Thursday, January 27, 2011
RIP: The Human Torch
So tonight we’re gonna be takin’ a short break from our history of the Comics Code to honor a fallen hero. Because this week, we witnessed the passin’ of Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch, who died savin’ the world from the evil insect hordes of the Negative Zone.
We’re all big Fantastic Four fans here on the Dork Forty, and so anything bad that happens to one of the FF hits us hard. We’ve seen ‘em through divorce, miscarriage, heartbreak, Tom DeFalco, She-Thing… All kindsa horrible stuff. So you can imagine what the actual death of a team member has done to our fragile psyches. There’s some saaad nerd wranglers mopin’ round the punkin patch this week.
Now, I know what you’re thinkin’. We’re all growed-up funnybook fans here, and we know how this sorta thing goes. Super heroes die all the time, and they always come back. And the FF do have that big 600th issue comin’ up in about a year, so…
It’s easy to become jaded. Cynicism’s bound to run high when death is trotted out as just another tool in the storytelling box. And lord knows that funnybook fans are not the best people in the world at waiting to see how something goes before passing judgment. These kinds of stories always get big sales hype beforehand, and that often leads people to decry them as crap long before they ever see print. And, you know, sometimes they are.
But sometimes they’re not, and that’s important to remember, too. The death of a major character doesn’t automatically make a story bad. It’s a storyline, just like any other. We know the Torch will be back, sure. But we also know that Doctor Doom won’t take over the Earth, and that Galactus won’t eat it. Super heroes are, on the grand scale, a very predictable genre. It often doesn’t matter if we know how the story’s going to end, as long as it’s told well along the way. And this story was told very well.
To be sure, I’ve had my problems with Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four run. I really wanted to like the book, but I just couldn’t. His early characterizations of the team seemed shallow, his pacing and delivery of information in the single-issue stories he attempted early in the run were terrible, and he wrote the FF kids so cutely that I contracted diabetes every time they walked onto the page. But, you know… It’s the FF. My favorite spandex comic of all time. So I followed the book from afar, reading a friend’s copy of the occasional issue just to keep my hand in, and see if it had gotten better. And, slowly, I think it has. In honor of the big death, I picked up the last seven issues of the book this week and read them all in one go. And it’s good stuff.
Hickman’s one of the better long-range storytellers in the corporate spandex game right now, and all the seeds he’s been planting (unsatisfying as they might have been initially) are starting to bear fruit. And he played the “One of These Characters Will Die” game magnificently, giving all the team members their own separate little dramas, each of which could have lead to a thematically-satisfying end for any of them. Sue had been drawn into a political game among the Atlanteans that could easily have left her as a ritual sacrifice. Ben had been given a chance to be human again, and had maybe the best day of his life just before the end. Reed came to grips with the morality of the “solve everything” problem he’s been wrestling with all along, but he did so because of a potentially lethal encounter with Galactus. And Johnny…
Well. Since we’re here at least in part to eulogize Johnny, please allow me to discuss his story in more detail. Johnny Storm is really the odd man out in the Fantastic Four. Everybody else has a role to play: Reed’s the leader and the thinker, Sue’s the practical one that keeps things running smoothly, and Ben is their strong man and emotional center. But Johnny’s just kind of there. He’s useful in a fight, sure, and I suppose he offers a sort of youthful charm. He’s often the only member of the team who seems to have any fun, but that’s really his defining characteristic, and he doesn’t serve any purpose in the grand scheme.
Or he doesn’t seem to, anyway. But I think we’ve seen his purpose in this current story arc: he’s their joie de vivre, the guy who reminds everybody else that it’s good to be alive. This role is most obvious in his relationship to The Thing. Whenever Ben gets mopey, Johnny pisses him off so the big guy can blow off some steam. Then they go have a beer and everything’s alright again. It’s kind of an ur-male friendship, and we see it play out big-time in the “Countdown to Casualty” story that leads up to the death. Ben gets the chance to have a few days as a human being again, and Johnny makes sure he makes the most of it. They hit the bars, go to a football game, hang out with friends, beat up the Yancy Street Gang… And then Johnny takes him to Alicia’s place.
Alicia Masters is the Thing’s long-time girlfriend, a blind sculptress who sees only the nobility inside him, rather than his monstrous exterior (because Stan Lee is a fucking genius). They’ve been estranged for years, and at one time Johnny even became involved with her when it looked like Ben had left the Earth forever (long story). Of course, it turned out that the Alicia Johnny fell for was actually a Skrull or something (even longer, and much crappier, story). But, still. As a life-long FF fan, this whole scene put my heart in my throat. Ben and Alicia getting a night together, and Johnny being the one to make it happen, in spite of his own complicated feelings about the whole thing… Damn. That’s some make-a-grown-man-cry shit right there…
Anyway. They come home from this example of heroic friendship to find the Baxter Building under attack by the afore-mentioned evil insect hordes from the Negative Zone, and to seal off the portal and prevent a full-fledged invasion… somebody’s got to stay behind on the other side and face certain death. Ben (nihilistic bastard that he is) volunteers, as if there’s really no other option. But Johnny, having seen his best friend just start to actually enjoy his life, kicks him through the rapidly-closing portal and takes his place. Which is another hackneyed adventure cliché, of course, but one that’s so well-played here that (surprise!) I don’t care.
Johnny goes down in a frankly awesome two-page spread, engulfed by the impossibly-massive, impossibly-brutal horde. And Ben has to watch helplessly as the portal closes completely, transforming back into the Thing as it happens, just to add insult to injury.
Damn. That’s good funnybooks.
Now, I can already see how Johnny might come back. “No body, no death,” as they say. But I can also see what themes Hickman may explore in his absence. We’ve been told by visitors from the future (another on-going storyline) that dark times are ahead for the FF, and Reed’s just convinced himself to move forward with a plan that will almost certainly ostracize him from his family. Meanwhile, Sue’s distracted from taking care of everyone by her position in Atlantean political affairs, and now Ben’s become the Thing again. If these people ever needed to be reminded why life is worth living, it’s now. But the guy who does that for them ain’t there anymore.
He’s not around for us, either, and I don’t think I realized how much I’d miss him til I thought about him being gone. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Human Torch, to be honest. I was always more of a Thing guy; he was funnier and cooler-looking, and more dramatically interesting to boot. But now that I think about it, Johnny’s pretty cool, too. I mean, he’s called the Human Torch, for god’s sake! Think about that for a minute.
He’s a man who’s on fire! Even in a weird-ass super hero world where everybody’s got a gimmick, that’s completely insane! How I let such a crazy idea become commonplace in my mind is beyond me. But holy crap that’s great stuff.
See? Johnny’s even reminded me to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Because if you can’t be awed just a little bit by a guy on fire, what the hell kind of super hero fan are you? Perhaps this is a lesson we should all learn in this time of grief and cynicism. Sure, you know where the story’s going to wind up. But as I said before, you always do. So why not put aside the snark for five minutes and enjoy a well-crafted super hero comic while you can? Like Johnny Storm, it might not be there tomorrow.