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In all of comics, there are certain questions that will never have definite answers—partly because it’s more fun to speculate and partly because it’s just a smart business decision. Who would win in a fight? Who’s the smartest person on the planet? Who’s the strongest? And who’s the fastest?
There’s no easy answer to any of these. There have been enough contradictions, crossovers, and comic book catastrophes to give a wide variety of characters a fighting chance in all of these discussions. As you’ll soon see, if you try to narrow the scope, there are still a ton of different factors to consider. But with that in mind, here’s an in-depth look at how fast the Flash really is, and how he stacks up against other comic book speedsters.
Who is the Flash?
To start, there isn’t just one Flash. As far as most fans are concerned, there are four primary characters who donned the scarlet and gold over the years: Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Wally West, and Bart Allen. Have other people gone by the name of Flash? Yep. Some of which were even women. But these four did the most with the title for the longest time. Knowing the differences between these four will be very important going forward.
Jason “Jay” Garrick | the Originator
The first Flash debuted in 1940. Jay Garrick was a college student studying chemistry and physics in Keystone City when an experiment went wrong. While unconscious, Garrick got mixed up with some chemicals—again, this is 1940—and went into a coma. When he woke up, he had super speed.
You can always tell Jay apart from his successors because he has the most unique costume. Instead of the full-body spandex look, he wears a long-sleeve red shirt, outdated skinny jeans, and a metal helmet with Hermes-inspired wings on its sides.
Bartholomew “Barry” Allen | the Poster Child
Barry Allen is the most widely known Flash of all. He debuted in 1956 and is the main character used in most on-screen depictions of the character. Justice League/Justice League Unlimited? Barry. The CW? Barry. The DC Extended Universe? Barry. If you’re watching the Scarlet Speedster on TV somewhere, it’s safe to assume it’s Barry.
Barr got his powers after being struck by a bolt of lightning while working in his crime lab with the Central City Police Department. Again, chemicals got mixed in and when he woke up, he could move at blinding speeds. His look would inspire every Flash that followed in his wake. Barry was the main Flash for nearly 30 years until he sacrificed himself in 1985 during DC’s Crisis On Infinite Earths event.
Wallace “Wally” West | the Innovator
If you’re under the age of 40, chances are Wally West is your favorite Flash. Even if you love Grant Gustin on the CW’s Flash, it’s probably because he’s named Barry Allen but has the personality of Wally West.
In most adaptations, Wally is the nephew of Iris West and her husband, Barry West. He got his superspeed powers after he visited his uncle at work one day and—you guessed it!—he got struck by lightning while being surrounded by chemicals.
After learning the ropes, Wally took over the mantle of Flash. He enjoyed a solid 25-plus-year run, and he revolutionized what it means to be the Flash. For example, he was the first Flash to dive deep into the science and discover the Speed Force, a massive energy force that only a handful of people have been able to tap into.
Bartholomew “Bart” Allen II | the Footnote
For a brief time period, Wally West was out of commission as the Flash. Fortunately, he’d been training a sidekick named Bart Allen, who was Barry’s grandson who traveled back in time from the future and donned the codename of Impulse.
Bart got his powers genetically and had the knowledge of future advancements to help him during his 13 issues as Flash. Sadly, he’s mostly remembered as a placeholder in this regard and most fans think of him as a hyperactive teenage sidekick.
How fast is the Flash?
This is where things get complicated. The short answer is this: The fastest Flash is whoever the hell DC is using to headline the series at the time. (It’s probably Wally and definitely not Jay.)
Now, get ready for the long answer.
It’s not as simple as determining which Flash is the fastest because they all get their powers from the same source. When it comes to how fast they each can run, the answer is simple: infinitely fast. With the right motivation and circumstances, they could each run at speeds that we can’t even measure or comprehend. It’s more about who’s the most well-versed in their use of the Speed Force and can push their limits the most, which is why the fastest Flash is definitely Wally West.
Need further proof? Here are some of his most incredible accomplishments at the Flash:
1. Racing Black Flash (Death)
We all know the Flash eventually gets so fast that he can travel through time, multiple dimensions, read up on architecture and construct entire within minutes and even phase 747s through solid objects. While all of that is cool, it’s only the tip of the Flash iceberg.
One of Flash’s most impressive stunts involved his race against the Black Flash, an embodiment of death. During their race, Wally West ran so fast that he jumped forward in time by millions of years until nothing existed, resulting in death no longer being a concept. As a result, the Black Flash was no more. The Flash literally outran death.
2. Saving half a million people in .00001 microseconds
In JLA #48, J’onn J’onnz had his body taken over by a supervillain and sent a nuclear warhead flying towards a city in North Korea with a population of over half a million people. To save all of those lives, Wally rushed to Chongjin—post-blast—and carried over half a million people to safety 35 miles away. One at a time. Maybe in pairs. In .00001 microseconds.
The Flash ran back and forth across 35 miles at least 250,000 times in less than a second. That’s INCREDIBLE. Some even speculate that this would measure up to moving 13 million times the speed of light. But still not the ceiling for how fast he can go.
3. Running faster than instant teleportation
In issue #138, Wally gets recruited for a competition of speedsters from infinite dimensions held by some ultra-dimensional beings with some major gambling problems. The losers’ home worlds would be destroyed if they lost. Seeing this entire game as an unnecessary loss of life, the Flash upped the ante.
He bets the alien gamblers that he can beat them in a race back to Earth. Given that they can teleport, it looks like a guaranteed loss because, conceivably, nothing is faster than instant transmission. However, the Flash gets all 5 billion people on the planet to agree to run so that he can borrow their kinetic energy and beats the space overlords in record time.
We’ll give Barry Allen all of the credit he deserves for creating the Speed Force and running so fast that he’s changed the entire fate of the world more than once. Maybe he would’ve accomplished the same feats as Wally if he wasn’t dead for more than 20 years. But he didn’t get that opportunity. So, Wally gets the win here.
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The science behind the Flash
Comic book writers have done a good job of staying away from specifics when it comes to measuring Flash’s speed. When they do pinpoint it somehow, it’s some astronomically large number that we can’t even begin to fathom. This point was made perfectly clear in this classic meme of Flash telling Superman exactly how fast he is.
It’s been theorized that, in our reality, the Flash’s speed would actually destroy the entire planet. Moving millions of times faster than the speed of light doesn’t come without consequences. Some speculate that the kinetic energy created with that kind of movement creates more energy than a barrage of nuclear warheads and could rip reality to shreds, atom by atom.
I’m not a physicist, and I’m not the best with numbers (reason #45 why I’m a writer), but if you want a serious breakdown into how fast the Flash can go, here’s a great video to look at. It even breaks down E = MC^2 for those of us who fell asleep during that day of class.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Keith Reid-Cleveland is a Chicago-based writer who has been covering geek culture, streaming entertainment, and politics for more than five years. His work has appeared in Uproxx, the Undefeated, Black Nerd Problems, and the Black Youth Project.