Random Musings: A look back at Firestorm the Nuclear Man

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Firestorm #1

One of the new heroes of the 1978 “DC Explosion” (and soon to be a victim of the subsequent “DC Implosion” which saw several of that year’s new titles canceled) was Firestorm. Created by Gerry Conway and Al Milgrom, Firestorm was unusual in that he was a fusion of teenager Ronnie Raymond and professor Martin Stein, a nuclear physicist. Firestorm only ran for five issues (I misremembered it as six in my recent blog entry about The Flash), but the character(s) lived on, appearing as a back-up feature in issues of The Flash and starting in 1982, appeared in his own magazine again, the 100 issue Fury of Firestorm (the “fury of” was dropped with issue #50).

Firestorm came into being when a radical dynamited the Hudson Nuclear Plant where Stein worked, catching both the unconscious Stein and Ronnie in the explosion. Because Ronnie was awake at the time, his personality was in charge. Stein could only offer advice and contribute his scientific knowledge.

Ronnie and Professor Stein merge into Firestorm.

Ronnie and Professor Stein merge into Firestorm.

Firestorm is born

A subsequent series ran for 35 issues, beginning in 2004, with a teenager named Jason Rusch merging with various people (whoever happened to be near at the time), including, briefly, Ronnie Raymond.

The creators of The Flash must be fans, because Firestorm is appearing in that show. As depicted in The Flash, Firestorm is again a fusion of Ronnie Raymond (Robbie Amell) and Martin Stein (Victor Garber). Though we’ve also met Jason Rusch (Luc Roderique), depicted as a student of Stein’s.

In The Flash, Ronnie worked as a structural engineer at S.T.A.R. Labs and was believed killed in the accelerator explosion that gave Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) his abilities

As I understand it, we’ll learn more about the merging of Ronnie and Professor Stein in tonight’s episode of The Flash. Seems Stein happened to be outside the lab (for whatever reason) when the accelerator exploded.

But back to the comics version of Firestorm. How did Ronnie come to be at the Hudson Nuclear Power Plant that fateful day? He was a new transfer student trying to impress a girl named Doreen Day. He wanted to show her that he was more than just a dumb jock. So he joined an environmental group he’d seen on TV.

Unfortunately, the group was not concerned about the potential dangers of nuclear power, as they’d claimed. They just wanted to blow up the plant for the sake of blowing it up. When Ronnie tried to stop them, he was left there to die (they’d let him join to use him as a patsy).

As an interesting aside to Firestorm’s origins, a “publishorial” in Teen Titans #53 (cover dated Feb. 1978, one month before the debut of Firestorm) talked about this new character. Professor Stein’s first name was given as Charles. A typo? Or was his name changed at the last moment?

Also, in the letter column of Firestorm #2, both the letter writer and the editor refer to Firestorm’s younger persona as Robby Raymond.

As himself, Ronnie had to contend with the ordinary challenges of high school, including his relationship with Doreen, his adversary, Cliff Carmichael, his grades, being on the basketball team and, of course, juggling all that with being a superhero.

In the comics, Professor Stein not only didn’t have any control over the Firestorm persona, he also didn’t remember being Firestorm when he and Ronnie would fission into their separate selves. Those unexplained blackouts led to his becoming an alcoholic and got him into trouble, because he couldn’t explain his absences from work. In one story, published when Firestorm was appearing as a back-up feature in other books, some government official or other demanded to know where Stein went and who he met. Of course, Stein had no clue.

At some point prior to the start of Fury of Firestorm Ronnie told Professor Stein the full truth. I don’t think I have that particular story, so I don’t know all the details. Even though he still retained no conscious memory of Firestorm’s activities, he was more than willing to continue being part of Firestorm.

As Firestorm Ronnie and Professor Stein dealt with such foes as Multiplex (AKA Danton Black, a former assistant of Stein’s caught in the same explosion that created Firestorm), who can fission himself into duplicates; the Hyena (AKA Doreen Day’s older sister, Summer) and Killer Frost (AKA Crystal Frost), a former student and (in her mind) rejected lover of Martin Stein’s.

These adversaries were all introduced in the original five issue run and would made recurring appearances in Fury of Firestorm. Regarding Killer Frost, a woman named Louise Lincoln (a colleague of Crystal Frost) subsequently became the second Killer Frost.

These were the only incarnations of Killer Frost during the runs of Firestorm I’m discussing, but in 2013, in the 19th issue of Fury of Firestorm the Nuclear Men, a woman named Caitlin Snow assumed that identity. I’m not familiar with her storyline in the comics and never read that series. It was part of the “New 52” at DC Comics and ran for 20-issues.

Caitlin Snow, of course, is one of the main characters in The Flash. And Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) was engaged to Ronnie Raymond before the accelerator explosion. If she becomes Killer Frost at some point in the future, there would still be a direct connection between Killer Frost and one of Firestorm’s identities.

Before?

Before?

and after?

and after?

Danton Black also appeared in The Flash.

During the run of Fury of Firestorm, Ronnie graduated from high school and went on to college in Pittsburgh (Firestorm had previously been based in New York). Professor Stein also got a job in that city, which is good, because when Firestorm separates back into Ronnie and the Professor, they appear together; they’re not sent back to wherever they had been when they merged (they don’t have to be together to do that).

