It’s time for another Super-Blog Team-Up, where Longbox Graveyard joins with pop culture blogs from around the world to celebrate a particular comics trope. This time, in honor of this week’s release of Captain America: Civil War (and also Batman v Superman, I suppose), we’re looking at great “Versus” comics events!
For my contribution, I went all the way back to the source … to the summer of 1940, when the Human Torch fought the Sub-Mariner!
If you were expecting this titanic clash to appear on the cover of Marvel Mystery Comics #8, you could be excused for missing it. It’s easy to overlook that Torch vs. Subby sidebar on the left, especially when the dominant image features some kind of four-armed caveman gunslinger, and the Golden Age Angel coming perilously close to punching a monster below the belt.
But make no mistake — no matter what the cover might show, the first meeting of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner was this issue’s main event!
Barely a half-dozen issues old, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch were still the new kids on the block in 1940, but after a debut that sold nearly a million copies across multiple printings, these two new superheroes had already managed to stand out from the host of Superman imitators hitting the newsstands. It was perhaps because these characters were so different from Superman that they found an audience. Harkening to the noir world of pulp fiction, which was just now yielding in popularity to comics, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch were anything but an embodiment of truth, justice, and the American way.
To be fair, Superman hadn’t fully evolved into that all-American paragon quite yet, either … but these new characters were still a breed apart. Carl Burgos’ Human Torch was an android who ignited into a creature of living flame when exposed to air, and who was buried alive by fearful humans before breaking free to take vengeance on the world that shunned him. In time, the Torch mastered his emotions, and become a defender of the common good, but his Frankenstein-like origins made for an unpredictable and sometimes menacing hero. And if it was unpredictability and menace that you wanted, you needed to look no further than Bill Everett’s Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, an undersea avenger that made war on the human race, and was elevated above outright villainy only by his own noble nature and a slippery moral code that (sometimes) saw Namor doing the right thing.
When our story opened, Namor was in rare form, waging a one-man war of revenge against New York city. Now, the people of New York did send Namor to the electric chair (!) the issue before, having found him guilty, more-or-less, of being a maniac. Disastrously for New Yorkers, a jolt from the chair just awakened the powers of a groggy Namor, who escaped from custody and then made Gotham pay.
What a rampage! Namor got started by flooding the Holland Tunnel with a depth charge …
… then downing a police biplane. Poor fool!
Next Subby hit the Bronx Zoo, freeing wild animals to wreak havoc.
Plus, poisonous reptiles. Couldn’t forget the poisonous reptiles.
Or the killer (!) elephant. Turn ’em all loose!
Namor suffered temporary remorse when he saw a baby threatened …
… but no sooner did he deliver the baby to a hospital than he was off to knock the top off the Empire State Building, before wrecking the George Washington Bridge!
I don’t know about you, but I love this stuff. This was Golden Age comics at their raw, heedless, unbridled best, with little concern for consequences or continuity, or even making much sense from panel to panel. The Sub-Mariner is pissed off, and he’s a freaking force of nature. What more do you need to know?
It’s on the George Washington Bridge where the Human Torch finally catches up with Namor. And … it’s not a great page. At all. There is little drama when these characters finally meet — the action is remote and restrained, the Torch is seen at a distance throughout, and Namor has his back to the audience the whole time.
You can’t win them all. Bill Everett was all of twenty-three when he created this tale. Even Everett couldn’t be a genius all of the time.
Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek render the meeting in more dynamic terms when they revisited this scene, half a century later, in the pages of Marvels #1.
But Ross and Busiek had an advantage — they could look backwards through time. Neither Everett nor fellow twenty-something creator Carl Burgos could have guessed that their crazy comics story was giving birth to the Marvel Universe. Yet you can argue that is exactly what they did — bringing these two characters together, and proving they lived in the same world, where the consequences of each character’s actions would reverberate through each other’s stories. Heroes and anti-heroes, stories told in shades of grey, big events in real cities with hapless human bystanders caught in the crossfire — that’s the Marvel storytelling DNA, right there, decades before Reed, Johnny, Ben, and Sue rocketed into space in the pages of Fantastic Four #1.
