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(pop culture)

Created by writer Gerry Conway and artist Allen Milgrom for DC Comics (Firestorm #1, 1978), Firestorm is unique among nuclear-powered superheroes, representing a transition between the atomic-generated heroes of the 1960s (mainstays such as Spider-Man and the X-Men, characters for whom nuclear power is a potent yet ultimately benign force) and the distrust of all things nuclear that marked the post-Three Mile Island 1980s. Firestorm stands astride the mushroom clouds of the Nuclear Age’s heyday and the postmodern Earth-goddess spiritualism of the 1990s New Age.

On the eve of the opening of the controversial and experimental Hudson Nuclear Facility, the Earth Spirit (known alternatively as Gaia or Maya) selects nuclear physicist Martin Stein to be Earth’s latest fire elemental. When radical environmentalist Edward Earhart attempts to destroy the plant, Stein is knocked unconscious. One of Earhart’s confederates, a high-school jock named Ronnie Raymond, has a change of heart and tries to stop the sabotage, only to be irradiated along with Stein, to whom Earhart has shackled him inside the main reactor room. Stein and Raymond find themselves combined into a single, nuclear-powered form—that of the flame-headed superbeing known as Firestorm.

Because Raymond is conscious at the time of his melding to the insensate Stein, the teen’s impulsive, wise-guy personality dominates Firestorm’s consciousness; Stein’s calmer, more staid mind runs in the background, lending its expert scientific guidance to Raymond in the use of his power to alter the atomic structure of inorganic matter. (Firestorm later forswears this ability because of its tendency to make the objects he transmutes unstable.) Firestorm can also fly at light-speed, release intense blasts of nuclear-generated fire and heat through his hands and eyes, pass through solid objects, control flames and fire (which he can also use as an energy source to enable him to grow or shrink), and even teleport himself to any open flame on Earth. In addition, he has the ability to transform back into his two human forms—with Stein at first having no recollection of Firestorm’s adventures, unlike Raymond. Operating initially as a fairly standard villain-foiling, costumed superhero—albeit a hero with an awkward, twofold secret identity— Firestorm at first knows nothing of his status as a fire elemental, and must learn to master his powers gradually over time (with Stein’s help). Firestorm’s one major weakness is a tendency to suffer mental “attacks” during which the bond between Raymond and Stein suddenly weakens, requiring intense concentration on Raymond’s part in order to maintain Firestorm’s powers.

Unfortunately for the fused fissile hero, his first series lasted only five issues before succumbing to the so-called “DC implosion” of 1978, a bleak time characterized by slumping comics sales and the cancellation of a multitude of DC titles (the aborted sixth issue of Firestorm was published in 1978 under the title Canceled Comics Cavalcade #1). Firestorm was subsequently relegated to guest-star status in such series as DC Comics Presents, Justice League of America, Flash, and The Brave and the Bold. Four years later, the burgeoning comics specialty shop (or direct-sales) market had significantly increased sales across the comics industry, allowing The Fury of Firestorm, the Nuclear Man to flourish as a monthly series. Initially written by Conway with pencils by Pat Broderick, this comic (whose title was shortened in 1987 to Firestorm, the Nuclear Man with issue #65) lasted until its one hundredth issue (1990), demonstrating a longevity that is remarkable in modern superhero comics. During this run, Firestorm becomes a key member of the Justice League of America and fights such adversaries as Black Bison (a super-powered Native American), Killer Frost (a cold-themed Justice League villain with the ability to freeze her enemies), the explosive Plastique, a foul-weather foe called the Typhoon, the nuclear-powered Soviet superhero Pozhar, and even Jack Kirby’s nigh-omnipotent conqueror Darkseid.

