18 Jun, 2014
By Jacobus Dixon
By late 1939, comic book sales were dominated by Superman and Batman — both characters which happened to be owned by National Comics. What was a rival comic publisher to do? While many publishers decided to piggy-back off of the continuous popularity of Superman, there were a few who decided to stick with their particular characters. Timely Comics was one of those publishers. True, their magazine didn’t outsell Superman or Batman, but it was enough to attract a group of readers large enough to make a name for Timely Comics.
Now the key for any up-and-coming publisher is to figure out its identity (or its creative bread and butter). National Comics had cornered the market on the ubermensch genre with Superman and Batman. Other publishers tried to dabble in super heroics and failed. Timely knew costumed vigilantes were in, but they didn’t want to flat-out ape Superman (at least not on the first cover of one of their new books). They had to capture the raw power of Superman, the utter deftness of Batman, and turn it up a notch. What could be more thrilling than seeing a circus strongman trash a car with his bare hands, or a guy in an eerie costume swoop down on a criminal? How about a guy on fire attacking another guy?
Out of the seven stories in the magazine, cover artist Frank Paul decides to feature the dramatic events of the first story. Like Detective Comics, and Action Comics before it, Marvel Comics needs an attention grabber. The guy on the cover is on fire, but he doesn’t seem to mind being on fire (it even seems to be his natural state). It’s the creepy grin that lets you know that he’s just having a grand old time (I mean, jeez, how many people smile when they’re on fire?). This fire guy is chasing some other poor guy THROUGH a vault. It’s almost as if the man is running from his own personal demon. He empties bullet after bullet into his flaming tormentor, but the demon is simply laughing at his feeble attempts to delay the inevitable. This may not be Superman or Batman…but, hey, I gotta see what this is all about.
It turns out that this character is no demon, but an android! Not really a robot, but an artificial being created by this guy Professor Horton. The being is perfect, but has the one flaw of catching fire when exposed to oxygen. Even though he’s aflame, the fire does not consume or harm him (unlike everything else around him). Rather than embrace this oddity, Professor Horton’s peers viciously condemn this “Human Torch” (appropriate name) to a life of solitary confinement. A crack in the cement allows the Torch to have access to oxygen and escape. He then runs into a gangster named Sardo, who wastes no time in trying to exploit the naïve android’s abilities for racketeering purposes. The Torch very quickly sees through the ruse and begins attacking Sardo and his goons. The end of the story has the Torch finally being accepted for his deeds and being reunited with Horton. However, it’s a bittersweet ending as Horton reveals that he has further uses for the Torch. Tired of being used as a pawn, the Torch escapes again for more adventures.
Heyyy…not bad, not bad at all! While Superman is fighting social injustice and Batman is solving conspiracies, this guy seems to just be on the run. He fights crime, but really as a means of self-preservation and retaliation as opposed to just because he can. And while the Torch has amazing abilities, they’re actually recognized by the public as dangerous (which, let’s be frank, they should be). So even though the Torch has no designs on causing any harm, he’s shunned because of the possible danger he could cause. These are pretty three-dimensional ideas for a funny book story to have.
Okay, so maybe the Torch is presented a little more demonically on the cover than he actually is, but one can easily interpret this scene as the way Sardo sees it play out (which is actually a nice contrast). The downside to this cover is that its strength is also its weakness. While it’s wicked cool to see this demonic character chase after this guy who probably deserves what’s coming to him, there’s nothing really that says ‘demon’ or ‘flaming artificial being’ per se. We have to read the story to find out for sure. And while it’s an amazing story with concepts that are ahead of their time, it simply lacks an image that endears itself to the average reader. Superman has his unforgettable look, Batman has his unforgettable look, but the Torch has a look that can be too easily confused or replicated for a demon, flame monster, or just a guy on fire. Smarter readers know that isn’t the case, and will eagerly line up for Timely’s next issue of Marvel Comics (which they will rename Marvel Mystery Comics). Which was all Timely Comics needed to stay afloat during National Comics’ great boom.
The views expressed herein are solely those of the writer, and not Midtown Comics. Additionally, Midtown Comics makes no representations as to the accuracy of any of the information expressed herein.