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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Human Torch

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Human Torch

(or, “Yes, The Human Torch Actually Had A Series”)

Well, sort of. Back in the early days of the Fantastic Four, he shared the book ‘Strange Tales’ with Doctor Strange. It’s actually a pretty sensible decision at first look; he was a character with name recognition, at least in theory (kids might have found old Golden Age comics with the original Human Torch, or at the very least heard about him from older siblings or parents), he was a member of the extremely-popular Fantastic Four, and he was a teenage superhero in an era where that was just becoming a popular sub-genre (as seen by his rivalry with Spider-Man in this era, something developed in both the FF and Spider-Man.) But for some reason, the Human Torch has never worked well as a solo character.

Some of it, of course, is due to elements of the storytelling engine that…well, let’s just say they could probably be done better with another try. The Human Torch’s original rogues gallery included the Wizard, Paste-Pot Pete (later known as the Trapster, but let’s face it, he never did get over that name), the Beetle, the Plantman, the Eel…all he needs is the Leap-Frog, Solarr, and Toomazooma the Living Totem, and he can win Lame Supervillain Bingo.

He had other handicaps as well. The storytelling engine of the Fantastic Four never seemed to mesh well with that of a solo book for any of its members–they had public identities, lived in the Baxter Building, and they generally functioned as each other’s supporting cast. That makes it difficult to really develop an independent book (there’s an amusing moment, early on in the ‘Essential Human Torch’, where the other members of the team gently explain to Johnny that he doesn’t need to conceal his secret identity from the people of Glenville–they all know who he is, they just figured he wanted a little privacy.) The Torch does have a girlfriend in Dorrie Evans, but for the most part, the other members of the FF are his supporting cast…in particular, Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing.

Which brings us to the really insurmountable problem with a “Human Torch” series, the one that’s kept Johnny Storm from really ever managing to sustain a book after being bumped out of ‘Strange Tales’ in favor of Nick Fury and his agents of SHIELD. He’s just not a very good choice as a protagonist. He’s got no particular hooks or angles to his personality–he’s a hotshot kid who’s into cars and girls and fights crime. Not a whole lot there to generate drama, or excitement, or, well…stories. The Thing, by contrast, has an interesting and dynamic hook as a “misunderstood monster”, a sharp contrast between his smart-aleck exterior and his inner pain, and a much more interesting girlfriend to boot. (Which may be why ‘Marvel Two-In-One’ lasted 100 issues.) Johnny’s a great supporting character, a perfect foil for Ben and Reed and Sue, but isolate him from the rest of the FF, and he just doesn’t work. Not every supporting character can be a lead role, and there’s no better proof of that than the Human Torch.

(Well, except maybe Reed or Sue. Nobody’s even tried giving them their own series.)

21 Comments

I’d absolutely love to see a Reed Richards solo book. I have a feelign he gets really out-there and Warren Ellis-y when not around the rest of the FF. Him exploring another dimention solo or slinking down to the earth’s mantle: this I’d pay to read.

I think that Johnny could work pretty well in an ongoing buddy/rival series, a la Marvel Team-up or Two-in-one. Team him with Spidey, the Thing, Iceman, Namor, Hawkeye, etc., and you could get some fun stories.

Johnny Storm’s other problem as a main character is roughly the same as what mentioned in the Booster Gold story telling engine: he’s egotistical, arrogant, and not very mature, and none of those traits make him particularly likable.

Now if there was only some character that encouraged Johnny to be a bit more mature and responsible. Somebody who Johnny cared about. Perhaps they could have some sort of relationship, and if they were from different societies we could try to see how they deal with their different points of view. But there’s nobody on Earth that fits that description, is there?

Two things.

Torch’s feature in Strange Tales WAS pretty much a team-up book. In fact, Thing would eventually share billing with Johnny before being replaced by SHIELD.

I never considered the Human Torch’s Strange Tales to be a failed series, but the character itself does have the unfortunate “Superman Syndrome”. The Human Torch is one of the most powerful forces in the Marvel Universe. He’s truly a living weapon. The Acrobat, the Beetle and any of his other antagonists would have absolutly no chance against a “flamed-on” Torch. Paste Pot Pete’s glue would incinerate in seconds against a being who can go nova. Johnny can melt through steel and solid rock, but Namor can put him out with a spray of water? I think not. The only things on Earth that should really affect a “flamed on” Torch would be to submerse him in the ocean or estinguish his flame in a vacuum. (Maybe you could bury him in the desert, which was how the Original Jim Hammond Torch was incapacitated a couple of times, but you’d have to put out his flame first, and at that point, why not just shoot him?)

