Armagideon Time

Riddle me this, faithful readers: When is a funnybook not a funnybook?

The correct answer is “when said funnybook is The Fury of Firestorm Annual #2.”

I suppose a little context is in order. For some reason (my guess would be “cheap bastardy”), the newsstand where I used to purchase new comics as a tweener refused to stock any double-sized issues. My access to annuals or “special” event issues was thus limited to flea market purchases or the rare trip to the Waldenbooks store in the Billerica Mall. It was at the latter where I picked up the above 1984 annual, along with the issue of the New Mutants which introduced a certain techno-organic wonder.

I was, and continue to be, a pretty big fan of the original Ronnie Raymond/Professor Stein incarnation of Firestorm. Something about the character’s combination of goofy costume, complicated powers, and psuedo-scientific “nuclear” branding struck a chord with my younger self. Firestorm was new, strange, and different, which was enough for me to overlook the derivative mediocrity of his second go at an ongoing series.

When I came across the annual in the Waldenbooks spinner rack, I knew I had to purchase it. C’mon, it was twice as thick as a regular issue and Stormy’s entire (pathetic in hindsight) rogues’ gallery was on the cover! I was too jazzed to bother looking at the interior of comic.

If only I had. I could have been spared the crushing disappointment that came when I saw “an illustrated novella” on the first page.

Yep, the second Fury of Firestorm annual was not a comic book at all, but rather forty-one pages of “picto-fiction” written by Arthur Byron Cover and Gerry Conway and illustrated by Rafael Kayanan and Ernie Colon….and it’s, well, not very good.

The story is the type of one-off fluff common to annuals of the era. Teenage jock Ronnie Raymond is having troubles getting his shit together for the big b-ball game, and things only get worse when starts experiencing hallucinations where villains he’d faced as Firestorm start popping up in his daily life. To complicate things even further, a telepathic alien resembling a Clones of Funkenstein re-deco of Bib Fortuna wants to use Firestorm as a replacement fuel source for its crashed spacecraft.

After outwitting the cagey E.T. and winning the BIG GAME with a lucky last minute shot, Ronnie and the Professor realize that the hallucinations are a low-power Lathe of Heaven dealie-o unintentionally projected by one of Ronnie’s classmates, a sickly Firestorm fanboy with latent psychic powers.

It’s the type of tale that could have run (and did run, multiple times) in Superman or Action Comics, circa 1976 to 1980. (Superman even makes a guest appearance at the end to shuffle the telepathic teen off to STAR Labs, so he can “better learn to control his powers.”)

The difference is that Bates or Maggin or Bridwell would have wrapped things up inside eighteen pages, with room for an Air Wave back-up story. This untitled Firestorm tale, on the other hand, tries to stretch out this thin narrative gruel with page after page of purple prose.

Was it due to some long-smoldering spark of literary ambition that burned in Conway’s breast? Or was it a reflection of the stylistic changes the medium was undergoing at the time?

I have no idea. All I know is that the results resembled nothing so much as creator-helmed fan-fiction. There’s a reason why the superhero genre is frequently confused with the medium of comics in general. Unlike westerns or horror tales or military adventure stories, superheroes were something new (if syncretic) that emerged from the funnybook medium.

The conventions, tropes, and audience expectations of superhero material were almost entirely shaped by comics. The medium’s “unlimited visual effects budget” was perfectly suited for tales of exposition-spouting mystery folks flying through the air and hurling boulders one-handed. While the material can be adapted to other media — film, animation, radio — it remains most effective in comics format.

A guy with a flaming head and a goofy costume? All you need is a talented artist to spin that ludicrous nonsense into gold. Hell, I have a few dozen pals who could pull it off as a casual lunchtime doodle.

Making it work in prose is an entirely different matter, especially in light of the odd (and quite frankly unwarranted) inferiority complex surrounding the superhero genre. The natural tendency of prose writers to overexplain when dealing with licensed or adapted properties kicks into overcompensating overdrive when superpowers and spandex are involved. The deceptive superficiality of the genre tends to get buried under unrelenting barrage of words unleashed as a pre-emptive defense.

I don’t believe it is impossible to tell a good prose superhero tale, but doing so would involve a lot more effort to achieve something that still couldn’t stack up to a competent comics version of the same. Why spend five hundred words relaying what could have captured in a simple three-panel scene…

…especially when it involves Ronnie and the Professor discussing their appreciation of breakdancing?

The “picto” half of this “picto-fiction” endeavor has its own share of rough patches, with some of the most unintuitive layouts this side of a small press 1970s role-playing game manual. Kayanan and Colon do decent job of distracting the reader from such stellar passages as this…

…yet there are a few moments that made me contemplate their commitment to the project. (I wonder how DC paid out for the work on this, because I can’t imagine them paying out full rates for a handful of panels on a text page.)

I’ve moved past my tweener fanboy rage over the bait-and-switch con perpetrated upon me by Fury of Firestorm Annual #2, and have come to accept it as another failed experiment in a funnybook era filled with such curiosities.

It’s still pretty damn lousy, though.

Related posts:

  1. Nobody’s Favorites: Through the cracks
  2. Nobody’s Favorites: Electric schlock
  3. Nobody’s Favorites: Let there be cross-hatching

8 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: Fitful prose”

  1. Joe S. Walker

    A quote from George Orwell seems appropriate here:

    “A Mickey Mouse film breaks the rules of common sense more violently than any book ever written, but because it is seen it is perfectly comprehensible. Try to describe it in words and you will fail; worse, no one will listen to you.”

  2. sallyp

    Cream of Wheat? Really?

  3. Mark

    Hi,
    Not sure I agree with you on the fact that superheroes emerged from the medium, as I believe the LOEG has demonstrated. On the other hand, when you turn it to prose, you’re up against some heavyweight competition (Wells, Stevenson…)

  4. Johnathan

    One redeeming feature of this story: the opposing basketball team being pictured as super-villains.

    It doesn’t make up for all of the other garbage that you mentioned, but it’s a pretty fun visual.

  5. Bill S.

    I see those blocks of text and my eyes glaze over. I was an English major, I read Milton, Woolf, and Pynchon for fun, but I have never managed to finish Howard the Duck #16 or Batman #663, in spite of both issues being by writers I otherwise tend to appreciate.

  6. athodyd

    SO MUCH WHEAT. SO MANY WORD PROCESSORS. I AM INEXORABLY DRAWN INTO THIS SUPERHEROIC WORLD OF PLENTY.

  7. Mike Podgor

    Bill S – I’ve managed to finish those, though it was after much procrastination. I’ve never managed to finish the prose back-ups in the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” paperbacks, though.

  8. Ataru320

    I haven’t seen so much obsession with “wheat” since “Love and Death”.

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