This is the first of a series of posts examining alternative female versions of well-known male superheroes. This first installment will cover Mary Maxwell, A.K.A. the Flash from the DC event series Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe. Just Imagine… was exactly what its long title suggested: a series of comics featuring veteran Marvel creator Stan Lee’s own twist on the DC Universe.
The concept of parallel universes containing alternative versions of superheroes is a vital component of superhero comics, and a vital component of the Flash mythos specifically. The character was one of the first DC superheroes to be modernized in the late 1950s, in what became known as the Silver Age of comics. The Flash was given a new costume, name, and origin story. After legions of Flash fans wrote in to ask what had happened to the 1940s version of the character, The Flash Issue #123: Flash of Two Worlds (written by Gardner Fox, art by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella, edited by Julius Schwartz) provided a bold explanation.
In that issue, the second Flash, Barry Allen, accidentally travels into a parallel universe where the original Flash Jay Garrick lives. This allowed both characters to continue existing without rendering either redundant. For each was the one and only Flash of their respective universes! This story was so well-received that “Earth-2,” the parallel universe where Jay Garrick lived, became home to the Golden Age versions of many DC heroes. “Earth-2” then inspired a host of other numbered alternative universes. Fans are divided over exactly what point this all became too complicated to be worthwhile, but the alternative-universe concept has remained a popular launchpad for self-contained “what-if” scenarios.
With Issue #123, the Flash became nothing short of a superhero dynasty, a lineage of heroes who pay homage to what’s behind them even as they race toward the future. This evolution was true even to the spirit of the original Flash, Jay Garrick, who wore a winged helmet and boots inspired by the Roman god Mercury. Just Imagine…’s Mary Maxwell is a worthy addition to the Flash family, taking the alternative-universe trope and putting a new spin on it that feels almost ahead of its time.
First, let me gush about Mary’s costume, designed by Kevin Maguire. It has no logo. It’s solid white, with rainbow-colored streamers trailing behind. Every piece of the costume comes together to make a complete visual statement: the image of a flash of light. The streamers, reminiscent of long, feminine hair, distinguishing Mary from so many other female heroes and villains whose costumes make them look unfashionably bald. It’s a great example of the aesthetic ways that female costumes can stand apart from costumes for men. And Mary’s costume covers her whole body, anticipating this decade’s trend of more modest costumes for female superheroes and villains.
Then you have Mary’s origin story, which weds classic super-science tropes to unusual power dynamics. Mary Maxwell is the daughter of a scientist on the run from a criminal cartel. This gang wants Mary’s father to build them a time machine so they can plunder the past. During one of their escapes, Mary and her father pass through a mysterious green fog. After this, Mary becomes incredibly weak, slow-moving, and sluggish.
Desperately seeking a way to help his daughter, Dr. Maxwell has the idea to inject Mary with “hummingbird DNA”. But because the cartel barge in and murder him as he does so, Mary’s father accidentally injects too much. Mary becomes able to move at incredible speeds, but when her stamina is exhausted, she returns to her previous sluggish state.
While it’s refreshing to read about a female superhero defeating foes with a combination of speed and Spider-Man-like wit, the most poignant moments are easily of Mary grappling with the toll her powers wreak on her civilian life. Even the name “The Flash” has been reinvented to connect with this struggle – while Mary’s decision to become a superhero is partly influenced by her love of comic book heroes like Wonder Woman (meaning a Flash comic series might also exist in her universe) she ultimately takes her superhero name from an insult hurled at her during one of her “slow spells.”
The particular expression of Mary’s abilities and weaknesses meshes with a very current dialogue on disability. Many people conceptualize their own disabilities as a combination of forces: Pain, stamina, and mental and physical abilities that come and go, ebb and flow. A transactional understanding of ability, where doing one thing leaves you without the energy to do something else – which is exactly the kind of judgement Mary Maxwell must make whenever using her superpowers!
Although himself able-bodied for most of his life, this has been something of a pet theme for Stan Lee. Many of Lee’s co-creations lose some other ability when they gain superpowers. Often the tradeoff is ironic, like the brilliant but meek Bruce Banner becoming the powerful but mindless Hulk (a collaboration between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby). But sometimes a fantastic, superhuman skill is paired with a more realistic disability – an approach that Stan Lee made famous, and vice versa.
Most prominent of course are the blind Daredevil (created by Lee with Bill Everett) and the wheelchair-using Professor X (Lee with Jack Kirby). But many other Marvel heroes have experienced subtler expressions of disability: Marvel’s Thor (Lee with Kirby again) was originally Don Blake, a doctor with a limp who used a cane. Iron Man (Lee with Kirby once more) originally had to wear the chest plate of his suit at all times, and regularly recharge it to treat his damaged heart. And Doctor Strange (Lee with Steve Ditko) had his career as a surgeon ended by a hand injury.
No less than Alan Moore acknowledged (albeit derisively) that this was one of the first nuances of characterization that comic book superheroes received, and that Stan Lee pioneered it: “Stan Lee had this huge breakthrough of two-dimensional characters. So, they dress up in costumes and do good, but they’ve got a bad heart. Or a bad leg. I actually did think for a long while that having a bad leg was an actual character trait” (Chain Reaction Interview Transcript, 2005).
But of course, the concept goes even further back than Stan Lee. In the Golden Age, Mac Raboy’s character Captain Marvel, Jr. powered down to become Freddy Freeman, a boy who used a crutch. And as Stan Lee himself once put it, “Achilles, without his heel, you wouldn’t even know his name today” (Stan Lee: From Marvel Comics Genius to Purveyor of Wonder with POW! Entertainment…The Exclusive PR.com Interview, 2006).
Fresh as Mary Maxwell feels as a new interpretation of the Flash legacy, she is just the latest expression of a sentiment as old as comic book superheroes, and then some. But though the message may not be new, it’s always important. Characters like Mary Maxwell remind us that achievement really can come at a cost. That the most we can do is not what we can do at all times, nor should we expect it to be. That our accomplishments are great no matter how much they take from us, and that we are not just the times when we could not do something. We are also the great things we do when we can, and something even more special: the individuals created by the totality of our experiences.
Casey Bohn is a writer and illustrator from Nashville, Tennessee. She has written for Broadly, The Mary Sue, and Birth.Movies.Death, and published comics through Charles Forsman’s Oily imprint.