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Sunday Review – Marvel Masterworks: The Human Torch Volumes 1-2

Let’s get this out of the way early, I liked the Fantastic Four movies. Yes, they were loaded with bad acting, but so are a lot of movies. But com’on we all went to the theater to see the Human Torch special effects. My son also enjoyed them (he is now 11 and we own them on DVD), and they are the types of live action superhero movies that we can watch together, unlike The Dark Knight, and he doesn’t have to follow some drawn out plot, like the X-Men movies. Speaking of Johnny Storm, he’s just plane cool. I fondly remember as a kid of the 70’s not wanting to be Spider-Man or Superman, but a guy who could fly and set things on fire at will (it was a rough childhood). As I grew older, my interests grew up with me, but Johnny stayed the same, he was even a nuisance and crybaby at times. I guess that’s his nature and the producers whole heartily incorporated his narcissism into the movies. Too bad really, because I think it’s time that Johnny grew up into the hero that he was born to be. Of course that may be a problem being that the Human Torch is “dead” now.

While Reed, Sue and Ben have seemingly moved on from Johnny’s demise to create the Future Foundation with Spider-Man (geez, how many team and solo books can he be in anyway?) this is a perfect time to get reacquainted with ‘ol Hot Head before his expected return in Fantastic Four #600 in 2012. And there’s no better place to learn about his roots then a visit, not to the early Fantastic Four comic books (which are great in of themselves), but to the Human Torch short story, solo adventures that ran in Strange Tales #101-134 and are collected in Marvel Masterworks: The Human Torch Volumes 1-2.

If you know your Marvel history then you know that the FF #1 predated the debut of Spider-Man (Amazing Fantasy #15) by about 10 months; November 1961 vs. August 1962. But let’s not forget that the FF appeared in Spider-Man #1 (Mach 1963), setting the stage for the friendly feud between Spidey and Torch, and interestingly enough there was no Fantastic Four book in that hot summer month; #6 was held off until September. But it’s October, 1963 when things really heat up.

Strange Tales was started in 1951, as part of Atlas Comics horror line. As that genre wained, thanks in part to Fredric Werthem, Stan Lee thought that a superhero should be added and since Spider-Man had his own title and the Fantastic Four was popular, there was no better character to take over, and add a bit of a rivalry, Johnny Storm, The Human Torch. Of course Johnny was the Silver Age and second Human Torch. The first being created by Carl Burgos in 1939 for Marvel Mystery Comics and ran from #1-98 and in Human Torch #1-35. Both comics were cancelled in 1949 and after a short resurrection (along with Captain America and the Sub-Mariner in the 1950’s), the Golden Age original faded into obscurity until Fantastic Four Annual #4 (November, 1966).

Johnny’s adventures in Strange Tales differed slightly from Fantastic Four as it was geared for a little younger audience. Here, Lee was more focused on action then science, more earth born street level thugs then cosmic fears from beyond. Johnny was more like his new rival Spider-Man, having to go to high school, have a girl-friend and having to fit in. I can only imagine kids in the early 60’s arguing on the playground who was the better hero (we adults do this now on our own playgrounds called forums). So just keep that in mind if and when you pick these books up.

As for the comics themselves, they are a lot of fun and full of nostalgia and loaded with some of the best talent one book has ever seen. Stan Lee and his brother Larry Lieber do the majority of the writing, but Jerry Siegel (Superman) comes by for #112-113. As for the artwork, that job is left up to Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers who at times turn it over to Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Bob Powell and the aforementioned, Carl Burgos.

Let’s look at some of the more notable comics:

  • Issue #101 is a reintroduction to the origin of the Human Torch and the Fantastic Four.
  • Issue #106 brings the four of them together (boy, that was quick!), and Reed, Sue and Ben come back for #108-109 (and make other short appearances throughout the run).
  • Issue #107 is one of those books that can’t get reprinted enough; it’s Johnny vs. Namor, The Sub-Mariner in an epic battle that should not be missed! It’s also the fourth appearance of Namor in the Silver Age and his first outside of the FF title.
  • Sandwiched in between Siegel’s brilliant #112 and #113, there is Strange Tales Annual #2. This particular book has Stan writing and Steve Ditko inking Jack Kirby’s pencils and even features Spider-Man – you won’t find this comic in the Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks or The Steve Ditko Visionaries HC!
  • Issue #114 (November 1963) gets even better with the return of Captain America. As a reader of that time, it would have been awesome to witness his return (except his red shorts), but then be somewhat disappointed with the surprise ending. But fear not because Steve Rogers would be resurrected for good, a few months later in The Avengers #4 (March, 1964).
  • Skipping ahead, Johnny’s buddy, Ben Grim comes by and teams up for the run of #121-134. Reading the issues, I’m not sure this move was necessary. One the good side they battle Namor in #125, but this team-up concept without Reed and Sue, helped end the Human Torch in Strange Tales to make way for the super spy, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

As for the extras in these two Masterworks, Volume 1 only contains an introduction by Dick Ayers while Volume 2 has Bruce Canwell doing that duty. In the second volume there is cover art for the complete 8-issue reprint run (1974-75) of The Human Torch. This series collected the Silver Age, Atlas Age and Golden Age comics that featured The Human Torch. Both volume have creator biographies.

Marvel Masterworks: The Human Torch Volume 1 HC (Variant Volume 66)
Written by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jerry Siegel, Robert Bernstein and Ernie Hart
Art by Dick Ayers, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko
$50.00 ($55.00), 272 pages, Marvel Comics
Collects: Human Torch stories from Strange Tales #101-117 and Strange Tales Annual #2

Marvel Masterworks: The Human Torch Volume 2 HC (Variant Volume 114)
Written by Stan Lee and Larry Ivie
Art by Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, Carl Burgos and Jack Kirby
$50.00 ($55.00), 256 pages, Marvel Comics
Collects: Human Torch stories from Strange Tales #118-134

Also recommended:
Marvel Masterworks: The Golden Age Human Torch HC Volumes 1-3
Marvel Masterworks: The Atlas Era Heroes featuring Marvel Boy, Human Torch, Captain America and Sub-Mariner HC Volumes 1-3