The Secret Origin of The Flash: Year One

Joshua Williamson tells us about updating the origin of Barry Allen for a new generation with The Flash: Year One.

When you think of the most iconic superhero origin stories in comics, you tend to think of the ones that have been told the most often. Superman and Batman’s early days have been revamped and repurposed and retold countless times, both on the page and screen. Even Green Lantern has had multiple “definitive” takes of his origin over the course of his history. You would think that a character as venerable as Barry Allen’s Flash, who first appeared in Showcase #4 way back in 1956, would have an origin story that is as well worn as some of those others. You would be wrong.

Sure, everyone knows the story of the police scientist, haunted by the murder of his mother, who gets struck by lightning and becomes the fastest man alive. But Barry Allen has never had the kind of deep dive into his early days that some of his Justice League teammates have enjoyed. That all changes with The Flash #70 by Josh Williamson and Howard Porter (with colors by Hi-Fi), which kicks off the six-part Flash: Year One story. Over the course of the last three years, Williamson has cemented himself as one of the great Flash writers of all time, propelling Barry and his world into the future with new characters and concepts, while still finding ways to recontextualize other pieces of Flash mythology for a new era. 

We spoke to Mr. Williamson about the genesis of Flash: Year One, why now was the right time for a deep dive into Barry’s origin, and what this means for the future of the character. If you haven’t read The Flash #70 yet, beware, as this interview does contain some spoilers! You can read the first few pages of The Flash #70 right here.

(note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity)

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Den of Geek: You’ve explored so much of The Flash world over the course of this run so far, and you’ve found other ways to flesh out the backstory of characters in various arcs. What made this the right time to do a Year One story?

Joshua Williamson: We originally started talking about doing Year One pretty early on, when I first got the job. I really only thought I was going to be on the book for a year or so at the time. I wanted to write Flash my entire life and I felt really lucky that I was even getting the opportunity to pitch it, because I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be on it, and I just initially pitched the Lightning Strikes Twice story arc with Godspeed, but at the time I had all this stuff I wanted to do with the mythology of the Flash. I had looked at a lot of stuff that I was a fan of that got me excited about comics, especially DC Comics, and one of those was Year One.

But after issue one came out, I went for a meeting with DC and we started talking about what I want to do, and I pitched them that I wanted to do Year One but with a twist. That was something they were really intrigued by and thought was really interesting, that I had this different version of it. It became a matter of when was I going to be able to do it. At this point in The Flash narrative, Barry is at his worst, right? He’s gone through all this stuff since Flash War. We’ve been kind of putting him through the wringer and he came out of Flash War kind of in a bad spot, trying to figure a few things out about his powers and his place, and who he was as a hero and who he was as the Flash. You have the falling out with Wally and Iris, you have the falling out with Kid Flash. And then he loses. The last story we did was him going up against the Trickster [who] got away with the money, destroyed Iron Heights, all the Rogues are free, so Barry’s sort of at his worst.

But part of that story with Trickster was Barry recognizing that he’d become pessimistic. Barry is an optimistic person that always sees there’s always a chance to win, there’s always some kind of hope. And over the course of this last year, he had lost sight of that. And then The Trickster’s gone, he needed to admit that to himself, that he had become pessimistic.

That’s when he’s confronted with Steadfast, the new character who tells him, you have forgotten something important, you need to go back to remember it. And that’s what’s “sending him back,” so it kind of worked out. We had talked about trying to find places for Year One possibly after Flash War at different points. We just kept looking at everything and were like, “Nah, we want to make sure we earn this story.” It was a lot of stuff that all came together for us to be able to tell the story.

It’s always a big deal when a writer gets to tell their definitive origin story for a character in the middle of a long run like this. 

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Grant Morrison says if you really want to have some kind of ownership of a character in a run, if you were to really say you did a book, you have to have a birth and a death. Maybe not to a literal birth and death, but some kind of idea, some kind of change. That’s what those things represent, are changes.

