12 Reasons Why My Almost-Complete Run of the 1980s Firestorm Series Will Probably Be the Last Thing Hauled Out of My House When I’m Finally Shipped Off to the Old-Age Home
1. His head is on fire. That ought to count for something.
If one is adjudicating purely on the basis of raw visual impact, few superheroes — of this or any other decade — can truly hold a candle (if you’ll pardon the phrase) to DC’s own Firestorm. If you have to ask why, then you really haven’t been paying attention. His. Freakin’. Head. Is. On. Fire. People. Let’s face it, even in that plane of reality where metal-bikinied babes from distant planets fight alongside emerald-shaded shape-shifters and half-man-half-Cuisinart dudes, that’s the sort of look that’s guaranteed to turn a few heads down at the Hall of Justice’s annual Christmas party. Add in some puffy sleeves, striped boots, only-from-the-’80s flared epaulettes, and a chest logo that makes it clear from whence he derives his powers, and you have someone whose silhouette is guaranteed to stand out among the Spandexed crowd.
2. Two minds, one body — twice the angst for your buck!
Conceived at the heart of a nuclear explosion (or “minor operational mishap,” if you work PR for the nuclear industry), Firestorm may also (note the “may,” lest one of you trivia trolls trump me on this) hold the distinction of being the world’s first split-personality hero, given he was actually a composite figure created by the fusion of nuclear physicist Martin Stein and average high school student Ronnie Raymond. Yep, just what every red-blooded American teenager wants: a middle-aged scientist rattling around inside his noggin, a mentor and father figure who’s privy to every private thought, inkling and urge at the precise moment he thinks it. And you thought Robin had it tough.
3. Name all the super-powers you wish you had right now and tell me with a straight face that “restructuring matter at the atomic level” isn’t somewhere on your list.
Flight, speed, super-strength — these are your basic, entry-level super powers. And not to take anything away from the heroes who possess these attributes, but there are only so many times you can see, say, Superman lift a Buick over his head and still feel a sense of childlike awe (that’s why the Superman writers of the ’50s and ’60s started hauling new super powers out of their asses whenever the story demanded it, from super-memory to super-ventriloquism to super-breath… though they left “super-causes-short-term-amnesia-with-a-kiss” for future generations of hack writers to flesh out). There have been other comic-book characters with the power to alter the molecular structure of matter (the Fantastic Four foe known as the Molecule Man comes to mind), but never before had anyone done it with such panache, or demonstrated the mad possibilities that come with possessing such a power. Green Lantern can create a giant catcher’s mitt out of green energy, but only Firestorm would have the means and desire to, say, turn bullets into soap bubbles, or getaway cars into inflatable pool toys, or just about anything else he thinks up. (Of course, there were times when his matter-altering powers would get him in trouble, like the time he turned the roof of a building into a giant magnet to foil a criminal scheme, not realizing there was a software company inside the building that lost every piece of data as a result. Whoopsie.)
4. He had a pretty cool gallery of rogues.
Firestorm was created in the late 1970s by Gerry Conway, who had moved to DC after a long stint as writer for Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man. No surprise, then, he brought many of the elements that made Spidey a success into Firestorm’s genesis, not least of which was a varied collection of whack-a-loon super-villains to test the Nuclear Man’s mettle. His first challenger was none other than one Danton Black, who had the mild misfortune of getting caught in the same nuclear accident that spawned Flame-Head. But where Firestorm was created from the fusion of two people, the menace known as Multiplex was bestowed with the power to split into as many identical copies of himself as any given caper required (not, admittedly, a power as formidable as one might think, though the ability to skirt carpool lane laws is certainly nothing to scoff at). Other regular sparring partners included the Hyena, a young woman attacked by a “were-hyena” and cursed to roam the night in serious need of a depilatory; Black Bison, a New York City high school teacher possessed by the vengeful spirits of his Native American ancestors; Typhoon, a marine researcher who once had a really bad day at the office, becoming one with the wind after the usual implausible comic-book accident; Mindboggler, a young punk rocker with the ability to alter one’s sense of reality sans the usual pharmaceutical aids; Bug & Byte, two high school siblings whose brush with bad wiring turned them into evil electrical types; Slipknot, an assassin who inexplicably thought his mastery of knots and ropes somehow made him slightly more dangerous than a hogtied hamster; and Plastique, a French-Canadian terrorist with a tendency to, as her nom de guerre suggests, make things go “la boom.”
