WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the Dec. 6 episode of “The Flash” (Season 3, Episode 9).
On the surface “The Flash’s” Iris West is pretty easy to understand, but behind that cheerful, capable exterior is a sneaky-complicated tangle of relationships and family history. Indeed, while TV-Iris’ background has been streamlined — and changed significantly from her comics origins — it’s made her character’s relationships more complex. The Flash’s time-traveling tweaks certainly haven’t helped matters, however, and (ironically enough) could bring up elements of Comics-Iris’ past.
Therefore, as TV-Iris faces an uncertain fate, we’re going to dive in and examine the character’s convoluted four-color history.
Iris West debuted in the very first Barry Allen Flash story, written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert, in September-October 1956’s “Showcase” #4. For years Iris was oblivious to her fiancé’s secret, even as she got into trouble and facilitated plot points. Regardless, Iris was an indispensable part of “The Flash,” appearing in almost every issue and in the occasional “Justice League” adventure or “Green Lantern” team-up. She and Barry were married ten years into Barry’s tenure (November 1966’s “Flash” #165); and learned he was the Flash indirectly, because he talked in his sleep.
As typical as she might have seemed, Iris was different from a lot of Silver Age significant others in some key ways. While Lois Lane and Carol Ferris had eyes for Superman and Green Lantern, Iris was always Barry’s girlfriend, and never pined after the Flash. Moreover, Iris never became “super” herself, unlike the superpowered GL and Star Sapphire, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Aquaman and Mera, Mento and Elasti-Girl, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, or Ant-Man and Wasp. Both before and after the wedding, Iris and Barry were simply a very stable, mutually supportive pair.
Eventually, readers got to know the extended West family, including Iris’ parents Ira and Nadine, Iris’ brother Rudolph and his wife Mary, and Iris’ nephew Wally — who, of course, became Kid Flash in issue #110 (December 1959-January 1960), long before Iris and Barry married.
Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris broke up, Lana Lang sometimes competed with Lois Lane, and Namor always lurked around the edges of Reed and Sue’s marriage; but Barry and Iris’ mutual devotion never wavered. Instead, for a long time the only wrinkle in the Allens’ relationship came from February 1971’s issue #203. Also written by Kanigher, with art by Irv Novick and Murphy Anderson, “The Flash’s Wife Is A Two-Timer!” revealed that Iris was from a pre-Legion of Super-Heroes 30th Century. Scientists Eric and Fran Russell lived in an era of global instability and wanted to protect their daughter from nuclear holocaust, so they sent infant Iris (born 2945) back in time to be adopted by the Wests. (The story is so upfront about the Superman parellels that the Flash and Supes discuss it in a framing sequence.) Naturally, when Flash and Iris visited the 30th Century, they ended up saving the world. The Russells appeared a few more times over the next several years, and (as you might have guessed) became a Flash footnote.
Eventually, as sales slipped on “The Flash,” new editor Ross Andru wanted to rekindle interest in the book, and that included killing off Iris. The murder happened in July 1979’s issue #275 (written by Cary Bates, pencilled by Alex Saviuk and inked by Frank Chiaramonte); but the real murderer wasn’t revealed as Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash, until March 1980’s issue #283 (written by Bates, pencilled by Don Heck and inked by Chiaramonte). As it happens, Iris and Barry were at a superhero-themed costume party where she was dressed as Batgirl and he, of course, was the Flash. That choice looks a bit strange in light of “The Killing Joke,” but we’ll leave that there.
This darker, grittier period lasted for the next few years, culminating eventually in Bates and Infantino’s series-ending “Trial of the Flash” storyline. In a nutshell, “Trial” started when the Flash put Zoom in a fatal chokehold (in August 1983’s issue #324) to stop him from murdering Barry’s new fianceé Fiona Webb. Flash was then arrested and tried for manslaughter. Two years later, August-October 1985’s issues #348-50 explained that not only wasn’t Iris dead, she was helping to clear the Flash’s name. Meanwhile, Fiona’s nervous breakdown had taken her out of the picture.
