Crisis on Infinite Earths probably didn’t kill off anywhere near as many characters as its reputation. But reputations are kinda screwy that way anyway, considering how many people are probably unaware how any “squeal like a pig” scenes make up so little of the movie Deliverance. But there were really only two deaths in that story that really matter as far as DC was concerned. Three if you count Prince Ra-Man, and nobody does. One was Supergirl. The other was the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen. Both of those characters stayed pretty dead for a while, but Barry’s was actually remembered by the general public, or at least by his superhero peers.
The funny thing was, Barry dying may have been the best thing to ever happen to the character.
To better understand why this might be, it may be worth considering the basic difference between Silver Age DC heroes and their upstart Marvel counterparts. DC heroes rarely had real problems. They had enough money on-hand to buy anything they needed, they could hold down their jobs, and stress was more or less nonexistent. The biggest problems they faced were keeping their secret identities a secret and maybe wooing a girlfriend who preferred their masked alter ego. The biggest draw was how much crazy imagination and spectacle went into how they used their superpowers. Knowledge of real world science wasn’t really necessary. Actually, knowledge of real world science would probably have hurt your brain if you tried to figure out half the stuff that regularly went on during these stories.
At Marvel, meanwhile, heroes had something closer to real world problems. They were outcasts, they had money problems, they had relationship problems, and even the occasional health problem. And that was on top of the usual superhero problems of keeping a secret identity and wooing a girlfriend. Heck, Spider-Man in one early adventure had one problem solve another, as he lost a fight easily while battling a cold, but when unmasked, no one believed he was the real Spider-Man since he sucked so much during the fight. I am really hoping his nose wasn’t running while he was wearing that mask now that I think about it. That’s kinda foul.
Post-Crisis DC tried to make their heroes a wee bit closer to the Marvel model. Superman and Wonder Woman were rebooted. Batman had his backstory altered until he became the grim avenger he is today. But it really wasn’t a good time for DC’s second stringers.
Let’s consider the guys from this blurry photo that probably represents the best animation Filmation was ever capable of (BURNED!).
Hawkman got rebooted by accident. He was originally meant to only have a new origin, but someone screwed up and didn’t realize he was then supposed to have his Silver Age JLA adventures, meaning there’s been a lot of scrambling ever since to figure out which Hawkman was who.
The Atom and Aquaman had trouble holding down much of anything. Both have even been forgotten here and there.
And then there’s Green Lantern, namely Hal Jordan. The Green Lantern Corps meant there were all kinds of Green Lanterns floating around, but DC seemed to have some trouble keeping the guy interesting. Then they went and did something that made the guy interesting in ways that infuriated Hal’s many fans: they made him go crazy and nearly destroy the universe.
Hal, and the entire Lantern Corps, was replaced by a single ring-bearer named Kyle Rayner, in what was probably meant to be a temporary change. But Kyle proved a lot more popular than Hal ever was, and so Hal bounced around as a misguided villain, then the Spectre, and then finally brought back because some people can’t stand not to restore their childhood favorites exactly as they once were. Hal couldn’t even keep his premature gray hair, one of the things I personally liked about the character because it actually showed the passage of time. I could not believe the hoops they jumped through to retcon that one…well, or any of the things that happened to Hal that made him different from his Silver Age persona really.
Green Lantern Rebirth: the mini-series where Hal Jordan became the new Jesus and punched out Batman. I wish I was making this up.
I will say this for Geoff Johns, though: despite how much I hated the return of Hal Jordan, he did some darn fine stuff with the Lantern mythos after that, and Hal’s adventures turned out OK once they dropped the Jesus-y stuff.
The bottom line is, the post-Crisis period wasn’t overly good for the heroes who survived it. This was the advantage that Barry Allen had: since he was dead, no one had to worry about updating him. Barry died in, real world time, 1985-86. He became DC’s patron saint for all practical purposes. The good man who died to save the world. That was more or less my impression of the guy when I finally got to reading comics. I personally didn’t read any comics of my own until ’90 or ’91. My first Flash comic was not long after the 1990 TV version was airing on CBS. The Flash in that comic was Wally West, former Kid Flash, former sidekick to Barry, who had grown up and replaced his mentor. Once I figured that out, I was fine with it.
Now, there was still some clamor to bring Barry back. Heck, even Crisis writer Marv Wolfman had a loophole in mind. Since time travel was involved, he felt Barry could just come back to the present from the future before he died, and then at some point later on he’d have to rush off to die in the past. Time travel, folks. But the desire to bring back Barry pretty much died when writer Mark Waid seemed to give the fans exactly what they wanted. He did a great storyline called “The Return of Barry Allen,” only Barry seemed to get kinda evil over time. Then two things happened: “Barry” turned out to be Professor Zoom, suffering from amnesia, and Wally tapped into whatever it was inside of him that finally allowed him to truly be the Fastest Man Alive.
After that, few fans seemed to have an issue with Wally.
Barry did come back, of course, in 2009. The Flash: Rebirth was the work of Geoff Johns, again, and Barry came back for no discernible reason whatsoever. They even made his basic Silver Age decency part of his character, a guy who saw the world in black-and-white. But the problem there was, there were plenty of speedsters by then, most in red, and more than a few called “The Flash”.
But really, why bring him back? Was there that much demand for it roughly 24 years after his death? Many fans had never read a Barry adventure outside a reprint, time travel story, or flashback (no pun intended).
I’ll probably never get that one.
One thing about Barry, though, is the character’s current TV show. The producers realized that the Flash, bottom line, is just a fun character, so have fun with him. And I did think his New 52 relaunch was one of the better ones, simply because the creators decided to just keep the guy fun and nothing more.
Though if you aren’t a fan of the New 52, remember, in story, it’s all Barry’s fault.