There are a lot of cool comic book blogs out there (see our sidebar for a list of a bunch of them), but I guess it is hard to pick which ones you think you’d like to read. So each week, I will feature a guest entry by a really cool comic blogger, and you all can then check out that comic blog after you see how cool they are from their guest bit.
Today’s entry comes from Ryan Day, who has a nifty blog called Metamorphostuff, that is a basic pop culture blog, with a heavy bent on comic book discussion.
Ryan’s guest entry is an in-depth discussion of John Ostrander’s run on Firestorm.
Uncollected: John Ostrander’s Firestorm
by Ryan Day
Firestorm is pretty stupid.
I’m going to catch some flak for that, but let me say that I have fond childhood memories of the character, and I think he’s got a cool visual design and a unique concept.
But he’s still a pretty stupid character. Let’s review the origin: Ronnie Raymond, high school jock, moves to a new school. He meets a pretty girl, but he also meets a nerd who makes fun of him. So to prove he’s a smart guy, Ronnie joins a group protesting a new nuclear power plant – okay, kind of plausible – and accompanies them as they break into the plant. Nuclear accident, fused with brilliant yet awkward Professor Stein, yadda yadda…
Ronnie Raymond has just become the villain in any standard Stan Lee origin story. A misunderstood-but-not-really-evil villain, true, but still – he’s a doofus who did something stupid and got superpowers. Oh, and he’s the only one who can initiate the Firestorm figure; not only is Professor Stein often an unwilling participant, but initially he’s also got amnesia when it comes to his deeds as Firestorm, which doesn’t help his alcoholic tendencies and shaky career standing. Ronnie’s looking real good now.
Naturally, this sets up the classic “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” theme, which Gerry Conway worked for all it was worth. Along the way, Firestorm fights a militant feminist ice queen who wants to kill men for rejecting her, an Indian who’s possessed by the spirits of his forefathers and metes out punishment to Whitey, evil were-hyenas, and a superpowered French Canadian terrorist who was running around nearly a full decade after the Front de liberation du Quebec had their time in the spotlight.
Conway’s Firestorm wasn’t actively bad, but it’s about the most generic and bland superhero book you’d ever want to read. It might be exciting if you’d never read a superhero book before, but otherwise it rehashes every cliche in the genre.
But Conway did two important things: He created the character, which is still a pretty decent accomplishment: How many other characters from 1978 are still around? And he set up, perhaps unwittingly, the best storyline the character has ever seen: At the very end of his run, he gave Martin Stein cancer.
Enter John Ostrander. Ostrander is kind of a cult guy: People who like him like him a lot, while most others have barely heard of him. His runs on Suicide Squad and The Spectre are well respected, but still criminally uncollected. The word most associated with Ostrander and his books tends to be “underrated”, and that more than applies to his work on Firestorm.
Martin Stein had a brain tumour, which isn’t terribly unrealistic for a nuclear physicist who was nearly blown up in a nuclear accident and has subsequently been half of “The Nuclear Man.” The prognosis isn’t good: Martin Stein is going to die. But he wants to do something meaningful before he does. And so, in Firestorm #62, he and Ronnie set out on a mission: To rid the world of nuclear weapons.
The next few issues show off the political and espionage stories Ostrander did so well in Suicide Squad. Naturally, nobody is happy when Firestorm starts defusing nuclear warheads and demands that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. disarm their arsenals. The U.S. government makes their first move with Captain Atom, the generic heavyweight people in the DCU seem to call in when they want the hero to fight someone powerful and good that will still lose. But after Firestorm escapes Captain Atom, who at least made a half-assed attempt to resolve things peacefully, the government goes to Plan B: Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, accompanied by the dangerously unstable and uncontrollable Parasite.
Meanwhile, the Russians are readying their own secret weapon: Pozhar, a survivor of Chernobyl with his own destructive nuclear fire powers. He also gets one of the best introductions ever from Ostrander: “Why is this man screaming? That was the easy question. Here’s the toughie: Why is this man still alive?” Pozhar (or Mikhail Arkadin, when he had flesh and wasn’t on fire) isn’t totally gung ho about being used as a weapon, but the KGB can be very persuasive.
All this comes to a head in Firestorm Annual #5: Firestorm vs. Suicide Squad vs. the Justice League, followed by Firestorm vs. Pozhar, followed by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. setting aside politics to team up and nuke the two nuclear misfits in the Nevada desert.
