[In case you were wondering, my coverage of the new DC solicits will appear here next week.]
If this superhero-canon stuff focused on influence, and not craft, I imagine there would be little argument that “Flash Of Two Worlds” (from The Flash vol. 1 #123, September 1961) would definitely compete for the top spot. It kicked off the era of the DC Multiverse (1961-1985); and it remained an important milestone in the shared universe which followed. Still, although we’re not talking about influence here, I think “FOTW” has earned a spot among the best superhero stories for its approach to DC’s first “intergenerational” team-up.
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The plot of “Flash Of Two Worlds” is pretty simple. While performing super-speed feats at a charity event, the Flash -- secretly police scientist Barry Allen, just to avoid any confusion -- vanishes into thin air. Turns out Barry has traveled to someplace called “Keystone City,” which jogs a part of his brain he probably didn’t expect to be jogged. Before you know it, Barry’s looking up one Jay Garrick of 5252 (eee!!) 78th Street, and the rest is nerdgasm history.
Barry explains to Jay
You were once well-known in my world -- as a fictional character appearing in a magazine called Flash Comics! When I was a youngster -- you were my favorite hero! A writer named Gardner Fox wrote about your adventures -- which he claimed came to him in dreams!
As it happens, Jay has been thinking of coming out of retirement in order to stop a mysterious crime wave; so for the better part of twelve pages (almost half the story), the two Flashes fight Jay’s old foes the Thinker, the Fiddler, and the Shade. The Fiddler ends up trapping our heroes, but the Flashes exploit a loophole in their foe’s mental commands to get out from under his musical whammy. (Fiddler commands them to steal jewels, but forgets any prohibition against shenanigans, so the Flashes put little jewels in their ears to avoid hearing his orders.) Accordingly, beyond the venue and the participants, there’s nothing really special -- nothing “Earth-Two-y” -- about the story. As drawn by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella, Jay’s Earth seems pretty much like Barry’s.
Still, when it’s all over, and Barry has returned to what generations of readers will eventually call Earth-1, he’s not sure he can reveal what happened. He tells Iris West only that he “took off on a most unusual adventure.” In the final panel, though, he thinks
The only ones who’d really believe it would be the readers of Flash Comics! That’s why I’m going to look up Gardner Fox who wrote the original Flash stories and tell it to him! He can write the whole thing up -- in a comic book!
Yes, “Flash Of Two Worlds” is totally in the tank for the fans … so let’s step back a little to see what that means.
First, Barry Allen himself is a huge superhero fan who is literally living the dream by following in the wear-resistant boots of his boyhood idol. This is built into his origin, not just a plot detail invented for “Flash Of Two Worlds.” Naturally Barry becomes The Flash, because according to his comics, that’s just what you do with super-speed.*
Moreover, Barry’s experience of Jay Garrick’s adventures seems typical of an original Flash Comics fan. The conceit of Fox inserting himself, however indirectly, into the story is almost too cute, because just because there’s a Gardner Fox in the Flash’s world doesn’t mean that there’s a Flash in our world. However, it further establishes Barry’s fan bona fides. (Compare the teenage Johnny Storm in May 1962’s Fantastic Four #4, who sees an old Sub-Mariner comic book as a previous generation’s artifact, not a childhood touchstone.) More importantly, thanks to Barry’s closing thoughts, it lets readers imagine that they’re holding an artifact from his world -- namely, the comic book memorializing this historic meeting. It may seem corny, but it reinforces “FOTW’s” central idea: that somewhere, out in the infinite Multiverse, these fantastic stories are real. Having Jay's adventures came to (the Earth-1) Fox "in dreams" (with the implication that the real Fox's stories came from a similar place) is just the right kind of impossible-to-disprove detail.
Nevertheless, “Flash Of Two Worlds” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a clever idea for a Flash adventure. Barry regularly teamed up with sidekick Kid Flash and guest-hero the Elongated Man; and just as regularly visited exotic locales, including other dimensions and other time periods. The details which seemed to confirm that this was “the” Jay Garrick (like Jay’s retirement coinciding with Flash Comics’ cancellation**) were what we’d call Easter eggs, not necessarily leading into anything larger.
Therefore, while it may sound ironic, part of the charm of “Flash Of Two Worlds” is its laissez-faire attitude towards its subject. This was not some “everything changes forever!” expansion of the DC line. Instead, it used the pseudo-science of superheroes to play with various perspectives on fictional characters. The fictional Barry Allen idolizes the fictional Jay Garrick, who was co-created by the real Gardner Fox but who Barry knows via his own (fictionalized) version of Fox. The premise is as complicated as the reader wants it to be, but the story itself doesn’t impose those complications.
