Today, superheroes are huge. Blockbuster movies breaking records, TV series, video games, toys, the works. However, there was a time when superheroes were oddities, not mainstream, at least outside comic books, when the idea of a superhero having a TV series was unusual. In 1990, The Flash debuted on CBS, an attempt to bring one of the leading DC characters to a larger audience.
Let’s start, though, with a look at the character. The original Flash debuted in Flash Comics #1, published January 1940. Created by Gardiner Fox and Harry Lampert, the original Flash was Jay Garrick, college athlete. During comics’ Silver Age, Barry Allen took up the mantle, meeting Jay Garrick and creating the idea of multiverses in DC’s continuity. Wally West, Barry’s nephew, took over as the Flash in 1986 and Barry’s grandson Bart picked up the family tradition in 2006.
Along the way, no matter the incarnation, the Flash picked up a Rogues Gallery that, unlike those of fellow DC heroes Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, worked together and had a code of conduct that included no killing. The Rogues include Captain Cold, Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, and the Trickster. Gorilla Grodd first appeared in the pages of The Flash #106, April/May 1959.
The Flash wound up being the cheerful one compared to his contemporaries, easy enough to do when one of them is Batman. His power is superspeed, capable of running at close to the speed of light. As a result, he has time to perform superspeed tricks to nab criminals and fight his Rogues. The Flash is “the fastest man alive“.
Barry Allen gained his powers after being struck by lightning and thrown into chemicals in his crime lab. His day job is a crime lab analyst for the Central City Police Department, giving him a way to get involved in any number of unusual crimes. Such a setup makes for an easy way to adapt a superhero into a pokice procedural.
The 1990 TV series works as one, though with the twist that the investigator is a superhero. Starring John Wesley Shipp as the Flash, the series lasted one season, running twenty-two episodes. The series was ambitious, bringing a comic book aesthetic to living rooms. The series debuted a year after Tim Burton’s Batman was in theatres. Danny Elfman, formerly of Oingo Boingo and responsible for the theme music for Batman also wrote the theme for The Flash.
The pilot episode introduces Barry, the lab accident, and the loss of his brother, Jay (Tim Thomerson) to Nicholas Pike (Michael Nader), the leader of a biker gang trying to take over Central City. Thanks to Barry’s new powers and the help of Dr. Tina McGee (Amanda Pays), Pike is arrested. As the series continues, Barry figures out how to be creative with his superspeed as he takes on criminals, powered and unpowered. Some of his oppenants were created for the series, others, like the Trickster (Mark Hamill channeling Frank Gorshin’s Riddler from the 1996 Batman) and Captain Cold (Michael Champion). The villains, though, do keep up as they learn more about the Flash, finding ways to nullify or avoid his power.
Shipp has the charm to pull off being Barry. The Flash was never the dark defender of justice. Instead, he’s there with a quip, and Shipp carries this role off believably. The costume is padded, given the Flash a muscular look that can inhibit Shipp’s movements at times. The special effects are noticeable almost thirty years later, but do convey the Flash’s superspeed. When he’s running, he is a red blur.
As with other superhero adaptations, changes happened. Iris West (Paula Marshall) appeared only in the pilot and was written as travelling for her career in subsequent episodes. The series plays with a “will they or won’t they” with Barry and Tina, though later lets them be just friends without getting into the drama of the relationship. The Trickster gained a murderous streak, something that his comic counterpart didn’t have, at least for those outside the super-biz.
The look may be the most notable part of the series. It has an aesthetic similar to Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted two years later. The Flash has a mix of modern and classic, covering the years that Barry was the Flash in the comics. The cars are a mix of then-available models mixed with vehicles from the 50s and 60s. Adding to the comic book feel is the murals on walls all over Central City. Central City is a colourful city even before the Flash arrives. The series doesn’t go for shades of muted grey.
Helping with the comic feel is the use of recurring and returning characters. Officers Murphy (Biff Manard) and Bellows (Vito D’Ambrosio) appear at crime scenes that the Flash zips through. The Nightshade (Jason Bernard), Central City’s protector in the 50s, makes two appearances, as does Pike and the Trickster. Private investigator Megan Lockheart (Joyce Hyser) gets involved in a couple of the Flash’s adventures as both help and hindrance. There’s a feel that there’s a bigger world beyond just Barry.
The series also makes nods to what has come before. Streets and places are named after influences, including Carmine Infantino, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. One street is named after Jay Garrick. The Flash is open about its origins and nature and doesn’t pretend to be anything else but a superhero police procedural.
The Flash may have been ahead of its time. The superhero boom is a product of the New Teens as special effects and CGI became more commonplace. Being the front runner means that building an audience is more difficult, especially when the show is placed up against two powerhourses, The Cosby Show and The Simpsons. The competition may have limited the audience for The Flash at a time when no one was looking at time-shifted viewing through videotape. As an adaptation, the series was ambitious, trying to bring a comic book look without going full camp, something some later series have been trying to duplicate. The Flash may not be accurate, but it does capture the tone of the character and his comic.