Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Essays on Comics Characters: The Original Human Torch!

The original Human Torch was a character I was first introduced to either in Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic-Book Heroes or the anthology All in Color for a Dime. I can't be sure which, as I bought both of those books at the same time.

You may recall the story, I've told it a few times. Basically, I'd seen those books and others in the stores and wanted them dearly, but I didn't have the money for them until one birthday, when I got cash instead of a present from my parents. We were heading up to Seattle either the same day or the day after to visit with some relatives, and I managed to talk my parents into stopping at the Waldenbooks at the Tacoma Mall so I could use my birthday money to buy some books about comics, and those were the ones I'd chosen to get.

Well... that may not be entirely true. Since I can't possibly remember what year it was I got those books, I may have seen the Torch in one of Marvel's comics, such as The Invaders, or maybe even the short-lived Human Torch reprint book, which had one of the original Torch stories reprinted along with a Johnny Storm story from his series in Strange Tales. Or maybe I'd read the Fantastic Four annual that had the original Torch (or a reprint thereof), or saw a reference to him in Avengers or Giant-Size Avengers. Like I said, without knowing the year, I can't say for certain.

One way or another, though, I did get to know of him sometime in the early 1970s. As you probably know (and if you don't, you're not nearly as old-school as I am), the original Human Torch wasn't human at all, but rather an android built by Dr. Horton, an amazing invention predating the start of World War II. The only problem with Horton's android was, when exposed to oxygen, it would become "alive" and burst into flame. How the heck Horton built the thing in the first place without discovering this design flaw is beyond me! Perhaps he had his own sort of ultra-"clean room" where he built the Torch, working in an oxygen-free environment so as to prevent any kind of contamination.

As I noted, the Torch was an android, and not a robot. The difference, as explained in dozens of comics and sci-fi books and stories, is that robots are entirely mechanical, while androids are supposed to be more synthetic versions of a human, duplicating all the major organs and so forth. One might liken androids to homunculi, and surmise that their creation is as much chemical as anything else.

Anyway... the story goes that the Torch was deemed dangerous by the scientists that Horton showed his invention to, and they urged him to destroy it. Horton wouldn't destroy it, but rather buried the Torch. However, a tiny crack eventually allowed oxygen into the Torch's tomb, and he broke free, and managed to learn how to speak English immediately (presumably, Horton had programmed him with this information, even if he didn't get a chance to use it until he was actually alive for more than a few minutes at a time).

At first, the Torch fell in with the wrong crowd, being used by criminals, but he soon saw the light. He went back to Horton after he'd learned now to turn off his flame at will, but Horton wanted to use him to make money, and the Torch didn't care for that one bit!

As the stories went on, the Torch's powers were expanded. Of course, when flamed on, he could fly, and his flame was hot enough to melt weapons used against him, such as bullets. He was fond of throwing fireballs, and could somehow control other flame. Some of the stunts he did with his flame were downright odd, such as creating a flaming cylinder with a lid to capture crooks!

Later, the Torch would join forces with the New York Police Department, although how they could afford to replace all the walls he burnt through in their headquarters is beyond me! Later, the Torch would be involved with the first-ever crossover in a Marvel comic (well, it was called Timely back then) when he met up with and battled the Sub-Mariner, not just once, but several times, back in the day that Namor hated all surface-dwellers. Of course, later Namor decided to vent his spleen on the Axis, and the Torch and Namor, teamed up with Captain America and others, formed the All-Winners Squad.

It would be revealed much later, in the 1970s comics, that prior to that, the three heroes joined forces as the Invaders in the early days of the war, joined by Bucky and the Torch's own sidekick, Toro.

Toro was kind of an oddball sidekick in many ways. Batman chose Dick Grayson as Robin after the young acrobat suffered a loss similar to Bruce Wayne's own. Captain America picked up Bucky at the end of his first story when Bucky Barnes wandered into Steve Rogers' Army tent while he was changing identities. But Toro...

Toro was an orphan who ran with a kid gang of sorts (something that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon would make more use of later in their careers). Fire never bothered him at all, in fact, he used to pull baked potatoes from the fire for his gang. Toro later joined up with a circus as a fire-eater, and it was in the circus that he was given his name (as has been noted numerous times, why someone thought the Spanish word for "bull" was fitting never made sense at all). The Torch met Toro for the first time when, as the Torch flew over the circus, Toro suddenly burst into flame! He'd never done it before, and with the Torch's tutelage, was able to figure out how to do it at will.