Which brings up the question, could Johnny decide to NEVER revert back to human form if he so desired, and thus be for all intents and purposes an all-powerful cosmic being? Would he need to eat, or sleep in his flame form? Of course he’d have to give up race cars and sex, which pretty much nixes this idea, given Johnny’s preferred hobbies.

I gotta nix the idea that the Thing engine supported MTIO for 100 issues because it was a team up book. That being said, I won’t deny that not every character can be the lead in a rotating team up, and that Thing clearly can. That means he does have solo potential.

Personally, I don’t think that ANY menber of the FF would work for long as a solo character. There’s just way too much team dynamic and usage of the other three as support characters for them to be sustained for very long. Then there’s the problem of a rogue’s gallery. Any familiar foe would be a FF foe, who generally needed all 4 to defeat them. Having 1/4 of the team defeat them just punks the villain.

Actually, early on Marvel Team-Up went back and forth between Spider-Man team-ups and Human Torch team-ups (this was in the early ’70s), but soon settled on the Spidey stuff from #36 onward.

Well, there were a few issues of Hulk team-ups in the ’80s and the Aunt May/Franklin Richards team-up, but mostly Spidey from then on, anwyay.

Oh, and if you’re curious, the Torch team-ups in MTU (besides at least seven Spidey/Torch team-ups), were with Thor, iron Man, Iceman, Dr. Strange, Hulk, and most awesomely, Son of Satan.

The Thing ROCKS as a solo character for any number of reasons. The main one though is because he has the same element that most great hero AND villain characters have–an element of pathos.

Spider-Man is miserable with guilt over his Uncle Ben (and later Gwen Stacy). Hulk is a ravaging monster half the time and a guilt ridden man of science the other half of the time. Batman has any number of things to make him miserable, the murder of his parents simply the greatest of them. Even shiny, happy, otherwise bright seeming Superman has the HUGE tragedy of the death of not only his birth parents, but his entire planet and culture hanging over his head.

And Ben Grimm has the reactions of people to him looking like a pile of rocks, an inability to probably ever have a normal relationship with a normal woman (I mean come on… seriously… what do we THINK Alicia and he did when the lights went out?) and maybe even some guilt from letting Reed talk him into flying that darn spaceship.

What does Johnny Storm have? Cool powers that don’t seem to much interfere with him living a playboyish human life, girls constantly screaming over him, and no real darkness to his situation. Sure, he’s got that whole batty Skrull ex-wife thing going on, but that’s kind of tacked on to his story later on.

And Ben also has this “regular guy” vibe going on under the rocky skin that help his solo adventures “connect” to an audience. Johnny’s kind of a rockstar, metaphorically at least, so reading about his solo goings on are kind of… like watching footage of Paris’ Hilton’s dumb friends on TMZ. Nice for a few seconds of peering in, but nothing we really care about.

I’m not discounting the Thing’s character potential or story possibilities. They’re all there, and they’re great.

But…

If Thing was so great as a solo, why did his stand-alone series in the 80’s only go 30-some-odd issues? Don’t give me “bad writing” as an excuse. Popularity has overcome bad writing for many, many series.

Maybe if Thing was given the solo book in the beginning instead of Torch, he’d be able to sustain his own series, but not now. But… they couoldn’t have done that because he would have been too similar to Hulk at that point. No, Thing needs the other 3 to make it work.

In one sense, the FF are incredibly co-dependant. Without the other three, an individual character just isn’t good enough to make it on their own. But I DO agree that if any of the them could make it, it’d be the Thing.

<i.If Thing was so great as a solo, why did his stand-alone series in the 80’s only go 30-some-odd issues?

It was the leotard. Wotta revoltin’ development.

The Thing is great as a solo IN THEORY. In practice, its been harder. That’s true of a lot of good ideas. The point is that solo stories can be GOOD more easily than solo stories about The Torch. Not that more people would buy it. How many people buy something is NOT always a good indicator of something’s quality, despite the big trend I’ve always noted on boards like this to argue that it is.

Another issue with the Torch: flame powers just don’t work in a solo context. You can’t do the more mundane superheroic stuff – saving a cat from a tree turns into a bad Chinese food joke, etc. – and it’s a set of powers that are, let’s face it, pretty much all-or-nothing in terms of lethal force. You can avoid that stuff in a team book by shifting the burden for those types of things to other characters, but when a pyro’s on their own you’re very limited in terms of situations and opponents.

Doug Atkinson

July 29, 2008 at 4:02 pm

“If Thing was so great as a solo, why did his stand-alone series in the 80’s only go 30-some-odd issues?”

