The Anatomy of a Silver Age Comic: What the Solo Human Torch Teaches Us About Silver Age Comics
Journey Into Marvel – Part 57
The Torch solo stories were written hastily. They often do not possess the same poetic grandeur that an issue of the Fantastic Four or Journey Into Mystery possesses. My analyses of the Torch Strange Tales stories has been nitpicky.
As Syrio Forrell says to death, ‘not today!’ Today I take the story on its own terms.
This Torch story is a perfect encapsulation on what makes the Silver Age period at Marvel so charming. Today’s review is a dissection of what makes a good Silver Age story tick. Why are they charming? Why do we still, in this age of long form narrative, post Frank Miller/Alan Moore complexity, still enjoy sitting down with a simple Silver Age yarn?
Devoted reader, when Stan and the other bullpen writers were pressed for time to create a successful villain they always turn to some standard. This overused villain is usually a green, or off green, space alien, or a member of a grotesque monster humanoid race that is called communists. These creatures are simple and have no more motivation to destroy the normal American way of life beyond the need to destroy it. They don’t require that much paneling to explain why they are interfering in our hero’s life. They just are.
In this issue Stan Lee and R. Berns supply us with a seemingly new race of villains to foil the Torch but they are just variations on a theme.
Following the alien invader theme that Stan so loves this issue’s villains are a race of Extra-Dimensionsals who dwell in the “5th-Dimension.” Ignoring the cosmological problems with the idea of a ‘5th Dimension’ that is a realm that holds a civilization, these Dimensionals are alien invader knockoffs. Stan is using his characteristic parodic style to make fun of the over used cliche of space invaders. Stan Lee also understood that he was not always the greatest writer.
What Stan has done with his Dimensionals is unlike his former renderings of invaders. He takes time to establish a society of political machinations and turmoil to explain why the Human Torch must interfere within their society. There’s a tyrant who has staged a coup against the ruling democracy and he is leading the 5th Dimension on a warpath to destroy Earth. The selfishness and pigheadedness of the tyrant is under the microscope here and this adds — excuse me — a dimension to the standard alien enemy that is rarely seen in these early issues.
Fairy Tales, myths and legends form the basis of pop culture story telling. For instance try and see if you can see the Greek myth of Jason and Argonauts in Star Trek or Perseus in Superman. Heck, it’s obvious the influence Norse myth has on Marvel with Thor. When it comes to Stan Lee’s Silver Age comics Science often has about as much similarity to actual science that a raven has to a writing desk. Magnetism seems to be the answer to everything in early Marvel, even to attracting organic matter. Science is just a word Lee uses to describe the unknown. Comic books inspire wonder at the scientific/magical forces that exist right beneath the surface of the normal world. The 5th Dimensional plot that we read as a demon attack is actually a complex scientific conspiracy.
In the Human Torch Strange Tales solo stories, the Torch has become the classic fairy tale hero archetype. Johnny Storm is nearly indistinguishable from Jack of bean stalk fame. He’s an out of place kid — try to ignore the character discrepancy between the social outcast presented here and the smooth hot-rodder presented the Fantastic Four comics — who is looking for some sort of self actualization. Storm desires a beautiful princess to stand dutifully at his side. This is both a reflection of the desires of the readership and a conscious allusion to the fairy tale/myth/legend hero archetype.
Lots of effort is spent in this story to establish Johnny as a well meaning teen. None of the angst that we sometimes see in the Fantastic Four comics is present here. This is on purpose because Jonny needs to be normal. During this story he is tested and then rewarded with love just like the legend that he is.
I don’t like to harp on sexism lest I be branded one of those hipster blog writers that shoot around words like ‘feminism’ and ‘misogyny’ like they are watermelon seeds at a company picnic, but sometimes you cannot feel an adequate human without addressing it. The young women, who is the daughter of the chief anti-tyrant 5th Dimensional is empty headed beyond belief. After telling her father to rescue Storm from a water tank, she falls in love with him. Marvel women just fall in love and are rewards for fearless male heroes.
Misogyny is gross and it is terrible when it enters into the things we love but it also plays into the fairy tale aspirations of the Silver Age comic.
The most important part in Silver Age comics is that they have a good villain. The most successful Silver Age villains seem to be the ones that try to exercise control over the populace. This maybe because of the zeitgeist hate for tyranny in the US with how perceived tyrannical governments had damaged their country, i.e. Germany and the Soviet Union. Some of this anxiety is left over from the country’s birth.
The ‘autocrat’ is a common archetype drawn on by Stan Lee. He — with only a few exceptions is the ‘autocrat’ ever a ‘she’ — is as an empty a character as you’d expect. All the ‘autocrat’ must do in the storey is hold power and dominate some sort of people, which turns the democratic values of Jonny Storm into overdrive. The tyrant in this story holds up his end of being a power hungry immovable bastard.
It’s rich that the most selfish character in the Marvel would be a champion for selflessness, but in the early part of Strange Tales Solo Torch Jonny was altruistic. In this story the tyrant’s selfish pursuit of glory against the humans nearly destroys the 5th Dimension and the Human Torch li becomes a beacon of altruism. The Liberty Torch allegory cannot be more obvious. Selfishness is short sighted and people must band together to make an important and successful world.
Wait a minute that sounds Socialist. Something to keep in mind for later issues.
Stan loves stories about democracy fighting autocracy. He loved stories about heroes and vapid damsels. Stan loved stories about dark forces that exist just under normal society. At his heart Stan Lee is a 19th century melodramatic titan and this is why his creativity, along with the inspired artwork of Jack Kirby, maybe one of the greatest cultural booms in human history.
Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.
Story I Read: “Prisoner of the 5th Dimension!” (Strange Tales #103 Dec. 1962)
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Pros: Interesting twist on an overused plot. A great journey for Jonny Storm. Some cool art, especially during the initial meeting between the tyrant and Jonny.
Cons: The chauvinism. The character discrepancies between Strange Tales Torch and Fantastic Four Torch. The easy way Jonny fells the situation.
Next Review: “The End of the Fantastic Four!” (Fantastic Four #9 Dec. 1962)
Last Review: “Trapped By The Protector” (Tales To Astonish #37 Nov. 1962)
Posted on November 11, 2014, in Comics, Marvel, The Fantastic Four and tagged Ace Books, Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Barnes & Noble, Benedict Cumberbatch, Blanche Devereaux, Boris Karloff, Brown Shoe, Captain America, Charles Stross, Danny Boyle, Fantastic Four (film), Human Torch, Jack Kirby, Jonny Lee Miller, Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios, Mary Shelley, Mister Fantastic, Stan Lee. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.