The Death of the Human Torch May Restore the Fantastic Four to the Top of the Marvel Universe

Superhero deaths are notoriously short-lived.

Superman, whose 1992 demise was the first major hero-death blockbuster and is still a landmark, was back within a year. The build-up to Batman's recent apparent death lasted longer than his actual apparent death. (It turns out he was just misplaced in time, a fate shared by Captain America a couple of years before). Founding X-Men member and fan favorite Jean Grey has died three times—leading up to the start of the Dark Phoenix saga, at the end of that classic 1980 story arc, and again in 2004. Even Barry Allan, the second incarnation of the Flash, whose first appearance in 1956 ushered in the Silver Age of comics, returned in 2009 after nearly 25 years in a super-speed afterlife dimension reserved specifically for Flashes.

So the Human Torch's apparent death in the most recent issue of Fantastic Four—Johnny Storm takes a final solo stand against a swarm of millions of alien bug-like soldiers in the Negative Zone, to prevent old FF enemy Annihilus' invasion of our dimension—is being greeted with a mix of caution and cynicism. Most readers seem to regard FF writer Jonathan Hickman's first major bombshell on the book as at best a brief interruption on the way to the team's 50th anniversary and at worst yet another craven cash-in. (That hasn't keep Marvel Comics from hard-selling the story as yet another can't-miss event. The issue in question, #587, available since Jan. 26, is being sold wrapped in a black plastic bag, with an ominous version of the team's famous logo—the numeral 3 replacing the standard-issue 4—in the center.)

The cynicism is deserved—DC and Marvel's big events, Grant Morrison's brain-bending Final Crisis excepted, have become an embarrassment for any intelligent comics reader in the last decade, tempting us to plunge insane amounts of money into months-long crossovers and mini-series that further entrench the madness of the continuity status quo. Even Secret Wars, a 12-issue proto-crossover event from 1984-5, had more and bigger long-term consequences for the Marvel Universe than the pedestrian (but infinitely more complicated and expensive) 2008 event Secret Invasion.

On top of that, the death of the Human Torch reads suspiciously like a set-up for something bigger—like the resurrection of the Human Torch—12 issues from now. Note the issue number; in a year, Fantastic Four will reach the epochal #600, marking almost exactly the title's 50th anniversary. (The first issue was published in November 1961.) Marvel and Hickman are trying to squelch such speculation with their immediate plan: FF #588, due out on Feb. 23, will be the last issue of the series. The team—joined by Spider-Man, the Torch's best friend—will be rechristened the Future Foundation in March, with a new series and new white uniforms. But almost every major long-running mainstream comics title has been renumbered in the last 20 years; there's nothing in that plan to preclude Future Foundation reverting back to Fantastic Four #600 a year from now. And what better way to commemorate that milestone than by reuniting the original lineup?

Which wouldn't be so terrible, actually. Johnny Storm's resurrection, if it happens, probably won't unravel the fabric of the Marvel Universe or have unexpected or even necessarily interesting ramifications, other than reminding comics fans that the Fantastic Four—not the X-Men, not even the about-to-be movie stars in the Avengers—are still Marvel's true flagship superteam.

When they introduced the FF in 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby essentially invented modern superheroes. The gamma-ray-challenged foursome—super-pliable superscientist Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), his wife Susan Storm Richards (the Invisible Girl and later the Invisible Woman), and her younger brother, the hot-headed Human Torch, along with the wisecracking orange-bricked behemoth Ben Grimm (the Thing)—behaved like an actual family, if that family had been irradiated and physically mutated during space flight. Their interactions were full of resentment, impulsiveness, self-pity, condescension, and misunderstanding, and real life often intruded on their superheroing. But the superheroing was like nothing else before, too, with excursions into outer space and other dimensions and classic archvillians like the planet-eating giant Galactus and the mad, metal-faced Old World tyrant Dr. Doom. For most of those first 100 or so issues, the cover tagline—"The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!"—was simply a statement of fact.

Aside from John Byrne's long run as writer and artist in the early 1980s, though, the title has mostly been workmanlike since Kirby's departure way back in 1970. During their 20-issue run so far, Hickman, in his first major mainstream work, and penciller Steve Epting have rejuvenated the FF's cosmic potential and sense of bright-eyed wonder. They've recaptured something of the crazy Sputnik-era optimism of the initial Lee/Kirby stories and look to be growing together into a formidable team. If they can take the Fantastic Four to the top with them, that will be the real event.