The Science of The Flash

My wife's favorite issue of X-Factor was the one where they brought in superhuman psychiatrist Doc Samson (remember, he's a psychiatrist, not a psychologist - he CAN prescribe you medication) to counsel each of the members of X-Factor individually. When it got to the speedster Quicksilver, it was commented that Quicksilver had what another member of the group called P.M.S. - Pietro Maximoff Syndrome. Ho ho. The foundation of the joke (as opposed to the joke itself, which was that the acronym was identical to another syndrome) was that, living life at super-speed, Pietro Maximoff, Quicksilver, was constantly annoyed by the perceived slowness of those around him, like spending one's entire life in a Department of Motor Vehicles line - people keep talking after you get the point, laugh at jokes after you do, take too long to catch up to whatever you're doing or saying or feeling - just take too long.

Barbara could really identify with that.

You notice how I often sort of speak for the Park/Barb team? Barb lives her life very quickly. When I first met her, her heart beat incredibly fast, like a bird. These days it's slowed down to around 50% faster than human-normal, instead of almost three whole times faster. Barb is quick. Really quick. She likes things that are online... because we have a high-speed cable connection. But when it comes to real-time chats, I tend to just type and take dictation for her - which has made me a very fast typist indeed. I'm quick that way, but even I have to work to match speed with her when she's feeling full of energy.

It's quite an experience, living life in the speed force. I got to thinking about it yesterday.

Look at The Flash. The Fastest Man Alive. Classic DC hero. Even people who don't read comics know him, even though he's never had his own movie. People think, I'd love to be fast like that. You wouldn't need a car - you'd just run everywhere. Go anywhere you want to go.

How does that work?

"He's in touch with the Speed Force."

The what?

"The Speeeeeed Force. It's what lets him run so fast."

Why do we need the Speed Force? That sounds so Star Wars. Why can't we just say he can run really fast?

Okay bear with me here.

First of all, is it all that Star Wars? Well, yes, it's this mystical WAY of being a super-powered being that fuels his power, so, yes, but isn't it also very Kirby's Source from New Gods and all that? I mean, that's DC, and it pre-dates Star Wars. Isn't it more likely that that plaid-wearing geek Lucas borrowed from Kirby, than JUST to say that Waid stole from Star Wars?

Okay, next, do we need the Speed Force? Let me run this past you:

Without it, whatever it is, The Flash just doesn't make sense.

Here's a guy who can move himself, BY RUNNING (important point - he has to move his feet, he can't just flap his arms), anywhere at any speed he wants. Why can't he do anything? That, well, doesn't require flying? Could he build an entire building in one second? No, because the mortar and cement wouldn't dry right, and where would he get the construction materials? He could make them himself and dig the iron or whatever for the steel, even, couldn't he? He'd have to take multiple trips, and he's not super-strong - how could he carry I-beams and girders? And he can't run construction equipment super-fast...

Okay try this. Why doesn't The Flash just run all over the world all the time and stop all muggings and crimes all the time? I mean he can RUN ON WATER, even.

In Kingdom Come, he did that for his home city. One got the feeling that he didn't enjoy it much, though.

Part of the answer to what to do with The Flash is that we've got to give him limits, because we can't imagine that anything with a human brain could do that much, with or without speed, and not suffer from mental/emotional overload. Which has occasionally been a problem for The Flash.

Of course, with the Speed Force, Wally West could speed other things up, too. Maybe he could build a building within seconds. But he wouldn't very often. That's not exactly the sort of heroic thing that sells comics. Is it?

But can we even believe in the Speed Force?

Remember, this is SPEED. It isn't teleportation or magic, or at least so far we haven't quite claimed that it is. It's science and the perception that goes along with it.

One problem with Flash-level speed is, how does anything ever really surprise him?

When Barb asked me that, my answer was, he's a guy who has ACCESS to the Speed Force. But he can turn on that fast-forward button, and he can turn it off. If he needs to hear what anyone's saying, he's going to have to turn it off. He's married, after all - to make her feel like he ever spends time with his wife, he's going to have to turn that power off. So it's not on all the time. So you can startle him. Of course, when he feels threatened suddenly, his perception of time will slow back to a crawl, so he can react appropriately. But it's possible.

