Barry Allen, like many comic book characters, used to be dead. But unlike most others, he stayed dead for over twenty years. Oh, he’s alive and well now—more so than ever, thanks to The Flash television series on the CW. Nevertheless, DC Comics once killed him off, giving him a heroic death in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, and he didn’t return until 2009’s Flash: Rebirth.
During that time, Wally West, the former sidekick Kid Flash, took over as the Flash. Wally was introduced in the late 1950s as the young nephew of Barry’s girlfriend Iris. (Unlike their TV counterparts, Barry and Iris were together from the Flash’s first appearance, and they did not grow up together.) When Barry and Iris eventually married, Barry became not only Wally’s mentor and idol, but his uncle as well.
Wally’s series ran for about 250 issues from 1987 to 2009, and his time as the Flash can be read as a coming-of-age story. He progressed from a self-centered, twenty-year-old kid to a family man and stalwart member of the Justice League of America.
A pivotal chapter in his growth occurred in a storyline called “The Return of Barry Allen” in 1993, which spanned issues #73 to #79 written by Mark Waid and drawn by Greg La Rocque. The story isn’t some good vs. evil struggle, but one with very personal stakes. It’s about the balance between idolizing your hero and becoming your own person, the importance of protecting a legacy, and the dreaded possibility that your role model might not live up to your expectations.
Just as Wally is starting to feel comfortable as the Flash, the man he always saw as “the” Flash seemingly returns from the dead. Barry Allen shows up on his doorstep, alive and well, if a bit disoriented. At first, Wally loves having his uncle back. Sure, he starts to feel a little redundant as the Flash, but that’s a small price to pay. But then Barry’s behavior becomes…erratic. He soon snaps, leaves Wally to die in a hi-tech trap set by a new criminal organization, and announces himself as the one, true Flash. Wally escapes, of course, but he has to process the fact that the man he’s dedicated his life to has turned out to be anything but heroic.
Barry’s super-speed rampage brings him into conflict with former allies. The storyline crosses over into Green Lantern #40 for a Flash vs. GL battle royale. (Whereas the TV series show a friendship between Flash and Arrow, in the comics, Barry had become best friends with a different green super-hero, the Hal Jordan incarnation of Green Lantern—yes, the one we saw in that terrible movie, but Hal’s a much better character in the comics.)
Wally eventually learns it’s not Barry, but an old foe who has gone to extraordinary lengths to emulate him—even convincing himself he was Barry for a time. And now this villain is determined to ruin Barry Allen’s heroic reputation for all time, and only Wally can stop him—provided the younger Flash can get over his subconscious fear of replacing his mentor.
For fans of the TV show, “The Return of Barry Allen” shows of a glimpse of the hero Barry Allen is destined to become—someone who’s willing to sacrifice himself to save lives, and someone capable of inspiring others to greatness. The “real” Barry may not actually appear in these issues, but his heroic nature defines the story.
Also of note, this storyline features DC Comics’ first Flash in a prominent supporting role. No, Barry wasn’t the first—he’s just the most famous incarnation. Back in 1940, Jay Garrick inhaled some vapors and gained super-speed. He’s an old man in this story, though in excellent shape for his age, and he’s just recently returned to duty. So in one story, you get three generations of Flashes.