1957; DC (National) Comics; Julius Schwartz, editor (though
Whitney Ellsworth was probably officially credited as editor in the indicia);
cover-featuring "The Secret of the Empty Box!", a story of the newly revived
and revamped Flash, written by Robert Kanigher, pencilled by Carmine Infantino
and inked by Frank Giacoia.
Review by Bill Henley
When I get the chance to read a Silver Age comic book story I've never read before, I like to review it here. I rarely have that chance with the Julius Schwartz-edited tales that for me, at least, form the core of the Silver Age; since I've been reading those stories since early childhood and collecting the comics since early teens. However, there are a few stories of the Silver Age Flash that I've never actually read-- until now. They're stories that originally appeared in early issues I've never shelled out the money to collect, and that never happend to be reprinted in Flash 80 Page Giants or elsewhere. Last week, however, DC finally got around to publishing an affordiable black & white SHOWCASE volume of THE FLASH, containing these early semi-'lost" stories. And so, here's a review of one of them-- just the third SA Flash story ever to appear, in the second Flash SHOWCASE issue. (So if you haven't read this story and plan to buy the Showcase volume and read it, consider this review as containing SPOILERS.)
The cover of SHOWCASE #8 by Infantino and Giacoia promises, "Whirlwind Adventures of the Fastest Man Alive!" but he isn't fast enough to avoid being rocked back on his heels by a bad guy who is seen only in a close-up of his pointing, glowing finger. (No's he's not *giving* Flash the finger-- this is, of course, a Code-approved book. A villan might try to *kill* the hero, or conquer the world, or commit some other major felony, but he'd never resort to obscene gestures while doing so.) On the splash page of "Secret of the Empty Box!", our hero is chasing the villain over a tightrope strung between buildings, but he has a problem, described in a typical SA explaining-the-obvious thought balloon; "The tight-wire's been cut! I've got nothing but twenty floors of thin air between me and the sidewalk!"
As our story begins, Central City is blanketed for two days by a dense fog. When it lifts, the residents are startled to find Central City Square occupied by "a box three stories high". Police devote their efforts to checking for explosives, trying to open the box, and being interviewed by "lovely Iris West", Picture News reporter, who is mixing business with pleasure-- she is waiting for her eternally tardy beau, police lab scientist Barry Allen, to show up for a date. Barry sets off from his lab, vowing not to be late this time, but on the way to the square he is distracted by a little girl crying because she has lost her ring down a sidewalk grate. Our hero pauses to vibrate his hand in such a way that the bars of the grate bend back, allowing him to reach down and retrieve the girl's ring. (Someone seems not to have decided at this point exactly how the Flash's vibrating trick would work-- in later stories he would have vibrated his hand between the molecules of the grate, rather than bending the bars.) But no good deed goes unpunished, as Barry arrives late as usual to meet Iris, who complains, "Barry-- you're so slow-- next to you a turtle is a jet!"
Only then does Barry notice that seemingly the entire city, including most of his fellow police, have clustered around to see the mysterious giant box. (You'd think, as a forensic scientist, Barry would have already been called to the scene in his official capacity.) But Barry isn't sure the box itself is what everybody should be looking at; "The brain that planted that box wanted the whole city's attention HERE-- while HE was elsewhere! I'm going to look for him!" And he sets off in a super-speed search pattern. But Barry apparently isn't quite used to this double identity business yet, as he begins running in his Barry Allen suit, and only belatedly realizes, "I can't run around in this getup! I'll change in that booth!" He's moving too fast to notice that the "booth" is not one of the phone booths commonly used by his colleague Superman, but a carnival photo booth that promises to snap photos at a shutter speed of 1/100,000th of a second. A passerby of apparently criminal bent is delighted to see the Flash's gaffe; after watching the red-costumed speedster zoom away, he grabs the photo taken by the booth, expecting to find evidence of the Flash's true identity-- which will be "worth a fortune to the underworld!" Alas for his nefarious hopes, the Flash moves too fast for the photo to catch anything but a blur, even at that high shutter speed.
Now properly accoutred, the Flash checks out the northern, southern, and western sections of the city, finding nothing out of the ordinary except for empty streets as residents go rubbernecking at the central square. But he hits paydirt in the east, hearing a "muffled explosion" from the 20th-floor offices of the Acme Jewel Company. Running straight up the side of the bulding, Flash finds a blown safe and an armored door blocking him from his criminal quarry. Nothing fazed, Flash uses his super-speed vibrations to somehow make the keyhole of the door expand. "If you can't fit a keyhole-- make the keyhole--- fit you!" Reaching the roof of the building, Flash spots the safecracker-- a masked crook wearing a circus ringmaster-like outfit-- walking a tightwire strung over to the next buidling. Flash begins an atypically slow and cautious walk across the wire in pursuit of the crook, only to have the wire snap under him, having been sabotaged by the gloating crook. But with a "frantic burst of speed, the world's fastest human races up the falling wire, and collars the stunned criminal!"
