A Hitch In Time… Justice League #2

Justice League #2 sees threats multiply and our heroes ask a lot of questions. Are there enough answers to keep this reader hooked? Find out below…

Is there anything more wonderfully clichéd than the sight of a newsreader filling you in on what happened last issue? If you’re a writer, you’ve got to love it, really. You get to infodump straight into the reader’s head without him really noticing. What Bryan Hitch does on page 1 of this issue, though, takes things one step further. When his newsreader starts speaking in red and urges his viewers to “rise up”, I must confess a frisson of fear, the palpable sense of the uncanny, ran through me.

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Only half a cover today. Sorry about that. I’ll have a word with the suppliers.

It’s a shame, then, that we don’t see or hear from the possessed anchorman again. There’s simply too much spectacle to take in and epic, giant threats to deal with. Or, more accurately, talk about dealing with. Or, more accurately still, wonder if they can be dealt with in the first place.

I can see what Hitch is driving at here. There are three separate (but apparently linked in ways about which we don’t even have a clue as yet) phenomena that the League is investigating and each one of them needs to be presented in a dramatic, engaging way. Morrison used to do this kind of thing quite often in his run, but he usually managed to at least hint at the ways the different elements of his stories were related. Hitch fails on this score.

What we get are moments of potential drama that are never quite realised. Towards the end of the last issue, both the GLs and the Flash had their powers… interfered with.  What’s the effect of that little tension-building device? They get their powers back only to lose them briefly again a few pages later. And then they get them back again. A more pointless sequence of events it is difficult to imagine, although it could have been played for real drama and/or pathos.

The nadir of this section is when Simon Baz returns to consciousness a few moments after his powers were taken from him while he was in the middle of dealing with a tsunami about to hit Hong Kong. When he asks Jessica what happened to the water, she responds with an almost glib “Took care of it.” as if holding back a massive wall of seawater and saving thousands of people were a small thing not worthy of discussion or, for that matter, being drawn in even one panel of this comic book. To say that’s a missed opportunity – particularly given Jessica’s frequently-highlighted insecurity about her status as a Green Lantern – is an understatement. The story is too focused on the big stuff to fully take account of the smaller details that can elevate an issue from just serviceable to truly memorable.

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Jessica and Simon do make a pretty good team, to be fair. The interplay between them ain’t bad at all.

The Flash helps Batman deal with the bio-missile and its flying insectoid payload in Gotham. I’m beginning to think that Tony Daniel really loves the Flash. Once again, he depicts the Flash’s speed with considerable creativity and, once again, I’m genuinely impressed and not a little excited by it. It’s a very nice section.

While Aquaman’s stuck in Atlantis listening to some singing rock sculptures (I kid you not), the rest of the League (without Superman at this point) gather to discuss the crisis, the story slows down and a number of problems present themselves. Firstly, this is a very unsure Justice League. While, in principle, I quite like the idea of the League talking things through, these guys take a relatively long time to come to any decision and seem to be very tentative. To be fair, there’s a lot to talk about: Cyborg’s found objects that are five miles across (remember that detail) buried in the Earth’s outer core; The Flash and the GLs talk about their stolen powers; and Wonder Woman relates her experience with the Russian soldiers. The one thing that isn’t discussed in much detail is the bio-missile in Gotham. This is because the Leaguers don’t need to talk about it, because the Watchtower satellite is about to get hit by one and hundreds more are about to invade the Earth. Nice.

This conference between the League is a good idea, but Hitch manages to present the heroes as being unable to think without speaking first. Everyone asks questions of everyone else and, in the process, pretty much everyone manages to make themselves look almost ludicrously unsure of their abilities and those of their team mates. Could the GLs survive a trip to the Earth’s core? Simon thinks so, but Cyborg disagrees. (There’s probably lots of yellow down there.) Can Jessica “do something remotely with her ring”? (This might be the most inadvertently amusing line of the book.) The League take three pages to realise they might need to get Superman on board, but by then it’s too late because we’ve got an alien invasion to take care of, as, portrayed by a typically impressive piece of Tony Daniel artwork, the Earth is surrounded by a swarm of the bio-missiles last seen chasing down unsuspecting Gothamites.

