Sunday, 15 January 2017

Strange Tales: The Human Torch solo stories

IT'S FAIRLY WELL RECORDED that at the beginning of the 1960s, when Marvel publisher Martin Goodman instructed editor and head writer Stan Lee to kick off a superhero team comic to cash in on the success DC was having with Justice League, he wanted to revive Timely's Golden Age characters The Human Torch, Captain America and The Sub-Mariner.

The Human Torch had been the headline character in Marvel's first ever comic, Marvel Comics 1 (Oct 1939). When Stan was ordered to create a new superhero team book in 1961, Goodman wanted to re-use the Timely characters, but Stan went with The Fantastic Four, likely including The Human Torch to appease Goodman.
And if Stan had just meekly followed that order, it's doubtful that we would have a Marvel Comics today. At best, the company would probably have ended up as a curious footnote in the history of comics, and not the creative powerhouse it evolved into during the 1960s.

As good as Stan's instincts were, he did take a few mis-steps along the way. No shame in that. We learn only from our mistakes. The Incredibe Hulk was discontinued after just six issues, though the character would pop up as a guest star here and there until a new approach and a new home could be found for him. And Ant-Man too would struggle to find an audience during those formative years.

I actually enjoyed the exploits of both characters as a kid reading those books around 1963-1964, but I found it a bit inexplicable that The Human Torch enjoyed such a long run in Strange Tales.

Though I wouldn't have known it as the time, the lead Human Torch story in this early issue was during the period Stan was trying to hire in experienced scripters. This one was written by Superman co-creator and industry legend Jerry Siegel. Even so, his expository dialogue does squeeze Ayers' art literally into a corner.
Click on Image to expand.
I'm fairly sure that the first Strange Tales featuring the Human Torch I saw back in the early 1960s was issue 112 (Sep 1963), probably a year or so after it came out. The first of two stories written by Jerry Siegel, the issue was a good introduction to the character, as it established many strong plot points in its 13 pages. First there's the Spider-Man style sub-plot with tv commentator Ted Braddock attacking The Human Torch on air for being a hot-headed show-off ... not without cause, I have to say. The main plot has The Eel stealing a high-tech gadget from a scientist that turns out to be a miniature nuclear power supply. Just why a scientist is constructing a hazardous nuclear device in a populated area is never explored. The Torch goes after the Eel, runs into The Thing (see above page scan) and recovers the atomic device. But his troubles aren't over. The Torch's "flame molecules indicate the atomic pile will explode in a split second from now" and he flies the device into the stratosphere to contain the explosion with his own body. After that foolhardy but brave act, tv's Ted Braddock relents and decides The Torch is a hero after all, restoring the status quo.

Dick Ayers was inking Kirby's pencils on Fantastic Four at the same time as he was drawing The Human Torch in Strange Tales, so was the ideal artist (after Kirby) to be providing art for this FF spin-off. The first two panels are Ayer's art on The Human Torch. The third is an Ayers-inked panel of Kirby pencils from FF18, for comparison.
Yes, it is a little corny, and probably not how Stan would have scripted the same tale, but Dick Ayers' art is very good indeed here and it's very obvious he's doing his best to capture the spirit of Kirby, including typical "Kirby's Kast of Kharacters" shots, some strong action splash panels and good pacing. The only slight weakness, I was going to say, is Ayers' portrayal of The Thing. I've always thought that no one draws Ben Grimm as well as Kirby. But when I checked Fantastic Four 18, which came out the same month as Strange Tales 112 and was also inked by Dick Ayers - and it seems that Dick was drawing the Thing exactly as Kirby was ... or perhaps it was Ayers' inking that defined The Thing's look at the time.

The Lee-Ditko fantasy back-up story in Strange Tales 112 is a really good one, and the house ads for key first issues and equally important debut superhero annuals was very much a bonus for this newly-minted Marvelite.
Strange Tales 112 is rounded out with an absolute gem of a Lee-Ditko fantasy story, a pretty neat Larry Lieber-Paul Reinman sci-fi story and two great house ads for landmark Marvel comics. Weirdly, this issue didn't have Dr Strange. The character had first appeared in Strange Tales 110, with a follow-up adventure in ST111. He was missing from Strange Tales 112 and 113, so I had somehow stumbled across an anomalous patch of Strange-free Strange Tales.

