Thursday, March 31, 2011

Comics! The passing of the Torch

Marvel's two flagship comics continue to deal with the aftershocks of the death of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, a couple of issues ago in "The Fantastic Four." Nobody this side of Aunt Petunia believes the Torch is really, permanently dead (since a revived and all-growed-up Bucky Barnes is now on the Avengers as Captain America, my old ironclad Marvel Comics rule "Nobody dies but Bucky" has now been amended to "Nobody dies, period"), but these long-arc storylines where a major character seems to be dead allows writers at Marvel and DC to pretend it was all true and put all the related characters through all the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving, kind of like Tom and Huck getting to watch their own funeral.

Such a gambit can be flubbed, of course - DC dropped the ball big-time twenty years ago with its "Death of Superman" arc, and then, not to be outdone, they dropped the ball again last year when Batman allegedly died. But Marvel tends to do it right, as was seen in their recent headline-grabbing "Death of Captain America" story. And the approach they're taking this time is low-key and entirely believable.

The stress is on family, and Dan Slott's writing captures something of the tone of that quite nicely. The current issue of "Spider-Man" (lamentably titled "Torch Song") features nothing more than Spider-Man going to the Baxter Building late at night to share the company of the remaining members of the Fantastic Four (we're treated to a neat little homage to Spidey's first visit to the team, when he's accidentally caught in a pneumatic intruder-tube). It's all very quiet and sad and real-seeming, just four old friends talking about a loved one who's died. Gruff Ben Grimm matter-of-factly tells Peter Parker that he's a member of the family, and Sue Richards seconds it. They're sitting in the kitchen talking - no super-villains erupt through the walls, no surprises explode in splash panels.

The timing is off a bit in terms of titles shipping to stores - readers already know Spider-Man will join the team - but that doesn't dull the enjoyment of the last bit, where Reed Richards reveals that Johnny left one last holographic video message for Peter Parker:
Pete? If you're hearing this, I'm sorry, pal. Sorry that I'm gone, 'cause ... well, I know how you feel when it comes to losing family. And that's what you are to me. Family. So ... if you're thinking of this as my last will and all ... I'm not leaving you my sports cars or stuff like that ... I'm leaving you the best thing I ever had ... my spot on this team. A place in this family. The best sister, two brothers, niece, and nephew a guy could ask for.

Slott hits all the right notes in these scenes (including the hokey-but-effective signature FF hand-pile), but for my money, the single best evocation of what this whole story means is Marcos Martin's wonderful, understated, incredibly sad cover illustration. The combination of elements - the Empire State Building, the old-style water tower, the '4' signal-flare that will never now mean what it once did, and a small-looking Spider-Man looking up at it - makes this the best Marvel cover I've seen this year.

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