Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.
These Characters Are Too Hot to Handle!
It’s really funny what sticks out in your memory. One of the first characters I can remember from childhood was the Human Torch. It was Johnny Storm, the second character to use that name.
The two things I remember about the Torch I grew up with was that he always yelled, “Flame ON!” before going on fire. At age eight, I could never tell if it was something he had to do or wanted to do. Was it like Billy Batson yelling the word “SHAZAM!” and then the gods of fire would spark him up? It was just something that bothered me. If a bad guy put a gag around Johnny, would his powers still work? Let me remind you, I was eight.
The other thing I remembered was how he was illustrated. When Johnny Storm “flamed on” he didn’t just go on fire. His entire body turned red and then he lost all of his hair before black vertical lines appeared on his body with smaller orange and yellow flames. Amazingly, the “4” on his chest never burned up and he always managed to keep his shorts on. They never burned up with the rest of his hair.
You see, my first Torch was drawn by John Romita, Sr.
A few years later my dad bought me the first collection of secret origins of Marvel Comics characters. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I list this as a "must-have" for all serious collectors. Jack Kirby illustrated that Torch—a human-shaped flame that had a trail of fire behind him anytime he flew.
I didn't like that Torch. I was young and stupid. I didn't understand the concept of style. I just understood old comics were drawn badly and new ones were good. It was basic evolution. A character makes his appearance in a very simple way, drawn badly, and then is drawn better later. This is no offense to Jack Kirby. It's just a sample of my childhood cluelessness.
The Human Torch had a hard time in the 70s and 80s. He appeared in the Hanna-Barbera 1967 Fantastic Four cartoon. When it came to reintroducing him again in 1978, he was replaced by H.E.R.B.I.E. (Humanoid Experimental Robot, B-type, Integrated Electronics invented by Reed Richards) the robot. Marvel itself propagated the urban myth of children lighting themselves on fire and then jumping out of windows in superhero imitation. Hence Johnny Storm was replaced by Firestar in the 1981 Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends cartoon. The comic book code of standards and practices even eschewed physical combat on those cartoons. Viewers really didn’t miss much regarding the quality and camp of the show.
The good news is that in 1994, the Torch came back as awesome as ever in new cartoon adventures. And he’s been in about half a dozen animated shows since.
It is no mystery why we enjoy fire-based characters. Human beings have always had a fascination with fire. Characters that create fire (or use the power of the sun) are just plain fun and exciting. It’s also scary. When a character is threatening another one with a flamethrower of any type, it naturally gives one pause.
I decided to do a bit of research and came up with thirteen characters that had good flame, fire, or heat-based powers as their normal primary gig. I’ve left out characters like Dark Phoenix whose power is vastly more than fire, The Ghost Rider (a demon with a flaming hellfire skull), the Dread Dormammu (also a demonic lord with a fire head), and Hellstorm (another hellfire-based character). The reason being that it wasn’t their main thing. Sure, they have some flame in their act but they are just so much more than that.
The characters I’m going to talk about are all about the fire. I’ll begin with the obvious.
1. The Human Torch (Johnny Storm)
What else can I say about Johnny Storm? Cosmic rays are so unpredictable. Many people don't understand how the cosmic rays work. On people, they take the dominant personality trait and make it a physical characteristic. Johnny's an excitable hot head. The cosmic rays took that and made him a flaming flying torch.
Johnny Storm is one of the first of Marvel's modern age heroes. Over the years we’ve watched him grow as he learned not only how to control his powers but how he handled a power increase. Essentially, he has the ability to change his body into living plasma and back again. A byproduct is he can mentally control not only the flame he uses but he can absorb and change fire around him. Should he absorb a terrific amount of fire, he has to expel it, though. He can create flame based duplicates of himself and manufacture fireballs for offensive attack.
When the need arises, Johnny can raise his heat intensity to over 1,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit in what he calls his “nova flame”. He can only do this in one massive blast - then he reverts to normal, having used his entire store of energy. It usually takes him some time to recover from this and he does not do this often.
The Human Torch’s must be dry (or semi dry) when "flaming on". Should he be doused with a bucket of water, he must wait to dry off before trying again. That being said, Johnny is an experienced fighter and does his best to avoid these situations.
What?!! There was a Human Torch before Johnny Storm? Say it isn’t so!
It absolutely is so. The Original Human Torch is one of the first and best known characters of Marvel ‘s golden age. He fought alongside the original Captain America in World War II and one of his first regular opponents was the Submariner.