But after this issue, I would go back to the beginning of the Torch run and start to amass a complete set of Strange Tales, plugging the gaps with the Marvel Tales reprints.


IN THE BEGINNING WAS KIRBY

When I began to back-fill my collection and got to read the earlier Strange Tales, a couple of major differences between the Torch in the Fantastic Four comics and this solo version became very obvious. The first was that plotter Stan and scripter Larry Lieber had tried to re-engineer the character so that he could have a secret identity and operate incognito in the small American town of Glenville where he was living. This made no sense to me as it was obvious from the Fantastic Four comic that the FF all lived in the Baxter Building, and that the public was well-aware that Johnny Storm was The Human Torch.

The story in Strange Tales 101 was a pretty daft, portraying The Human Torch as a superhero with a secret identity and having the villain revealed as "Charles Stanton, publisher of the town's newspaper. I can hardly believe it!" ... straight out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon.
Even dafter is Johnny explaining on the first page of Strange Tales 101 (Oct 1962) that, even though the townsfolk know Sue is Invisible Girl, no one knows he's The Human Torch. Really? They don't suspect Sue Storm's brother Johnny is the Human Torch? OK, if you say so ...

The only explanation I can think of is that Stan was trying to pitch these stories at a younger readership, who probably didn't read Fantastic Four. But even that is a bit shakey. Why would anyone think it was a good idea to pitch a character, whose power is to set himself alight, to small kids? And at this point, Fantastic Four was only up to issue 7, and wasn't yet exploring the slightly more grown-up themes that would start around the time of The Hate Monger story (FF21, Dec 1963), so I'm not convincing even myself, here.

The front cover of Strange Tales 102 almost seems to suggest that the Torch story is a back-up rather than a star attraction. Inside, The Wizard impersonates The Torch in order to discredit the young hero, a storyline that couldn't have been unfamiliar to comic readers of any age, and one that Stan would return to often.
Strange Tales 102 (Nov 1962) was a bit of an improvement. It introduced a major Marvel character, The Wizard, who would later go on the lead the Frightful Four and defeat the FF on a couple of occasions. The whole secret identity thing was hardly mentioned, though there is a scene where the Wizard douses Torch's flame, and Kirby draws the Torch's figure with his head still obscured by flames. But overall, there's more of a sense of menace here, with The Wizard portrayed as a smart and resourceful foe.

Interestingly, though the plot includes the cliche of the villain impersonating the hero to turn the public against him, the technology The Wizard uses to imitate The Torch's flame is not so dissimilar to the flame suit Reed builds for Johnny in Fantastic Four 39 (Jun 1965), after the team have lost their powers at the hands of ... The Wizard.

Strange Tales 103 (Dec 1962) gave us a Torch story that more resembled Stan's fantasy yarns than it did his superhero stuff. Check out the brazen Valeria (daughter of the despotic Zemu) using her feminine wiles on the hapless guard to effect Johnny's escape. That'll be the end of his career as an evil hench-person.
The next issue had an altogether more whimsical story, as its title "Prisoner of the 5th Dimension" might suggest. Again written by Lee/Lieber and drawn by Jack Kirby, the story seems to mesh together plots of two standard Stan Lee fantasy stories and tosses The Torch into the mix. The first plot is that of an alien disguised as an old man, scaring people away from an area so the aliens can invade. The second plot is the hero being transported to an alien world (in this case the 5th Dimension), then being helped by the beautiful daughter of the despotic ruler.

The Human Torch exhibits some powers that he doesn't seem to have over in the Fantastic Four comic. In this tale he can burrow through the earth using his flame power and create a tornado. He also manufactures a smoke screen and does skywriting (in neat block capitals that are almost as good as Artie Simek's) ... but I'm fairly sure I remember him pulling those stunts in the FF book, as well.

