People of Earth! Please attend carefully! Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letters is a new, weekly column. Each Friday, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll be writing about my love for certain characters and stories that may not often (or ever) get the spotlight I think they deserve. Sometimes, you need to talk about the hidden treasures, the B-list or below characters that you think could still become power players with the right marketing, the movies and games that you love even if they’re dated now, and the stories that were never best sellers but are worth sharing. This week, Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letter is to… the original android Human Torch of Marvel Comics!

Growing up, the first Human Torch I knew about was Johnny Storm, the hot-headed young member of Marvel’s Fantastic Four team who could fly, burst into flame, and engaged in a friendly rivalry with Spider-Man. But later, I came across The Invaders, a 1970s series that took place during World War II and retroactively added to the history of the Marvel Comics Universe. Fighting alongside Captain America, I saw a different Human Torch, a mature and affable adventurer who had a fiery teen sidekick named Thomas “Toro” Raymond. This Human Torch, it turned out, predated Johnny Storm by twenty-two years. And surprisingly, despite his name, this guy wasn’t technically human – he was an android! Later comics would sometimes call him a “synthezoid.” This Human Torch had organs, flesh, bone and blood just like a human being, but they were all synthetically made.

I’ve always had an affection for robot and android characters, so I was compelled to learn more about this guy. He reminded me of Astro Boy but more mature, and with those powers also more primal. He was an android, which made him a symbol of science and specifically technological achievement. But with his power to be completely engulfed in fire and not be burned, to even manipulate and command other sources of fire, he was simultaneously a callback to a mythical elemental.

Thanks to the introduction of Superman in Action Comics #1 in 1938, a new genre of storytelling erupted during the Golden Age of Comics (a time period that is often considered to roughly stretch from 1935 to 1951 or 1954). The word “superhero” (spelling varies) existed before but now took on new meaning. Publisher Timely Comics jumped on the bandwagon in 1939. The publisher’s first on-going series was titled simply Marvel Comics. The title would change to Marvel Mystery Comics starting with the second issue, and the company itself would change its name to Atlas and then, many years later, it evolved into Marvel Comics, in recognition of its roots.

That first issue in 1939 started the ball rolling that led to the shared Marvel Universe. It introduced the aquatic warrior Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the vigilantes known as Angel (no relation to the X-Men character) and the Masked Raider. But the very first story featured the Human Torch, created by writer and artist Carl Burgos. In a Promethean way, this fiery android acts as a herald for the Marvel Universe that grows later on, since he is technically that world’s first published superhero (preview pages of Namor the Sub-Mariner had appeared a little earlier, but he was originally an anti-hero, as likely to attack a city as he was to help it). This already made him impressive and even a little magical to me,  and that feeling grew when I learned that, in the fictional canon of the Marvel Universe, this android hero helped end World War II by killing Adolf Hitler.

Yeah. That’s right. We’ll get to that.

With my interest ignited, I tracked down the android Torch’s origin and first appearance in a reprint of Marvel Comics #1 (you can read it too, in the volume 1 collection of Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Marvel Comics). It’s a story that, despite its flaws and some rushed-looking artwork, makes me smile and is one of my favorite reimaginings of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

In the Torch’s first story, we meet Horton (later comics expand his name to Professor Phineas Thomas Horton), a scientist who has succeeded in creating a synthetic human being. The one major glitch is that anytime he’s exposed it to oxygen, the android’s body bursts into flame, though he (and his special uniform) remain inexplicably unharmed. The public and scientific community decide this “Human Torch” is too dangerous. Rather than destruction, Horton reluctantly agrees to bury the synthetic man in an air-tight chamber covered by concrete, hoping he’ll figure out a solution later on.

If you were a kid like me, you would’ve noticed that the Human Torch was awake and very alive whenever he was allowed to breathe oxygen. But Horton didn’t seem to care. This wasn’t a person he was imprisoning, a new life form, it was a malfunctioning invention causing bad publicity.

The Torch is buried for some time but a crack in his prison allows him to later free himself. He’s a lost child-like being, realizing his flames are causing damage but unsure what to do about it. A group of criminals find him and use him to aid their racketeering. And here’s where it gets interesting. The Torch doesn’t decide to simply accept that these new humans, the only people he’s talked to other than Horton, must have good reason for their actions. He concludes they victimize people and must be stopped.

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An android learning to be human can be compelling enough, but an android trying to be a hero on top of that? Love it. The Torch’s morality was underlined when he later attacks the criminals but makes sure not to kill them. The main criminal, Sardo, attacks the android with various chemical and gas weapons. Exposure to nitrogen gas seems to finally give the Torch the catalyst he needs to control his powers. Not only can he “flame on” and off at will now, he can launch focused fireballs from his body. Because a walking, flying avatar of flame isn’t scary or powerful enough, so you’ve just got to give him the ability to HURL GREAT BALLS OF FIRE AT YOU FROM A DISTANCE. Comics… I love you.

Where we we? Right! Sardo’s last ditch efforts to destroy the menacing android ironically results in his own death. The police arrive and surround the Torch. I think a lot of other storytellers of the time (and today) would have had the Torch rush away into the night, tormented and convinced that he would be hunted and feared by humanity and authority figures. It certainly would’ve been in line with the Frankenstein monster parallel.

But instead, the Torch turns off his flame and apologizes for the trouble he’s caused. He then peacefully accepts arrest and interrogation. At Police Headquarters, an unnamed police captain asks a simple question: “Why?”