Marvel Mystery Comics was an anthology book, with separate stories of the Torch and Namor in each issue, along with characters like the Angel and Ka-Zar. This team-up was notable in that it spanned two stories in issue #8. Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner story led the issue, and concluded with that meeting on the bridge — then Carl Burgos’ Human Torch story took over, with the Torch, now a policeman, tasked with capturing Namor on his first day on the job!
Burgos’ entry largely re-told the Everett story, from Torch’s point-of-view, but where Namor was tearing things apart, the Torch was putting them back together, herding zoo animals back into their cages, and dispatching a rampaging gorilla with a flaming right-cross.
Issue #9 continued the clash, with a twenty-two page lead feature by Bill Everett, and (finally) a cover image worthy of this tale …
The battle even rated a splash page heralding the fight as the “Battle of the Comic Century!”
In this second part, the Human Torch was mostly a punching bag — not unreasonable, given that much of the battle took place underwater.
But in a strange turn of events, Namor seemed to lose his mojo — first failing to break a bubble (!) that carried the Torch to the surface, then falling prey to chlorinated reservoir water. So, yeah, Namor is the lord of the seven seas, but keep him away from the water park!
Weakened by chlorine, and with his ankle-wings singed off by the Torch’s flame, Namor escaped by highjacking a plane, and returned to his old homicidal ways, only to think better of his actions in the very next panel. He was nothing if not mercurial, our Namor.
He was also a thinking-man’s madman, rendering the Human Torch powerless by trapping him inside a “translite tube.”
And that’s how issue #9 concluded, with readers encouraged to think how they’d break the stalemate!
So, who was the greater hero in this hero vs. hero tale — Subby, or the Torch?
How about … neither of them?
The true hero of this story — and about the only person who behaves with an ounce of sense — was policewoman Betty Dean. As Namor’s only friend among the surface-dwellers, and as a member of the police force like the Human Torch, Betty was uniquely qualified to see both sides of this conflict, and propose a peaceful solution.
The problem was that she couldn’t get these meatheads to listen to her.
How many times was Betty supposed to offer the answer before someone got the point?
Four times, by my count. Gotta give Betty points for persistence, and bonus points for telling the Torch he was a fool, right from the get-go.
And so the conflict ended sensibly — if not very excitingly — when Betty brokered a peace in the single-page conclusion to the story in Marvel Mystery Comics #10:
Of course, it would have been cooler if they’d fought.
(And Ross and Busiek seemed to agree).
But what the heck? This was the Golden Age, where anything was possible — even Subby and the Torch turning into the Get-Along Gang because Betty Dean told them to make nice. Never mind what happened to the Empire State Building, or the Holland Tunnel, or the Bronx Zoo! I’d say it was all water under the bridge — but Namor knocked the bridge down, too!
Bridge or no bridge, this story was the high-water mark for Namor’s mayhem. Succeeding stories would mostly see the Sub-Mariner venting his rage on Nazis and Imperial Japanese agents, while the Human Torch fought corruption and gang bosses in New York City.
(Well, true, there was Human Torch #5 where Namor hurled a tidal wave against New York City, but we’ll just forget that ever happened …)
The two heroes teamed again in Marvel Mystery Comics #17 to foil a Nazi attack on America, and modern Marvel continuity would team them with Captain America in the WWII hero squad the Invaders. Namor would go on to become a featured Silver Age character in his own right, after being reintroduced in Fantastic Four #4, while the Human Torch — now identified as the “Original” version, to set him apart from the Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm — would suffer an even stranger fate in modern Marvel comics, getting bound up in the origin of the Vision, among other things.
But that’s really all too complicated, and serves only to obscure the core nature of these primal characters, who have rarely been better than in this story, in all it’s crude and unvarnished glory. My heart belongs to the Bronze Age, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways, as when fire and water clashed, with no punches pulled, at the dawn of the Marvel Universe!
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think of the Golden Age Torch and Sub-Mariner in the comments section, below, but not before checking out these other “Versus” features from the Super-Blog Team-Up crew!
