THE BALLAD OF J. J. BIRCH
If you show a Neal Adams “Detective Comics” page to someone who’s never read a comic book before, he or she could tell you that it was drawn in a different style than a Frank Quitely “Batman and Robin” page. This hypothetical victim of comic book art comparison might not be able to articulate the difference, but there would surely be some agreement that Neal Adams draws in a different “style” than Frank Quitely.
Style is easier to identify than it is to describe.
In comics — in mainstream superhero comics, at least — we constantly see the push and pull between the development of artistic style and the demands of the commercial product. An artist should develop his or her own personal style, but not go too far. Bill Sienkiewicz was popular when he was aping Neal Adams in the early “Moon Knight” issues, but he was far more interesting as an artist when he pushed his style in more abstract directions in “New Mutants,” or, better yet, “Elektra: Assassin.” Yet I can’t imagine the direct market sustaining a regular series drawn in mature Sienkiewicz style. It might look amazing, show the brilliance of an individual style applied to the conventions of superhero storytelling, but it wouldn’t sell as well as a comic drawn by Mark Bagley. That’s the sad reality of the marketplace.
Caution and consistency is rewarded. Experimentation and stylistic progression is punished. Unless the experimentation and progression are toward a more pleasing middle ground of acceptability. Some great artists live in that pleasing middle ground — Ivan Reis, John Cassaday, Alan Davis — and their work has refined itself to diamond-sharp brilliance. So I’m certainly not complaining about any of this. I’m just providing some context for what is to come. And I realize that mainstream superhero comics do provide far more variety, visually, than they did back in the days when everyone was trying to draw like Jack Kirby at Marvel, or Curt Swan at DC. But, still, in the spectrum of superhero art today, a lot of it doesn’t push too far at either end. Most of it is clumped in the middle, where things are safe, and people like Eric Canete are ridiculed on message boards because they can’t draw Spider-Man “realistically.”
Ironically, my thoughts on this topic were sparked by a rereading of a comic that’s over 20 years old: “Firestorm: The Nuclear Man” #70, cover-dated April 1988. Or, as I like to call it, “the best issue of ‘Firestorm’ ever.”
It’s a very personal Top 1 list, to be sure. It doesn’t have the most action. It doesn’t have the most tragedy or pathos. It’s not the funniest. It doesn’t distill the essence of the Firestorm character or provide a radically different take on the superhero ideal. It’s really just an issue of a comic book series — a middle-run installment in what was obviously a long-form story written by John Ostrander.
But (a) it’s crazy. And (b) it features the artistry of J. J. Birch.
J. J. Birch doesn’t really exist, of course, even though he’s credited on the cover and title page of “Firestorm” #70. Well, he exists, but that’s not the name he normally went by when he drew superhero comics. It seems that meat-and-potatoes superhero artist Joe Brozowski, who had been drawing comics for nearly a decade — and drawing “Firestorm” for almost two years — decided that he wanted to try out a different style, and he used the name “J. J. Birch” in case readers really hated the new stuff. That’s the rumor anyway, and I think John Ostrander said something to that effect back in the late 1980s. As “J. J. Birch,” Brozowski drew a few issues of “Firestorm,” culminating in the best-ever issue #70, and then, in mid-cliffhanger, switched back to his real name and his more customary style with issue #71.
Brozowski drew in a kind of watered-down, thrice-removed Neal Adams style, something like early Butch Guice or Tom Grindberg. But when he was J. J. Birch he was something new. He was a mix of Alex Toth and Mike Sekowsky and whoever Keith Giffen was mimicking at the time, but filtered through that Brozowski, post-Neal Adams sensibility. Birch, the creation, was far better than Brozowski, the creator.
And yet Birch didn’t stick around, presumably because sales demonstrated that Birch was less popular, or editorial decided that the style wasn’t the right fit for the series. Denny O’Neil was the “Firestorm” editor, and he must have approved the Birch experiment. But by issue #71, Brozowski was back being Brozowski, although inker Sam de la Rosa must have played a role in the whole charade as well. His inking style changed radically from Birch to Brozowski as well, and issue #71 looks like a transitional comic, as if the decision to return to the Brozowski style wasn’t fully decided by the opening pages, and de la Rosa must work his inky magic to turn Birch-style pencils into what looked like Brozowski. In a series that’s about transformation and multiple identities, it’s fascinating that one of the core artists decided to transform his own style and adopt a new identity in mid-run.
