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Grumpy Old Fan | Firestorm, Cyborg and corporate synergy

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Firestorm, Cyborg and corporate synergy

We’re just now into the back half of October and it’s already been a busy month for DC Comics’ television and movie adaptations. Gotham got under way, The Flash debuted and Arrow has returned, with Constantine on deck. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. announced a massive slate of Justice League-related movies, stretching from 2016’s Batman v Superman to 2020’s Cyborg.

However, the adaptation pipeline has the potential to flow in two directions. Between Caitlin Snow’s potential Killer Frost, the second episode’s Multiplex and the promise of both Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein, the new Flash show seems pretty intent on bringing in a good bit of Firestorm lore. If DC executives hadn’t already been thinking about yet another Firestorm comic revival, The Flash’s immediate success may well encourage them to. Similarly, of all the movies Warner Bros. apparently intends to make over the next six years, the only one without a solid comics presence is Cyborg.

Therefore, today we’ll look at these two creations of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, to see what DC might do with their four-color futures.

* * *

Firestorm the Nuclear Man was created by writer Gerry Conway and artist Al Milgrom and debuted in March 1978’s Firestorm #1. The series lasted just five issues before being canceled in the infamous “DC Implosion.” However, it reappeared as a backup feature in (appropriately enough) The Flash, where it ran semi-regularly from September 1980’s issue 289 to November 1981’s Issue 303. Because Conway was also writing Justice League of America, ‘Stormy had already joined (in June 1980’s Issue 179), giving him some additional exposure. The second ongoing series, Fury of Firestorm, followed in June 1982, and ran for just over eight years, until August 1990’s Issue 100. The events of that issue effectively put the character in limbo for a few years, but he came back in 1995 as a part of the very ‘90s Extreme Justice and kicked around with various Leagues for several years after that.

Without getting too complicated — and trust me, it gets complicated — for our purposes the original Firestorm died as part of 2004’s Identity Crisis. However, almost immediately the Firestorm identity passed to a new teenage host, Jason Rusch, whose ongoing series — written by Dan Jolley and Stuart Moore, and penciled by Chriscross and Jamal Igle — ran for just under three years (June 2004-June 2007). Jason and Ronnie both figured in Blackest Night (2009-10) and Brightest Day (2010-11), where they learned to share Firestorm. Brightest Day especially seemed designed to set up a new status quo for the composite hero. That’s what happened, although it was a radical relaunch from writers Gail Simone and Ethan van Sciver, and artist Yildray Cinar, as part of the New 52. That version of Fury of Firestorm lasted 20 issues (2011-13), and featured a last-ditch back-to-basics overhaul from writer/artist Dan Jurgens. Nowadays — or, I suppose, “five years from” nowadays — Ronnie and Jason are on the outs as part of Futures End.

I’ve read Firestorm in all of its forms pretty much from the beginning, and it’s very much a character-driven series. Specifically, for eight years it was a Gerry Conway-written series (drawn by the likes of George Pérez, Pat Broderick and Rafael Kayanan) featuring a teenaged superhero dealing with the by-then-familiar tropes of school pressures and social stresses. I’m not the world’s biggest Spider-Man scholar, but suffice it to say that Conway’s DC work in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s seems to come from a different place than his Spidey stories from the early ‘70s. (Wikipedia notes that Conway wanted Firestorm to have the “fun” he thought Spider-Man was missing.) Indeed, Conway apparently sought to invert the usual high-school setups, making Ronnie a put-upon basketball star whose chief tormenter, Cliff, was the school’s resident genius. More interesting was Stein’s original setup: A recovering alcoholic, his lapses inevitably affected Firestorm, and were complicated by Stein’s initially having no memory of his Firestorm adventures.