Turns out the Russells had plucked Iris’ consciousness from her dying 20th Century body and put it in a new 30th Century body. (It was Schrodinger’s Iris, dead or alive depending on the millennium.) Iris then “possessed” the body of a juror at the Flash’s trial in order to thwart Abra Kadabra, who wanted a conviction and was manipulating the proceedings accordingly. Thanks to Iris, the Flash was acquitted; but Barry and Iris decided to go — wait for it — back to the future. Barry then spent the last month of his life in Iris’ old 30th Century home, before coming out of retirement to fight (and die) in 1985’s “Crisis On Infinite Earths.”
ALL OUR YESTERDAYS
That last month turned out to be jam-packed. Not only did Barry and Iris conceive twins named Don and Dawn, Barry had a few adventures with successor Wally West (who was careful not to tell his uncle about his fate). Iris stayed in the 30th Century long enough to raise her children, who inherited Barry’s speed and fought crime as the Tornado Twins. After Don and Dawn died saving the Earth from a Dominator invasion, Iris returned to the 20th Century with Don’s speedster son Bart.
In the real world, Iris was mostly gone from comics for just about fifteen years, from her 1979 “death” until her reintroduction in July 1994’s “Flash” vol. 2 issue #92. At that point, under writer Mark Waid and artist Mike Wieringo, Iris became a sort of Speed Force matriarch. She wasn’t super-fast, but she’d seen (and helped raise) enough speedsters to know how to guide them. As Wally’s aunt and Bart’s grandmother, Iris carved out a unique spot in the then-current “Flash” supporting cast, reminding longtime readers of the old days and offering insight into the characters’ futures.
When Barry himself returned from the Speed Force in 2008’s “Final Crisis” issue #2 (by Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones), his presence literally re-energized Iris. Thanks to Barry’s Speed Force energy emanations, by the time of 2009’s “Flash: Rebirth” miniseries (by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver), once again she looked no older than he did. If this de-aging caused readers any cognitive dissonance, it was rendered moot by 2011’s New 52 relaunch, which reset the characters and coupled Barry with Patty Spivot. Since then, Barry and Patty have broken up; and in the current “Flash” series, Barry and Iris have started dating.
IRIS ON TV
The 1990-91 “Flash” TV series all but ignored Iris (played by Paula Marshall), featuring her only in the pilot episode. It focused instead on Barry (John Wesley Shipp)’s mostly-platonic relationship with his science advisor, Dr. Tina McGee (Amanda Pays); and offered him a romance with private investigator Megan Lockhart (Joyce Hyser).
As mentioned above, the current “Flash” TV series has changed Iris’ backstory considerably. The comics’ Iris was introduced as a reporter; but Candice Patton’s Iris started out as a barista, journalism student and blogger whose stories about the Flash earned her a newspaper job. This version of Iris is the daughter of police detective Joe West (not absent-minded professor Ira), who worked on the Allen murder investigation and now works with Barry. Wally West isn’t Iris’ nephew, but her brother. Their mother Francine was estranged from Iris and Joe, and kept Wally away from them for most of his life. Most significantly, after Nora Allen’s death the Wests raised Barry, which hindered any romantic relationship Barry or Iris might have wanted. Accordingly, Iris spent a good bit of Season One dating and/or engaged to Joe’s late partner, detective Eddie Thawne, who killed himself to stop his evil descendant Eobard (a/k/a the Reverse-Flash). While that summary reflects two-and-a-half seasons’ worth of television, we offer no opinion on whether it’s more complicated than “by the way, Iris is from the 30th Century.”
Anyway, currently on “The Flash,” Barry and Iris are in a fairly serious relationship, although Barry has just seen a potential future where Iris is murdered by evil speed-god Savitar. Sadly, Iris’ death by speedster does have a comics precedent; but there are a couple of ways the show could avoid killing her. First, obviously, is that the future isn’t necessarily set. Allowing Team Flash to avert a disastrous future would be a sort of bookend for this season’s “Flashpoint”-facilitated character changes.
