by John Wells
Editor's Note: Because the current "Crossfire" storyline in Flash has not concluded, we felt it best to not spoil current issues by discussing the Thinker's role in "Crossfire."
Clifford Devoe's failure to win the conviction of bootlegger "Hunk" Norvock in 1933 was the last straw. Concluding that his legal career was a failure, the Keystone City District Attorney spent the night drinking the very booze that Norvock had been accused of smuggling in this era of Prohibition. The intoxicated lawyer approached Norvock with a strange proposal. After sobering up, he elaborated:
"Some day you're bound to run into trouble, Hunk. You'll need somebody with real brains to get you out of it. A sort of ace in the hole. I'm sick of playing big shot lawyer -- all I want from now on is a roof over my head -- three squares a day and a chance to relax. In return, I'm at your call for one job. Wait until you're confronted with an impossible task, Hunk. A job you and your boys can't do. I'll attempt to do it, and succeed or die trying. All you have to do is see that I have the bare necessities of life and in return you have a man who'd risk his life for you when you need it. Fair enough ? But if I succeed in that job, you'll give me whatever I want."
The idea of an insurance policy of sorts appealed to Norvock and he agreed to the deal. Over the next decade, Devoe "lived alone in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of Keystone City," conceiving "scientific schemes for evading the law that would fill a library. In my cellar laboratory, I have perfected scientific methods of committing the cleverest murders and robberies. I have thought out everything in advance. I am unbeatable!"
One might speculate that Devoe field-tested some of his concepts with other criminals, each of whom used the alias of the Thinker. One, equipped with a primitive "thinking cap" was captured by the Flash circa 1941 (SPEED FORCE # 1) while another was arrested by police officers Larry Trent and Sandy Keene in October of 1942 (MORE FUN COMICS # 86's "Radio Squad" episode).
"Hunk" Norvock finally called in his marker in June of 1943. Threatened with jail thanks to a pair of ironclad confessions acquired by the Flash, Norvock asked Devoe to destroy the confessions and kill his traitorous men. Devoe refused to immediately name his price and the paranoid gangster decided to kill his benefactor. Devoe had expected such a reaction and arranged a steel mirror so that Norvock would fire at the former lawyer but, thanks to the ricochet, kill himself.
At the urging of Norvock's gang, Devoe -- now calling himself the Thinker -- took over the gangster's operation, agreeing more for the challenge of matching wits with the Flash than any monetary gain. Characteristic of many other egotistical criminals, the Thinker insisted on telegraphing his robberies with cryptic messages and left the authorities exasperated when he successfully pulled them off despite the warnings. In the end, the cornered Thinker attempted to kill himself and the Flash in a suicide gambit. Defusing the explosives in a fraction of a second, the stunned villain gasped, "No ... no ... I don't believe it. Nobody can be that fast!"
Quipped the Scarlet Speedster, "Wait until fast you land in jail, chum."
Apprised of the fact that the felon had been a former D.A., Hawkman sighed to the Justice Society, "I never cease to be amazed by the depths to which some officials can sink" (ACTION COMICS # 663).
The Thinker debuted in a 48-page adventure in ALL-FLASH # 12 (by Gardner Fox and E.E. Hibbard) and would rack up more battles with the Flash during the 1940s than any of his other foes. Devoe resisted the idea of a costume, preferring the unassuming nature of his bald head and thin mustache. He first returned in late 1946, using a variety of gases in his latest assault on Keystone City (ALL-FLASH # 27).
Around that time, Devoe's ongoing search for new scientific devices brought him the "thinking cap," a metal hat created by Professor Hartwell Jackson that projected mental force. The device had been stolen by the villainous Tricky O'Rickey years earlier only to be recovered and returned to Professor Jackson by the Flash in mid-1945 (FLASH COMICS # 65). The Thinker couldn't help but be attracted to something called a thinking cap and snatched up the device in January of 1947 to join the Fiddler and the Shade in an attack on Las Vegas. The involvement of the Flash and the Justice Society brought the threat to a quick end and the thinking cap was disabled in the process (THE FLASH [current] # 161).
Undeterred by the loss of his helmet, the Thinker went on a veritable crime spree during the summer of 1947, threatening Keystone with a new Ice Age in June (COMIC CAVALCADE # 22) and anesthetizing the city's entire population in August (COMIC CAVALCADE # 23). And in September, he helped found the Injustice Society of the World, using more of his purloined technology to briefly conquer much of the Midwestern United States (ALL-STAR COMICS # 37). Although the Injustice Society had failed, the concept of a team of villains still appealed to Devoe. In October, he conceived a non-costumed team called Crime, Incorporated, whose ranks were composed of a variety of specialists in particular crimes (ALL-FLASH # 32). And as the year began to draw to a close, the Thinker made an attempt on the life of the Flash's new wife, Joan Garrick. "It was a siege and she held them all off using her wits and bravery until help could arrive" (STARMAN ANNUAL # ! 2).
