May 1, 2021

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ADVANCE REVIEW: The Blue Flame #1 by Christopher Cantwell and Adam Gorham

Written by Christopher Cantwell
Illustrated by Adam Gorham
Colors by Kurt Michael Russell
Letter by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Design by Tim Daniel
Edited by Adrian Wassel
Published by Vault Comics


This is my second Vault comic this year for which I'm doing an advance review, and I'm thrilled to say that they are 2 for 2 (the other one was for Barbaric, which will be a must-read). The Blue Flame is a wonderful debut issue, as it gives the reader a ton to look at and think about, while hinting at much larger mysteries. The writing from Christopher Cantwell is excellent (no surprise, but we'll get to that), and every single artistic and design element of the comic is really top notch, from artist Adam Gorham, colorist Kurt Michael Russell, letterer Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou, and design by Tim Daniel. It all comes together seamlessly in this fantastic, big, ambitious, heartfelt comic. You need to get on board The Blue Flame.  

Let me just start by talking about what a terrific-looking comic this is. The whole visual presentation of the story comes together in a great way. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the main cover above feels just perfect to me. It does everything I want it to do and more. It's a fantastic logo (which I imagine was designed by Daniel), as it conveys motion and excitement and bold, sci-fi storytelling. And the cover by Gorham and Russell is just stunning. It reminds me of these books I used to read as a kid that were all about what the future was going to be like. We...haven't really gotten to that future yet, but the gives the Blue Flame a perfect retro-futuristic style that calls to mind, Flash Gordon, Adam Strange, and other classic space heroes. 
 
The story begins with some of the most delightful lettering and text presentation I've seen in a while. The above intro from the art team perfectly introduces to the reader the Atomic-Age, pulpy sci-fi feel of the story, and that fun, creative feel carries through the whole issue, including the excellent font choice for the aliens. I think Otsmane-Elhaou is a terrifically talented letterer, and he brings a lot of style and detail to the various books he letters. The work he did in Undone by Blood brought to life the old west and dusty adventures. And his work on The Plot perfectly helped create and foster the terrifying, sinister tone of that book. Here, the lettering is big and exciting and dynamic. I love the lettering size changes above, and the rocky effect around the word "Universe" above feels very Kirby New Gods to me (which is, of course, a huge compliment). 

And the story itself is absolutely gorgeous. I've always enjoyed Gorham's work but it feels like it went up a whole other level in this story. He's got a very clean style that feels modern but also very evocative of silver-age artists. I love the design of the cosmic Blue Fame uniform. It's sleek, graceful, and not too busy or complicated (I'm very much "less is more" when it comes to making superhero costumes, the simpler the better). And I noted the clear Adam Strange parallels, but it also has the sheen of the Silver Surfer and some of the general artful aesthetic of the Rocketeer. 
 
Beyond the costume, the whole sci-fi world that we enter is an incredible cosmic place.  So much of that is due to the incredible color from Russell. It's big and psychedelic and conveys a real sense of beauty and wonder to the distant reaches of space in which the Blue Flame funds himself. Below, the planet on which the Blue Flame lands genuinely feels like it's glowing right off of the page. And when he lands on the world, Russell brings dusty, alien colors to the remarkable, weird landscape that Gorham has brought to life. Together, it's really something special, and a joy to look at.
 
Gorham and Russell do a great job drawing contrasts between the cosmic world of the Blue Flame, and Sam's much more mundane world. The cosmic scenes have a little bit more graininess to them which makes those pages feel more like film (as opposed to the more detailed, digital way that TV shows look), whereas the Milwaukee-set scenes have more of that detailed feel to them. Not to mention that the colors generally in the Earthbound scenes are less vivid. There is still color, it's not a completely grim world. But the color choices in the Earthbound scenes are a lot more realistic and more muted, and less fantastical and cosmic.  
 
Gorham also draws effective contrasts between the two settings in the differing Blue Flame uniforms. The Earth uniform doesn't look cheap or unattractive. But it looks more like a police uniform. Something realistic, that a regular person could put together. Kind of like a more practical, restrained version of the cosmic outfit. The other superhero costumes in the Night Brigade have a similar "skilled DIY" that works well in the story. They don't look cheap or silly; these characters are not meant to look like a joke. But they look like good costumes that regular people could make, as opposed to something more fantastical. It's great attention to detail, and the whole book is filled with examples like this from start to finish.
 
I really enjoy comics that drop me right in the middle of the story, that throw me off balance from the very beginning (great examples include Decorum and Supreme: Blue Rose). Now, there's a fine line between dropping you into a story in media res, and just telling a confusing story.  And I suppose that depends on whether the confusion is purposeful, and if the disparate threads come together in a satisfying way.  But I like that puzzle-box aspect of stories; I like being placed in a situation where I very much need to ask myself "ok what the hell is going on here?".  