And… we don’t get to see the League clear the Watchtower. I’m a sci-fi fan of a certain age. The words “Hull breach on Deck Four” are almost guaranteed to get me salivating, but, for crying out loud, you’ve got to follow up on it somehow. Instead, most of the League depart by teleporter, leaving Cyborg to deal with the attack off panel. I get that Hitch is invested in the idea of single League members dealing with parts of a larger threat – or, more accurately, series of threats – but those resolutions should at least be shown.

Instead, we get… Atlantis, again. Aquaman, singing stones, a helpful guard who tells him they’re called Zodiac Crystals and are from a museum – clearly a place Aquaman has never visited, even on one of those rainy (choppy?) Monday afternoons when you’re bored and there’s nothing else to do, but pack a lunchbox of soggy sandwiches and wander around the local public amenities for a bit. We do get to see a development, though. The possessed people are merging together and forming a giant, humanoid, glowing creature. Hurrah for giant, humanoid, glowing creatures! I knew the comic was missing something and giant, humanoid, glowing creatures, in lieu of a plot that actually hangs together, must be it!

Ahem…

Sorry about that. The comic ends with a conversation. Admittedly, it is reasonably well-scripted – and the last line is a great one – but, even so. This is an issue in which talking has been favoured over meaningful action time and time again. Not that that’s necessarily a terrible thing, but, in this case, the talking has either been poorly constructed or conceived. Or comprises none-too-subtle infodumps, the rather groovy infodump on the first page excepted.

The art can’t be faulted. Daniel’s doing his best here and his Superman is absolutely awesome, but his artwork can’t disguise the fact that there have been some curious storytelling decisions here. The story can perhaps best be summed up as “The League tries to work things out. And hasn’t succeeded by the time the story ends.” There is a balance to be struck, of course. We’re only on part 2 of a multi-part story, and I’m not suggesting that Hitch should play all his cards at once, but we need more than what we’re getting here. A beautifully drawn, but nevertheless slightly disappointing issue.

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Without A Hitch? Justice League #1.

In which Bryan Hitch starts his run proper on the Justice League and tells a story which is big on spectacle, but short on detail. Does that matter? Let’s find out.

justice-league-1-dc-rebirthI just might be in love with Tony Daniel’s artwork. Issue 1 of the Justice League opens with a glorious splash page of Wonder Woman diving downwards through the air while flak and missiles explode all around her. It is magnificent and I would quite like it to be a framed poster on my wall. Turn over the page and we’re treated to a double page spread of Diana landing, wielding her lightning bolt against a bunch of Russian soldiers and tanks. Once again, it is impressive stuff with bodies and hardware being tossed around like toys in a show of strength that rather belies her declaration that she is “on a mission of peace”.

This, I think, is the first slight problem with the issue. In these pages and the ones that follow, Diana attacks the Russians in devastating fashion, but, aside from a general lecture about peace and the various things to which human beings devote themselves that prevents it (including “border disputes”), there is no clear context for her actions. Is this a reference to the current crisis in the Crimea and Ukraine or something else? We only see the Russians, not who they’re fighting or, for that matter, any civilians that might be caught in the crossfire. If Diana thinks that attacking random Russian battle groups is the way to bring peace to man’s world, she might want to take a few lessons in politics first. In a sense it doesn’t matter, but fiction tends to be more successful when it is grounded in a believable world. When a huge earthquake shakes the area (wherever it is), a Russian soldier accuses Wonder Woman of having “killed [them] all”, rather implying that, when she tossed a bunch of tanks up in the air a few pages earlier, somehow none of the tank crew were killed in the process. The story’s too busy moving to care about such issues, but the dialogue raises them anyway, leading to a slightly jarring reading experience.

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This does mean she’s going to kill them, doesn’t it?

The focus shifts to Beijing (oh, so now you’re going to tell us where we are, Mr Hitch) where the two Green Lanterns, Jessica and Simon are doing their best to keep the city from collapsing, shoring up buildings with green… stuff. Then it’s off to New York, where Cyborg stops a subway train from crashing into some cars that have fallen through earthquake-generated gaps in the tunnel roof to land on the tracks below. This is all pretty good, actually. We get a clear idea of how widespread the earthquake problem is and we get to see the League members in full-on hero mode, saving lives and, to some extent, property. One of the best sequences, though, is Flash’s intervention in San Francisco in which his speed is emphasised by the simple but very effective image of a falling bottle of water. This is all engaging enough – in a visual as well as emotional way. After all, if the idea of specially powered superbeings putting their lives on the line to save people doesn’t grab you by the heartstrings, why are you reading superhero comics to begin with?

