Friday, 3 August 2012

Essential Human Torch volume 1

The first of the “extra” volumes is Essential Human Torch volume 1, which reprints the Human Torch stories from Strange Tales #101-134 and Annual #2. As previously noted, Strange Tales was one of a number of anthology series produced by Marvel that carried various genres during its run and is best known for introducing Dr. Strange, then also running Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. But before that the Human Torch was given his own solo feature from issue #101 onwards. This was a boom time for Marvel - following the success of the Fantastic Four, the summer of 1962 saw four superhero strips launched in separate anthologies - as well as the Torch there was Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy (although it was cancelled after one issue), Thor in Journey into Mystery and Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish (reviving a character from a previous one-off science fiction story - if you’re ever on QI and get asked which was Marvel’s second superhero feature, think carefully before you risk an answer), all launched in June or July (cover dated August or September). But note that in the long run the only one of the strips to last was Thor, with Spider-Man seeing his anthology immediately cancelled whilst neither the Human Torch nor Ant-Man would last more than a few years. These last two strips languished in obscurity and the Human Torch became the very last of the early Silver Age Marvel superhero features to get an Essential volume, with this one not coming out until the start of 2004, just after a period when it seemed the Essentials had died. So was the obscurity deserved or unjust?

Both the writing and art in the series is a little turbulent. All but one issue is at least plotted by Stan Lee who takes over the full writing from Annual #2 and issue #114 onwards, bar #132 which is written by Larry Ivie. The earlier issues are scripted by Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart and “Joe Carter” who was a pseudonym for Jerry Siegel (yes that Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman). Most of the art is by Jack Kirby or Dick Ayers, with one issue by Carl Burgos (the creator of the original Human Torch) and the last five by Bob Powell. This is quite an impressive line-up of creators, suggesting the strip wasn’t regarded as in any way disposable, though a more permanent creative team would have been helpful.

The “Marvel Age” saw comics doing things different from the norm. In place of the almost timeless adventures where characters went through much the same pattern over and over again, there was now a stronger emphasis of character growth and development. Heroes were no longer gods in mortal form, but instead real people with real problems. The public were no longer all accepting, all worshipping of their heroes. It was a very changed era in which the same old same old types of strips were superseded by something bold and dynamic.

But not everything reflected the changes. Some strips just presented heroes going through a string of adventures with no real developments, no serious obstacles in their personal lives, and few signs of the changes coming elsewhere. One such strip was the Human Torch.

Obscurity has been kind to these adventures. When compared to many of the contemporary Marvel offerings they feel highly disposable and inconsequential. At the same time Spider-Man was going from strength to strength, the Torch was going from forgettable villain to forgettable villain. In no way was the world being set on fire.

Now some of this could be the restraints of being a spin-off from the Fantastic Four, with the expectation that major developments for the Torch would happen there, leaving his own strip as a mere side offering. But the strip itself tried to offer a different perspective, with the focus being on the Torch’s hometown of Glenville rather than Manhattan and beyond as seen in the FF’s own book. However this volume does not show the setting being really built on. There are very few regular supporting characters and hardly any attempt to build on situations in Johnny Storm’s regular life. In the first twenty-two issues we get some appearances by the other members of the Fantastic Four and more rarely the Thing’s girlfriend Alicia Masters, but otherwise the supporting cast is limited to his girlfriend Doris Evans who appears from time to time (and it may just be the black & white, but there are a number of times when she and Susan Storm look so similar it’s easy to confuse them at a glance). And even she is underused, largely appearing only to berate Johnny for a constant string of broken dates, even though she knows perfectly well why he’s done so.

This is to my mind one of the biggest missed opportunities in the series. In the first few issues Johnny tries to maintain his secret identity, even to the point of staging elaborate gimmicks to disguise his going into action. Yet he’s living with his sister whose identity is publicly known as is the family nature of the Fantastic Four. Why precisely did Johnny ever think people wouldn’t realise he was the Torch? Issue #107 solves this with the revelation that in fact everybody knows Johnny is the Torch and was just respecting his privacy. Was it really the case that up to now his home life was never disturbed by eager fans, anti-fire busybodies, reporters or enemies? Was John F. Kennedy’s America really such a place where public figures were given such respect and privacy? (Okay the President himself may have been doing things in private, but elected politicians usually had the benefit of experience and actively took steps to guard themselves.) Once even Johnny knows he doesn’t have a secret identity, very little is done with this although the odd foe does know where to come looking. But there’s no real exploration of the impact in areas such as his school life. How does he cope with trying to be an ordinary student who has so many distractions? How do his fellow students react to having a celebrity in their midst? Do the school authorities try to capitalise on his celebrity status? Similarly whilst his sister may also have powers and protections, how do the neighbours react to having a superhero in the vicinity? Does he send house prices soaring through fame, or plummeting because of the perceived danger both from his powers and from the foes he might attract? The obvious point of contrast is with the early Spider-Man adventures where Peter Parker’s non-costumed life was quite prominent, especially his experience in school. It is a pity that such opportunities were missed.

