Essential Human Torch Vol. 1

Essential Human Torch Vol. 1

First Published: January 2004

Contents: Human Torch stories from Strange Tales #101 (October 1962) to #134 (July 1965), and Strange Tales Annual #2 (1963)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Larry Lieber, and Bob Powell

Key First Appearances: Wizard, Paste-Pot Pete, the Eel, Dorrie Evans, Plantman, the Beetle, the Fox

Overview: Welcome to the solo stories of Johnny Storm, the teenage member of the Fantastic Four. We are quite familiar by now how Johnny gained the fantastic ability to ignite himself on fire to become the Human Torch. Now we see how the youngest member of the FF deals with teenage issues, like finding a girlfriend or getting a car.

One of the key introductions in these stories is Dorrie Evans, who would become Johnny’s regular girlfriend for the early years, at least until she disappeared into limbo and was replaced by Crystal from the Inhumans. Many longtime FF villains started out as foes of Johnny, including the Wizard, the Eel, and Paste-Pot Pete. (It’s hard to strike fear in citizens with a name like Paste-Pot Pete, so he eventually changed his name over to the Trapster.)

In Strange Tales #120, the Human Torch teams up with Iceman from the X-Men, the first meeting between these two characters. This would lead to an ongoing argument within the comic community that has lasted for 50+ years as to who would win a fight between them. My feeling is they could each win in the right circumstances in a neutral setting. But generally, the edge always goes to the titular character.

Beginning with Strange Tales #123, the Thing comes on as the regular co-star of these stories with the Human Torch. This helps build the friendship between the two characters. The stories seem to repeat a lot of the friends and foes seen during Johnny’s solo stories, so we get second appearances by the Sub-Mariner, the X-Men, Paste-Pot Pete, the Wizard, and others.

What makes this Essential?: These stories could be considered as the first spin-off book from Marvel Comics. Even though the Human Torch is the title character for this run, these really are a secondary set of Fantastic Four stories. Reed, Sue, and Ben appear in nearly every story in this run. These stories start just 11 months after Fantastic Four #1 and served as a way to help get the characters more exposure, in particular, the teenage member of the foursome. A side benefit had to be increased sales on an anthology book that was quickly being surpassed by the popularity of the super-hero titles.

Hindsight being 20/20, maybe it would have been better to include these stories chronologically within the Essential Fantastic Four run. This Essential Human Torch came out nearly six years after the Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1, during the early days of this collection line. With most of the stories in this volume done by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers, you could almost consider this volume to be Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1.5. If you own the early Fantastic Four Essentials, then you should also own this one.

She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!: In Strange Tales #130, Stan Lee decided to team up the  Fantastic Four with the Fab Four. Dorrie Evans and Alicia Masters invite their boyfriends to attend a Beatles concert. When they arrive, the concert venue manager announces that they were just robbed, and would be unable to pay the Beatles. Johnny and Ben step up to recover the money. Even though these are just normal crooks, they lead the Human Torch and the Thing on a six-page chase before being captured. Johnny and Ben return the money to the box office, right as the concert ends.

The Human Torch and the Thing return the stolen box office receipts.

The Human Torch and the Thing return the stolen box office receipts.

This appears to be the first appearance of the Beatles in a Marvel comic, but not their first appearance in a comic. In 1964, Dell Comics released an oversized one-shot that was more magazine than comic.

Footnotes: Strange Tales was an anthology title that started back in 1951. When the Human Torch joined in issue #101, that began the “Marvel Universe” takeover of the title. Dr. Strange joined in issue #110. When the Human Torch (and the Thing) left the title, they were replaced by Nick Fury.

In 1974, Marvel launched an eight-issue Human Torch series. It featured reprints of Golden-Age Human Torch stories featuring Jim Hammond, as well as reprints of the early Strange Tales stories featuring Johnny Storm. Each issue had a new cover, done by the likes of John Romita, Sr., Marie Severin, and Gil Kane. It would have been nice if Marvel had included those covers in this book.

The Human Torch story in Strange Tales #127 was reprinted with a new framing sequence in Fantastic Four #154, which was reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 7.

