Superman #199 has a cover date of August, 1967. It features a Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson image of a Silver Age Superman racing against The Flash. Below the Superman logo, in large letters are the words ‘Who is the Fastest Man Alive?’
I really came to this cover through The Adventures of Superman #463 which has a cover date of February, 1990. Cover artists Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding recreated the original cover by Infantino and Anderson, changing a few things: members of the Justice League, in the background, have been switched out. Some minor costume details have been updated. Superman’s expression looks different, less determined. Most importantly, the generic official firing the starter pistol on the first cover has been replaced by Mr. Mxyzptlk yelling “Place Yer Bets!”
Since the two covers are so remarkably similar (perhaps even owing to a certain amount of tracing?), one can talk about what makes the image so powerful and striking and cover them both. Both covers sell you on the idea that the question of who is ultimately the fastest will be revealed inside the book. This is a blatant lie. DC had Supes and Flash race each other a few times before declaring a winner – the reasons and particulars are discussed here by Jeff Reid.
Despite the false advertising, the images on the covers remain iconic and mesmerizing. Why so? They point to an impossible quandary – it is like asking the philosophical question: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? There is no answer, of course. The Flash is supposed to be the fastest man alive. Superman is supposed to be the most powerful being on the planet. As Jeff Reid points out in the link above, for DC to concede that either character was less stellar would be to alienate a certain segment of fans.
Stan Lee often talked about wishing that the Marvel stable of characters would be seen as a new mythological pantheon, replacing the Gods of Greek mythology. This can’t happen because the nature of Marvel’s Silver Age heroes, as differentiated from Golden Age heroes, is that they were more prone to human quirks and weaknesses and foibles, that their human sides were emphasized as much or more than their superhero identitities – well, that was the theory anyway – so this desire of Lee’s spoke much more about the showman in him than his understanding of character innovation.
DC’s heroes, on the other hand, were often holdovers or at least reminiscent of its Golden Age and these characters were more like the idea of Gods from classical mythology. Aquaman is like Poseidon. Wonder Woman’s origin story is connected to Hera, Aphrodite, and Diana. Superman is like Zeus because he is the originator and because of his all-encompassing power. This makes The Flash into Hermes. A Greek myth where Zeus and Hermes square off against each other would feel strange if Zeus simply won, or if Hermes’ trickster nature didn’t somehow come into play.
The fact that the comic covers present an insoluble conundrum is aided by their visual composition. The viewer is placed at a low angle, looking up at these ‘Gods’, while they are about to seemingly race past us. The main figures cut the cover in half with us in the middle. Usually, covers feature a focused subject that draws our attention to some central action. This cover is very unusual in that it doesn’t do that – it instead gives us two subjects. In the original image, superheroes in the background cheer on each of the runners. There is a focal point of sorts where the perspective lines converge in the centre but we can’t really see where these lines converge because the centre of the cover features lines of motion caused by the speed between the two heroes.
The lines of motion are not real physical things – they’re symbolic, indicative of high energy, and though they are only supposed to indicate speed in this narrative, the fact that there’s so much white space indicates something else – the splitting of reality perhaps, the nuclear energies unleashed by the splitting of an atom – superheroes are sometimes associated with this nuclear act. The impossible nature of the cover’s situation is embellished by the burst of nuclear force in the centre, some hearkening to the impossible nature of quantum mechanics. We don’t know which way to look, we are in two places at the same time, the simultaneous motion making our heads spin. Both these superheroes must be the fastest man alive. Both of them must win. And both of them do.
Consider the cover of Flash #175, cover dated December 1967, which features Superman and Flash’s subsequent race – it does none of the things the covers above do. By shifting viewpoints and compositions, the act of the two racing simply becomes a less memorable image:
If you want a more intensive discussion of the powers of the two classic heroes, check out this article. I’ve tried to focus more on the graphic and ideological impact of the original covers above. The idea of characters like The Flash or Aquaman being mocked because they’re one trick ponies is a common element in the humourous referential cartoons of Kerry Callen. Here, he makes fun of the recurring motif of Superman and The Flash (Golden Age in this case) racing and how inconclusive these kinds of stories often prove to be:
So then it’s fitting that after a few false starts, or more accurately ‘false endings’, in The Adventures of Superman #463, The Flash finally wins. But it’s a different Flash altogether.