In early 1949, Devoe got his hands on his greatest weapon yet -- a time machine stolen from scientist Earl Hoffrith. "We can a place and rob it -- then fade into the past or the future. The police can't follow us. This is the biggest thing anyone like us ever got hold of!" The sheer amount of electricity that the device used attracted the attention of the authorities and the Flash succeeded in defeating the Thinker -- with the aid of Professor Hoffrith, who destroyed his creation (THE FLASH [first series] # 214).
The Flash's retirement in the spring of 1950 proved to be a turning point in the life of the Thinker. The Scarlet Speedster's successor, the Spider, was the polar opposite of the good-natured Jay Garrick and offered none of the challenges that Devoe was accustomed to. Even his remodeled thinking cap wasn't enough to save the Thinker from a brutal beating at the hands of the Spider. As he recovered in prison, Devoe was almost relieved when the Spider was exposed as a villain and the Flash returned from retirement (THE SHADE # 3).
Determined to make use of his stolen thinking cap, Devoe spent the next few years conceiving a new scheme, his intellect enhanced by the electronic helmet. Recalling his earlier plan to anesthetize Keystone (COMIC CAVALCADE # 23), the Thinker embarked on a far more audacious plan. Employing the Fiddler to create a "giant resonator," the Thinker joined him and the Shade in plunging the city into an ageless limbo in 1956 while they looted and terrorized its population. Though it only seemed like weeks for the villains, decades had passed in the outside world. Around eleven years ago, a new Flash named Barry Allen accidentally stumbled onto the imprisoned city, returning it to Earth, rescuing the original Flash and capturing Devoe and company (1990's SECRET ORIGINS # 50, inspired by 1961's THE FLASH [first series] # 123).
Despite having been born early in the 20th Century, Devoe was only in his fifties thanks to his long period in limbo. The Thinker had no intention of retiring from his criminal career though he finally made a concession to the younger villains of the era by taking a costume. Clad in a lavender and indigo costume, the Thinker wove the circuitry of his thinking cap into a purple and white helmet-mask. Devoe's use of the thinking cap had an unexpected side effect, causing a man named Arthur Perkins to robotically commit copy-cat crimes of the Thinker's own thefts. Thanks to Devoe's enhancements, the helmet now generated "great amounts of telekinetic energy" that unwittingly "dominat[ed] the motor impulses of [Perkins'] brain." The combined efforts of the original Atom and his modern-day counterpart thwarted the Thinker's latest robberies (1966's THE ATOM # 29).
Convinced that wearing a costume was bad luck, the Thinker returned to plainclothes -- plus his thinking cap -- for his subsequent escapades. Utilizing the helmet's neural enhancements, the Thinker manipulated the Rag Doll into committing thefts on his behalf while simultaneously causing Jay Garrick to fumble each attempt at rescuing him. The scheme was ultimately exposed by Barry Allen though Jay got in the last punch (1974's FLASH # 229). Still clad in a nondescript suit, the Thinker soon joined the revived Injustice Society but was easily defeated by Hawkman (1977's ALL-STAR COMICS # 66). Devoe's thinking cap eventually ended up with JSA member Johnny Thunder, who supervised the team's souvenirs (THE FLASH [current] # 134). The Thinker's final grab for power (in his ATOM # 29 costume) was quashed by Hourman (STARMAN [second series] # 37, possibly the current account of the Huntress-Power Girl story in WONDER WOMAN !# 274-276).
Acknowledging the truth in Hawkman's statement that he was an old man (ASC # 66), Devoe jumped at the offer of a full pardon in exchange for a mission with the Suicide Squad. The bad luck that Devoe associated with his purple and blue costume returned with a vengeance on that assignment. As he attempted to mentally subdue Mister 104, one of his treacherous teammates, the Thinker found his throat slashed by the Weasel. For the duration of the adventure, team leader Rick Flag took the thinking cap for his own but found himself displaying the more ruthless tendencies of Clifford Devoe. When Flag uncontrollably used the helmet to execute the Weasel, he tore the cap from his head and collapsed (1988's DOOM PATROL AND SUICIDE SQUAD SPECIAL # 1)
The Thinker's purple and white helmet eventually ended up in the possession of Doctor Simon La Grieve at the Institute of Meta-Human Studies. There, La Grieve was horrified that the thinking cap had been removed from his locker and put to use in a series of experiments with an institutionalized young man named Clifford Carmichael. Cliff had been a highly intelligent but arrogant student with a long- held loathing for jock classmate Ron Raymond (1978's FIRESTORM # 1). Several months earlier, Carmichael had made an attempt on the life of Raymond only to have it backfire and leave his own cousin, Hugo Hammer, a paraplegic (1986's FURY OF FIRESTORM # 50). Wracked with guilt, Cliff finally attempted to commit suicide and, when that failed, he confessed to authorities (1987's FOF # 60).
La Grieve's misgivings abruptly evaporated upon meeting Carmichael (1990's FIRESTORM # 98) and he learned why in a subsequent conversation with Professor Martin Stein. "Nurses report an operation that Carmichael received since they started the experiments with the Thinker's helmet. A series of microdiscs have been installed in Carmichael. ... I think," Stein continued, "Carmichael used the helmet to analyze the helmet and then made use of current microchip technology to improve on it, reduce it in size to these chips, and had them directly interfaced with his own brain."