But, we’re already halfway through the comic and we’re not really progressing that much, particularly when we move to Atlantis to see Aquaman trying to deal with the earthquake (seaquake?) that’s taking place there. It’s only when we shift back to the two GLs who are now trying their best to save Hong Kong from a huge tidal wave, that things begin to get more interesting. Some of the civilians seem possessed by a strange power (complete with glowing red eyes) and, chanting something about “stolen light” and “our light” they somehow siphon off the Green Lanterns’ emerald energy. We see Jessica and Simon falling towards the sea and then we’re back with Wonder Woman and things get… weirder.

Again, the idea of things being “stolen” comes into play as the Russian soldiers (most of whom are, I’m going to assume, dead) lurch forward, eyes glowing, talking about “stolen power”. The same is true of Flash in San Diego; this time it’s stolen speed.

Then things get weirder still, when it turns out that a giant alien bio-mechanical missile has landed in Gotham City and begins to release hundreds of smaller creatures that seem intent on attacking the populace. While Batman is typically efficient, the story doesn’t hang around too long, as we move back to Atlantis where, once again, people are being possessed and talking about “stolen words” this time. What does any of it mean?

At this point, we don’t know and, in a sense, we don’t need to know. This is the first issue, after all. When we move back to Eastern Europe (finally!) and find Wonder Woman trying to tackle a horde of (possibly) undead soldiers who are moving through the air like a shoal of fatigues-wearing fish, we find out (because the aforementioned soldiers are helpfully telling us) that something called ‘The Awakening’ has started and that something called ‘The Kindred’ is coming. There’s also a reference to Diana’s ongoing search for her true origins as one of them calls her a “pretender god”. All intriguing stuff, but, while Daniel’s artwork portrays Diana beautifully, her speech essentially consists of the kind of posturing that, without some clear context, sounds quite hollow. “The Kindred? Well hear me now, Kindred. I have friends. And we’re coming for you.” Apart from the fact that that’s the second time in a few short pages that we’ve heard a member of the JL refer to the other members as “friends” (awww), the dialogue is mostly remarkable for its macho stupidity. While it’s understandable for Diana to react to the Kindred (whatever they are) as if they’re hostile, there’s still so much mystery here that it seems foolish for her to leap to conclusions like this. As a way to end the issue it works well enough, I suppose, but it leaves more questions than it answers and also leaves a slightly unsettling feeling in this reader’s mind at any rate. There are some pretty big assumptions being made here, and, as we all know, if you assume you just make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. (Yeah, one of the worst sales managers I’ve ever encountered taught me that a long time ago. Never mind, eh?)

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Diana faces a mass halitosis attack for probably the first time in her career. She seems to be doing okay.

As a spectacle, Justice League issue 1 delivers. Tony Daniel’s artwork is impressively kinetic and his character work is phenomenal. As a story, the issue is a little more difficult to assess. While the feeling of worldwide catastrophe is successfully conveyed, by having the JL essentially deal with issues on their own, the story goes round in circles a little as Hitch tries to give each hero his or her time in the spotlight. Consequently, we’re actually not that far along by the time we get to the end of the issue. Numerous concepts have been introduced – the Kindred, the invading bug-missile, the earthquakes – but there’s no clear indication of how they’re connected to each other. Perhaps things will get better in future issues. This one, though, is a spectacular introduction to the series, which, despite some high concept stuff, falls short of being genuinely engaging.

Roll on, issue 2.

Getting Hitch-ed: Justice League Rebirth

Bryan Hitch carries on his affair with the Justice League. Is it true love? Will it last? Or will it end messily? Who knows? But here’s how we start phase two…

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Tony S Daniel’s cover art is… tasty.

