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
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.
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.
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 shows 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.