Storm Warning 4: Back at the Beginning (At Last!)

Here we are again! After a nearly two-week hiatus from posting about DC's resident Nuclear Man (that nasty fourth Superman movie notwithstanding), I'm journeying back to the mid-1990s. That may not be when the books in question came out, but it's when I finally rummaged through the back-issue bins at a few different stores--mostly the late, largely unlamented Mr. Jake's Funny Books in Rochester, PA, and another store whose name I don't recall, right on McKnight Road in front of Ross Park Mall. Strangely there's also a connection to where I currently live, since my father went on a trip to Arizona and bought me the majority of Firestorm's first series as well as the backup stories in The Flash at a shop I still frequent today, All About Books & Comics. Ah, but that's pretense, and the time for such is passed. Now, it's time to talk about the work of Firestorm's co-creator, Marvel and DC vet turned Hollywood guy, Gerry Conway!

Firestorm the Nuclear Man vol. 1 #1, March 1978. Cover by Allen Milgrom.

In some ways it feels bizarre to talk about Gerry Conway as the second Firestorm writer I read, but it's true. I may have a tremendous affection for John Ostrander's tenure, and I enjoyed the constant forward momentum in learning about the true nature of Firestorm. However, there's something to be said for a status quo, and Conway created the foundations without which Ostrander wouldn't have been able to do such richly textured work. And with that in mind, may I say hot damn, these early Firestorm stories are fun!

Firestorm's early stories are so self-contained that outside of a handful of issues of The Flash featuring Professor Zoom (a tale for another blog entirely) they're the earliest DC Comics I care to own. Conway and his artist, longtime Marvel madman Allen Milgrom, do a terrific job with ol' Flamehead's origin in the first issue, setting up the origins of the first few villains he'd fight in Multiplex (#2) and Killer Frost (#3). The dynamic of the first five stories is interesting because while Ronnie Raymond remembers Firestorm, Professor Stein only knows of his involvement as one half of Firestorm while merged. When they fission, Stein suffers from amnesia. Ronnie is so self-absorbed about all the good they're doing as Firestorm that he neglects telling him, and so the Professor's life gets flushed ever deeper down the toilet.

The introduction of the longest-tenured Firestorm villain, Killer Frost. Cover by Allen Milgrom.

The series starts off on decent enough footing, being pretty much a "Spider-Man" riff for DC. (In fact, more than once Firestorm has been called a Marvel character who makes his home at DC. Being a Marvel geek first and foremost, that could well explain my attraction to him.) Conway gave the characters quite the inversion, with Ronnie Raymond being a high school jock where Peter Parker was a bookworm. The Flash Thompson to his Peter was Cliff Carmichael, an intellectual who learned to fight from being beaten down--again, an inversion of the Spider-Man paradigm. Rounding out the supporting cast were Ronnie's girlfriend, Doreen Day; his father, Ed; and his principal, Wallace Hapgood. It's interesting that, with the exception of the Hyena, Firestorm's friends all come from Ronnie's life while his enemies come from Professor Stein's.

It's a shame after such interesting beginnings, then, that the "DC Explosion" (referring to an influx of talent and new titles in the mid-1970s) so quickly became the "DC Implosion" during which many, many titles were canceled in a short period due to economic downturn and rising paper costs. Firestorm the Nuclear Man was canceled abruptly at issue #5, after the introduction of the Hyena (#4) and the return of Multiplex (#5). A sixth issue was already nearly complete by the time the cancellation news came down, featuring the introduction of another new villain, Typhoon, and can be read right here online. The sixth issue's cover just turned up recently, and according to an interview with Gerry Conway, the never-written seventh issue's villain, "The Reptile Man," actually got recycled and became the Batman villain, Killer Croc. (There's a DC trivia bit for you!)
Firestorm lends the Flash a hand. From The Flash #293, cover by George Perez.

The series wasn't quickly forgotten, and soon Firestorm appeared alongside Superman in DC Comics Presents #17 (the company's answer to Marvel Team-Up). A few months later, Superman sponsored the Nuclear Man for membership in the Justice League of America with #179 of that series. Both these appearances, of course, were written by Firestorm co-creator Gerry Conway. Firestorm continued as a member of the Justice League (but I confess I only own #179). A few months later still, he made his grand reappearance in a regular feature all his own--that is, as the second feature in The Flash between issues 289 and 304. The series began by solving the worst crisis in the series' early run, having Ronnie reveal the secret of Firestorm to Professor Stein, which smartly also brought any readers who hadn't read the first series up to date. The stories continued in eight-page increments, illustrated by the likes of George Perez, Jim Starlin, Denys Cowan, and Pat Broderick. Aside from Stein learning his secret identity, the books are worthwhile only for the reworked first appearance of Typhoon (in #294-296) and the second Hyena story (#301-304), which established her identity as Ronnie's girlfriend's sister, Summer Day.

Firestorm graduates to his second series. Cover by Pat Broderick & Dick Giordano.