Justice League: Rebirth is mostly about Superman. The opening four pages are narrated by him and, to be honest, those opening four pages are pretty impressive. If it’s one thing that Hitch does well (and, to be fair, he does a lot more than just one thing well), it’s… epic. As the Rebirth Superman (who is actually the pre-Flashpoint Superman after the New 52 Superman died) declaims his monologue, Hitch gives us scenes of an alien creature invading a city and of people running around in panic before Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and the Flash show up to repel the invading monsters, which look a bit like giant flying leeches. Honestly, it is pretty damn good. Hitch has always done epic visuals astonishingly well and his work here, though not quite matching his stuff on The Authority or The Ultimates, nevertheless does the trick of taking our breath away. It’s a fairly obvious point to make, but these pages have an undeniably filmic quality and it is very easy to imagine them forming the storyboard for the opening of a Justice League film that is probably going to end up being directed by Michael Bay.

As the JL members try to deal with the situation, the widescreen action is intercut with slower character interaction – either Superman and Lois talking through the issue of whether he should help out the JL or a flashback scene on the Watchtower in which the JL members try to get their heads round ‘their’ Superman’s death. And that is pretty good, actually. This structure is fairly straightforward but the contrast works well and there’s a genuine sense of increasing threat, as the giant crab/shrimp thing sends out its drones to enslave unsuspecting civilians and gather them into itself.

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Headache? Tense nervous headache? Well, it’s a small price to pay for all that handy plot information, isn’t it?

There’s a quick scene featuring the two Green Lanterns that foreshadows events in the new series proper and then we follow the JL into the belly (or, more accurately, brain) of the beast. Again, this is done fairly well. Some of the dialogue is a little banal, but every so often Hitch provides a zinger. (Batman’s “We’re going to find its brain, and negotiate the terms of its surrender.” is a great example.) Tension is increased as Aquaman is subjected to a telepathic assault that handily fills him in on what the creature wants and what it’s called (a Reaper, apparently), and then the creature responds to the team’s intrusion with a wave of smaller drone-squids. Although Flash’s “Action scene, people!” is annoying, this section as a whole is pretty exciting. The GLs arrive but it’s clear their presence isn’t going to be enough to turn the tide. This is, obviously, a job for…

I must confess that Superman’s arrival did cause my heart to leap and a big grin to spread across my face. We knew it was coming, but Hitch draws the man of steel perfectly here, smashing through the creature’s body and blasting away with his heat vision. Hurrah for Superman! There’s a nice pic that seems to consciously ape that moment that ends the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer, in which all the characters are in action in the same shot, facing the same way, working in unison. What the hell. It works.

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We are awesome and don’t you forget it.

So, too, does the page on which the JL, having broken the Reaper’s hold on the populace, warn the creature that the Earth is protected in a manner that strongly echoes the Doctor’s speech at the end of the Doctor Who episode ‘The Eleventh Hour’, the story that introduced Matt Smith as the Doctor. Not that I object to that, particularly. It is pretty cool.

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Proof positive that, when they have some downtime on the Watchtower, the Justice League watch Doctor Who.

The final page is a splash page as predictable as it is dramatic and the issue leaves the reader (well, this one at any rate) with a building sense of excitement for the rest of the series.

As a primer to the new series, Justice League Rebirth does its job pretty well. The plot is coherent and exciting; the character stuff mostly works, too. It reinforces the notion of the JL as global protectors and it also introduces the idea of the team working against external planetary-level threats reasonably well. All good.

The problems? The main problem is that, its portentous final words (helpfully relayed by Aquaman) notwithstanding, the main threat of the issue is not really fully explained. We’re still not entirely sure just what the Reaper wanted with the Earth’s population, and there’s a missed opportunity here to make the threat more specific and, potentially, more terrifying. I’m not going to quibble too much about that, though. It was great seeing the characters work together and it was especially great seeing Superman (re)join the League. The dialogue could arguably have been a bit snappier, but I’m prepared to give it a pass on this occasion and declare this issue a (slightly qualified) success. So far, this stage of the Hitch-JL love affair is off to a steady and intermittently exciting start.

Fury of Firestorm – issue 19

Back when I was a teenager, Firestorm was a superhero of whom I was particularly fond. The character originally appeared in a short-lived book which suffered early cancellation because of the infamous DC Implosion in the late 70s. I’ve never seen that initial series, but the Fury of Firestorm, which started in 1982 with original writer Gerry Conway on scripting duties and Pat Broderick (and later Rafael Kayanan) on art was a staple of my monthly comic buying.