I know what you’re thinking. How was there another Human Torch before Johnny Storm? Well, the original Human Torch was an android created by scientist, Phineas T. Horton. Horton tried to make a solar powered synthetic man. The Torch is his result. The problem was that once it was activated, it burst into flames the moment oxygen hit it. So Horton decided to keep the android in a vacuum sealed glass case (if you watch Captain America: The First Avenger you can actually see the Easter egg of the Human Torch at the World’s Fair). During this time, Horton programmed the Torch and gave it artificial intelligence and near human emotions. The android awoke and eventually escaped his captivity while learning to control his flames.
He decided to help humanity.
When the Submariner attacked New York, it was the Torch who fought back. The Torch went on to fight crime with a young similarly powered mutant named “Toro” (see next) and they waged their war on crime and the Germans - like a Marvel version of Batman and Robin.
The Torch and Toro joined Captain America and his team of Invaders in the fight with the allies in World War II. The Torch fought alongside the Invaders and the All-Winners Squad after the war. It was through a blood transfusion that he created his future teammate, Spitfire. His blood gave her super speed.
In the Marvel continuity, it was this Human Torch that KILLED HITLER. Yeah, you heard me. The Torch burned him to death after he gave Hitler the opportunity to surrender. Hitler didn't so the Torch fried him.
Which is kinda badass.
The Torch sensed his end when he felt an extreme malfunction coming on. After telling everyone, he left for a secluded part a desert to explode.
And he blowed up… real good.
Only he really didn’t.
Now here’s where a giant cluster f#$@ of continuity problems happen. It was the standard history that the torch's android body was found by Ultron and made into the modern incarnation of the Vision. In actuality, the Torch didn't explode. Instead he expelled all his energy stores and deactivated himself into a state of hibernation. The Vision is actually a different android made by Phineas Horton.
Decades later the Torch is reactivated and joined the West Coast Avengers. Shortly after, he lost his powers. But he got them back and then he’s lost his powers again. Then he was deactivated again, reactivated again, regained his powers, self-destructed again, was rebuilt, weaponized, and retired.
The Torch's alias (secret ID) is Jim Hammond. He is basically a normal guy with a good sense of humor. He is vulnerable to many of the things that normal human beings are vulnerable to – Ie: gas, drugs, wounds, telepathic attacks, and so on. The only thing that makes him really unique are his powers and that he doesn’t seem to age.
I think the biggest difference in comparing this Human Torch and Johnny Storm is that within Johnny's flames on you can see a face. With Hammond’s Torch, you can’t.
2. Toro (The Sidekick)
Back in the golden and silver ages of comics, everyone had a side kick.
If you were a hero in a popular comic book you were destined for a side kick. Back in the 40s and 50s you didn’t even really need a plot. All you needed was a hero, a sidekick, a villain, some racist remarks about Japanese people and a lot of running around.
Batman had Robin. Green Arrow had Speedy. Aquaman had Aqualad. TNT had the Dyna Mite (Don’t ask). The Crimson Avenger had Wing (I said, “Don’t ask.”). Captain America had Bucky and The Human Torch had Toro.
When the Human Torch started to get popular, they hooked him up with a mutant fire boy named “Toro”. According to all the sources that I could dig up, this name wasn’t just to make him sound “torchy” but because his parents liked the bullfights they’d seen on their honeymoon. So they gave their son a nickname based on a private joke.
Thomas “Toro” Raymond got his powers because his parents were working with radioactive materials at a time where you either died, got super powers, or got your DNA so screwed up that your kids became mutants. Toro was the last one.
When Toro was a child, his family had a confrontation with a gangster named “Asbestos Lady” (I can’t make this crap up) and while trying to escape her Toro’s dad took Toro and his dying mother on an escape vacation. Asbestos Lady caught up with the Raymonds by setting up an train wreck. The Raymond parents died leaving Toro unharmed in the train wreck fire.
Circus fire eaters find him (No, I’m not making this up). He's adopted due to his apparent immunity to fire. The fire eaters saw this to be a good thing for their act. Asbestos Lady and the Human Torch find the boy at the circus and when the Torch approached Toro he burst into flames.
And hence a partnership was born.
Like Johnny Storm and the Original Human Torch, Toro can fly and do all the crazy flame tricks the other two do. He’s also immune to fire and can control flames.
3. Equinox, the Thermodynamic Man
Pat Benatar had a song called “Fire and Ice”. That’s what Equinox is.
Equinox is a supervillain who will always have part of his body on fire and part of his body will be made of ice. His powers are a mix of the Human Torch and the X-man, Iceman. He can fly and he can project cold and toss fireballs. When he first appears there’s a crime (of course) where it looks like Iceman is the criminal and then there’s another where it looks like the Human Torch (Johnny Storm) is the culprit.
I'm not sure how Equinox's powers can actually work. There is always ice with his fire - HOW DOES IT NOT MELT?!! These are things that keep me from sleeping.
