Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]
“... and while he's currently dead, I think he'll return soon enough.”
Seven years ago, in my very first review for this site, I made the above statement about Genis-Vell, who had died just recently in the pages of New Thunderbolts. I think I could use the same words to describe how I felt about the “deaths” of Peter Parker and Johnny Storm over the last few years.
So long as there’s money to be made and stories to be told, superheroes, especially those of the caliber of Spider-Man and the Human Torch, will never be killed off for real. Even the authors and the publishers know this; many of these “death” stories are less about losing the character and more about guessing how they’ll be brought back. Let’s celebrate the imminent return of the Amazing Spider-Man with some of Dan Slott’s earliest work on the character, Spider-Man and the Human Torch.
Slott gets a lot of the credit for the current Spider-Man state of affairs, for good and for ill. It’s hard to disentangle what his ideas are from what the editors want him to do. (I’m still convinced that he’s creating bad love interests just to drum up support for re-establishing the Peter/MJ marriage; why else would Carlie Cooper be so lame?) It doesn’t help that the main Spider-Man title is bi-monthly, which is at least toned down from the exhausting weekly schedule created by Brand New Day.
At its core, Spidey/Torch is Peter Parker’s story, with Johnny Storm as a guest. That’s mostly because Johnny is a fairly flat character. That’s not a huge issue; attempts to drastically change the Fantastic Four typically don’t work since their status quo is perfectly balanced.
You can’t go into the history of Spider-Man without taking the F4 into account, especially since they first met in the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man. Slott sets the first issue of Spidey/Torch after Spidey’s first few encounters with the team but still early enough that Peter is still in high school and wearing a tie. He gets a job as the Torch’s personal photographer and, in typical Parker fashion, ruins both his relationship with Betty Brant and the Torch’s relationship with Dorrie Evans within the span of a few panels. This leads to the Torch having an ill-thought-out confrontation with Doctor Doom. A rescue attempt by Spider-Man only leads to more humiliation, as the Torch loses his potential headline to another J. Jonah Jameson hatchet-job against Spidey.
One of Slott’s key motivations in creating Spidey/Torch was to organically develop the friendship between the two heroes. At first, they hung out because they were the only two teens in Marvel Comics. In their occasional team-ups, they were friendly, but it was mostly basic superhero fare. Slott creates a character arc with a more combative “frenemy” status between the two that loosens up into a friendship. In the second issue, for instance, they have an argument over who has a better career. They swap roles: the Torch gets to take on Kraven, while Spidey gets to go into a wormhole with the F4. The Torch wins and gets the admiration of Captain Stacy; Spider-Man overreacts and webs up the entire spaceship they’re riding in, ruining Reed’s experiments.
By issue three, Spider-Man has lost Gwen Stacy and his life is once again in turmoil; the Torch is pining for Crystal of the Inhumans. Together, they decide to work on what could finally bring Spider-Man financial stability: the Spider-Mobile! This is the silliest issue of the five, especially since the duo take on Red Ghost and the Super-Apes and succeed using Hostess fruit pies, but it works to offset some of that era’s grimness. Every issue has at least one incredibly funny moment; issue one, for instance, demonstrates why Paste Pot Pete changed his name to “Trapster” after his first few appearances. Let’s just say it involves multiple panels of raucous laughter. To jump ahead a bit, issue 4 uses the symbiote suit’s power to imitate clothes to excellent effect ... but it can’t change Peter’s skin tone.
In said issue, the Black Cat recruits the Torch, on the outs with new F4 member She-Hulk, as part of a robbery of the Wakandan embassy. The result is a wacky farce ending in a nicely-done twist. Ty Templeton modifies his art style slightly as the eras go on, and his facial expressions are perfect for conveying Slott’s tone. The second-to-last page of issue four ends in a wide panel where, even though you can’t see Peter’s expression beneath his mask, you can tell exactly what’s he’s going through just from his pose and dialogue and from the faces of the other characters. The colors are also nice and rich, with some fun use of Kirby dots and other visual effects in issues #2 and #3.
We conclude in the JMS era (I can’t say it’s the "modern era" as it features MJ as Peter’s wife and his job as a teacher, both of which were taken away by the reboot). It’s in this issue that Johnny finally learns that Peter Parker is, indeed, Spider-Man, and not just some random guy who keeps showing up in his life. How he learns this is a brilliant sequence of non-verbal storytelling. There’s a great bit when they recount their past adventures; when the Torch gets to the '90s, it turns out that his off-screen team-ups were actually with Ben Reilly. (I personally want to see the Power Skrull/Multi-Colored Symbiotes team-up.)
Spider-Man and the Human Torch was one of the first Marvel trades I read when I started collecting, and it still holds up a decade later. It’s well worth a look for Spidey and F4 fans, and it works as a companion piece to next week’s review of Christos Gage’s Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.
And as for Genis-Vell? When they start working on a Carol Danvers movie in a few years, we might just see him return.