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Scott [Snyder] did that with his Batman run. You look at what Scott did with Zero Year, with Endgame, really a lot of his runs, you can feel the bits and pieces of those things throughout. And now he’s doing it with Last Knight on Earth.

Geoff [Johns] was always really good at that, doing the birth and the death of characters in a lot of ways, and again not literal. I wanted to be able to do the same thing, I wanted to go in there and show a birth and a death. And in a lot of ways, Rebirth sort of set me up for that, and I think people will be able to see as the story goes, trying to do that idea of a birth and a death within The Flash was something I was definitely striving for with this book.

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How did you decide what has to be kept, what has to be amplified, what can be kind of swept under the rug?

I’m a really big Flash fan so I was able to look at the pieces that I loved. I went in, looked at the pieces in Showcase #4, and then kind of rearranged things. So, the scene with him at the diner, where he drops his food and he catches it, we moved that into the hospital scene to consolidate some space, but people will for the most part remember that food scene, they don’t necessarily remember exactly where it took place.

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But I just looked at everything that I liked about his origin, and that I thought was important about the character, and then looking at little bits and pieces of what people had done before, like what Mark Waid had done with Born to Run with Wally West. Mark wrote this book about the life of Barry [The Life Story of The Flash] but he wrote it in the voice of Iris. So it’s like Iris wrote the book, and it’s great. If anyone wants to write The Flash, this book is required reading, especially if you’re going to write Iris, because it’s written in Iris’ voice and I feel like it’s probably the most accurate representation of Iris. It’s written like a novel, it’s not written like a comic, [even though] there’s a lot of art in it. I looked at that a lot, looked at her interpretation of her point of view on the character and their history, it was really informative and also helped in writing her.

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I just kind of went through, what are the scenes that I loved and I thought would be respectful to the story, but also as it was done before. I’m a bit of a continuity junkie, so I just want to make sure that there are little things throughout that if people are continuity junkies like me, they might come in and be like “oh man, he really did try to find a place for all this stuff.” But it was so important to us to make sure it was fresh and new for someone coming in straight, so it’s not overwhelming in any way. It was really important to me to make sure that as we were building this larger story, that I didn’t take away anything. I tried to make sure I was just building, or maybe reinterpreting or remixing but never taking anything away.

I feel like the biggest remix, at least in that first issue, is the Turtle, because he’s kind of an on the nose villain for the fastest man alive. He’s the villain in that Showcase #4 story, but then you kind of tied him up a little bit with Mazdan, the time travel villain, who was the second story in Showcase #4 that everyone has kind of forgotten. Did it always have to be the Turtle or did you ever think, eh, let’s make it Captain Cold.

Yeah, it was always going to be the Turtle. I had an idea for Cold to be in it a little bit more and then I just didn’t have the room for it. He’s in it for a scene that I’m really happy with, I think it’s a good Leonard Snart scene, he isn’t quite Captain Cold yet. If you go back and you read The Flash #182, which Geoff did with Scott Kolins, in that issue, Cold talks about the first time he met the Flash and it was not as Captain Cold, it was as Leonard Snart, ripping off a pharmacy, and that’s when he got busted. So we did that story.

But early on, I just knew it was Turtle. I want to be able to take these characters, who people don’t always expect to be a big bad for him and blow them up. Everyone expects Captain Cold, Reverse Flash, Grodd… those are arguably big villains. But that’s the expected thing, right? It’s always Captain Cold or it’s always the Reverse Flash. What if I mixed it up a little bit and do something different and bring in a villain that you won’t expect and do a really messed up version that’s creepy and kind of plays on Barry’s actual fears of the future, of actually wishing everything would slow down, he’s so afraid of what the future holds? I think that having a character who can literally slow down everything plays with that.

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The Turtle is interesting to me because I feel like he’s this character who’s slow and steady and he feels like life is long. Barry is very “every second counts, every moment counts.” They’re all a gift. I think The Turtle is the opposite. He feels that life is really long. It can be torturous at times, and little mistakes can add up, but you need to have long term plans, you shouldn’t rush. I think it’s just very interesting playing that character up against Barry. That maybe every second isn’t a gift. Maybe life is too long. Maybe it doesn’t need to be this way.

