You remember all those bad things I had to say about Ant Man? How it should have been awesome, but it was actually just really, really boring? Well, forget all that nonsense, because things are way better this time! Given the Fantastic Four’s ever increasing popularity in the early 60’s, the folks at Marvel decided to do a spin off book. Since the Human Torch was the closest in age to their target readers (or something), he got to be the one with the solo book- though the rest of the team showed up almost every issue.
While the Human Torch solo adventures in Strange Tales don’t really have the “golly-gee-wilikers” feel that the Fantastic Four stories have, they’re certainly perfectly suitable and fun comics. Almost all of the stories are still scripted by Stan Lee, so Johnny Storm is still his hot tempered self, they just change the scenery from New York City to the suburb of Glenville, where Johnny and Susan Storm live in their civilian identities.
One of the great things this series allowed was an expansion of the Marvel Universe B-list villains, without taking up time in the larger books (Strange Tales was an anthology book, and all of the Human Torch stories in it were the first of a double feature). There are, of course, your obligatory appearances by evil communists and alien invaders. Namor and the Puppet Master show up. Sure, the Wizard is a pretty big time villain (for the FF, anyway), but the rest... well, they are AWESOME.... just NOT IN A GOOD WAY. Guys like the Eel and Plant Man aren’t all that much to write home about, but are kind of fun. This guy called the Acrobat shows up a couple of times and impersonates a certain star-spangled hero from the Golden Age (and is promptly never heard from ever again). The Mad Thinker and the Beetle would go on to be second tier villains for a variety of heroes. Then there are my two favorite new villains to the Merry Marvel Comics Group...
First up, the wonder glue wunderkind himself, Paste-Pot Pete. Now, I know Paste-Pot Pete grew up to become a slightly less lame villain called the Trapster, but frankly, I prefer him in his earliest appearances, before he attempted (and failed) to become serious. He’s a dude in a giant beret and green clown suit, who robs banks with a big glue gun. Seriously! How can you get more stupid and hilarious than that? And he’s surprisingly effective, too, which makes it even better. Pate-Pot Pete is all kinds of awesomesauce.
And then there’s the Asbestos Man. Just think about the name alone for a moment. The Asbestos Man. Whatever you’re imagining, I promise it’s ten times better. The Asbestos Man was a brilliant but greedy scientist, who decided to use his fabulous intelligence to make it as a master criminal. Only problem was, he was a spectacularly bad thief. After narrowly not getting caught robbing a safe, he decides to learn to be a criminal by joining the under world. This would be a good plan, accept that while attempting to “join the underworld” he learns that walking up to suspicious looking people and asking if they’re part of “the underworld” is really just a good way to piss them off. Thus, in order to prove himself to be a worthy ne’er-do-well, he makes himself a special full-body asbestos suit, grabs a net and an iron shield, and promises to take the Human Torch out once and for all!
The fact that the Asbestos Man has only appeared once in the entire history of comics is truly a crime.
Nearer to the end of the book, the Thing joins Johnny on all his adventures, and that’s pretty great too. This book’s got everything- there’s all kinds of Silver Age villains; there’s Doris Evans, the Torch’s rich and beautiful girlfriend who frankly isn’t convinced her boy-toy should be bursting into flame all the time; rocket ships; atomic explosions; spies; the Beatles (yes, really)- if you can’t find something to like about this book, then frankly you probably just don’t like comic books, in which case, why are you still reading this review?
One of my favorite stories is the very first one in the book. The story opens with Johnny racing an atomic missile, because.... well, that’s the type of stuff he does in his free time. After that, he goes home to Glenville, mentioning how popular the place has become, ever since the world learned his sister was the Invisible Girl (this is important later, promise). We get a tour of his bedroom, a quick refresher on how the Fantastic Four got their powers in case anyone missed it, and then it’s time to meet our mysterious villain, the Destroyer!
The Destroyer’s nefarious plot involves.... causing an accident on a roller coaster so that the bad publicity will close the amusement park down. Yes, really. Thankfully, Johnny Storm is there and notices the coaster has been sabotaged, except there are people around him and he can’t flame on without giving away his secret identity! Let me unpack that for you: Johnny Storm- a sixteen-year-old who builds and races hot rods, hitchhikes rides on-board illegal rocket ship test rides, and lives with his sister who is a PUBLICLY KNOWN superhero while SIMULTANEOUSLY being a superhero himself and being known for yelling out “Flame On!” whenever he wants attention (with little regard for the possibly of that statement being misinterpreted)- Johnny Storm is worried about subtlety while a bunch of people are about to fall to their messy deaths. That right there? Hilarious.
Luckily, through a clever use of someone else’ lighter, Johnny creates a distraction and is able to rescue everyone. I won’t give away the rest of the story (all of that’s by page 5), but suffice it to say that the Thing shows up, and the plot may revolve around Zodiac-esqe cryptic letters, a local newspaper editor, and those dirty commies. And you thought the Human Torch’s identity was public? It is. The explanation for Johnny trying to hide it so much comes a few issues later, and is almost as hilarious as Johnny freaking out about keeping his identity a secret in the first place.
This book is no FF, don’t get me wrong. But its fun, and light-hearted, and I enjoyed it. You could spend fifteen bucks on worse.