The Essential Human Torch

Is this the most oxymoronic comic title ever? Was there a less essential Marvel superhero title in the so-called Silver Age of the ’60s? I often forget that the Torch even had a solo career. The odd good villain does show up – including three quarters of the later Frightful Four: the Sandman (one of my favourite Marvel characters), the Wingless Wizard (wizards normally have wings?) and Paste-Pot Pete, not one of the most awe-inspiring codenames anyone ever invented – but it’s mostly second-raters early on, at best.

And there are the episodes that made me write this. I wrote an item on the Atom a few weeks ago that several people liked. I mentioned his first issue cover, where he is trapped by the Plantmaster. Well the Torch fought the Plantman, a very similar character. Immediately after this feeble figure is thinking “Today, Earth! Tomorrow, THE STARS!!!” (how are plants going to give him interstellar travel?), the Torch attacks, and his world-conquering instruction to his plants is “Confuse that pesty teenager with a LEAF-STORM!!” By this point, it is well established (even random thugs know it) that the Torch’s flame melts bullets before they reach him, by the way. His next trick is pretty lame too: “Once I pour this vat of water over you, you’ll be finished forever!” No, Plantman, he’ll just be damp. (Extraordinarily, they bring this loser back a few issues later!)

By way of contrast, the next reprinted issue is a highlight and a curiosity – it’s a one-off return from Jack ‘the King’ Kirby, and it apparently features the revival of Captain America, except it doesn’t, it was just testing the waters. It’s odd in retrospect that Marvel were so much more confident in reviving the Torch and the Sub-Mariner than Cap, though I guess the reasons seemed to make sense then.

Another dumb highlight is the story pitting the Torch against the Asbestos Man. Not someone whose gimmick would trouble anyone except the Human Torch, of course, but he gave our hero a lot of trouble – mainly because of the Torch’s horribly limited imagination here (never a problem when Kirby was creating the adventures). I can sum up his series of brilliant stratagems as this: ‘throw some more fire at him’.

There are several Kirby tales here, but even these are certainly among his most negligible work of the period, and the bulk of the stories by Stan Lee and Dick Ayers, despite that solid-gold classic name, are mostly very poor. Buy any and indeed all the other ’60s Essential volumes before even considering this one.