Monday, October 14, 2013

The Torch is passed

A staple of Marvel comics that has long set them apart from other publishers is the idea of a shared universe. Continuity is a dirty word to some, a hindrance for creators and an impenetrable wall of obscura for new readers who are just dipping their toes in comic books. Continuity has always fascinated me. The notion that these heroes occupy the same city (in Marvel's case, New York) made every story seem like a piece of a large puzzle. Each issue of any given title is a chapter in a long form superstory. Like Greek mythology, the heroes and villains intersect and the ripples from their battles effect everyone.

One could also look at the Marvel universe as a living organism. As time passes and the contributions of the individual are lost to the corporate entity called Marvel, the ever-expanding mass of characters and events has functions that resemble those in our human bodies. A character like the Scourge of the Underworld (from Mark Gruenwald's Captain America run) for example, whose purpose both editorially and within the context of the story was to seek out and murder redundant super villains, is like an antibody.

Before the Marvel universe was such a massive organism, before it was even a multicellular body, it was comprised of a few simple master cells. 1939's Marvel Comics #1 contained five features, two of which starred new characters. Al Ander's western hero The Masked Raider, Paul Gustavon's mystery man The Angel, and Ben Thompson's jungle lord Ka-Zar had all existed before in one form or another. The Masked Raider had starred in strips elsewhere and Ka-Zar was originally a character featured in pulp magazine prose stories. While these characters would be dusted off for later use in the Silver Age, it's the remaining two features that kickstarted the Marvel universe, whether publisher Martin Goodman and Funnies Inc. planned it or not. Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner and Carl Burgos' Human Torch would be the alpha and the omega in this burgeoning new stable of two-fisted adventurers and they could not be a more polar pair of opposites.

Everett's fighting-mad undersea king is a topic for another day, for I have the blazing android Human Torch on my mind this morning! As a young reader and collector, I think it was Wizard magazine or Comic Buyer's Guide where I first got a look at the cover to Marvel Comics #1. Veteran pulp illustrator Frank R. Paul produced the cover; a blazing humanoid figure emerging from a vault or container of some type. A second figure, a frightened mortal man, fires a pistol at the creature. The bullets appear to be as useless against him as the melted metal construct he's springing from. Like the previous years' Action Comics #1, which featured a raging circus strong-man with an 'S' on his chest destroying a car while normal people fled in terror, this defied my expectations of what a heroic debut could look like. The Human Torch looked more like the monster of the week than a new hero to follow and collect.

Furthermore, I already knew of a Marvel character called the Human Torch. His name was Johnny Storm and he hung out with the Fantastic Four, right? But just like Barry Allen and Jay Garrick across the pond at DC, the Torch I knew and loved was a Silver Age reproduction of the classic Golden Age character. As a naive young man, the idea of two Human Torches and just the fact that new characters could adopt an old name and take up the fight in their honor was unbearably "cool". Little did I realize the sinister reasoning behind the changes to the Torch or the ramifications of what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had done in resurrecting the character in name alone. I'll come back to this in a minute. . . .

So what about Carl Burgos and his original Human Torch? Imagine Shelley's Frankenstein with a pulpy, sci-fi twist. A monster created by man becomes our protagonist, and what begins as the story of a rampaging android would transform over subsequent issues into that of a flag-waving synthetic defender of democracy. This was the fate of nearly all Golden Age character heading into the 1940's: mystery men and monsters alike would aid in the fight, at home and abroad, and defend America's interests against the Axis forces. In that respect, Adolf Hitler and his empire were a boon to comic book creators. There was no need for imaginative antagonists when the greatest villain modern civilization had ever seen was ransacking Europe in real life. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story in Marvel Comics #1 features the brilliant but arrogant scientist Professor Phineas T. Horton, who has created a synthetic human android inside a giant test tube. Horton classically counts his eggs before they hatch, determining that "I found I had surpassed anything any scientist had ever done!" There is a tragic flaw in the android's creation however; the Torch burst into flame whenever he is released from his tube and exposed to oxygen. "Horton, destroy that man, before some madman can grasp its principles and hurl it against our civilization!" one member of the assembly tries to warn Horton as he showcases his creation. Like any good mad scientist, Horton doesn't heed their advice and soon the flaming android is rampaging through the city destroying friend and foe alike.

