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.
Dan Slott has become such a fixture in the world of Spider-Man comics that it’s absolutely stunning to think that it was only 10 years ago that he got his first extended shot to work with the character as part of the five-part Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries. Slott, the self-proclaimed “biggest Spider-Man fan ever,” had certainly tried to include the Wall Crawler in some of his other comic book stories over the years — even going so far as to bring him into an issue of Ren & Stimpy that he wrote in the early 90s. But perhaps because he instinctively knew that Spider-Man/Human Torch had the capacity to serve as an audition for much bigger things with Spidey down the road, he seems to truly go for broke with this series and sticks the landing at nearly every twist and turn.
The series marks Slott at his very best and most consistent in terms of characterization, humor, compelling storytelling and just the general way he embraces the most jubilant elements of a medium maybe some of us (looking in the mirror here) can take a bit too seriously sometimes. Despite the fact that it’s the very first full Spider-Man arc that Slott ever wrote, it can easily stake a claim to his greatest Spidey story ever. Slott and artist Ty Templeton just knock this series completely out of the park and produce something that is genuine, smile-inducing fun, while also providing some warm character moments that leave a lasting impact on the reader.
Spider-Man/Human Torch succeeds in large part for its K.I.S.S. (keep it simple silly) approach. At no point do Slott and Templeton attempt to do too much with this story, which in turn provides them with ample latitude to just tell a good story rather than try to address a plethora of dangling subplots or unresolved drama.
Each issue is set in a different era of the Spider-Man/Human Torch dynamic — which, as I’ve already said at length over the past few weeks is one of the richest and complex relationships in Spidey comics. We start at the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko/Jack Kirby era of both Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and incrementally move forward in time to the latter stages of the Silver Age, the post-death of Gwen Stacy/early Bronze Age, the creative/commercial apex for both Spidey and Johnny in the mid-1980s before ending in a modern era story.
Despite playing around the periphery of continuity in the first four issues — this is all wholly unique content, but nothing that Slott introduces, like a story involving young photog Peter Parker being hired by Johnny to take pictures; or a tale involving the two competing for the affections of Felicia “Black Cat’ Hardy feels like it’s affecting the course of history in a meaningful way — the final issue introduces a rather significant status quo shift involving Spider-Man revealing his secret identity to Johnny. But because of the journey Slott and Templeton took the reader on, this huge, game-changing moment feels emotionally earned and reasonable. And it’s also expertly tied into the events of the four previous issues which makes it the perfect payoff for this introspective look at the two characters.
Regardless of continuity and status quo shifts, what the series does so exquisitely over the course of these five little vignettes is explore not only how Spider-Man and Human Torch view each other as sometimes-friends and sometimes-adversaries, but also what Peter and Johnny think of each other. In the opening issue, Slott, channeling the Ayn Randian-Ditko, depicts a Peter with a chip on his shoulder. He views Johnny as an irresponsible kid who knows nothing of pain and suffering the way he does. For Peter, being a superhero is an obligation — and not always a pleasant one at that — while Johnny is so obsessed with materialistic things, he goes out and hires Peter to make him “look good” as a photographer.
Fortunately, as time moves forward, the tone and themes of each story changes. Both Spider-Man and Human Torch get an opportunity to shine equally in this series. Johnny emotes incredulity at the fact that a square like Peter is able to have two beautiful women in Gwen and Mary Jane Watson, fighting for his attention and affections in the second issue. And maybe, just maybe, Johnny’s scoffing could be read as a bit of meta-commentary of the unbelievable shift in tone The Amazing Spider-Man series underwent when Ditko left the book and Lee/Romita decided to draw inspiration from Archie, Betty and Veronica.
Where this series really punches it into another gear is the third issue. Here, Slott and Templeton use an otherwise silly tale about the Spider-Mobile, Red Ghost and his apes, and the hypnotic power of Hostess fruit pies (you just know Slott made that such a point of emphasis because of all of those ads during the 70s/80s) to integrate a very moving scene where Spidey starts to vent to Johnny about Gwen’s death. Spider-Man’s civilian identity is very much a secret at this point in the story, so he speaks very vaguely and non-specific to Johnny, but the heartache and pathos that Slott channels in this sequence is absolutely stunning. Peter wistfully tells Johnny that when he’s out of costume, he can’t talk to anyone as “candidly” as he is in that moment. That’s such a heartbreaking sentiment to interject in the middle of an otherwise jovial narrative — Spider-Man is not even allowed to mourn the circumstances behind tragic death of his young girlfriend because as a costumed superhero he has built up enough walls around himself that there’s no one he can reasonably speak truthfully to.
The mood is lightened a bit in the fourth issue before Slott and Templeton bring everything home with a rousing finale. Considering the number of characters who had already known Spider-Man’s secret identity (a fact that Johnny and Peter even make fun of in this issue), it was absolutely necessary for Marvel to give Slott the green light to make this revelation at the end of this series. And you couldn’t really ask for better timing or circumstances for Spidey’s unmasking. Spider-Man and Human Torch have certainly teamed-up and interacted in dozens of stories over the years, but Spider-Man/Human Torch puts the entire dynamic into historical context. Because of that, this relationship comes across as one of the biggest and most significant ones in the entire Marvel Universe. To have characters like Daredevil, Doctor Strange and even Reed Richards know Spidey’s secret and not Johnny smacks of absurdity under these circumstances.
And Slott follows his revelation with one of his most emotional story cappers ever: a photo book montage of Peter and Johnny (wonderfully rendered by Templeton) that demonstrates all of the many ways these two have grown now that there are no more secrets. Spider-Man’s solo career may have started with him trying (and failing) to join the Fantastic Four, but Slott and Templeton deliver one better by having him join the F4 family at the end of this miniseries. It’s an emotionally-charged sentiment that just speaks to Slott’s talents as a story-teller: equal parts Stan “the man” schmaltz and fanboy-ish reverence that reminds folks like me why we fell in love with this medium in the first place.