Fantastic Friday: The old Parker luck

Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Now that writer Dan Slott has made his presence known in FF lore, not to mention the Marvel Universe as a whole, let’s take a look at what many consider to be his signature work, the Spider-Man Human Torch miniseries.

This series explores Johnny and Spider-Man’s friendship (frenemy-ship?) over the years. Issue #1 takes place in the early days. Johnny is instrumental in a fight against the Mole Man, only to see the Daily Bugle publishing photos of Spider-Man instead of him. Peter Parker returns home to his aunt’s house to find Johnny waiting for him. Johnny wants to hire Peter as his personal photographer, making him as famous as Spidey. Peter initially doesn’t want to, but when he discovers Aunt May is hurting financially, he agrees to the job.

Peter follows Johnny around for a day. Johnny’s girlfriend Dorrie Evans gets all flirty with Johnny, much to the chagrin of both Johnny and Peter’s love interest Betty Brant. Johnny and Peter continue to bicker, so Peter comes up with a plan. He attaches a fireproof spider-tracer to Johnny and photographs him in secret as Spider-Man. Wanting some real superhero action, Johnny flies to the Latverian embassy to pick a fight with Dr. Doom. Doom captures Johnny in “subthermic particles,” so Spider-Man sneaks into the embassy. He puts on an act of swearing loyalty to Doom, so Doom allows him to “dispatch” Johnny. Spider-Man then escapes with Johnny and thaws him out. In the final scene, we see Johnny’s beloved blonde hair fell out due to the freezing, and Peter Parker finally gets the perfect pic of him.

Issue #2 is sometime later, when Johnny was dating Crystal. They visit the Coffee Bean, a regular hangout spot for Peter, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson, and the rest. Flash Thompson flirts with Crystal, while Johnny can’t believe that both Gwen and MJ are smitten with Peter. Gwen’s dad, Captain Stacy, gives Peter a tip about super-villain activity nearby. Johnny and Spider-Man meet up outside, bickering about how the other one has it good. They decide to switch places for a day, with Johnny investigating Stacy’s villain, and Spider-Man joining the FF on one of Reed’s expeditions.

Johnny tries to investigate the crooks’ warehouse incognito, but some goons recognize him and knock him out. In the other dimension, Spider-Man uses his webs to seal cracks in the ship, but he fouls up Reed’s sensors in the process. Johnny wakes up and fights the goons, learning that Kraven the Hunter is their boss. Kraven’s hiding out at the zoo (of course) and he lures Johnny into a snake pit. But Johnny gets the upper hand when he fakes being poisoned. He gets a confession out of Kraven for Captain Stacy, who is listening in secret. The FF show Spider-Man the door when they get back to Earth, while Johnny is given the key to the city (!) for dealing with Kraven.

As issue #3 begins, we see a lot has changed. Gwen Stacy has died, Crystal has left, and Johnny is wearing his red and yellow “Toro” uniform. Also, Peter’s in college now, starting an internship at the Baxter Building alongside a Russian student, Nina Pushnikov. After some fun science shenanigans, we learn that Nina is secretly working for the Red Ghost. They’re plotting to steal an anti-gravity device from Reed’s lab.

At the Daily Bugle, Robbie Robertson tells Peter that the paper doesn’t need photos of the FF, and he asks for new Spider-Man pics. Spider-Man goes to the Baxter Building where Johnny is working on… the Spider-Mobile! They go for a drive around NYC, remarking that no superhero would be able to get around Manhattan traffic. Then Spidey gets the idea of using Reed’s anti-grav device on the car, while having a heart-to-heart talk about Gwen’s death.

The Red Ghost and his Super-Apes break into Reed’s lab, but Johnny and Spider-Man have already taken the anti-grav device, driving the Spider-Mobile up and down skyscraper walls. The Red Ghost ambushes them and the apes drive off with the car. Then, get this: Johnny and Spidey stop the Super-Apes by distracting them with Hostess Fruit Pies (!!!). They then use the gravity machine to trap the Red Ghost. Reed lets Spidery use the machine one last time, allowing him to drive in circles on the wall outside J. Jonah Jameson’s office.

Issue #4 skips even farther ahead, during the short time in which Spider-Man wore the powerful alien costume, not yet knowing the costume was a living symbiote. Spider-Man’s new girlfriend Felicia Hardy, a.k.a. the Black Cat, wants to go to a party, so she can steal a Wakandan tribal mask her father once tried to steal. Peter doesn’t want to do it. They argue on a rooftop while Johnny eavesdrops, wondering how Parker knows Black Cat. When Black Cat walks away from Peter after being upset with him, Johnny confronts her.

Cut to later, where Peter is taking photos at the embassy party. Johnny shows up with Black Cat as his date. Johnny, Peter, and Felicia bicker some more. Johnny and Felicia are given a private viewing of the mask. Peter follows them, using the alien costume’s shape-changing powers to make himself look like a security guard. Peter is found out and guards chase him through the embassy, with him turning back to Spider-Man. Black Panther is there in person, and he too pursues Peter.

Felicia recruits Johnny into her heist, using his powers to shut down heat-seeking alarms. Alarms go off, and the guards find that the mask hasn’t been stolen. Black Panther fights Spider-Man, but Spidey uses the alien costume’s powers to make himself invisible so he can escape. He, Johnny, and Felicia reunite on another rooftop, where Felicia reveals she wasn’t after the mask, but her father’s lockpick, left inside the mask years earlier. Johnny is shocked to learn Spider-Man and Black Cat are a couple, when he thought she was dating Peter Parker.

