Secret Origins #4 (1986)

Secret Origins #4 (July, 1986)
“The Secret Origin of Firestorm, the Nuclear Man”
Writer – Gerry Conway
Pencils – George Tuska
Inks – Pablo Marcos
Letters – John Costanza & Carrie Spiegle
Colors – Nansi Hoolahan
Assists – Paul Kupperberg & Robert Greenberger
Edits – Janice Rice
Cover Price: $0.75

I feel like I preface the same way every time we discuss Firestorm… but, this was a character (and a title) I never really glommed onto.  That might sound like heresy, especially to say such a thing on the internet… but, I ain’t about to lie to y’all and proclaim myself to be some sort of expert.

I’ve tried… Lord knows… to “get into” Firestorm.  Mostly because, it’s one of those books that I’m told I “should like”.  It’s the most Marvel-ish of the DC books… and, as a Marvel Boy, should have felt more like “home” to me than many of DC’s other standbys.  And yet, I just didn’t get it.  Still don’t, in fact!  I like the idea, the concept, and even the character… just not enough to actually sit through a hundred issues (or pages) featuring him.

Maybe one’a these days I’ll come around… til then, however, let’s take a peek into (part of) his “secret origin”.  Perhaps this will help make all of those pieces fall into place for me?

We open with Firestorm on-the-job… and a little back ‘n forth between his two halves.  Professor Stein is happy that Ronnie is so excited to help the Pittsburgh P.D. with all of their troubles… but, really needs to be somewhere.  What he’s trying to say is, maybe some cats ought to be left in trees… or something.  More like, let the actual police have some of the fun, I guess.  The two split up, and… somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), it’s Stein we follow back to the “real life”.  We rejoin him at Vandemeer University, where he’s met by his… assistant (?) Wendy.  She asks if he’d like to join her downtown for some Chicago-Style pizza.  I’ll… fight the temptation to mention that New York pizza is world’s better.  Stuffy ol’ Stein declines the offer… and would rather just stand pensively in his window having a flashback…

… All the way back to his college days at Jessie Spano’s alma mater, Stanford… err, Sanford.  Likely a technical school having to do with waste management then?  We catch up with him as he’s being bullied by a very Tuska-looking tough guy.  This is Brad, somethin’ or ‘nother… and he wants to cheat off of him on the upcoming “Semester Exam”.  Stein (who the bully calls “Stern”) refuses at first… until Brad rams his finger up his nose… at which time, our man reconsiders.

Humiliated, Stein drops to the ground to pick up his books.  He’s approached by Crystal Frost, who would like nothing more than to comfort him.  Instead of accepting this, Martin tells her to scram… unwittingly setting off a series of events that would end in her becoming the villain, Killer Frost.  Oops!

Next, comes the day of testing… and young Marty has himself a plan.  He will indeed let Brad copy off his paper… but, here’s the thing, he’s going to answer every question incorrectly himself!  This gets Stein a rather sizable knuckle sandwich.

We jump ahead to Stein using this beat-down as a way of digging down and finding his determination.  He’d tune out the world completely, and devote his life to his studies.  He’d eventually graduate, and receive both his Masters and Doctorate on the same day.  From here, the world was his oyster… he’d get a great gig at S.T.A.R. Labs… and yet, even with all of these accomplishments under his belts… his self-esteem still sucked!  Anytime he’d hear people laughing nearby, he’d automatically assume they were laughing at him.  Whew, it’s not just me who feels that way then…

All of his self-doubts and fears ultimately turn Martin Stein toward… the drink.  He’s self-medicating, and making no apologies.  One night at the disco, he’s approached by a beautiful (?) woman (it is a George Tuska drawing, after all).  She is immediately smitten, and so, drags him out to the dance floor.

Seven days later… they’re married!  This is Martin’s wife, Clarissa… with whom he was “deliriously happy”.  That’s what we in the biz call “famous last words”, right?