It's hard to say which aspect of Strange Tales villain Paste-Pot Pete is more ridiculous - his name or his costume. I doubt any of the parties involved would be able to remember why they portrayed him this way, but from this perspective, it doesn't seem to make any sense.
Strange Tales 104 (Jan 1963) was on sale the same month as Fantastic Four 10, and introduced a character who would go on to join forces with The Wizard and menace the FF in Fantastic Four 36 (Mar 1965). In these early appearance, Paste-Pot Pete was a depicted clownish figure, despite his criminal tendencies. Why Jack Kirby thought it was a good idea to draw him in a comedy artist's outfit, I really couldn't say. Perhaps Stan intended Pete to use his crazy appearance to make the police think he was harmless, until it was too late. Or maybe he was originally intended simply as a comedy antagonist (like Superman's Mr Mxyzptlk, also a denizen of the 5th Dimension), and somehow scripter Larry Lieber didn't get the memo.

To be honest, back in 1964 or 1965 when I would have first seen this story, it didn't much bother me, but now it just seems downright daft.

Strange Tales 105 was a catalogue of dodgy science ... I wouldn't have been convinced by the idea of the Torch stopping a shell from an artillery gun with his heat, however intense. The kinetic energy doesn't dissipate just because the metal's melted. The molten slag would still plough through his body at speed.
Strange Tales 105 (Feb 1963) featured the return of The Wizard, just three issues after we last saw him. Clearly a big fan of the Silver Age Lex Luthor, The Wizard has been behaving like the model prisoner until he could get assigned to the prison pharmacy. The using the available "harmless chemicals" he concocts a "serum" to "burn through the strongest substance" and makes a big hole in his cell wall. Panicky guards turn up and charge through the gap in pursuit of The Wizard - only he's hiding behind the cell door. He then calmly leaves through the front entrance.

Holed up in his hideout, The Wizard then issues a challenge to The Torch. Impulsively, The Torch rushes off to confront his enemy - on the foe's home ground. Which seems like an awful big strategic mistake to me (Sun Tzu, 10.25).

So, The Wizard's stronghold is a huge underground system of traps and weapons. Where did he get the field-gun he shoots The Torch with? Or the asbestos-lined chamber where he traps the Torch. How much did all this cost? And most importantly, who built it?

This is a sample of the books Martin Goodman published the same month as Strange Tales 105. Still only identified by the "MC" box on the cover, no Marvel Corner Box yet, and still pretty bland stories that don't really compete with DC's slick professionalism. The only ray of sunshine here is Fantastic Four. The story in issue 11 was kind of fun, probably Stan's first use of humour in a straight superhero tale, with the Impossible Man being more exasperating than menacing.
Even though the credits say that Stan was plotting, the story does scan like the sort of thing DC were publishing at the same time. Larry Leiber has said that he provided full scripts to Kirby around this time, indeed that Kirby was unhappy if he didn't get a full script. Still, this was early days for Stan and Marvel. Amazing Spider-Man 1 wouldn't come out until the following month. So I shouldn't complain simply because Stan hadn't found his editorial voice yet ...

The two big revelations for Strange Tales 106 are that Johnny's neighbours were just kidding on that they didn't know he was The Human Torch, and that The Acrobat is really a super-villain, not a super-hero. Ayers' pages are serviceable, but don't quite have the polish here that Jack Kirby's have.
The next issue, Strange Tales 106 (Mar 1963), saw series inker Dick Ayers take over as penciller as well. A character shows up on Johnny Storm's doorstep, offering his acrobatic skills and a partnership to The Torch. They'll form a new team called "The Torrid Twosome". Catchy. Of course, it's a scam and it doesn't take long for The Acrobat to show his true colours. The Fantastic Four come along at the end and save the day.

The most interesting this about this story is that Stan ditches the ill-advised attempt by the Torch to have a "secret identity". It's revealed that everyone in town knew Johnny was The Human Torch, but didn't let on, out of respect for Johnny's privacy.

Dick Ayer's work on pencils is pretty good. Individually, the panels are a fair attempt at the Kirby style, but the page layouts don't have The King's flow or design sense. 