5. Killer Frost. ‘Nuff said.
None, however, could possibly hope to reach the levels of vile villainy achieved by that flash-frozen femme fatale, that sub-zero succubus, that incorrigible ice maiden known as… Killer Frost! Unique among her villainous kind, Killer Frost was not a woman motivated by anything so pedestrian as the thrill of the hunt, the promise of jewels and trinkets, or the chance to see how much “steam” she and her warm-bodied opponent could generate. No, she secured her sinister sobriquet the old-fashioned way — she earned it by bestowing bucketfuls of death, death and more death upon anyone or anything that remotely resembled a man. As you might expect, this particular modus operandi — not to mention her need to mix business with pleasure by siphoning body warmth from her victims as a way to keep her own svelte self alive and mobile — did not exactly endear her to the greater populace. And when a young stud with body heat to spare arrives on the scene to ask her to stop killing people… well, can you say “match made in hell,” kids?
6. Ron’s mortal enemy? A bullying, know-it-all nerd. Really!
Pre-Firestorm, Ronnie Raymond was just another carefree high school student playing football at his new high school when he came under the reverent and doelike gaze of fellow student Doreen Day. “Cliff, he’s just marvelous!” she coos to Cliff Carmichael, the mutton-chopped melonhead sitting beside her in the bleachers one day. “The way he leaped for that ball… he almost seemed to stretch those last few inches.” As you might expect, our young Mr. Carmichael simply cannot let this obvious threat to his manhood go unchallenged, and so he, in his capacity as the self-professed “class whiz kid,” makes a few crass comments about Ron’s intellectual capacity, flings the football in his general direction, and warns him to “cross me at your own risk.” We then cut to a scene in a classroom, where Mr. Raymond’s attempts to answer questions are foiled by, you guessed it, the aforementioned assh… what’s that, you ask? What kind of freakin’ high school in some parallel universe is this, where the self-proclaimed “class whiz kid” can just bully a football player with impunity? I suppose it does seem a little odd that such a massively malnourished scumball would be this fictional school’s big man on campus. Certainly, if this were the actual high school of my fast-fading youth, someone with an attitude like his would taste Ty-Dee-Bowl more often than the cafeteria meatloaf. But… c’mon, people, a little suspension of disbelief is all DC Comics asks in return for quality entertainment. In a society where American Idol is considered an actual talent contest, surely this is not beyond the realm of belief, either.
7. Cue “Eye of the Tiger” montage here.
Firestorm is a survivor, plain and simple. In 1978, DC, hoping to capitalize on the anticipated revival of interest in comics generated by the Superman movie, approved a slew of new titles in anticipation of the galloping hordes. Many heroes premiered at this time without any prior dipping of toes in DC’s “tryout” titles, including Steel (not the later character introduced in the Superman comics, but Gerry Conway’s and Don Heck’s attempt to mollify the masses screaming for an amalgam of Captain America and the Six Million Dollar Man), Black Lightning (Tony Isabella’s black superhero with a street-level approach to fighting crime)… and Firestorm. Most of these new titles had barely enough time to rotate once around the spinner racks before DC promptly pulled the plug, ordering massive cutbacks and cancellations in what’s since become known as “the DC Implosion.” With only five issues of his first series under his belt, Firestorm did the guest-star circuit, popping up in a DC Comics Presents here, a back-up series in The Flash there, and then a full-time gig with the Justice League of America. (Of course, the fact that Mr. Conway was writing the JLA series at the time had nothing to do with Firestorm’s induction. Honest.) Thanks to all that, he was brought back in ’82 for a second go-round in his own title, and the rest is history. And in 1985, he earned the distinction of becoming the newest character honored with inclusion in the Kenneth Super Powers toy line, a feat that led to small-screen fame when animated versions of himself and the Teen Titans’ Cyborg joined the Super Friends on the Super Powers: Galactic Guardians cartoon show.
