Review by Win Wiacek
A second Masterworks edition continues directly from Volume 1, spanning March 1964 to July 1965, and comes with an evocative introduction from Bruce Canwell before the hot action kicks off.
The non-stop riot of adventure begins with Stan Lee and Dick Ayers (sample art left) highlighting the return of envy-obsessive hyper-intellectual the Wizard. ‘The Man Who Became the Torch!’ is an act that nearly kills the Thing and Reed Richards besides.
A first brush with Marvel’s soon-to-be core readership came in ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’, detailing how Commie Agent Rabble Rouser mesmerises decent citizens, making them surly and rebellious. Artist Jack Kirby pops back for ‘The Torch Meets Iceman!’, a terrific action-extravaganza that pretty much closes the glory days of this strip. From then on, despite every gimmick – and occasional burst of sheer inspiration the Bullpen could muster – a slow decline sets in.
Johnny as ‘Prisoner of the Plantman!’ is followed by a thug, a conman and a crooked yogi all augmented by Dr. Doom and mustered as a woefully inadequate Terrible Trio in ‘3 Against the Torch!’ Then a creepy inventor buildself an impressive insectoid exo-suit to get rich the easy way, as – in an effort to boost ratings – the Thing becomes a permanent fixture in ‘The Birth of the Beetle!’
This saga was most notable for the pencil job by 1940s Human Torch originator Carl Burgos, after which Johnny and Ben tackle a fully re-designed ‘Paste-Pot Pete’ before going after another old adversary in ‘The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped!’
‘Pawns of the Deadly Duo!’ is a fresh assault by the Puppet Master, allied to the Mad Thinker in a smart yarn, after which Ben and Johnny solve a bizarre and baffling puzzle thanks to ‘The Mystery Villain!’ The Fantastic Two then unwillingly battle ‘Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch’ as the Homo Superior siblings make an abortive first attempt to quit Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The ‘The Terrible Trio!’ then once more fail to impress or assassinate our heroes.
Pop culture at its most opportunistic is found in ‘Meet the Beatles’. They’re not villains, but actually some sort of popular musical combo of the times, whom they actually didn’t meet at all, although 1940s artist Bob Powell takes over the art for the comedy of errors/crime caper (sample art right).
Next is a frankly dire Lee script titled ‘Bouncing Ball of Doom!’, with the Mad Thinker siccing a cybernetic bowling bowl on our torrid twosome before Larry Ivie scripts a capable Space Race thriller in ‘The Sinister Space Trap!.
Lee returned for the last two Torch and Thing tales, beginning with sharp-looking saga ‘The Terrible Toys’, wherein Puppet Master tries a new modus operandi, and closing with ‘The Challenge of… The Watcher!’ Here the Torch and Thing are transported to ancient Camelot to battle time-reaver Kang the Conqueror. It was clear the writer’s mind was elsewhere.
It’s pertinent to note that as the parent Fantastic Four title grew in scope and quality, the Human Torch’s own series diminished. Perhaps there is something to be said for concentrating one’s efforts or not overexposing your stars. Maybe it was just having Kirby do some plotting? Here, however, what was originally a spin-off for younger readers faded as Marvel found its voice and its marketplace, although there would be periodic efforts to reinvigorate the Torch.
This content is combined with the first volume in paperback as The Human Torch and the The Thing: Strange Tales – The Complete Collection.