The Avocado Flames On: Strange Tales #101-103

Welcome to Marvel Librarian. Having missed out on comics in my formative years, I’m reading Silver Age Marvel comics for the first time, and writing about their highs, lows, and general weirdness.

Marvel was in the process of converting their anthology books to superhero books, as we’ve seen with the introduction of Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish and the introduction of Thor in Journey into Mystery. But why come up with a brand-new superhero when you can simply use one that’s already established? Hence, Strange Tales began to run a Human Torch story as its main event each issue.

These days it seems to be common knowledge that the Thing is the most popular member of the Four – and he would indeed star in solo stories later – but it’s not hard to see why they went with the Human Torch here. Ben’s lovable personality has only just been established in the main book, and Johnny has immediate appeal to the teenage boys who formed the target audience.

The note “by permission of ‘The Fantastic Four‘ magazine” is interesting, and notes like this pop up in a lot of the early crossover stories. Knockoff comic books seemed to have been common then, so they perhaps wanted to make it clear to the young readers that this is indeed the same Human Torch that appears in Fantastic Four and not a cheap imitation.

Right off the bat, we establish that while everyone knows Sue Storm is the Invisible Girl, no one know’s Johnny’s identity as the Human Torch.

This seems implausible. For one thing, if everyone knows that Sue is a superhero herself, who is going to be the top suspect for the teenage boy superhero she’s always with? It also seems to directly contradict Fantastic Four stories where all four were well-known to the public.

This additional panel is just strange as well. None of this actually comes up during this story, so it’s apparently something they’re establishing for later. Couldn’t that just be brought up organically instead of dumped in an all-text panel on the first page of the first Human Torch story?

Holy shit. Johnny had better hope that his superpowers include immunity to cancer.

Labeled diagrams, yessssss.

Asbestos bed doesn’t really seem comfortable at all. If it’s actually made of some sort of soft material, that seems like it’d kick up a lot of asbestos into the air. Poor Johnny.

“Table top is TV screen which scans all callers.” I’m not really sure what this means or how it’s supposed to work. Does the table flip up, providing a TV? And it screens his phone calls?

I realize everything’s coated in asbestos but I feel like maybe you want your lab where you experiment with highly flammable chemicals to not be attached to the house where you live. Maybe you put that in a remote location. Of course, Reed Richards thinks it’s appropriate to put a missile silo in the middle of downtown Manhattan so it’s not like anyone’s telling him otherwise.

The book retells the origin of the Fantastic Four, and then gets into the main plot. There’s a new amusement park opening in Johnny’s town, but the construction keeps getting sabotaged by a villain called the “Destroyer.” No one seems to stop and wonder what he’s gaining from this at first. He’s not asking for money or anything like that.

One of the trains of the roller coaster derails, and there’s a man plummeting to the ground. Johnny realizes that he’s the only one who can save this guy, but he also has to preserve his secret identity, so he increases the amount of smoke coming out of this guy’s pipe to give himself a smokescreen. Thankfully, the victim had the courtesy to fall very slowly to give Johnny time to do this.

The amusement park’s owner gets a second note from the Destroyer threatening the park. The owner is like “yeah that’s probably just a coincidence” and sends people out to test the parachute ride anyway. Predictably, the tower starts to collapse. Once again, Johnny has to provide a diversion. This time he sends fireballs into the sky to get everyone looking the other way before running off and turning on his flame. He saves the people on the parachute ride by quickly welding it back together.

The Destroyer issues a challenge to the Torch in the newspaper. Ben shows up at Johnny’s home to try and convince him not to take the bait, but of course he doesn’t listen. The fact that Johnny can be baited by basically anyone into a fight will become a major plot element of these books.

