Friday, November 8, 2013

What's So Golden About... Marvel Comics 1?

Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939) -- Human Torch story
"The Human Torch"
Carl Burgos

Doug: No, friends, I do not own a copy of Marvel Comics #1.  I do, however, happen to have the hardcover reprint of said tome that was published back in 1990 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Human Torch, et al.  I'll be reading/writing/scanning from that book in order to bring you a sense of where Marvel got started.  This is the third installment in our Golden Age retrospectives, and I'll of course at the end give my two cents on just what's so Golden about this mag.  Let's hit it!

Doug:  Carl Burgos was only 21 years old when he created the Human Torch.  Not bad if that ended up being one's mark left on creation, huh?  Well, at least in our little corner of civilization.  Burgos was buddies with Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett, and the two of them became the cornerstones of Timely Comics until they both went off to war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941.  But we should be thankful for this initial output and the imaginations of these two men that would give us those epic Torch/Namor conflicts, so wonderfully replayed and memorialized by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross in Marvels.  Speaking of, if you've seen Marvels #0, which I'm sure is now included in all of the compilation tpbs and hardcovers of the series, then you'll be familiar with this story.

Doug:  We begin in a conference room outside the laboratory of Dr. Phineas Horton.  Horton has convened a press conference to show the members of the 4th Estate his creation.  He proclaims to have created an android -- an exact replica of a human being.  Yet the creature has a side effect that causes Horton to fear it.  He asks the media to accompany him to the next room, where he shows his mechanical man, encased in a large glass tube.  Horton explains that whenever his artificial man comes into contact with oxygen, he bursts into flame!  Even more curious, however, is the fact that the android is not consumed or destroyed.  The assembled reporters immediately call on Horton to destroy it.  Horton balks at the notion, but is threatened by the power of the pen.  The next day, the news goes public.

Doug:  Later that day, Horton receives a telephone call from a member of the "Scientists' Guild".  The man offers to send a delegation to Horton to inspect the android.  Horton agrees, and sets up an appointment.  Now, being a modern cynical-type of guy, I was thinking that the professor set this up all-too-quickly.  What if the fella on the other end of the line was a mobster, or an overzealous G-Man?  Lucky for him, these guys are straight and do arrive to do as they'd offered.  As we saw in the demonstration for the press, the introduction of even a little oxygen to the tube ignites the Human Torch.  The scientists are amazed, but recommend that Horton destroy his creation.  Horton again rebukes his critics.  One of the scientists suggests encasing the Torch in concrete; Horton perks up, thinking this will buy him some time to fix the problem.  So later, the Human Torch is placed in an airtight metal pod which is then lowered into a huge vat of wet concrete.  And that's the end of the story.  Nope!

Doug:  A short time later Professor Horton was awakened from a deep sleep by a nearby explosion.  Snapping to his senses, he wonders if it could be his Human Torch?  Getting dressed and racing to the place where the Torch had been entombed, Horton finds that his artificial man is indeed gone.  And to where?  Terrorizing the town, that's where!  The Torch runs wild through the streets.  We learn that he can speak, and has the mind of anyman -- Horton truly did create an exact replica of a human being!  The Torch encounters a fire brigade, but he laughs off the water pulses.  It's not enough to extinguish his flame anyway.  He continues to run, until he comes to a fenced yard with a large swimming pool.  He simply melts the iron bars and enters, hoping to douse his flames.  He's successful.  But...

Doug:  It seems the grounds on which the Torch chose to trespass belong to a Mr. Sardo -- Grade A Smarm-meister and general organized crime-type.  Sardo is in the house with "Red", his assistant (I guess).  Red notices that the lawn is burned.  Well, it just so happens that Sardo is reading the papers about the Torch.  Sardo orders Red to get ready to winterize the pool -- even though it's not time.  Yep -- they catch themselves a Human Torch.  But having drawn the air from the pool, covering it, and then draining the water (yeah, I wasn't believing this, either), they have the Torch imprisoned and without his flame.  Sardo gets the idea to sell "fire insurance" and heads off to find a rich guy named Mr. Harris of Acumen Warehouses.  Harris stores raw steel -- something the Human Torch can melt at will.  Harris tries to bodily remove Sardo from his office after the racket is explained.  You know where this is headed.  Back at his home, Sardo and Red put the Torch into a sealed tube -- allegedly the Torch believed Sardo was helping him -- and take him to the Acumen Warehouses.  Released from the tube, the Torch runs through the warehouse, decimating it.  The Torch thinks to himself that since he can't control his flame, that Sardo knows he can't, yet he brought him to the warehouse (which is now in ruins), so Sardo must be a rat!  The Torch begins running and lo and behold -- he takes flight!