The last dozen issues see a change of focus as the Thing is permanently added, turning the strip into a permanent team-up, predating the likes of Captain America and the Falcon, Daredevil and the Black Widow or Power Man and Iron Fist by several years. But there was already a regular team book featuring these two – Fantastic Four. And the similarity is compounded by an even greater use of foes from that title, as well as further appearances by Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman plus other supporting FF cast members such as Alicia Masters. Was it really necessary to have “Half the Fantastic Four” when the whole thing was available elsewhere? Indeed several of the stories could easily have been run in Fantastic Four, particularly “The Mystery Villain!” in issue #127, a mystery that is so hard to penetrate that the only reason it takes until page five to deduce is because the villain doesn’t appear as such until then. The very core idea of the Fantastic Four is that it a family of adventurers who all bring different elements to the reckoning. As a result it’s been very rare for any replacement members to actually last and the original line-up invariably reasserts itself. Having only half the team for an extended run just doesn’t generate the same magic, but nor does it offer the special focus that solo stories offer. This run straddles the two and misses the magic of both.

The stories contain a variety of villains who can be broken down into three categories – brand new creations, villains from Fantastic Four and villains from other series altogether. In the first category we have the Destroyer (unrelated to others of that name), the Wizard, Zemu, Paste-Pot Pete, the Acrobat, the Painter, the Sorcerer, Asbestos Man, the Eel, the Fox, Plantman, the Rabble Rouser, Captain Barracuda, the Beetle, “the Mystery Villain” and Professor Jack. You could perhaps add broadcaster Ted Braddock, who wages a J. Jonah Jameson style campaign against the Torch but it lasts less than an issue as he changes his mind, and publicly says so, when the Torch’s actions save his son. Overall this is quite an intense creative rate. But I’m willing to bet many of you are already copying and pasting some of these names into a search engine to find out who the heck they are. Only about four have really made a lasting impact – the Wizard, Paste-Pot Pete (albeit under a new name of “the Trapster”), the Eel and the Beetle. And none of these are remotely A-List villains – the Wizard may have been treated as the Torch’s arch enemy and gone on to be used quite a bit, but the truth is he hasn’t aged as well as some foes and his role in the “Acts of Vengeance” conspiracy was very much punching above his weight. The Beetle and the Eel have been at best third tier foes seeking greater recognition but never really making it, whilst the name “Paste-Pot Pete” has dogged the character and kept him as a figure of fun despite his attempts to become more serious (which begin here, though he doesn’t adopt his new name in this volume). Otherwise the originated foes are generally forgettable and most have only come back on a few occasions to reinforce their lowly status. The Destroyer is the obligatory Evil Communist Agent that many of the early Silver Age heroes fought – this particular one is trying to close tall rides at an amusement park because customers can see the quiet bay where a Communist submarine surfaces. Zemu is the ruler of the other cliché of the era, the alien race seeking to conquer Earth by bizarre methods – here they’re reaching Earth from another dimension by using a portal in a swamp and have to stop a housing estate being built next to it. The other foe who gets referenced quite a bit is the Acrobat, primarily for his second appearance in which he disguises himself as the long missing Captain America!

“The Human Torch meets Captain America” may have won the Alley Award for Best Short Story that year, but soon after it dropped off the radar such that it wasn’t until 1999 (real time) that any Captain America story dealt with the real Cap’s reaction to having been impersonated. Looking at it now it’s easy to see why as it’s actually very silly even by the standards of this volume as there are some major leaps of logic. After having disappeared for many years (precisely how long is never specified), the legend of World War II comes out of retirement to appear at an antique car fair! After an attempt to steal a priceless car fails, Captain America passes himself off as the hero to the acclaim of all but the Torch, then later frees his two accomplices. The henchmen set off in a Ferrari to lure all the cops and the Torch after them, whilst Captain America breaks into a small town banks and steals three bags of money, then retreating to his floating sky platform. When the Torch shows up, Cap escapes via a rocket but with the Torch in pursuit Cap steals an asbestos-lined lorry and traps the Torch inside it. However the Torch burns his flame to turn it into a compressed gas that explodes open the truck and he captures “Captain America” to unmask him as the Acrobat. Later the Torch looks at an old Captain America comic, which gives away his identity as Steve Rogers, and wonders what happened to the real Cap and will he ever return. (A caption confesses the story was a test to see if the readers wanted this. Looking back it’s surprising that Captain America took a few years to be revived, and had to be tested first, whilst the Human Torch was re-envisaged from the start and the Sub-Mariner revived much as before just a few months later.) The whole story just doesn’t work – does nobody see the silliness of Cap coming out of retirement for a car fair? And why does a man with all the resources to have a disposable Ferrari and a floating sky platform go to all this effort to steal a rather small amount of cash? Does nobody see through all this? And finally like so many other villains the Acrobat can get his hands on asbestos quite easily. It’s true that in 1963 asbestos did not have the reputation it does today (although the health and legal communities had been aware of it for some decades), but the number of villains who just happen to have this fire-proof material to hand, even when they weren’t expecting the Torch, strains credulity.

