Fantastic Friday: The Superman of Marvel?

Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Occasionally, somebody at Marvel remembers the popularity of the 1930s Human Torch, which rivaled Superman at the time. This leads to attempts to turn Johnny into a bigger deal. That’s the idea behind the Human Torch 12-issue miniseries written by Karl Kesel, and art by Skottie Young, Joseph Dodd, Howard Porter, and Paco Medina.

The first story arc flashes back to Johnny’s high school days in the small town of Glenville. Yes, this is a throwback to the barely-in-continuity Strange Tales solo stories, in which Johnny had small-town superhero adventures, complete with a secret identity. In this retelling, Johnny is the school troublemaker, running afoul of star athlete Mike Snow. Johnny reveals he is the famous Human Torch of the Fantastic Four in front of the whole school, only intensifying his rivalry with Snow. Snow confronts Johnny during a snowstorm, somewhat appropriately. They fight, only for Johnny to lose control of his powers and seriously burn Snow.

In the present, Johnny test-drives a new rocket car while being pestered by sleazy tabloid reporter Sheila Donner. A grown-up Mike Snow shows up at the Baxter Building, still scarred from that fight. He’s now an NYC firefighter, and he asks for Johnny’s help investigating a firefighter who spontaneously burned alive. Johnny and Snow do the detective thing, while Johnny helps the fire department. During a fire, the flames act on their own, targeting a specific firefighter. Johnny concludes that some unseen intelligence is controlling the flame, and that he’s never seen anything like this before.  

While on a training exercise, Johnny and the others are attacked, with the villain making herself known. It’s a woman dressed head to toe in black, calling herself Firefox. She says she wants revenge on the NYFD for not acknowledging her genius fire-controlling tech. Johnny captures her, but she threatens to sue if he unmasks her, violating privacy laws. Johnny flies off with Firefox, where we learn she’s really Sheila Donner. Moreover, the Firefox thing is a ruse to find the real killer, with Johnny faking all of Firefox’s fire effects.

Johnny and Snow fight another fire, while Sheila investigates Snow’s girlfriend Rose, who was spotted at the scene of the murder after denying she’d been there. Snow follows the clues to a warehouse to learn that Rose is the real killer. She was born with fire powers, not knowing if they’re magic or if she’s a mutant. She says she did it all out of her love for Snow. After a fight, Snow is still in love with Rose and he sides with her. They try to make a run for it, with Johnny in pursuit. Rose realizes she can’t ruin Snow’s life, so Rose blows herself up (!) so Snow can have his life back. Later, Snow reveals that that he was burned ended up being a good thing because it put him on the path to being a firefighter. He relocates to Portland, a.k.a. the city of roses.

In the second story arc, Johnny and Jian, his business partner in Fantastic Four Inc., journey to a small town in the Balkans. A science organization called the Locust Project set up shop in a nearby castle with plans to end world hunger, only for everyone to disappear. Johnny and Jian investigate, attacked by automatons and giant spiders. He’s knocked out and awakened in an underground city. He meets the Locust King, named Ambrose, and his daughter Shyla. Johnny is quick to learn that he and the whole underground city have been shrunk down to Ant-Man size, and that’s Ambrose’s plan for ending world hunger.

When Johnny tries to escape, he, Jian, and Ambrose are taken captive by the automatons, under Shyla’s control. Shyla plans to take over Project Locust herself. Johnny leads something of a rebellion of all the people that Shyla has enslaved (!). Hugo, a villager they met at the start of the story, drops a rock on Project Locust an destroys it. The enlarging machine, located outside the city, returns everyone to normal, and back to the Balkan village. There’s a joke about how Jian thinks Johnny is a little bit taller.

The third story arc of the series begins with Johnny responding to an emergency call on one of those big ocean drilling platforms. Scientists there were experimenting with teleportation when the whole thing exploded. Johnny puts out the fire with his powers. He investigates and finds Atlanteans unconscious all around the scene, including… Namorita! This is interesting because Namorita (cousin to the Submariner and member of the New Warriors) is Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. Their romance lasted for years in real-world time, except that their relationship occurred almost entirely off-panel, in both Fantastic Four and New Warriors. These issues of Human Torch are their most significant interaction with one another.

