In part two of my post on the death of the Human Torch I wrap up my readership of the Fantastic Four and conclude with the “Three” arc by Hickman.
My interest in Marvel’s First Family waned sometime during the tenure of Tom DeFalco. I would pick up individual issues now and then, when long-term X-Men writer Chris Claremont, Karl Kessel, and Mark Waid took over the title. A crucial storyline by Waid after issue #500 had the FF assuming rule of Latveria after their archnemesis Dr. Doom was deposed and his soul separated from his body. In the conflict, Doom possessed the body of the Thing and threatened to kill the Torch; Ben, still struggling to overcome Doom, begged Reed to kill him so that Doom would die as well. In anguish Reed killed Ben with an energized weapon, and preserving his body in statis, took Sue and Johnny to heaven (yes, heaven itself) to re-unite Ben’s soul and body. A discovery of that adventure was that Ben could not enter heaven because his body was being kept in the minimal state of life by Reed’s machine. In the end the quarter met with God Himself, Who let Ben return to earth.
And that brings us to the current death in the FF. Johnny died a heroic death, taking Ben’s place in the Negative Zone side of the portal and locking it, thereby stranding himself, alone, to defiantly face the billion-strong annihilation wave while Ben could only watch in horror and anguish as the portal cut off his view. The final appearance of Johnny was a two-page apread by Epting, his body lying on the ground, his head thrown back, eyes closed, the flame from his right arm trailing off from the air and his left arm raised but obscured from view as the insectoids swarm all over him. Many debated whether he actually did die in that spread, and if he went nova or not. One guess is that he waited for the wave to to get as close to him as possible before going nova, and either got cut short or was knocked dead or unconscious. Whether that was the case, an infant Annihilus could be seen flying over the scene.
The death of Johnny hit me hard. When I first read the page where Ben offers to stay behind, my first thought was that, his future appearance in the New Avengers and the upcoming Fear Itself wouldn’t happen after all. But when Johnny threw him through the portal and closed the energy shield, I froze in shock. Here was my favorite member of the Fantastic Four, the one I identified with the most because of his oftentimes youthful exuberance and sometimes callowness. It irritated me no end that writers would depict him as a playboy of sorts, dating women in succession and partying the night away. But all that went out the window with that noble sacrifice of his. As sad as I was by his death, I knew it was his best moment. When Johnny told Ben through the portal, “When you see Reed… you tell him… tell him this is where I made my stand”, it was his answer to a question Reed threw at him a few issues ago when he took Johnny to task for allowing his action to precipitate a minor near-invasion from the Negative Zone. Johnny steadied himself by defiantly stating that he wasn’t afraid of the billlion-to-one adds against him, and he shouted out his famous catch phrase, “FLAME ON!” in the face of the Annihilation Wave.
It made me cry. Not at the first reading. But when I re-read and re-read the issue. My heart felt heavy, the tears welled up, and I cried. Oh, I know of course this is only fiction, and back in the real world I went on as normal; but when I settled into my comic-fan mode, the emotions kicked in.
Cynical or jaded readers would claim that Johnny’s demise would be yet another case of a comic book death, meaning he’ll be resurrected (or just brought back, if he didn’t actually die), likely in time for what will be issue #600 of the Fantastic Four title in February 2012. And while part of me is accepting the strong possibility of that happening, overwhelmingly I do not want him to return. This might seem a contradiction to my professed favoritism for him, but I feel that Hickman gave him heroic send-off and a final legacy that shouldn’t be dimished by an attempt to bring him back, even if it were handled beautifully. I would feel that my emotions, and those of Reed, Sue, Ben, the children, and the rest of the Marvel Universe would be wasted. I would be disappointed if he came back in a hackneyed way and damage the story that Hickman wrote.
So Johnny, though the comic-book fan in me grieves for your loss, here’s to 50 years of providing readers around the world with some of the most memorable, amazing, and fantastic (pun intended) stories and adventures in pop-fiction. You threw aside the baggage of immaturity and faced death with steel-hard determination and equanimty. I will forever be a fan. And though now tears blur my sight as I type these final words and my heart is once again heavy, I salute you.
Johnny Storm may be dead, but his flame burns forever.