Johnny goes out to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. He thinks he’s found the Destroyer, sitting at a table, but it turns out to only be a dummy. The trap that absolutely any person could anticipate springs, and douses Johnny with fireproof foam. The Destroyer has the Torch exactly where he wants him, but then…

I don’t understand. Is he a Scooby Doo villain? Why does it matter that there’s a couple of teenagers out in the woods near the cabin? Frankly, can’t he just kill them? It’s not like the Destroyer is against murdering innocent people, given his earlier sabotage.

I… what? The ferris wheel isn’t a tall ride? The ferris wheel is somehow shorter than the parachute ride? I don’t understand how he came to this conclusion.

So why was the Destroyer trying to sabotage the amusement park? Of course, it was because that the tallest rides would give people a way to see this communist submarine that’s apparently permanently parked in one location just outside of town. If you guessed that and it makes sense to you, then thank you very much for joining us, ghost of 1960s Stan Lee.

I guess the Destroyer actually was a Scooby Doo villain.

If the entire problem was that the submarine was visible from the top of the roller coaster, why would he wait until it was almost ready to open to sabotage it? Wouldn’t the construction workers building the rides be a major threat? Why not just move the submarine?

This story was really dumb, and not quite in the fun way. It doesn’t bode well that this is the best they could come up with for the very first Torch story.

To be honest, I’m more interested in either of the top two stories than I am in the Torch story. Unfortunately, the Torch story is the only one Marvel Unlimited included.

The Wizard is kind of the opposite of intimidating, isn’t he? He kind of looks slack-jawed, and he’s trying to fight the Torch with a metal gun. We’ve already established the Torch can just melt guns. Well, let’s take a look.

This story cold opens on a guy who is obviously not the Human Torch imitating him, something we did just earlier this year with the Skrulls.

After a short recap of the “thrilling” adventure of the Destroyer, we cut to a bunch of onlookers pointing out this guy, the Wizard. He doesn’t really have superpowers or anything, he’s just smart and kind of weird looking, and somehow everyone knows who he is.

I’ll give him that, that home is pretty cool looking. It maybe resembles one of those gerbil cages with the plastic tubes a little too much, though.

Even in the 90s, child-me kind of thought I’d be living in a cool future house like this when I was an adult. Turns out I’ve mostly lived in houses over a hundred years old.

It turns out the Wizard is mostly famous for inventing things and for performing ostentatious feats like escaping from an underwater safe. He decides he’s going to fight the Torch for the challenge of it.

The Wizard’s plan to meet the Torch is to create a giant drill for digging the world’s deepest hole, and then staging a cave-in so he must be rescued. This plan basically goes off without a hitch.

The helpful footnote at the bottom of the page identifies Sue as the “female member of the Fantastic Four.”

Anyway, the Wizard pretends to be grateful for the rescue and invites Johnny to his home. While there, he offers to use his cameras to take a 3D photo of Johnny. The cameras actually spray him with fire-suppressant chemicals, and the Wizard takes Johnny prisoner.

Okay, but why though? The Torch isn’t exactly known for his brains. If you want to challenge someone for intellectual superiority, why Johnny and not Reed?

The Wizard has a suit he can use to emulate the Torch. This is extremely meager as far as labeled diagrams go, but I feel compelled to include it, anyway.

The Wizard is mostly doing the standard “frame the hero” type stuff. He robs a bank, sets a bunch of prisoners free from jail, sets up a big fiery wall on a bridge and demands hundred dollar tolls, etc. I love how he caps off this crime spree by writing “Down with Law and Order” in the sky in fire. That’s actually pretty awesome.

Meanwhile, the chemicals wear off and Johnny is able to escape from the Wizard’s home. He conveniently finds the Wizard just by flying around, and the Wizard challenges him to a final showdown at his home. Johnny should probably just… you know… grab him… but instead he agrees to this.

The Wizard’s plan? He holds in his hand pictures of the Wizard donning the fire suit and committing crimes disguised as the Torch. He presents to Johnny the following options: he could kill the Wizard to retrieve the photos, he could turn his flame off and fight the Wizard without superpowers, or he could stand and watch as the Wizard throws the photos into the trash.

