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A Fantastic Life

Sounding Off on the Death of the Human Torch

By Chad Derdowski     March 02, 2011


Comicscape: "Flame Off?"
© Marvel/Bob Trate

 

We never did weigh in on the death of the Human Torch last month. It didn’t really seem necessary, as every other website offered their two cents. Offering ours kind of felt redundant. But here we are, one month after the event and just a few hours removed from reading Fantastic Four #588 which, as the cover purports, is the final issue of the series, and it seems like now is the appropriate time to offer our insights on Johnny Storm’s life and death and the impact (or lack thereof) of death in the world of superheroes.
We’re also here to offer run-on sentances the likes of which you’ve never even imagined!
The Right Stuff
With anything in life, there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle it. In comic books, death is often treated as a stunt. A way to boost sales and garner some mainstream attention. Those fears of gimmickry aren’t exactly put to rest when Marvel announces plans to kill another character every quarter. And we don’t think we’re in the minority when we say that for as much as we love Jonathan Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four (we’ve been raving about it since day one and will gladly put it on the “Big Boys Shelf” along with the Lee/Kirby and Byrne runs), we think that the story would’ve had more impact had Marvel neglected to do any advertising and just let the Torch’s death come as a surprise. Even so, we can’t deny even for one second how incredibly impressed we are with the whole thing. When discussing the right way and the wrong way to handle these types of stories, we’ll definitely refer to the Human Torch’s death as “the right way”, and a lot of that has to do with not only the death itself, but the follow up. And if you haven’t read Fantastic Four #588, be warned: spoilers abound.
It probably doesn’t hurt that prior to reading the latest issue of FF, we read Amazing Spider-Man #655, which also deals with the death of a major character: J. Jonah Jameson’s wife, Marla. While these two characters couldn’t be more different, it’s interesting to note the similarities between their passing and the way their respective funerals were handled. Naturally, both died as a result of the lifestyle they chose and the people they associated with. In the case of Marla Jameson, an electro biologist who invented a previous incarnation of the Spider-Slayer in order to help J.J.J. defeat his arch-rival, she died at the hands of the latest incarnation of the robot as Alistair Smythe sought revenge on Jolly Jonah. And of course, the Torch died as he lived – a hero who gave it all in a valiant attempt to stop an invading force from the Negative Zone. (Or did he? We never actually saw Johnny die, did we?)
How They Did It
Both comics feature large portions without text, allowing the stark imagery to convey the loss and heartache felt by friend and foe alike. And it certainly didn’t hurt that the amazingly talented artists chosen to illustrate these tales of woe worked in styles that spur memories of a bygone age. In the case of Marcos Martin, the man’s work definitely has an old-school feel to it, evoking images of Steve Ditko and John Romita while offering something totally unique. It might be familiar, but nobody out there puts pen to paper like Martin, who perfectly illustrates the passion, intensity and desperation of Slott’s script.
Even more powerful was the latest issue of Fantastic Four, which showcased each member of the team and extended First Family of the Marvel Universe dealing with the first month of loss in their own fashion. The image of Mr. Fantastic’s tendril-like fingers wrapped around the invisible force shield his wife has created is one that will stay with us for a long time. In just one page, with one simple frame, Nick Dragotta (himself a student of the old-school and purveyor of the Kirby-esque) perfectly captures the isolation that a sibling feels when faced with the loss of a loved one and the knowledge that no matter how deep their love, Reed Richards knows full well there isn’t a simple remedy or scientific answer to this problem.
From the students of the Future Foundation’s revenge-filled classroom lessons to Dr. Doom’s arrival at the funeral, every page hits exactly the right note. Especially those featuring Thor and Hulk, who show up to allow Ben Grimm to work his way through the “anger” stage of grief. Like the previously mentioned picture of Reed and Sue, the image of Ben breaking down in the arms of the Hulk was soul-crushing. Ben has always represented the everyman and the heart of the Fantastic Four… and his heart has just been broken beyond belief. And in a completely fitting moment, Spider-Man drops by in a backup story with art by Mark Brooks like the “cool uncle” that he is, to explain to a doleful Franklin Richards that he too once had an uncle that he was close to that was taken from him. It’s an absolutely perfect moment that puts Spider-Man in the position of our old buddy who takes you out for a hotdog and knows just what to say to make you feel better. A kid can’t always tell his parent how he’s dealing with trauma or loss… but he can tell Spider-Man, right?
The Future of the FF
So why does it work? How does this death transcend simple gimmickry and become something more – even when we know damn well that Johnny will be back after about a year’s worth of Future Foundation stories, just in time for Fantastic Four #600? How did this week’s Comicscape become a glorified review for Fantastic Four #588?
Sincerity, realism and nostalgia. Jonathan Hickman is able to pull at your heartstrings because he knows exactly how much we care for these characters. How they’ve always been there for us since (in most cases) childhood and have, in a sense, become our good friends. And that’s exactly why this works. Whether it’s Spider-Man consoling Franklin, Hulk allowing Ben to release his grief by walloping on him or Wolverine getting drunk at the funeral, Hickman gives us characters we know and love behaving exactly as they would if they existed in our world.
And like real life, the Fantastic Four realize that they must go on. Things are different now and those sweet new costume designs, as well as a new #1 and a new team name, illustrate that point. As tasteless as some of Marvel’s editorial and marketing decisions may seem, we have to hand it to them on this one: they knocked it out of the park with a poignant and touching story. Sure, we know that Johnny will be back and that eventually the status quo will be back to normal, and we’re looking forward to that too. If Jonathan Hickman handles the Human Torch’s rebirth as well as he handled his death, it’ll be fantastic.
Death and rebirth go hand in hand in the world of superheroes. When handled poorly, as it is in most cases, it’s cliché and can be quite a turn-off. Normally, we’re the type who dislike death in superhero comics, knowing full well that the importance and impact of the story will eventually be negated. But in this case, Hickman, Dragotta and Brooks have proven that even in the cyclical world of comic books, it’s still possible to elicit real emotion by treating your characters and readers with the respect and love they deserve.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 9 of 9
1 
DaForce1 3/2/2011 1:04:32 AM

