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Best Frenemies Forever

Longbox Graveyard #105

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:

please visit guest blogger Mark Ginocchio at his home blog -- www.chasingamazingblog.com

please visit guest blogger Mark Ginocchio at his home blog — http://www.chasingamazingblog.com

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.

Spider-Man/Human Torch #5/Dan Slott, Ty Templeton, Drew Geraci & Greg Adams

Image from Spider-Man/Human Torch #5: Dan Slott, Ty Templeton, Drew Geraci, Greg Adams

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.

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Image from Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 1) #3: Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

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.

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Image from Strange Tales Annual #2: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko

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.”

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Image from Strange Tales Annual #2: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko

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.

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Image from Strange Tales Annual #2: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko

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).

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Image from Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 1) #8: Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

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?

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Image from Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 1) #8: Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

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.

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Image from Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 1) #258: Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Josef Rubinstein

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).

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Image from Spider-Man/Human Torch #3: Dan Slott, Ty Templeton, Nelson Palmer & Tom Palmer

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.

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Image from Spider-Man/Human Torch #5: Dan Slott, Ty Templeton, Drew Geraci & Greg Adams

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Image from Spider-Man/Human Torch #5: Dan Slott, Ty Templeton, Drew Geraci & Greg Adams

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?”

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Image from Fantastic Four #600: Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting & Rick Magyar

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!

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