It doesn’t take too terribly long for that other shoe to drop.  Ya see, Ms. Clarissa… liked to spend money.  What’s more, she liked to spend money Marty didn’t have.  This leads to a massive blowup, that ends with Martin “putting hands” on her.  He wrenches her arm, which freaks them both out… she ultimately storms out.  They would eventually divorce…

… and so, Marty went back to his cruel mistress… booze.  Around now, he’s left S.T.A.R. Labs for a lead gig at Hudson Nuclear.  Here, he designed the world’s first fully automated nuclear power plant… or, at least that was the plan.

Now, nuclear energy was (and is) a hot-button issue… and so, there were many people looking to protest the development of this new facility… including a brutish looking fellow who refers to Stein as “Stern”.  This sends Martin reeling into a flashback to his tormented college days, and he shoves the dude into the fence.  Turns out, it’s just some other young knucklehead and not Brad-the-Bully.  Stein’s assistant, Danton Black sweeps our man away to a nearby car before he can do anything he might regret.  They head directly to the bar so Marty can tie (another) one on.

The whole chat here is… weird, and kind of a heartbreaking look into the mind of a paranoid victim of bullying.  Even though he’s like top dog right now, he can’t stifle the feelings that everyone views him as weak… and are laughing at him behind his back.  Danton lent our man an ear… which seems like something a friend might do… but, in reality… he was just confirming his own suspicions that Martin Stein is a drunk.  We jump ahead to a point in time where Danton decides he’s going to steal an isotope… and, considering what he now knows about Stein… there ain’t much he can do to stop him!

Danton tells Stein that if he dares fire him, the whole world will find out that he’s a raging alcoholic.  After being whacked with a briefcase, Stein decides calls his bluff…

… which is something he’ll soon regret.  Two days later, the entire operation is shut down.  Stein decides “screw it”, and proceeds with the launch anyway.

Turns out, at that very moment… a “racial” antinuclear group was putting some explosives in place to tank the entire place… and probably render much of the East Coast unlivable for a rather long time.  I’m going to assume they meant to describe these goobers as “radical” and not “racial”, right?  The Prof gets backhanded when he attempts to intervene… and winds up laid out by the bombs alongside some kid named Ronnie.

The timer on the bomb ticks down… and Ronnie wakes up.  Rather than rushing off to save himself, he decides to try and pull the Prof out of harm’s way.  This doesn’t work out well for either of them!  Also, Danton Black was still lingering around the place, and got hit with a blast of radiation himself!  This is how he’d wind up becoming the villain, Multiplex.

From here, we get the quick and dirty on what Firestorm is and does… and our flashback finally ends.  Stein stops to think s’more and decides life’s too short to spend it alone with your papers.  We wrap up with him joining Wendy and the gang at that pizza joint.

Now, up to this point I knew diddly and squat about Professor Stein.  I mean, I knew of him… and who he was, but outside of pointing him out in a line-up, I couldn’t tell ya all that much.  This issue, I feel, did a great job of filling in many of those blanks for me.

I think, up to this point, I always just assumed the Professor was a cold, stodgy, no-nonsense, colorless, flavorless, odorless sort of character.  Just something we dealt with while we waited for Ronnie’s scenes.  Does that make any sense?  I mean, I’m coming at this as an ignorant outsider… but, the idea of following around the Professor for an entire issue, at first blush, seems like a really bad idea.  Almost like we lost a bet or something.

Instead… what we get is… pretty damned good!  We (or I) meet this Martin Stein, and find him to be downright relatable!  Someone with as many flaws as he has accomplishments… and, I tell ya what, this is one very successful fellow.  While I do feel that the alcoholism angle might be like an “easy” way to give him a vice or a failing… everything that led up to that actually felt organic and meaningful.  What I’m trying to say is, seeing him turn to the drink didn’t feel “outta nowhere”.

My main takeaway here, if I had to pick one, is despite Stein’s many successes… at the end of the day, he still sees himself as an impotent (in the helpless sort of way) victim of bullying.  These bits really resonated with me, in that… I (and I assume many) can definitely relate to such feelings.  I can’t quite say that anything I’ve done (or will ever do) could measure up to ya know nuclear ingenuity… but, I’ve had my fair share of “successes”.  Unfortunately, anytime they might be acknowledged, I suspect whoever’s speaking is being either sarcastic or patronizing.

