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.