Firestorm, the Next Everyman or the Anti-Spider-Man

I’ve always had an affinity for Firestorm. 

My first recollections of the character come from my childhood.  I remember that he was introduced on SuperFriends as a new, young hero along with Cyborg.  I remember being excited when his action figure was added to the excellent Kenner SuperPowers line.  I wasn’t a regular collector yet, but I even remember seeing him in a few comic books.  I was just starting out myself.  I was young and new to comic books, new to superheroes and new to life.  For that reason, I felt an attachment to Firestorm.  He was a hero I could relate to, and I always thought of him as one of “my guys.”  (As an aside, I became a lifelong fan of baseball’s rookie of the year Cal Ripken Jr. for roughly the same reason at about the same time). 

However, despite my affinity for the character, I didn’t own that many Firestorm comics.  I had almost all of his appearances with the Justice League of America.  And I had picked up a few odds and ends over the years, mostly because of certain guest stars.  But I had very few comics from Firestorm’s own series.  It was with real joy that I recently bought a complete collection of Firestorm comics.  I would finally be able to read the ongoing adventures of one of my favorite characters. 

I admit that there was a little trepidation while I waited for the comics to arrive.  I developed an affinity for the character through cartoons and action figures and I wasn’t sure that the actual comics would be as good as I hoped they would be.  So far, it’s worked out.  Firestorm’s series has been pretty good.  It’s not on the level of the New Teen Titans or the Legion of Super-Heroes- the standard-bearers for the era.  But it at least measures up to some of my other favorites from that period, like Batman and the Outsiders or Infinity Inc.  

It’s also been interesting to approach these comics with an adult eye.  I can’t help but notice what works and what doesn’t.  I was especially fascinated by an essay from author and co-creator Gerry Conway.  For the first two issues of the second series, Firestorm didn’t yet have letters to print in the letters column.  So Conway contributed a two-part essay describing the creative process behind the character.  He mentioned that one of his intentions with Firestorm was to create an anti-Spider-Man.  

That surprised me.  I guess I always knew that Firestorm was a reaction to Spider-Man.  Ronnie Raymond was a jock instead of a nerd.  He didn’t have Peter Parker’s aptitude for science or ambition.  Yet I always saw greater similarity between the characters.  I thought of Firestorm as the next everyman, the heir to Spider-Man’s mantle as the character who represented us, and I disregarded the surface features as necessary distinctions. 

I don’t think I’m imposing that type onto the character.  I realize that I developed this impression partially because of my own introduction to and affinity for Firestorm.  Yet Ronnie Raymond is one of us.  He’s supposed to be your typical, high school student.  He’s not a super-genius or a refugee from another planet.  He’s a regular guy, with familiar struggles and recognizable joys.  That’s part of the appeal of the character.  And that’s something he has in common with Spider-Man.   

Conway is right that there are significant differences between the two characters.   Those differences are worth examining.  Some of them work.  Some didn’t always work.  And some really shouldn’t have been considered differences.

I’ve already mentioned one intentional reversal.  Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker was the science nerd who got picked on by jocks like Flash Thompson.  Firestorm’s alter ego Ronnie Raymond was the basketball jock who got picked on by school genius Cliff Carmichael.  Unfortunately, that was one of the least believable aspects of the initial series.  I realize that not every high school has the jocks on top of the social ladder (fictional high schools in Pretty in Pink and Veronica Mars do a good job of showing the rich/poor divide instead).  But it was hard to accept that the nerds ruled the school while the jocks were the outcasts. 

Conway did a much better job with this angle in the second series.  He still had Cliff make fun of Ronnie.  But Cliff was no longer acting as a ringleader.  Instead, he was one outsider- the smart guy- picking on another outsider- the new guy- in a misguided attempt to improve his own social standing.  Ronnie’s troubles came more from his reaction to Cliff than from Cliff’s insults.  He disappointed his girlfriend by losing his cool or got in trouble with teachers for retaliating.  That added nuance to the rivalry and additional depth to Cliff’s character and it made the 1982 Fury of Firestorm significantly better than the original series from the ‘70s. 

            A second way in which Firestorm was supposed to be Spider-Man’s opposite was that Firestorm was supposed to enjoy being a superhero.  When Gerry Conway created Firestorm, he was fresh off of a run as Spider-Man’s scribe.  He wrote in his essay that being Spider-Man was often a chore for Peter Parker than interfered with his regular life.  For that reason, he wanted Ronnie Raymond to have fun as Firestorm.  It was an escape from the ordinary issues of everyday life. 

