When looking at the solo adventures of The Human Torch in Strange Tales I am always struck by the haste in their construction. It is obvious in the early days of the establishment of the Marvel Universe Stan Lee wanted to capitalize on the possibilities of having a teenage hero and cranked out countless unfocused stories. The speed in the development is obvious in the disregard in canon. It would be ideal way look at Torch as a rough draft for Spider-Man but it cannot really be done. In the early period there was triple the development on Storm, who had both the Fantastic Four issues and the solo adventures, and there was little examples for Pete who only had his own solo adventures.
Accepting that Torch doesn’t work on his own, as evidenced by the more and more prevalent cameos of the other 3 Fantastic members in the solo stories, let’s dive into the story at hand offered in Strange Tales # 111.
The first thing that strikes me about this story is the brilliance of the villain. Up until around this point, in the Silver Age comics, little focus had been given to the villain’s motives. Often they had been reduced to a simple melodramatic thought process of: “let’s kill the hero because he is good and I am not.” Orson Kasloff, on the other hand, is one of the first truly human villains. A good third of the story is devoted to the sad thoughts of a scientist who feels disrespected by his employer and this makes his need to destroy Torch that more believable. When he attempts to rob said employer it predictably blows up in his face as he does not expect the alarm to go off. I will admit I chuckled at this.
Long story short Kasloff becomes Asbestos Man and all the time spent on establishing Kasloff; the man, goes up in flames in the nauseating arrogance of Torch’s snap vendetta. When the villain challenges the flaming teenager Johnny haphazardly flies to battle and is easily defeated. Again, Torch’s powers are wildly pliable, suddenly he’s too weak to combat a man in an asbestos suit when in an earlier publication he burnt so hot that he melted through an asbestos lined wall. Perhaps this is Stan Lee’s way of equalizing the earlier wild creativity of the Marvel heroes.
This disregard or fluidity in character development is also present in Sue Storm who makes yet again another aimless cameo. This time playing John’s spirit guide. Sue is looking more and more matronly in every issue. Perhaps Stan is wishing he actually made her into Johnny’s mother rather then sister. The wild sexism and disrespectful way the creatives treat Sue is better suited to full other article but I just need to mention banality of her in this issue.
One of the greatest aspects of this story is it’s art. Inked by Dick Ayers this story is beautiful. No longer are there the empty blue backgrounds of the Jack Kirby drawn comics thus far. Background detail is present. The contouring on Kasloff’s face or the fire veins (for what else do we call those dark lines on Torch) are fluid and ably move when Torch does. The New York presented here is gritty and even evokes the detail neo-Noireish renderings of Gotham in DC’s Batman. Marvel is truly coming into its own over the DC behemoth.
When looking at this story as whole it is easily a 3 out of 5 story mainly for the time spent on the detail of a new villain and the environment he exists in. The negatives exist in the rather shoddy writing that peaks its head on many occasions. Ably obvious in this rather cheap redundant piece of dialogue spouted by Kasloff early on ““What is all the excitement about? Why is everyone so excited??”
Changes are afoot but there are still many obstacles.P.S. Think of all the cancer Kasloff will suffer because of his alter-ego.