Sure Superman was the first superhero, but I'm willing to bet that the very day the second one came along, that's when the debates began; who's better, my hero or yours?

Six decades later, for all the supposed advances in printing and storytelling and theoretical maturity of modern readers, that's still pretty much what most fans are arguing about. Could the Thing beat the Hulk in a city-shaking free-for-all? Could Batman out-fight Daredevil? Does Aquaman rule the seas, or Sub-Mariner? Who's the better marksman...Green Arrow or Hawkeye?

And of course, who's faster, Superman or the Flash? We seemed to get conflicting accounts. Superman could fly across the galaxy in a twinkling. He could move so quickly that he broke not only the barriers of sound and light, but that of time itself. And yet, Barry "Flash" Allen was billed as "The Fastest Man Alive," circling the globe in less than a second, vibrating at such speeds that he passed through solid objects and jogging quickly enough to run over bodies of water without sinking, or up the sides of buildings without falling. Sooner or later, we would have to settle this issue once and for all...which hero was really the fastest?

It's hard to believe it took DC so long to capitalize on the sales potential in this idea. After all, if there's one thing kids can relate to, it's a good, old-fashioned foot race. "Race you to the slide!," they yell. "Catch me if you can!" "Last one home is a rotten egg!" Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that the writer who finally got around to telling the tale was young Jim Shooter, the teenage wunkerkind who produced so many classic tales of teen romance, adventure and angst for the Legion of Super-Heroes. Who better to understand what kids want than another kid?

What resulted was a fantastic piece of storytelling, a near-perfect blend of humor, suspense and action that's still remembered fondly today. Making this adventure all the more remarkable is the fact that there is no real villain, in the usual comic book sense. But there are plenty of opportunities for heroism, good deeds and sportsmanship. Superman and the Flash emerge as two incredibly decent guys, bending over backward to help each other, purposely avoiding opportunities to exploit each other's weaknesses and, wherever possible, slowing down enough to help others along the path established for their competition. All of which, in the spirit of the times, are held up as right and proper things to do, and not at all "dorky" or "camp."

This story appeals to me for several reasons. For one thing, it's a tremendous showcase for the art of Curt Swan and George Klein, who are called upon to portray locales as varied as San Francisco, Afghanistan, Iraq and Australia as the heroes race from arid deserts to storm-tossed oceans, dense rainforests to frozen tundras, quaint villages to great cities. Also, it's a neat example of how heroes can be pitted against each other without resorting to tired cliches of brain-washing, mistaken identity or miscommunication. Both heroes are at their full power and possessed of all their faculties, making this a real match-up (even if the outcome is pretty predictable).

Contrast this to Marvel Comics, where in any given month, two heroes meeting for the first time will, as a matter of course, pound the daylights out of each other until realizing they're both on the same side. At DC, things were different, as heroes tended to ask questions first and start pounding later. "Superman's Race With The Flash" was a masterful way for DC to have their cake and eat it, too, pitting two heroes against each other in a contest readers really wanted to see, but without turning them into the reckless hot-heads their Marvel counterparts often were, and all in the spirit of healthy athletic competition, not "I'll rip your head off" rage.

Considering the "big event" potential inherent in this concept, it's interesting to note that "Superman's Race With the Flash" was relegated to Superman No. 199, and not the milestone 200th issue that followed (in fact, issue 200 was a fairly unmemorable "Imaginary Tale"). But the proof's in the pudding, as all these years later, Superman 199 remains one of the best-remembered, most sought-after and priciest of Superman back-issues.

More than that, it featured one of the most famous covers of the Silver Age, inspiring countless "homages" and swipes as recently as the mid-90s. Pencilled by Carmine Infantino and inked by Murphy Anderson, a scan of the original art is pictured at right.

Another sure sign that the story was well-received is the fact that there have been numerous re-matches over the years. For an overview of all the races between Superman and the Flash, check out this handy link:

In the meantime, enjoy the first, and to my mind greatest showdown between the Man of Steel and the Scarlet Speedster.