The Human Torch and Youth Exploitation: Why Johnny Storm Got a Solo Title

Journey Into Marvel – Part 50

Torch racing a Nuclear Missile for fun. What?

Torch racing a Nuclear Missile for fun. What?

 

Extremites, today’s article marks the 50th in our Journey Into Marvel series and it’s fitting that the Human Torch, my favourite pet peeve, figures as the object of my criticism.

Ask any young Marvelite, today, about Johnny Storm and they will tell you that he is a B-String character. However, if you called forth the name ‘Marvel’ in 1962 these same Marvelites would reply  ‘Human Torch.’ Johnny was Marvel in the 60s.

I have never warmed to Johnny. He is an arrogant pig headed bully who is as approachable as his infamous supernova flame, yet at one time, he was popular enough to warrant the assignment of his own solo title in Strange Tales. This solo title was part of a strategy to attract teenage fans.

It’s hard to believe it now, given the hordes of teenagers who flock to Marvel inspired films and television shows, but in 1962 Marvel’s readership was mostly composed of young boys and college age students. Teenagers, for some reason, did not buy the Stan Lee rags. Therefore, Stan decided to barrow from Hollywood’s ‘drive in films’ which attracted teenagers in droves. Stan co-opted the  ‘James Dean‘ stock character who drove a Harley — had a disdain for authority and a fetish for leather — and injected these traits into Strange Tales’ version of Johnny Storm. In the pages of the Fantastic Four, Storm didn’t change at all. This lack of continuity is classic Stan Lee middle of the road exploitation.

Exploitation drips from the panels of this issue. There’s nothing individual about the story at all. Johnny is the most popular guy in school. He’s a hot rodder. For some reason he is also hiding his identity as the Torch. None of this is explained nor really given any focus. I see no connection, beyond his name, with his Fantastic Four appearances. These changes and dissimilarities indicate that this solo appearance is a Larry Lieber, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby experiment to sell issues.

The story itself has not changed from the standard ‘Scooby Doo’ superhero yarn:

A man named “the Destroyer” harries an amusement park roller coaster in an effort to distract from a Soviet submarine that is hidden, in plain sight, in an alcove behind the park.

The story has all the markings of rush job: Communists, a business leader in disguise scaring kids away from an amusement park, and a young blonde headed hero who gets all the girls. This story doesn’t feel like it was written in the creative bullpen of Marvel but in the accounting stacks of DC.

Jack Kirby’s artwork is a calculated rush job. Sue Storm looks nothing like she does in Fantastic Four. The smoke that Johnny Storm hides behind looks bubbly, and in another issue it might be deep and rich. The landscape seems dull and angular.  Because Strange Tales was an unpopular and niche title — even after Johnny Storm took the helm — laziness and exploitation defines these issues. Its cult status was a double edged sword. The small audience allowed the creatives to experiment and without this experimentation Dr. Strange would not come about.

My dislike of Johnny Storm continues. Nothing changes, even 50 articles in.

Until time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds

Story I Read:The Human Torch” (Strange Tales #101 Oct. 1962)

Rating: 1 out of 5

Pros: The Destroyer looks cool.

Cons: Pandering, the Soviet Sub plot makes little sense, the differences and out of character changes, Jack Kirby’s rushed and undetailed art.

Previous Review:The Challenge of Comrade X” (Tales to Astonish #36, Oct. 1962)

Upcoming Review:Prisoner of the Wizard” (Strange Tales #102 Nov. 1962)

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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 May 15, 2014, in Comics, Marvel, The Fantastic Four and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Having read these stories several years ago in the Essential Human Torch collection, the aspect I found most amusing from a modern perspective is the ubiquitous presence of asbestos. It’s everywhere! Many of the villains use it to trap the Torch. There’s one bad guy who is even know as the Asbestos Man. If I recall correctly, Johnny Storm himself even used asbesos in his bedroom to prevent it from actually catching fire. The only thing I can conclude is that several years down the line every single chracter who appeared in these stories must have been stricken with mesothelioma!

    • That’s a delight. In 1978, that character ‘The Asbestos Man’ died of Cancer. Johnny Storm also had a problem with Asbestos left overs in the early 90s. Marvel was conscious of the asbestos problem.

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