It is a bit of a classic cover, pencilled by Jack Kirby, but the story inside Strange Tales 107 is a little disappointing. Johnny is again displaying hitherto unknown powers, as is Namor and the whole battle feels just a little unimaginative. Sub-Marine would get the epic battle he merited in the Fantastic Four Annual 1, on sale just three months later. Marvel Mystery Comics 8 had the first half of the epic 1940s Torch-Subby battle.
I don't know if Stan felt the title needed a bit of a boost, but Strange Tales 107 (Apr 1963) brought out the big guns and featured The Sub-Mariner as the foe. It's a bit reminiscent of Marvel Mystery Comics 8 & 9 (Jun & Jul 1940), where the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner strips were combined for an epic 44-page showdown. Sadly, this Torch vs Subby battle wasn't that epic. It had Sub-Mariner displaying the abilities of sea creatures, though he never again used these powers. And it had The Torch flying underwater with his flame on. His claim that he was using his super-nova flame fooled no one, it was just a daft idea.

For the next few issues, Stan sidelined Larry Lieber and had a revolving door of different scripters, working over Stan's plots with Dick Ayers art. The results weren't great.

Despite the presence of Kirby on pencils, the Torch stories in these issues weren't any better than what had come before. In fact, I thought the scripts of Robert Bernstein were less effective than Larry Lieber's work
Strange Tales 108 and 109 (May-Jun 1963) were scripted by Robert Bernstein ("R. Berns"), who had started in the 1940s, working for both DC (Green Lantern) and Marvel (Black Rider & Wild Western). In the 1950s, Bernstein scripted for DC (GI Combat & Our Army At War), Quality (Blackhawk & Dollman) and EC (Psychoananlysis & Shock Illustrated). As the 1960s approached, Bernstein found himself working under the baleful eye of DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger, writing scripts for Aquaman and Superboy in Adventure Comics, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, and even Superman. So scripting for Stan Lee over at Marvel was a risky business for him. So much so that one wonders why he didn't come up with a better disguise than "R. Berns".

For Stan he scripted the Thor feature in Journey into Mystery 92-96, Iron man in Tales of Suspense 40-46, as well his Strange Tales work.

Curiously, for Strange Tales 108, Kirby was back, though the story still had that pre-Marvel goofiness about it. The baddy is an artist who paints pictures that come to life and menace The Torch. Stan is still getting the plotter credit, so we can lay this one at his door. Bernstein's script was serviceable enough, though it lacked even Larry Leiber's little inspired touches.

Kirby also pencilled Strange Tales 109 ... though some of the panels look very much like they've been redrawn by other hands. Bernstein's script makes a better effort to emulate Stan's freewheeling, slang-laden style but the plot, with a suburban sorcerer using Pandora's Box to carry out crimes, lacks spark.

Strange Tales 110 was memorable for teaming The Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete for the first time. These two would go on the form the backbone of the Fantastic Four's most dangerous foes, The Frightful Four, and be directly responsible for defeating Johnny and his team-mates just two years later. Oh and it had the first Dr Strange story, too. Strange Tales 111 ... not so memorable.
With Strange Tales 110 and 111 (Jul-Aug 1963), Bernstein was out and Ernie Hart was in. Hart had been an editor at Timely during the 1940s, had scripted for Charlton during the 1950s and was drafted in by Stan Lee to write Strange Tales and Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish 44-48 under the pen-name "H. E. Huntley". His stint on The Torch lasted just two issues.

Issue 110 brought back both The Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete, teaming them up for the first time, in anticipation of their later Frightful Four alliance. Kirby was gone again, replaced on the art by Dick Ayers. And, as with the stories scripted by Rober Bernstein, Hart's dialogue is sort of serviceable ... but with the Wizard uttering lines like "You're fellow after my own heart. I'll join you gladly, Paste-Pot Pete, in such a delightful endeavour!" you have to wonder what on earth editor Stan Lee was thinking. 

