Sunday, January 06, 2013

Kirby Does the Human Torch

The inclusion of the character the Human Torch into the Silver Age Marvel Universe was done to keep dibs on the name and iconography connected to that name. The character was, of course, created wholly by Carl Burgos and claimed by Martin Goodman as spoils of his company, which published the character. Along with the Sub-Mariner, the two are actually the oldest superheroes in the Marvel pantheon (circa 1939). And both were taken from their creators (Burgos in the case of the Torch, and Bill Everett in the case of Namor, the Sub-Mariner).

Later in his life, Burgos tried to present a legal challenge to Marvel and reclaim his intellectual property, but he was far too poor to mount an effective effort and the suit wilted on the vine, abandoned. This is usually the way of things when regular folk try to struggle against corporate power. The one who can throw the most money at the courts wins by default.

While Goodman was not as hands-on as some publishers, he did send down his wishes through his proxy, Stan Lee. You can tell from the publishing end of things that he must have wanted the Human Torch as an ongoing character to protect what may have been a problematic copyright. To that end, the Torch was, for several years, featured prominently in his own adventures as the cover feature every month in Strange Tales. He was also frequently popping up in stories that featured the Amazing Spider-Man. It was obvious that they were trying to create a star, forcing the matter and trying to make the readers adore a character who was actually just a co-star, at best.

Of all of the characters that Kirby wrote on a regular basis, the Torch always seemed to me to be the weakest of them all. I can almost hear the editor constantly nagging. "Make him a teenager. Make him hip. Make him all Rebel-Without-A-Cause. Make him like hot rods. Make him go through girlfriends." Blah blah blah. I think Kirby obviously tried to comply, but to no real success.

The only time the character seemed to click with readers was as part of a kind of comedy team, serving as the hot-head foil for the otherwise stoic Ben Grimm. In the sometimes funny, sometimes pathetic, sometimes heart-warming exchanges between the two, the character worked well. But outside of that combination, the fans just didn't seem to give a damn about the Human Torch.

I think the last time Kirby tried to consciously push the matter and to force the readers to embrace the Human Torch as an upper echelon character for Marvel was during the period when this cover appeared, for FANTASTIC FOUR #54. It's almost as if Kirby was saying, 'Okay, guys. Here it is. I'm going to give it one last shot.' And he tried. And he failed. The Torch was just not first flight material in the Silver Age.

My copy of FANTASTIC FOUR #54.


Kirk G said...

I remember seeing and picking up this comic to flip through in the gift shop at the local hospital when it came out. I couldn't understand how this fit in with the FF 44-50 which I had at home, since it headlined the Torch on a solo adventure. It wasn't until next month at a drug store that I realized these were ongoing stories still being published, instead of books like Nancy Drew, that once published, were always "in print". I wish I had bought it,as it was years before I found it again. Also, the month before was the two part debut of the Black Panther, something of a milestone as well. I loved how the torch was drawn and I never once felt the urge to set anything afire. Heh...

James Robert Smith said...

The Torch stories always seemed forced to me. They kept trying and trying to make him popular enough to exploit the property, but they never could get it right. He was always going to be a sidekick, no matter what they did.

Of course if they actually used the Burgos Torch and had him be an android with a will of his own and the power to back up that will...they could have had a hit on their hands. Poor of Burgos tried to sue to get control of his creation, but he just didn't have the means to challenge Goodman.