            I admit that this was always part of the appeal of the character for me.  I like characters with a zest for life, like Nightcrawler or Beast Boy.  I take joy in characters who take joy in their powers.  It should be fun to be able to do anything you want.  Escapism is an inherent part of superhero comics, not only for the character but especially for the reader.  So I was glad to see that this was an intentional choice for Firestorm.  And I enjoyed the little pranks that he would play on crooks and bullies. 

            Yet I was surprised that this was cited as something that would differentiate Firestorm from Spider-Man.  I always thought of Spider-Man as someone who enjoyed his powers as well.  One of the great enduring images of Spider-Man is of him swinging high above the streets.  Admittedly, being Spider-Man complicated Peter Parker’s life.  But Spider-Man had fun.  His quips weren’t merely a cover.  As Mark Waid mentioned a couple of years ago, “If you’re writing a Spider-Man who isn’t funny, then you’re writing him wrong.”  Peter Parker may have been motivated by a sense of responsibility after his uncle’s death, but Spider-Man enjoyed what he was doing. 

            Fortunately, this turned out to an area of similarity despite Conway’s stated intention.  Like Peter Parker and Spider-Man, being Firestorm frequently complicated life for Ronnie Raymond.  His responsibilities as a superhero resulted in missing basketball practice or dates with his girlfriend.  He developed a reputation as a loser when he was actually taking on greater responsibility.  That increased my appreciation for the character; I remember what it was like to be misunderstood as a teenager.  More importantly, those complications were the driving force for a lot of drama.  As much as we want escapism and joy in our comic books, a title can’t last long without tension.     

There is one other significant way in which Ronnie Raymond differed from Peter Parker and this was arguably one of the best parts of the series.  Peter had a good home life despite past tragedy.  Peter lived with his Aunt May and she doted on him.  He loved her and she loved him in return.  Ronnie still lived with his father, but they didn’t get along.  

This was a wonderfully human complication.  The strained relationship with his father made first basketball and then being Firestorm an escape for Ronnie from his difficult home life.  His struggles at school were that much harder for Ronnie because his father had little understanding or compassion for him.  Plus, it added depth to the relationship between Ronnie Raymond and the other half of Firestorm, Martin Stein.  Stein was more than a scientific adviser for the Firestorm persona.  He was also Ronnie’s confidant.  And, over time, he became a surrogate dad.  That relationship was often handled awkwardly when Ronnie appeared in other series or shows but it was one of the real strengths of Firestorm’s own title. 

            Firestorm was a good comic book.  It was a lot of fun, and it had a good blend of action and character.  I admit that it had some early flaws, but those were eventually worked out.  I’m immensely pleased that the adventures of this childhood favorite are worth reading.   

Views: 112

Comment by The Baron on January 14, 2011 at 2:31pm
It's a funny thing - Firestorm first appeared when I was around 15, by which point I had been reading comics for a few years. So, to this day. I think of him as a "new" character, even though he'll be "33 years old" as a character this year.
Comment by Doc Beechler (mod-MD) on January 14, 2011 at 3:18pm

For me, he's in a group of "my" characters along with Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, Storm, Colossus, Cloak and Dagger, Wolverine, Starfire, Raven, Cyborg, and Nightwing.  They were the cool characters that your parents, and even grandparents, didn't know.  OK, sure, Nightwing was Dick Grayson...but he wasn't Robin anymore.  He was the boy actually allowed to grow up in mainstream superhero comics just as the genre itself "grew up".  I think that's one reason Dick is so loved by fandom...he almost mirrors the whole comic book fan experience for many of us. 

Comment by Chris Fluit on January 14, 2011 at 3:36pm
My list is pretty close to yours, Doc.  Though, for some reason, I never had much interest in Cloak and Dagger.
Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on January 14, 2011 at 5:24pm

Interesting analysis, Chris. For me the hardest part about enjoying Firestorm was actually finding his comics on the news stand. He was either sold out or he wasn't carried by my dealer.

I think we should also point out that he had a great uniform and overall look. Nothing makes you stand out better than a flaming head, you know

Can we expect an analysis on Jason Rusch's career as well? And did you see that there's a new Firestorm action figure out? Its part of the DC version of Marvel's "Superhero Squad." He's 2-packed with a villain named Deathstorm, and both are quite cute and suitable as desk decoraations!

