Firestorm: The Nuclear Man

Firestorm Vol. III
created by Dan Jolley and artist Chris Cross.
Written by Stuart Moore
Art by Jamal Igle and Rob Stull.
DC Comics.

This isn’t Smallville, where Superman/Clark Kent grew up. This is Detroit and Firestorm / Jason Rusch has real life problems.

Jason Rusch is an ordinary teenager – except in times of danger. Then he glows with the power of an atomic furnace, merges his form with another person, and together they wield the primal forces of the universe ?. He’s also a young black man from Detroit, Michigan.

Up until a few months ago he lived with his father, who is disabled, intimidating, and sometimes physically abusive. It was because of his father’s abuse that Jason’s mother left the family when he was a child.

Jason Rusch just graduated high school and has plans for his future. But he got mixed up with a small time drug dealer, delivering a package, ? as a shortcut to earning money for college. It was on that unfortunate delivery ? that he was hit by a beam of light and transformed into a super hero.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I read Firestorm (Vol. II) created by Berry Conway and Al Milgrom. Back then, Firestorm’s (Vol. II) alter-ego was Ronnie Raymond, a college student as well as a super-hero. What I remember most about the comic back then was that it concerned itself with relevant issues of the time.

Firestorm (Vol. II) confronted the military and other superheroes with demands that the United States and the Soviet Union disarm all their nuclear weapons. I remember Firestorm (Vol. II) facing off with the US Army in the middle of the desert. The military eventually dropped a nuclear bomb on him.

Pretty heavy stuff for a middle schooler, but placing relevant issues in the context of a comic book made it more accessible and real to me. Firestorm (Vol. II) was also one of the most powerful superheroes in the DC universe, with the ability to transform the atomic structure of matter.

Last year I was an after-school teacher working with at-risk youth at an inner-city community center in Lexington, Kentucky. One child in my class reminded me of myself at his age: depressed, moody, very intelligent, and sometimes cruel (to himself and others). I began a mentoring relationship with him. Once a month we would go play video games or visit art galleries or just get pizza and chicken wings. When I moved to Boulder, I wanted to write him letters. I also wanted to send him comic books, so my letters wouldn’t be too boring.

I was specifically looking for a comic with an African American superhero to share with my young friend. I also wanted something I would enjoy reading. When I went to the comic book store I saw Firestorm on the shelf right away, so it wasn’t until later that I learned Firestorm is one of the only black superheroes with his own major comic book series.

Stuart Moore, the writer for Firestorm, is conscious of his own race, aware of the possible implications of writing one of the only black superheroes with a major title, and careful not to insult his readers. As a white writer, Stuart Moore has expressed that he won’t shy away from that aspect of Firestorm ‘s character. The story lines so far have touched on racial aspects of the character only in a few humorous side comments. Jason Rusch’s blackness ? is relevant but not his only defining quality. He is a well rounded character that Moore wants to have fun with:

if Jason isn’t having fun as Firestorm, why the hell would he do it? But he’ll have moments of tragedy and sudden failure, too. (Comic Book Resources)

Moore has lots of experience in the comic book industry, mostly as an editor and especially in the genre of science fiction. Firestorm is his first actual superhero comic, but it makes sense for Moore to be involved because Firestorm is The Nuclear Man ? a superhero with a scientific basis. In fact, Moore’s father is a nuclear physicist and his work prior to coming on board Firestorm was Para, which took place in an abandoned nuclear reactor. His experience and research help him shape the story arcs for the comic.

As a writer I’m partial to the writing side of things, but a comic book is more than just the written word. The artwork is as (if not more) important to the quality of the book. The main penciller for Firestorm, Jamal Igle, explained why he decided to draw Firestorm:

I can relate to Jason [Firestorm ], not just because he’s a young black male, but also because he and I come from very similar backgrounds. ? (from Comicon)

Jamal Igle is an African American artist with lots of previous experience of his own including work on various Wolverine, Green Lantern, and Spiderman issues.

Obviously, an artist doesn’t have to be black to draw or write black characters, nor does an artist have to be white to draw or write white characters or Asian (or Martian or Kryptonian). But I once heard from a university art teacher how difficult it was to teach his predominantly white students to draw non-white people because of their lack of experience and exposure. To draw and write a wide range of characters, an artist must take the time to learn different body-types, facial features, and cultural aspects from the ones he or she is accustomed to.

Moore has made it clear that he understands what it means to be the writer for one of the only African American superheroes starring in a comic book today. Jamal Igle is also aware of these issues and his artistic rendering of the characters in Firestorm is emotional and authentic. Igle’s drawings of Jason Rusch and his father are especially compelling, expressing the tension and complexity of their relationship.

