I find myself, more often than is probably reasonable, trying to explain to people who Reverse-Flash is and why I have multiple action figures, statues, and t-shirts for the character. They, probably like you, look at me like I’m a giant idiot. I’ll grant you that! But the point stands: I adore the Reverse-Flash, one of comics’ silliest and best villains. Throughout the ages of the comics and the CW TV show, Reverse-Flash has been a constant thawne in the Scarlet Speedster’s side. (Editor’s Note: Eric has been reprimanded for his ‘thawne’ pun. – Sean)
For every Flash, there is a Reverse.
There have been a few evil speedsters over the years. The very first was the first Flash’s enemy Edward Clariss, a.k.a. the Rival, who cropped up at the tail end of the Golden Age of comic books, in 1949. This character was a temporary speedster who took his power from a substance he’d created called Velocity 9. Much later was Hunter Zolomon, a friend of third Flash Wally West, who asked Wally to change the timeline for him following an injury. Wally refused, Zolomon tried to use the Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill himself, with the resulting explosion curing his injury and giving him powers, turning him into Zoom. But our focus here is on the real deal.
The true Reverse-Flash wouldn’t come along until 1963: Eobard Thawne. Also known as Professor Zoom (but not Zoom!), Thawne has been one of Barry Allen’s greatest enemies both before he died and after he came back to life.
This slightly more modern character has received a much further fleshing-out in the comics. Thawne is from the future. That’s why he has a weird name. He’s from the 25th century. How he finds out about the Flash varies from one reboot to another. In one, he finds a time capsule with the Flash’s suit and uses 25th-century tech to give himself speedster-like abilities in hopes of becoming a hero like the Flash. When that doesn’t work, he starts creating danger so that he can resolve it and look like a hero. In another, he’s a scientist who became obsessed with the Flash, changing his face to match that of Barry Allen and obtaining speedster powers by replicating the original lightning strike that gave the Flash his powers. He found out he would become the Reverse-Flash when he traveled back in time to the Flash museum.
After Infinite Crisis, Eobard rewrites his own origin story. He kills his own family when they interfere with his research. He falls in love with a reporter and kills all her previous romantic interests. When it still goes poorly, he goes back in time to traumatize her so that they would never meet. And then, he gives his younger self the Flash costume in hopes of making himself the Flash of the 25th century.
In the New 52, Eobard sees his father murder his mother, and eventually kills Barry’s mother and frames his father to give he and Barry a similar origin. In this version, Thawne isn’t fast, bur rather can stop time, giving him the illusion of speed.
In DC Rebirth, Thawne is struck by an energy blast that causes him to remember his pre-New 52 self, even recalling his death in Flashpoint at the hands of Thomas Wayne’s brutal incarnation of Batman.
One of the more recent incarnations of Reverse-Flash is the one that helped turn the Arrowverse into a multiverse. Portrayed by Tom Cavanaugh, this Reverse-Flash had gained his powers by once again recreating the original experiment that turned Barry into a speedster. After becoming obsessed with Barry, he first tried to go back in time to kill Barry himself and, when that failed, settled for killing Barry’s mother, the time-shock of which apparently severed his connection to the Speed Force, stranding him in the 21st century.
Though the Flash eventually defeated this Reverse-Flash, he fulfilled his destiny of becoming one of the Arrowverse’s great villains. Since his death, he’s come back to make himself the primary villain of Legends of Tomorrow season 2, where he (along with Damien Darhk and Malcolm Merlyn) sought out the Spear of Destiny, and has also shown back up in The Flash, inciting the Arrowverse’s (rather half-hearted) version of Flashpoint, traveled to Earth-X where he teamed up with the Nazi doppelgangers of CW’s main heroes, and is, even as we speak, apparently acting as a mentor to Nora West-Allen and has been helping orchestrate the events of the show’s 5th season, making him the Arrowverse’s most recurring villain.
A witty nerd might ask, if this guy is called Reverse-Flash, does that mean he runs slow? Or that he runs backwards? And you might wish you could travel back in time and prevent them from ever asking such a stupid question.
In addition to having the same speedster abilities that the Flash has – FTL travel, phasing through solid objects, creating speed mirages – Thawne has his own set of powers, mostly around time travel. He can travel through and manipulate time with fewer consequences compared to other speedsters. His manipulations, for example, don’t cause Flashpoints.
He also gains abilities like creating time shockwaves and absorbing memories through physical contact, His lightning can mess with electronics and magnetics.
The Ultimate Villain
What keeps me coming back to Reverse-Flash is that, for me, he’s the ultimate supervillain. He has a very specific motivation that drives him, his very existence complicates comic book logic, and he’s truly gross and evil in a way that belies his silly name.
If you reduce Reverse-Flash down to his very essence, he’s a stalker. He’s an obsessed fan. It’s easy to mistake his feelings toward Barry as hatred, but it’s more like a twisted, broken version of love. That of a fan who has a bad experience meeting their hero or finds themselves angry when the person they’ve spent time building into a person in their head doesn’t treat them like a friend right back.
Reverse-Flash is the social media fan obsession writ large, drawn years before it would become what it is now.
But Reverse-Flash is also interesting because he’s unmoored from time and continuity, and he seemingly can break continuity. While I understand the need for continuity in serial comics, it’s also the source of countless heated nerdfights that would seem silly if we were had the same discussion about Norse or Greek mythology or the different versions of The Thing or the Ninja Turtles that have been created throughout the years. And Reverse-Flash is a middle finger to all of that, forcing all the continuities to exist together regardless of what DC tries to say.
More than one incarnation of Reverse-Flash or Zoom has retained their memories of pre-Crisis events or been given back those memories. On CW shows, he’s shown the way he can tinker with past events through the Flashpoint arc, and how he can mess with time at will, as with the time he brought together dozens of Reverse-Flash time remnants to take on the Legends of Tomorrow.
And through all of this, the very concept of the character, the elevator pitch version of him, is beyond silly. As comics so often like to do, he’s a palette swap of his arch enemy’s colors, but his name takes it even further. You can make a few guesses about who Sinestro and Bizarro are from their names, or you can hop over to the Marvel side for characters like Iron Monger and Yellowjacket. But Reverse-Flash? He’s the Reverse. Of the Flash.
When I close my eyes and say his name, I can almost see the art in my head. The flat primary colors, the line-shading, and the speed lines. He’s about as Silver Age of a villain as you can get. It’s probably bad optics to say that I like the creepy stalker of the DC Universe, but I have no problem saying that I adore the silly palette swap that is the Reverse-Flash.
Writers have taken a silly idea from the Silver Age and turned him into a dangerous character with pathos and a tragic backstory that makes it hard not to pity the character even as he continually harasses and hurts the Flash and his loved ones. It’s a credit to the writers at DC Comics and even at the CW that I get a shiver every time a character named Reverse Flash pops up on the page or the screen.
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