There is a caveat to that statement. While I really enjoy unraveling a mystery in a story, I don't just want a story where the mystery is the entire point of the story. I want to read or watch a story that isn't just about the mystery, it's about something else. Or many something elses. I feel like there have been a lot of storytelling examples recently where creators have sometimes forgotten that asking and answering key plot points like you're ticking boxes off of a checklist is not the same thing as storytelling (ahem, The Rise of Skywalker, ahem).

I can't speak to where The Blue Flame will end up, but I can say that I found the first issue very satisfying on many different levels, and one of those was that puzzle-box level. However, it's clear (even through one issue) that this story is so much more than just a puzzle to be solved.  There's meat on the bones of this story, in the form of compelling characterization and fascinating ideas, not to mention absolutely stunning art. So let's dive in.

The Blue Flame begins as an homage to classic pulpy science-fiction comics from decades ago. We join the character of the Blue Flame as he finds himself floating in space, not sure how he got there. He makes his way to an inhabited planet, and is confronted by the local population. After a brief skirmish, he surrenders himself to the locals who bring him before a judge or leader or some sort, who informs The Blue Flame that all of humanity is on trial! 

The story then moves from the center of the universe to...Milwaukee, Wisconsin (which is I'm sure a very nice place, but it's pretty far from the center of the universe). We see every-man Sam Brausam wake up, shovel snow, and head to his job as a boiler repairman. At the end of the day, we learn that Sam is also The Blue Flame! Blue Flame, the cosmic traveling hero? No, Blue Flame, a member of Milwaukee's vigilante superhero squad, The Night Brigade. Their concerns are a lot smaller than the fate of the universe. Their members are worried about maxing out their credit cards, dating, whether they should get a permanent clubhouse instead of meeting at some sort of community center, and their upcoming appearance at the Classic Car Show. They make an appearance at the car show, which is when there's a shooting, and Sam ends up in the hospital.
 
As the issue ends, we're back out in the cosmos, and we learn that all of humanity is on trial, and that The Blue Flame is their attorney.  One other note on the story. There's a two-age interlude involving two characters that don't appear to be related to the story and don't otherwise show up in the issue. I'm sure we will see them again, but as we watch them, they're dealing with some very significant news.

I approach The Blue Flame as already being a big fan of Cantwell's comic work. I've loved his Dark Horse series, She Could Fly and Everything. Those are both series that are profoundly weird but also incredibly relatable. Sure, there are weird aliens and robots and conspiracies, and big ideas about consumerism and the media, but these stories are ultimately about loneliness, wanting connection, and the human condition. Cantwell has more recently done work at Marvel on Doctor Doom and Iron Man; both have been really excellent, entertaining books thus far. Each has a story that feels very big and ambitious and grounded at the same time.

Cantwell has stated that the goal of The Blue Flame is to grapple with some of the challenges facing modern society:

Personally, in the face of so much compounding unprecedented anxiety and strife, I’ve recently been in full retreat mode culturally as an adult. I have found myself dreaming of farther and farther away places, and escaping into the more and more fantastical, if just for some way to stay sane. That’s because the truth remains that we are all struggling in a very difficult contemporary reality with all sorts of seemingly insurmountable problems that don’t seem to be easily solved by anything.

This reminds me of something an author said in the wake of 9/11, questioning what the purpose of fiction was. In the wake of such a terrible tragedy, it doesn't seem unreasonable to wonder whether, in the face of such real-life evil and tragedy, there is a purpose for fiction. Fiction that is used to warn against terrifying actions seems hollow in the face of real-life terror, and fiction used as escapism begins to feel like a selfish or pointless choice. And I'm not sure that fiction creators could have created something as absurd and cruel and tragic and profoundly stupid as the Trump presidency. Nor might they even imagined in any post-apocalyptic story that if a pandemic wreaked havoc across society, that there would be a substantial number of Americans who refused to believe that it was a real problem, and refused to accept the most basic of public health measures in the name of "freedom", and those same Americans would take to the streets and publicly harass and harangue children for wearing masks. And not to mention that there would be a time when the President of the United States would tout drinking bleach (and sunlight) as a method of dealing with the virus, and that same President would lead a war, essentially against reality, culminating in an insurrectionist attack on the Capitol spurred on by specious false claims of election fraud.   

Fiction has, of course, continued to exist, but it's worth wondering about the efficacy and/or purpose of fiction in a world where real life events seem to be out-absurding anything that creators of fiction seem to come up with.  For me, even escapism hasn't felt like much of an escape these days. I know the last thing I want to watch is a tense drama (I have enough tense drama in my own life), or a story about an outbreak. Nor do I want to watch a cynical story about superheroes that hits you over the head with the notion that superheroes are terrible people, because people are terrible and our society is terrible and everything is terrible. I get it. We see it every day.  