Doug:  Back at Sardo's home, the snake is fearful that the Torch will come looking for him.  He heads for a secret lab, sealed behind a heavy steel door.  The Torch indeed arrives and burns the place to the ground -- joyfully.  "Ha ha!  It was easy to burn Sardo's home down!"  Talk about your anti-heroes!  The house burned out, the Torch can see Sardo's mob cronies outside.  Red tries to hide under a car -- the Torch lands on the car, melting it on top of Red.  "That rat burned -- all right!"  He then moves to the pool, where a couple of hoods have sought refuge.  The Torch heats the water, burning the men alive with steam.  "And those fellows in the pool won't come up for air..."  Wow.  This is brutal!  And then the Torch moves back into the house to find Sardo's hide-out.  He notices a heavy steel door he'd not seen before, and literally walks right through it.  Sardo is inside, and attempts to finish the Torch with a gas bomb.  But the heat causes the gas to dissipate.  Sardo then picks up a large container of liquid, but before he can do anything the firemen arrive.  Horton's with them, and wades through the flames to get to the lab.  There's a tank of nitrogen within and Horton wants to remove it.  But before he can, the Torch leaps forward and hugs the tank, melting it away.  He takes the full force of the now-liberated nitrogen.  When next we see him, the Torch is human again!  Horton can't believe it, and a cop on the scene really doesn't care.  He attempts to put a slug in the Torch's noggin, but the bullet melts on contact with the still-hot skin.

Doug:  Sardo is still alive, and is amazed to see the Torch without his flame.  He thinks that the nitrogen must be the answer, so grabs another tank and tries to offer it to the Torch -- in exchange for Sardo's freedom.  Of course the Torch is hearing none of it, and once again flamed on starts to tear the lab apart.  Sardo grabs a large container of sulphuric acid and attempts to throw it at the Torch.  But it explodes in his face, killing him.  "Poor fool -- killed by his own hand."  Uh, with help...?  Horton confronts his creation, who tells him that Sardo dealt justice to himself.  He then takes the nitrogen back into the lab area where he melts the container.  Again his flame goes out, and the Human Torch concludes that he can now control it at will!  And what's more, he can throw fireballs -- one of the all-time great comics visuals!  Walking outside, fully flamed, the Torch notices that the police are on his tail.  He begins to run, streaking through the city like a comet.

Doug:  Alas, the cops corner the Torch, and he toys with them.  He intensifies his heat to the point that the police cannot get near him.  Then just like that, he douses the fire -- and apologizes for the trouble he's caused!  At the local precinct, the Torch and Horton stand before the Chief.  the Torch is interrogated about his roles in the destruction of the warehouse and Sardo's residence.  The Torch paints himself as a victim in both cases, with Sardo getting what he deserved in the end.  And the Chief... buys it!  Horton asks that the Torch be released to his care.  And the Chief... buys it!  On the way back to Horton's, the Torch explains that he now has complete control over his flame.  Horton's first thought is that he can make a buck off of his artificial man.  The Torch shows off his newfound control, and Horton becomes even more greedy.  Voicing this, the Torch turns on him and tells him that in no way will anyone control him again.  He's his own man, and he abruptly burns through the ceiling and leaves.  To be continued!

Doug:  So, what's so golden about this yarn?  Well, by Silver and Bronze Age standards the art is a bit crude, although with a certain charm.  Burgos does move us through the story, though -- at an average of nine panels per page!  Seriously... this story was only 16 pages long, but all those tiny gridded panels made this baby read like an annual.  One of the oddities I noticed was that the narration boxes were located at the bottom of panels rather than at the top -- so the reader saw the action and dialogue before the set-up!  Strange.  And how about the level of violence and unapologetic killing?  Good lord, but our "hero" piled up a body count here.  And to think, we look back on the Batman's days of using a gun with incredulity!  It's funny, as those of us who still know a little about modern comics complain about the line between hero and villain, and of course there's that overused term "anti-hero".  What we have here, kids, is one of the original anti-heroes!