Firestorm is a pretty unique hero, born of the nuclear accident-induced fusion of two distinct personalities: Ronnie Raymond, high school jock and teen everyman, and Professor Martin Stein, a nuclear physicist whose luck in a variety of areas – career, relationships with the opposite sex and being in the middle of runaway nuclear reactions, to name just three – is truly abysmal. Arguably Ronnie gets the better end of the deal. When the pair transform into Firestorm, he at least gets to keep his body. Stein, on the other hand, is reduced to a disembodied consciousness, represented in the comic by a floating blue-outlined head.

For me at the time, Ronnie was easily the more compelling of the two characters. Despite my reasonably comfortable middle class existence and the singular lack of a flame-haired dual personality alter ego, the whole sense of teen tragedy was profoundly appealing. To be fair, a lot of this was down to Conway’s writing. Not only was his narration drenched in the kind of melodrama that was everywhere in 80s comics, but his plotting was relentless. If Ronnie wasn’t coping with being Hyena-fied, then he was being captured, imprisoned and used in weird nuclear experiments. Or he was seeing his Dad (apparently) dying in an explosion. Nowadays, Martin Stein’s worries about money, career prestige and the demands of his curious relationship with Ronnie Raymond and Firestorm seem much easier to relate to. Perhaps it’s the experience of raising two boys, but the sight of a disembodied head spouting advice to a teenager who largely ignores it is an oddly familiar and reassuring one.

Issue 19 is a curious beast. It comes after a complex and dramatic storyline that had begun in issue 14 and just finished in the first The Fury of Firestorm annual. This storyline had seen the re-introduction of old nemesis Multiplex and the first appearance of villain-turned-hero-turned love interest Firehawk. It also featured that aforementioned death of Ronnie Raymond’s dad and the reappearance of Martin Stein’s ex-wife. Compared to the soap operatic quality of what had preceded it, issue 19 is a much simpler, self-contained tale. It would be easy to dismiss it as filler, but it is noteworthy both for Conway’s script (more of which in a moment) and the fact that, despite the information on the cover, it features stand-in artist Gene Colan who was one of the giants of the genre and remains one of my favourite artists of all time.

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Despite the cover, it’s Gene Colan and Mike Machlan on art this issue.

To my teenage self, Colan was most associated with Detective Comics which featured him as artist on the main strip at roughly the same time as my collecting of The Fury of Firestorm and Marvel’s Doctor Strange, back issues of which would sometimes appear in the big pile of random comics on sale at the used book stall in Southport’s draughty and dour indoor market. (It’s since been refurbished, to be fair. Very nice. The current lack of a book stall, however, is a big disappointment.) Now that I’m (a bit) older, my appreciation extends to include his phenomenal Tomb of Dracula run, Howard the Duck and a variety of shorts for Warren’s horror magazine titles.

Seeing him on a title like The Fury of Firestorm is, at first, a little jarring – at least, I thought so at the time. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Whether by accident or design, Conway has crafted a story that really suits Colan’s talents. The opening three-page prologue is a masterclass in visual horror. In the opening page, we are implicitly placed in a voyeuristic, almost furtive, position as we spy on an overweight bespectacled night watchman eating a sandwich. The storytelling is economical but atmospheric. We move from establishing shot to violent sneezing (observed by a sinister shape in the shadows) to a strangely quivering vine hovering over the dishevelled night watchman over the course of just three panels. What’s impressive about it – and this is typical of all Colan’s figure work – is that, during the course of those three panels, the night watchman, Bernie Jones, has already transcended the role of stock victim assigned to him by the plot. His movements and facial expressions are naturalistic and sympathetic. It’s an impressive feat that succeeds in both establishing the scene and drawing the reader in, setting him/her up for…

The splash page, which reveals the night watchman ensnared by plant tentacles and also reveals this issue’s antagonist, the ‘Golden Boy’ of the story’s title, whose look and powers are plant-based. Goldenrod could have looked like a straightforward Flouronic Man rip-off, but Colan’s art, which keeps much of his face hidden in shadow and emphasises the streams of pollen pouring from his fingers, neatly sidesteps this potential pitfall. As does Conway’s script. “Scream if it helps, old man. I screamed too… once. But no one came for me.” As horrifying as Bernie Jones’ death is (and the art makes clear that it is horrifying), there’s a definite sense that the strange plant guy has a very personal reason for what he’s doing and that the night watchman is simply collateral damage.

