With the return of Jim Hammond in All-New Invaders #1 and casting rumors swirling around the new FF film reboot, the Human Torch (both versions) is being given another push. But where did he come from?
In 1939, a year after Superman’s debut, Timely Comics responded with their own superhero, the original Human Torch. To young readers, Superman and Batman looked like the quarterbacks on some awesome super-team of the imagination. The Human Torch was just A DUDE WHO WAS ON FIRE (ok, technically an android, but still). It was an interesting visual, terrifying even, but it didn’t speak to any kind of easy fantasy. Not like capes and underwear and black leather. It just looked like it would really hurt.
There is, of course, an official version of how artist Carl Burgos came up with the character. “Carl Burgos’ Hot Idea” was printed in Marvel Comics #2 (Steven Thompson posts it here). Like most Golden Age creation
myths stories, it is loaded with pulpy hyperbole: Burgos falls asleep on a hot day and has some bizarre fever dream involving his publisher, the Devil, and kids in a boiler room in a narrative prescient of Dream Warriors. Burgos, like his peers, was a storyteller during the Great Depression = hold onto your wallet.
What we do know is that the Human Torch character was beginning to take shape somewhere in April or May of 1939 when Burgos was working out material for the infamous Motion Picture Funnies. When that project tanked, the material was bought by Timely to stock Marvel Comics #1, which came out in October 1939.
During this time period, from April on, the most popular news item in the New York papers was the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair in nearby Flushing Meadows. A monumental undertaking, the Fair included cars, food, robots, mermaids, parades, and rides. And everything else you could ever think of. It was practical hope mixed with futurist fantasy, all under the veil of paid entertainment.
How might the Fair have influenced the creation of the Human Torch? These guys:
They were called “hell divers” and “fire jumpers.” Their act consisted of climbing up a really tall platform, lighting their hooded bodysuits on fire, and plunging into a small pool below. Crowds screamed as they watched through the spaces between their fingers. Modern Mechanix explained how it was the high velocity that kept the fire literally off the divers’ bodies as they fell.
In Marvel Comics #1, the Torch does the same thing as Solomon: he jumps into a pool.
Was Burgos influenced by these divers? Roy Thomas notes in his preface to DC Rarities that “Most likely both writer/artists [Burgos and Sub-mariner creator Bill Everett] visited the New York World’s Fair that opened in Spring 1939.” There are other clues as well: Marvel Comics #3 is the first comic to depict television, which was introduced at the Fair.
Burgos also worked on Amazing Mystery Funnies #7 in July 1939 on a story of the Fantom, who tries to stop a “crooked contractor” at the World’s Fair.
Burgos would return to a Fair — and the Torch — in the August 1964 Strange Tales #123. In a story titled “Birth of the Beetle,” Burgos draws the first appearance of Spidey villain The Beetle, who battles the Johnny Storm Torch. The story takes place at the 1964 World’s Fair and features a last panel cameo of Burgos with, of course, Stan himself.
It’s a nice ending. Soon after, Burgos would try to sue for The Torch and these “happy days and peaceful nights” would be over. Read about that part of the story, also terrifying and somewhat unbelievable, here in an excerpt from Sean Howe’s great Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
We tend to dismiss the original superheroes as either pure childhood fantasy or the genius epiphanies of starving artists. What would it mean if they were inspired by actual people and events?
Brad Ricca is the author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman and American Mastodon. Visit www.super-boys.com and follow @BradJRicca.
Bonus coverage: of course, people still do this. Dear you: don’t.