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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.