Dating back to the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have been intrinsically linked as allies, adversaries and frenemies. With the Fantastic Four starring in their own movie this summer, superiorspidertalk.com is taking a look at the 10 very best Spider-Man/F4 stories.
“The Dazzling Human Torch, on the Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man!” — Strange Tales Annual #2 (published June 1963): script by Stan Lee; pencils by Jack Kirby; inks by Steve Ditko
Sometimes, for lists like these, the historical significance of the story far outweighs the quality of its actual content. By today’s standards, Strange Tales Annual #2 (sorry, I’m not writing out that full title a second time) features a rather run-of-the-mill story, with a below D-list villain (is there such a thing as E-list?). But it’s a critically important story for Spider-Man, Human Torch and Marvel’s overall shared universe. Plus, where else can you find a comic that has pencils by Jack Kirby AND inks by Steve Ditko? The amount of iconic talent involved in this 19-page story is just unrivaled.
To give you a sense of this comic’s historic relevance, Strange Tales Annual #2 is (give or take) the fourth full appearance of Spider-Man and his first-ever superhero team-up. It also establishes the “best frenemies forever” dynamic between Spidey and Human Torch that would define those two characters for more than 50 years. The Stan Lee/Ditko run on Amazing Spider-Man was notorious for pairing off Spider-Man and Human Torch, Marvel’s two teenaged heroes. But it would be foolish to talk about any of those comics without first tackling Strange Tales Annual #2 since it’s the comic that does everything first.
Something that immediately strikes me as ingenious from this comic is the book’s primary selling point — the Spider-Man/Human Torch relationship. The way Lee/Kirby/Ditko run chose to characterize this dynamic was a perfect example of what made Marvel so unique and edgy when the company started pumping out iconic series after iconic series in the early/mid-1960s. Prior to the “Marvel Age of Comics,” two high school-aged heroes would have certainly been depicted as being chummy with each other — with the possible twist of having the two compete for the same girl to take to the sock hop after school (before everyone agreed to just be friends and not fight over who gets to drink a malt with Susie Q).
But Spider-Man and Human Torch do not like each other. They barely respect each other and only end up working together when it’s determined that there are no other options. While it would be easy to say that the friction was caused by how wildly different the two characters were from each other — Johnny Storm seems far more privileged and pampered than Peter Parker and doesn’t need to hide his superhero alter-ego from the public like Peter does with Spider-Man. And yet when you scratch a little further below the surface, Peter and Johnny are actually quite similar (especially Ditko’s Peter). Both possess a fair amount of ego and hubris. Both are driven to be the very best. And both think the other is just hot-dogging and trying to steal the spotlight.
Because of the complexities of this relationship, the two characters end up being a heckuva lot of fun when placed in the same story with each other. They’re actually able to function quite well as a team because they’re so ego-driven and they’re constantly trying to outshine the other. One would think that so much hubris could lead to a critical mistake being made, but Johnny and Peter have this strange habit of bringing out the very best in each other as heroes and the very worst as human beings.
The circumstances behind the Strange Tales Annual #2 team-up are that a crook named the Fox frames Spidey for a crime (stealing a Da Vinci painting). Spider-Man seeks out the Torch at his suburban home (where he lives with his sister, Sue Storm, aka the Invisible Girl) for assistance in clearing his name and tracking down the real thief. After some initial resistance from Johnny, which naturally leads to some wonderfully illustrated fight scenes that are capped with the two teens calling each other dummy and stupid many times over, the two team-up (even establishing their “spot” on top of the Statue of Liberty) along the way.
It’s worth noting that while trying to recruit the Human Torch, Spider-Man develops “ice-silicone” webbing as a way to subdue Johnny in case he gets hot under the collar (nyuk, nyuk). I don’t think this webbing ever makes another appearance, but for those who think Peter isn’t capable of coming up with some pretty amazing technology, look no further than Lee/Kirby/Ditko.
Once Spidey and the Torch agree to join forces, the rest of the issue is fairly rudimentary, though the two do still continue to verbally spar with each other even as they’re making progress on tracking down the Fox — who just so happens to be a master of disguise of sorts. In one scene, Johnny refers to Spidey as “chowderhead” which makes me wonder if Stan the Man was getting his insults from the seating area inside Quincy Market.
The Fox is, of course, captured by the two teens and, in just a spectacular capper to this entire romp, Johnny and Spidey start fighting with each other in front of the villain while he is getting carted away in handcuffs, leading to the crook to tell the cops to lock him away “so I can stop listenin’ to you two nuts.”
If this story ended up marking the fourth or fifth time Spider-Man and the Human Torch teamed-up, it wouldn’t even sniff the back end of my list. But as the first and ultimately the template for all other Spidey/Johnny pairings to follow, my countdown would be hollow without it. So many other creators have paid homage to this story (including a few that will later make an appearance on this list). And while my preference would be to wax poetic about a story that provides a lot of depth and insight about the characters, Strange Tales Annual #2 does have Spider-Man saying “so long, stupid!” so it doesn’t get much better than that.