It’s been more than two weeks since Marvel Comics released the fateful issue #587 of Fantastic Four, which saw the conclusion of the “Three” story arc by Jonathan Hickman. Of the four members of the FF, it was Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, who fell in battle, staying behind in the Negative Zone to seal the portal shut from the Annihilation Wave of their old enemy Annihilus. The reaction from long-time fans and casual readers ranged from outright shock and sadness to cynicism that Johnny’s death will be undone as yet another example of a comic book death. That has been debated so many times in the two weeks since the issue came out (and it was far-and-away the #1 issue in January sales in the US) that I need not dwell on it. Instead, I’d like to write about the impact of Johnny’s death on me as a comic book reader, and as a fan of the Fantastic Four. Part 1 will be a historh of my readership of the FF.
First, let me start off by disclosing that I am not of those fans who stuck with the FF through thick and thin over the rise and fall of the title’s fortunes. Being born nearly a decade after the FF’s introduction, I have only the faintest memories of when I first encountered the foursome. I do remember that in fifth grade, a classmate brought some FF comics with him, and the storyline was about Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny searching for the kidnapped Franklin and his nanny Agatha Harkness, tracking them all the way to the hidden town of New Salem where Harkness’es fellow witches and warlocks lived in virtual isolation from the outside world. There the Four confronted the villainous Salem’s Seven.
Jump forward to high school and scholarship stipends, which gave me and my schoolmates some spending money of our own! This was the start of John Byrne’s run on the FF, when he wrote so many stories many fans rank as among the classics. Among his most memorable decisions was to have Ben take a leave of absence from the team and replaced by She-Hulk; Sue unleashing unheard of uses of her powers and renaming herself as the Invisible Woman; and Johnny falling in love with Alicia Masters. (At least, that’s what Byrne intended.) Johnny, who had fallen in love with a succession of women (Dorrie Evans, the Inhuman Crystal, Frankie Raye), now found himself involved with the woman who is better known as Ben’s girlfriend! Well, with Ben off-planet on his own adventures, there was a gap that had to be filled. And although it ended badly between Johnny and Ben when the Thing inevitable returned to Earth and felt betrayed, it seemed to bring out the best in Johnny. After Byrne’s run, when Ben returned to the team and new writer Roger Stern (then writing Avengers as well) and Johnny and Alicia got married (in issue #300 no less), it seemed that the two would settle into the life of a superhero and his ordinary wife. Alas, things would not be that simple, and when Crystal rejoined the team to help fill in vacancies by the departures of Reed and Sue (to work out their parenting skills with Franklin), Johnny’s emotions for Crystal started to resurface. It was at this point where I stopped reading the comic, partly for the reason that I missed Byrne’s writing. I did learn though that Johnny remained faithful to Alicia and Crystal eventually left the team for the second time.
My readership remained spotty for years. I witnessed the return of Reed and Sue, the transformation of Sharon Ventura into a “She-Thing” (though thankfully she kept the Ms. Marvel moniker). My regular readership resumed in the 90’s with Tom deFalco at the hilt, where I learned to my shock that the Alicia that Johnny married turned out to be Skrull impersonator Lyja! Left for dead after a mission to rescue Alicia from Skrull captivity in suspended animation, she returned, powered-up, to seek revenge on Johnny for supposedly abandoning her. Although the storylines had her returning to Earth and forming an uneasy truce with her ex-husband, what could have been the possibility of reconciliation vanished and Johnny foreswore her. At this point I again left the FF.