If you like this volume, try: the Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries from 2005. Written by Dan Slott and drawn by Ty Templeton, this five issue series spotlights moments shared between the two characters over their five decades in comics. This is a funny yet touching look at two friends who grew into adulthood fighting villains and aliens. This has been reprinted in the digest format and as a hardcover, but the individual issues can still be found in quarter bins. This is a must read for all ages!

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3

First Published: August 2001

Contents: Fantastic Four #41 (August 1965) to #63 (June 1967), and Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965) and #4 (1966)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Key First Appearances: Gorgon, Black Bolt, Crystal, Karnak, Lockjaw, Inhumans, Atilan, Maximus, Alpha Primitives, Silver Surfer, Galactus, Wyatt Wingfoot, T’Challa/Black Panther, Wakanda, Klaw, Blastaar, Quasimodo

Story Continues From: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

Story Continues In: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 4

Overview: Sit back and enjoy the ride, True Believer! The Fantastic Four enter an eventful two-year ride that does not slow down. These issues fully live up to their cover billing as being “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”

This volume starts out with another battle against the Frightful Four, with more clues dropped about the mysterious background of Medusa. Following that, we get the wedding of Reed Richards and Susan Storm in Annual #3. This issue features cameos by most of the Marvel Universe, as the other heroes such as the Avengers, Spider-Man and the X-Men work to keep the villains from disrupting the ceremony.

While on their honeymoon, the Fantastic Four are led to the Hidden Land, where we meet Black Bolt, Gorgon, and the rest of the Inhumans living in Atilan. The Inhumans are a race of people that have been exposed to the Terrigen Mists, which mutates their bodies to give them some incredible power. Johnny Storm falls in love with Crystal, one of the Inhumans and the younger sister of Medusa. Over the next few years, Johnny and Crystal’s story would loosely echo that of Romeo and Juliet, as two lovers who cannot be together due to their respective families.

Following their return to New York City, the Fantastic Four faces their greatest threat to date, as they encounter the Silver Surfer, a cosmic-powered herald for the world-consuming Galactus. With the help of the Watcher, the Fantastic Four overcomes Galactus and saves the planet, but at the cost of the Silver Surfer being banished to Earth.

The remainder of this volume includes the introduction of the Black Panther, a prince from the African nation of Wakanda and considered to be the first black superhero in mainstream American comics. We see Johnny enroll in college, where he meets Wyatt Wingfoot, an American Indian who would be a loyal friend to the Fantastic Four for many years. The stories revisit the Inhumans often, and we see the Silver Surfer try to adapt to his new home. And no volume of the Fantastic Four would be complete without an appearance by Dr. Doom.

What makes this Essential?: This is THE volume to have in the Essential Fantastic Four.  These stories reflect Lee & Kirby at their collaborative creative peak on the title.  You cannot read these comics and not get caught up in excitement and energy coming off of the pages.

And while I remain an advocate for the Black & White collections, I could make the argument that these stories should be read in color — via the original issues, the Marvel Masterworks collections, or the Fantastic Four Omnibus collections.  During this time period, Kirby started using illustrated collages with images to visually depict the cosmic scope of the situation. For example, see Fantastic Four #48, page 19, where we see Galactus’ ship opening up, or Fantastic Four #62, pages 4 and 5, where we see a two-page spread of the Negative Zone. The reprint quality of these pages in the Essential volume is rather poor, and you would be better off reading these in color.

Footnotes: The two annuals provided Lee & Kirby the chance to bring in some familiar characters. With Annual #3, two of the guests attending the wedding were Patsy Walker and Hedy Wolfe, stars in their own right from various girl comics and romance comics of the 1940s & 1950s. This was the first time that these characters appeared in a Marvel Universe comic. While the character of Hedy has been pushed to the sidelines as a reference character, Patsy Walker has enjoyed a long life in Marvel Comics, becoming the Hellcat in the pages of the Avengers and by being part of the Defenders for many years.

In Annual #4, Lee & Kirby brought in the original Golden Age Human Torch (Jim Hammond), and his creator, Phineas T. Horton. Both had been dormant characters for the previous decade. With their re-introduction into the Marvel Universe, both would be revisited in the years to come.