A big draw of superhero stories for me is their aspirational nature. I love the idea that if given great power, people would in fact act responsibly, and would use their ability to better the world, and to protect people. My all-time favorite comic is All-Star Superman, which is about as aspirational as comics get.  In All-Star Superman, a dying Superman does a whole lot of amazing things and is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom and generosity and has an incredible belief in the potential of humanity. But honestly? Right now there's an incredibly wide gulf between Superman's belief in the potential of humanity, and humanity's actual behavior.  So even heroic, noble characters that embody our best selves feel sort of hollow right now. 

Which of course brings us back around to The Blue Flame.  The creative team is playing with this idea (the limits of escapist fiction) in a clever way.  First, the story isn't clear on the relationship between the cosmic Blue Flame, and the DIY vigilante in Milwaukee. Is Sam in Milwaukee simply dreaming the existence and story of the cosmic Blue Flame? Or, is this a glimpse of the future, or an alternate reality, or something else?  This is one of the mysteries to be unraveled. But what's even more interesting that is the conceptual relationship between the two worlds.  

Sam is a DIY vigilante on a team who is reliant on a team member's credit cards, and doesn't have a full-time clubhouse.  He keeps his superhero costume in the trunk of his car and just goes around town wearing the Blue Flame helmet while driving his regular car.  Sam is a real guy, with a house and a job, and bills to pay, who appears to live in a world very much like our own. To him, the idea that he could be a cosmic traveler, roaming the universe to fight evil and explore untold mysteries, that idea would presumably be beyond his wildest imagination. That's the ultimate dream - to go from being a low-level local vigilante, to Adam Strange or Reed Richards.  Basically, to go from being someone who's decent at basketball in their rec league, to being Lebron James. 

However, even in the midst of this wonderful exploration of unknown corners of the universe, The Blue Flame is confronted by an alarming foe. Not a physical foe (as The Blue Flame seems formidable at handling those), but something much more difficult. The Blue Flame is told that all of humanity is going to be placed on trial, and he will be its advocate. It's a situation he can't punch or fly his way out of. And it's a situation better suited for a historian or an ethicist or an attorney.  But they're not present in that large hall, The Blue Flame is. And now, he must reckon with the entire history and present of humanity and make the argument that human beings should continue to get to exist, and are worth saving and preserving, and can improve. And that is frankly a tough argument to have to make. 

So what exactly is going on? What are we meant to draw from this story so far?  Something terrible happens to Sam in his more mundane world, that finds him going back into the more fantastical cosmic world.  But it was a senseless act of gun violence that put Sam into the situation in which he finds himself at the end of the first issue. I think about that in regards to the fact that all of humanity is on trial. The fact that guns are so prevalent and easily accessible in this country is a definite strike against humanity. Now, clearly, America doesn't represent all of humanity, but it is the culture from which Sam comes, and one of the prevalent ones in the world. So, if Sam is going to have to answer for the crimes and wrongs of humanity, then he will most certainly have to answer for the current wrongs of American society in addition to myriad historical wrongs.

Given the way in which he was violently forced from one reality to another, it seems unsurprising in that light that even in the exciting, escapist, cosmic, super-heroic world in which the Blue Flame exists, the grim facts of reality will come seeping in. I frankly can't wait to see how this trial unfolds. I would argue, were I there, that the existence of fiction is one of the greatest pieces of evidence in favor of humanity. Incredible ideas have found their way from a work of fiction into broader society. And fiction, particularly wild, speculative fiction, speaks to the broad possibilities in human imagination. Those stories have often inspired people to dream and think big, which has led to positive steps.  On the other hand, they could also argue that all of religion is an example of fictional stories being used by groups of people to oppress other people. And, you know, fair enough. 

I do love the idea of humanity on trial. Frankly, we ought to be judged. But also, this was a story from both the very beginning and the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation (one of my favorite hows of all time). There, Captain Picard had to argue on behalf of humanity in front of the all-powerful Q entity. Funnily enough, Star Trek itself is a great example of science fiction inspiring real-world scientific advancement. So, a trial is an inspired way to show what humanity stands for and can be, both on the everyday level and in the fantastical world of superheroes. Additionally, this comes back around to being a very traditional superhero story in one way, in the sense that there is nothing more heroic than saving humanity.

Cantwell is a writer of ambition and big ideas that still focus on the humanity of the characters. So far The Blue Flame feels like it well also do a great job striking that balance. From the role of fiction to the fate of humanity, to adventures both cosmic and more mundane, from interactions both interpersonal and intergalactic, I'm excited to see where it all goes.