Strange Tales 111 pit The Human Torch against The Asbestos Man ... the most surprising aspect of this is that it took Stan so long to figure out that the natural nemesis of fire is the ultimate flameproof substance. Hart turns in another competent but uninspired script and Stan must have thought so too, because after just two issues, Ernie H. was sent on his way, and Stan drafted in another scripter in an effort to pep the title up.

Industry legend Jerry Siegel had been the writing half of the team that created Superman, arguably the character responsible for single-handedly keeping the comics industry going thought the good times and the bad. It's impossible to over-estimate just how important a figure Siegel is in the history of US comics and how much of a debt anyone who's ever worked in American comics owes him. That said, Jerry made some ill-advised choices during his long career and by the early 1960s was having to beg at Mort Weisinger's table for the few crumbs he needed to survive. It's says a lot for Stan that he gave the guy some writing work at Marvel, even though he probably knew that Siegel wasn't really going to turn in the kind of script Stan was looking for.

The Torch's newest foe, The Plantman looks, for some reason, like The Shadow. The next time he appeared, less than a year later, he would be wearing his more familiar "foliage leotard".
Strange Tales 113 (Oct 1963), with the scripting credited to "Joe Carter", wasn't a terrific improvement over issue 112. The Plant Man was an okay villain, and the story did introduce Doris Evans, who would feature as Johnny's girlfriend for a lot of the Silver Age, but again the story lacked the level of humanity and humour that we knew Stan could provide.

By this time, it seemed that Dick Ayers had given up trying to imitate Jack Kirby and was drawing the strip very much in his own style. I suspect Stan had something to do with this. It's fairly well established that Stan didn't really want artists to draw like Jack Kirby. He just wanted them to try to capture Kirby's sense of movement and storytelling - which is what I think Ayers was trying to do here. I did find a quote from Ayers himself on the subject in a 2014 Comics Journal interview: "One day I came in to Stan, and gave him a story," said Ayers . "It was a Western and I had inked it just the way Jack penciled it, and he took it and said, 'If I wanted somebody to ink like Kirby, I could get him off the street! I know you with your brush, you can do anything. So add to it!"

And with this issue, Stan's grand new-script-writers experiment was over. He'd tried out several and all were found wanting. Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart and Jerry Siegel - all experienced comics guys - seemed unable to capture the Stan Lee lightning in a bottle.

This is what the scripting map at Marvel looked like between August 1962 and November 1963, when Stan took over scripting pretty much the entire Marvel line, and inventing "The Marvel Method" to cope with the workload:

MonthJourney into MysteryStrange TalesTales of SuspenseTales to Astonish
Aug 1962Lieber---
Sep 1962Lieber--Lieber
Oct 1962LieberLieber-Lieber
Nov 1962LieberLieber-Lieber
Dec 1962LieberLieber-Lieber
Jan 1963LieberLieber-Lieber
Feb 1963LieberLieber-Lieber
Mar 1963LieberLieberLieberLieber
Apr 1963LieberLieberBernsteinLieber
May 1963BernsteinBernsteinBernsteinLieber
Jun 1963BernsteinBernsteinBernsteinHart
Jul 1963BernsteinHartBernsteinHart
Aug 1963BernsteinHartBernsteinHart
Sep 1963BernsteinSiegelBernsteinHart
Oct 1963LeeSiegelBernsteinHart
Nov 1963LeeLeeLeeLee

You can see that most of the Marvel anthology characters started off being scripted by Larry Lieber from Stan Lee plots. Lieber admits he didn't think too much of the superhero stories Stan was bringing in during the early Sixties. "Thor was just another story," Lieber told Roy Thomas for Alter Ego magazine. "I didn't think about it at all. Stan said, 'I'm trying to make up a character,' and he gave me the plot, and he said, 'Why don't you write the story?"

Stan had been teaching Larry the rudiments of comic writing even before this, as Lieber had written many fantasy tales for the pre-hero Marvel anthologies. "Before the superheroes," Lieber told blogger Danny Best, "Stan was teaching me to write. Now he had never taught anybody else to write so he didn’t know how well somebody learns or doesn’t learn or, he didn’t know how to compare me to anybody else. All he knew was I didn’t write as well as he did.