The two naturally teamed up, with Toro's costume being a rather scanty shorts and boots affair (he made Robin look covered-up!). Even when flamed on, Toro could be differentiated by having a cleaner look to his flame, while the Torch's flame had the now-familiar scratchy lines through it (better known to most people as the original style for Johnny Storm's flames).

The Torch was created by Carl Burgos, who created a number of other synthetic man superheroes in his career (sort of a specialty of his). He and Sub-Mariner both hit the stands in the first issue of Marvel Comics, although apparently Namor had an earlier one-shot appearance, but this isn't about Namor.

Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly for the time period, the Torch never seemed to have much trouble fitting in with human society and conventions after his initial stories. If he'd been created nowadays, we'd have had as a regular personality trait his interest in learning about human customs and so forth, but back then, comics stories tended to be rather short, usually 8-12 pages max, and such characterizations weren't usually worth using up much space!

The Torch's flame petered out briefly after the end of World War II, although Marvel brought him back for a very short time in the 1950s before he disappeared again. He'd appeared in Marvel Comics, The Human Torch, The All-Winners Squad, USA Comics, and many other titles (Timely's "Big Three" appeared in more books than either Superman or Batman did back in the day!).

One oddball element back in the early days of Timely concerning the Torch happened in the pages of the first issue of Captain America Comics, in Cap's origin story. The US hadn't entered World War II yet, but it seemed inevitable. FDR himself was concerned about the Axis threat, and wanted to be prepared for it, and here's the kicker -- he wondered aloud if perhaps the Human Torch would come out of the comics to battle them! Clearly, the Torch was considered just a comic book character in that Cap origin, something that was never alluded to again.

Anyway, with the original Human Torch gone from the pages of comics, Stan Lee was able to appropriate the name when creating the Fantastic Four. Of course, once they brought back the Sub-Mariner as well as Captain America (in Fantastic Four #4 and Avengers #4, respectively), the readers must've asked when they were going to revive the original Torch!

Well, he did make a comeback of sorts, and it was in a Fantastic Four annual. The Mad Thinker found the Torch's inert body, and revived him to use as a weapon against his foes, the FF. The battle between the old Torch and the new one was epic, to be sure, but at the end, the Torch realized he was fighting on the wrong side, and sacrificed himself. The FF left his body in the Thinker's headquarters, probably not their smartest move.

Around this same time, give or take a year, the Torch had appeared to come back in Sub-Mariner #14, although this proved to be a grown-up Toro, and he, too, battled the Mad Thinker, and apparently lost his life then.

Now, as you recall, in the 1970s, there was a storyline in the pages of The Avengers and Giant-Size Avengers, that picked up on a line from the Kree-Skrull War (when Henry Pym as Ant-Man entered the Vision's body to revive him) in which it was revealed that the Vision's body was previously that of the Human Torch, altered by Ultron... and then much later, in West Coast Avengers, John Byrne revived the original Torch, having coexisting with the Vision, which appeared to be impossible, since they were supposed to be the same being! However, Roy Thomas had previously written an issue of What If? that suggested that the Vision was created from an android named Adam-II, who was Horton's second android, explaining why the two androids had similar construction.

Anyway, personally I was happy to see the original Torch revived, although not so much with what Marvel apparently decided to do with him... which was, for the most part, keeping his flame off! He was later brought into Heroes for Hire, and finally died yet again thanks to a plot by the Red Skull.

Of course, he was brought back again, and used against his former teammates. The dude has a lot in common with the android Red Tornado, who was himself used against the JLA a few times after his own apparent destructions!

Anyway, these days, the original Torch is a member of the modern Invaders, and since I've never read an issue of that title, I can't say anything about how he's being used there... for that matter, the stuff I talked about in the past few paragraphs is info I gleaned from Wikipedia.

So... if I were in charge of the Torch these days, what would I do with him? Well, like with Captain America (or should I say, Steve Rogers, as apparently in the comics Bucky is Captain America now) and the Sub-Mariner, the Torch is one of the few heroes left around from World War II. The three of them have a long connection and friendship that should be exploited, and they should be serving as mentors to the current generation of heroes. If Marvel wanted to revive the Avengers Academy concept, those three should be co-headmasters!

1 comment:

  1. Jon,
    Re: "Well, he did make a comeback of sorts"

    There's a heart-breaking background to that. Carl Burgos's daughter recalled that he was hoping to recover the copyright to the character in 1966, when the 28-year term expired. Marvel forestalled him by publishing that one-time appearance of the original Human Torch. See http://comicsbeat.com/when-carl-burgos-tried-to-sue-for-the-human-torch/
    Thanks!

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