- Bronze Age Babies: Civil War, Silver Age Style — Tales of Suspense #58
- Between The Pages: Star Wars Versus
- Crapbox Son Of Cthulhu: Versus Edition
- Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Justice League of America
- Coffee & Comics Blog: Spider-Man vs Ghost Rider
- In My Not So Humble Opinion: Captain America vs Wolverine
- Superhero Satellite: Batman vs. Guy Gardner
- The Unspoken Decade: War Machine vs. Cable
- The Retroist: The Joker vs Sherlock Holmes
IN THREE WEEKS: #160 X-Men: Genesis!
Read more about the Torch (and Spider-Man!) here: Best Frenemies Forever
By now, you all should be familiar with the musings of Mark Ginocchio, the creator of the Spider-Man focused Chasing Amazing blog and the author of past posts on Longbox Graevyard such as his retrospective on Marvel’s Secret Wars mini-series and his two-part post on Spider-Man’s greatest battles. This week, Mark is writing about his two favorite Silver Age teenage superheroes – one of which is of course, the Amazing Spider-Man, but the other is the Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm/Human Torch. Take it away Mark:
During the Silver Age of Marvel comics, one of the more fascinating relationships featured two characters from different titles. Spider-Man and Human Torch, Peter Parker and Johnny Storm respectively, were Marvel’s flagship teenage superheroes. But rather than team together to create crazy pubescent hijinks a la Archie and Jughead, Spidey and Torch started out as bitter, heated rivals before finally evolving into (a more fan-friendly) sibling rivals.
The dynamic between the two characters is a phenomenal example of what made Marvel’s cast of characters so unique and different from the Distinguished Competition during this era. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had an inherent understanding that teenagers were unpredictable raging vessels of hormones and thus couldn’t always be counted on for behavior that was conventional for “traditional” superheroes. Parker and Storm had different social and economic backgrounds and went about their superhero business in starkly different ways (Johnny could be out in the open about his Human Torch identity, while Peter had to live in secret). Marvel couldn’t just plop the two of them on the page and expect reasonable synchronicity. And while I’ve always been a Spidey superfan, I also have a huge soft spot in my heart for Johnny Storm precisely because of this wonderfully comedic and occasionally heart-warming dynamic.
The two characters interacted early and often. The entire Fantastic Four team guest stars (and is featured on the cover) of the inaugural issue of Amazing Spider-Man, and in ASM #3, a despondent Peter Parker, having been recently defeated by future greatest nemesis Doctor Octopus finds inspiration to fight on in a speech Storm gives at his school. While Torch doesn’t realize it, by saying “don’t be discouraged if it sometimes seems tough,” he essentially gives birth to one of Spider-Man’s most popular personality traits – his never say die, regardless of the odds, spirit.
The first comic to actually focus exclusively on the Spidey/Torch dynamic was one of Marvel’s old monster magazines, Strange Tales. In the ST Annual #2, which, depending on your source, chronologically took place between ASM issues #3 and #4. In this comic, Spider-Man travels out to the suburbs of Long Island to solicit help from Torch, “a teenager like me,” after being framed for a robbery. But again, rather than going the obvious route and make a Bosom Buddies style comedic romp to clear Spidey’s name, Lee/Ditko/Kirby created a more hostile relationship.
Johnny is ticked off that Spider-Man is featured on the cover of “Live” magazine – a curious editorial choice considering what a bad rap Spidey always got from the media – and whines to his sister how whenever he does any good, the credit goes to the entire Fantastic Four team. When Spider-Man arrives at his doorstep, Johnny “flames on” first and asks questions later, putting the Web Slinger back on his heels, calling his teenage colleague “some kind of nut.” The barbs continue after Spidey outsmarts Torch and traps him in cement, swinging off and calling Johnny “stupid.”
This certainly wasn’t how two superheroes ever talked to each other before. I don’t even think that’s how heroes and villains talked each other, despite the copious amounts of hokum that filled Stan Lee’s comic book bubbles during the Silver Age. And yet that’s the early Spider-Man/Human Torch dynamic in a nutshell: some “poopy-head” level insults before they inevitably and reluctantly helped each other out of a jam.
By the time Torch catches up with his new adversary in ST Annual #2, Johnny is stewing over Spider-Man’s “showing off” (similar words would eventually be used to describe Spider-Man’s opinions of Storm). Spider-Man meanwhile accuses Torch of only caring about “headlines” (we just saw the inverse of that earlier in this comic) and not wanting to share the attention. When the two finally put aside their differences, they meet up for the first time at what would later become their trademark rendezvous spot, the top of the Statue of Liberty.