Under the creative tenure of writer John Ostrander, and such artists as Joe Brozowski, J. J. Birch, Ross Andru, and Tom Mandrake, Firestorm (with Stein, now an aware and willing participant in Firestorm’s trifold existence, and suffering from an inoperable, radiation-induced brain tumor) attempts to disarm the Soviet Union to bring about world peace. This leads to a clash with the Russian hero Pozhar (Mikhail Denisovitch Arkadin, who gained his powers during the nuclear mishap at Chernobyl, and was introduced in Fury of Firestorm #63, 1987), which brings on a “mental attack” that splits Firestorm into his two component entities. Caught in a subsequent nuclear explosion with Arkadin, Raymond becomes melded with the Russian (Firestorm Annual #5, 1987). This re-fusion yields a second, all-new Firestorm who resembles an incendiary god out of myth more than a traditional spandex-clad superhero. The revamped champion also has his own independent personality (based upon Stein’s), into which Raymond and Pozhar are submerged, as Firestorm takes his place among the pantheon of Earth’s elemental protectors. He also becomes aware for the first time of his status as a divinely selected fire elemental and becomes increasingly distant from other superheroes; protecting the environment is now his primary focus. Firestorm’s new persona is cold and analytical at first, gradually learning over time to trust his developing emotions and “go with his gut” during crisis situations. Despite these radical changes and new priorities, Firestorm never hesitates to assist any human being in distress.

Cured of his brain tumor years later, Stein helps the Raymond-Arkadin Firestorm fight an atomic villain named Brimstone, who tries to use the sun’s energies to incinerate Earth. During the battle Firestorm is split into his constituent parts (Raymond and Pozhar), and Stein is caught in a nuclear blast that transforms him into another Firestorm—all by himself, as the Earth goddess had intended all along. The reborn Firestorm ultimately uses a black hole to defeat Brimstone after a fierce contretemps on the surface of the sun itself. Stein/Firestorm then becomes the Universal Fire Elemental, which amounts almost to an ascension to godhood, and leaves Earth behind entirely for cosmic parts unknown.

Bereft of his nuclear powers, the earthbound Raymond retains enough of his superheroic good looks to garner some success as a male model. Unfortunately, Raymond also develops a drinking problem (a result of the years of stress that Firestorm had inflicted upon Raymond and his family, and a common plight of heroes’ alter egos) and discovers that his days of nuclear derring-do have left him with a nasty surprise—a rare type of leukemia, echoing Stein’s earlier brain tumor. Raymond’s illness forces him to seek the help of his old Justice League associates (Extreme Justice #1, 1995), which leads to the discovery that Firestorm’s powers still lay dormant within his cells. Stein eventually returns to Earth, using his fire elemental powers to reignite Raymond’s slumbering abilities, thereby eliminating his cancer and allowing Raymond to return to superheroics (and Justice League reserve status) in Firestorm’s original form (appearing more or less as he did in his 1978 debut, while Stein returns to space as a fire elemental). Raymond’s alcoholism remains a persistent problem, however, giving the nuclear-powered hero an enduring human dimension. Another difficulty he faces is learning how to use his powers without access to Stein’s scientific expertise. To make up for this lack, Raymond calls on superhero colleagues such as Oracle for advice (JLA #40, 2000), and enrolls as a physics student at Ivy University, where he is tutored in the mysteries of nuclear science by Ray Palmer, who leads a double life as the Atom (Day of Judgment miniseries, 1999).

A new Firestorm comics series debuted in 2004, but this time Firestorm was an African American teenager named Jason Rusch. The Ronnie Raymond version of Firestorm was killed in the Identity Crisis miniseries (2004). His consciousness briefly became part of Jason Rusch’s new Firestorm but then seemingly faded away. At the end of the Blackest Night series (20092010), the Ronnie Raymond version of Firestorm was resurrected. However, in the series Brightest Day (2010–2011), Martin Stein was killed.

A new Firestorm comic book series was launched in September 2011, co-authored by Ethan Van Sciver and Gail Simone, drawn by Yildiray Cinar, and starring both Ronnie Raymond (again depicted as a high school student) and Jason Rusch as Firestorm. The animated TV series Batman: The Brave and the Bold presented its own version of Firestorm, who was created through the fusion of African American high school student Jason Rusch and his coach, a very different version of Ronnie Raymond. This time Jason is the dominant side of Firestorm, who looks African American, and Raymond is the “voice” in the head of Firestorm, like Stein was in the original comics version. —MAM & PS

The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes © 2012 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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