The Human Torch Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Larry Ivie, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, Jack Kirby, Carl Burgos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3505-0 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Superhero Frolics… 9/10

Hot on the heels of the Fantastic Four’s stunning success, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby spun the team’s most colourful and youngest member into his own series, eager to recapture the 1940s glory days when the Human Torch was one of the company’s “Big Three” superstars.

This captivating, esoteric and joyously exuberant collection of pure 1960s superhero shenanigans gathers those the latter end of those eclectic but crucial yarns from Strange Tales #118 to 134, (spanning March 1964 to July 1965) and comes with an evocative Introduction from Bruce Canwell before all the hot action kicks off…

Filled with fabulous classics of old school Marvel Fights ‘n’ Tights mayhem and mirth, this particular compendium (available in scarce but sturdy Hardback and assorted eBook formats) is a perfect antidote to angst overload.

Within a year of FF #1, magic-&-monsters anthology Strange Tales became the home for our hot-headed hero as issue #101 saw mostly-typical teenager Johnny Storm start an ancillary solo career. The non-stop riot of adventure begins here with Stan Lee & Dick Ayers highlighting the return of envy-obsessive hyper-intellectual the Wizard who has yet another go at the Flaming Kid in ‘The Man Who Became the Torch!’, an act which consequently nearly kills the Thing and Reed Mister Fantastic Richards besides.

A first brush with Marvel’s soon-to-be core readership came in #119. ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’ details how Commie AgentRabble Rouser mesmerises decent citizens, making them surly and rebellious, after which Jack Kirby pops back for #120 as ‘The Torch Meets Iceman!’: a terrific action-extravaganza with Ayers inks that pretty much closes the glory days of this strip. From then on, despite every gimmick – and occasional burst of sheer inspiration the Bullpen could muster – a slow decline sets in as quirky back-up strip Doctor Strange grew in popularity and cover space…

ST #121 sees Johnny as ‘Prisoner of the Plantman!’ (by Lee & Ayers) and #122 finds a thug, a conman and a crooked yogi all augmented by Dr. Doom and mustered as a woefully inadequate Terrible Trio ordered to launch an ill-conceived attack in ‘3 Against the Torch!’

Strange Tales #123 has a creepy inventor build himself an impressive insectoid exo-suit to get rich the easy way, as – in an effort to boost ratings – The Thing becomes a permanent fixture in ‘The Birth of the Beetle!’

This saga was most notable for the pencil job by Golden Age Human Torch originator Carl Burgos, after which Johnny and Ben tackle a fully re-designed ‘Paste-Pot Pete’ (Ayers inked by Paul Reinman) before going after another old adversary in ‘The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped!’

‘Pawns of the Deadly Duo!’ host a fresh assault by the Puppet Master, allied to the Mad Thinker in a smart yarn, after which #127 pits Ben and Johnny against a bizarre and baffling puzzle thanks to ‘The Mystery Villain!’

After a stunning Kirby pin-up of the Thing, the Fantastic Two then unwillingly battle ‘Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch’in #128 (this one inked by Frankie Ray, AKA Frank Giacoia), as the Homo Superior siblings make an abortive first attempt to quit Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, after which ‘The Terrible Trio!’ once more fail to impress or assassinate our heroes…

Pop culture at its most opportunistic reeled and staggered with #130 in ‘Meet the Beatles’ (not villains, but actually some sort of popular musical combo of the times, whom they actually didn’t meet at all), although sublime Golden Age artist Bob Powell (with inking from Chic Stone) did take over the art chores for the comedy of errors/crime caper.

Ayers returned to ink #131, a frankly dire Lee script entitled ‘Bouncing Ball of Doom!’, with the Mad Thinker siccing a cybernetic bowling bowl on our torrid twosome before Larry Ivie scripts a capable Space Race thriller in ‘The Sinister Space Trap!’ (inked by Mike Esposito under his Mickey DeMeo alias).

Lee returned for the last two Torch tales in ST #133 and #134: beginning with sharp-looking saga ‘The Terrible Toys’, wherein Puppet Master tries a new modus operandi and closing with ‘The Challenge of… The Watcher!’ (inked by the majestic Wally Wood) wherein Torch and Thing are transported to ancient Camelot to battle time-reaver Kang the Conqueror.

It was clear the writer’s mind was elsewhere, most likely with the new Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. strip that would replace the FF pair from Strange Tales #135 onwards.

Wrapping up this memory lane meander is a tantalising cover gallery from the 1974-75 reprint series of Golden and Silver Age Torch Tales, rendered by John Romita, Joe Sinnott, Larry Lieber, Ron Wilson, Frank Giacoia, Gil Kane, Al Milgrom &Vince Colletta, to complete your visit with the hottest duo in early Marvel history.

It’s remarkable to note that as the parent Fantastic Four title grew in scope and quality, the Human Torch’s own series diminished. Perhaps there is something to be said for concentrating one’s efforts or not overexposing your stars. Maybe it was just having Kirby do some plotting? Here, however, what was originally a spin-off for younger readers faded as Marvel found its voice and its marketplace, although there would be periodic efforts to reinvigorate the Torch.

Perhaps the historic value supersedes the quality of most of these strange tales, but there’s still a great deal that’s great about this series and Costumed Drama devotees with a sense of tradition and love of fun will find this book irresistible and unmissable.
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