 Johnny's not dead. Annilhus captured him. It's a boring stunt we've all seen before, and that's why the sales for it didn't bump up as much as Marvel hoped it would.

Also, you ask why didn't Marvel just let the 'death' happen without fanfare? Because fanboys would have been pissed if they missed the opportunity to buy it (yes, even if they DIDN'T buy it). Again, it's happened in the past, so now comic companies telegraph who is going to die far in advance so that people can buy (or not) the issue. Same thing happened when Nightcrawler bit the dust last year.

ponyboy76 3/2/2011 2:24:45 AM

I fully agree with Chad. These deaths maybe be cliched and a ploy to boast sales but Marvel totally did this one right. The page with Ben beating on The Hulk and Thor shedding a tear really gets to you.  That was a great last issue.

Wiseguy 3/2/2011 5:31:23 AM

Ditto what pony said. Well done. 

I've been reading comic books for 30 years and I still find deaths in the superhero community emotional and important for the most part. I don't look for holes in the story or to how they plan on bringing said superhero back. Yeah we know they always come back but I focus on the moment and the story and enjoy it and I always have. Maybe I'm just lucky that I'm not as big a cynic as so many seem to be, God knows I would've stopped reading supers a long time if that was the case.

OmegaDean 3/2/2011 5:46:57 AM

@Wiseguy I with you (and Pony)... I've been reading comics for so long and when they do a death right OMG.  I remember when they killed Aunt May back in the clone saga.  Say what you will about the story arc, but Aunt May's death was so viceral.  I mean she acknowledge him as Spidey, told him good job and then the real Peter was outside and couldn't even go in... Wow.  So yeah death may be gimmicks, but if the sotry is right what the hell.  

I mean look at what Cap's death has garnered us.

 

jedibanner 3/2/2011 6:15:32 AM

Incredible Hulk #467, the death of betty Banner.

In those days, the internet wasn't as huge as what it is today so the surprise itself that first, Betty Banner dies was a huge surprise but also, the fact that Peter David was leaving the book after a record 12 year stunt on the character (with missing only 1 issue during this whole time), the blow itself was monumental.

And through his departure (which wasn't that amicable), the way he writes the tale of Rick Jones, 10 years in the future, explaining how he view her death and how Bruce Banner acted, reacted, how the hulk was affected, it was unbelievable.

And through Rich Jones, Peter David writes how he could tell so many more stories but sometimes, it's better to move on and let things be, just like death.

For me, that was the best death I've ever read in a comic to this day. Now, knowing in advance one character will die is just boring and has no affect for me. When Cap died, that was a surprise onto itself and was great, or how Chad put it, it was ''done right''.

I miss the 80's-90's era of comics without the web destroying the comics and rumors and spoilers...those were the days of our lives (cue Queen's classic).

8man 3/2/2011 7:56:58 AM

Buy the first 200 issues of Fantastic Four in compilations and re-read them once every couple of years. It's all you'll ever need and its as good as it gets....and will get.

HunterRose 3/2/2011 10:00:50 AM

Kudos to Wiseguy, I too have been reading comics for over 30 years. Yes I get tired of all the crossovers and gimmicks, but overall I share a bond with these characters as many of you do as well and whenever something like death happens it really tugs at the ol heart strings. Marvel also has to realize that sometimes these gimmicks will backfire at times. For example, my boycott of Spider-Man will continue until he and Mary Jane are back together. Why so stubborn? I grew up reading Spider-Man comics and I watched Peter go from a teenager to a happily married man before my eyes. I bonded with him and Mary Jane. I worried when Venom first appeared. I worried that Mary Jane would be taken away and break Peter's heart. So yeah, call me naive or stupid if you will, but I do care what happens to these characters.

P.S. Hey Marvel, you're slowly pricing yourself out of my budget while my DC pull list gets bigger. Just saying.

 

DougRed4 3/2/2011 11:45:49 AM

As another 30 year reader of comics, I have to agree/echo what so many have written. Johnny's death was handled well, and I think these things are acceptable as long as they're done right. I'm still bummed about Nightcrawler's death (wonder how long it will be until they bring him back?).

Gotta agree about the prices; Marvel especially is pricing themselves out of the market. I've just decided to scale way back, and may just drop all of my titles (and pick up the occasional thing in trade paperback).

 

freespirit 3/2/2011 9:54:24 PM

 I don't think this works well cause comics in general have done this too much.  Look at what they did with batman and captain america.  Made a huge deal over the 'deaths' of these iconic characters, and what do they do? Bring them back 6 months to a year later.  Its beating a dead gorse and ppl would expect this to be more of the same.

1 

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