8. Do you miss that patented Marvel-style, ’60s-era soap operatics with your superhero tales? Then step right up.
If the Dr. Stein portion of Firestorm’s persona is momentarily shuffled aside, both Firestorm and Spider-Man have quite a bit in common. Ronnie Raymond and Peter Parker — aside from possessing parents with an affinity for alliteration — started their superhero careers during their formative teen years… both, because of the roles they were seen to play in high school (“dumb jock” and “science nerd,” respectively), had to deal with the subsequent slings and arrows that came with expressing who they were… both had to deal with the misunderstandings and awkward moments that come with leading a double life… and both, when attired for action, adopted a singularly snappy repartee whilst vanquishing villains. As well, for reasons that often stretched credulity, all three gents in question (Raymond, Parker and Stein) were blessed-slash-cursed with a large supporting cast of friends, family and co-workers that supplied no end of abundant adversaries and sticky situations for their shared alter ego. No less than three of the original four super-villains introduced as Firestorm’s foes, for instance, were former co-workers of Dr. Stein who had a bone to pick with him in one form or another, whilst the fourth was a cousin of Ronny’s kinda-girlfriend who got caught up in unfortunate mystical circumstances whilst traipsing through Africa. Makes the “everyone-on-Peter’s-speed-dial-but-Aunt-May-and-even-her-we’re-keeping-an-eye-on” geneology of the Green Goblin look sane, by comparison.
9. Or perhaps you prefer a late-’80s mix of sturm und drang as part of your complete breakfast? Either way, Firestorm’s got your back.
Mr. Conway, who ended his long run as writer with issue #57, was replaced by John Ostrander, whose approach to the character was decidedly darker than the Marvel-style antics seen up to that point. Continuing one of Mr. Conway’s plotlines re: Dr. Stein’s discovery of a tumor in his brain, Mr. Ostrander sent both he and Ronny on a personal mission to collect and destroy all nuclear weapons before Dr. Stein’s demise. A noble goal, perhaps, but as some of you Cold War veterans can imagine, that kind of “good deed” didn’t exactly win Firestorm any friends in high places. The Soviet Union dispatched “Pozhar,” its own nuclear-powered hero (actually a poor schmo who got hosed at Chernobyl and acted the “hero” only because the KGB threatened his wife and kids) to take him down, with the U.S. government dropping a nuclear bomb on the both of them while they fought. The new Firestorm that emerged from that explosion had a personality independent of its constituent parts, those parts now being Ronny and Mikhail, a supposedly cured Pozhar. Anyway, not to reveal too much more for anyone wishing to sample these relatively cheap back issues, but this approach to the character appealed greatly to a different type of fan than those who favored Mr. Conway’s lighter style. I think if you loved the first half of Firestorm, you’ll… well, it’s a toss-up, really, if you’ll find the second half just as appealing. I, for one, certainly missed the plethora of gaudily attired villains churned out by Mr. Conway and crew, and I had no desire to see yet another of my favorite heroes go down that “grim ‘n’ gritty” route that so many other heroes were forced to trod at the time. On the other hand… I have to admit I did sometimes say to myself, “Boy, if I had Firestorm’s power, I certainly wouldn’t waste my time turning bank robbers’ tires into jelly doughnuts…”
10. A nuclear-spawned hero with the power to alter reality with the flick of a wrist? Yeah, that’s got “relevance” written all over it.
