Thursday, May 19, 2005

Why I should never be sent books to review

Here’s one of my problems with Firestorm #14, the first issue of a quiet relaunch of the book that sees one-time Vertigo and Marvel editor Stuart Moore take over the writing chores. The start of the book has Firestorm saving the day, which is always a good start for a book called Firestorm. In this short – 5 pages - sequence, there’s a relatively familiar set-up (Something that gets mirrored throughout the book, but I’ll come to that later) where a science experiment has gotten out of control, and Firestorm solves everything just in the nick of time. Huzzah! The only problem is, I’m not entirely sure what actually happens. I know that it involved transmuting magnets into ice and then blowing up a roof by using the flames on the top of his head like a cannon. But beyond that? Kind of vague.

Now, maybe I’m just being very old-fashioned and all, but isn’t it a good idea for readers to, you know, actually understand what’s going on? I’m not dumb, and I have the IQ tests to prove it, but if I didn’t have the anal memory for comics that I do have I would’ve been completely lost by this sequence. I mean, what are Firestorm’s powers supposed to be nowadays? I guess he can still do the transmutation of matter thing and all, but beyond that, it’s never actually explained in the issue itself (Even the transmutation thing isn’t actually explained, just mentioned in one line, in an offhand manner). Sure, we get an explanatory little blurb at the start of the issue (“Jason Rusch is an ordinary teenager - - except for in times of danger. Then his body glows with the power of an atomic furnace, and he wields the primal forces of the universe as… FIRESTORM” – As an aside, I saw a similar blurb in the previews of the new Green Lantern title as well. I wonder if this is a new line-wide thing for DC’s books, much like the way that the old Marvel Comics used to have potted histories of the characters’ origins at the start of each issue?) and Rusch himself offers hints in his narration – “Just a quick transmutation…” and “Given enough time, and practice - - I could do almost anything” being the main ones – but none of that really actually explains anything, you know? For all I know, that whole “the top of his head suddenly explodes like a cannon” thing is his main super power these days.

Thankfully, after that awkward opening sequence, things come down to earth and a more understandable story. If I was really Mr. Cranky Pants, I would complain that things come too down to earth, as after only five pages, the fantastical elements of the book disappear almost entirely until the last two pages of the book. Now, I understand that everyone and their dog wants their superheroes to be believable and have human faults and all, but I can’t believe that I’m the only one out here who’d like to see more, well, more superheroic stuff every now and again just to remind me that I’m not reading One Tree Hill: The Comic Book. Of course, I’d only say any of that if I was Mr. Cranky Pants which, of course, I’m not. So never mind. Moving on.

The main problem with Moore’s first issue of Firestorm is that it feels as if it doesn’t know who it’s talking to. In many ways, it feels like the first issue of a book – in fact, the last two-thirds of the issue is almost entirely devoted to setting up the new status quo and introducing new characters, doing so at such speed that it kind of feels a bit like the Expositionary Twilight Zone – but it doesn’t work for new readers because it continues to play off of unexplained references that only old-school geeks would get – Not only the lack of explanation as to what Firestorm can do, but also who “Ronnie” (Raymond, the original Firestorm, who guest-starred in the previous three issues of the series just after being killed off in Identity Crisis) is, and why it’s funny that STAR Labs would have a Detroit office in a strip mall.

Those Easter Egg injokes are wasted on old fans, though, because a lot of what Moore does in this issue will be overfamiliar to them: The stereotypical – although I’m sure that Moore’s going to play with that – new characters in Jason’s new apartment building, the shadowy villain who appears at the end of the issue to give such dialogue as “I can help you… harness your newfound power. But you have to accept something, first… Your old life is over.” Even Jason himself seems to be very familiar, a somewhat bland teenage superhero coming to terms with his new powers at the same time as coming to terms with what it means to be “a man”.

Despite all of the above, I didn’t really dislike the book; actually, just the opposite. The familiarity of it almost seemed nostalgic, and it feels like there’s a lot of potential in the new status quo that Moore’s building (Jason’s internship is at an office of STAR Labs, which used to be the default scientific think tank in DC’s comics, that’s being closed down soon because the jobs are being outsourced to India, giving the characters there a justifiably cranky dynamic that isn’t often seen in mainstream comics). The artwork, by Jamal Igle and Rob Stull, is clear and dynamic and seems to avoid the genericized faces that too many superhero artists fill their books with these days (David Finch, I’m looking at you). If Moore gets the chance to find his feet and decide who he’s writing the book for – not always a definite thing in this market, especially for a book like that that’s already being relaunched just after a year of its initial launch – then it has the potential to turn into something unusual and worth paying attention to. Right now, it’s an example of where the main character is at in his life: Unsure whether to try something new or just fall back into the easy old familiar patterns.