Even though he’s not the first hero with the name the Flash at DC Comics—that honor belongs to the Justice Society’s Jay Garrick—many consider Barry Allen as the “prime” Scarlet Speedster of the DCU. Although Jay Garrick was popular enough to headline two comics of his own in 1940s, Barry Allen’s Flash began an Atomic Age renaissance at DC Comics, starting the Silver Age, and ushering in concepts that would lead to the Justice League, the Multiverse, and even the Marvel Comics boom of the ‘60s.
And for Flash’s three live-action media incarnations, the 1990 and 2014 TV series, and the current film The Flash, the man behind the mask has always been Barry Allen. These media incarnations have solidified him as the “Prime Flash.” But often, he’s almost just Barry Allen in name only. The faster-than-light hero with the biggest influence on all modern media versions of the Flash has been Barry Allen’s much younger protégé and successor, Wally West. In the comics, he was the only hero to wear the mantle of the Flash from 1985-2006. So why does Barry always hog the spotlight? For that, we go back to the beginning.
Barry Allen: The Baby Boomer Flash
Writer Julius Schwartz and artist Carmine Infantino introduced Barry Allen as a straight-laced, upstanding guy in 1956’s Showcase #4. He worked as a police scientist, which is old-timey speak for a CSI. When a lightning bolt struck him at the same time as various chemicals splashed all over his body, he gained super speed. For no other reason than to just do the right thing, Barry took on the superhero identity of the Flash. In terms of personality, however, Barry was as vanilla as they come. He was an unremarkable, even-tempered ordinary guy, who just so happened to be able to run really fast. His only personality “quirk” was that he was always late.
The Death of Barry Allen, the Rise of Wally West
In the early ‘80s, DC tried to inject the usually boring Barry with some drama and pathos, when his wife Iris West Allen was murdered by his nemesis, the Reverse Flash. In subsequent stories, Barry broke the superhero code and killed his enemy, forcing him to stand trial for murder. None of these storylines boosted Barry’s profile enough for DC to continue with the character, though. Instead, they chose the option of having Barry sacrifice his life to save the universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 in 1985. He became DC’s patron saint. But that wasn’t the end of The Flash as a property. Far from it.
Like most big superheroes at DC, Barry Allen had a teen sidekick. When his nephew Wally West gained powers identical to his, the 13-year-old boy from Blue Valley Nebraska became Kid Flash. He and his Uncle Barry had many adventures together. However, he gained much more nuanced characterization as an older teen i n the pages of The New Teen Titans. DC chose the 20-year-old Wally West to take over the Flash mantle when Barry died in Crisis. This was a milestone moment for DC, having a kid sidekick grow up and take over for their mentor. Wally finally fulfilled the promise of having a sidekick in the first place.
Wally West: The Gen-X Flash
When Wally received his own series with 1987’s The New Flash #1. The costume and powers might have been the same as his uncle’s, but everything else was different. Wally was a college dropout, a bit of a hothead, and more than a little bit selfish and immature. This Flash was barely out of his teens, and at first, actually charged for his services. He loved to openly flirt with the ladies, and dated an older divorced scientist named Tina McGee. Which was quite scandalous for comics at the time. Unlike Barry, Wally had to consume mass quantities of food due to his supercharged metabolism. The fact that he received his powers at puberty made him fundamentally different.
Wally, particularly under the guidance of writer Mark Waid, grew up fast. He embraced maturity when he met reporter Linda Park, his future wife, and discovered the Speed Force, the source of all speedster power. He was the Gen-X Flash, and Gen-X readers literally grew up with him. When producers of the animated Justice League series needed a Flash, they chose Wally. Even if his obnoxious, immature personality on the series was only based on very early Wally as Flash stories, nevertheless, it certainly wasn’t like any Barry we’d ever come to know in the comics. Despite this, Wally West wouldn’t be the main focus of any Flash live-action project. His long-dead predecessor Barry Allen kept getting that Hollywood call. And the first call came in 1990.
TV’s First Flash: Barry Allen (with Some Wally Influence)
When Flash got his own CBS TV series in 1990 starring John Wesley Ship, the network decided to go with Barry Allen and not Wally West as the protagonist, despite Barry having died in the comics five years prior. There are understandable reasons for this of course. Barry had a less cluttered origin story, and a job on the police force that easily lead to TV plots. Wally’s Flash was defined by Barry’s sacrifice and his time as his protégé. It was much easier to just keep things simple for TV. So they went with Barry.
But even that first TV version of Barry Allen was influenced by Wally West Flash comics of the time. His co-star and romantic interest in the series was Dr. Tina McGee, whom Wally dated in the comics. Barry’s classic love interest Iris West was a minor part of the pilot episode, and was then subsequently written out of the show. And TV Barry’s costume looked a lot more like Wally’s comic book outfit. However, most of Barry’s more straight-laced personality from the original comics was intact for the 1990-1991 series. But the influences of Wally were already felt.
CW and DCEU Flash: Barry Allen Spliced with Wally West
By the time the 2014 Flash TV series hit the CW, Barry Allen had been back from the grave for about five years. Nevertheless, outside of his origins as a CSI and his romance with Iris West, much of CW Barry’s personality and storylines came from Wally West’s time as the Flash. For starters, this was a much younger Barry Allen than we ever saw portrayed in the comics or the ’90s show. A large part of the Flash mythology on the show centered around the Speed Force, something that was discovered by Wally West and played a large part in his stories. There was never a hint of the Speed Force in the original Barry Allen comics. And certainly, Grant Gustin’s Barry is more lighthearted and humorous like Wally, far more than his often stiff comics counterpart.
But no version of Barry Allen is more Wally West in disguise than the DCEU version currently played by Ezra Miller. Yes, his Flash has the same origin story as comic book Barry, and works as a CSI too. But from his fast-talking and jokey attitude to his need to eat food constantly because of his hyper metabolism, to his slacker youth, this Barry is more like Wally than any other. More than any other live-action Barry Allen, he bears the least resemblance to his comic book counterpart.
There is only one aspect of Barry Allen’s modern TV and film persona that we can attribute to only Barry without Wally influence. That’s Barry’s mother’s tragic murder when he was a child, a tragedy he goes back in time to prevent. They added that wrinkle to Barry’s past when DC resurrected the character in 2009, to make him less boring and give him a more modern edge. Regardless of that change, modern media Barry Allen owes his nephew Wally West a great big thank you. Because he just wouldn’t be the same guy without him.