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.

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