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February 26, 2004
Flash facts

The golden age of comic books in the 1930s and 1940s was full of magic. While Superman may have gotten his superpowers from Earth’s yellow sun or the difference in gravity between Krypton and his adopted home, many golden-age superheroes obtained their marvelous abilities from more supernatural sources. Green Lantern, for instance, charged his power ring using a lantern made of concentrated magic, while Hawkman, a reincarnated Egyptian prince, flew with wings fabricated from the mysterious Nth metal, a gift from the hawk god. (Ever wonder why comic heroes didn’t take out Hitler in no time flat? The Führer also possessed magical talismans, which kept America’s superpeople out of Nazi territory.) After World War II, though, superhero comics nearly disappeared, with only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman surviving amid an onslaught of cowboy and space-alien-themed comics. At a time when the nuclear age had already started and the space age was just about to, maybe magic didn’t seem as potent or interesting as the wonders of science.


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And so, in October 1956, sci-fi took the place of magic. A new generation of "silver age" superheroes made their debut with the publication of DC Comics Showcase #4, featuring a new Flash whose real identity was police scientist Barry Allen. The comic was edited by Julius Schwartz, who died earlier this month at the age of 88. Schwartz also took other golden-age heroes and updated them with a sci-fi twist. The new Green Lantern was a test pilot who was given his ring by a galactic police force, while the new Hawkman was a policeman from the scientifically advanced planet of Thanagar. Schwartz had a deep background in science fiction even before he came to comics. In 1932 he cocreated science fiction's first fanzine, The Time Traveler, and later the first literary agency specializing in science fiction, with clients including Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, and H .P. Lovecraft. In 1939 he helped organize the first World Science Fiction Convention.

That love of science and science fiction was probably expressed most strongly in the adventures of the Flash. The scarlet speedster, for instance, used to constantly toss out "Flash Facts"–tidbits about the physics of superspeed. ("Flash Fact: Relativistic effects take over as a body approaches light speed . . . body mass will increase . . . .") In September 1961, Schwartz introduced the concept of multiple universes into comics with The Flash #123. (The heroes of the silver age lived on Earth-1 while the golden-age heroes resided on Earth-2.) Not only has the concept of a "multiverse" become a thoroughly overused plot device in sci-fi, it is now a commonly discussed idea in the world of quantum physics and string theory.

# posted by James M. Pethokoukis at 2:00 PM EST
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