So much of the early issues of The Blue Flame from writer Christopher Cantwell and artist Adam Gorham has relied on the dissonance between its two, distinct settings.
In the faraway world of Exilos, Sam Brausam is the Earth’s leading defense attorney as a cosmic tribunal decides humanity’s fate. In Milwaukee, Sam is a recovering vigilante living with the emotional and physical wounds of a surprise attack that killed his crimefighting team.
The milieus were so different — and Sam’s dual roles so incongruous — that I immediately suspected some kind of trick. Was Sam hallucinating these scenes? Were they a product of his extreme grief and self-medication?
This issue does not provide any straightforward answers, but it goes a long way toward reassuring readers like me that the truth of Sam’s reality hardly matters. Even if the settings are visually distinct, their themes have never seemed more intertwined. Both narratives reflect the kind of hero Sam views himself as — and what he really ought to be.
SPOILERS AHEAD for the The Blue Flame #4!
Last issue was a brutal reckoning for Sam. His alcoholism and depression took center stage, culminating in a cathartic confrontation with his sister Dee, who is also serving as his caretaker.
Cantwell does not shy away from Sam’s grief in this issue, either. Sam opens the issue at the grave site of Zola Wallace, his fallen teammate and love interest, but cannot bring himself to decide if he loved her. “Maybe I did,” he says.
Coming upon a robbery, he foolishly decides to intervene, but his body betrays him. Whatever power he once had is gone.
In space, Sam is similarly bound by the limits of his captors — an alien species in this case, instead of grief and alcohol — but is more successful at rescuing a group of endangered aliens. His dramatic rescue attempt, which Gorham and colorist Kurt Michael Russell show across three near-wordless pages, is redemptive for himself and, in a broader sense, for humanity.
Even Yarix, the alien tasked with arguing for the Earth’s destruction, agrees that Sam’s rescue should count as evidence in humanity’s favor. “He aided when he needed not!” Yarix says.
Sam’s Earthbound presence will never match the heroism of his space exploits, but he can’t help but try. He improves his attitude, makes up with Dee, and agrees to speak with a skeptical reporter about his vigilante exploits. (That scene, which escalates without much warning, is a rare instance of Cantwell’s pacing being a bit off. It also echoes an annoyingly persistent trope about female journalists.)
Outside of that scene, The Blue Flame continues to balance its two storylines with pathos and a willingness to loiter in some emotionally dark territory. This is not a comic overtly about the coronavirus pandemic, but it feels almost silly to divorce its themes from the moment we’re living in.
Sam’s lonely existence, his literal need to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, feels of a piece with the pandemic-era experience of being committed to a common cause even as so many others thwart it by inaction or willful malice.
The material world is almost withering away in some of Sam’s drearier Milwaukee scenes. One of my favorite panels from this issue is a simple close-up of Sam’s iPhone, which Gorham and Russell depict with chalk-white numbers and a barely-legible caller ID. It’s as if the tools of Sam’s modern life are barely present.
His unbowed strength and commitment to humanity, which is stirringly romanticized in the cosmic scenes, look downright pathetic in Milwaukee. The most heroic things Sam can do on Earth are just be present with his sister, offer kind words about her pregnancy, and commit to bettering himself. Many comics that take a realistic approach to vigilantes tend to learn the wrong lessons from Watchmen. They think would-be vigilantes have to be tortured narcissists or bloodthirsty malcontents. Certainly few normal people would sign up to wear a costume and fight criminals, but Sam is a fairly average person who hoped to make a difference, gain some friends, and feel committed to a cause greater than himself. As his reporter friend points out, Sam’s vigilante act was probably more self-serving than he cares to admit, but it was not motivated by cruelty.
Cantwell’s most radical choice is his framing of Sam as most heroic when he is most human. None of us can fly or save the world alone, but we can be better siblings or more attentive partners. In his most dire moments, Sam is relearning what it means to be human.
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