Essential Human Torch Volume 1

Written by Stan Lee and others
Illustrated by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, and others

Once upon a time, Marvel was thinking of shutting down the Essentials line. When I as told this, I was very worried that this edition would never see the light of day. It seemed a no-brainer to me, but apparently not to Marvel, as they instead gave us Essential Ant Man before Johnny Storm's early adventures got their own book.

This is a Johnny Storm that's still too young to be able to keep out from under Sue's watchful eye, batting future long-time foes the Wizard, the Trapster (as Paste Pot Pete, one of my all time favorite "Stan, what were you thinking?" names), and Sandman. It seems like the Frightful Four basically leaped off the pages of Strange Tales. To a lesser extent, Plantman and the Beetle reappear as the Marvel stable of villains is still fairly limited at this point. We also get the real Beatles, in a funny set piece that shows the power of the Ben-Johnny relationship, when written properly.

Interestingly enough, after awhile, Johnny loses his solo spot and has to team up with the Thing, who, despite original plans, was fast becoming a fan favorite. He's all over this thing, no pun intended, trading quips, punches, and eventually, foes. Marvel will later give him over 100 issues of spotlighting, but Ben Grimm in the early 60s wasn't the star of the Fantastic Four--not yet, anyway.

There's also another guest star that crops up from time to time--some guy who spins webs for a living. He gets one co-billing in an annual that really sparks the Peter-Johnny relationship, though it's clear that Stan has a preference for the old web head. And of course, Johnny also gets to battle Namor a time or two, some Doom henchmen, and even the Puppet Master.
One of the many false Caps shows up, too, a trial balloon for a famous reappearance.

I found it interesting that going all the way back to these stories, Reed Richards can be a dick. You'll know what I mean as soon as you read it. Maybe Reed's Civil War actions weren't as far off as I originally thought.

These stories are pretty good for the time period. As with all Marvel stories from the early 1960s, there's some bumps and bruises that feel really hokey for modern reader. Plus, Jack Kirby is clearly stretched too thin, as his artwork is not up to his usual quality. The art actually gets a bit better when he moves on, I think. One nice touch was a story done by the original human torch artist from the 40s. Dick Ayers isn't bad at penciling, I'm not sure if I've seen him do it elsewhere.

If you are a fan of older Marvel work, this is a must read. I'm just glad that Essentials got around to printing it. Fans of the Human Torch of today might also find it interesting to see that Johnny was quite a bit weaker in those days. Essential Human Torch is a great bit of comics history at a nice price.