With a new season of The CW's The Flash on the way, let's take a look back at the Scarlet Speedster's first appearance from the 1950s to see how far the character has come. Especially since he may have been created as subtle Cold War propaganda.
As the Flash vibrated through obstacles in his path, ran circles around his enemies and matched science with science, Barry Allen helped to quell the fears and anxieties many Americans had over a different flash — one that threatened the world with nuclear destruction.
Watch the video below or keep reading to find out more!
The Flash And The Cold War
As I’m sure you know, the original Flash, Jay Garrick, premiered in 1940. But as the years passed, superhero comics fell out of style and the character was quietly tucked away. Then, in 1956, #TheFlash was rebooted with a new costume and a new alter ego: Barry Allen. And he was great! His grand debut would usher in the next big superhero boom. Soon after, comic book audiences witnessed other Golden Age heroes revamped at DC, and welcomed floods of new super-characters from Marvel.
But why was the scarlet speedster so popular? Well, we probably have the Cold War to thank for that, as author Frederick A. Wright explained in his essay from the appropriately named Comic Books and the Cold War.
The Cold War was a complex, multinational conflict that lasted over 40 years, the two principal opponents being the United States and the Soviet Union. It’s called the Cold War because it never really escalated into direct, physical war between the two. It was a conflict of espionage, military intimidation, technological innovation and nuclear supremacy with the two countries trying to one-up each other to advance their own power and ideals.
And, of course, political propaganda is a huge part of that, especially in comics. Fredrik Stromberg’s Comic Art Propaganda highlights a ton of books that blatantly try to sway readers’ views both for and against communism, but there were plenty of other stories that were more subtle about the idea of two superpowers fighting without direct physical confrontation. In fact, that sounds like the specialty of a certain speedster we know.
Conflict And Containment
In his debut story, the Flash faces off against Turtle Man. Barry learns that he can’t stop Turtle Man by chasing after his getaway boat, as every step Flash takes only propels the raft forward. The hero realizes the only way to stop Turtle Man is to not run after it. Instead, Flash invents one of his most iconic and go-to attack maneuvers: Running around things really fast.
Barry here is exercising Cold War tactics of fighting without physical confrontation. In fact, the Flash didn’t necessarily fight his early foes as much as he contained them. Containment was America’s policy for dealing with communism during the Cold War: it could exist in places where it already was, but the United States would try to stop communism from spreading elsewhere.
While the Flash was able to contain these criminals with ease, his speed force powers also made it near impossible for others to contain him. I mean, forget villains. Flash couldn’t be held back by doors, by buildings, by the sound barrier, by gravity or by the time stream. The cover of his first appearance shows Flash bursting through a film strip, and then you turn the page to see that he can’t even be contained by his own comic. The guy breaks through the panels in his own stories, and Captain Cold thinks ice is gonna hold him? Nothing can contain the Flash! His is the ultimate freedom. Unstoppable American progress.
Calming Nuclear Anxiety
Let’s go back to Captain Cold for a second because his first appearances are some of the most overt references to the Cold War. If his name wasn’t a clear enough homage, there was his radiation-powered ice gun. After the world witnessed the horrific power of the atomic bomb, there was a lingering anxiety and unease with what science could accomplish.
The United States and the Soviet Union were competing in a nuclear arms race that would culminate in mutually assured destruction, but the American government saw value in comics and cartoons as tools that could help ease anxieties about security and nuclear war. Y’know, this guy:
Now, putting aside the effectiveness of the "duck and cover" strategy, Bert the Turtle had a bit of an unexpected downside as Richard L. Graham wrote in his book Government Issue: Comics for the People:
The strategy behind Bert was to have a cartoon animal stand-in soften the blow when a topic was too scary to deal with directly. But by purging all frightened elements and presenting a perverse cheeriness, Duck and Cover also delivered a subtle and scary message to children: everything you take for granted, the safe world of your childhood, could all dissolve at any moment in a flash of atomic fire.
So that’s not good.
Superheroes would have their chance to come to grips with the nuclear age, but Flash was a bit more subtle. Captain Cold’s ice gun was created through a radioactive scientific accident. It was science gone awry and placed in the hands of evil. And yet, even with Captain Cold armed with his own nuclear weapon designed to stop the Flash’s forward progress, and even as he threatened Iris West (a.k.a. the Western World), the Flash always won the battle. He matched science with better science — a clear metaphor for the arms and technology race. In some cases, of course, a literal race.
Perhaps these anxieties over one bright, red and yellow flash were precisely the inspiration DC Comics needed to revamp their own bright, red and yellow Flash.
But what do you think? How else do old Flash stories represent the Cold War? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!