It seems kind of like Johnny could instead fight with his fire without killing the Wizard, like he does in every one of these books, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.

The Wizard, who boasts that he’s the smartest person on Earth, has somehow forgotten the common knowledge that the Human Torch is part of the Fantastic Four, a group that also includes an invisible person. Instead, he leaps to the conclusion that Johnny is all-powerful.

That’s pretty much it. The police arrest the Wizard, who, I’ll point out again, is just some guy, not superpowered at all. It’s revealed that Sue was behind the trick, in case you didn’t realize.

This is the second issue in a row where the Torch is pitted against effectively ordinary people as villains. The rogues gallery is not off to the best start.

All right, at least this one looks like the Torch won’t be fighting just some guy.

Just some teens discussing local housing builders in the hallway, as they do.

Anyway, Bentley the house builder is mystified by how his latest construction constantly sinks into the ground no matter how much he reinforces the foundation. There’s a crackpot old man who claims that swamp demons are behind the problems.

One problem with solo Torch stories is the question of why he doesn’t just get the rest of the Four to help. There are a lot of panels like this, where he’s just totally blown off. “Oh, yeah, we’re all busy with… a thing… without you… no, no, it’s really boring, don’t worry about it. Track down swamp guy. Have fun!”

Johnny hides in the bushes near the housing construction to see if he can catch whatever it is in the act. He sees the old man with a couple of aliens. The aliens use a machine to destabilize the ground and sink the houses, and then disappear, leaving the old man behind.

Johnny confronts the old man, who is an alien in disguise. He also has this weirdly specific weapon that seems to be useful for fighting the Torch and the Torch alone, which is pretty convenient. He douses Johnny in chemicals so that he can’t use his flame, and then forces him at gunpoint…

…to enter the fifth dimension, whoooooa!

This isn’t the most exciting Marvel depiction of weird future worlds, but honestly I’ve never met one I don’t enjoy.

This dimension is ruled by a ruthless dictator, Zemu, who has plans to conquer the Earth. He is concerned that humans will discover the passageway between the two dimensions that exists in the swamp, which was why he kept destroying the housing development. It seems like he could have chosen a method less likely to draw attention to the swamp, but sure.

And yes, this is one of those stories where the attractive green-skinned lady has the hots for our human hero.

Zemu can’t kill Johnny because they’d have to come up with a new A-story for Strange Tales. Instead, he decides to chain him up in an underwater tank with an oxygen supply and leave him there indefinitely. Perhaps it’s just because I don’t really like being underwater, but this seems like a pretty horrific form of torment.

Johnny is rescued by the woman from before. Along with her father, she leads a secret resistance group against Zemu, and she wants Johnny to help.

Johnny is more than happy to assist the fight against the man who chained him up. He burns down the arsenal where they’re storing the weapons they plan to use against humanity, including the one pictured above. It’s always some wacky freeze ray or magnet beam, of course, never just guns or bombs.

Case in point: the resistance group is captured by a giant magnet. Johnny frees them by melting the magnet.

To be fair, Zemu does have some fairly conventional weapons, like these fireproof tanks. Their ammo is also fireproof, so Johnny can’t simply melt any shells that get near him as he normally would. Instead, he creates a giant flaming tornado and whips the tanks into the sky.

The resistance leader points out that destroying Zemu’s weapons is one thing, but they won’t achieve full victory unless they also defeat all of his troops. They need to create a general uprising among the people. Johnny writes this rather wordy message in the sky.

It works, and the people overthrow Zemu in the span of a couple of panels. The resistance leader is now running the show, and he pledges that there will be no invasion of Earth. The green lady gives Johnny the hard sell, but he decides he has to leave. Captain Kirk disapproves.

I thought this Torch story was much better than the first two. None of these are especially well-written, but having a creative setting and some otherworldly wackiness helps a lot when it comes to these Silver Age comics.

Next Time on Marvel Librarian! Namor starts a movie studio. Yes, really.