Over time, Firestorm’s fans would learn the “true” story of his origin was not quite the tidy “nuclear accident gone horribly good” scenario they were led to believe (“What…? You mean being at Ground Zero of an explosion inside a nuclear power plant doesn’t bestow godlike powers?!”). But in the beginning, it was clear where his powers came from, and it was the same source of power that many Americans in the late ’70s and ’80s were starting to feel uneasy about. In this era of Three Mile Island, Silkwood and The China Syndrome, the notion that a superhero could emerge from what was then seen as the most powerful-yet-dangerous source of power on Earth was something that had “zeitgeist” written all over it. But as our collective fear of Mutually Assured Destruction by Nuclear Fire slowly subsided, Firestorm’s stories started to tap into our collective environmental anxieties — like the story in which a Japanese eco-activist’s death on the high seas transforms her into the death-to-all-humans water elemental known as Naiad. Then there was the story arc in which the new Firestorm — who may or may not have been Dr. Stein in some altered state; readers were kept guessing for a while — resented being used as just a superhero and started doing things like transforming parts of drought-ravaged Africa into latter-day Edens, with predictably tragic results. (Hmm, an all-powerful entity intent on forcibly bringing change to a desert region and stymied by the complexities of the situation and lack of gratitude displayed by the people living there — where have we heard that one before…?)
11. He had fun. Remember when superheroes did that once in a while?
An exact quote from Gerry Conway, about how and why he came up with the Firestorm character back in the late ’70s:
Firestorm’s been in my head for years. Back when I was writing Spider-Man for the competition, I found myself wishing just once Spidey would loosen up enough to really enjoy himself swinging through the city — but the poor shnook just had too many problems. Oh sure, he’d have his moments, his laughs; but they were punctuation for the grimmer storyline of the strip. I’ll tell you, after a while, it was just so depressing… and finally, I decided I wanted to do something a little more light and hopeful.
This, mind you, from the fellow who went and offed the ever-so-innocent Gwen Stacey with nary a second thought, skewered the Green Goblin as an encore, and then introduced one of the most humorless and vengeful anti-heroes to ever slap on a pair of union tights. So you just know he was serious about his need for fun. True to his word, Mr. Conway — during his time with the Firestorm franchise — portrayed our hero as one whose two civilian identities had troubles aplenty (scheming co-workers and ex-wives for Dr. Stein; a distant father, academic hurdles and romantic entanglements for Ronnie), but when the Atomic Avenger came out to play, it was literally time to play… and when you’re someone who can turn bullets into biscuits, any time is playtime.
12. He’s fun and educational!
No great hero is complete without some weakness that renders him powerless, and a weakness was definitely in order for a hero as theoretically powerful as Firestorm. Much like Green Lantern’s much-hyped “my power ring is useless against anything yellow” rule, Firestorm’s powers caused a painful feedback effect if directed against any organic substance. For example, he couldn’t simply turn carbon-based bad guys into modern-day versions of Rodin’s Thinker, nor could he — as seen in the example here — use his power over his own molecules to decrease his density to zero and free himself of the natural-fiber rope. (While this little quirk neatly answered the question of how any super-villain could challenge a superhero so godlike he could literally make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, I have to admit to a little chuckle every time I pass the “organic” section of my local supermarket, as I can’t help coming up with new super-villains to give our boy the ultimate challenge. “Look out! It’s Corporal Kale! The Lethal Lentil! Dr. Arugula! The Rutabaga of Rottenness! Together, they are… the Vegetables of Villainy!!!” Anyway…) Why is this cool? First, it offers all kinds of unique traps for Firestorm to think his way out of (like the one time he was ensnared by a giant man-eating plant on the Galactic Guardians show). Second, it’s educational: the first time I ever saw the word “organic” was in a Firestorm comic, instantly giving me a leg up in science class when our teacher turned to that topic. So thanks, Firestorm. You may have sent other little boys in search of super powers to their hideously gruesome deaths, but you always did right by me.