I remember needing to reread The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #4. Not because I didn’t follow, not because the story wasn’t engaging enough, but because, ultimately I felt myself awash in a complexity I couldn’t completely come to grips with, and really want to leave behind. There’s something deep and swift about Ethan van Sciver’s Firestorms. Some six issues on, and we’re still nowhere nearer to figuring out what Professor Martin Stein meant when he posted that final message in his private chatroom, “I found God, inside the atom.” We encountered that line back in “Sound and Fury”, issue two of the current New 52 reboot series. And like so much of this series, we encountered it as a memory, recalled by Jason Rusch, one of the two new Firestorms. A flashback from a long time ago and still unresolved. Ethan, and co-writer Gail Simone evoke that same detailed, beautiful psychology of a past that will not release you, as John le Carré in books like A Murder of Quality or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Jason, the science nerd (and foil to other Firestorm Ronnie Raymond’s jock quarterback), had been invited to this private chatroom, based on nothing more than his potential. It was a chance for change, for expressing his keen intellect in a way that would have meant as much as star quarterback Ronnie getting scouted for an elite football scholarship, and eventually going pro. The Firestorm protocol, for all its incredible power, was really a derailing of two lives perfectly on track. And over the course of these last six issues, it feels just a little like the drama of derailment has taken precedence over the lives that have been lost in the process.
That is, until now, issue #7’s “Heatseeker”.
Still, through these issues of lean, there’s been a lot to like about Ethan’s Firestorms, co-written with Batgirl-scribe Gail Simone, and drawn by Yildiray Cinar. The young Firestorms aren’t heroes, at least not yet. They’re still learning about their powers. And in many ways, the Firestorms themselves are purely incidental, the real power-behind-the-throne here is Fury, the nuclear monster that is formed when the two young Firestorms merge. Ethan’s Firestorms have always been about distributed complexity, about swarm psychology, about what Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly would refer to as “vivisystems”. Ethan’s Firestorms have always been about how more is different. Once you activate the Firestorm protocols, it’s not so much that 2+2=5, but that 2+2=apples (to steal a phrase from Kelly’s own Out of Control). There’s a qualitative shift, not just a demonstrable one.
When I reread “Glasnost”, it’s because, with everything else going on, there’s this, now as well. “This”, being the appearance of Professor Mikhail Arkadin, erstwhile colleague of Martin Stein (before Stein disappeared), and co-designer of the Firestorm protocols. And Mikhail Arkadin is on a mission of vengeance. His protection of the Rodina is as much out of a sense of fealty to the idea of his homeland, as it is an act of revenge against those who have stolen the protocols and now attempt to weaponize them in Third World terrorist laboratories.
Ethan’s Firestorms are purely beautiful because they read as acts of surrender. There’s no way to read them and reread them now, without Cheap Trick playing on the iPod of my mind. “Surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away.” We’ve seen our fair share of “growing up superhero” stories over the years. It’s a substantial sub-genre. It’s possibly Peter Parker’s Spider-Man that was the genesis hero for this. Powers aren’t the freedom that appear to be on the surface, they’re more complications to the already complicated life of a teenage nerd. Would being bullied by Flash Thompson really be as bad as being mired in the latest skullduggery of the Sinister Six?
But a conventional limitation we’ve come to accept about this sub-genre is that almost driving need for the narrative to show the teenage hero himself as somehow evolving this world of greater complexity. Without Spidey, there’d be no Lizard, no Doc Ock, no Chameleon. Or at least, no Lizard or Doc Ock or Chameleon in the threatening way that they’ve come to be after they’ve tangled with Spidey.
Ethan and Gail’s and now Ethan and Joe’s Firestorms have always and now continue to break with that unnecessary tradition. Here the teen heroes are launched into a preexistent world of post-Soviet nuclear disarmament, of international corporations attempting to launch ahead in a frightening new kinds of arms’ race, of American families negotiating the financial collapse after suddenly being catapulted into material wealth. And of course of post-national paramilitary groups running weapons-free on American soil.
The scope of the book is purely magnificent. Reading and rereading is really a gift. And more so with this most recent issue “Heatseeker”. There’s one scene I can’t seem to shake. That splash page around page eight. Where the artwork and narrative swirl as if in a vortex. The narrative pushes forward in the conventional left to right sequence. But, the capture of Ronnie Raymond (which comes from a surface-to-air missile attack), runs from the bottom of the page, right to left. This is a purely beautiful moment, visually arresting, entirely emblematic of this entire book.
But perhaps even more arresting is the framing of Ronnie Raymond himself. “When I play football, they call me the Heatseeker…I’m the kind of quarterback who can toss the ball to where the receiver is going to be, not where he is.” This predictive power, is at the heart the magic in these Firestorms the idea that things are always evolving. And that the real drama is the drama of Firestorm’s transmutation, not just as metaphor, but built into the storytelling from the ground up.