Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Many Loves of The Human Torch

Two months removed from the death of The Human Torch and a month and a half after Valentine’s Day, I’m riding the zeitgeist as I always do and writing a post about Johnny Storm’s various girlfriends and shape shifting alien wives.

Many good super hero comics have a strong soap opera element. From the Superman-Lois Lane-Clark Kent triangle to the Melrose Place-like shenanigans of the early 90’s X-Men, love and lust between these attractive folks in spandex can be as crucial to keeping things fresh and building an acclaimed run as your central mystery or monthly action scene.

As with many things, 60’s Marvel pioneered a lot of the soapier elements in comics—or to be fair polished them up, since the aforementioned Superman stuff was going before and the Legion of Super-Heroes had to have been at least holding hands and trading flight rings—with Peter Parker’s pursuit of Betty Brant in Amazing Spider-Man, Bruce Banner’s Quasimodo-like yearning for Betty Ross in Incredible Hulk, the shy courtship between Cyclops and Marvel Girl and so on. But nowhere was the interpersonal as important as Fantastic Four.

The personal dynamic amongst the FF has always been at the forefront of their stories, just as much as their villains or the wild locations they visit. However, it’s not like any other super team because it’s not a group of peers hanging out and waiting to couple off, it’s a family; to go back to my favorite analogy-generator already used once in this very post, if the other teams are Melrose Place, Fantastic Four is The Waltons. Romance played a role, but paternal, fraternal, maternal and whatever means the sister version (saternal?) bonds came first.

Reed and Sue Richards are the longstanding royal couple of the Marvel Universe; they’re Billy and Alison if things had worked out (three Melrose Place references in five paragraphs—I’m rolling!). Theirs is a mature and sweet but ultimately kinda boring love. And The Thing is an awesome character, one of the best, but part of his whole deal is that no girl is ever going to get with him unless she’s blind and has a kink for clay already established.

Which leaves us—or left us—with The Torch.

For 50 years, Johnny Storm had to shoulder the burden of being the single guy bringing any and all romantic intrigue to Fantastic Four (because Sue was never really going to swim off with Namor). He played every role from love struck teenager to swarthy playboy to even over-his-head newlywed. Every time a new creative team came onboard or a direction shift was made, invariably, Johnny got a new girlfriend—and what a group.

Let’s talk about a few.

The Human Torch’s mostly anonymous teenage girlfriend who came more or less pre-packaged with the series and then stuck around predominantly off-camera for the first 50 issues or so. For real, the best ever appearance of Dorrie Evans is Amazing Spider-Man #21, in which she has more lines then every issue of FF she showed up in combined—and is named Doris for some reason—and spends the story trying to use bookish Peter Parker to make Johnny jealous but also kinda falls for him (as I recall). It’s the most personality Dorrie ever displayed, much of it the usual Silver Age girlfriend “make the hero jealous” routine, but she also came across as kind of sweet at time and perhaps would have been perfect for Peter. I also love that when Stan Lee had to name his young male lead’s love interest he went with “Dorrie”—was that name more common in the 60’s?

I would hope at this point my loathing for Crystal is well-known or I’m really not doing my job here. She is in all likelihood my least favorite comic book character ever, with only Sardath giving her a run for her money—and that idiot got taken out again in the new issue of R.E.B.E.L.S.! But I digress. That aside, the Romeo & Juliet romance of The Torch and Crystal is one of the classics and even I kinda dig it. The funny thing is, finally having recently gotten around to reading the original stories in Masterworks form recently, the whole thing comes out of nowhere entirely; one issue Johnny is sort of pining after Crystal’s older sister Medusa (and maybe still dating Dorrie?), then the next he’s madly in love with Crystal—and likewise—and then the next they’ve got an unbreakable barrier between them and it’s heartbreaking. It’s one of those stories that are really great and emotional as long as you just look the other way on its origins and how quickly the dial got turned up to 11, but that’s the simultaneous beauty and absurdity of Silver Age comics. Of course Crystal broke Johnny’s heart because she’s an awful, awful shrew, but it was nice while it lasted.

I’ve got a weird soft spot for Frankie Raye, despite the fact she co-opted the Nova codename for a couple decades. Her back story is nutty—she’s the stepdaughter of the guy who created the original Human Torch, got fire powers from a lab accident, and then was given amnesia, an invisible golden swimsuit that blocked her abilities and subtle pyrophobia by her stepdad via hypnosis—and she was actually a bit out of Johnny’s league and didn’t seem to realize it. More than that, though, I love the John Byrne story where she more or less became Galactus’ willing herald because it would save Earth but also because she just thought it would be fun to see outer space; she again broke Johnny’s heart, but doing so by getting cosmic powers from an immortal planet eating space god is a pretty clever and unique breakup strategy.

Midway through his awesome FF run, with The Thing out of the picture, John Byrne decided to experiment with mixing things up a bit and not only moved She-Hulk in as a new member of the team, but also hooked up Johnny with Ben’s longtime love interest, Alicia Masters. I was initially intrigued by the pairing, but ultimately, like I believe most fans, didn’t think it worked. A lot of interesting but somewhat ham-fisted of Johnny noticing that Alicia is actually somewhat close to his age and stuff. After Byrne left, Roger Stern ended up marrying the couple, which really didn’t seem to work, as it altered the dynamic I talked about at the beginning of this post and took Johnny out of play as the FF’s single guy. Eventually the folks working on the book came to see it was an odd fit as well—though not for awhile—which brings us to…

…it wasn’t Alicia after all, it was a Skrull! Lyja had a lot of potential as a character and as a love interest for Johnny, but I don’t think she or their relationship ever really got a fair shake since she was created as a solution for a situation rather than a new idea. Her alienation from her own race and the way she somewhat put her warrior nature in check because of how much she cared for Johnny and on the flipside his having to work through such ultimate betrayal as getting married under totally false circumstances but realizing he did love this woman is all good story fodder, but the whole thing came along at an unstable time for the book and the characters, so it never came to fruition as it may have during another period. I did like Lyja’s brief return during Secret Invasion, as she deserved to tell off Johnny for forgetting about her, but I also like that they still couldn’t quite resist one another.

The Nova-Namorita fan in me of course despises this pairing, but aside from that, I kind of love it. It’s so perfect on so many gimmicky levels: the mini-Namor/Sue thing, the fire/water thing, that they’re both just outgoing party hard characters who know how attractive they are. This is another one that never got enough play and it’s too bad she’s gone (and presumably the Namorita who turned up during War of Kings was plucked from before her dating Johnny days); they’d be a fun occasional hookup.

Even in the Ultimate Universe, Johnny is a mack daddy who can’t win. Crystal ditched him even harder over there, and just when he seemed to have a good thing going with Liz Allen, she burst into flames and went off to hang with the X-Men. I’d like to see this one revisited. Somebody get me Brian Bendis…


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