In the previous issue, Steadfast tells Barry that there’s something that he has forgotten. How much of that is literal? Does Barry even remember this first time travel experience? Or was what he has forgotten simply been the hopefulness and optimism that you mentioned earlier?

Without getting too much into spoilers, I’m just going to say it’s both. There’s reasons why and it gets explained, but he actually forgot the experience on top of the forgot his optimism and his hopefulness. The climax is pretty big in this story so I’m hoping we land it. In the end, there’ll be big explosions and crazy things happening and it all comes down to a really emotional scene that I’m excited about for people to see when we get to the ending.

Barry, as he discovers his powers, you could see him come out of his shell fairly quickly … how do you pace yourself to make sure that he has a proper arc throughout these six issues?

The Barry we know in present day when he’s at his best is such a hopeful character but really his secret power is that he’s able to share that hope and he’s able to kind of be inspiring to other people. One of the things that we started looking at a lot was the 16-panel grid that Howard [Porter] and I are doing. We wanted to use that grid as a metaphor for Barry’s pessimism. In that first page, you have that moment where it’s the Flash on the other side of the grid, he’s trapped behind it, and then as the story goes on, that grid comes up where there are more panels on the page whenever Barry’s feeling particularly pessimistic. Every time Barry’s feeling pessimistic, this grid comes back in.

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But then when he’s feeling optimistic, it starts to go away. That was one way of us visually showing it. As the story’s going, he starts feeling more critical of himself, more critical of the powers, the grid shows back up. But when he starts having this speed, he literally crosses over the grid or he breaks free of the panel borders around him. In that moment where he’s finally feeling happy while he’s running and he kind of leaves everything behind himself, that’s when he really explodes out of the page and there are no panel borders on that page, it’s just free for a moment. But then as he starts to slow down and starts feeling pessimistic again, this grid comes back.

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We wanted to make sure we had this visual component within the storytelling tied into the emotional arc that he was going through across these six issues. And it is a little bit of a roller coaster ride. He’s feeling very pessimistic, he’s worried about the future, he’s worried about moving forward and he’s always afraid of what tomorrow could be, and then as you see that he is sort of correct in his worry. He’s worried about the future and then he’s shown that he was right to worry about the future. And then throughout the course of the book, he starts realizing, they’re showing him dealing with that pessimism and kind of thinking, I can change the future, I can find ways to look forward to it. By the end, he definitely has an emotional arc of becoming the optimistic, hopeful hero that we all love.

How much of this comes from Howard Porter’s input?

Howard and I started talking a little bit when I did Justice League vs. Suicide Squad. We just clicked pretty quickly, we worked on the book together, and then we did a couple issues here and there and then we did Flash War together. When we were in the middle of Flash War I pitched him Year One. I asked him what he was interested in, and that we should try something different with this. He said “I’m a really big fan of Frank Quitely, I love Frank Miller,” and we started talking about the stuff he loves about both. He loves Dark Knight Returns, and I was like, “You know a lot of that stuff uses 16-panel grid,” and he said, “Yeah, I’d love to do a 16-panel grid, I’ve never had the opportunity.” Howard started talking about doing the grid, but I wanted to make sure we weren’t doing the grid just for grid’s sake. I wanted to make sure that it was part of what had to do with the story, so I started to come up with that example, that emotional arc of tying it into the grid, then Howard just kind of ran with it after that. He was the one who started figuring out a lot of the pieces of how to actually make it work.

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Howard knows the Flash, he knows the Flash mythology really well. Not only did he work with Geoff [Johns] at the end of Geoff’s run, but his first comics he read were The Flash and it’s his favorite character, and he learned how to draw comics from looking at Flash comics. This is a person who really knows that character and knows those powers and knows the story. Once you put some of these ideas in front of him, the gears start going in his head, and then he just runs with it, and he was able to create this look and this idea of it. So, it’s interesting, there’s a lot of little stuff that he would kind of come up with as we were working and then we would go back and forth, and we would just find places to amp up the storytelling. Howard’s a genius, he knows what he’s doing. Same with Hi-Fi. Hi-Fi comes in with the colors and was able to make places where the colors are part of the story. 

