make it so damned confusing. People shouldn’t have to get it explained in detail to them.

  4. Xian

    The Speed Force was a perfect literary magical device.

    The issue is that The Flash arises from archetypes that were magical- the god Mercury- before the injection of hyper-rationalized psuedo-science into modern comics. So Mercury- a supernatural being not bound by scientific constraints or consistencies- defined what Flash could do (and not do) more as a matter of common iconography than rationality.

    There is no ELEGANT set of scientific phenomena which will allow you to accommodate EVERYTHING the Mercury archtype- and the mortal Flash specifically- can do (and NOT do). Why Flash runs faster than escape velocity but doesn’t fly, how he expends so much energy, survives such forces, can arbitrarily dictate the designs of friction (friction on for hot hands, friction off for running, friction half-on for whirlwinds) or fundamental forces, how he relates to time, space, matter, and dimensions. If you pick a catch-all like Stop Motion’s “quantum being” you might explain the powers he has, but not the ones he doesn’t have (no flight, no teleportation, etc). If you start to parse the powers to give individual mechanical explanations to each and every feat, not only do you risk contradiction, but now you’ve got a pile of scientific psuedo-science to parse based on real-world scientific terminology used wrong (rather than black boxes like “dilithium crystals”, “FTL”, etc. which obscure contradiction and avoid explanation). How’s that to a barrier to entry? (New readers, like the intro question asks, can’t make heads or tails of specific mechanics which are self-contradictory such as claiming something is generated origins and exhaustion of something that’s timeless and infinite- also told that something is time, energy, knowledge, etc- all at once)

    Instead, the Speed Force WAS the handwave that allowed all such questions of mechanics or faulty science or broken archetypes be swept under a singular and elegant banner so that we could get on to the heart of the matter- the stories, characters, and adventure!

    And there’s nothing wrong with that SO LONG AS it remains primarily a handwave. A billion people have seen the Star Wars franchise and embraced the concept. It’s hardly far fetched or counter-intuitive. It taps those archetypes, mysticism, religion, magic, etc. to be sure, but that IS the Flash… the old god Mercury dressed up in modern trappings.

    To that end, whether Science, Speed Force, or Magic… they’re all just tools for the end goal of storytelling. A little mechanical explanation can make a story, a scientific conceit, a handwave like The Force (either Speed or Lucas), etc much more fascinating… but too much and you’ve gone past the point of the tool being using towards it’s purpose. Science takes Flash apart or makes him unapproachable, Magic makes him too fanciful, the Speed Force too esoteric and irrational… we’ve all had that friend, the philosophy major, who stopped using philosophy to help in making morally justified decision and just used it to intellectually masturbate by explaining why you don’t exist even as you slap him upside the head.

    At the end of the day, you want Flash to do certain things and not be able to do others and we have an intuition about what those things are born of tradition and magical archetypes antithetical to the modern scientific trappings of The Flash… the Speed Force let us accept and reinforce our intuition and expectations and get on with the story without getting bogged down in mechanics, contradictions, or bogus science which generally don’t move the story or character forwards.


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