Ask Chris #317: A Speed Force To Be Reckoned With
Q: Can you help me make sense of how the Speed Force is supposed to work? -- @TheKize
A: For those of you who may not know, the Speed Force is a plot point from the pages of The Flash that was introduced back in the '90s, and ended up not just shaping how the Flash himself would work for the next two decades, but also united an entire corner of the DC Universe into a cohesive whole.
The thing is, while I've definitely read those comics and love 'em to pieces, I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about how it works. I mean, the guy who came up with it is still around and pretty easy to get in contact with, and if he's not too busy planning out Cricket O'Dell's eventual return to the Archie universe, he could probably explain it better than I could.
So yeah, you should probably just ask Mark Waid. Which is what I did.
Yeah, sorry --- watch your toes, 'cause I'm droppin' names again.
Waid, along with Mike Wieringo and Jose Marzan Jr., first introduced the concept in 1994's Flash #91, a comic that still stands to this day as one of the best high-concept single issue stories of all time. The basic idea is that the Wally West, faced with a situation where even he can't move fast enough to save everyone, uses the "speed formula" that gave Johnny Quick --- an unrelated Golden Age character who had been folded into the DC Universe and the larger Flash mythology after Crisis -- his powers.
The result in that particular story was that Wally could, for a few seconds, move so fast that time was essentially frozen around him, but the more long-term effects were that Quick's speed formula and the various origins for the three (and counting) Flashes were brought together into a single unified whole. So yeah, he's the guy to ask.
Unfortunately, I don't think I'm allowed to just get someone else to write the entire column and still call it "Ask Chris," so when I e-mailed Waid, I only asked him two questions so that I could get the basics. The first was simple: Why introduce a mysterious semi-mystical force behind the Flash? His answer:
It really was just a matter of trying to unify the powers. Barry and Wally's origins were identical, but Jay ostensibly got his speed by inhaling "hard water," a.k.a. "ice." I never really thought of it as "mystical" in any real sense, just scientific --- or as scientific as you can get when you're talking about what happens on the other side of lightspeed (which was my original pitch, an idea that to this day I can remember its exact moment of birth).
In that respect, the Speed Force did exactly what it set out to do. Super-Speed is one of those powers that's incredibly easy to understand, because it's just taking something that we all understand and doing it better. It's fun to imagine soaring over tall buildings because Man Has Always Dreamt Of Flight and all that, but even as universal as that desire is, it can't compare to how much we can relate to just wanting to be faster.
We've all been a little too late for something, whether it's catching a subway train or fumbling when we drop something, and by the same token, most of us have felt that thrilling rush of making it just as the doors were closing, or catching something we dropped before it becomes a mess on the carpet, or --- in a more extreme example --- dodging out of the way of something dangerous.
Because it's such an easy concept to understand when you take it to its superheroic extreme, it became the gimmick for a lot of superheroes very early on. The Flash was the most prominent, of course, but you also had the aforementioned Johnny Quick, and Max Mercury (who was originally known as Quicksilver), and those are just the ones who were the most prominent in the '40s.
As time went on, comics would keep coming back to that idea, both for heroes and for their arch-nemeses, because an evil character with super-speed is one of the only things that provides an immediately believable threat to a good character who can move faster than an airplane.
They were, uh, speed ninjas. Anyway.
At DC in particular, this presented a pretty interesting sort of problem. By the time Waid was writing the Flash, both characters who had been textually and metatextually inspired by each other --- like Barry Allen reading comics about Jay Garrick in the story and also being a reboot of the same character in the real world, and then in turn inspiring the creation of Wally West as Kid Flash --- and characters who were completely unrelated to their origins, all lumped into the same big universe.
The Speed Force allowed all of those characters --- from Flash to Jesse Quick to XS to the Kapitalist Kouriers --- to all be unified with a single origin that could be interpreted in a hundred different ways.
The lightning-and-chemical showers that gave Barry and Wally their powers? That was actually a manifestation of the Speed Force (or possibly the Flash himself traveling through the Speed Force) that allowed them to tap into it. Johnny Quick's speed formula? Oh, it's actually a mathematical representation that allows access to the Speed Force. Hard water? Speed Force! Black Flash? Speed Force! Time travel? Speed Force! Crisis on Infinite Earths? Speed Force!
Heck, the fact that we had Velocity 9 as a drug created by an immortal caveman that could now be interpreted as a psychotropic drug that allowed your mind to connect to an extradimensional source of speed, and that this wasn't a plot point introduced by Grant Morrison, is actually the most surprising thing about the entire enterprise.
But that leads to my second question for Waid: Why speed? I mean, a lot of people in comics fly around, too, but you don't see a lot of stories about Hawkman and Superman both accessing the Flight Force, or the Strength Field. And the answer he gave comes back to that same idea: Speed, for all that it's easy to get as a concept we can all relate to, is still something that has properties that we don't understand:
It really was about "what happens once you exceed the speed of light, do you break into another dimension, what's it like?" That doesn't really translate into other powers so easily, in my opinion.
My sole regret is never coming up with a more unique name than "the Speed Force," but since I get such a stupid-big grin on my face every time I hear someone on the Flash TV show say it, I guess I'll live.
The Flash comics have always had a weird, tenuous relationship with science --- which for the superhero genre, a bizarre little offshoot of sci-fi that's full of physicists who can carry around pieces of white dwarf stars and use them to shrink down to become tiny-sized barbarian kings, is saying something. The stories have always relied on pseudoscientific tricks like undoing the Weather Wizard's tornadoes by running around them in the opposite direction, for instance, or relying on vibrating molecules for the Flash's speed-trick of running through walls.
But with that reliance on science --- even the most pseudo of pseudosciences --- you open up the door for the kinds of questions that superhero comics aren't really prepared for or interested in answering. Like, how does he breathe when he's running that fast? Why doesn't the friction tear his clothes off? How does he even talk to people when he's running faster than the speed of sound? The old gag about Wally's metabolism running super-fast was a great little twist on all of these ideas, but at the end of the day, it was really just that: A gag.
The Speed Force not only unifies the characters' origins, it also allows the stories to get around any questions of how it all works. They don't have to worry about any of the paltry real-world problems of running around at the speed of light, because they're not working with the same ideas of motion and velocity that we have here. They're tapped into a pure idea of speed as an elemental force. And that lets you do a lot of really interesting stuff.
Now if I could just figure out how Sonic the Hedgehog fits in, I could really get somewhere.
Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.