Even today, though… as a dude in his forties… if I’m in a classroom, and I hear a group of people chuckling… I automatically assume they’re laughing at me.  It’s really hindered my ability, self-esteem, and self-efficacy over the years.  I feel like I’m too busy guarding myself to allow myself to just “be”.  Ya know?  I’m not a drinker, thankfully… I guess my vice is the back-issue bins.  If I were starring in this issue, I’d jump from having my face rubbed in the dirt to my rubbing my own face in some ancient newsprint.  There’s an image for ya!

Anyhoo, outside of all the heady-stuff, this was still a great little primer on Stein.  I really appreciated how Multiplex and Killer Frost’s origins were tied in here.  Thought that was a neat little bit of completistness… completionism… whatever it is I’m trying to say.  The art from George Tuska was…. Tuska-y.  I swear Bully Brad showed up in every crowd shot here… even though he actually didn’t.  I guess what I’m trying to say is… some of these characters looked very “stock”.

Overall… thought this was pretty cool… and, I learned a whole lot about Professor Stein’s origins… from, ya know, a half-dozen reboots ago.  I don’t know how much (if any) of this still stands in our current DC Comics landscape… and, ya know what… I bet the folks actually collecting paychecks at DC don’t either!

(Not the) Letters Page:

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7 thoughts on “Secret Origins #4 (1986)

  • Regarding the part where Martin Stein hears people laughing nearby and he assumes they're laughing at him and your comment of "Whew, it's not just me who feels that way then", nope, it's not just you. It's amazing how a person can be an alleged full grown adult person (I always use "alleged" in referencing myself as an adult even though I am scarily close to senior citizen status) and there is still stuff that just can't be shaken off.

    Most Firestorm stories to this point were Ronnie Raymond centric. I remember buying this issue of Secret Origins and being pleasantly surprised to find the story follow Martin Stein and fleshing out his back story. Martin was always a bit of a downer in the Firestorm narrative and we get to see how he got that way and his awareness that maybe he can do something about it. Taking that step to join his co-workers at the pizza place is a big step. It's easier to accept life as messed than it is to do something about it. A lot of people may see Martin showing up to join the gang for pizza as a simple thing. It is a courageous act.

    I've never been a big fan of George Tuska's work but if Firestorm is supposed to be a Marvel-like character for DC, Tuska is a very good choice to catch that kind of Marvel vibe if you can't get Al Milgrom to do the interiors. (Getting Milgrom back to do the cover was cool.)

    Oh look! A 'Mazing Man ad! Man, it was a good time to be a DC fan!

    • I'm glad to hear I'm not alone! Being that "comic kid" back in the day probably did a number on my self-confidence that followed me into adulthood, haha.

      I definitely appreciated The Prof coming "out of his shell", so to speak, and joining his friends. Definitely a big step… and another bit that I can absolutely relate to!

  • Grant Kitchen

    Looks like you only included the second half of the (Not the) Letters Page. Though for all I know it could have been omitted from the actual copy. I know Green Lantern vol. 3 had the same mistake. And the letters page for Detective Comics 607 looks like it was meant to be in 606.

    As for this issue it was good but I feel like wecahould have gotten Ronnie's backstory too like what was he doing in that room when the bomb went off? I actually have the first issue of Firestorm and it may interest you to know that initially Stein didn't remember being Firestorm after he and Ronnie separated each time he would just gave gaps on his memory which he would attribute to blackouts from drinking which led ultimately to more drinking to cope with the memory gaps.

    • I did include it… but, for whatever reason, it didn't seem to come along for the ride! Weird blogger stuff… it's up there now though

  • Jeremiah

    I've picked up a lone issue of Firestorm here and there and like what I've read, but it's not something I started "collecting". This story filled in quite a bit of back story I was not aware of.

    As far as pizza goes, NY style is the best. That being said I've had a couple trips to Chicago the last few years and have had some really good deep dish. It's not ever going to be my favorite, but it is pretty good.

    • NY is definitely the best! Chicago is only good if you ever need to remove a few layers of skin from the roof of your mouth!


    I truly relate to a lot of what stein goes through here too. This issue was a brilliant way to use the secret origins title to give us something different, and I loved this run of Firestorm I wish it was collected somewhere.


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