Regardless of the corner box, this issue was drawn by underappreciated DC and Marvel '70s artist Ross Andru. This issue was released in that period before I really paid attention to creator credits, but Andru's art stands as unique amid the capable-and-not-much-more efforts of Joe Brozowski. It also jump-started the new era of Firestorm quite ably, and John Ostrander's skilled script put forth a mystery, front-and-center: who is the new Firestorm? As result of last issue's climactic finale,Ron had initiated the fusion into Firestorm with Mikhail Denisovitch Arkadin, a Russian whose active metagene (DC's analogue to Marvel's mutants) made him something like a Human Torch. Martin, suffering from a brain tumor and apparently near death, could be somewhere in the new configuration, or he might be dead. The twists didn't stop there, as upon fusion, both Ron and Mikhail were "stuck" in Firestorm's head--and Firestorm himself didn't seem to have any personality except for his own. He was an amnesiac, operating his powers instinctively. Was Firestorm asserting his own personality somehow? So many questions, so few answers.
Looking back, of course, the answer to the questions above becomes so apparent it's a wonder I didn't put two and two together immediately--then again, I was young so I can be excused. (Can't I?) Without getting completely in-depth in my reviews--I don't want to carry this bit on too long--I want to at least put forth how I felt about reading these books before I quit. (Say whaaaaaa?) I remember being interested in the plights of Ron Raymond and Mikhail Arkadin as they encountered threats from both the U.S. and Russia, as well as dealt with being thrown together as passengers in this new Firestorm entity. The character of Zastrow, the Russian who found Mikhail in the first place in #62, became of increasing importance as he unearthed another Russian superhuman, the mustachioed Stalnoivolk, to face the new Firestorm.
Meanwhile, Firestorm suffered through the Millennium crossover, and in my personal comics collecting career, I crossed over from the newsstand (The Book End at the Northern Lights Shopping Center in Baden, PA--now defunct!) to an actual comic shop (Bill & Walt's Hobby Shop at North Hills Village in Pittsburgh--still around today in some form, but no longer carrying comics!). I daresay it was the dawn of the golden age of comics of my youth.
One of the book's strengths was that Firestorm was getting to know himself just as we, the readers, were. It was also fascinating how the book had so suddenly captured a worldly flavor, with half its action taking place behind the Iron Curtain. (Remember, these books were released in 1988, when Communism hadn't yet fallen in Russia!) A particular source of fun was the Russians' attempt to discover what linked Ron with Firestorm in the U.S. even as the K.G.B. tried to find out what linked Firestorm with Mikhail. Along the way, readers met Mikhail's extended family, from his wife and children, to his brothers, to their children. Serafina Arkadin, Mikhail's niece, was leader of a team of Russian super-teens called Soyuz. They battled the alien Zuggernaut alongside Firestorm, and later, Serafina would help in unveiling perhaps the biggest piece of Ostrander's ongoing Firestorm mystery (later).
Through this range of issues, Joe Brozowski. the series' capable artist, was "replaced" by J.J. Birch, who had a style more reminiscent of mid-80s Keith Giffen. He brought us the story in which, thanks to a time-traveling former university professor calling himself the Flying Dutchman of Time, Firestorm's astral self was able to watch the entire development of all his component selves--a good way of catching the character up on his own history. A few issues later, once Joe Brozowski had "taken back" the artistic reins, editor Denny O'Neil revealed that Birch was really a pseudonym for Brozowski himself, who had wanted to try out a new style. Unsurprisingly, some parts of the new style carried through into Brozowski's post-Birch period, much for the better.
In issues #74-75, the latter of which would probably be a "big anniversary blowout" today, Firestorm came another step closer to fulfilling Ostrander's ultimate promise when he encountered a "sand demon" out in the Nevada desert. The story echoed Annual #5, where Firestorm made his last stand against the world's governments in that same desert. Since nobody had found what had become of Martin Stein to that point, and a great physical similarity existed between the Sand Demon and Stein, upon sight Ron believed the creature to be Stein! The truth was revealed over the second issue--that the Sand Demon was really Eddie Slick, a crooked wrestling promoter that Firestorm had previously encountered in Firestorm #51-52. Still, the mystery of Martin Stein's whereabouts were smartly not far from a resolution.
Since the first time Ed Raymond met the "new" Firestorm, he noticed a striking similarity in manner to Stein. Using his newspaperman instincts, he operated under the supposition that Stein had never died, and his research led him to a facility in Nevada where an older gentleman with amnesia was kept. After defeating the Sand Demon, Ron went with his father and stepmother to the facility where they found Martin, alive and well. The doctor on staff revealed more details--that every once in a while, Martin would lapse into a coma, later to awaken as if nothing happened. These episodes coincided, no doubt, with the Firestorm merger, with Stein's mind as the template for the new iteration. In fact, the next issue showed Martin subconsciously initiating the change when the villain Brimstone appeared at the facility. However, only Martin's mind was involved in the Firestorm Matrix at the time, and not his body, which would lead to further developments.
Also at this time, as consequence of there being a new Firestorm who only existed when Ron and Mikhail initiated the fusion, the new Nuclear Man questioned his existence. It was an intriguing bit of philosophy that Ostrander generated that would be a harbinger of the next major status quo shift (in the next eventual installment). Here was a character who couldn't even have a life outside his existence as Firestorm, who only lived to beat the bad guys! Right after the returns of Martin Stein and Brimstone, this plot point bore fruit in the "Eden" arc of #77-79. Ron accompanied his father to Africa, where he saw firsthand the hunger and desperation endured by the area's inhabitants. Determined to do something good, Ron and Mikhail initiate the merger, and Firestorm uses his abilities to transmute matter to make a paradise in the middle of the desolation. Soon, he finds that "no good deed goes unpunished," as cartels move to seize the paradise. Amid the fiery carnage, somehow Jama, one of the African men who has befriended Ron, finds himself merged into the Firestorm Matrix and a new, bestial Firestorm emerges with pieces of four men in the mix!
The status quo only lasted through #79, where Jama died, but the question arose how another could be brought into the Firestorm Matrix. Further, the question couldn't be avoided any longer: What exactly is Firestorm? How powerful can he truly be? What could happen of his newfound desire for independence, for a life? Unfortunately, I couldn't be bothered to stick around for the answers at this time. The Invasion! crossover hit the DC line the next month, and my supreme disinterest led to my promptly removing virtually every DC title from my pull list, a trend that wasn't reversed until the death of some guy named Superman in 1992. Interestingly, longtime Firestorm artist Joe Brozowski also took his leave with #79. It wouldn't be until quite a few years later that 'Stormy and I would again cross paths...
And that, my friends, is a tale for another entry of "Storm Warning," coming your way soon.