Again, compare Fantastic Four #4: when Namor regains his memory, he discovers that Atlantis has been destroyed and his people are gone. Jay Garrick was thinking about coming out of retirement anyway, and Barry’s visit was just a happy coincidence. Once Barry leaves, Jay is free to resume his old career, albeit a little slower. However, Namor’s revival doesn’t happen in a similar vacuum. Rather than the Fantastic Four visiting his world, he is brought into theirs, unknowingly (Johnny deliberately drops him in the ocean) and with profound implications for his character. The same thing would happen in Avengers #4 (March 1964): an intervening tragedy radically changes Captain America’s perspective, ostensibly fitting him better for Silver Age Marvel.
This is not to say that those changes were somehow inappropriate. Later accounts of Earth-2 history, as well as a post-Multiversal retelling of “Flash Of Two Worlds,”*** would justify the Golden Age heroes’ collective absence via previously-unknown events: Congress forced the Justice Society to retire; Keystone City was hidden from the rest of the world. However, I think it’s important to note that Gardner Fox, who after all was Jay Garrick’s co-creator, evidently didn’t feel compelled to update him any more than with a marriage and some gray hair.
Of course, the fans went wild over “Flash Of Two Worlds” regardless. Jay returned in Flash #129 (June 1962, just a month after the Sub-Mariner’s revival), and Barry and Jay brought back the rest of the Justice Society a year later in issue #137 (June 1963). Two months later it was “Crisis On Earth-One!” in August 1963’s Justice League of America #21, and there was no going back.
All that, though, is beyond the scope of this story. I like “Flash of Two Worlds” because it’s fun. It’s basically a fantasy-camp scenario for Barry, but it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. (I suppose there might be some nostalgic value in the modified JSA/JLA formula Fox uses for the plot -- each hero fails alone at first, but then they team up and triumph -- but that seems like a stretch.) Actually, Fox balances the two characters so well that Barry, who essentially invites himself along on Jay’s case, sometimes seems like a guest-star in his own book. That's appropriate enough, since Barry, like the fans he represents, is only too happy to watch Jay race back into action.
As usual, Carmine Infantino makes Central City and Keystone City big enough to have these huge plazas where Flashes can run free (big enough, in fact, that the skylines are part of a distant horizon); and his Barry/Flash is typically lithe and graceful. However, although his Jay/Flash is just as fast, Infantino gives his body language a little bit of hesitation, which I take to be a combination of age (although Jay is probably just in his 40s) and caution. For example, at the bottom of page 5, as Barry explains his trip across the vibratory barrier, Jay sits on his couch, slightly slumped, elbows on his knees and hands in front of his lap; but his eyes are fixed on Barry. Barry’s back is to the reader, the big speech balloon is between him and Jay, and Jay’s wife Joan has her arm across Jay’s shoulders. Everything in the panel draws the reader’s eye to Jay, and Jay’s line of sight goes back to Barry. It’s a really nice, quiet composition. Later, on page 19, after Barry returns in defeat to Jay’s apartment, Infantino places Jay in a similar pose, but this time he’s exhaling through pursed lips and using his winged helmet to fan himself -- another neat little character moment.
Thus, in the end, I think the key to “Flash Of Two Worlds” is the extent to which Fox lets Jay be Jay, and not a new-for-1961, dragged-into-the-modern-age version of Jay. Fox treats Jay Garrick as if he were just another literary character for Flash to meet, like Huck Finn or Robin Hood; not a fellow DC property to be exploited. I know it sounds like I am coming at this story with the bitterness of endless DC crossovers, but honestly, there is little of the “backdoor pilot” about “FOTW.” Instead, it merely opens a window into the past for those fans who care. The story leaves open whether anyone will explore the world beyond that window.
“Flash Of Two Worlds!” was published in The Flash vol. 1 #123 (September 1961); and was written by Gardner Fox, penciled by Carmine Infantino, inked by Joe Giella, lettered by Gaspar Saladino (?), and edited by Julius Schwartz. (My Flash Archives Vol. 3 doesn't list an original colorist, just "color reconstruction by Digital Chameleon.")
* [In a very real sense, the villainous Superboy-Prime is a jaded, twisted version of Barry’s fan-turned-superhero. The two met briefly in Infinite Crisis, but now that Geoff Johns has asserted dominion over both, a rematch seems inevitable.]
** [Although “FOTW” says he retired in 1949, Jay/Flash went on to appear with the Justice Society in All Star Comics for two more years.]
*** [As adapted by writer Grant Morrison, penciller Mike Parobeck, and inker Romeo Tanghal, it was the lead story in Secret Origins vol. 2 #50 (August 1990).]