If you like this volume: take a look at the Kirby4Heroes Campaign, which raises funds for the Hero Initiative. Organized by Jack Kirby’s granddaughter, Kirby4Heroes was established to honor the legacy of Jack Kirby by giving back to the comics industry. On the Kirby4Heroes Facebook page (, Jillian Kirby spotlights her grandfather’s artwork from all eras of his long career and encourages events each August to celebrate Jack Kirby’s birthday.

The Hero Initiative is the first federally recognized not-for-profit that creates a financial safety net for comic creators who may need emergency medical aid, financial support for essentials of life, and an avenue back into paying work. The Hero Initiative has raised funds to provide needed support to over 50 creators in times of need. Along with my friends, I have volunteered many hours over the last 10 years at local comic book conventions working a table for the Hero Initiative, raising funds and public awareness. For more information, visit and consider making a donation today.

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

First Published: October 1998

Contents: Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963) to #40 (July 1965), Fantastic Four Annual #2 (1964), and the Human Torch story from Strange Tales Annual #2 (1963)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Key First Appearances: Hate-Monger, Diablo, Skrull Emperor Dorrek VII, Attuma, Glorian, Dragon Man, Medusa, Frightful Four, Trapster

Story Continues From: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1

Story Continues In: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3

Overview: Continuing on from where Volume 1 left off, the Fantastic Four remain at the center of the Marvel Universe. Familiar foes make re-occurring appearances – Namor returns many times, still  seeking the love of Susan Storm; and Dr. Doom returns many times, still seeking the destruction of Reed Richards.

New villains are introduced that become mainstays in the Marvel Universe, such as Dragon Man, Diablo and Attuma. The mysterious Medusa with her mentally-controlled hair makes her debut as a member of the Frightful Four, but her Inhuman background remains secret for another year.

What makes this Essential?: My initial reaction to this volume was to say that it is not as important to have on your shelves, compared to the other volumes in the Fantastic Four line. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like the Marvel Universe really started with this volume.

Up until the late 1950s, comic-book super-heroes did not cross over into other character’s books. Yes, Superman and Batman would team up in World’s Finest, but Superman did not make appearances in Batman or Detective Comics, and Batman did not make appearances in Action Comics or Superman. If Superman went to Atlantis to see Lori Lemarls, Aquaman is never seen or even mentioned. Characters and titles were treated as stand alone silos, so that there would be no mixing of brands.

DC broke this trend with the creation of the Justice League of America. For some reason, DC executives feared over-exposure of Batman and Superman, so they limited their appearances for the first two years of the JLA title. But this opened the idea that all of these heroes were on the same world and could interact with each other.

Jump ahead to 1962. Fantastic Four has been around for a year, and was an early success. New characters, such as Thor and Hulk, were introduced in other titles, and from the very start Stan Lee made it clear that they were all part of the same world. By 1964, with so many new characters debuting every month, it was natural for Lee, who was still writing the majority of Marvel Comics at this time, to use these characters in all of the books. It was natural that these characters would appear in the  Fantastic Four, as the first heroes of the Marvel Universe were Lee’s primary focus.

In this volume, we see the Fantastic Four team up with the Avengers to stop the Hulk; work with the X-Men to stop the Mad Thinker and the Puppet Master; and work with both Dr. Strange and Daredevil on separate encounters with Dr. Doom. The Fantastic Four even travelled to the Skrull throne-world, thereby truly creating the Marvel UNIVERSE. So yes, give this a look!

Footnotes: In issue #25, Stan Lee made a key mistake that got added to the Marvel mythos. He makes numerous references to the Hulk’s alter-ego as Dr. Bob Banner. When readers pointed out that his name is actually Bruce Banner, Stan Lee explained it away that the character’s full given name is Robert Bruce Banner, and that he prefers to go by his middle name.