Up until this point, everyone the Torch has encountered has reacted to him with fear or greed, seeing him as a monster or machine. But the police captain offers a chance for explanation. He not only concedes that there may be more to the story than the police know, he treats the Torch as a person who has the right to be heard. He does this knowing full well that the blond man in front of him is an artificial being. I find that remarkable.

The police captain believes the Torch’s account and decides to release him to Horton’s custody. Other storytellers might’ve had Horton then apologize to the Torch for imprisoning him or for how unfairly he was treated at first. But instead, Horton once again talks of fame and money and the Torch decides no. If that is his true interest rather than scientific achievement or better understanding of the life he’s created, then he’s no better than Sardo. As he flies away, the Torch declares, “No, Horton, I’ll be free, and no one will ever use me for selfish gain – or crime!”

Starting with the next story, we were told that Horton had apparently died in a fire that was blamed on the Torch (it later turned out this wasn’t exactly the case). In the meantime, the android becomes an adventurer and quickly adopts the civilian guise of “Jim Hammond.”  Then, in Marvel Mystery Comics #7, decides to be a proper police officer rather than a vigilante who half the time is believed to be a menace. He joins the police academy, learns proper procedure and law, graduates, and joins the NYPD. Afterward, he reveals himself to the police captain who showed him understanding long ago during his first adventure, and the captain decides the Torch will remain as a police officer with special authority (and who doesn’t have to wear a standard uniform since it would burn away and need to be repeatedly replaced).

It’s important to consider the context of the times. By 1940, it was becoming more popular to shift several superheroes into positions of legitimate legal or government authority one way or another. Partly this was because World War II was on the rise and there was a greater feeling that Americans needed to stand united rather than act as rebels who didn’t trust authorities to do their jobs, and partly it was due to some critics who felt that superheroes were an argument towards anarchy or a “might makes right” attitude. Even so, the Torch’s decision to become a police officer was in keeping with the origins of his character and his natural evolution. He respected the law and acknowledged that he too needed to be held accountable for his actions. Perhaps he was also inspired by the police captain who was the first person to speak to him as a human being. I like that.

The Human Torch had many adventures throughout the Golden Age. He fought alongside the police, his sidekick Toro, other superheroes, and later with another sidekick called Sun Girl. Sadly, after his first few stories, there was barely any real mention that he was an android and even less discussion of how this affected is view of humanity. It’s a shame, because it made him more of a generic superhero.

Like many Golden Age heroes, he faded out of popularity and publication in the years after World War II. There was a brief, unsuccessful revival in the 1950s that was pretty unremarkable except for one thing: readers were told that Hitler did not commit suicide and have his body burned in that bunker. Nope! In a flashback, we see the Human Torch confront Hitler and then burn him down before the madman can activate a failsafe weapon that would’ve killed Russian soldiers approaching his bunker. With his dying breath, Hitler commands his men to tell others that he had killed himself, so the American android won’t be credited with victory. Jim Hammond sneers, “Lying with his dying breath!”

This is still accepted as Marvel canon! It has been referenced in modern stories. Jim Hammond took down Hitler and, on top of that, he trash talked the maniac Nazi as he died. Comics, people! They’re great.

When Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four in 1961, they made up a new Human Torch who had a hot-tempered personality to match his powers, a young adventurer who adopted the Golden Age hero’s alias because their abilities were so similar. The original Human Torch did return to the modern Marvel Universe and even met the young man who had adopted his superhero name. Later on, we were told he had been rebuilt into the android hero known as the Vision. Later still, this was revised and we were told the Vision was made from a copy of Jim Hammond. In any event, the android Torch has shown up now and again in modern comics, sometimes for several stories before vanishing again for a few years. He also had a cameo in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger during the World’s Fair scene, a seeming mannequin under a sign that reads “Dr. Phineas Horton Presents the Synthetic Man.”

I’m always happy when the original Torch does show up again, as modern writers have been  keen to explore what a sensitive android created in 1939 would think of humanity and its evolution. In the pages of Namor the Sub-Mariner #12 (1991), the aquatic warrior recalls his meetings with the android Torch during the 1940s. He also says that he is convinced Jim Hammond had a soul despite his synthetic nature, that he proved a soul can be earned. That idea has stuck with me.

One of my favorite stories regarding Jim Hammond happened in the critically acclaimed Marvels mini-series by artist Alex Ross and writer Kurt Busiek. Marvels #0, a special prologue issue, touched at last on just how the android Torch initially developed his morality. In this retelling of Jim Hammond’s origin from his own point of view, we see that Horton supplies the imprisoned android recorded information and lessons to listen to while he remains in stasis.

“I was learning a great deal about the world, and even more about the pain of a forced solitude… My father brought me into this world and kept me alive when others would have destroyed me. Why, then, did he allow me this torment? Was he so easily willing to forsake me? Was it possible that, while I believed in him as a father… he did not believe me as a son?”

Yet once again we see that, despite many legitimate reasons to become resentful and vengeful towards humanity, this synthetic man takes a greater moral high ground.

“As my young mind developed, I learned to recognize the beauty and value of human life. Life and freedom commanded my respect, as I possessed neither.”

I love this sensitive, insightful android who became great friends with Captain America, who adopted a young boy as his sidekick, who took his bad experiences as evidence that he should be a better person than those who mistreated him. We could all learn a lot from Jim Hammond.

 

NEXT NERDY LOVE LETTER: Doctor Who’s Professor Bernice “Benny” Summerfield!

Read all my nerdy love letters, here.

Alan Kistler