The germ of a notion that eventually evolved into the character we know as Firestorm struck writer Gerry Conway, he claims, during his run as the author of Marvel's The Amazing Spider-Man. What if, Conway wondered, it had Flash Thompson, the football star, rather than Peter Parker, the science nerd, who had gotten super-powers? He filed the notion away in the back of his mind until several years later when he found himself working at DC, where, in late 1977, it found expression in the debut issue of Firestorm.
That issue's origin tale, "Make Way for Firestorm," opens with a colorfully clad figure whose head appears to be on fire reveling in his new found super-powers before heading off to confront the bad guys responsible for turning him into the creature he had become. From there we fade into the obligatory flashback and meet Ronnie Raymond, new student at Bradley High, on his first day at his new school, where he meets two other students who will become the backbone of the books supporting cast, Cliff Carmichael and Doreen Day. Completing the role reversal, Conway makes Cliff, the class brain, the bully, belittling Ronnie's intelligence and making him look foolish in class.
With his insecurities about fitting in at his new school, his attempts to impress Doreen, and hints of problems at home, Ronnie actually seems to have more in common with Peter Parker than Flash Thompson. Perhaps that was the point that Conway was making; that all of us, jock and brain alike, have the same insecurities and problems.
Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Martin Stein certainly has his share of problems when we meet him. He has just designed and built the world's first fully automated nuclear power plant, but the machinations of his disgraced former assistant, Danton Black, who sues Stein, claiming that Martin stole his ideas for the plant, threaten to keep the facility from going on line as scheduled.
Meanwhile, Ronnie gets the fool notion in his head that joining a group, headed by a shady looking guy named Eddie Earhart, protesting the new nuclear plant will somehow make Doreen like him. It turns out, however, that the protesters have a little more on there mind than carrying signs. In fact, Ronnie hooks up with them just in time for Earhart to decide to use him as the fall guy for their plan to blow up the new power plant.
Events move quickly from this point as our cast converges. Stein decides to defy the court order and activate the reactor early, even as Ronnie and Earhart's group arrive and Danton Black sneaks back into what he believes to be an empty facility to sneak a peak at Stein's plans for the reactor.
Earhart knocks out Ronnie and the Professor, set their bomb, and flee. Ronnie wakes up and attempts to drag the still unconscious Stein to safety, but doesn't get to far before the dynamite explodes, just as Black arrives.
This being a comic book, getting caught in a nuclear explosion, rather than killing the trio, turns out to be a good thing. Ronnie and Stein find themselves merged into the super-powered being whom Ronnie decides to call Firestorm, while Black will return in future issues as the super-villain Multiplex. (With a name like Multiplex, it sort of seems like his evil schemes should involve forcing small one or two screen movie theaters out of business, doesn't it?)
As much as I love Conway's writing, I've always thought of his work on Firestorm as one of his weaker efforts. Perhaps that because I first encountered the character late in his run on The Fury of Firestorm and he might have been a little burned out and running out of ideas. However, Firestorm #1 is a good, solid super-hero origin tale. There are certainly a lot of good and original ideas in this debut issue. The characters powers of matter transmutation are something that hadn't been seen before in super-hero comics, as is the idea of the hero being a merger of two people. Even more interesting, is the concept that, because he was unconscious at the time of the initial merger, Stein doesn't remember anything that happens while he's part of Firestorm and, at first, has no idea what happens during his mysterious "blackouts."
The weakest part of the issue, for me, can be summed up in one word: Milgrom. I've never been a big fan of Al's work, and he's very inconsistent in this issue. Some panels look better than any I've seen from him, while others are just awful. Still, he tells the story well enough. He also came up with a nice costume design and you've got to love the awesomely bad late 70's facial hair on Cliff Carmichael and Eddie Earhart.
Of course, as we all know, 1978 was not a good time to launch a new super-hero comic, no matter how original or innovative. Four issues after this promising debut, Firestorm would run smack dab into the infamous DC Implosion. The Nuclear Man didn't spend too long in Comic Book Limbo, however. Conway, who was also the writer of DC's premier super-hero team book, Justice League of America, soon drafted him into that group. Shortly thereafter, Firestorm would return to solo adventures as a back-up feature in Flash and eventually earn another shot at his own monthly comic.
I'll take a look at the first issue of that series, The Fury of Firestorm, in my next post.