Pretender To The Flame: The Robot Who Joined The Fantastic Four

A black Johnny Storm is hardly the first departure from the character.

When Michael B. Jordan was announced as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in the new Fantastic Four movie, a certain segment of the fanbase became agitated. You see, in the comics Johnny Storm is a blonde white guy and Jordan is… not. A black man taking the role of a white superhero? Purists were aghast.

As is usually the case, the purists had little ground on which to stand. Even taking into consideration the fact that the Human Torch wasn’t always Johnny Storm (or even human. The original Human Torch was an android back in World War II. Comics!), there’s nothing about the character that is informed by his whiteness. He isn’t the king of an African nation like The Black Panther and he wasn’t a social worker in Harlem like The Falcon. Johnny Storm was created as white because white was the default color for comic book characters back in the early 1960s.

Real Fantastic Four historians know that a skin tone change is nothing when it comes to adaptations of the comic book. In the 1978 cartoon series Johnny Storm was completely and totally erased, and replaced by a robot named H.E.R.B.I.E! Yes, with the periods and everything -- H.E.R.B.I.E was an acronym that stood for Humanoid Experimental Robot, B-Type, Integrated Electronics.

If you were a comic fan who watched the cartoon show you knew immediately why the Torch had been sidelined: network executives were afraid that kids would watch the show and light themselves on fire in imitation of their favorite hero! This became a rampant urban legend, one that was fed by the events of Fantastic Four #285 in 1985. In that comic we meet Tommy Hanson, a goofy little fat kid who loves superheroes. He’s endlessly teased and picked on at school, and he has no friends. He seems to be a latchkey kid, coming home to an empty apartment. Tommy wants to be just like his favorite hero, the Human Torch, so he douses himself with fuel and sets himself ablaze.

It doesn’t go well. Tommy is covered in burns and dies in the hospital, but before he goes, Johnny Storm comes to visit and hears the kid’s last words: “I only did it to be like you!” After Tommy’s mom slaps the Torch in the face he finds himself unable to even flame on, and he takes a cab back to Fantastic Four HQ. But he soon learns that, while Tommy’s death is tragic, the Torch’s heroism was the only thing that gave the lonely kid any happiness at all. Tommy Hanson didn’t die because of the Human Torch… he lived through him!

The reality was a little less exciting than all that. It turns out that when the Fantastic Four cartoon was being put together Marvel had been licensing off their character rights willy-nilly. They had made a deal with Universal that included The Hulk (from which came the famous Incredible Hulk TV show), Captain America and Doctor Strange. Also sold: The Human Torch, separated from the Fantastic Four. So when NBC wanted to make a cartoon with the FF they just couldn’t use Johnny Storm.

Stan Lee, ever full of ideas, jumped in. He created H.E.R.B.I.E to replace the Torch, and he had artist Dave Cockrum -- famous for his work with the X-Men -- design him. But Cockrum had to quit the job, becuase he just hated the crummy character too much! It was Jack Kirby, co-creator of the Fantastic Four, to the rescue, and H.E.R.B.I.E was born.

H.E.R.B.I.E eventually made his way into the Marvel comics as well, and he wouldn’t be the last replacement member of the Fantastic Four. Over time Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Wolverine, Black Panther, Ant-Man and even a woman in a robotic Thing suit would all join the team. Some characters, like She-Hulk and Medusa of the Inhumans, would be involved for so long they almost feel like regular members.

H.E.R.B.I.E wasn’t the only Fantastic Four cartoon slip-up, by the way. From 1979 to 1980 ABC aired a cartoon called Fred and Barney Meet The Thing. Despite the title the characters from The Flintstones never actually met The Thing, but even if they did they wouldn’t have recognized him. This weird comedy show featured a meek teen named Benjy Grimm who had two magic rings. When he touched them together and said the truly uninspired phrase “Thing ring, do your thing!” he would be pelted with orange rocks and become the familiar everlovin’ Thing -- with a voice that sounded like Jimmy Durante.

That version of The Thing is notable because of how it truly betrays the character as created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Comic fans understand something -- a superhero’s costume and look and even powers can change over time, but the core aspects of their personality must remain the same. Johnny Storm is the younger brother of Sue Storm, he’s a hot-head and he’s into cars, racing and excitement -- whatever his skin color, as long as he retains those traits he’ll always be the real Human Torch.

This was originally published in the August issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. See Fantastic Four in theaters now.