The Human Torch was created by Carl Burgos, and first appeared in the 1939 issue of Timely Publications, “Marvel Comics #1”. Back then he was a fire-engulfed android that caused chaos with the searing heat from his unstable metallic body – quite different from the hero we know today.
The Torch eventually learned how to better control his powers, and started using compacted fireballs and thin streams of fire to vanquish villains. He soon graduated to his own title and became a comic book staple. In 1946 he was part of the “All Winners Squad”, a super-team made up of himself, Captain America and Sub-Mariner amongst others. This title was short-lived. Three years later, Human Torch’s ten-year run in comics came to an end in 1949.
In 1953, Russ Heath and Dick Ayers provided art for new Human Torch stories that appeared in “Young Men”, and then for the character’s own title that quickly flamed out. Torch seemed destined to be another character that would fade into the background and be forgotten; a curiosity, of interest only to future comic book historians.
Fast-forward to 1961. Timely Publication’s Martin Goodman, and then D.C. President Jack Liebowitz were playing a round of golf together. Liebowitz was bragging about “Justice League of America” sales numbers. After golf, Goodman went to the office and told Mr. Stan Lee to get a book about a group of superheroes together.
Here is where the story gets interesting and brings the question of “What if the Human Torch never got his 1961 reboot?” into play. At this time in Stan Lee’s career, he was on the verge of quitting the comic book industry. At that point in 1961, Stan already had put 20 years into the industry. Here is the story, in his own words, from a 1998, “Comic Book Artist” interview with Roy Thomas:
“I wanted to quit at that time. I was really so bored and really too old to be doing these stupid comic books; I wanted to quit. I was also frustrated because I wanted to do comic books that were – even though this seems like a contradiction in terms – I wanted to do a more realistic fantasy. Martin wouldn’t let me and had wanted the stories done the way they had always been done, with very young children in mind. That was it.
“My wife Joan said to me, ‘You know, Stan, if they asked you to do a new book about a new group of superheroes, why don’t you do ‘em the way that you feel you’d like to do a book? If you want to quit anyway, the worst that could happen is that he’ll fire you, and so what? You want to quit.’ I figured, hey, maybe she’s right.”
As we all know, Stan didn’t quit. Timely took on a new company name from an old title and became Marvel. The book Stan went on to develop became the Fantastic Four #1, and helped to define what would later come to be known as “the Marvel Style”: dynamic art, characters with real human problems and motivations, and editorial asides to the reader.
As the FF team was coming together, Stan recalls, in a 1981 interview with Leonard Pitts:
“The one [FF character] that was totally unoriginal, of course, was the Human Torch, because we’d had a character like the Torch many years ago. I thought we’d give Johnny Storm, the kid brother of Sue, the same power but we’d change him by making him a teenager. The original Torch was an android. I attempted to give him a personality that would be unique to Johnny Storm. I tried to have Johnny talk differently that the others – more the way a youngster would.”
And so it was that the Human Torch was rebooted and saved from the clutches of obscurity. It could have easily not happened at all. If Stan had quit, who knows if anyone else would have seen fit to resurrect Torch’s character. If so, he would almost have certainly been different from the hero we know now. After FF #1, thousands of fan letters started pouring into Marvel and they were on their way to permanently altering the comic book landscape. Human Torch had a new lease on life that would last 50 years. Though he may be gone for now, I strongly suspect we have not seen the last of him. He is a resilient character that seems to find a way to make a comeback, no matter what.