This Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Firestorm Volume 2 #95
Writer – John Ostrander
Penciler – Tom Mandrake
Inker – Tom Mandrake
Letterer – John Workman
Neil Gaiman wrote a book in 2001 called American Gods. If you haven’t read it, or heard of it, I suggest you do so. It’s likely one of the best fantasy novels ever written. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the book contains an assortment of gods, old and new, boasting a bold, pantheistic world rooted in pragmatism and relevancy. One such unnamed god, the buffalo-man, the spirit of America, says “I am the Land.” Speaking to the main protagonist, the creature elaborates saying within the womb of the world, “This is not a land for gods […] This land was brought up from the depths of the ocean by a diver […] It was spun from its own substance by a spider. It was shat by a raven. It is the body of a fallen father, whose bones are mountains, whose eyes are lakes. This is a land of dreams and fire.” What the “land” is – the spiritual landscape of North America – the buffalo-man implies is a fraught land, pluralistic and ethnically divided by super realities.
Much of American Gods can be read in one to two ways. Having finished his magnum opus, The Sandman in 1996, Gaiman funneled the girth of Sandman’s mythic philosophy and complex pantheistic universe into American Gods, with the twist that time had eroded the grandeur of the pantheons that once were. The gods were no longer radiant, but fat and jobless, without hope. Marginalized, they are quickly becoming forgotten. Odin says plainly, “My people went from here to America a long time ago. They went there, and then they returned to Iceland. They said it was a good place for men, but a bad place for gods.” The gods that were unfortunate enough to be brought over by their worshipers became diluted. They were only shadows on a wall, transparent forms, washed out by time. Gaiman’s point is that the tragedy of the modern world is the homogenization of culture. Mr. Wednesday, how America sees Odin, is not a king, but a con man that lives out of a suitcase, with no one to command.
I suppose another way to read American Gods is a tad more experimental: it’s all about comic books, and the decaying tropes of the modern superhero.
Neil Gaiman still occasionally writes comic books. Marvel’s re-release of Miracleman will be finished by Gaiman himself, once the issue releases catch up with his long awaited finale to the series. But I don’t think Gaiman wants to write comic books any more now that he is a novelist (what I assume). I hope, yearn that he will reconsider his departure, but the spirit of the hero is gone in comic books. In light of this vanishing point of selfless heroism and altruism, I wonder if Gaiman himself is moving on. It’s only a matter of time now. At least we have Sandman Overture to tide us over before Armageddon comes.
Around the time Gaiman was reinventing the wheel, Firestorm was making a comeback in comics, via the work of John Ostrander, who had taken on a new look and mythos. In issue #95, I get the whole look. He’s a fire pixie, whatever. He’s strangely similar to Dream, whatever. He’s transcended his “super-science” origins, whatever. Rather than being a mortal, he poses as a god, which hardly holds up to the power of (Dj)Shango (the “dj” is silent), an actual god: a storm deity that wields a large, hammer-like weapon, not unlike Thor. (What do you mean, storm deity?) DC, corning the market in the “god business,” has sported a pseudo pantheon for years. Just like the cultures of long ago, fans and critics alike have paid homage to DC’s gods, which are always portrayed as larger than life avatars. Superman anchors the DCU with his morality, which is modeled after Judeo-Christian ethics, evident by his creators, two Jewish high school students from Cleveland, Ohio. Wonder Woman and Batman operate on the same scope as Superman, both determined by higher, purer principals. Most of DC’s iconic IP share these characteristics. It’s a shame, then, that Firestorm is nothing near the genuine article. In fact, he’s kind of phony.