If you like this volume, try: Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.  Every few years, the right combination of story and art merge to tell a breath-taking story. Plenty of stories have been told about the early years of the Marvel Universe. Comics have been painted before. But bringing these two elements together created the amazing Marvels series. Busiek weaves a story where the common man, in this case newspaper photographer Phil Sheldon, captures the key moments of the Marvel Universe with his camera. From the debut of the Human Torch to the arrival of Galactus, Busiek shows how the numerous comics all weave together into one large story. Speaking of large, Ross’ art gave us a realistic peek into how heroes would really look like in the world, such as his image of Giant-Man walking through the streets of New York City. This is a must-have in any comic collection!

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1

First Published: October 1998

Contents: Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961) to #20 (November 1963), and Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963)

Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Key First Appearances: Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, Susan Storm (Richards)/Invisible Girl, Johnny Storm/Human Torch, Ben Grimm/The Thing, Mole Man, Skrulls, the Baxter Building, Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom, Alicia Masters, Phillip Masters/The Puppet Master, the Impossible Man, Willie Lumpkin, Ivan Kragoff/The Red Ghost, Super-Apes, Uatu/The Watcher, Mad Thinker, Awesome Android, Super Skrull, Rama-Tut, Owen Reece/Molecule Man, Krang

Story Continues In: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2

Overview: In a race to beat the communists to space, scientist Reed Richards leads his best friend, Ben Grimm; his girlfriend, Susan Storm; and her brother, Johnny Storm; in an unshielded rocket to the stars. Cosmic rays bombard their spacecraft, forcing the quartet to return to Earth. They soon discover that the cosmic rays have changed all of them. Reed’s body has become elastic, and takes the name of Mr. Fantastic. Susan now has the ability to disappear at will, and becomes the Invisible Girl. Johnny bursts into flames, and adopts the moniker of the Human Torch (a nod to a Golden Age hero). And Ben Grimm becomes a misshapen lump of clay, soon to become rock-like, and dubs himself The Thing. So begins the Fantastic Four!

The team quickly adopts matching uniforms, made out of “unstable molecules”, and take up residence in New York City’s Baxter Building. Another nod to Marvel’s Golden Age came in issue #4, as Johnny discovered Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, sitting in a boarding house. (Lee and Kirby would complete their trip down Golden Age memory lane in Avengers #4, when the Sub-Mariner’s actions helped bring back Captain America, who everyone thought had perished at the end of World War II.)

Each month, a new villain would appear on the scene, and it would take the combined efforts of the Fantastic Four to halt the latest menace. From shape-changing Skrulls from outer-space to the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes in outer-space, and from the controlling mind of the Mad Thinker to the mind controlling of the Puppet Master, the Fantastic Four faced all challenges head on. Perhaps the greatest villain in Marvel Comics was introduced in issue #5, when the FF came face-to-face with Dr. Doom, monarch of Latveria, who wants nothing more in life than to exact his revenge on Richards and his family.

What makes this Essential?: This is the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. If this title had not succeeded, we probably would not have seen Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and everyone else that came after the launch of the Fantastic Four. Consider these 21 comics as Marvel’s Declaration of Independence, that told the comic book marketplace that they could do the same books as DC, and they can do them better. The Marvel heroes are real people, with their own character faults and issues. They may bicker and fight, but in the end, they stand together to make things right. Maybe Lee and Kirby were borrowing the challenge issued by then President Kennedy who had proclaimed earlier in 1961 that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Lee and Kirby put the Fantastic Four on the moon by issue #13.

Footnotes: Even though Fantastic Four #1 was the birth of the Marvel Age of comics, Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1 was the 11th Essential released by Marvel, nearly two years after the first edition hit bookshelves.

If you like this volume, try: Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby Volume 1. This is the first of two Kirby volumes in the Visionaries collection, with a scattering of Kirby’s Marvel work from the early 1940s to the late 1970s. Kirby’s early work on Captain America is showcased, along with an assortment of sci-fi and western stories. Other stories featured include the previously mentioned Avengers #4; an early Spider-Man back-up; a three-issue arc on Thor; and arguably Kirby’s best four-month stretch on any book of his entire career, Fantastic Four #48 to #51, featuring the debut of the Silver Surfer, Galactus, and “This Man… This Monster.”