Saturday, February 09, 2013

Nuclear Memories

It seems that +Firestorm Fan is running a contest to celebrate the site's fourth birthday.  They want folks to tell them what they like about the DC Comics character Firestorm or a favorite memory involving the character.  Seeing as how I like pretty much everything about the character (yes, I left some wiggle-room with the "pretty much".  So, sue me), I decided to go the "favorite memory" route.  You wanna know more about the character?  Once again I'd point you back to +The Irredeemable Shag's Firestorm Fan page.  He has divided his posts by category and has some excellent info on the several iterations of the character (about 10 at last count).  Check it out, then come back here for a trip in the Wayback Machine.

It's late summer in 1981 and Hall and Oats, Blondie, and Rick Springfield are tearing up the airwaves.  I am 9 years old, looking forward to 4th grade and,  while riding in the back seat of my mom's Plymouth, we were probably listening to Dolly Parton or Eddie Rabbitt and barreling east on US 70 toward the beach.

Most of the summer memories from my youth take place in or around Atlantic Beach, NC.  This town is at the end the Bogue Banks barrier island that separates Bogue Sound from the Atlantic Ocean.  I have many fond childhood memories all around the Crystal Coast area of NC, but my mother's uncle had a trailer that was a short walk from the ocean in Atlantic Beach, so that area became a sort of stomping grounds. Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, Salter Path, Indian Beach and all points between were my summer home.  Halfway between my home and the beach we would always stop for lunch and a bio-break in Kinston, NC at a little place called The Neuse Sport Shop.  Now, I say "little place" because in 1981 it was about 1/4 the size that it is now.  This place sells all manner of sporting equipment: rod/reels, bait/tackle, guns/amo, camping gear, you name it.  Think of a mom-and-pop Bass Pro Shop and you'll have the idea.  They knew they were a weigh-station for North Carolinians heading to the beach and made the most out of it by selling beach gear, too.  At the back of the joint, they had a little greasy spoon counter that sold the best cheeseburgers a 9 year could ever want.  I know: "What the hell does this have to do with a comic book character that has fire for hair?"  Calm down, son, I'm getting there!  Go play some Farmville on Facebook if you don't want to hear me set a stage!

Now, each time we would head to the beach, my mom would let me pick up some reading material for the (usually) week-long stay.  Mom is an avid reader and I suppose that passed on to me and my sister.  The Neuse Sport Shop, in addition to the wide selection of sporting equipment, had a large area (two isles) set aside for magazines, books, and such.  As I said, catering to the beach-going vacationers.  Now, in the 80's, direct market distributing of comic books to specialty comic shops had not begun in earnest in NC.  Even if it had, my 9 year old ass wouldn't have known it.  I retrieved all of my comics off of something called a spin rack.  Now, younger folks might not know about these, but every kid growing up in the 70's and 80's knew about these spinners of comic goodness.  It was the ONLY place you could find comics, but they were everywhere.  You couldn't get away from them.  There was always one in the grocery store, gas station, mall, and, yes, sporting goods shops.  The Neuse Sport Shop, however, had no less than 6 spin racks with nothing but comics on them.  I don't know if Julius Schwartz and Stan Lee actually owned this place or what, but I almost wet myself whenever we would get within 10 miles of Kinston just thinking about all of the options on those racks.

I had my want list of items in my head when we walked in the place.  However, I was not allowed to even look in the direction of the periodicals until I had "taken a tinkle" and eaten lunch, both of which I did as fast as I possibly could.  I remember booking it to the comic racks to start grabbing as many comics as I thought my mom would let me get.  Most comics at this time had a cover price of 60¢ and, if I didn't ask for any snacks or anything else, I could usually get mom to pony up $10-15 bucks for reading material.  That is a shitload of comics, my friend, even if you subtract the fact that I would probably throw a MAD magazine or Sports Illustrated or video game magazine (to see what's new in the Atari 2600 world) on the counter with the comic stash.  My usual list would include Flash, Green Lantern, Thor, Hulk, Action Comics, and a few team up books such as DC Comics Presents, Fantastic Four, or Teen Titans.  The one item that was 1st on my list each and every time, however, was Justice League of America.  The pinnacle of team up books, dude!  This was the Super Friends and then some.  All of the heavy hitters on the same team fighting for Truth and Justice, kicking asses then playing cards in a satellite in geosynchronous orbit 23,000 miles above the Earth!  The issue that I saw on the rack stopped me in my tracks!  It was a huge, white gorilla straddling triumphantly over the chest of an older Superman.  The rest of the League was spread around on the floor, obviously just having their asses handed to them by this same white ape.  I kind of recognized some of the characters, including this gray-templed Superman, as "those other, older Justice League-types from the other Earth," that the cover called the "Justice Society!".  This was, of course, JLofA #196.