Equinox was one of the people captured and replaced by the Skrulls during the “Secret Invasion”. He’s returned after the Skrulls are defeated. He pops up every so often but was last seen during the Avengers vs. X-men storyline in the middle of a prison riot.
4. Nova (Frankie Raye)
The “Frankie and Johnny Were Lovers” song has gotten way too much mileage. No one under the age of forty would really even get the reference nowadays. I give you, dear reader, credit to know where this is going.
Back in the seventies, Roy Thomas decided that Johnny Storm needed another girl friend. This was a regular thing and he dated a girl named Frankie Raye, who was an interpreter at the UN. They’d dated and then they broke up. Essentially, Frankie had some subconscious concerns over dating the Human Torch. The reason for this became apparent when it was revealed that her stepfather was Phineas Horton, the inventor of the Original Human Torch (see above). Frankie was doused by chemicals that allowed her to have powers very much like Johnny Storm’s.
So, at last, Johnny has a girl that he can fly and burn things with. She even got a costume made of unstable molecules. The relationship ended when Galactus needed a new herald. Frankie, who liked to adventure into the unknown, volunteered for the job. Galactus prepared her for the rigors of space (making her look very much like the Silver Surfer) and then she left Johnny Storm (literally) to do her new job – thus ending the relationship.
Taking the new name “Nova” she sought out new planets for her master Galactus. She is currently working with the Fearless Defenders on their team.
5. Firelord: Herald of Galactus
While we’re on the subject of Galactus heralds, it would be unseemly to ignore Firelord. Pyreus Kril (a name that if you weren’t destined to be Firelord should give you at least a career suggestion) of Xandar was the best friend and starship second in command to Gabriel Lan.
Gabriel was kidnapped by Galactus to be his next herald, leaving Pyreus in charge of the ship. Galactus transformed Gabriel to be Air Walker and as his herald he sought new planets for him to feed upon. When Gabriel was destroyed Pyreus found Galactus and took Gabriel’s place as Galactus’ new herald, Firelord.
He is later dismissed of his duty when Galactus replaces him with the Asgardian automation known as the Destroyer.
Firelord has mastery over cosmic flame and can travel unaided through the rigors of space.
6. Firestar: Angelica Jones
It really sucked to watch superhero cartoons back in the seventies and early eighties. The aversion to animating the Human Torch kinda blew dogs and no one was allowed to punch a villain who desperately needed punching out.
So, instead we had Firestar for television cartoons. I will not go into her television history as the character ages are all wrong and it’s just plain stupid. The only thing you really need to know is that the television incarnation came first and then they created the character years later within the comic book universe. This isn’t always a bad thing, especially if you’re talking about Harley Quinn. Firestar is different, though. Firestar on television was just an uber-lame substitute for the Human Torch due to rights issues.
Angelica Jones was a teenaged mutant that was recruited by Emma Frost’s Massachusetts Academy and became one of her teenaged “Hellions” (similar to the New Mutants but with the Hellfire Club). She quit the Hellions to become a member of the New Warriors where she met her boyfriend Vance Astro, aka Marvel Boy.
As Firestar, Angelica Jones possesses the power to store electromagnetic energy and transform it into microwave energy… and she can fly. The only problem with her using her own power is that she could render herself sterile and contracted breast cancer due to using the her own powers. The lesson to be learned here, kids, is that microwaves are dangerous and you should really reheat your coffee on a stove top.
After doing a stint with the Avengers, she joined the X-men and is currently working at the school as an instructor.
7. The Super Skrull: The Fantastic Four in One Skrully Package
Back before being a Skrull was cool we had the Super Skrull. The Super Skrull (aka Kl’rt in Skrullian) was a mighty Skrull warrior who was the first to be part of the Skrulls super power program. Furious over their first defeat by the FF and in an effort to take revenge against the Fantastic Four, the Emperor at the time (Dorrek VII) scientifically bequeaths Kl’rt with the ability to duplicate all of the powers of the team. The Super Skrull can use all the powers of the FF in combination and defeated the team easily on their first encounter.
In a rematch, Reed Richards discovered a way to block the Super Skrull’s power source from him. Since then, Kl’rt has been reengineered to no longer need that feed.
The reason why the Super Skrull is mentioned here is that he has the ability to duplicate the Human Torch’s powers- and he does so frequently. He uses them in combination with Mister Fantastic’s stretching power and with the Thing’s arms and strength. Imagine a super strong rock hard hand clutching your throat from a distance... now imagine it on fire.
Kl’rt is a tough customer in a fight and has defeated many heroes. He has years of experience using his altered powers and is a shape shifter on top of all of this with an ability to hypnotize weaker minds.
8. Sunfire: The Reluctant X-Man
Giant Sized X-men #1 was a landmark issue in comic book history.