When Namorita comes to, she explains that Atlantis worked alongside the human scientists to show that Atlantis is just as advanced and important as the likes of Wakanda. Turns out this experiment was to open a portal to the Negative Zone. Johnny says this is too dangerous, that merging Earth with the anti-matter of the Negative Zone could destroy everything. Then the portal opens again, powered by someone on the other side.

A female form appears in the portal, and one scientist says that it’s an anti-matter echo of Namorita. There’s a lot of action as the heroes and the scientists try to prevent the anti-matter from clashing with Earth’s matter. Namorita feels drawn to the echo until Johnny drops her into the water. This brings her back to her senses. She fights her ill-defined attraction to the echo while Johnny and the scientists destroy the portal. In th wreckage, the scientists find Johnny and Namorita kissing (wa-HEY!).

Johnny and Namorita have a heart-to-heart talk. He wants them to get back together, and he invites her to move in with him. She insists that she’s her own woman and not merely the Fantastic Four’s sidekick. He says the two of them are like matter and anti-matter, opposites who can’t be together but who are nonetheless drawn to each other.

In the final issue, Ben and Johnny attend a football game at State University, when they’re attacked by Dragon Man. Professor Gilbert, Dragon Man’s creator, thought Dragon Man could be controlled, but now he wants it killed. Johnny and Ben say they won’t kill – not even a giant android dragon. While waiting in Gilbert’s lab, Ben and Johnny discuss how Johnny never finished college even though his grades were excellent. Then Dragon Man attacks again, along with Gilbert’s newest android creation, a beast named Zzord. Dragon Man fights Zzord while Gilbert is revealed to be a Skrull in disguise. Johnny defeats the Skrull while Dragon Man destroys Zzord and rescues the real Gilbert. The dean offers Johnny an honorary degree, but Johnny refuses it, wanting to earn one the real way.

Unstable molecule/Fade out: Reed and Sue only appear in a dream Johnny has when unconscious. At the drilling platform, Reed is unavailable because he’s lecturing in Brussels, and Sue can’t make it because she’s helping refugees in Rwanda.

Clobberin’ time: Ben gets tossed out of the lab during the Dragon Man and Zzord fight, disappearing for the rest of the battle. He says he never would have graduated college without Reed’s help, and the degree meant that he was more than a dumb jock from Yancy Street. The reason why he’s not on the drilling platform is because he was bowling in Brooklyn.

Flame on: Is Johnny Marvel’s equivalent of Superman or not? I’m going to say not. A running thread throughout this series is him wondering if just him on his own is enough to save the day. He really struggles with this in the Project Locust story. One of the reasons why the Marvel Universe is so great is that no one hero is top dog the way Superman is over at DC.

Trivia time: There’s a running joke about how tall Johnny is, whether he’s 5’9, 5’10, or 5’11. Our old friend The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition settles the debate by stating he’s 5’10.

Namorita has blue skin in this, when she’s normally portrayed as more human-looking. Johnny asks her about this, and she says, “It’ll wear off.” The Handbook states that most Atlanteans have blue complexions, but there are a lot of exceptions, including human-looking ones, and green-skinned ones.

Fantastic or frightful? Although only the first arc is a mystery, Karl Kesel writes the whole thing like they’re mysteries, with a lot of red herrings and surprise twists. This makes the comic a little hard to follow at times. Skottie Young’s art is cartoonish, but not as much as more popular stuff. Old-school fans will like the Strange Tales throwback, but I think the most interesting part is the Johnny/Namorita stuff, finally seeing what was only suggested for so long. So, it’s not perfect, but it’s an entertaining read nonetheless.

Next: Fantastically broke.

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Want more? Check out my new ongoing serial, THE SUBTERKNIGHTS, on Kindle Vella. A man searches for his missing sister in a city full of far-out technology and hidden dark magic. The first three chapters are FREE, so give it a shot! Click here for a list of all my books and serials.

About Mac McEntire

Author of CINE HIGH.
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