But I also saw that new Leaguer on the cover.  The one with the flaming hair.  I'd been keeping an eye on him lately and really liked him.  Firestorm was just a kid and was hanging out with Superman and Batman and that was freakin' cool!  Plus, he had a look unlike any of the other heroes.  Fire!  For hair!  And some old dude talking in his head all the time?  You mean this dude had TWO secret identities?!??!?  Flash and Green Lantern only had one!  I also found JLofA #195 on this rack and, because it was a month old, it was marked down to 35¢.  How do I know this?  I still have that issue with the pricing gun's sticker on it.  "WHAAAAT?!??!??  Stickers on the front of comics?  Blasphemy!!!"  Look, comics were just throw-away periodicals back then, not really collector's items (or so I thought). I had a stack in the closet back home, but those were for reading and re-reading.  I'd never heard of bagging and boarding.  But I'm digressing.

Firestorm had the coolest arch-villain in these 2 issues; Killer Frost.  A cold-hearted killer (pun intended) who looked even more frightening in that she was fighting in a ball gown.  Plus, she stirred the kernel of something in me that I would not be able to define for a few more years yet.  Not only was Firestorm's enemy the best in this issue, it turns out that he was a linchpin in the balance between Earths 1 and 2.  Yep, that's right.  There were only 10 heroes (5 from each Earth) that, if removed, could upset the Cosmic Balance of the Multiverse!  Yeah.  That's right.  The freakin' Multiverse!  Side note: I was 9 years old and I understood the Science Fiction concept of alternate universes.  Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-X, Earth-C-minus....never had a problem grasping the concept.  Why DC saw fit to implode all of these alternate worlds rich with stories I'll never know.  But that's a rant for another day.

So, I took my usual stash with me to the beach.  My Flashes, my Green Lanterns, a smattering of Thor, Superman, Hulk, Plastic Man, and some new book called All-Star Squadron.  But the 2 issues I read over and over on that trip were JLofA 195 and 196.  Yes, I hovered over the Firestorm backups in the Flash, too.  All of this starting adding up in my head: Youngest member ever to join the League, power levels well beyond any other hero (except maybe GL), 2 people in 1 head, one of only 10 heroes on 2 Earths who's very presence could hold the Multiverse together, and important enough to have his own strip in the back of The Flash.  I knew he had a series sometime in the past.  I knew this because I had Firestorm #3 at home in the stack (along with another issue from the DC Implosion: Steel, the Indestructible Man).  Again, Killer Frost. I don't know where I got that old Firestorm issue, as the issue hit the stands when I was 5 years old (according to Mike's Amazing World), but I do know that when I got home after this beach trip in the late summer days of 1981 I began begging my mom to take me on Saturdays to the flea market at the fairgrounds.  This is where these guys would bring "long boxes" of old comics to sell. The reason for my insistence on going through back issues?  Well, JLofA #197, of course.  Back then, a story that spanned 2 issues was not something you saw too often. But a THREE parter?  Unheard of.  I had spent that entire week at the beach with Firestorm and His Amazing Friends stuck in Limbo at the hands of the Ultra-Humanite and his evil Secret Society.  Yeah, I'd come up with all kinds of ways for this story to end, but I wanted to know what this Gerry Conway guy had in store and I wanted to see some more of that art from that George Pérez guy.  I eventually found 197 and finished the story.  I also found old Flash issues (he was, after all, the hero I dug the most before Firestorm nudged him out of 1st sometime later). In the process, though, I also found out that these "guys" at the flea market on weekends actually owned stores that sold (mostly) comics!  A whole store of comics?  Great Caesar's Ghost!  Between comic shops like Tales Resold in Raleigh, NC (which, unfortunately closed its doors in 2008) and the flea market, the world of fresh-off-the press comics, as well as back issues were opened to me.  I filled in my back issues of the first Firestorm series (only 5 issues?  What the heck? It clearly says at the end of #5 that there'd be a #6!?!??) and also caught up on some of the Firestorm back-up stories in the back pages of The Flash issues that I had missed.

Much later on, I even got lucky enough to score some original art from JLofA #195.
It is the page where the Ultra-Humanite was explaining his plan to get rid of all of the heroes.  This piece is framed an on my wall today.  Interest in that "Match-Head" character and his part in the DC Universe opened the world of comics to me.  This is why I will always have a place in my heart for Firestorm, the Nuclear Man.