I can’t blame Firestorm for gritting his teeth and crying out to the gods of Africa for allowing such environmental devastation to occur. We all worship something, be it a job, or a status, or even a loved one. When we fail that object of worship, or that object fails us, it rends our world. We feel disillusioned and completely betrayed. Firestorm, who is depicted returning to a valley laid to waste by sectarian and political upheaval, might as well put himself on trial as a white man, indirectly responsible for centuries of exploitation, local government interference, and human trafficking. Maybe that’s why I can’t take him seriously. The irony is lost on him. Still, DC shoots themselves in the foot with Firestorm #95. Firestorm is condemning their very line of prestigious characters. Why couldn’t the JLA do something about the suffering in Africa?
Shango, adapted from Ṣàngó (a Yorùbá deity), stands against Firestorm, contrasting with the classical positions DC takes, which more closely resemble polytheistic relativism. I took the entire conversation as a symbolic dialogue, not unlike Job and YHWH’s discourse in the Old Testament literature. Where Firestorm demands justice from a god, who exists outside of human interference, Shango’s indifference is troubling, especially considering that his own people have suffered under the godless that have afflicted them. Firestorm, however, is a mortal with god-like abilities, but I assume he doesn’t understand the complex mechanics of the cosmos. Sudden outbursts of vain emotion fill his lungs, but his perspective can’t see past what Shango is doing. Shango is trying to save the world. So it’s rather amusing that Shango sends Firestorm to the realm of the gods, only to reveal a greater evil consuming that plane. Firestorm #95 is a lesson in perspective, which highlights the narrowing of DC’s IP. No longer do gods walk the earth, but mortals with lots of power, and lots of issues.
This trend continues today. Many of the reasons why I dislike the Arrow CW series, is because Oliver Queen’s portrayal is robbed of Green Arrow’s trademark charm. Reading Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters and watching Arrow is so jarring. CW is hate-f*cking us with DC heroes that lack personality and motivation. Why should I feel sorry for Oliver Queen in Arrow? He’s like Batman, but he’s content with destroying his father’s legacy and incapable of running a company that could do incredible work with inner city social programs. Clearly, he missed his Harvard business economics class on scalable income and corporate structuring. Wonder Woman fares little better, no longer a statue, but a flesh and blood goddess. Superman is no longer “super,” just a man. Shango reflects the golden age voice in comics. Characters back then were certainly virtuous, but also operated on black and white principals. Superman would break down doors to catch wife beaters and crooked politicians, and would commence to beat them without any regard for due process. Only a god can judge, because they are definitive points of reference within the culture of morality. When Shango stiff arms Firestorm and ignores him, it’s rather pleasant. It reminded me of the “good ol’ days,” back when weed was heroine and rock music was sex.
Firestorm, like Flash, was a character that was special for his association with science. Science, a religion to some, is carried out with its own set of morals and principals, mostly focused on extreme neutrality and strong definitions of reality. The Flash’s villains, to paraphrase Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, are villains that operate on empirical grounds. Flash has to use physics, chemistry, and other scientific principles to evade and defeat his foes. Firestorm operates on the same grounds as the Flash, a hero of science. John Ostrander’s take on Firestorm during his reboot made him out to be a fire elemental, which muddles the firm rationalism that supports Firestorm’s original origins. So the character, as presented here, is watered down. And when Shango completely eradicates Firestorm, it is clear that what makes DC special has taken sides with the issue’s antagonist, rather than the protagonist.
Firestorm #95 was not a letdown, so much as it was a confirmation that DC’s attempt to be edgy in the 90’s seemed to counteract their implicit mission statement. That said, DC is running out of options to make their characters relevant to modern readers. DC isn’t necessarily at fault for being in this situation, it’s just a demonstration that time fades the novel. Eventually our society will evolve beyond the use of sequential art (as we know it today) as an effective medium for communication, and that’s not a bad thing. What’s intriguing, still, is that when Superman, or Batman, or Wonder Woman, or Shining Knight is brought out for the kids at school, beautiful things happen. They aren’t impressed with their costumes or gadgets, looks or plots, but with the essence of the character. Black or white, rich or poor, Superman is still Superman and Firestorm is still Firestorm. (As long as Ostrander isn’t around.)
7 Shango Beatdowns (of 10)