I do want to explore the art in issue #70 in more detail, and discuss the notion of artistic style and superhero comics at greater length, but let me provide some of the narrative context for this particular issue of “Firestorm,” so you know what Brozowski-as-Birch had to work with. Though “Firestorm” began as a series about an impulsive student and a wise professor merged into a single superhero, by the time John Ostrander rolled into the “Millenium” crossover (which occurred just as Birch, the unreal artist, made his debut), the Firestorm being was actually formed by Ronnie Raymond and Russian Mikhail Arkadin. With deeper-set eyes and a lankier, longer frame, this new Firestorm looked more spectral in appearance, a more haunting nuclear hero. If in the Gerry Conway issues that launched the series, Firestorm was a nuclear-powered Spider-Man with Uncle Ben’s (or Martin Stein’s) disembodied voice ringing in his ears, then in the Ostrander issues, Firestorm became an exploration of the late Cold War tension and the relationship between the military, the industry, and the scientific establishment.
It was the Modern Age of American comics, after all, and superheroes became serious business. But even if he played with contemporary issues and notions of relevance and maybe even deconstruction, Ostrander didn’t skimp on the weirdness.
Issue #70 features the disembodied ghost (or time traveling apparition) of a long-thought-dead hippy scientist who crushes a model of an SDI satellite at a press conference. And that’s just the opening three pages. Then we get Firestorm waking up after a battle with the insectoid Zuggernaut who he fought in the previous issue, though we get a replay of the battle later in this issue as well, in flashback, and when Firestorm un-forms into his human components, his astral, Firestormy, personality gets pulled into the time stream all of a sudden so he can meet up with the “Flying Dutchman,” that very same hippy scientist who crushed the satellite in the opening scene.
Meanwhile, the KGB send WWII hero Stalnoivolk, who looks like a young Joe Stalin and hasn’t aged since the war, to find Ronnie Raymond, and Raymond gets a warning about that situation from his grandfather, the WWII-era “Captain X.”
That’s what happens up to page nine.
I told you this issue was weird.
And decompression? “Firestorm” #70 scoffs at decompression and blasts you in the face with a nuclear fist.
Stalnoivolk bursts through the wall to say things like “You will be surrendering to me the creature Firestorm,” and plucky girl reporter Bree Daniels (who witnessed the strange apparition in the first scene) investigates the true story of the “death” of that hippy professor who, unbeknownst to her, is actually going around calling himself the Flying Dutchman and hanging out in the time stream. Daniels confronts Dean Rice, of Vandermeer University, and learns the “origin” of the Flying Dutchman just as Firestorm’s astral form learns about it via the time traveling hijinx of his new pal — and, oh, it seems the Flying Dutchman got stuck in the time stream because he witnessed the dawn of creation (or in DCU terms, that giant hand at the center of the Big Bang).
The issue ends with Mikhail Arkadin’s wife being tossed out of a window as Firestorm’s astral form takes the place of the Flying Dutchman circa 1960-whenever as the crazed hippy first tried to travel through time with his mind hooked up to a machine and saw the Big Bang hand that screwed up his life forever.
Best. Firestorm. Issue. Ever.
And J. J. Birch draws it with such restraint. It’s all presented without the usual superhero histrionics, and the thick ink line de la Rosa uses (more Al Gordonesque than his normal style) just helps to soften everything and yet make it look more physically solid. These are characters carved from soap.
What’s amazing about Brozowski’s “J. J. Birch” style, is how radically different his page layouts and panel compositions are as well. In his normal style, he flows freely from long to medium shots to close-ups, characters dynamically posed, emoting like off-Broadway wannabes. As Birch, he cuts abruptly between long shots and close-ups, and his characters are almost always upright, posed somewhat more stiffly, more elegantly. He structures each panel around more geometrically-inclined shapes, rather then over-rendered images. And he’s not afraid of abstraction. An outline here. A silhouette there. The “time stream” itself is a dozen or two brush lines.
Simple, effective. J. J. Birch.
But in the midst of Mikhail’s wife falling to her death, just as the astral Firestorm being inhabits the body of the soon-to-be-time-trapped hippy scientist, and as the mustachoed Russian superhero confronts Ronnie Raymond and his grandpa, Birch disappears. Brozowski, as Brozowski, draws issue #71 and it becomes just another late-1980s superhero comic. A comic that looks like it’s hugging the middle of conventionality, even if Ostrander’s scripts are filled with spectacular weirdness.
It’s just not the same without Birch.
Brozowski used the Birch name several times after his brief trial run on “Firestorm.” It was “Birch,” not Brozowski, who drew the “Catwoman” series that followed “Batman: Year One.” It was Birch who drew the Steve Gerber “Foolkiller” series a few years later. And though both of those comics looked more like Birch than Brozowski, they didn’t quite look like the raw, blocky, stylish Birch of “Firestorm” circa #70. Back when, for a moment, comics were a place where an artist could try out a new style. When an artist could experiment with something a bit out of the ordinary. When “Firestorm” didn’t look like it always had, or always would.
Back when lost hippies surfed the time stream, when WWII Russians with super-leaping and super-wall-busting powers came knocking, when Firestorm was about nuclear escalation, in more ways than one. When J. J. Birch reigned. At least for a few issues.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan