June 11, 1963
- Now here's an unexpected treat: The credits for this issue list the script as by one "Joe Carter" - but that's actually just a pen name used by Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman! The practice of using a pseudonym was much employed in the earlier decades of comics, when the rivalries between comic publishers was fierce, and the editor at one company might hold a grudge if you took work from the editor of another. (This despite the fact that they kept the page rates so terribly low that you had to take whatever work you could find, whenever you could find it.) As to Siegel's efforts here, in his first Marvel job? Honestly, it's a mixed bag. The story itself has some surprises, and we get a refreshingly deeper glimpse into Johnny's head than normal. But while Siegel seems to be pretty good with character motivations, his dialogue is excruciating. Examples are aplenty, such as when Professor Lawson tries to stop The Eel and exclaims, "Can't ... hold you! A greasy mixture on your outfit renders you as slippery as the creature you're named after!", or when Ben Grimm explains his actions so much that the word balloon alone takes up 90% of the panel, with a teeny tiny Thing head squeezed into what little space is left.
- One unusual aspect to this story, however, is that it features Johnny withstanding a smear campaign by local TV commentator Ted Braddock, who claims that the Human Torch is brash, cocky, and flaunts his powers all over town, "as though he's better than normal citizens!" The thing is - we can't exactly say that Ted's wrong, as the story opened with Johnny doing just that, performing all sorts of tricks not because he was prompted to by the crowd, but specifically because he wasn't getting the accolades he'd grown accustomed to (Ted's words having already reached the masses). Braddock also accuses the Torch of "undermining our citizens' respect for courageous law officers" who have to perform their jobs without a shield of flame or the dazzle of celebrity. And while this bit of censure goes too far - right after the broadcast, the Chief of Police stops by Johnny's home to reassure him how much the force appreciates his help - this is nevertheless interesting for being an early attempt at viewing the fantasy of superhero comics through the lens of greater realism. How would such characters be embraced in the real world, and what (non-fantastic) problems might they be surprised to have?
- Though slamming Siegel's expository dialogue - some of the worst seen thus far - I do have to point out that in addition to the unusually skilled crafting of character motivations, his scripting also contributes toward what becomes an incredibly suspenseful story. Early on in the tale, costumed crook The Eel breaks into Professor Lawson's laboratory, intent on nabbing whatever new invention is destined to be worth a fortune. To his bad luck, what he steals turns out to be an active atomic pile, set to detonate one hour after being exposed to air! (Um. Maybe the Prof needs some oversight?) What follows is a tense race against time, as the Torch rushes to avert the disaster, and Siegel sells the suspense well; as each panel races closer to the end, we feel it. Johnny does contain the nuclear blast, but only via supreme sacrifice, and in the aftermath the town holds its breath - even Ted Braddock, who takes back his entire tirade - as they wait to see whether Johnny will come back from the brink of death. It's a foregone conclusion that he does, but that's not important; what is, instead, is how vitally the town and his teammates treat his critical condition, and the gnashing of teeth that ensues as they contemplate his loss. Such a scene, though a simple and obvious one, hasn't really been portrayed in the early Marvels to date - and it's surprising not just for how well it's pulled off, but the fact that such a heart-tugging coda would appear in, of all things, Strange Tales.
Now that is one heck of a striking image!
Just try to ignore the cringe-inducing dialogue....