In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, author Sean Howe describes Burgos's primitive comic story with real attention to detail, "Burgos' low budget, primitivist style only increased the sense that the buildings, cars, and people the Torch encountered were hastily constructed only to be destroyed in short measure." Burgos' line work and page layouts are quite simple by today's overproduced standards for what makes a comic book "work", but the foundation is laid for a character that would, at least for a few years, have some staying power. The importance of Burgos' work here lies in the fact that the Torch is such a striking figure that it would have been a waste for him to be slain in the first story. The Human Torch goes on to many more adventures after this and even starts to gravitate toward all of the usual superhero tropes. By the time the Torch is involved in World War II, he's seen teaming up with Captain America and the aforementioned Sub-Mariner on the battlefield, and even recruits a young sidekick named Toro. The Golden Age Human Torch is a sight to behold, but let's shift our focus now to the man who brought the flaming avenger to life.

Burgos was an art school dropout. Frustrated with the speed at which he was being exposed to new concepts and techniques, he left the National Academy of Design after his first year and went to work with the Franklin Engraving Company, where printing plates for comic book production were designed and stamped. From there, he began drawing backgrounds, laying out panel borders, and inking over other pencilier's work. His growing reputation as a utility player, as well as his own blossoming talent, led to some early original work including pirate stories for Centaur Comics and creating a Human Torch prototype character called the Iron Skull. Lloyd Jaquet, the art director at Centaur, gathered Burgos, Bill Everett, and a few other freelancers to form a comic studio that would sell original content to other publishers who were looking to outsource rather than build their own studio. The Human Torch was crafted under these conditions and was considered work for hire under the Copyright clauses of 1908, a career move that would return to haunt Burgos late in his career.

So Burgos made paycheck after paycheck producing Human Torch stories for Jaquet and later Martin Goodman as the heroes in the stories themselves took the fight right to Ol' Adolf. The post-war years saw the decline of super heroes and even mainstays like Captain America were hit hard. Even returning to the Torch's roots as a horror/suspense feature couldn't keep things from drying up. Over a decade later, the Human Torch name and likeness would be borrowed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to flesh out the roster for the Fantastic Four. But the name and likeness were all Stan and Jack really had a use for in their "hip" new cross-breeding of the monster and superhero genres. This torch was now the high-flying, trash talking Johnny Storm and Burgos's original version would fade into obscurity, only remembered by Golden Age fans and later given new life by fan-turned-pro Roy Thomas in the pages of The Invaders.

Without credit given for their new creation's stolen identity and no financial compensation coming his way, Burgos left comics in a bitter huff. His daughter recalled the night he threw his collection out on the lawn. Even her attempts to recover as much of her father's work as possible were in vain, as Burgos stormed into her room afterward and demanded they be gotten rid of. While a potential court case may have been open-and-shut, Burgos' claim never made it that far. Destroying his comic collection wasn't merely a tantrum about his rights as a creator, it was a response to a particular issue of Fantastic Four. As Marvel was about to lose its claim to the Human Torch name, they needed only publish a story with the original Human Torch to maintain the copyright. To defend one of their precious IPs, Marvel released Fantastic Four Annual #4, with a story that must've read like a knife in the back to Burgos and his contemporaries.

In the story, the Golden Age Human Torch and the Johnny Storm Torch met in battle. It must've been a whiz-bang clash for comic readers and a neat easter egg for longtime collectors. The original was destroyed in battle and Marvel, through Stan and Jack, had both extended their right to use the Human Torch name and taken shots at Burgos' comic book legacy in one story.

With the release of The Avengers film in 2012, the subject of creators' rights and what guys like Kirby or Don Heck were owed for their contributions to these now billion-dollar franchises came up. Some militant comic purists even boycotted the movie and message boards and discussion groups were ablaze with debate over work for hire laws. This isn't anything new. Comics have always been a cannibalistic venture on the business side of things, even going as far back the Silver Age. While the universes these characters inhabit grow into amazing celestial bodies full of thousands of fictional (but entirely functional) moving parts, they leave very real broken hearts in their wake. Inside the Marvel continuum it's a "shared universe", but outside that continuum we aren't sharing shit.


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