Saturday, October 03, 2009

Out of the Vault- Firestorm, the Nuclear Man #1

In the 70's, DC Comics was trying desperately to recover lost market share from Marvel. The company lurched from one stunt to another, from the rash of characters losing their powers and costumes (which I want to cover, but most of my example issues are still in the Vault), to hiring Jack Kirby away from Marvel, to the Dollar Comic experiment, to a flood of new titles published in the mid- to late-70's.

And in 1978, about a year after A Man Called Nova debuted from Marvel, DC introduced its own new teenage superhero in a strange little book titled Firestorm, the Nuclear Man, which illustrates much of what was wrong with the company at the time.

Firestorm was created by Gerry Conway and Al Milgrom. Conway had written lots of comics for both Marvel and DC by that time, including the run of Spider-man that culminated in the deaths of Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin (the storyline that inspired the plot of the first "Spider-man" movie). Milgrom had been an artist at Marvel for a couple of years, working on Captain Marvel and Marvel Presents. The first issue of Firestorm, cover-dated March, 1978, shows just how much influence Marvel was having over its old rival.

The story in the first issue, titled "Make Way For Firestorm," opens with Firestorm flying over New York City. Yes, New York City--not Gotham, not Metropolis, not Central City, nor Star City, nor any of the other fictional burgs where DC's comics usually took place. Stan Lee had made it a point since the first issue of Fantastic Four to have his comics take place in the same real world the readers lived in, and that influence worked its way into DC's titles eventually.

Firestorm saves a man from being hit by a cab by turning said cab into two tons of water--Firestorm possesses the power to alter atoms, you see--and flies through a news helicopter before he is interrupted by some sort of telepathic message from a mysterious "Professor" who instructs him to stop wasting time. Hmmm, teenage hero instructed by mysterious telepathic professor? No Marvel influence here. Moving on...

Firestorm, whose name is Raymond, turns west toward New Jersey to stop some "first-class jerk named Eddie Earhart," who is attempting to blow up a nuclear power plant. This issue of Firestorm is brimming with alliterative names, another Marvel influence, as we'll see when Firestorm flashes back to his origin.

Turns out "Ronald" was Ronnie Raymond, a talented high school athlete who had just transferred to a new school. In a twist on the Spider-man/Nova formula, Ronnie is a good-hearted insecure jock who is bullied by a mean smart kid, Clifford Carmichael. You can tell he's smart, apparently, by the way he insults Raymond with a desperately unfunny "wisecrack":

Ronnie would just wipe up the floor with Cliff, but he wants to impress pretty Doreen Day (who doesn't need impressing, since she latched onto Ronnie as soon as he caught a touchdown pass in a game of playground football) and has been traumatized by a life of wandering around the world as a military brat. Ah, the trials of being tall and athletic and handsome...

Meanwhile, Professor Martin Stein is getting ready to bring his new "fully automated, fail-safe nuclear generating plant" on-line. There is a crowd of protesters outside that is powerless to stop the plant's operations, but then in comes former assistant Danton Black, along with two cops to formally keep the plant from going on-line. Black had been fired by Stein for stealing equipment, but has retaliated by suing Stein for intellectual theft; Black claims that the designs for the plant are his. However, these being the most inept cops ever in the history of inept comic book cops, they don't make Stein leave and lock down the building, so Stein decides to take the plant on-line anyway.

As this is going on, Ronnie is at home watching the news, where a familiar-looking reporter is interviewing Eddie Earhart, leader of the Coalition to Resist Atomic Power (a very rare touch of subtlety in a book that is subtle in no other way--Conway never gets around to pointing out that the group's acronym is C.R.A.P.).

This was over a year before "The China Syndrome" and the Three Mile Island disaster, so you could get away with calling nuclear protesters names back then.

Ronnie decides the way to impress Doreen is not to continue doing the same things that got her attention in the first place, e.g. feats of athletic prowess, but to demonstrate his social awareness by joining the protest at the nuclear plant. Not that he gives a C.R.A.P. about nuclear energy or pollution, but chicks dig activists or something.