As well as the originated villains, the stories also see several from other series. The ones used from the pages of the Fantastic Four are the Sub-Mariner, Puppet Master, the Terrible Trio – Bull Brogin, Yogi Dakor and “Handsome Harry” Phillips – and the Mad Thinker. This is a more mixed bag as the Sub-Mariner was initially built up to be the main rival to Doctor Doom as the Four’s archenemy, but the Puppet Master and Mad Thinker are again foes who haven’t stood the test of time. And the Terrible Trio is a rather lame team of three villains with different skills. I guess with the Enforcers running about there wasn’t much room for a second version of that concept. Meanwhile villains from other series include the Sandman (from Amazing Spider-Man), Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (from the X-Men; this is when they were still part of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) and Kang the Conqueror (from the Avengers). Their appearance here was one of the earliest to show Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch actually trying to escape from Magneto, but finding the wider world hostile, and helped to lay the foundations for their eventual reformation as part of the Avengers. Meanwhile the Sandman’s appearance sees the Torch almost force himself on a foe looking for revenge on Spider-Man, and started the process by which the Sandman became at least as much a Fantastic Four villain as a Spidey one, later becoming a member of the Frightful Four.

As well as the villains we get a few guest stars. The other Fantastic Four members show up in some stories and occasionally help the Torch. Then there are two of the other obvious teamings. Annual #2 guest-stars Spider-Man in his first ever guest appearance, in what seems to be the first ever Marvel story to employ the formula of one hero being mistakenly assumed to have gone bad, leading to the other fighting him before realising the truth and the two team up against the real villain. It’s an okay piece and shouldn’t be blamed for all its imitators, but the villain is the forgettable Fox. (It’s also let down by the worst reproduction in the volume; whilst all the regular issues look pretty good, the reproduction of the annual is far cruder.) Issue #120 features a team-up with Iceman that doesn’t involve a fight between the two heroes but instead sees them fighting crooks who raid a tourist boat, with each hero helping to deal with the other. More surprisingly is issue #130’s tale, “Meet the Beatles!” (a title which probably carries even more weight in the US where an album of that name was released) although the Fab Four only meet the members of the Fan Four very briefly as the Torch and Thing wind up missing the concert to chase crooks who steal the payroll. I wonder if the band’s brief appearance was licensed? (Though given some of the terrible deals made in this era, I doubt the Beetles themselves would have seen anything of it.)

The Torch’s powers in this volume are somewhat in flux, often adapting to suit the purposes of the plot. At times it seems as though he can manipulate fire as if it were a living safe energy like Green Lantern’s energy powers and create constructs such as cages and fake Torches out of fire with seemingly no fuel at all. At other times the Torch finds his flame exhausted, limiting his effectiveness for a while, but again this weakness only occurs when needed. There’s some weak comic book science about the flame becoming a gas in confined spaces that allows him to escape traps with pressure when needs be, but he doesn’t always use this. It’s another sign of how the strip was something of a throwback to the simpler sillier era when powers suited the convenience of the stories and development was rare.

The stories in this volume came out during a time of great change in superhero comics. However whilst the Fantastic Four was setting new standards for bold adventuring and the Amazing Spider-Man was offering developed, ongoing teen angst and soap, Strange Tales’s Human Torch stories were something of a throwback. There were a few brief signs of the changes with a hero who argued with his fellows, but otherwise this is a story of a teen hero who had no real problems that couldn’t be overcome in a single issue, who had next to no supporting cast of his own and who fought a series of largely forgettable villains. Whilst Spider-Man was taking the genre boldly forward, the Human Torch was very much parked at the rear. The comparison between the two strips could not be starker. It’s unsurprising that the Thing had to be brought in to shore up the strip or that it ultimately lasted less than three years and was then mostly forgotten. Marvel had a good string of hits in the early 1960s, but this was very definitely a miss.

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