Ostrander really does give us an all-new, all-different Firestorm: Professor Stein is nowhere to be found. Firestorm is now formed by the merging of Ronnie and Mikhail, but neither one is in charge – Firestorm seems to have his own personality, even if it’s very odd and disconnected from humanity.
After some frankly forgettable Millenium crossovers (were there any other kind?), Ostrander sets about exploring the new status quo. Arkadin’s involvement lets him dabble in politics and paranoia, and Zastrow, the sinister KGB agent who would also become a semi-regular in Suicide Squad takes over as a nice recurring villain. Martin Stein is eventually found in the desert with amnesia, and some kind of connection to the new Firestorm seems obvious. The Firestorm persona becomes increasingly reluctant to let Ronnie and Mikhail resume their lives, since when they’re apart, he doesn’t exist.
Ostrander hits another peak with Eden, a three part storyline that runs from 77-79. Firestorm wants to do something positive with his powers, so Ronnie travels to Africa with his father, a reporter doing a story on starvation and famine. Firestorm sees the waste and devastation, and for the first time in the history of the book, does something useful: He uses his powers to create a new garden of Eden where there was once only desolate desert.
Ostrander dabbled with the idea of the proactive superhero earlier. But while his opening salvo at superhero conventions embraced a “we know what’s best for you” attitude that had been done a few times before and is now fairly common, Eden shows something we see only rarely: A superhero who does good not by fighting evil, but by creating life. Naturally not all goes according to plan, but intention is pure.
The status quo gets thrown up in the air yet again a few issues later, in a story that really isn’t one of the high points. It’s something to do with cloning, and a new, artificial Firestorm created by the Russians, and eventually gets merged into the real Firestorm. It’s about clones; you probably shouldn’t try to make too much sense of it, and it feels like a subplot Ostrander should have spread over a dozen or so issues.
But the end result – which is showcased in a Janus Collective crossover that has virtually nothing to do with the Janus Collective – is impressive. Firestorm is revealed to be a fire elemental, a spirit of the Earth, whose creation was somewhat flawed. Ronnie & Mikhail seem to be gone completely, and the new Firestorm doesn’t care.
It’s also here that Ostrander teams up with Tom Mandrake, a partnership that would continue and climb to even greater heights in The Spectre. Mandrake brings his spooky, gothic style to the book and puts it to good use. Ostrander changes the tone of his stories almost entirely: Instead of KGB agents and nuclear mutants, he sets himself against those he sees despoiling Mother Earth, a path that puts him in conflict with former romantic interest Firehawk. From there, he’s plunged into a war of elementals, great powers who decide the Earth would be best served by wiping out the humans.
(Incidentally, if you’re thinking “Making Firestorm an Elemental was stupid,” you might not be entirely wrong. But making Red Tornado an Elemental was much, much stupider. The dude is an android; they can’t be a force of nature any more than they can get women pregnant.)
Ostrander gets most ambitious with a semi-final storyline (95-98) that sees Firestorm lured into the struggle of an African pantheon of gods, a story that partly revisits his actions in Eden. It’s largely the closing act in the cycle that takes him from human to godlike and back to human again, or at least understanding and accepting them. It’s tailor made for Mandrake, dark and brooding and full of epic god-sized battles.
And then Ostrander has super-nuclear big baddie Brimstone try to blow up the sun, and the series wraps up with #100.
It’s easy to look at this and suspect that Ostrander started his run by ripping off Superman IV and then ended it by ripping off Swamp Thing. That might be true, but Ostrander did much more with the concepts than a surface inspection would reveal. It would be more accurate to say that Firestorm started in a style Ostrander would play out more fully in Suicide Squad, and finished as a book that led thematically (not to mention artistically) into The Spectre. Along the way, he did some neat things with the concept of Firestorm’s composite personality, explored proactive superheroics before everyone was doing it, and created a strong supporting cast – something he’s done in nearly every book he’s worked on.
John Ostrander’s Firestorm will probably never be considered a classic – heck, it may never even be collected – but it’s another very good book by a very good writer who makes much more out of the character and concept than anyone had before. It’s a smart superhero book that was continually on the verge of cancellation and so encouraged experimentation and change. Ostrander’s written a lot of good books, but Firestorm may be the one that best displays his range and originality.
It wasn’t always gold, but it was seldom boring, which is more than you can say for most Firestorm stories.