More noteworthy than these plot points was Firestorm's increased popularity, which enabled Conway and artist Broderick to re-launch a regular series, this time titled The Fury of Firestorm, the Nuclear Man, with its first issue cover-dated June of 1982. This is the series that really made me enjoy Pat Broderick's art. His style was very dynamic and provided just the right amount of detail. Gerry Conway was really having fun with the stories, too, introducing one player in the first issue who'd come to mean a lot to Firestorm to this day: Lorraine Reilly, daughter of Senator Walter Reilly. Upon meeting Firestorm, she develops quite the crush on him, which is made more interesting by the fact that she's in college while Ronnie is in high school--not to mention Ronnie already has a girlfriend in Doreen.

I'd really love to go in-depth on Conway's tenure on the book, but with several entries left to go, I'm afraid I'll have to give everyone the highlight reel. Here are a few storylines and ideas that are high points of The Fury of Firestorm up through the time John Ostrander took over:

  • Fury of Firestorm #7: The first appearance of the super-villainess Plastique, who for a brief time was Mrs. Captain Atom, is chiefly noteworthy for the way Firestorm gets out of the predicament on the cover. I'll say this: never have Firestorm's atomic restructuring powers been put to better use! File this one under "seen to be believed."
  • Fury of Firestorm #10-13: After the first few issues of the series, Conway and Broderick really kicked in high gear with this four-part storyline. The Hyena never enjoyed such exposure before or since. The idea of were-hyenas is pretty out there, even for Firestorm, but this storyline made it work so well, it's not surprising nobody stepped up and put the Hyena in the spotlight since. Summer Day's back in town, along with the doctor who "cured" her of the curse of the Hyena, Dr. Jivan Shi...but then, why is the Hyena prowling around? The arc hits all the major bases and even has Firestorm suffering from the curse at one point, which must be seen to be believed. The cliffhanger from #12 into #13 is ridiculous fun. This multi-part storyline is a true underappreciated gem.
  • Fury of Firestorm #14-18 & Annual #1: Did someone say "underappreciated"? Whereas the last arc was just a good Firestorm story, this storyline is, simply put, the most important Firestorm story since the origin, with ripples that echo down to Stuart Moore's Firestorm tales from the 2004 series. There's so much payoff from longstanding plot nuggets, like the full story of the Shine family and how it relates to the Raymond family; the introduction of Henry Hewitt and his recruitment of Multiplex in a scheme to take down Firestorm; and most importantly, the development of Lorraine Reilly through her metamorphosis into Firehawk. Sadly, artist Pat Broderick took his leave of the series midway through this arc, but classic artist George Tuska would fill in ably before the debut of new series artist Rafael Kayanan. With inker Rodin Rodriguez staying on board for the duration, the transition went smoothly.
  • Fury of Firestorm #20-21, 33-36: I group these two storylines together because they have similaries, in their co-star status for Firehawk, and the villain shared in both is Killer Frost. It's true, the first Killer Frost perishes in the first storyline and a new one replaces her in the second, but these are overall two very powerful arcs. Add in the superhero soap caused by the Firestorm/Firehawk relationship, and it's all terrific. The only weak link in the run here is in the latter issues, with Rafael Kayanan's pencils totally lost behind Alan Kupperberg's strong inking style. (Thankfully Ian Akin & Brian Garvey came aboard shortly thereafter, making Kayanan's art look strong as ever.)
  • Fury of Firestorm #40: Graduation day arrives for Ronnie Raymond, and with it a longstanding subplot comes to a head. Does the merger really stop when Ronnie and the Professor fission? If so, then how did a C+ student like Ronnie ace all his final exams? A fun little story with an ingenious solution that gets the nuclear hero closer to that move to Pittsburgh.
  • Fury of Firestorm #45-47 & Blue Devil #23: Multiplex returns with a team of Firestorm's greatest nemeses. It's a good thing Blue Devil's on the case too! A good little story with artwork by George Tuska and new regular artist Joe Brozowski.
  • Fury of Firestorm #50: In the last tale illustrated by the amazing Rafael Kayanan, a number of long-running sub-plots come to a head, including the reasons behind the resolution of a lawsuit against ol' Flamehead by Felicity Smoak, the woman who becomes Mrs. Ed Raymond in this issue. (Yes, it's pretty close to being just what you think.) Behind the Denys Cowan cover with the ugly, plain new series logo lurks another solid story that addresses Ronnie's father's past and his intriguing connection with the World War II hero, Captain X. Plus, something happens with Cliff Carmichael that really puts him in his place.
Issue #53 of The Fury of Firestorm was Conway's last, with the development of the key plot point that would inform John Ostrander's tenure: Martin Stein's brain tumor. Nobody really knows where Conway was going with that particular idea, but it's certain that he never intended all of the very radical changes Ostrander introduced. It really felt like he told most if not all the Firestorm stories he intended to tell, and I'm not really sure what other ideas he could have brought to the table if he'd stayed on board. I would've been anxious to see any return by Firehawk in the series, in light of her heavy involvement throughout the #20s-30s. Everything I've written in the first three sections of this feature follow here, with the return of Firehawk, the introduction of the Post-Crisis Parasite, the new incarnation of Firestorm, and the ongoing mystery of Killer Frost. Finally, we're ready to go forward, out of back-issue land.

Next: An in-depth examination of Firestorm's appearances between the end of his second regular series and the beginning of his third. Yes, friends, that means Extreme Justice, The Power Company, and something about a Green Lantern robot. Stay tuned!


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