Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Torch That Lives In Perpetuity


They don't call reprints "reprints" for nothing, considering how often a story will be reprinted time and time again. Usually the story is heralded by its marketing as a "Because You Demanded It!" event, or some other such wording aimed at giving the impression that it'll be great fun for you to read this story again. For older readers, being greeted by yet another resurfacing of the original story produces an amused eye-roll at seeing this card played once more. But I think reprints serve a purpose--not only as a way to experience what has come before, but also serving to introduce characters and titles to readers who were either unfamiliar with them or who were just curious about all those earlier stories they hadn't yet been exposed to.

It's the less business-like way of looking at reprints, admittedly. For the publisher, reprints can of course bring in new readers, hopefully motivated to buy the newer material being released; if not, they're likely to plunk down change on any number of collections of older material that are saturating the market these days. Also, reprints can be handy as a last resort to substitute for an issue not able to meet its deadline, or they can be used as filler for an issue boasting a large number of pages but unable to meet that page count with new material. I prefer to think of reprints in a "less company bottom line, more reader enjoyment" way.

One story that's surely in the reprint Hall of Fame is the lead story in the 1966 Fantastic Four Annual, which featured the clash between the Human Torch and the original android Torch of the Golden Age--an issue which ironically includes a reprint of its own, the famous Hulk/Thing battle:



The Torch/Torch story was naturally one which would fit in well for other issues and collections which themselves consisted of nothing but reprints:



(And these are just the ones I'm aware of. There's probably a Masterworks copy around somewhere which includes it, et al.)

Fantastic Four also had to use it as a fill-in when it presumably wasn't able to meet a deadline:



And there was this shameless cover illustration for The Human Torch #1, which didn't contain the story but played off the imagery of it, I suppose claiming dramatic license since the title was going to be split between reprinted material featuring both the FF Torch and original Torch:



The android Torch has gone on to figure into several more contemporary Marvel stories in a variety of titles, so I'm not sure how much more life the company can squeeze out of the original tale which brought him back. So, JUST IN CASE we never, ever see this story again, let's take a good look at this first meeting of flaming Gold and Silver:


Because you demanded it!



First, we get a teaser of what's to come, when two former soldiers reminisce about the original Torch:



Naturally, this was well before the days of The Invaders and other subsequent stories which made it seem that you couldn't step into a 1940s European pub without swapping stories with your war buddies about the costumed super-fighters you'd seen, which explains Reed's sparse recollection. But Reed and Ben's talk is interrupted by the arrival of Johnny, Wyatt Wingfoot, and Lockjaw (the teleportational dog of the Inhumans)--and while Reed investigates Lockjaw's powers, Johnny heads off to the desert (sure, there are deserts on the east coast, ask anyone) so that he can be isolated while he tests his flame.

Unknown to Johnny, the mad Thinker has located the original Torch android and has modified him to serve on a mission to destroy the FF Torch. We never learn why the Thinker has his mind set on killing Johnny, above the other FF members; even when the FF later locate his hideout, the Thinker still specifically wants Johnny dead. We know Marvel's reason, of course--as a set-up to the Torch/Torch battle--but why the Thinker would *ahem* think that a flaming android would be the ideal assassin for Johnny isn't explained beyond the android having the greater amount of experience. Maybe I'm over*ahem*thinking it.

At any rate, when Johnny engages his foe, the battle is on:




Johnny escapes to caves below, in order to replenish his flame. And when the other Torch follows, we see that his flame is out, as well. Again, the Marvel reason is probably so that he doesn't just kill Johnny while he's helpless; but to the reader, it makes little sense, since we've been told repeatedly by this point that the android is stronger, more experienced, more powerful, etc. If you connect the dots later, you can probably conclude that the android's heart (so to speak) wasn't in this mission in the first place, and he may have been giving Johnny every chance to defend himself.

Speaking of which, I don't think I'll be challenging Johnny to a fist fight anytime soon. Not only can he hold off an android, but the shockwave from his punch can shatter nearby rock formations:



Curiously, in the midst of this drama, the story gives ample time to "Quasimodo," a super-computer the Thinker has created, and which is empowered to end the android's life at the Thinker's command. Quasimodo, while loyal to the Thinker, is not a happy computer--it has aspirations toward becoming human, which the Thinker finds detestable:



It's an interesting interlude because you don't quite know why Quasimodo is needed here, since the Thinker could engage a remote destruct function on his own. But it does give the story a change of pace, and allows us to see more of the Thinker. And the creation of Quasimodo has its element of intrigue.

But let's rejoin the battle, where Johnny discovers first-hand that the Human Torch of old was and is a power to be reckoned with:




Yet Johnny is helped a great deal here by the android's hesitation to carry out its mission, even though not enough of its memories remain to enable it to move beyond its current programming. There's also the looming threat of Quasimodo to consider:



It's at this point that the rest of the FF arrive and attempt, as Johnny did, to help with the android's situation:



Before this summit can go further, though, the unpredictable Lockjaw teleports the lot of them to the Thinker's hideout, where the villain immediately assesses the Torch's failure and threatens to kill them all with his weapons array. And when the android moves to intervene, the Thinker acts accordingly and delivers on his threat:



The Thinker makes his escape, leaving the FF to respectfully mourn the android's selfless act. The original Torch is revived in later stories elsewhere, but doesn't have an easy time of it in the Marvel universe, perhaps because there didn't seem to be enough room for two Torches to co-exist as heroes. (Which may be a valid concern, since the addition of Toro to the android's exploits seemed redundant.) Yet if the reprints and reappearances are any indication, the character is still in apparent demand, either for nostalgia's sake or as a glimpse into the what-might-have-been.

However, with the story's close, there's another character that would also like to be remembered:



At another time, we'll catch up with Quasimodo, as the Silver Surfer demonstrates that humanity isn't just in the eye of the beholder.

Fantastic Four Annual #4

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen

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