I wrote Jamal Igle an email telling him what his artwork and the Firestorm comic meant to me and my young friend. He shared my email with Stuart Moore; Stephen Wacker, his editor; and on DC’s fan discussion board (second to last entry at the bottom of the page).

The most recent issue of Firestorm is a good example of why I appreciate the series.

Firestorm #20: Lost in Space with Animal Man has a clear anti-war theme. The story takes place in space, on New Cronos with an eclectic group of superheroes led by Donna Troy. The superheroes are travelling to the center of the universe to stop the Infinite Crisis.

Stuart Moore has been public about his feelings on the Iraq war. In a 2004 interview with Comic World News he said:

I didn’t really expect the American dominance of the world to last forever, but I didn’t expect us to shame ourselves quite this badly and hasten it along so quickly, either.

I highly recommend a BBC documentary called THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES, by Adam Curtis. It traces the parallel development of the American neoconservatives and the modern Islamic fundamentalists from 1949 to the present, both as a response to what the two groups saw as the failure of modern, liberal society. It’s chilling and clear and it explains pretty much everything about this big hole we — the world — have dug ourselves into.

!Warning spoiler past this point!

Firestorm #20 begins with Starfire giving Firestorm and the other superheroes combat training. She says, Before we go any furtherI want you to ask yourself something. What is war? ? Their space voyage is interrupted when the superheroes find themselves caught in the middle of a battle between Rannians and Thanagarians.

Firestorm /Jason Rusch doesn’t really understand what war is. When he tries to bring his camera along on the expedition to the Rannian spacecraft, he is admonished by Donna Troy. His best friend (whom he is merged with) is more concerned with checking out the women superheroes than with the seriousness or danger of the situation.

Firestorm and Animal Man investigate the damaged Rannian space craft and find two survivors. We learn about the occupation of the Rannian world from a Rannian scientist.

As a protest against Thanagarian occupation of their planet, the scientists kidnapped an ancient bird sacred to the Thanagarians. The Thanagarians pursued the Rannian scientists across the galaxy.

Later, when Animal Man fights the Thanagarians we learn about the destruction of Thanagar from a Thanagarian soldier.

Out numbered and dying of radiation poison, one of the Rannian’s kills the sacred bird. In response the Thanagarians destroy the Rannian ship. Firestorm flies from the wreckage carrying the bird’s corpse. Animal Man returns the corpse to a Thanagarian soldier with the words: Please accept this as the spoils of your victory ?

What I most appreciated about this issue was Firestorm ‘s role. Firestorm doesn’t fight anyone. He doesn’t take sides. We see all the superheroes fighting the Thanagarians, the Thanagarians fighting everyone, and even one of the Rannian scientist kills the sacred bird.

But Firestorm doesn’t fight anyone. He just does his best to control the leaking radiation. He gets rid of the ship’s engine just before it explodes. Two pages later the ship is destroyed anyhow by the Thanagarians. The story concludes with Firestorm asking himself What is war? ? and answering, I guess I know now. ?

The message and meaning is subtle, which speaks to the skill of everyone involved in the issue. Unfortunately, one of the chief advertisers in the comic book is the US Army. It’s pretty insidious. I’d rather see Joe Camel than the Army of One.

Kenneth Burke wrote:

It is questionable whether the feelings of horror, repugnance, hatred would furnish the best groundwork as a deterrent to war. And they might well provide the firmest basis upon which the ?heroism’ of a new war could be erected. ?

Having Firestorm involved but not participating in actual combat is a twist on the typical war is hell ? story. We see everyone get caught up in war-lust except Firestorm. Unlike the others Firestorm is just trying to help. There is no judgement on Firestorm’s part. In fact, the harshest judgement comes from Animal Man who has absorbed war lust ? from the ancient bird.

The final scenes as Firestorm carries the bird’s corpse from the wreckage and watches Animal Man give it to the Thanagarian doesn’t speak to repugnance or hatred, but to sadness, tenderness, and respect. These sentiments might possible be groundwork on which to base a deterrent to war.

Firestorm is not the typical superhero. Jason Rusch is a teenager with real life problems whose sudden transformation in to a superhero ? only adds to the complications of his life. I’ve enjoyed following Jason and Firestorm through his development not only as a superhero but as a man.

Sharing this comic with my young friend has been especially rewarding. Firestorm faces real life issues that those of us from disadvantaged backgrounds can relate to. In Issue #16, for example, Firestorm expressed the deep pain he feels from being abandoned by his mother. Why didn’t she take me with her? ? he asked. Firestorm’s bravery is not found in his fighting the bad guys ? but in his asking questions like that, the hardest questions to ask oneself, even as an adult.

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