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The next page (an hour later) Firestorm arrives at the crime scene. This is interesting because gatecrashing ongoing police investigations is generally not something Firestorm has done too often at this point. Indeed, Conway has Stein wondering just why they’re patrolling the neighbourhood looking for crimes to solve. He kind of has a point, too. Firestorm’s power set is not exactly suited to the kind of detective work he’s about to engage in, but Ronnie’s answer (effectively a variation on Spidey’s ‘great power, great responsibility’ mantra) works well enough for me. That said, it quickly becomes clear just why Firestorm doesn’t go on night patrol too often. Unlike, say, Batman or even the Green Arrow, he just doesn’t quite have the presence to pull it off. Sure the top half of his head is permanently on fire, but that costume…

Anyhow, Firestorm doesn’t get an entirely warm reception from the police, but he does get reluctant permission to snoop around the crime scene, which leads him to a clue. This in turn leads him to… a public phone box in order to access a telephone directory? Weird, isn’t it, to be reminded what people used to have to do before the internet was a thing? This actually provides the creative team the opportunity to present us with one of the best scenes in the entire comic. Having located a telephone directory, Firestorm is confronted by a gang of the sort of ruffians who hang around public phone boxes waiting to beat up anyone who happens by – even if it’s a superhero whose head is permanently on fire. Needless to say it doesn’t go particularly well for them.

Conway and Colan have some fun here. I’m not sure why Professor Stein is such a worrywart but I, for one, am glad that Ronnie ignores his prompting to leave and lets rip at the hapless gang members. And when I say ‘lets rip’ I mean, of course, uses their surroundings or, in one case, clothing to stop them, disarm them and generally make them look a bit silly. You see, Firestorm’s powers have one important constraint. Neither his nuclear blast nor his molecular rearranging powers can be used against living matter. This means that both he and the character’s creators have to get creative when dealing with enemies that, as here, are flesh and blood. So, we get to see one thug get knocked off his feet by a toadstool that appears from nowhere, another swallowed by a giant clam and the guy with the switchblade and the cool threads robbed of both his weapon and his street cred by finding his knife has become a shepherd’s crook and he’s suddenly wearing a rather fetching Bo Peep outfit. (It is, of course, entirely possible that this enforced transvestitism (to borrow a phrase from Father Ted) will mark a new more gentle and feminine direction in the life of the aforementioned thug, but, given the fairly rigidly-defined gender roles of 1980s comics, I rather doubt it.)

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Firestorm undermines street thug’s gender identity. Not cool.

Firestorm’s dialogue here is cornier than a warehouse full of breakfast cereal, but he’s a teenager. I’m willing to cut him some slack. What I am somewhat surprised by is that a previously deserted night-time street very quickly fills up with bystanders who are eager to talk to one another about how great Firestorm is. I’m presuming there wasn’t much on the telly that night.

Having acquired the necessary information, Firestorm heads off to Ollins Labs, but not before carelessly dropping the telephone directory from a great height and inadvertently disrupting a romantic rooftop meeting between two young lovers. I’m not entirely sure what the point of this is, but it’s in keeping with the levity of the last few pages, so fair enough.

Things get more serious from here on in. Ollins Labs turns out to be an ultra-modern research facility that, apparently, once offered Stein a job[1]. On entering, Firestorm interrupts Goldenrod in the middle of doing… something. We’re not quite sure what but it must have been important because he’s very annoyed at Firestorm for distracting him. Fighting ensues.

From start to finish, the fight lasts five pages. And it’s pretty good. Firestorm uses his powers a grand total of three times. That doesn’t seem a lot, but he’s on the defensive for most of the fight, having to deal with both writhing plant tentacles and a violently allergic reaction to Goldenrod’s pollen attack at the same time. At one point a “tornado of pollen” propels him through a glass window, giving him a few moments to catch his breath and try to go on the offensive, but his giant mousetrap doesn’t work (I’m not sure why it doesn’t; that thing is huge) as Goldenrod sidesteps it and he’s back on the defensive again. Colan’s artwork is pleasingly kinetic here and there are some unusual perspectives at times, too, which only add to the overall feeling of weirdness at this point.