Look at Johnny Quick. Here's a guy who suddenly has super-speed when he says a mathematic formula (which was taught to him by a scientist who incidentally got it from the walls of a Pharoah's tomb... what's THAT all about? Ancient astronauts?), concentrating on the barriers of physics that it opens up for him: 3X2(9YZ)4A. There was also one to slow him back down, too: Z25Y(2AB)6.

Numbers are numbers. The unknown is always what the letters stand for. Notice that X is in the first one only, and B is in the second one only.


Really, really makes you wonder what those letters stand for. Space? Time? Mass? Velocity? Inertia? And Johnny Quick could fly, too, and also speed other things up, like machinery. Just by thinking about it.

Whatever else went on, it was a mental power. Like when Alan Moore revealed that what was really going on with MiracleMan (MarvelMan in the UK) was his superior brain, that gave him telekinesis and a force field, which of course is nothing like Byrne's revamp of Superman in the 80s... It's all happening in The Flash's mind, too, eh?

"Maybe Johnny Quick, but not The Flash, man, he RUNS. That's what's great about him."

Ah, th' physical type, eh? Here's what gets me.

Let's say you are going to run from, say, the back of the San Diego convention center to the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. You have access to the Speed Force. Go.

Okay, there's problems. You aren't drawing a line on a globe with your finger, you're RUNNING it. You'll get lost. Sure, you can take the highways, but you wander into town, and you're going to get lost. And what if there's guardrail damage? Next thing you know, you've taken a big piece of metal to the gut - and your head and limbs are in the next state. What if there's construction? TAR? GRAVEL? Oh, and in the space of a second, you're also going to run through maybe three or more weather fronts - it's always raining SOMEWHERE on the planet, I think. Imagine smacking into water at a million miles an hour. You've got to WATCH YOUR FEET. So do you slow down your perception so you can watch your feet?

"Uh... he puts his brain and feet on automatic and he just runs, man, and he automatically avoids obstacles and stuff."

But don't you need to rest, like, a thousand times on this trip? "Nah, you can pull energy from the Speed Force." Okay, what about getting BORED? Is The Flash really running at super-speed, or does it feel to him like he's running across the country and it takes 3 months of his personal time, which just happen to feel like 3 seconds to the rest of the world? And what about Wally's internal time-clock? How does he remember what day it is, or that time it is? If Wally wore a watch, would it keep time like my watch? Or would it run slower or faster compared to a regular person's watch? (It would run just the same, of course, but would it seem to run slower or faster by comparison?) Sure, you can say that The Flash can draw energy from the Speed Force, but what about his brain? If he runs across the country and doesn't sleep, what happens when he dreams? What keeps him from going insane, being awake for thousands of his perceived-man-hours at a time? I read somewhere Marvel's answer to "How, if the light barrier is that big a deal, does the Silver Surfer not go insane in the vastness of space?" Their answer: 1. He knows where all the wormholes are connecting various regions of space and tries to take advantage of them whenever he can and 2. between adventures, he sort of sits on his board and drops into a deep transcendental meditative trance-like state so as to make the journeys less of a bore for himself. THAT, I can start to believe.

But the former Herald of Galactus is surfing in a vacuum, unlike The Flash, so try this: Sonic Booms. How can a physical object go even a tenth the speed of light and not create sonic booms, and a wall of wind that would flatten houses? How can he not create a sonic boom when he runs from one side of the ROOM to another?

"Uh, it's the Speed Force. It's the same power that lets him not have his face catch on fire from the normal friction with air molecules - the air just parts in front of him and seals up behind him. It's like a force field that works WITH the air."

That's... quite a trick, you realize that? So he ignores air friction, can choose to turn off sonic booms, doesn't have to actively watch his feet and can ignore the sound barrier and sometimes play around with the speed of light, too. Oh, and static electricity. When you walk across carpet, and then touch metal or a person, there's often a zap. The Flash gets to ignore that, even though (though it sounds silly) trucks carrying volatile substances don't get to ignore it - it's why they drag chains behind them - to ground out sparks so they don't build up a charge that blows everyone to kingdom come (the death, not the miniseries) as soon as they finally pull over for gas. Of course, The Flash can travel in time if he really wants, but that's complicated. (Barb: "No it isn't. He gets on a giant treadmill. I've seen it.")

Is The Flash really running from place to place? Or does he just THINK he's running and what he's really doing here is something else?