The 80s Thing book is a bad test of the solo Thing storytelling engine, because it spent around the middle year of the book abandoning it to tell stories of a Ben Grimm who has adventures on an alien planet and can change back and forth between forms at will. The Standard Catalog of Comic Books’ entry on the series suggests that as the reason the book failed to keep its momentum after Byrne left, and I see no real reason to disagree. (Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any sales figures for either that series or MTIO, which is why I was consulting the SCCB in the first place.)

A63, I actually agree with you on the Thing’s viability as a solo character, and the reasons his book got canceled–it’s just that I covered that in my write-up of MTIO, and didn’t want to retread old ground.

And one thing to keep in mind, Paul, is that the Human Torch’s powers have grown over the years as he’s gotten more experienced using him. His flame used to be a lot cooler, didn’t burn for nearly as long, and could be put out a lot more easily. Exercising his powers has increased their strength, just like exercising muscles makes them stronger; villains that used to be major threats for him are now pretty easy to handle. (And there was a storyline in Steve Englehart’s FF run where Johnny lost the ability to flame off, due to the events of ‘Inferno’, but I don’t recall how they handled eating and sleeping there.)

Paul,

In the early days of Human Torch (or at least in the Essential volume) he has finite flame powers. Most of the peril came from him running out of “juice” at an inopportune time. He could only hit the nova level once in a blue moon and had some sort of time limit on how long he could stay in flame form (I forget the amount, it was probably just “whenever we need him to run out”). I think there was a future version of the FF somewhere (or maybe this was just a stunt in the late 80s, early 90s) where Johnny was stuck in Nova mode and it made him miserable. As Seavey said, he loves cars and women, neither of which are viable when your touch will incinerate them. I think it is an interesting point that can be explored more.

Also, I’m glad you pointed out that it was essentially a Thing/Torch comic after awhile. I have to admit, I did enjoy those stories more once Ben became a part of the equation.

It bugs me when characters who have been around for 40 years have to act immature, as if they’ve never learned anything from all their adventures. The most compelling Torch for me in the last decade or so was in Claremont’s run on Fantastic Four: the fire suppression expert, etc.

I know it stems from a plain old goof (forgetting that the Human Torch having a secret identity makes no sense whatsoever), but I love the bit about *everybody* knowing his secret identity, but just not bringing it up because they like the clueless hero….

I’m surprised no one mentioned Slott’s work on both the Human Torch and the Thing. Admittedly, his Human Torch used Spider-Man as its POV character, but it was fantastic work, particularly in Johnny and Peter’s mutual jealousy of one another. And that his Thing: Idol of Millions only made it 10 issues before getting the axe is a true tragedy – a revoltin’ development, even. God bless you, Dan Slott.

In the ramp-up to Inferno all three members of the FF got significant power bumps. During Inferno, Johnny was stuck in Nova-Flame mode and didn’t eat or even breathe. He was in orbit for a while and Silver Surfer fixed him.

And, shortly after that an enemy taunted him with the “loss” of his power. And, Johnny pointed out that it was a regaining of control, not a loss of power. If he wanted to, he could go nova again. And, he did.

The problem that I think there is has to do with the fact that there are good Human Torch stories. But, there really isn’t a good Human Torch series concept. The only way that I can think of that it would work would be for him to leave the team and New York, and start over with a new supporting cast, new setting, all new villians, etc.

Basically, a new title that just happens to use Johnny Storm for recognizability, but is otherwise different in every way.

And, I don’t see that lasting, either. Because it is too different from what the fans would expect.

Theno

The main problem with any character normally associated with a team is why they don’t go to the team for help in their solo stories. It’s somewhat sustainable with teams like the Avengers or JLA, which have solo heroes working together against the big problems. It’s harder when someone is coming out of the team environment. Wolverine works because his personality is one that would go off on his own and handle his own business. To a lesser extent, so it The Thing. Johnny is a people person. While, he might not be the type to go to his big sister for help, he would go to Ben or Reed. This leaves the writer to come up with scenarios where he has to be isolated from the FF in some way or the adventures take place over an extremely limited timespan.

In some ways, it might have been more interesting if Johnny had become the Thing. It would have been an even greater tragedy than for Ben. How would the teenager who’d had everything have reacted? Ben, at least, was an adult and, presumably had experienced setbacks during his career as a pilot.

One interesting thought that would address both lack of angst and overwhelming team ties, would be if Johnny were left behind after the rest of the FF were taken to another dimension, killed, or otherwise ripped away from him.

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