The Human Torch has battled powerful threats like Doctor Doom and Galactus, but fighting for worker’s rights is a different experience. Fantastic Four #3 (written by Ryan North and penciled by Iban Coello) puts Johnny Storm in unfamiliar territory when he takes a job in retail. To be fair, that’s probably tougher than half the battles he’s ever fought. The experience teaches Johnny a thing or two about worker’s rights, and it isn’t long before the superhero starts a super-union.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Fantastic Four #3 (2023)!
Meet the Fantastic Forty
Some of you reading this have probably worked in retail. If you have, then you know that the quality of your experience is based on the type of management you have. For Johnny Storm, his manager is a bit of a jerk. While he’s not as diabolical as the Wizard or Puppet Master, Mr. Merrill runs ShopLand like a tyrant, and the workers are miserable. Mr. Merrill has unsafe working conditions, he underpays his employees, and uses threats to hold them in line. For example, some of the workers are undocumented, so Merrill holds the threat of deportation over there head, knowing that the fear will keep them in line as he continues to ignore their basic rights.
If you think Merrill sounds like a mobster, it’s because he use to be one. It turns out that Merrill was a member of the Maggia (Marvel’s version of the Mafia) and he had a brief run-in with the Torch way back in Fantastic Four #233 (1981). Initially the Torch tries to scare Merrill straight by paying him a visit, but the crooked manager knows that the superhero would never willingly burn a non-superpowered human. This causes Johnny to try something a bit more traditional.
Years of working with the Fantastic Four have taught Johnny the value of having a team, so he assembles his coworkers to take Merrill down. Initially they’re afraid to unionize, since many of them are undocumented and have everything to lose. Johnny convinces them that the fight is worth it, and the union is formed. Johnny dubs them the Fantastic Forty, which is a pretty epic name for a worker’s rights group.
I won’t spoil how the Fantastic Forty topple their corporate overlord, but I will say that justice was served. In a world where some employers exploit worker’s rights, this was an important story to tell. Unfortunately, not everyone has a Human Torch on their side to be their voice. Worker exploitation is a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon, and it was interesting to see it addressed in a Fantastic Four comic.
Why is the Torch working in retail with a secret identity?
As you’re reading this article some of you might be wondering why Johnny Storm is working a retail job. This is part of a larger puzzle that has been playing out in Ryan North’s Fantastic Four run. We don’t know all the circumstances yet, but at some point before the series began the Baxter Building was destroyed, and the Fantastic Four were separated. The event also caused the public to lose their trust in the team, and their assets to be frozen. The next issue blurb promises that we’ll begin getting our answers in Fantastic Four #4 (2023).
Whatever happened, it made Johnny Storm broke and unemployable. The Torch decided to fall back on an old superhero staple by creating a secret identity. Johnny dyed his hair black and grew a handlebar mustache. He chose the name Johnny Fairweather, which he mistakenly thought was clever. There are many things Johnny Storm is good at, but secret identities are not one of them.
Nobody was fooled by Johnny Fairweather for a second. His coworkers saw through the charade, but decided to let Johnny have his fun. It didn’t help that Johnny Fairweather was constantly singing the praises of the Human Torch, something he thought all civilians did. This isn’t the first time that Johnny’s friends have humored him when it comes to secret identities.
The Human Torch’s first secret identity
In 1962 the Human Torch was given a solo feature in Strange Tales. The stories followed Johnny Storm fighting villains and solving small scale problems in a suburban town called Glenville. Like most contemporary superhero stories published at the time, there was a big focus on Johnny Storm trying to hide his secret identity. The only problem was, Johnny Storm’s identity was not a secret.
It was clear from reading early issues of the Fantastic Four that the team’s identities were publicly known. Johnny Storm had shown his true face at various public events and participated in televised appearances. Despite this, his early Strange Tales adventures featured Johnny creating excuses to disappear so he could transform into the Torch. In fact, when the Wizard first appeared (Strange Tales #102) one of his goals was to expose the Torch’s true identity.
The secret identity issue was resolved in an amusing way in Strange Tales #106 (1962) when an acrobat named Carl Zante tells Johnny that everyone in Glenville had always been aware of his secret, they were just too polite to say anything. As Johnny Fairweather demonstrates, it doesn’t sound like the Torch has gotten any better at the secret identity game.
However, if it wasn’t for the creation of Johnny Fairweather, then ShopLand never would have unionized. The Torch’s attempt at a secret identity may have been a bonehead mood, but it led to a group of retail workers improving their quality of life. In the end, that’s what heroism is all about, and it’s nothing short of fantastic.
For more on Marvel these days, check out our view of Marvel in 2023.