Doug:  I want to add one more thought to my concluding paragraph, and maybe this will serve as the crux of today's conversation -- hope so, as our reviews tend to generate less interest than do our conversation-based posts.  I saw on Twitter Thursday evening a musing about whether or not the twitterverse will explode again on Tuesday (11/12/13) with the release of Man of Steel on video.  Not to spoil the ending, but I think we're all aware of the now-notorious scene in the climax of the film.  Why are we upset about that?  Is it just our modern sensibilities?  Are those who were not upset or unnerved simply numb to violence as it is so often portrayed in film, on television, and in video games?  Do we look at the immorality of the Human Torch today in that same vein?  Or do we write today's post off to days long since past -- it's the depiction of Superman in a film of today that grabs our attention.  As always, we welcome any and all input on today's material.  Thanks!


Steve Does Comics said...

I do find the Torch's happiness to kill people on an industrial scale oddly appealing in that tale. It sort of reminds me of how I felt when I first read the Jim Aparo Spectre stories and saw him buzz-sawing villains to death. Is it a bad example to young minds? Theoretically, but I can't say reading that stuff ever made me want to saw people to death.

I think the Superman thing is a question of context. We're used to seeing him as Mr Wholesome and therefore the thought of him doing what he does at the end of the movie feels all wrong. It's like seeing Doris Day suddenly become an axe murderer. On the other hand, if you saw someone like Blade doing the same thing to a bad guy in a film, you wouldn't care because he's the sort of character you'd expect to be doing things like that.

I do wonder how recent the idea that heroes shouldn't kill people is. Does it only date back to the post-War world? Most of the fictional heroes I can think of before that seemed to have had no qualms about killing. And, if you go back to the days of Ancient Greece, they were positively homicidal.

Anonymous said...

My impression is that comics were originally as violent as other media (movies, pulp magazines). Then, by 1940 or so, publishers realized that most of their customers were kids, so the violence was toned down. That included the idea that good guys never kill, no matter what. Don Thompson's essay on Timely/Marvel Comics in the book "All in Color for a Dime" said that the Torch and his sidekick adopted a rule against killing. That rule was abandoned during WWII, but seems to have been reinstated after the war. That mainly applies to the costumed superhero genre, and, of course, not all publishers followed the same rules.

Anonymous said...

They also reprinted Marvel Comics #1 not that long ago maybe for the 70th anniversary? Just a floppy - might have even only been a buck. I read it once or twice and then passed it on as I sometimes do with comics (that'd be a good topic for a future BAB, btw - our comics sharing/giving/trading customs and habits)

It struck me as a very strange story and more a curiosity of the era and interesting only in how the character developed into the foe of Namor (did you know Namor is a mutant now and hangs out with the X-Men? when did that happen??) and then was re-purposed for the Vision's origin (something I think was also retconned? I lose track) - but not all that interesting in itself.

As for Man of Steel - the problem with the problematic ending was not just the event itself (can we just say? Fear of spoilers gets sillier as time passes after the release of a film), but that 1) there was nothing established in the movie to give it the emotional punch the movie seemed to want to make it have (I mean, damn - he let his own father die, why would someone else's death be so troubling?), and 2) the scene itself was dumb since as a viewer I could think of at least three alternatives to what he DID do.

Sure from a Superman "purist" POV - it was troubling, but whatever - the movie is the movie - and it failed within its own context not just in the context of comics, which to me is a secondary consideration.

Teresa said...

The Human Torch emphasized "Torch" more than "Human." He was aloof and didn't have much mercy.
Roy Thomas explored that much later in The Invaders. HT was often annoyed by the pettiness of humanity in the Invaders. He often pushed his sidekick Toro too hard, forgetting the limits of humans. And of course the (Spoiler Alert) HT kills Hitler.

Taking a step back and thinking of the genre and era, this was normal. The Shadow and Doc Savage were already veterans of dealing swift and violent vigilante justice. This was in an era of limited ineffectual government, depression and corruption.
Wait...Why am I taller? Oops, I stepped onto a soapbox.

As for Man of Steel. I liked it. It was a good Superman Year One story.
We all have our personal Superman. Mine is Curt Swan, followed by Christopher Reeves. For a younger (not that young, now) generation it might be John Byrne's reboot. The one version I look away from is Wayne Boring's Superman. It is too cracktastic for me to digest.
MoS, Superman is an Elseworlds for me. An entertaining What If.

Fred W. Hill said...