Issue #5 has our two heroes meeting at their usual spot atop the Statue of Liberty, reminiscing about all their adventures over the year. Spidey admits which of their team-ups weren’t him but his clone. Then Johnny asks about what happened earlier that day. We flash back to Peter Parker’s current job, as a science teacher at New York’s P.S. 108. Johnny is at the school to do the same motivational speech he gave way back in Amazing Spider-Man #3, but the students are more excited to meet Peter’s wife, famous supermodel Mary Jane Watson. Then, gunmen rush the school auditorium and take everyone hostage. Johnny can’t fight back with the guns trained on the students and staff, while one gunman reveals he’s with the Maggia crime family. He’s there to kill the son of the district attorney that put his own son in jail.

The situation looks dire, until Johnny sees Peter Parker in the crowd doing the “itsy bitsy spider” motions with his hands. Johnny figures it out, while Peter smiles and points at himself. Johnny flames on as a distraction, allowing Peter to web up the gunmen on high up balconies. They then work together to defeat the Maggia goons, and Johnny sky-writes a message for Peter, stating, “the usual place.”

Cut back to the Statue of Liberty. Peter unmasks and tells Johnny everything. Johnny admits that he believes Peter has it all, a loving aunt, a genius brain, and a series of incredibly hot girlfriends. “God, how I envied you,” he says. Peter says he envies Johnny, with his wealth, fame, and adventures on the frontiers of science. They shake hands, with Peter webbing Johnny for a joke. Then Johnny asks, “I was kinda wonderin’ if you were doing anything tonight?”

Cut to later, when a Fantasticar lands at the Baxter Building, containing Peter, Mary Jane, and Aunt May. These three are currently living at Stark Tower, but Peter says the Avengers are work while the FF are friends. Sue makes introductions, saying, “It’s past time your family met our family.” Cue several pages of the Parkers and the Richards hanging out for the evening, with lots of fun references to all their past encounters. Reed takes a group photo, saying he’ll file it under “friends and family.”

Unstable molecule: Reed’s expedition is into a dimension whose portal is only open once every thousand years. Thanks to Spidey’s meddling, Reed only gets two minutes’ worth of data, but he later says those two minutes are invaluable.

Fade out: Sue points out that while Spider-Man has visited the Baxter Building(s) on several occasions, he’d only been in the upper floors and never the main residence before.

Clobberin’ time: Ben pilots the ship during the interdimensional expedition, reminding us of his history as a pilot (been a while since we had one of those).

Flame on: Yes, this is the first time Johnny and his team learn (confirm?) Spider-Man’s secret identity. It’s rare for a big change in comic characters’ lives to be permanent, but Marvel (mostly) stuck to the FF knowing Peter’s identity from here out.

Four and a half: Franklin and Peter Parker bond over the fact that they both have a beloved Uncle Ben.

Our gal Val: Baby Valeria is at the FF/Parker dinner, with Aunt May calling her “a sweet child.”

Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk shows up at Johnny’s place to be his date at the Wakandan embassy, but he accidentally ruins her outfit, so she doesn’t go. This suggests a possible romance between Johnny and She-Hulk, something never hinted at before.

Crystal had left Johnny by issue #3 due to pollution on Earth affecting her. Spider-Man asks why Johnny didn’t leave with her, and Johnny has no answer. In issue #2, there’s a lot of comedy with Flash Thompson hitting on Crystal, and her summoning a rain cloud to drench him.

Reed introduces a new H.E.R.B.I.E. model that’s tiny, and is apparently used only for taking photos. He calls it a “cambot.” Freakin’ H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot.

Luke Cage and Frankie Raye also get name-dropped as alternate members of the FF.

Sue-per Spy: The 2019 Invisible Woman miniseries revealed that Sue had a double life as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent all along. We don’t see her reaction to learning Spidey’s secret identity. Could she already know it, thanks to her spy craft?

Trivia time: What’s the deal with the Spider-Mobile? Although he doesn’t need a car, Spider-Man made a deal with two advertising execs for a Spider-Mobile for some extra cash. (Behind the scenes, this was also Stan Lee’s deal for a Spider-Mobile toy.) He used the car to fight Hammerhead, Mysterio, and the Tinkerer. It later showed up at the Smithsonian, and Deadpool once stole it and renamed it the Dead Buggy.

Why is Captain Stacy giving tips to Peter about supervillains? Remember that just before Stacy died, he confessed to Peter that he knew Peter was Spider-Man all along.

A little kid seen briefly in issue #3 is Danny Ketch, who would grow up to be the second Ghost Rider.

Fantastic or frightful? Many fans consider this to be Dan Slott’s best work, and I’m inclined to agree. It has Slott’s winking humor and love of deep continuity, but it also has a lot of heart. The big reveal at the end was a long time coming, and it’s handled about as perfect as can be. But on the negative side, the Hostess Fruit Pies gag is Slott at his most self-indulgent, sacrificing plot and character for the sake of a hacky joke. I guess that’s the trick to reading Slott’s work – put up with the clunky bits to enjoy the good bits.

Next: The green and the grey.

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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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