Chronologically, the next big Spider-Man/Torch story came in ASM #8. Interestingly enough, Lee/Ditko made the decision to portray Spider-Man as a petty creep in his very own comic book series. He crashes a party at Johnny’s girlfriends house and tries to win over the Torch’s entourage. In a “Pete Best forever, Ringo never” moment that would then be flipped on its ear during the inaugural meet-up of the Spidey fan club in ASM #17 (a gathering that Torch crashed), Johnny’s buddies want nothing to do with the Amazing Spider-Man. It’s worth noting that in a pretty “groovy” Ditko splash page that looks like something out of a 60’s teen flick, Spidey watches Torch from outside his home and stews about him “showing off” for his friends (I told you we’d revisit that insult from the other hero’s perspective).
As these meet-ups happened with more frequency (and in the pages of ASM, they happened nearly every other issue) what starts to become clear is that Spidey thinks of Johnny Storm as the super-powered version of Flash Thompson, Peter Parker’s high school bully and nemesis. Torch has it all – a pick of teenaged women to date (though sadly, none were drawn by John Romita Sr. and thus didn’t have those comic book pin-up qualities that defined Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson in the mid-to-late 60s) and an adoring public that doesn’t think of him as a criminal. Meanwhile, despite having so much good in his life, Peter resents how Storm still acts like a goofy egotistical teenager and doesn’t adopt something similar to Spidey’s “with great power comes great responsibility” mantra. Given that Ditko, who plotted the bulk of these issues, was a renowned follower of Ayn Rand and her objectivism philosophy, it’s no shock that Spider-Man would deride the less “serious” superhero.
But it’s not like Spider-Man is an innocent bystander in all this. Torch often calls him out for being a “creep” and justifiably so. As Spidey’s biggest fan, I can’t find any kind of defense for a “hero” crashing a party thrown by another hero’s girlfriend. I love ya Spider-Man, but if you’re going to pass yourself off as so self-assured, why are you constantly stroking your own ego and asserting your dominance over Human Torch?
Considering how Peter always had to pull his punches with Flash because if he really ever socked it to him with all his Spider-strength, he’d probably kill him, it’s interesting to see this nastier side to Parker when he’s wearing a costume and attempting to stick it to another super-powered teenager who can probably hold his own in a fight.
As the stories transitioned from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age, the Cold War between Spider-Man and Torch would thaw, and the barbs would evolve from petty sniping and insults, to a more big brother/little brother rapport. In what may go down as one of the funniest panels in Spider-Man comic book history, Torch digs up an old Fantastic Four costume and a brown paper bag for Spidey when the Web Slinger learns his newly found black suit from Battleworld is actually a living being hosting on him, and thus needs to be destroyed. Spidey is non-too-happy, but telling “flamebrain” that he’s going to “get you for this,” feels a lot less tense than crashing his house party and trying to make him look like an idiot in front of all of his civilian friends.
In modern comics, the Spider-Man/Human Torch dynamic has been explored by writers with mixed results. In 2005’s Spider-Man/Human Torch five-issue mini-series, penned by current Spidey scribe Dan Slott, new information and adventures featuring the duo was retconned to provide more depth about the relationship. The series, which takes place in the past but features previously unpublished adventures, displays when and how the rivalry evolves into a friendship. In ASM continuity, in the wake of Gwen Stacy’s death, Spider-Man is asked to build a “Spider Mobile” (this is a topic for another post) and he gets Torch to help him out with some of the mechanical engineering elements. In Slott’s mini-series retcon, Spidey and Torch have a somewhat touching moment when the Web Sligner admits that the only person he can talk to about his “loss” is Johnny Storm since he can remain completely anonymous about his guilt (something that Peter couldn’t just talk to Flash Thompson or Mary Jane about without admitting the reason he felt guilty about Gwen’s death is because he’s Spider-Man and he couldn’t save her).
