The Flash: Who is Jay Garrick?

DC's original speedster is one of the most important superheroes in comic book history. Here's a flash course in Jay Garrick.

This article contains spoilers for The Flash season 2.

Jay Garrick’s arrival on The Flash was a foregone conclusion since the very first episode of season one. The minute that newspaper headline from the future was revealed, letting fans know that there’s a “Crisis on Infinite Earths” of some kind in the not-too-distant future of this show, then it was only natural that we’d meet the first, most important of those infinite worlds, Earth-2.

And there’s no more iconic symbol of Earth-2 than Jay Garrick, the original Flash. And it’s only fitting that he’s played by TV’s original Flash, John Wesley Shipp.

Flash Comics #1 first hit newsstands in late 1939 (don’t be fooled by the 1940 date on the cover), and it’s handily one of the most important single issues ever published by DC Comics (long before the company went by that name). Superman had arrived in early 1938 in Action Comics #1, bringing forth a slew of caped imitators, not the least of whom being Batman, who made his pointy-eared bow in Detective Comics #27 in mid 1939. The superhero arms race was on, and most of ’em had capes.

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But Flash Comics #1 put someone a little different on the cover. Here we had a mercury helmeted speedster in a capeless, but no less snazzy costume, catching a bullet in mid-flight. Boasting just as much primary color appeal as Superman, Jay Garrick took one of those most elemental superpowers, the ability to run really frakkin’ fast, and melded it with the still nascent superhero genre.

But Jay’s origin story was also one of the more well-rounded ones of the era. In the space of 15 pages, Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert introduced us to Jay Garrick, college football benchwarmer and mediocre science student, his girlfriend (and future wife) Joan, Joan’s scientist dad, and a crew of evildoers with the modest name of the Faultless Four. Jay gets his super speed not by anything remotely as sexy as a lightning bolt or particle accelerator, but from the fumes of “hard water” which he accidentally inhales after knocking over vial while relaxing with a cigarette. 

Special note that has nothing to do with anything else! I don’t think any Golden Age superhero comic features as much cigarette smoking as early Flash stories. Holy moley, all these people do is light up. Anyway…back to the important stuff.

Jay recovers from a coma, discovers his speed, puts on a costume, and rescues Joan’s pop in remarkably economic fashion, all in a story slightly better drawn than many of the other Superman and/or Flash Gordon knockoffs. In fact, aside from the “Flash” name, like most superhero costumes, Jay’s owes quite a bit to Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (for that matter, so does virtually every other superhero of the era, but that’s a story for another time), who routinely wore striking outfits like a red shirt, and blue pants, emblazoned with yellow lightning bolts. But it’s Jay’s winged helmet and boots, tributes to the Greek god Hermes, known for his swiftness, that set him apart from his peers.

Special note #2. You know who else first appeared in Flash Comics #1? Hawkman and Hawkgirl, two characters that we also spent a lot of time with on the first seasn of Legends of Tomorrow

Jay proved popular enough to start making appearances in All-Star Comics, where he was a founding member and chairman of the first superhero team, the Justice Society of America, who he would be associated with for the rest of his career. He was one of the few superheroes (alongside Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Captain America) to break free of the anthology format prevalent at the time, and was granted his own title, appropriately known as All-Flash.

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But interest in superhero comics dropped dramatically in the years following World War II, and by 1951, Jay and most of the rest of the Justice Society had faded away, presumably never to be heard from again.

Well, almost.

Jay next appeared in none other than Showcase #4 in 1956, in the same story that introduced Barry Allen to the world. But here, we only see him on the cover of a comic book that Barry’s reading, and it’s Barry’s love of this superhero from a bygone era that ultimately inspires him to put on a costume and adopt the Flash name. But make no mistake, in Barry’s world, Jay Garrick was just a fictional character.

Well, at least he was…until The Flash #123 in 1961. “Flash of Two Worlds” revealed that Jay Garrick was actually a Flash from another dimension (affectionately known as Earth-2, despite the fact that it came first), and when Flash comic book writer Gardner Fox didn’t write his adventures, he was unkowingly channeling “real” events from Jay’s dimension. It was a wild concept, and one that stuck. Jay and Barry team-ups became yearly occurrences in The Flash, and soon the tradition spread to the Justice Society and the Justice League, in stories that often had titles like “Crisis on Earth-3.” 

This ultimately led to a proliferation of alternate worlds, and DC had to do a massive housecleaning, known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, which (among countless other things) merged the histories of Earth-1 and Earth-2, meaning that Jay operated as the Flash of decades past, before Barry picked up the legacy, and so on down the line. There’s way too much about Flash’s connection to Crisis (and its potential impact on the future of DC movies and TV) to get into here, but I wrote a whole article about it a while back. See for yourself. 

During this period, the JSA re-formed, and thanks to some funny business involving how the Golden Age heroes had aged (don’t ask), Jay was able to serve as a mentor to other young speedsters in the DC Universe. During most of his time on “our” Earth in DC’s present, Jay helped Wally West out during his extended run as the “main” Flash, and served as the backbone of a new JSA that also consisted of newer “legacy” heroes in the DC Universe.

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There was a version of Jay introduced during DC’s New 52 period, who rocked a snazzy new costume but was pretty different from his original interpretation. The classic Mercury-helmeted version has so far been absent from DC’s current line of rebirth comics. He’s bound to be reintroduced, though, along with the rest of the Justice Society, it’s just a matter of time.

After a season 2 fake-out which saw Teddy Sears introduced as the Jay Garrick of Earth-2 only to be revealed as the villain of the season, Zoom, we met the real Jay, the Flash of Earth-3, played by none other than original TV Flash, John Wesley Shipp. This version of the character has taken on the traditional role as Barry’s occasional mentor, and he’s as fully heroic as his comic book counterpart. Seeing John Wesley shipp in a smartly updated costume and that iconic helmet actually brought some happy tears to my eyes.

A version of this article first appeared in October of 2015. It has been updated with new information. You can try and keep up with me on Twitter!