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Colan’s artwork presents Goldenrod as a tortured, almost ghostly figure here. Great stuff.

As fights go, it’s enjoyable enough with Firestorm on the ropes in the final round, only surviving because he managed to get his hand free, dislodge a gas pipe and light the resultant gas, causing an explosion that frees him from the slow, strangling grip of plant tentacles, while simultaneously destroying… well, most of the lab and the plants, but not, curiously enough, the nearby PC terminal which, despite the explosion and fire, still manages to be functional and proudly display the next vital piece of plot information.

Neuvafed. Remember that name, because Ronnie Raymond doesn’t. Hardly surprising, I suppose, considering that it’s an experimental anti-allergy drug that was discontinued because it didn’t survive FDA scrutiny. Professor Stein does, though. It is one of the story’s happy revelations that not only is Stein a world class physicist but he also keeps up to speed on the world of high-end pharmaceuticals. And it’s handy that he does. Neuvafed was discontinued but its developer is, apparently, an “irresponsible genius” who “advocates human testing”. Erm… are the alarm bells going off in anyone else’s head or is it just mine?

And, indeed, when Firestorm follows the trail to the home of the scientist who developed the drug, he finds out the truth from the aforementioned scientist who is about to die from an extreme allergic reaction (with “bloated dissolving flesh… chills their very souls” Conway is hitting peak melodrama here) but still has the time to give our hero – and us – Goldenrod’s origin story. It seems that Goldenrod was a Harvard ‘golden boy’ whose law firm went bankrupt; to pay the bills he submitted himself to illegal experimentation, died when the anti-allergy drug he was testing went horribly wrong and was dumped in a ravine. This being comics, his death merely acted as a transition stage for something else. There are echoes of Swamp Thing in the origin here, I suppose, and Bruce Bonwit can be added to the very long list of unethical scientists whose work has inadvertently led to the creation of a superbeing. The ideas may be well-worn at this point, but they’re serviceable enough to work here.

What is strange, though, is that although Goldenrod has been successful in wreaking revenge on his ‘creator’ (yep, the Frankenstein trope is strong here, too), he sticks around and takes on Firestorm. He really doesn’t need to do this, although the dialogue suggests he thinks he has to. He could conceivably go somewhere else to start a new life for himself pollinating plants in a garden centre or something. Instead, he’s drawn into a final confrontation with our flame-haired hero.

Compared to their first fight, this one is decidedly downbeat. Firestorm doesn’t want to fight Goldenrod; in the end, he opens up a fissure in the ground beneath him with a nuclear blast and Goldenrod tumbles down inside it. Firestorm seals the crevice, but the earth starts to shake and it is clear that we’re not done yet. Which is good, really, because if that was the ending, it would have been one heck of an anti-climax. Conway’s too experienced a writer to do that, though, and the penultimate page is a dramatic full-page splash that shows Goldenrod ascending in a stream of light and pollen, while, in the foreground, Firestorm is caught mid-air by the blast. It’s a very nice piece of artwork and it leads to a poignant ending in which Goldenrod, anguished by what he’s done and the existence that he now has, “seeds himself” across the area by exploding in a shower of pollen in the night sky.

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Up, up and awaaaaaaaay!

So, that’s Fury of Firestorm 19. A nice self-contained issue with some impressive artwork from Colan and some pretty decent story-telling that, despite a couple of clichés, nevertheless manages to evoke some genuine pathos at the end. These days in comics, there’s a lot of focus on big events, crises, new characters etc. Not that I don’t like epic multi-part stories, mind you, but I must confess I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the days when it was possible to pick up an issue of a comic and get a fully-fleshed out, well-structured story that managed to be both funny and exciting as well as packing an emotional punch. That’s what Fury of Firestorm issue 19 manages to be and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to revisit it.

 

[1] Did the company not invite Stein to tour the facility? If they did, then surely Stein would remember its location, thus rendering the previous four pages completely pointless. If they didn’t, maybe he wasn’t as much of a shoo-in for the position as he seems to think.