Then, in one of the series most memorable moments, Peter reveals his secret identity to Johnny in an effort to save an auditorium full of kids from some New York gangsters. After the two heroes save the day, Peter and Johnny have a heart-to-heart where all of their grievances are aired. Johnny believes Peter “has it all,” superpowers, a model wife and brains, while Peter scoffs at the idea and talks about how he has always envied Johnny for having superpowers but no responsibilities. Yes, Slott is basically hammering the reader over the head with 40+ years worth of subtext from the likes of Lee, Ditko and Kirby, but it’s a refreshing moment all the same to have these ideas out in the open.
Another one of my favorite modern-era Peter/Johnny that I believe really defines their odd couple pairing, interestingly enough was born out of one of my least favorite Marvel editorial decisions of the past few years. When Johnny is presumed dead during Jonathan Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four, Spider-Man becomes the fourth core member of the newly-named Future Foundation, leading to a 12-issue run of comics where Spider-Man was horribly misused and miscast by Hickman as a one-note jokester with no tangible heroic qualities that would help the FF. Fortunately, Hickman redeemed himself in the pages of Fantastic Four #600, when Johnny returns from the Negative Zone and the first person to find him is none other than Spider-Man. Rather than run up to Spidey and give him a big hug to celebrate his resurrection, Johnny’s first words were, “Pete? What the heck are you wearing?”
It’s the most fitting way to craft that reunion. Even in his return from what was believed to be his death, Johnny couldn’t resist ribbing Peter, while simultaneously saying what everyone following the FF/Fantastic Four series was thinking: “seriously, what was Marvel thinking trying to replace Human Torch with Spider-Man of all people?” If the Silver Age taught us anything it’s that just because two characters are the same age, doesn’t mean they should automatically be interchangeable parts. Superheroes, like people are all different. Some have power, and others have power AND responsibility. Some have secrets to hide, and some can be public celebrities. And there’s only one Spider-Man and one Human Torch.
Thanks again to Mark for another terrific Longbox Graveyard column! Mark will be back in a couple weeks with an article about Bronze Age Spider-Man (or is that the “Dark Age?”). In the meantime, be sure to catch Mark over at his home blog — Chasing Amazing!
MORE Spider-Man On Longbox Graveyard
- The Amazing Spider-Man
- Top Ten Issues of Amazing Spider-Man
- Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Part 1)
- Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Part 2)
- Face To Face With … The Lizard!
- Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Faces
- And Don’t Forget The Human Torch: Flame On!
IN TWO WEEKS: #106 Panel Gallery: Captain America Speeches
- Spider-Man Movie Costumes Comparison (ironspidersuit.wordpress.com)
- ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ Movie Spoiler Roundup: Everything You Need to Know Before Andrew Garfield Swings by Comic-Con (latinospost.com)
- Best Frenemies Forever (bermanj1forchange.wordpress.com)
- The Amazing Bag-man Suit (allspidermansuit.wordpress.com)
Additional Longbox Graveyard Panel Galleries:
- Jack Kirby’s Gadgets of S.H.I.E.L.D. (And HYDRA, Too!)
- Steve Ditko’s Strange Faces (Doctor Strange)
- To Me, My Board! (Silver Surfer)
- Avengers Assemble! (Avengers)
- Thanos! (Avengers Mystery Villain)
- Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Faces (Spider-Man)
- Holy Hannah! (Silver Age Catch Phrase)
- Made It! (That Was Close!)
- Nick Fury By Steranko (1960s Super-Spy Coolness)
- Button Men (A Finger-Span From Destruction!)
- It’s Clobberin’ Time!
- Captain America Speeches (Four Color Patriotism)
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #95 Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Pt. 2)
- Stan Lee Birthday: The Comic Genius Turns 90 In 2012 (PHOTOS) (huffingtonpost.com)
- #82 Reader Appreciation Award! (longboxgraveyard.com)
- #84 Top Ten Instagram Superheroes! (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Steve Ditko (gocomics.typepad.com)
- #85 Defenders: Who Remembers Scorpio? (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Happy 90th birthday, Stan Lee! (robot6.comicbookresources.com)
- Longbox Graveyard Podcast: “Marvel Comics – A Space Odyssey” (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Marvel releasing 700 comics free digitally (stuff.co.nz)
- #91 By Any Other Name: Sub-Mariner (longboxgraveyard.com)
- #92 Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Part I) (longboxgraveyard.com)