Second, it may not be Iris at all, but someone using H.R. Wells’ face-disguising technology. (It might even be H.R. himself, although that would mean his gizmo disguises his whole body, which so far hasn’t been explained.) Not only would that be a simpler solution, it would avoid the timeline-altering issues which the previous two season finales have featured.
As the comics have shown us, though, the Russells could be a possible third solution. They intervened in Comics-Iris’ death to avoid damage to the timeline, and if they were to show up on The CW they could be just as concerned about Savitar’s destructive effects on the timeline. (Besides, the Legends of Tomorrow have their hands full with another evil speedster, namely the Reverse-Flash.)
Granted, Greg Berlanti and company are more likely to introduce Earth-C’s super-speedy turtle Fastback than they are Iris’ 30th Century parents; but that’s missing the larger point. The whole “Iris is from the future” escape hatch served two purposes. It corrected the error of killing Iris back in 1979, and — since everyone pretty much knew they’d never see Iris and Barry again — ostensibly it gave the couple the happy ending they deserved. After all, Barry and Iris were two of Silver Age DC’s pioneers. He was the first superhero revitalized from a Golden Age original; and she helped set the tone for his supporting cast.
This post has assumed that “The Flash’s” producers and writers want to save Iris, but that’s hardly a certainty. In “Arrow’s” previous season (2015-16), they teased a major character’s death and followed through, dooming Laurel “Black Canary” Lance. While that argues against a repeat performance on “Flash,” it’s not an absolute bar. Killing TV-Iris wouldn’t just break Barry’s heart, it would have ripple effects throughout Team Flash and, yes, set off another round of timey-wimey arguments about whether Barry should try to prevent it. That amount of heartbreak doesn’t really fit with “The Flash’s” generally-upbeat aspirations, but it only makes Iris’ “real” death unlikely, not impossible.
THE FUTURE ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE
The point is, killing off Comics-Iris in 1979 started “The Flash” down a dark and (at least in hindsight) ill-advised road which ended with the series cancelled and its star dead. Admittedly, it was one of the best deaths in DC history, and it facilitated a pretty popular and successful version of The Flash; but it’s still a difficult part of the Flash legacy. It’s a good thing Iris’ unusual background facilitated her revival, and if it weren’t for the Allens’ children and grandchildren, I’d bet Iris’ 30th Century history never comes up again.
That said, beyond the simple fannish appeal of comics fidelity, there is a certain perverse desire to have “The Flash” incorporate Iris’ 30th Century background. Regardless of whether it alludes to the Legion of Super-Heroes, to say nothing of Dawn and/or Don Allen, it would be a heck of a season-ending cliffhanger.
Imagine: Team Flash has defeated Savitar, but at the cost of Iris’ life. As they grieve, their dimension-hopping device snaps on, and Iris and the Russells jump out. Iris is fine, she’s from the future and her future-parents saved her consciousness, etc.; but there’s trouble in the 30th Century and all of Team Flash has to travel through time to fix it. Throw in Cisco’s best Doc Brown impression — “Something’s gotta be done about your kids,” probably — and you’re all set to spend the summer looking forward to Season Four. Instead of worrying about how Barry might have screwed up the timeline (again) or mourning Iris’ death, everyone is fine and there’ll be a new adventure in a whole new setting. Because it’s the future, odds are Barry can’t break it (unless you’re worried about the Legion, which seems more like a “Supergirl” concern these days). What’s more, if it really is Barry and Iris’ kids and/or grandkids, the comics have got that covered too.
Therefore, we say go ahead, “Flash” producers, do what you want to Iris — as long as you use the Russells as a reset button so that Team Flash can go on that thousand-year trip. Otherwise, if Iris isn’t from the future, have Savitar kill the disguised H.R. instead. (We like him fine, but clearly the Multiverse is full of him and we prefer the Earth-2 version.) We’re realistic about all this, because we know how far in advance TV shows are planned; but we were right (sort of) about Mon-El being in that pod, so here’s hoping. While TV-Iris’ apparent death is clearly a story springboard, Comics-Iris’ background shows that it doesn’t have to be a gloomy one.
How do you think “The Flash” should use Iris’ backstory? Let us know in the comments!
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