Basically, though, Firestorm was fairly standard superheroics. He fought stereotypes (Black Bison, the Hyena), forces of nature (Killer Frost, Typhoon), radiation-powered menaces (Multiplex, Tokamak) and Rogues Gallery rejects (Slipknot, the Enforcers). Conway stayed through November 1986’s Issue 53 — shortly after introducing Ronnie’s stepmother, reporter Felicity Smoak — and after a couple of fill-ins, writer John Ostrander and artist Joe Brozowski took the series on an extended odyssey. First they gave Stein cancer, which ended up making Firestorm a fugitive. After surviving a nuclear explosion (involving a Soviet superhero), Stein disappeared and Firestorm struggled to regain his humanity. Eventually it was revealed that Stein had survived and was supposed to carry the Firestorm matrix by himself, so at the end of Issue 100 Stein left Earth.

Fast-forward 14 years to Jason Rusch, who didn’t need a special connection with someone to make them part of Firestorm. This created some entertaining pairings, but before too long Jason met Stein (and Ronnie, after a fashion) and paired up with him (and, later, with the superheroine Firehawk). For its part, the New 52 version ran more with the “matrix” idea, postulating a set of “Firestorm Protocols” devised by the missing Martin Stein, and used by a host of different countries to create super-powered agents. In this setup, Ronnie and Jason could each become Firestorm independently, and could combine into a rampaging creature called “Fury.” Again, the Dan Jurgens revamp sought to return Ronnie and Jason to a more traditional setup, which is where we find them today.

Any hypothetical Firestorm revival would probably have to wait until the dust settles after next spring’s West Coast move. That would also give the TV characters more exposure, and perhaps give Jason Rusch time to appear on Flash. At the risk of being obvious, the makeup of Firestorm himself is critical to both TV and the comics. If the TV show emphasizes Ronnie and Martin, that’ll put pressure on the comics to conform, possibly to Jason’s detriment. Conversely, working Jason into the show means introducing the audience to yet another new character. This is where my nerd knowledge starts to break down, because I am sure there are Logistics involved in such a thing, but I don’t know how much of a hassle they are. You wouldn’t think it’d be that hard to bring in Jason, particularly if you’re already going to leave Martin in the background, but I’m not holding my breath.

(Still, if Flash does feature Firestorm in any meaningful way — say, as much as Huntress or Deadshot recurred on Arrow — I will use my mighty fan entitlement to demand an adaptation of January 1981’s Flash #293, “The Deadliest Man Alive!” It’s a 13-page Conway-written vignette penciled by Pérez and inked by Rodin Rodriguez, featuring Firestorm getting drunk on radiation after absorbing a truckload of it to save the Flash’s life, and the Flash having to deal with that while trying to stop the Atomic Skull. Not the most intellectual of stories, but fun nonetheless.)

Anyway, the point is there’s a lot of history to Firestorm. Going all-new and all-different worked pretty well for Ostrander and Brozowski (and later, Ostrander and Tom Mandrake); but revisiting some classic Firestorm characters with Jason Rusch (courtesy of Moore and Igle) was entertaining too. Still, I don’t know that a 2015 Firestorm comic needs to be much more complicated than “Ronnie and Jason share a superhero.” They’re both students, they’ve both got a common mentor, one’s a jock and the other’s a brain — why throw Firestorm Protocols or a lot of cloak-and-dagger on top of that? Heck, a hypothetical Firestorm series could go the Batgirl route and focus on two best bros trying to make it out of their teens without being killed by mad scientists. DC’s going to want to do a new Firestorm at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, so it should start ironing out the kinks and make sure it gets it right.

* * *

Victor “Cyborg” Stone was created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez for their New Teen Titans series, which debuted with November 1980’s Issue 1 but received a preview in October’s DC Comics Presents #26. As you probably know, Cyborg was one of three new characters created by the duo for the series (the others being Starfire and Raven), and he soon developed a friendly rivalry with Gar “Beast Boy/Changeling” Logan. In hindsight, that relationship looks a lot like the Ben Grimm/Johnny Storm interplay from Fantastic Four (on which both Wolfman and Pérez had both recently worked), and Vic’s tragic origin and struggle to accept his “new normal” were also somewhat reminiscent of the Thing’s angst.