What if, say, when he really, really gets going, he's converting his body into energy, and then turning it back into matter when he gets where he's going? What if, instead of hitting a big robot a few hundred times in a few seconds, he's actually just smashing it with a concussive force that he perceives as his fist? Doesn't this make a lot more sense than saying that "the Speed Force" allows him to fix several impossible factors to allow him to do, mind-numbingly fast, a kinda difficult thing that makes the rest of us really out of breath?

And speaking of breath, The Flash has to breathe. So I suppose he's breathing millions of breaths per second when he's doing stuff. All by himself, he's probably helping slightly lower Earth's oxygen count and raising the carbon dioxide level. Great, we didn't have enough trouble losing the rainforest, now we have The Flash breathing up our air. Which is better than Quicksilver, who exhales his fatigue poisons, which would normally build up in our bloodstreams if WE tried to run across the continent to kill us.

Marvel has always worked harder on its science, being born from Stan Lee from Einstein, Theodore Sturgeon, and science-fiction. DC grew from Zatara, Dr. Fate, The Spectre, Johnny Thunder and Dr. Occult, and it always shows. The Flash plays with mass and molecules like they're just words on paper. And I'll give you another example.

After he became The Flash, Barry Allen invented a costume that he could compress into a secret compartment of a ring he wore, and have it pop out whenever he opened it and he could put it on or take it off and stuff it back into the ring.

Excuse me? With the BOOTS? And the little lightning bolts on the side of his head? In a RING? A sort of big ring, yeah, but say WHAT?

I'm sorry, but that doesn't make any sense. Explain that with the Speed Force.

"It was a special treatment of chemicals that he treated the costume with-" BOOM!

That was the sound of me taking a step toward you at half the speed of light and creating a sonic boom that killed you. You're dead now. You went through three walls of your house. Parts of you went through more. Try to explain the ring again, Einstein.

"Superman used to keep his street clothes in a secret pocket in his cape-" BOOM!

His glasses, too? That didn't make me feel like using the Speed Force to bring you back to life. Try one more time.

"Barry somehow used the Speed Force to slow down and compress the molecules of his costume. He treated it to withstand THAT. Heat expands things, and heat is just faster molecules. Cold contracts, and cold is just the reduction of the speed that the molecules are moving and vibrating at. Maybe Barry was, without realizing it, stealing the molecular movement from his costume to stuff it in his ring, and it would speed back up to normal speed when he opened the ring and it would pop out."

There. You're alive again. I don't know if I believe it, but at least it had logic to it.

The man was a forensic scientist! If he had a process by which he could treat clothes and make them fit in something you could wear as JEWELRY, for pity's sake why didn't he PATENT it? That would have kept Iris West in fashionable ensembles, I dare say. Why not at least make costumes like that for all his super-friends? Maybe Batman has too much Kevlar, but you think Superman might not like a costume he doesn't have to wear under his shirt and thus wear long sleeves all the time? (Barb: "Why didn't his costume wrinkle?" Me: "THAT's th' chemicals, baby, th' chemicals. There's nothin' like chemicals.)"

What I want to know is why no one ever figured out that a guy wearing a big ring with a little yellow lightningbolt on it was The Flash. Maybe they thought The Flash gave Barry that ring to signal him with in case of danger. Maybe they thought Barry was The Flash's special PAL.

Barb: "Okay I remember when The Flash was in a wheelchair because he hurt his leg and somehow using his powers made his leg heal faster."

Me: "He speeded up time in his leg and it healed faster."

Barb: "NO! That doesn't make sense!"

Time must be involved somehow, because The Flash doesn't grow old and die prematurely. That's not perception of time - that's the body ignoring cell decay. Especially since we can prove, I _think_, that Wally was living at a regular subjective speed -- remember when he used to need to eat a lot in order to have the physical energy he needed for super-speed?

Waid, when he first took over writing Wally West as The Flash, made some noises more than once about Barry Allen got a bit disturbed about how anyone who could do what Barry did must not really be remotely human anymore, but in the end, Barry had to just focus on the fact that he still FELT human inside, and that that would have to be enough.

But being quick is not a simple thing.

As my wife could tell you.

I'm Park Cooper, and I thought of all this stuff first, and yes, I'm available to write The Flash or anything else anyone would like to offer me.