"Carmichael also had a computer port installed at the base of his skull. The data also suggests that, within a certain field, Carmichael can control other people's alpha or beta brainwaves -- make them more relaxed or aggressive. In fact, the data suggests he can make people forget they've done things. He may have a certain amount of mind control. Add to this a psyche that may still be unstable and you have a new, more powerful Thinker -- who is also a cyberpunk" (FIRESTORM # 99).
Aware that his secrets had been discovered, the new Thinker fled the IMHS (FIRESTORM # 99), leading La Grieve to recruit Oracle in an effort to stop him in cyberspace. Instead, the Thinker retaliated by electronically tracking Oracle back to her home base. A desperate La Grieve called in the Suicide Squad's Amanda Waller, who narrowly managed to subdue the Thinker before he killed "Amy Beddoes" a.k.a. Barbara Gordon (1990's SUICIDE SQUAD # 48-49).
Now in the Suicide Squad's custody, Carmichael's brain was equipped with additional circuitry that would trigger a lethal computer virus without accessing a different password every twenty-four hours (SUICIDE SQUAD # 50-51). The Thinker had no choice but to work for the Squad, using his now-limited mental control and internet access on their behalf (SS # 54-57, 59-62). Eventually, Carmichael was secretly contacted by the villainous Cabal, with whom he formed an alliance. Although frustrated in his attempt at murdering Waller, the Thinker gleefully announced, "I've already figured out a program to keep you from frying my microchip inserts. Sooner or later, I'll dope out a way to keep my mind-control powers on all day. And then I'll come back for a nice long chat, Amaaanda. With you and Aaamy both!" (1992's SS # 63-65). Cliff Carmichael hasn't been seen since.
Within months, though, the Thinker name was appropriated by a nineteen-year-old named Des Connor. Gifted with telepathic abilities that enabled him to amplify a person's fears, the new Thinker had found himself in a partnership with a man named Marlon Dall with hypnotic powers of his own. Together, the villains threw Gotham City into chaos, creating convincing illusions involving the city's most prominent citizens while they embarked on a lucrative heist. In the end, the Thinker found himself defenseless in a direct confrontation with The Batman. "He isn't afraid of anything!" (1997's BATMAN: SHADOW OF THE BAT # 65-67).
Surprisingly, Clifford Devoe had been alive to hear of the two claimants to his name. Although details on his Suicide Squad mission remain classified, it can speculated that the man that the Weasel killed was a proxy whom the real Thinker was mentally controlling through his helmet. Because Devoe was still alive, that control continued when Rick Flag wore the thinking cap.
Word had reached Jay Garrick that the pardoned Devoe was dying of brain cancer and the Flash began paying regular visits to his old foe's bedside. With his few friends locked away in prison and his relatives long dead, the former Thinker thrived on the visits from the Scarlet Speedster. As he pondered on Cliff's condition, Jay remembered that his old thinking cap had once been amongst the JSA trophies and he embarked on a quest to find it. Ultimately, the Flash discovered that Johnny Thunder had using it for a flower vase(!) and returned to Devoe's bedside only to learned he'd just died. Aware that "electrical activity exists in the brain up to ten minutes after death," Jay gently placed the thinking cap on Cliff's head and watched his eyes flutter.
Cliff was less than enthusiastic, muttering "Oh, yeah. This is much nicer than Heaven. Rescue everyone and the world's going to get awfully crowded, Jay. I'm the smartest man alive at the moment so I know what I'm talking about. Learn to lose every once in a while," he said as he removed the helmet. "A little humility prepares you for what lies ahead" (1998's THE FLASH [current] # 134). And not too long afterwards, Clifford Devoe passed on.
His death notwithstanding, the Thinker continued to make his presence felt. He appeared before the modern Flash (Wally West) in a mirror-world, the reflection of someone in West's own reality (2000's THE FLASH [current] # 165-167).
Indeed, there was still a Thinker in existence -- Clifford Devoe himself. Upon his death, the Thinker had become a cyber-consciousness, infiltrating the Justice Society's security systems and gathering intimate details on the team that culminated with his attack on the group as part of the Injustice Society. Now an ethereal green being covered with numeric codes -- and a metallic skull -- the Thinker was finally knocked off-line by the Star-Spangled Kid (2000's JSA # 16-17). His absence was only temporary, of course, and he now planned to make his presence felt in the city he called home for so many years -- Keystone (2001's FLASH SECRET FILES # 3).
John "Mikishawm" Wells, the pride of Batavia, Iowa, is a lifelong comics fan, working his way forward from Disneys in 1969 to newspaper strips in 1973 to SHAZAM! and the rest of the DC Universe in 1974. During the 1980s, he began compiling a lists of DC character appearances, a massive database that he's tapped into when writing articles for publications such as the DC Index series, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer’s Guide, Comic Effect, Comic Book Marketplace, It’s A Fanzine, The O‘Neil Observer and, of course, Fanzing. He is Kurt Busiek's unofficial reference guide, as the keen-eyed may have noticed in Power Company #2.
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This piece is © 2002 by John Wells
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