Whether or not you're an avid reader of The Flash, there's one thing that most everyone has wondered upon thinking of Wally West, Barry Allen, and the other speedsters:
If The Flash is so fast and powerful, why does it take a year for him to beat a villain?! I mean, shouldn't he be virtually unbeatable?
Well. no. The Flash certainly does have the ability to approach the speed of light and think faster than any other living being, but there are complications that arise that keep him on his toes. Take other speedsters, for instance. Savitar was almost as fast as Wally himself, therefore nixing the entire question in itself. But then there are the slower villains - what about them? Well, um. er. complications!
Look, let's just take it one step at a time and examine some of the cases Wally has dealt with in his recent history. Hopefully by the time we've looked at a few you'll understand why the Flash's problems aren't removed in the wink of an eye.
As you may recall, this is the story in which Wally first entered the Speed Force, the energy field from which all speedsters derive their powers (and apparently where all speedsters go when they've outrun life itself). As Wally had closely approached the Speed Force, pulling back because he wasn't sure of what would happen, he found his body going through surprising changes.
No, he wasn't going through a second round of puberty - his body was actually turning into a form of energy! How do you outrun a dilemma like that? Super speed doesn't really come in handy in this case. The only way Wally was able to handle the situation was to enter the Force and come back out (thanks to Linda, a.k.a. "Mortality Anchor"), finding himself physically restored.
Race Against Time
This story occurred directly after the "Dead Heat" saga with Savitar. Wally entered the Speed Force, dragging Savitar along with him, and found himself lost in time while John Fox, Flash from the 25th century, came to our time to replace him in his absence. Not only did Wally face the problems of not having a map through time, but while he was on his little escapade Fox was moving in on Linda.
This is, once again, more of a matter for wits to deal with rather than powers. After Wally finally managed to find a way home he had to chew out Fox. Then he had to find a way to beat Speed Metal (robots from the future empowered with super speed and so dense that no Flash can vibrate through their armor), which he did by causing two of them to crash into the other (lending his speed to one so it lost control) and by making the other vibrate its own molecules to go through an object and then vibrating himself through it at the same time, causing it to explode.
The Human Race
While this was one of the sad stories written during the Grant Morrison year-long substitution, it once again illustrates Wally's inability to use speed to save his skin during a crisis. This time Wally is forced to race against his childhood imaginary friend Krakkl, a being of energy from the planet Kwyzz, by the hands of two beings that run races as a hobby. The catch is that the loser of each race dies, along with the rest of his home planet. The winner goes on to race for the rest of his life without a choice but to run or kill his planet.
I consider this one of the worst Flash stories ever told. I don't like the story and I don't like the solution, but here it is: Wally buys some time and uses the entire world to help him win. Quoted from the awesome Flash fan site, "Flash: Those Who Ride the Lightning" by webmaster Kelson Vibber:
Wally needed the support of the entire world to win this one - it was impossible to win by himself, and impossible to win with even his own super-powered abilities.
Hell To Pay
Neron, the infamous villain who debuted during "Underworld Unleashed" and plagued the JLA during Zauriel's introduction to the DCU, came to haunt the Flash in this story, having taken the Rogues Gallery's souls and unleashed their virtually invincible bodies on a murderous rampage. The Pied Piper had a candle he had never lit from Neron's original appearance (Neron sent candles to various heroes and villains, and upon lighting them they would find themselves in his presence, bartering for their souls) and gave it to Wally in hopes that he might be able to contact Neron and make him stop the senseless massacre.
Wally uses the candle, and although he didn't end up selling his soul for the city, he gave up something much more valuable - something much more pure and strong: his love for Linda. Little did he know, however, that Linda had already bargained with the villain and had sold HER side of the relationship in hopes that Neron wouldn't ask for Wally's soul. Neron's little escapade continued, and all seemed lost for our hero as he strove to maintain his bond, until a rather shocking event occurred: Neron learned to love. Apparently Wally and Linda's love was too much for him to handle, and he began to care about his eternal prisoners. Neron threw their love back at them, eager to get rid of the emotion, and promised to return with vengeance (he also labeled The Flash as his most hated enemy at that point).
While it's sort of a gooey story, it fits perfectly with my point: Wally's speed really didn't save him at all. His love for Linda preserved himself and the entire city of Keystone. Speed COULDN'T have saved him this time. How do you outrun a lack of emotion?
Whether it be the "Terminal Velocity" story or simply the last time Wally encountered the Mini Me of speedsters, The Flash needs a lot more than super speed to control this small annoyance (as well as himself)! Wally has a difficult time dealing with the thoughtless actions of Bart Allen and his ignorance of responsibility (regardless of whether or not Bart is truly at fault for acting in such a manner).
I can't say that I blame him. I have some relatives that I feel exactly the same about, and they're not necessarily younger than Bart! Sure, Wally IS faster than Bart, but their speeds are comparative to a mother running after her toddler down the hallway. Bart doesn't take too well to Wally's method of teaching, anyway, so it's not just super speed that is useless in these situations.
In other words, folks, Mark Waid (and, hopefully, whoever the near-future writer for The Flash is) is much smarter than the average bear. He knows that Wally needs to be dealt blows that won't be directly solved with his powers, and Waid gives him problems that would require the use of some other means to overcome.
When was the last time you read an in-depth storyline in the pages of The Flash that simply involved Wally running to catch some bullets, or the pursuit of a powerless bank robber? Never. There are some occasions where villains seem to disappear far too quickly for Wally to be taken seriously as a speedster (almost as if the bad guys just have to point behind him, say, "Oh my gosh! What is that?!" and clear the area before he even has the chance to turn back around), but these are holes that the writers and readers are left to fill by themselves. When the Trickster disappears while Wally runs to the ocean and back in the blink of an eye, it can be assumed that the Trickster somehow managed to acquire an object that would render him invisible or give him instantaneous teleport abilities for that issue or story.
The bottom line is that Wally's crises are usually pretty complex -- The Flash doesn't goof up. Well, at least not on a regular basis.
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This column is © 2000 by Mark Gillins.
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