Flame On!

The Golden Age Human Torch

In the few years before the Second World War, Martin Goodman was willing to try something new. In 1932 the young publisher had formed Western Publishing and quickly began to turn out a line of magazines printed on cheap paper and featuring sensational, and often lurid, stories. These pulp magazines featured action tales, westerns, sports, detective yarns, and adventure fiction.

A comics history landmark of sorts was established when he turned his attention to science fiction in 1938 with his new science fiction title, Marvel Science Stories. The magazine published fiction by such writers as Jack (Darker Than You Think, Beyond Mars) Williamson, and featured covers by Frank R. Paul, but only lasted three years. The pulp underwent two more title changes, Marvel Tales and then Marvel Stories, before folding in 1941 There may have been something about the noun "marvel" that appealed to Goodman, but it's more likely that he was only thinking in terms of continuity.

By 1938 Martin Goodman had created twenty seven pulp titles for the newsstands. With the coming of World War II, however, paper rationing would hit the pulps hard, and by 1944 that number would dwindle to only five. So it was Goodman's good fortune to meet a salesman named Frank Torpey, the man who Goodman would later describe as "my lucky charm."

In 1939 Torpey was a salesman for a small art shop, subcontacting comic work to other companies. Two employees in the shop stand out as important members of Marvel's subsequent history and would play an important part in that history when Torpey convinced Goodman to try his hand at publishing comic books. Goodman's new publishing venture was called Timely Comics and his first title was Marvel Comics. A mint-condition copy of the rare comic is easily valued at over $80,000 today.

The two employees were Bill Everett and Carl Burgos, the creators of Marvel's longest running superheroes, The Sub-Mariner  (whose story here must wait for another day), and the The Human Torch. Both characters were angry, moody, confused; radically different from the self-confident superheroes of that period, forerunners for a different breed of superhero that would emerge in the groundbreaking days of Marvel's Silver Age, the 1960s.

Science fiction artist Frank R. Paul did the cover for the first issue. It depicts a flaming, almost demonic, figure melting through a wall of solid steel as a cowering thug fires a melting bullet at him. This was the world's first introduction to Carl Burgos' fiery creation, The Human Torch. Unlike the present-day assembly line practice, Burgos wrote, drew, and inked the entire Torch lead story. Everett followed with the first Sub-Mariner story, and, to round out the 64 page comic, Goodman added Kazar, from his failed pulp magazine, as well as a western hero called The Masked Raider and a crimefighter called The Angel. Of the latter three, only Kazar would survive to be revived by Stan Lee years later.

The Torch, like Sub-Mariner, was an immediate hit with the readers. Like the Frankenstein monster, The Human Torch was a tragic, uncontrolled android, an artifical human created in the laboratory. Created by the inept science of Professor Phineas T. Horton, the synthetic Torch had one small flaw: he would burst into uncontrollable flames when exposed to oxygen. D-oh! Horton was forced to encase his creation in concrete and when the flaming being escaped, it succeeded in setting fire to the city while screaming "I'm burning alive! Why must everything I touch turn to flame?" Quenching his flame in a nearby pool, the red-hot man naively falls in with a racketeer named Sardo. At the end of story, the Torch has learned enough about right and wrong to turn on the criminal and return to Professor Horton.

In subsequent episodes The Human Torch (named at Professor Horton's press conference) parted ways with his creator, accidently incinerating him in the process. Gradually the Torch became more civilized and more in control of his powers, able to fly by projecting his flames behind him and manipulating fire to an uncanny degree. He also acquired a sidekick, Toro, a young circus performer who also had an unexplained power over fire.

One of the drawbacks of having a fiery superhero is that death by burning is a particularly nasty way to die, even for a mobster. With the advent of the war with the Axis, however, that was no longer relevant. The atrocities of the Nazis, Fascists, and the Imperial Japanese Army proved to be more horrendous than anything in fiction. All inhibitions were lifted with the advent of the war and Timely's writers were able to fully unleash all the Torch's incandescent powers. But before the war broke out Everett and Burgos, with the aid of four other artists, got together for a weekend jam, producing a spectacular 60 page epic battle between The Torch and The Sub-Mariner in Human Torch #5 (Fall 1941). The battle was worldwide, from the Arctic to London, and only ended only after Namor had utterly destroyed New York City! A fitting prelude to the comic book battles ahead.

For the next four years, the duration of the war, Torch and Toro ranged the world's battlefronts, fighting Nazi spies and Gestapo agents like The Python and The Rabbit, The Nazi Vultures, The Purple Ghost, The Devil's Double, and, worst of all, Hitler himself. With the war's end, however, The Torch's flame grew dimmer, finally fizzling in June 1949 when Marvel Mystery,like many comics of the war boom days, folded.

It wasn't to be the end for The Torch, though!

--Steve Stiles