BHOC: FANTASTIC FOUR #189

I bought FANTASTIC FOUR #189 at my regular 7-11–I can remember biking home up Granny Road with it. But the book was about to hit a prolonged production snag, as it turns out, and like CAPTAIN AMERICA #216 before it, it was the second seemingly-new Marvel title that would turn out to contain a reprint. Although, like CAP #216, the cover didn’t disguise this fact, so that at least made things fairer play. But this was a huge problem for Marvel throughout the 1970s, one that wouldn’t be completely eliminated until Jim Shooter took over as Editor in Chief and overhauled Marvel’s editorial structure.

Even fairer, in fact, was that both the letters page and another editorial page were dropped out of this issue so that the 19 page story could run uncut, something that was not the norm for Marvel’s ongoing reprint series. From my point of view, however, though I didn’t know that it existed before this moment, it’s a story that I would have wanted to read, as it details a meeting/battle between the modern day Human Torch, Johnny Storm , and the original android Human Torch of the Golden Age. As this character in both incarnations is what drew me to Marvel in the first place, I wasn’t at all unhappy to get this tale in exchange for my 35 cents.

The story had originally been produced for FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #4 in 1966, right at the heart of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s most fertile creative period on the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine (and before the size of the original artwork was reduced, resulting in tighter artwork and fewer words.) It was produced at a time when Torch creator Carl Burgos was attempting to recapture the rights to his flaming creation, and some conjecture that its purpose was to reinforce those rights for Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. I don’t know how true that was–I don’t believe the copyright law of the period worked that way–but it might have been. In any event, it was an excuse to dramatize the origin of the original Torch once again.

The story is relatively straightforward. it opens with Reed, Ben and Sue answering their fan mail at the breakfast table, including a letter from an old timer asking about Johnny’s relationship to the Golden Age Torch. Reed mentions that he saw the earlier Torch in action a few times during the war, a reference that doesn’t really work any longer. In any case, the conversation is broken up by the sudden arrival of Johnny and Wyatt Wingfoot. Searching for a way to breach the great barrier that has sealed off the Inhumans, including Johnny’s girlfriend Crystal, from the rest of the world, Johnny and Wyatt have located Lockjaw, the Inhumans’ teleporting dog, and are attempting to train him to obey their commands so they can use him to teleport behind the great barrier. So far, all that’s happened is that Lockjaw has brought them home.

Meanwhile, the FF’s old enemy the Mad Thinker, a master of androids himself, has sought out and located the inert body of the Original Torch and reactivated it, under his domination. After the Old Torch replays his origin, the Thinker sends him out with a mission: to destroy his successor, Johnny Storm! Johnny is at that moment practicing a trick where he expels all of his flaming energy against a single point in the hopes that he’ll be able to use this to crack through the great barrier if Lockjaw can’t be trained–and so he’s already fairly exhausted when the Original Torch attacks him.

The older Torch is bigger, stronger and more experienced in the use of his flaming powers than Johnny is, so our boy is in some real trouble here. Nevertheless, he gives a good accounting of himself over several pages of Jack Kirby flaming fisticuffs. The Thinker is monitoring the situation through Quasimodo, a thinking computer that he has created that has become self-aware and desires independent life. But to the Thinker, he’s just a Quasi-Motivational Destruct Organ designed to pull the plug on the old Torch should things get out of hand.

In true Marvel fashion, the fight is broken up without a clear winner when the FF and Wyatt appear, teleported to the scene by Lockjaw. The dog thereafter zaps the whole crowd to the Thinker’s hidden lair. By this point, the original Torch’s innate heroism is beginning to surface, and he dashes forward, attempting to protect the Fantastic Four from the Thinker’s arrayed weapons. In response to his betrayal, the Thinker activates Quasimodo, who closes the circuit of the destruct lever that will immolate the old Torch.

The Torch is consumed by his own flames, and the Thinker uses the time this distraction gives him to make his way to a concealed sub and escape. But the damage is done, and the original Torch is dead. Suddenly, Lockjaw begins to glow as though readying to teleport himself away, and Johnny and Wyatt grab onto him so that they can continue their quest. And as the remainder of the FF leave the Thinker’s lab, they do not hear the plaintive, wailing cries of Quasimodo, who has been left there, immobile and yet aware. In some ways, Quasimodo gets a sadder ending than the original Torch, whose body is seemingly just tossed aside and left in the lab. of course, in Marvel history, this would not be the last we would see of it, but I didn’t know about that at the time.

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