Fortunately, Vic’s nuances were slightly different from Ben’s. Early on, Cyborg had a few defining moments. First was his relationship with his father: Silas Stone’s research led to the interdimensional incursion that almost killed Vic (and did kill his mom), and Silas basically saved his son’s life by turning him into a cyborg. That didn’t make things any better, because a) Vic was already on the outs with his dad, and resented having to owe him anything; and b) Vic blamed Silas for his mom’s death. Nevertheless — in what turned out to be a sweet, if totally implausible, part of Titans lore — Silas secretly had Titans’ Tower built for Vic and his colleagues. (Yes, “secretly” — the Titans learn about it in NTT #3 and about Vic’s dad in Issue 7.) Originally, Silas died of radiation poisoning in the epilogue of NTT #7, having been struck by the side effects of the thing that killed his wife and attacked Victor. The epilogue shows Silas and Victor reconciling as Silas faces the end. In the New 52, Silas is still alive, and his relationship with Victor isn’t quite so prickly.

Victor’s other significant early relationship was with Sarah Simms, a teacher whose students all had to deal with prosthetics. A classic scene from NTT #8 showed a disguised Vic worried that one of the kids would be frightened by his cybernetic hand. However, the boy reacted with a “cool!” and compared Vic’s chrome-covered parts favorably to his own prosthetic. This dynamic was revisited several issues later, when Vic met Gar’s old teammate Robotman, who was almost entirely mechanical except for his human brain.

These matters tended to be downplayed as the series progressed, in favor of Vic’s relationships with his teammates and with Sarah. (Late in the original Wolfman/Pérez run, readers also met his grandparents, Tucker and Maude Stone. No, not that Tucker Stone.) After a while, however, Titans stopped aging gracefully, and “doing things to Cyborg” became something of a crutch. In the extended “Titans Hunt” storyline he was shot like a missile into the wilds of the Soviet Union, and a few years later he merged with assorted other technological beings. The 1998 JLA/Titans miniseries put him back in a familiar form, but like any number of other DC characters he kicked around for a while, waiting for the next Titans reunion.

Ironically, while Cyborg’s profile is perhaps the highest it’s ever been, I’m not sure there’s currently all that much to him as a character. Basically he’s been doing tech support for the Justice League, and not much else. In “Trinity War” and Forever Evil he was compromised by the Earth-3 techno-organism called The Grid, which necessitated a complete overhaul; and he’s met the Metal Men. Other than that, though, he’s just sort of there.

Accordingly, a solo Cyborg series could probably stand to look to those early Wolfman/Pérez stories for inspiration. When Pérez returned to New Titans after a few years away (doing things like Crisis on Infinite Earths and Wonder Woman), he faced a similar situation. In 1988 Pérez told Amazing Heroes that

At this point, … Victor is, by occupation, a human guinea pig. He’s there for STAR. Labs to keep experimenting on his body. Technically, STAR Labs is keeping him alive while the funds that Silas Stone left is keeping Titans’ Tower active. In a way, Victor is supporting Titans’ Tower.

There are certain things we want to spin off from, such as his hold on humanity. There’s a possibility that with science progressing, his cyborg body will be modified. Who knows, Victor may look totally different in a couple of years. One thing STAR may suggest to him is that they’d like to replace more of his human flesh wish robotic parts. Victor starts dealing with a problem that he’s never had to deal with before; not just the loss of his humanity, but the loss of his being Black! Because writers don’t want to deal with race, Black characters are sometimes not dealt with appropriately. But Victor is Black, there’s no getting around it. He wants to hold onto his Blackness; he’s proud of it, he was born with it, and he’s not going to run away from it.

