Storm Warning 1: Musings on My Favorite DC Hero

I really was going to start blogging today about my aborted attempt at joining the hallowed ranks of Marveldom from 2003; however, I've decided to forgo that particular discussion in favor of switching party lines from Marvel to DC. It strikes me that I haven't given enough love to other comic companies, so now begins the turnaround. (Just one of my many mini-resolutions I had for you, dear readers!)

Many of you may know my first exposure to comics came with the 1977-1982 CBS live-action TV show, "The Incredible Hulk," as well as the 1981-1986 cartoon, "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" and the accompanying "The Incredible Hulk" toon. However, I also remember watching "Super Powers" on ABC in the mid-eighties. I may have read one or two issues of DC Comics Presents or Green Lantern, and I had a few trial subscriptions to Batman and GL through 1985, but it wasn't until after my exposure to "Super Powers" that I really "got" DC. And the lion's share of the blame for my getting into DC was this guy right here:

That's right: "Super Powers" brought me in contact with Firestorm, the Nuclear Man! I remember enjoying the dynamic involved with the character, and upon later reflection, I don't think it's a coincidence I enjoy the character nearly as much as my favorite Marvel character, the Hulk. Both characters have a strong duality about them, with Dr. Robert Bruce Banner transforming in times of stress into the Hulk, while Ron (I refuse to call him "Ronnie") Raymond and Professor Martin Stein combine to form the heroic nuclear hero, Firestorm. I think it was that two-in-one dynamic that engaged my interest, and it was different than Banner and Hulk in that both Stein and Raymond were conscious, with the former as a "talking head" in the latter's mind. The character had other dualities as well, with Ron as a "jock" while Martin was clearly an intellectual; Ron younger and a student while Martin was older, a teacher. (And, as would be shown later, Ron's strained relationship with his own father eventually transformed their relationship into something more along the lines of father-son. But leave us not digress.)

I remember getting the Firestorm action figure from the Kenner "Super Powers Collection," with its mini-comic, which must have been in 1985, but then I didn't rush out right away and buy a Firestorm comic book. That didn't happen until I happened upon Ryan's News in downtown Columbiana, OH in early 1987, where I found two issues at once: The Fury of Firestorm #60 and 61, by John Ostrander (then making miracles happen as writer of DC's hit, Suicide Squad) and Joe Brozowski. Although I didn't know it then, the copy of #61 I bought that day would become a minor collector's item because it was the "Superman Comics" variant of that issue. (A few weeks later, I would find the other cover to #61 at another shop. It was my first--though far from my last--dealing with a "variant cover," something common today but certainly far more of an oddity then.)

In retrospect, I was very lucky to have come on board the book just then, as Ostrander was about to give the book the mother of all overhauls! Since the character's creation in 1978 by Gerry Conway and Al Milgrom, the series had always been about the trials and tribulations of Ron and Martin, but that was all about to change. (I've previously written about the status quo change in my first-ever Internet column, "Crusty Comic Cavalcade," several years back, but that article is lost to antiquity.) Conway had been replaced only a half-dozen issues before by Ostrander, who wasted no time attacking some of the core conceits of the series, like why must Ron and Martin always get along? and the big one, what happens to Firestorm if one of 'em is, well, dying? That last one, I later discovered when I rounded up the early part of the Firestorm series, was a nugget inserted by outgoing writer Conway in #53 (although whether it was at the behest of Ostrander or something altogether different, well, who can say?).

The storyline that was trickling through #60-61 and went full bore with #62 revolved around Martin Stein's recent diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor, whose growth would quickly impact his ability to successfully function within the "Firestorm Matrix." It was the first domino to fall in what would become a succession of status quo changes that really wouldn't stop until the book's 1990 cancellation, and would remain a fixture of the character from 1987 until today with Firestorm's appearances in Brightest Day. In some ways, John Ostrander made changes to the character, largely unheralded at the time, that were as influential in the series as Alan Moore's were to Swamp Thing a few years earlier. Although Ostrander's changes to Firestorm took longer to effect (the key revelation didn't occur until #85, two-and-a-half years into his tenure, whereas Moore's second issue contained the virtual sum total of his changes in one wham, bam, thank you ma'am moment), they changed the entire way later writers and this fan thought of the character, much like Moore.

So, what do people do when they find out they're living on borrowed time? For many, the answer would be to do things they haven't done before--to check off those things on their personal lists. For a select few, the struggle becomes how best to make a difference, and that's how it is for Martin, who talks with Ron about his mortality. They don't know how or even if there will still be a Firestorm as the tumor grows, so they nobly try to achieve what Superman attempted in the then-recent film, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, only with notably different, and probably more realistic, consequences. Firestorm wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons, so what does everyone do? They paint him as a vigilante, a criminal in the eyes of the whole world, and heroes and villains from Captain Atom, to the Justice League, to the Suicide Squad, to a new Russian super-being called Pozhar try to stop him, following orders from their governments.

As the battles escalate, Stein's health deteriorates, and the dual hero tries unsuccessfully to find refuge in the Nevada desert. Pozhar and Firestorm have an intense fight, and Firestorm ruptures the Russian's suit, reducing him to a flaming skeleton. The United States and the USSR are sending in their nukes to finish off our hero once and for all. Firestorm has a seizure and separates into his component halves, who have only moments to do something before disaster strikes. Pozhar, afraid for himself as well as seeing his foe's mortality, suggests the three of them try and form Firestorm so they can escape and survive. They concentrate just as a nuclear warhead detonates. There is a tremendous explosion, which then falls in upon itself as the army watches, stunned. It collapses into the form of a man--a thin, tall, wiry man wearing a blank stare and a familiar red-and-yellow costume, with a mane of flame in place of hair. This is the new Firestorm.

Keep in mind, while this storyline--all told, taking place through Firestorm, the Nuclear Man #62-64 and Annual #5--introduced a "new" Firestorm, it was only the first of several major changes to take place over coming years. And it's those changes I'll be addressing in the next entry as I continue my own personal musings about DC's most unique hero. (And since I'm bringing my musings to you in the order in which I read the books, my views on the early issues are still forthcoming, so fear not.)

Read more of Storm Warnings: Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7


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