I wonder if Burgos was inspired to come up with the Human Torch by thinking along the lines of an opposite to Everett's Sub-Mariner. Whatever it was, HT wins top honors as the craziest idea for a superhero, especially one that became one of the most popular characters in both the Golden & Silver ages, even if more as a member of a team than as a solo character for the last 50+ years. This is the first time I've seen more than a few panels of the original story, although I've seen reprints of Namor's debot elsewhere. Both of them were very deadly right from the get-go and it's strange to think that they would form two-thirds of Timely's most popular characters, along with the more standard Captain America. DC started superhero comics off with the double whammy of the two iconic prototypes of nearly every superhero to follow, and even if Superman & Batman dealt in rough justice early on, they just can't match the weird horror of the first two superheroes of what would become Marvel.
Actually, what this story most reminds me of is Frankenstein, especially remembering that the Universal classic had only come out about six years earlier. Except Burgos turned things around -- no one would hound this monster with fire, because he was fire! It does make sense that the Torch's character was softened up a bit later a genuinely evil Human Torch would have be very dangerous indeed, and this original had a hell of lot more stamina than Johnny Storm! Similar to how it seems Stan Lee came to the realization that an aggressively nasty and clever Hulk wouldn't make for a very popular protagonist in an ongoing series, but one who was rather dumb and wanted to be left alone but kept getting into trouble would do the trick.
The art is very primitive, certainly more so than the contemporary art of Everett and Kirby, but at about the same level as Bob Kane and Joe Schuster's early work. This debut certainly doesn't qualify as golden for the art or writing, but it's golden for its weird mix of superheroics and horror and planting the seed that would morph into Marvel Comics 22 years later.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Human Torch origin. Yes, it is interesting to see how the original Torch dispatched bad guys without any qualms. Remember, this was a different, less politically correct era (1939). It does seem that a certain level of violence was acceptable in comics at that time compared to the modern age.

The art is nothing to shout about but the story is enough for the reader to see the evolution of an artificial being in a few pages.

- Mike 'make mine Marvel!' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the cover, of course, but I've never read the story. I had no idea the Torch was such a nasty piece of work at the start. That shot of him grinning, I was reminded me of Dormammu. Yikes.
But as some folks have pointed out here, superheroes were pretty ruthless back then. Superman threw people into walls, Batman knocked guys into vats of acid, the Spectre...well he was always a dick, but Captain America, he killed a guy his very first fight!

Edo Bosnar said...

Pretty much everyone else made the point about Golden Age heroes being a bit more brutal and violent than later incarnations. I recall in particular reading a few early Superman stories when Siegel and Schuster were still writing him, and he was hardly the wholesome, morally upright guy we all came to know in the Silver and Bronze Ages. And then there's the various creations of Fletcher Hanks...

Otherwise though, what I found most interesting about the pages presented here was something Doug mentioned about the high number of panels per page. Yes, there's a lot of story packed onto those pages, but the layout is also interesting, in that Burgos did not always use a standard grid. So even though the art is nothing to shout about, the pages themselves often look dynamic.

MattComix said...

I think the difference though is that having the hero racking up a gratuitous body count is somewhat forgivable when it's coming from those early, raw days when the entire medium was still very crude and the genre was barely even formed.

In reality I will admit superheroes would probably need to approach that a bit more like policeman. I mean in the sense that they would try their best to avoid doing it but it would also need to be prepared to should a situation come down to it. (Though really having super powers simply gives you more options than a beat cop with a pistol would have.)

In modern comics though it's like returning to that crudity in extreme excess and then defending it as intellectually more "sophisticated" even though in reality it is actually pretty juvenile.

All that said though we also have to look at a certain practical reality of it which is if you have a good villain and you kill him off then you can't use him again. So where would Batman's rouges gallery be if he just shot criminals in the face every time he went out?

At some point we have to stop trying to cram the square peg of superheroes into the round hole of strict realism. Even more importantly stop whoring it out to the kind of fashionable nihilism of which superheroes should really be the antidote.

Fred W. Hill said...

Good point about the villains, Matt. Of course, another problem is if you have a villain that murders scores of people everytime he gets loose, and he routinely get loose at least once a year or so, the whole "sanctity of all life, even of such as this dispicable villain" comes off as absurd. But then, with those characters that have been around for anywhere from 30 to 70 years, the stories have been in loops for decades. The details change, but Batman is condemned to fight the Joker for as long as Batman stories continue to be told, as with Captain America and the Red Skull, the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom, Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus or the Green Goblin, and on and on.
Speaking of stuff from ages past, I'm the supervisor at the Probate Dept. of the County Courthouse and this past week I wound up making copies from several old cases opened between 1905 and 1945. Just handling all those yellowing original documents (the oldest case I've handled was from 1838) made me think these golden age comics, many of which may indeed have a very "golden" tint to their pages.

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