Part of this also will explain why he lives in Hell’s Kitchen, in a predominately Black neighborhood, despite the fact he could afford to live someplace else. I want to establish that he’s like the “Shane” of his neighborhood. He’s the local hero here. I’m also establishing little things he does to hold onto his humanity, like wearing an eyepatch sometimes over his cybernetic eye so that his human eye does not get weak because there’s a better eye he can rely on. He’s holding onto his humanity and his Blackness.

A lot of the edge that Marv and I felt Victor had has been missing from him lately, and we’ll go hack to honing down on what makes him unique and on the elements of his personality that were always from what I knew of the character rather than what Marv knew of him. Marv was never raised in that type of neighborhood, and I was. I understand his personality better. We’re using that to bring back the edge to Victor Stone.

Pérez’s second stint on Titans wasn’t all that long, so he never got to go as deep into these ideas as the interview might suggest. Still, I’d say those are still valid concerns for the character, deserving at least some consideration if nothing else. With all the added attention Cyborg is going to get between now and Batman v. Superman, DC needs to show it’s thinking about the character in more than just a supporting role.

* * *

As it happens, both Firestorm and Cyborg were late additions to the aging Super Friends line of cartoons (and Super Powers line of action figures), so they’ve already had these sort of shared moments in the multimedia sun. It could just be coincidence, but I think it shows the perennial appeal of these characters. With DC looking once again to broaden its audience, both characters offer opportunities to diversify its superhero line. What Arrow did for Deathstroke, The Flash might well do for Firestorm. Between the Teen Titans cartoons, the Smallville episodes, and the direct-to-video animated movies, Cyborg’s had his share of multimedia exposure, so a solo series is probably overdue.

++++++++++++++++++++

And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 24.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Stormwatch pages: 5
  • Mr. Miracle/Fury pages: 5
  • Madison/Ronnie/Tim pages: 3
  • Jason/Yamazake pages: 2
  • Constantine pages: 5
  • Number of characters in the cover’s foreground: 6
  • Number of those characters depicted in classic/traditional costumes in the “multiversal” background: 2 (Hawkman and Amethyst; 3 if you count Black Adam and Captain Marvel)
  • Apparent couples (in various stages): 3 (Amethyst and Frankenstein, Madison and Ronnie, Mr. Miracle and Fury; 4 if you count Hawkman and the Engineer)

NOTES: This was a pretty straightforward issue, mostly due to fights advancing the overall plot. We know Stormwatch isn’t going to get to Earth before December’s issues, but the fact that it’s bringing a load of Brainiacs adds an extra level of dread. Similarly, Superman finally showing up to fight the cyber-Parasite, or whatever it is, was a very welcome development, as was the notion that Mr. Miracle could “take down” Brother Eye. Perhaps that will come in handy somewhere down the road.

However, I’m not sure why I should care about Ronnie and Madison getting in the way of Madison and Tim. No doubt Madison and Dr. Yamazake are each doing their part to convince Ronnie and Jason to become Firestorm again, but who knows when that’ll pay off? I get no sense of pacing from that subplot, and only slightly more from the Cadmus Island sequence. Speaking of which, I cannot say right now how we got from Fury as Apokoliptian pawn in Earth 2 to Fury as besties with Mr. Miracle — although the latter is an obvious parallel for the Miracle/Barda relationship, where she was likewise an Apokoliptian soldier convinced by love to come to the good side.

Also dampening my enthusiasm for the heroes’ chances is the knowledge that none of this seems to have made a bit of difference to the “35-years-from-now” scenes. The only things that have changed are the time travelers, and Batman Beyond hasn’t been a terribly active protagonist for a while now.

Still, it’s nice to see all those old-school images on the cover, and to note Ronnie’s allusion to “Roy Raymond, TV Detective.” DC promises just enough of the classic material to keep your hopes up.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Atom and Amethyst fight Brainiacs on the Carrier! Everybody fights Brainiacs on the Carrier! Superman fights you-know-who! Somebody wants the Justice League dead! And … somebody’s got a new T-shirt!

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