Spider-Man vs. The Human Torch: Who’s the Alpha Dog?

Journey Into Marvel

The Story I Read: “On The Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man.” (Strange Tales Annual #2 Oct 1963)

STann2_SpideyTorchSomething that a lot of modern comic book nerds, like myself, forget, when we look back at the work that was created in the Silver Age, is that these comics were originally intended for preteens. This explains the rather juvenile writing style and the, usually, clear three act structure. Violence, though prevalent, bends more to the slapstick then to the homicidal. Likewise, the characters were child friendly and accessible. Marvel went one step further and created two characters that were the readership’s ages or just a little older. Spider-Man and the Human Torch are around the same age but they couldn’t be more different. Where Human Torch is often brash and pig-headed, Spider-Man is logical and empathetic. Yet, both are written with a sardonic edge and both have pretty terrible tempers. Naturally, they are the perfect partners for each other and this issue pairs them up in flamboyant fashion. The pairing shows much more then their similarities with each other but also who is the alpha-hero between the two.

As I have said countless times before, the Human Torch is the flagship character of this period. He is cross sold through out all issues and the way his name is held in reverence by the contemporary characters borders only on the messianic. But as a character he, and this may just be me, is wholly unlikable. He’s self involved, arrogant and a fame whore. Not to mention, he’s also a bully. Mr. Storm does not deserve to be the central Marvel spirit and the readers were showing this in the way they spent their coin.

Spider-Man has only been featured in a monthly publication for two months as of October 1963, yet he has surpassed all preceding heroes. I believe this was because of two factors. One, Peter Parker is the victim of bullying rather then the bully, and, two, he possesses that beloved sardonic quality of Johnny but he also wears his empathy on his sleeve. Human Torch rarely ever has given a second thought about any of his team mates or sister. Just look to the preceding issue of Strange Tales for example of this narcissism.

Strange Tales has become less the solo exploits of the Human Torch and more of a place for him to headline a story with great cameos. To put a decidedly large cherry on the sundae, this annual features the first cross over for Spider-Man. He’s been visited by others in his publications but never cameoed in someone else’s. Fittingly, there is a heavy theme of competition. Stan Lee was entirely aware that these two characters were constantly being compared.

The competition begins when the one off villain, who’s look is vaguely reminiscent of Batman’s Penguin, frames Spider-Man for a jewelry robbery. As everyone in

Spider-Man and Torch duke it out!

Spider-Man and Torch duke it out!

the city has been trained to think Spidey is an outlaw, the city including Jonny, believe the worst of him. When Peter seeks out the only guy who can help clear his name who happens to be Torch, Jonny misreads this overture as an attack and and epic battle ensues. Perhaps, misread is too kind a word. What really happens is Torch sees the Spider and attacks without thought. This sudden rush to judgement is directly related to an earlier moment in this issue when he was musing too his sister Sue, who would win in a fight against him. Torch has a jealousy toward Spider-Man that Peter does not return. Peter has a great amount of respect for the Torch, although I can’t fathom why.

The first half of the story is dedicated to the wrestling match between the two and it is wonderfully entertaining. Torch’s wildly inconsistent and highly malleable powers are destroyed by Spider-Man. Jonny flames up and Peter dashes out of the way. It almost ends in stalemate until Pete comes up with a ‘freeze web.’ When Torch gets caught into this web his fire is instantly extinguished long enough for Spider-Man to explain how he was wrongfully accused. The ingenuity of Parker beats the hasty arm flexing of Torch.

This tipped balance is further shown in the ending when the Fox is finally taken down. Peter uses his Spidey-sense to suss out the many hidden lairs that the Fox had placed around the city. When the both of them finally catch up to the thief, Spider-Man and his senses, take the Fox down single-handedly. Torch doesn’t do anything but watch.

Wait a minute…. this is Strange Tales: Human Torch’s solo adventures, how can the ‘guest’ save the day? More importantly, why did Stan Lee write it this way? Perhaps, this is the moment Spider-Man unseats Torch as the flagship character. Spider-Man is the new edgier Torch and perhaps, Torch works better as a sidekick. Certainly, Torch is much better as a part of the Fantastic Four team. He is much too brash and prickly to lead his own adventures, not to mention he is kind of boring. Torch has no internal struggle going on, he sees evil, he wants to torch it. Spider-Man has a constant struggle between what is morally right and what he wants. This is why he is compelling. What an important turning point. Torch has a lot to learn from Spider-Man and as a duo they are fantastic.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Pros: The exciting match between Spider-Man and Torch, The surprise ending, and smart writing.

Cons: The derivative Cobblepot like villain, the lacklustre takedown of the Fox.

Preceding Review:  “The Terrible Traps of Egghead” (Tales to Astonish #112 July 1963)

Upcoming Review:The Icy Finger’s of Jack Frost” (Tales of Suspense #45 Sept 1963)

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About Julian Munds

I possess a degree in Theatre and Drama from the University of Toronto. I own my own theatre company called Snobbish Theatre. We focus our work on new versions of classics.

Posted on November 16, 2013, in Marvel, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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