The Hidden Progenitor Of Mature Superhero Comics

by Benjamin Hall

(*Spoilers ahead for several issues of The Flash [1959-1985].)

When one looks at the maturating of American superheroes via adding dark realistic elements, most point to the works of Alan Moore (Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1 [2012]) and Frank Miller ([Daredevil by Frank Miller & Klaus Janson vol. 1 [2008]). There were other attempts to add realistic elements throughout the history of American comic books, but the comics code authority watered these down with censorship rules. Yes, Moore and Miller deserve credit for leading the way to a less restrictive system with their well-known dark tales. However, there is strong evidence that shows Cary Bates predates their attempts at more mature tales.

I have come to this line of thinking due to reading several issues of The Flash (1959-1985). The issues are all written by Bates, and they mostly predate Moore’s and Miller’s attempts. Yet because Bates’s run on The Flash is so long, we only need to look at a few specific issues as examples. 

The first example we should look at is The Flash #275 (1979) which features the death of Iris West Allen (the wife of Barry Allen, alias The Flash). This issue demonstrates how Bates darkens DC’s universe, and American comics in general. It continues the negative cliché Gail Simone would name “women in refrigerators.” But what is most important is how complex the ramifications of the murder mystery plot are. Barry gets drugged in this issue, so he cannot save Iris in a fantastic way, and he has to question whether the suspect is the murderer.

It isn’t until eight issues later that we find out Eobard Thawne (a.k.a Adrian Zoom a.k.a Professor Zoom a.k.a. Reverse Flash) has now become a murderer, drug kingpin, and an obsessive (The Flash #283 [1980]). While only the first and third aspects get picked up by other writers, such as Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn (Flash: The Return Of Barry Allen [1996]), it is still a revolutionary amount of character growth. Also the idea of Thawne making attempts to become Barry Allen and/or marry Iris is simply extrapolating from the events in The Flash #165 (1966). In issue 165 Thawne literally battles Barry while trying to takeover his life and wed Iris. Thus Bates builds on existing mythos, and thus this minor revision of what motivates Thawne essentially starts the revisionist era of American superheroes.   

The Flash #283 (1980) Cover Credits: Pencils by Ross Andru, Inks Dick Giordano, Colors by Tatjana Wood, Lettered by Todd Klein.

Though it is also worth mentioning that despite the drug kingpin aspect getting dropped after this issue, it is still important. This is due to how Thawne hires some people to both kidnap a woman and turn her into a doppelgänger of Iris. What makes this mature isn’t the implication of rape, but that we never see this woman after she is first shown. This is because Barry Allen arrives well after this scene takes place, and thus he defeats Thawne without knowing about her. Therefore we get some real world consequences for crime-fighting in these two specific issues with a dead loved one and an unsolved missing person’s case.

Finally there is The Flash #300, wherein Bates does a recap of the Flash’s life as if Barry has deluded himself about being a superhero from the start. There are even logical reasons why a civilian Barry Allen would know Hal Jordan alias Green Lantern and Ralph Dibny alias Elongated Man. While gets revealed as a villainous plot the story is very much a predecessor to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (Saga Of The Swamp Thing Book 1 [2012]).

In conclusion Cary Bates’s name deserves consideration when people talk about early revisionist comic creators of the 1980s.

Benjamin Hall

Among Benjamin Hall's many credits he is the creator and writer of the comic Time Trio; a writer/editor of various works for Sequart Organization; Blogger for Rippersspot.blogspot.com; a columnist for Comicon. He holds a Bachelor's in film studies and a Master's Degree in Media Communications. He is also an Aspie.

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