So Earhart and his cronies drag Ronnie along as they break into Professor Stein's nuclear plant (and it's not mentioned, but I wonder if Earhart's thugs aren't actually union personnel, since Stein's "fully-automated" plant will eliminate a lot of jobs if it works as advertised). Earhart plans to blow up the plant and make Ronnie the fall guy. So he knocks out Ronnie and the Professor, leaving them both in a room with about fifty sticks of dynamite (unsure here how Earhart plans to make Raymond the fall guy for anything by blowing him into a fine paste, but it's a comic book, right? It gets dumber). Earhart takes off, bragging that they're headed to blow up another power plant in Jersey.

Ronnie wakes up in time to hear this boast, as Danton Black is sneaking into the supposedly deserted plant to steal Stein's computer designs. Ronnie tries to stop the bomb, but fails.

And I'm sorry to interrupt this climactic moment, because I understand comic book science is purposely stupid. Gamma radiation doesn't turn people green and super-strong, and a high-school kid can't manufacture artificial spider-silk in his bedroom. But usually, comics make an effort. The hero's powers are caused by some mysterious confluence of events--a one-in-a-trillion lightning strike on a rack full of chemicals, for instance.

But dynamite? The captions tells us that this has something to do with the radiation from the nuclear plant, but Ronnie is clearly shown just twenty feet or so from a big-ass pile of dynamite when it goes off. There wouldn't have been enough left of him for the radiation to affect.

Oh well, whatever. The mysterious radioactive blast causes Ronnie and the professor to fuse into one being--Firestorm. In issue two, Danton Black (caught in the same blast) will also demonstrate atomic powers, by splitting into two superpowered beings known collectively as Multiplex, the Duplicate Villain. Get it? Firestorm is a result of nuclear fusion, while Multiplex is the result of nuclear fission. Who says comic book science is stupid?*

Firestorm can see and change the atomic structure of anything. So he reseals the nuclear pile by changing air into lead or something, then makes himself a garish costume and flies away to stop Earhart's gang. He also discovers that, while his conscious identity is that of Ronnie Raymond, Professor Stein is lurking in his subconscious and can communicate with him.

So now we're back from the flashback as Firestorm confronts the forces of C.R.A.P. He makes short work of the thugs, but Earhart manages to set off the dynamite (turns out Earhart has an inferiority complex, and is willing to commit suicide if it means he'll get noticed or something). Unluckily for him, Firestorm absorbs the blast and all the attention.

As a character and as a comic, Firestorm was mediocre. On the one hand, his flaming hair made him one of the most visually distinctive heroes out there, and his powers were cool, if not very visual (most fights involved Firestorm gesturing at the ground or something while describing what he was changing the atoms into). Conway's writing and Milgrom's art were nothing to write home about: functional, but not exciting.

Issue two featured a Superman cameo, in which Superman investigates Firestorm to see if he's Justice League material. Superman follows Firestorm around as he battles Multiplex, but doesn't lift one finger to help, because Superman is a dick.

Firestorm hung on for five issues, then was cancelled in the great DC implosion. However, the character didn't disappear, because Conway was writing Justice League at the time, so Firestorm joined the League. Four years later, he got his own book again.

The character is still around, although apparently Ronnie Raymond is now not only dead, but resurrected as a Black Lantern (don't ask).

*Me, still.


Anonymous said...

I love Firestorm. Your comments are shit. You are an asshole. Fuck off, you and your shitty blog.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

I'm a little insulted. Not so much by the comment as how generic it is. Dullest troll ever.

Anonymous said...

"The captions tells us that this has something to do with the radiation from the nuclear plant, but Ronnie is clearly shown just twenty feet or so from a big-ass pile of dynamite when it goes off. There wouldn't have been enough left of him for the radiation to affect."

This is a comic book. It could very well be that the radiation disintegrated the fragments left over from the dynamite blast and reconstructed them as Firestorm.

Firestorm had(and still has) the potential to be a cool character. The problem with him was that he had lame villains and subpar storytelling. That said creating a hero with such an incredible power('A supervillain? Oh no, I'll transmute the air around you to unbreakable Prometheum! Finished!' is setting yourself up for failure.