Tuesday, January 19, 2016
NULLMYTHS: "THE TORCH GOES WILD" (STRANGE TALES #119. 1964)
I'm hardly going out on a limb by asserting that the "Human Torch" series that began in STRANGE TALES #101 (1962) was one of the weakest features to appear during the era of "Classic Marvel." While editor Stan Lee seemed to have a firm grasp on the direction for most of the Marvel productions, the Torch feature consistently suffered from weak, inconsistent stories all the way to the feature's final appearance in ST #134, after which it was replaced by the NICK FURY strip. Even the issues drawn by Jack Kirby, while nice to look at, are generally tepid as stories.
I suspect that one problem was that Stan Lee had been around back when the original Human Torch was a best-seller in the Golden Age, so that he was trying to see if the character's name and power could garner similar success-- while at the same time, drawing upon the successful associations of the FANTASTIC FOUR title. But because Johnny Storm was so thoroughly tied into the FF-continuity, all the various raconteurs on the series-- whether they were "fan-favorites" like Lee and Kirby, or less heralded laborers like Larry Leiber and Dick Ayers-- were equally straight-jacketed in their approach to the adventures of this "flaming youth." Only one story in the Torch's 33 solo exploits turned out above-average, and that tale-- the first one-on-one combat between the teen hero and the new version of the Sub-Mariner (ST #107, 1963)-- may have excelled because of it hearkened back to the Golden Age duels between the original Torch and his seagoing opponent.
Most of the Torch-stories are merely mediocre, but "The Torch Goes Wild" is interesting in a symbolic sense because it reproduces a sociological theme not unlike this week's mythcomic. The excellence of the early DOCTOR STRANGE feature, which shared space in the "split-book" title of STRANGE TALES, often pointed out the puerility of many Torch stories-- and never more than in issue #119.
Aside from the formal failings of "Wild"-- with drab and awkward art by Ayers, and a lacklustre concept from Stan Lee-- "Wild" is also essentially a recycling of a better Lee-Kirby story from FANTASTIC FOUR #21, published the previous year. In that story the creators introduced the Hate-Monger, who came to New York, inflamed a few crowds into unreasoning prejudice with his hate-ray, and then fled to a Caribbean island to facilitate a Communist revolution. Not only does the main villain of "Wild" borrow the Hate-Monger's hostility-motif and Commie sympathies, the Rouser even uses a subterranean mole-machine explicitly derived from the earlier villain's vehicle. Lee might not have written a good story here, but at least he has more or less admitted that he was "one-offing" an earlier story in the Marvel canon.
The Rabble Rouser's ethnicity is not stated, though his garments seem to have a quasi-Hispanic look, as does his prominent mustache. In his words, he chooses to pose as a "street corner soap box fanatic"
while using a "mesmerizer wand" to sway any crowds who listen to fall in with his evil scheme-- to get the Human Torch's fiery power outlawed by law.
What makes this a significant "null-myth" is not the silliness of the villain's plan, which includes kidnapping a foreign dignitary simply to cause an "international incident." Rather, it's the idea that a disreputable-looking individual-- who even uses "rabble rouser" as his only name-- could somehow come to influence right-thinking Americans with a combination of ranting rhetoric and hypnotic technology. The Torch-- repeatedly portrayed as a good-hearted but bad-tempered adolescent, and not much more-- is the picture of the misunderstood teen. Early Marvel stories often managed to do a fair job of playing on young readers' fears of not being taken seriously, but in "Wild" the motif is used in a tedious and transparent fashion.
Naturally, by story's end, the illicit law against the Torch's fiery flights has been rescinded, and Lee has the very minor joke of putting the villain under his own spell, forcing him to say that he loves America. But it's a pretty paltry role-reversal.
Oddly, though the villain is made to state that "the Rabble Rouser is no more," other Marvel creators actually found some reason to bring this oddball back in some altered form. I haven't read these revival stories, but I tend to think that this is one early Marvel character who should have been left to gather dust on the shelves.