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.)