Comment by Doc Beechler (mod-MD) on January 14, 2011 at 6:23pm
I remember going to a drug store in the mid-80's and asking why they didn't carry Firestorm and Titans on their spinner rack.  The answer, "DC comics don't sell.".  Then 1986 happened.  ;)
Comment by Wandering Sensei: Moderator Man on January 14, 2011 at 10:41pm

I remember seeing Firestorm for the first time on Superfriends, when he first appeared as the new member of the team. I remember after his introduction, at a very young age, thinking that there is nothing this guy can't do. 

Comment by Philip Portelli on January 15, 2011 at 11:36pm

It was Christmas 1977 when I received as stocking stuffers Steel, the Indestructible Man #1 and Firestorm the Nuclear Man #1. I must have read them until they fell apart. To me, it was thrilling to be with a new character from the start as DC did not create that many heroes in the 70s. I was crushed when they got cancelled in the infamous DC Implosion. Firestorm  was a favorite, I liked his look, his powers and his situation. Ronnie Raymond was relatable and believeable. You just felt for him, rooted for him and wanted him to win in either identity. And how could you not be sympathetic to Martin Stein's predicament? Part of a composite being of great power with no knowledge of it and feeling like he's losing his mind. Thankfully Ronnie decided to tell him about their shared persona.

Firestorm's villains left a lot to be desired, though. Multiplex was a loser. The Hyena was interesting only for the link with Doreen Day. Typhoon was a soggy Red Tornado. Only Killer Frost had that something that made her dangerous, memorable and believeable. Ronnie's true nemesis was indeed Cliff Carmichael who had a sinister fate in store for him. After his cancellation with #5, Firestorm vanished until DC Comics Presents #17 where we learn that Ronnie decided to stop being Firestorm until he figured out his own life, only to be be called back when Killer Frost takes over Superman. When the day is saved, the Man of Steel invites the Flame-Haired Phenom to join the Justice League. From there he became the back-up in Flash which led to Fury of Firestorm. But I will always think fondly of that #1 that I read on Christmas Day!

Comment by Martin Gray on January 17, 2011 at 8:25am

I always think of Firesotm as My Guy - his was one of the first DC comics whose debut issue I could buy (for some reason DC #1s were non-distributed until the late Seventies). And I loved the happy-go-lucky hero. Brightest Day is the first Ronnie-connected book I've dropped. I like Jason too, but Ronnie got the shaft and it's good to have Ronnie back.

Another 'anti-Spider-Man' aspect could be that while Pete gained his powers at a science fair (pro-advances), Ronnie was protesting against a nuclear power (anti-science advancements/'advancements').

My favourite period was that second year, when the events surrounding the #16 cover reproed here were going on - so shocking, and sad. And something I really liked was that characters could grow, so stepmom Felicity Smoak and Ronnie could become friends.

Comment by Chris Fluit on January 17, 2011 at 11:41am
Thanks for the comments everyone.

Lumbering Jack: I think we should also point out that he had a great uniform and overall look. Nothing makes you stand out better than a flaming head, you know.

You're right. I love the look as well. The bright red and yellow to help him stand out. The flaming head. Yeah, it's pretty cool.

Can we expect an analysis on Jason Rusch's career as well?

Maybe. I like Jason Rusch even though I was predisposed not to. They were replacing one of "my guys" after all. But I enjoyed his adventures and came to appreciate him. In some ways, I think he was a better Firestorm than Ronnie. What I really like is the way that Ronnie and Jason have become the new Firestorm together in Brightest Day. It's nice to see both of them together. And it's fun to see their different approaches to being the same hero.
Comment by Chris Fluit on January 17, 2011 at 11:45am
Figserello: Firestorm's villains left a lot to be desired, though. Multiplex was a loser. The Hyena was interesting only for the link with Doreen Day. Typhoon was a soggy Red Tornado. Only Killer Frost had that something that made her dangerous, memorable and believeable.

I agree. I appreciate that they tried to give him his own villains, rather than recycling rogues from other heroes. It helped him stand out as an independent hero. But those early villains left a lot to be desired. Multiplex was especially bad for a villain tied in to the hero's origin. Ugh! Like a lot of things, I think they improved in the second series. Black Bison is a decent villain. The Hyena worked better as a villain he couldn't affect with his powers. But there's a reason everyone remembers Killer Frost and few others.

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