Professor Stein was later diagnosed with a brain tumor and wanted to make a difference in the time he had left. He and Ronnie decided that Firestorm would demand both the U.S. and the Soviet Union get rid of their nuclear weapons.

Naturally, both countries objected and the Russians forced a metahuman named Mikhail Arkadin, known as Pozhar, to battle Firestorm. Mikhail sympathized with what Firestorm is doing, however, and joined with him.

When the president ordered a bomb dropped on Firestorm and Pozhar, the resulting explosion resulted in Ronnie and Mikhail merging to form a new incarnation of Firestorm.

What about Firestorm’s mission to make the U.S. and Soviet Union give up their nukes? Well, after both the nuking and subsequent conventional attack failed to stop Firestorm, the U.S. commander on site relayed to Firestorm that if he left the missiles alone, not only would the president grant Firestorm amnesty, but pledge to begin serious negotiations with the Russians in three years towards a complete disarmament.

Firestorm agreed, but this incarnation of not only didn’t fully understand what was going on, he’s also didn’t have Ronnie personality. Or Mikhail’s, for that matter. The Firestorm persona was someone else entirely. Neither Ronnie nor Mikhail were charge of his actions. Instead, both were in the “advisory” position that Professor Stein had been in.

The offer to end the standoff is interesting, both in real world terms and within the fictional DC Universe. By the late 1980s, superhero comics, by and large, tried to have at least one metaphorical foot in the real world. Thus, a superhero couldn’t just destroy all the nukes the U.S. and Soviets had, because getting rid of them in reality wouldn’t be that simple.

In real world terms, the president (Reagan in 1987, when this storyline was published) would be out of office by 1990. Of course a president can pledge this, that or the other will happen after he leaves office. If it doesn’t, his successor has to deal with it.

By this time, John Ostrander had taken over the writing of Firestorm. That Ronnie Raymond, a character created in 1978, happened to have the same first name as the president in 1987 was mere coincidence. I doubt it was coincidence that Ostrander gave the Russian half of Firestorm’s new matrix the first name of Mikhail. As in Gorbachev. I met Ostrander at the Motor City Comic Con once and probably asked him at the time. If I did, I don’t recall what he said.

At first, neither Ronnie nor Mikhail had any control over when or where Firestorm would manifest. Instead it happened spontaneously. Later, through the auspices of Mikhail’s telepathic niece, they were able to communicate with each other telepathically and either could form Firestorm if the other consented (i.e. if it were safe to do so).

Eventually, Ronnie and Mikhail learned that Professor Stein was still alive, cured of his tumor and in an amnesiac state. It was his amnesiac mind that acted as the template for the Firestorm persona.

Another difference in this incarnation is that when Firestorm separated into Ronnie and Mikhail, they returned to wherever they’d been, rather than appear together as Ronnie and Stein had done. Which made things less awkward for Mikhail, but more awkward for Ronnie when they once fission and remain together, leaving Ronnie trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

But more changes were coming Firestorm’s way. In Firestorm #84, Ronnie told the story of Firestorm’s origin to a Russian named Gregori Eilovotich Rasputin. Rasputin responded with laughter, saying that unless there were more going on than Ronnie knew at the time, the explosion would have killed both Ronnie and Professor Stein.

That’s the cliffhanger end of the issue and in the next issue, Ronnie relived the moment of Firestorm’s “birth” second by second. In doing so, he realized that something or someone else was there. Rasputin speculated that the entity was the fire elemental— who’d appeared in past ages as both Prometheus and Surtur (among others) and whose intended target for merging had been Martin Stein.

“You are a child of your media, of the American idolatry of the metahuman,” Rasputin told Ronnie. “You made what you became into a superhero because that was the only way you could explain these ‘powers’ you were given.”

During this time, The Soviets had created a clone of Firestorm called Svarozhich, who had all the destructiveness of Surtur and none of the helpfulness of Prometheus. Rasputin told Ronnie and Mikhail that they could only defeat him by surrendering to the fire elemental. They agreed.

Svarozhich agreed as well, since he and Firestorm were the same being, after all.

That led to the creation of yet another incarnation of Firestorm, one who was a fire elemental. This incarnation would run through the remainder of the series. Ronnie and Mikhail were submerged within him and Stein was not part of the matrix.

Firestorm as a fire elemental.

Firestorm as a fire elemental.

The house ads about Firestorm at the time read “only the name is the same” and “don’t assume he’s mankind’s friend.”

In Firestorm #100, Firestorm makes one final change. He willingly releases Ronnie and Mikhail from the matrix and in an explosion outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the fire elemental merges with Martin Stein. This incarnation fixed the sun, but found himself in another universe.

In the letter column of that final issue, Ostrander wrote that he reluctantly agreed with the feeling that it was better to cancel the book at that point, while the character had a strong following, than to let the audience dribble away.

Was canceling the book at that time the right decision? Maybe. Maybe not. For myself, I could never quite get into the later versions of the character. I only read the Jason Rusch series for 16 issues and had never even heard of the “New 52” series before beginning work on this blog entry. It’s good to know that Firestorm will be a part of The Flash, though. I’m looking forward to seeing in what ways he’ll be the same as the original incarnation and in what ways he’ll be different.

Copyright 2015 Patrick Keating.

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