It gave us three new mutant superhero characters like Nightcrawler, Storm, and Colossus (and Thunderbird, although he’d only last one or two more issues) and it reintroduced characters like Wolverine, Banshee, and Sunfire. While Wolverine and Banshee would stay in the X-men for quite a while, Sunfire was reluctant to spend any more time than he had to.
Sunfire, aka Shiro Yoshida, really did not like the west – and he certainly did not like the X-men at the time. While he is considered to have been part of the X-men’s roster, he denies actually being part of that team. This is understandable because if he were, Xavier would have trained him to be a better team player.
Sunfire is a mutant whose mother was exposed to the radiation from the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima. While most people died from radiation poisoning, Shiro’s mother simply gave birth to a mutant who could absorb solar radiation and convert it to fiery explosive plasma that he can shoot from his body. Oh and he can fly, too.
As a fighter, he’s okay to have on your side. He has studied several martial arts fighting styles including karate, judo, and kendo (sword fighting) and can kick most people’s asses without the use of his powers. Unfortunately, one of his biggest drawbacks is his recklessness. He does not consider the ramifications of using his powers. More than once Xavier has observed that while fighting alongside other heroes he has almost gotten his teammates killed from falling debris.
Plus he’s an incredible ass.
I should mention that he was the leader of the comic book version of Big Hero 6 in Japan. Yes, this is the team that inspired the Disney movie. Sunfire was not in the movie.
9. Starbolt of the Shiar Royal Guard
While we’re on the topic of mutants and the X-men, perhaps we should talk about Starbolt from the Shi’ar Imperial Guard. Before I get into Starbolt, who doesn’t have that much of a background story, let me talk about cheap shots between Marvel and DC.
I don’t know who started it, but the following goes on all of the time. They steal from each other… constantly. Marvel and DC have had their share of superteams. When DC’s Justice Society of America was made, the original Human Torch was teaming up with Namor, Captain America and Bucky. DC had the Justice League and Marvel had the Avengers. But what a lot of people haven’t seen are some of the secondary hero and villain teams that evolved from copying their competitors.
When Marvel decided that the Avengers needed a powerful group to face off against they could not write in the Justice League. Instead, they came up with The Squadron Sinister that consisted of Hyperion, Nighthawk, Doctor Spectrum, and The Whizzer. These characters were cheap knockoffs of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash, respectively. In the Marvel continuity even these characters were evil copies of a parallel dimension from the Squadron Supreme that had additional characters like, Princess Power, Skrullian Skymaster, Amphibian, Arcanna, Blue Eagle, Golden Archer, Lady Lark, Nuke, and Tom Thumb (i.e. – Wonder Woman, The Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Zantanna, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Firestorm, and the Atom, respectively).
I’m only mentioning Marvel’s side right now because they’re the most obvious. There have been claims that Timberwolf’s costume from the Legion of Superheroes was a stolen version of Wolverine’s brown and orange costume.
So where am I going with this? The Shi’ar Guard, right.
When you look at the membership of the Guard, it looks vaguely familiar. Gladiator is an alien with SUPER strength and durability with an upside down triangle on his chest. A character named Oracle is a mind reader. A character named Electron has mastery of magnetism. There is another member named Flashfire who has electrical powers. If any of this sounds familiar, it should. It’s remarkably similar to DC’s Legion of Superheroes. They are copies of Superboy, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Lad. So when we get to Starbolt we have the Marvel version of Sun Boy.
That’s who Starbolt is… Marvel’s Sun Boy.
Starbolt’s origin is unimportant. He’s essentially an alien who has some kind of ultra energy surrounding him as fiery plasma. He fires heat at very high temperatures and guesswhat?... he can fly… in space. You will probably never see Starbolt with his own title nor will you ever see him featured with his own tales. You will find him to be a generic copy of another team from another title that gets used when the X-men need aliens to fight or ally themselves with. Or the Guardians of the Galaxy.
10. Firebird From the Rangers
There is such unintentional symmetry in the article that I have to confess to you – I didn’t plan this (I wrote down the names in a random order). As Starbolt is a member of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, the same guard that took out Jean Grey as Dark Phoenix in the Dark Phoenix Saga, we can move onto Firebird.
Firebird got her powers right around the same time that Dark Phoenix bit the dust (Phoenix died in 1980 and Firebird made her appearance 13 months later in the Incredible Hulk with the super team, The Rangers. We can assume that she got her powers earlier than that). Bonita Juarez was walking in the middle of the desert when she found a glowing rock (Why we can never find glowing meta human bestowing power rocks when we really need them? She found one on the first try) that alters her DNA and gives her the power to generate heat, flames and guesswhat?... yeah, fly. Also, somehow, she’s immune to demonic possession – which is always handy. She, being a devout Ro