There are a lot of superpowers in comics. Not every one can be a stunner, though. Superman can basically do whatever the hell he wants. Jubilee is a sparkler. Then we have characters like Quicksilver and the Flash. What power do they have? They run. Really, really fast. I mean, not to be down on the Justice League or anything, but a guy who is just an eighth or so of Superman seems a little redundant. Maybe, it’s just the devil I'm advocating, but super speed seems like kind of a lame power.
As far as I’m concerned, the only people who run are too poor to afford transportation or comedians who have to participate in a marathon to win back their former fiancee from Hank Azaria. It is something involved in superheroics, only in the scenario that one couldn’t disarm the bomb quick enough and you’ve got to get out of there. It just does not cut it in the realm of extraordinary feats.
To simplify what I’m getting at here, let me break down super powers into two different types: foreign abilities and enhancement abilities. Foreign abilities would be things that are not native to a normal person. Optic blasts are a foreign ability. Enhancement abilities are those that serve as improvements to a person’s normal capabilities. This is basically going to group any ability precluded by the word “super,” such as super strength. I’d be willing to argue which of these groupings certain mental abilities fall into, but that’s a different article. Obviously, super speed would be considered an enhancement. Pretty straightforward, right? Except, even in the realm of enhancements, super speed does not really measure up.
Hulk has super strength. He can smash stuff with his pinky that Bruce Banner would not be able to dent if he pounded on it all year. Spider-Man is super agile. Before he got bitten by a radioactive spider, there is no way the guy could back flip out of the way of a laser beam, no matter how much aerobics he did. The Flash has super speed. If he picks a direction and starts hoofing it, he’s going to get there lickety-split. Of course, if Hulk sets off running somewhere, he will get there; maybe not as quick as Flash, but eventually, he will make it. So will Spidey. So will I. I certainly am not going to punch any planes to pieces or limbo for all I’m worth, but, if I keep hydrated and pace myself, I can do exactly what the Flash can do. That’s lame.
Now, there are, of course, some obvious exceptions, but there’s only so many times running on water can be considered useful. At its essence, the power to run to places faster is more of a time saver than it is a super power. Does the ability to run incredibly fast include an expanded lung capacity and endurance? I know there are some canon solutions for friction burning a guy’s feet off, but it really does seem like it would start to make things impractical after a while. Yet, despite all these obvious disadvantages, speed is still considered a generally desirable and cool power. Why?
For an idea, let’s take a look at Quicksilver. While not nearly as well known or popular as the Flash, this Marvel speedster is still an enduring character. Originally from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, this guy started out with kind of a raw deal. His mutant speed was stacked up against his father Magneto, a truly great villain with a truly unique and interesting power, and his sister Scarlet Witch, a young woman with the mutant ability to be a damn witch and have magic powers. For years, poor Pietro Maximoff ran around looking like a stooge with motion blur. Then the House of M story line happened and he lost his powers. However, this gave rise to a very cool opportunity. When Quicksilver lost his powers, he used a shiny new MacGuffin to restore his super speed. Except his restored powers took on a different form in that he would move so fast that he would be displaced from time. He could travel in time under his own power and even mimic his old superpower with short time jumps that appeared to be teleportation. No matter how fast I run, I am never going to time travel. This was an awesome arc for this character. It’s over now and Pietro is pretty much lame again, but, for a while, super speed took on a different meaning, and it was good. Yay.
Of course, the speedster that most of us are familiar with is the Flash. Since Jay Garrick put a lightning bolt on his bright red shirt in 1940, there has been one Flash or another, speeding his way into readers’ hearts. Is it because of the writing, art, and endearing wit of the hero? I have no idea; this is about the powers. Well, strictly speaking, super running speed is just the perceived short hand for the Flash’s true abilities. At this point the canon considers the Flash to be super fast at everything. He runs fast, but he also thinks fast and talks fast. This can either be played up for laughs or practicality, depending on the imagination of the author. Regardless, it gives writer and artists a greater range to work with.
The Retconomicon, roughly translated as “Book of the Retroactive Continuity,” tells us that each Flash takes his speedster powers from the Speed Force. This is, in both name and function, the Force from Star Wars, but with “Speed” in front of it. It is the mystical and formless presence that gives a Jedi, I mean, a Flash his abilities and it is to the Speed Force that a Flash returns when he dies. Basically, the Speed Force is the patron god of fast. And, honestly, that is kind of awesome. Most other comic characters, whether they possess foreign or enhancement abilities, do not literally tap into the power of an elemental force. I mean, Captain Marvel does, but that’s a bunch of gods going through a wizard and he’s a kid who turns into an adult, but they other kid stays a kid, and it’s a whole thing. To be fair, I suppose Green Lantern has a pretty similar deal, but, hey, you didn’t hear it from me. Anyway, what I’m saying is, the Speed Force is decently cool. On its own it is not especially unique or noteworthy, but to take this simple idea of running really fast and manifesting a sort of speedy religion around it takes some imagination.
The bottom line is, while there are certainly a lot of superpowers in comics, the power doesn’t count for squat if it is not utilized in an interesting way. We have come a long way since Superman got every power, but the kitchen sink. Not everyone can be nigh-invincible. It makes for boring storytelling. As such, what becomes important is how interesting the writer and artist are able to make these powers in the context of the story. Somehow, running fast always ends up being damn impressive. In both the case of the Speed Force and Quicksilver’s conversion of a time-saving power to a time-traveling power, the writers have managed to subvert the reader’s expectations of what super speed means. What this all amounts to is that super speed is not lame. No super power is. Not when it has passion and imagination behind its presentation. Because imagination is the greatest super power of all.