"He wasn't always the most patient person and I had problems [writing] the dialogue and he said, 'Why did you say that? You could have said it this way, or this way or that way,' and I’m realising, yeah, I didn't think of it that way or this way.

"So at any rate finally I think at one point he got a little exasperated and he said, 'I’m going to hire some of the old pros.' He remembered writers from the past. He still gave me work, he didn't want to take work away, but we were putting out a few more books.

"So he hired somebody and then the next week when I came back to him he said, 'Larry, you know something, you’re no good, but you're better than these other guys.' So that was my first victory ... if you want to call that a victory, right? The others are worse than me."

I know I used the above quotes in the Rise of Giant-Man blog entry but I think they're worth repeating here in the light of the pattern you can see in the above table. Stan had to go through that journey in order the realise that only he could deliver the characterisation and feel needed to produce the kind of stories he envisaged for Marvel.

It was this realisation that lead directly to the intertwining of the plots of the whole line of Marvel comics and Stan's method of giving his artists the bare-bones of the plot and leaving them to fill in the details.

Next time, I'll look at the first few Human Torch stories Stan scripted after the failure of his "new-script-writers" experiment and consider whether Stan's Human Torch stories were any better aligned with the Fantastic Four comic than these early tales had been.

Next: More Strange Torch Tales


7 comments:

  1. Actually, Al, Dick Ayers wasn't so much drawing The Thing the same as Kirby drew him, but was drawing him the same as he, Ayers, INKED Kirby's Thing. It seems that Jack was already drawing him as a rocky monster by this time, but Ayers (probably under Stan's direction) was inking him with the dinosaur hide. There's a pasted-over JK panel somewhere, which shows dinosaur Thing, but the original one underneath (Stan wanted it changed to show something else) shows rocky Thing. Personally, with the possible exception of the splash page of FF #51, I always preferred dino-Thing as he appeared in FF #1 & 2.

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    1. Actually, GR, I'd describe the really early Thing (circa FF 1-10) as more of a mudslide Thing, evolving into dinosaur Thing for the teen-numbered issues. The angular-blocky Thing suddenly appeared when Ayers was replaced on inking (covers) by Paul Reinman, with FF18 ... though admittedly the Ayers-inked interiors still looked a little dinosaur-y.

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    2. I'd buy that, Al. I merely used the term as that's how The Thing's early appearance is usually described. Point is 'though, Jack was drawing rocky Thing at least as early as FF #14 (that's the ish with the paste-up I referred to in my first comment), but Dick was still inking him as dino-Thing. I assume that was down to Stan, but one never knows. I loved it when John Byrne restored dino-Thing in the early '80s - it made me feel as if I was 7 years old again.

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    3. Oops, tell a lie - it was FF #15 that I meant, not #14. Having said that, I notice (from just having looked at my Omnibus volume) that Ayers WAS beginning to give The Thing's hide more shadows and a hint of 'plates', but it wasn't so pronounced as to be immediately obvious.

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  2. Perceptive comments, as always, on the early Human Torch strips. I began reading these story at a very early age when they were reprinted on Marvel Tales, so I have a soft spot for the goofiness of Paste Pot Pete and company. As you noted, Lee was finding his way early on and was on firm footing when he took over the dialogue of the super hero strips

    I don't think we have any definite proof of Goodman wanting a return of the big three. Lee's recollections are cloudy and those characters failed only a few years earlier. If Goodman had demanded they be in the team I suspect Lee would have acquiesced - he was the boss. Goodman may have suggested using old Timely heroes, but likely asked for the Torch, since he considered the character a good luck charm, and let Lee do the rest. He may have conceded to a monster in the group because they were selling well, but we'll never know the full details at any rate, unfortunately.

    I look forward to the next installment.

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    1. I think it's possible that Stan is mis-remembering that failed attempt to revive the 'big three' in the '50s, Nick, and mixing it up with his memories of the genesis of the FF. As you say 'though, we'll probably never know for sure.

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  3. This is a wonderful blog. You write interesting essays and personal reflections on Marveldom! Keep up the great work!

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