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Talk about the evolution of the Flash costume over the course of this story. It’s a neat look.

Howard literally drew a look for Barry for each issue. He just knows the character and he knows what we’re doing. We have a thing that each costume for each issue, like the look that Barry has for each one, yeah he just knows it.

You’ve written Barry for three years now, and I think you still found a way to kind of get into his head in a different way in this issue. It’s when he’s cataloging the powers and he specifically points out that the powers are science-based, which I think says so much, not just about Barry but also about the world that the DC Universe is. But as somebody who’s also written Batman, is that the place that Bruce’s brain would go?

No. I actually thought about this a little bit since you know, I have to write Batman right now in Batman/Superman. I think about that a lot and I think all these relationships and how the characters are different. How Bruce is different from Barry and Bruce is different from Clark and even how Barry and Clark are different from each other.

Barry’s very analytical, he’s like I have to have the evidence, I have to look at every little thing and take my time on it and I can’t jump to a conclusion, I need proof. Whereas Bruce, I think is more accepting of the supernatural but also, a lot of his stuff is confidence. It’s a little bit closer to kind of how Sherlock Holmes is where he is analytical but also…while Batman would never call it guesswork, I do think Batman has a hint of guesswork to him. The evidence is still really important, but I think that Batman is more capable of a leap of faith whereas Barry needs to see the evidence first.

I feel like nobody had kind of put them together in the way that you have in the last few years. Like they’re such a natural pairing and it had never really happened before.

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I love writing The Flash, but of course, I love writing Batman. Geoff Johns was the one that was like, “You know, Barry should go to Batman first because they had that connection at the end of Flashpoint. If these things are connected to Flashpoint, the first person that Barry will go to is Batman,” and I was like “Yeah, you’re right.” And then I went and I read in the back of The Flash: Rebirth hardcover there’s Geoff’s pitch, and he had this write up about Barry and the Flash and it really started getting my mind going. And then I was the one that went to them and was like, “Well, why don’t we do more with this?” And that’s what became the end of The Flash: Rebirth one shot where Batman and Flash are talking about the button, that was one of the suggestions. And that lead to The Button and that lead to sort of us doing these crossovers and building relationships.

Because before that, that relationship didn’t really exist like these two detective bros didn’t really exist before that. Everyone always thinks of Bruce and Clark. I think it was a different dynamic and different relationship post-Rebirth that we hadn’t seen a lot of before.

It’s amazing how that Showcase #4 origin has stood the test of time, and you’ve managed to update particular elements of it, but have you starting giving thought to what else in Flash’s world still needs to be kind of brought up to date?

There’s still a lot of characters I want to play with. There’s a lot of speed characters I haven’t seen in a while or haven’t been in the book in a bit. We’ve definitely set up a lot of stuff that I still need to kind of explore and resolve in some places. And there’s a few villains that I want to write I haven’t been able to write yet. There’s two in particular that I want to do stories with that I haven’t had a chance to, and a lot of supporting cast members that I wanted to put in the book that I just haven’t had the right moment for yet.

I’m always saying, you can always want to do something, but you always want to make sure it comes from story, it comes from character, and that it’s organic. I think that that’s the thing about Year One, by the time we hit the ending, we kind of present to the reader a bunch of stuff that we have planned for the next year after issue 75. It definitely leads into a bunch of stuff that we’re able to say, “Here’s a tease of some of the things that are coming down the line,” and then I get to kind of play with those things.

Eventually, the time is going to come when the JSA is going to be reintroduced to the DC Universe. You’ve already teased Jay a couple of times. Do you feel you have a definitive Jay Garrick story that you need to tell or do you want to be the guy to kind of properly give Jay his context within the Rebirth DC Universe?

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The most I can say about that is, if and when the JSA return and if and when Jay is back, yes. I have stories for Jay. I love Jay.

The Flash #70, the first chapter of Flash: Year One, is on sale now.

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.