Comic Art Friday: Legacies

I get a kick out of dreaming up new combinations of heroes for my Common Elements commission theme. That little inward chuckle from uncovering a heretofore untapped linkage between two unrelated comics characters? Man, I love that.

Sometimes, though, my Common Elements combinations surprise even me, in that I stumble upon a second — or even a third — layer of connection bubbling just beneath the surface, sometimes long after a piece has entered my collection.

Take this one, for example.

The Flash and the Crimson Avenger, pencils by comics artist Christopher Ivy

I titled this drawing by Christopher Ivy (best known as an inker, but a fine pencil artist as well) “A Study in Scarlet,” not because it has anything to do with the Sherlock Holmes chronicle by that name, but because it features two heroes dressed in red: The Flash, and the Crimson Avenger. The common element between these two stalwarts couldn’t be more obvious or prosaic. But they make an interesting combination anyway, so I went with it.

I’d had Chris’s piece in my gallery for more than a year before another commonality struck me. There’s a long tradition in comics of legacy heroes — that is, instances where one superhero takes up the mantle (and often, the costume and code name) of another who went before. This pairing (however inadvertently) pays homage to this tradition.

The Flash might be comics’ best-known example of a legacy hero. The Flash shown here — real name, Barry Allen — wasn’t the first super-speedster to wear that name. The original Flash — real name, Jason “Jay” Garrick — made his debut in Flash Comics #1, in January 1940. Like most of the costumed do-gooders of the World War II era, the first Flash vanished from the newsstands not long after the war ended. In 1956, DC Comics revived the Flash’s code name and superpower to create a new hero. Enter the second Flash.

Barry Allen died in 1986, during the event known as the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Barry’s sidekick, a young man named Wally West who ran really fast and battled evil using the moniker Kid Flash, assumed the nom de guerre and jumpsuit of his mentor, becoming the third Flash. Twenty years later, Barry’s hyperquick grandson Bart Allen briefly took over the reins of Flash-hood. Now Barry is back, alive and in costume, having become his own legacy.

The Crimson Avenger, pencils by Mike Grell, inks by Terry Staats

The history of the Crimson Avenger boasts fewer twists than that of The Flash. Still, as was the case with the various Scarlet Speedsters, there was one way back when, another more recently, and a third of modern vintage. The first Crimson Avenger, Lee Travis, arrived on the scene in October 1938, in Detective Comics #20. (Note that date; it’ll be important later on.) In creative terms, the Avenger was a direct swipe of the then-popular radio hero, the Green Hornet, simply with a change in color scheme. Both characters were newspaper publishers who dressed up in costumes featuring masks, fedoras, and gas guns, and each fought crime in the company of his respective one-named Asian valet (the Hornet had Kato, while the Avenger had Wing).

Nearly 20 years after the first Crimson Avenger vanished from the comics pages, another appeared. The career of the second Avenger, Albert Elwood, lasted a single 1963 issue of World’s Finest Comics. From that point, the Crimson Avenger identity would lie fallow until the cusp of the new millennium. In 2000, a young woman (whose real name may or may not be Jill Carlyle, depending on the source you consult) would pick up the title — as well as the original Avenger’s twin Colt .45s — to continue the war against wickedness.

So, we’ve seen two common elements between The Flash and the Crimson Avenger. But I’ve thought of one other, which may have even greater significance than either of the previous.

I mentioned before that the Crimson Avenger made his comic book debut in October 1938. That early appearance marks the Avenger as the first masked crimefighter in comics history, beating the more highly renowned Batman to the punch by more than half a year. (Superman, the template for all costumed heroes, arrived a few months before the Crimson Avenger, but the Man of Steel didn’t wear a mask.) The Crimson Avenger’s significance as the seminal masked mystery man continues in the lore of the DC Comics universe to this day — both of DC’s primary superhero teams, the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America, invoke the memory of the original Crimson Avenger when inducting new members into their ranks.

What does that have to do with The Flash? Well, Barry Allen’s 1956 debut in Showcase #4 is generally recognized as the launch of comics’ Silver Age, the return of superheroes to marquee status in the medium following the post-World War II drought. (As hardcore aficionados know, only five costumed crimefighters survived in continuous publication from their Golden Age premieres into the modern day — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow.)

Thus, these scarlet-clad stars share unique stature as landmarks in history: The Crimson Avenger marks the advent of the Golden Age of costumed heroes, while The Flash marks their Silver Age comeback. Those of us who treasure the superhero genre owe a great debt to these two gentlemen, and to their creators.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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5 Comments on “Comic Art Friday: Legacies”

  1. […] — Swan Shadow features Flash and the Crimson Avenger, drawn by Chris […]

  2. ryanoneil Says:

    Isn’t that Wally West? Isn’t Barry’s yellow “belt” straight across?

    • SwanShadow Says:

      Ryan: Oh, come now… what’s a little belt between friends? 🙂

      Seriously, I’m sure you’re correct. My error, there: I either didn’t specify to Chris Ivy the details of the Barry-era costume, or provided him with reference from the wrong period.

      For me, there’s only one true modern-era Flash, and that’s Barry. Wally will always be Kid Flash, just like Dick Grayson will always be Robin, and Barbara Gordon will always be Batgirl. Not that I don’t enjoy their newer roles too — that’s just where my mind goes first. I’m old-school like that.

  3. SwanShadow Says:

    Ryan: Will do. Now get off my lawn. 😀

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