Meanwhile, back at the square, the cops have finally opened up the giant box, only to find another box inside it in Chinest-box style. After deposting the ringmaster crook at police headquarters-- and finding him oddly undaunted by his capture-- the Flash switches back to Barry Allen and returns to meet Iris, who asks him to get her a cup of cofffee and a sandwich-- "and Barry, honey, please try to get back THIS year!" Barry has another mission on his mind, though, and as the Flash he sets off on another hunt for crime. And he finds it, as seemingly the same circus crook he caught before is robbing an armored car. The bad guy escapes by leaping high into the air on springs built into his shoes, intending to descend by parachute after the Flash has lost his trail. But our hero stymies this plan by running in a circle that creates a downdraft pulling the flying felon to the ground. Once again Flash takes him in, where he is put in a cell with his twin, both laughing at their foe.
Once again, Barry Allen returns to the square (without Iris's sandwich and coffee) to find that the second box has been opened revealing a third box inside. Barry considers launching another patrol of the rest of the city, but speculates that might be playing into the hands of his adversary. Perhaps he is pulling off his greatest job right here, but out of immediate sight. "With everyone's eyes focused on the box-- no one would notice what was going on-- under their very feet--hmmm?" Flashing past police guards to enter the nearby Central City Bank, Flash finds a third ringmaster robber looting the underground bank vault. But when Flash goes to grab the crook and drag him off to join his "brothers" in jail, he gets a shock, literally. The third crook is wearing a "live wire suit" making it impossible to touch and hold him, and with it, he plans not only to complete his bank robbery, but to break into the jail and free his two brothers. Flash momentarily bemoans the fact that he has no "non-conductor" material handy which he could use to get a grip on his foe, but then decides "If I haven't a non-conductor-- I'll use the best conductor there is-- silver!" Grabbing handfuls of silver coins from the vault, Flash hurls them at the crook, and as each coin strikes the bad guy, it drains off a little of the electricity from the "live wire suit"-- until, at last, the crook has no charge left, and Flash is able to seize him and leave him helpless to be captured by the bank guards. (I have the feeling this doesn't actually make sense. Any electricians among us who can say if it does or doesn't?) Returningto Iris as Barry Allen, our hero finds the police have opened the third box and found inside it the entrance into the tunnel leading to the bank vault. Since she never did get her sandwich and coffee, Iris asks Barry, "How about taking me out to dinner? THIS YEAR?"
Reading these early SA Flash stories, I note that Iris rarely if ever has a kind word for Barry, constantly berating his lateness and laziness and comparing him unfavorably to the Flash (though at least she doesn't seem to have a crush on the Flash). It's hard to tell what the two of them saw in each other. Though years later, after Barry married Iris and belatedly revealed his Flash identity, their prickly relationship changed to one of almost cloying affection.
Curiously, though they have a costume of sorts and lots of gadgetry, the triplet thieves in this story never are named, and as far as I know they never made a return appearance. As is typical for Silver Age villains, however, they seem to be simultaneously very smart and very dumb. Smart, because it took brains and organizing skills to set up the stunt with the giant boxes and create gadgets like the bouncing shoes and "live wire suit".. Dumb, because somebody with such brains and skills could have found some legal way to exploit them without running into interference from the Flash.
The second story in the issue-- which I'm not going to review in detal here-- is "The Coldest Man on Earth!" written by John Broome, who split the SHOWCASE Flash issues with Kanigher and would become the regular writer of his own title, The story features the debut of a bad guy with a distinctive name as wll as a costume and unusual m.o.-- Captain Cold. He is originally Len Snart, an "ambitious crook" who conceives the idea of using a cyclortron to create a radiation weapon that might be able to defeat the Flash. Instead, he accidentally creates a "cold gun" capable of projecting temperatures of absolute zero, causing solid metal to become brittle, freezing peope instantly solid (though, miraculously, they thaw out alive) and even creating "cold mirages" of monsters and menaces that confuse the Flash. But our hero is too hot to be frozen stiff by Captain Cold, and in the end all the Captain gets is a fast trip to jail. Unlike the ringmaster robbers of the first story, however, Captan Cold would make many more appearances, as the first offical member of Flash's famed "Rogues' Gallery".