Remembering Carmine Infantino

As part of a career in superhero comics that reached back to their beginnings, Carmine Infantino was one of the pillars of the Silver Age, and not just because he was a big part of its formative moment. His sleek redesign of the Flash became the avatar for DC Comics' resurgent superhero line, and his unique style helped define not just the Scarlet Speedster’s world, but eventually all of the company's titles.

Infantino left The Flash in 1967 to become DC’s art director; the next year he was listed as “editorial director.” In 1971 he was named publisher, until being replaced by Jenette Khan on Jan. 1, 1976. During this period DC might be thought of as a comics company in search of an identity. Although Infantino’s work helped pave the way for similar pencilers like Gil Kane on Green Lantern and Mike Sekowsky on Justice League, soon the company was practically a victim of its own success. Specifically, after Justice League (which debuted in 1960) inspired a certain group of crosstown rivals to create their own super-team, DC found itself playing catch-up to Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man and the rest of the Marvel line.

Accordingly, over Infantino’s 10 years of management, DC’s characters tried, with varying degrees of success, to shake their bland reputations and reconnect with an audience the company couldn’t afford to lose. This period saw everyone from Wonder Woman and the Teen Titans to Green Lantern and Green Arrow try different, more “modern” approaches to superheroics, whether that meant abandoning their costumed identities or just setting out to “find America.” Everyone was getting makeovers, or so it seemed.  After buying out Bob Kane’s Batman contract, Infantino was free to take the Darknight Detective back to his gothic roots -- and, ironically, away from the “New Look” that Infantino himself had helped inaugurate. The early ‘70s also saw the debut of characters as diverse as Prez, Jonah Hex and Swamp Thing, as well as Jack Kirby’s experimental “Fourth World.”

As it happens, when I started reading superhero comics in the mid-‘70s, Infantino was already on the way out. My first superhero comic was probably May 1976's The Flash #241, with a lead story written by Cary Bates and drawn by Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin. Only in reprints could I see Infantino’s Flash, and at the time his crisp characters and wide-open vistas seemed very far from what was then on newsstands. Even so, the DC I was discovering was largely the product of Infantino’s influence, first as an artist and then as an executive.

Besides, I was about to be reintroduced to Carmine Infantino in a big way. While I had missed his heyday on Adam Strange and the Space Museum, soon enough he was the regular penciler on Marvel’s Star Wars comics. His Luke Skywalker looked more like Thor than Mark Hamill, and occasionally he drew Leia Organa’s double-bun hairdo with what appeared to be some pretty sharp edges -- but he gave the Galaxy Far Far Away the verve and energy it demanded. Infantino also worked on Marvel’s Nova and Spider-Woman before returning to DC. There he penciled Supergirl, a Dial H For Hero revival, and the last four years of The Flash. Thus, Infantino helped readers say goodbye (for a while, at least) to Barry Allen, giving him a happy ending before meeting his destiny in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

A few years later, in a Secret Origins Special, Infantino penciled the elegaic “Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt” (written by Robert Loren Fleming as a direct homage to the original Showcase story, and inked by longtime Infantino collaborator Murphy Anderson). It contended that at the moment of his “death” in Crisis, Barry was transformed into the time-traveling lightning bolt that struck his shelf of chemicals all those years before. While that theory might not be (or have been) strictly canonical, it’s still a sweet sentiment. After all, the spirit of Carmine Infantino has animated the Flash ever since Showcase #4, and he’ll doubtless be the character’s main visual influence for as long as Barry Allen and Wally West endure.

In that respect it’s appropriate that the Flash is one of Carmine Infantino’s signature contributions to comics. While the Flash is famous for super-speed, often that’s expressed in terms of his ability to manipulate time -- and that, of course, is where comics themselves excel. Showcase #4's origin story contains a famous sequence featuring a tray of food that has been flung accidentally across the room. Barry finds himself gaping at said food, “just hanging in the air -- as if [its] motion has stopped,” so he puts it back in place easily. (Coincidentally or not, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker performed a version of this feat in the first Spider-Man movie.) Naturally, Infantino quickly developed a whole visual vocabulary for the Flash’s speed, including film-like after-images and choppy lines that signified his internal vibrations; but at the heart of the character was this ability to exist at whatever pace he chose. That’s some serious wish-fulfillment.

We may remember Carmine Infantino for the trappings of the Flash -- for Showcase #4's immortal cover, where the Scarlet Speedster outraces his own movie; for the costume’s Jet Age update; or for the Rogues’ Gallery, Kid Flash, the Elongated Man, and all those endless Central City vistas. We might remember him for co-creating Black Canary, Deadman and Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, for giving Batman and Robin their “New Look,” or for helping to bring the Justice Society out of retirement.

However, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say he changed the face of superhero comics. Without the Flash’s success, there might not have been a new Green Lantern or a “Justice League” for them to join -- and without the Justice League, who knows where that might have left the Fantastic Four? Carmine Infantino helped bring superheroes back to comic books, he guided DC through a period of drastic change, and he encouraged experimentation from editors like Mike Sekowsky, Joe Orlando and Dick Giordano.

For all these things and more, we remember Carmine Infantino, we celebrate his life, and we mourn his passing.

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