The Fire Still Burns: Mike Carey on The Torch

Alex Ross on The Torch

The Torch by Alex Ross

Last week, Marvel Comics announced plans for the resurrection of one of its original characters—Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch. It was Hammond’s first appearance in 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 alongside Prince Namor, the Submariner, that began the foundation of the Marvel Universe. Well, in September, Jim Hammond is back in a Marvel Comics/ Dynamite Entertainment joint production featuring popular writer Mike Carey collaborating with the incomparable Alex Ross in an 8-issue mini-series that will return The Torch to prominence in the Marvel Universe. Newsarama spoke with Alex Ross about his work on the project earlier this week.

Today, Newsarama continues their coverage of Marvel’s The Torch mini-series by talking with writer Mike Carey about the origins and inner-workings of the character.

Newsarama: Jim Hammond, the original Torch, is returning to the modern Marvel Universe; where did this concept come from and how did you become involved?

Mike Carey: I think it’s a project that has been in the back of a lot of peoples’ minds for a long time. The Torch is one of the most fascinating characters from that first wave of superheroes, so in a way this revisiting of the character was probably inevitable. It was only a question of when it was going to happen. And recent developments like Avengers/ Invaders have brought it to the forefront again – created an impetus, and an expectation.

I was approached by Tom Brevoort, the editor on the Marvel side of this project—you do know that this is a joint project between Marvel and Dynamite, right?

NRAMA: Yes.

MC: So Tom asked me if I wanted to be a part of the project; if I had any interest in pitching for it. I say pitching for it—but it’s really more of a collaborative deal because Alex [Ross] is co-plotting. A lot of the core concepts for this project are based on ideas that he had in mind for the Torch for quite a long time now. We had a conference call and Alex and I sort of threw ideas at one another and we came up with what we thought was a very cool three act structure in an 8 issue mini-series which very definitely moves through three phases. We’re taking the Torch through what I think is a very logical resurrection to an encounter with an old adversary and the introduction of a new one which will leave the character in a very different status quo.

NRAMA: Let’s start off by discussing the significance of Jim Hammond, the Torch; how important is this character in the framework of the Marvel Universe?

MC: Well, he was the first, wasn’t he? He was the first Marvel superhero to grace the cover of a comic book—there’s something very special about that. It always intrigued me as a kid that there were two Human Torches—there was this young guy, Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four, and then there was this mature Torch who wasn’t a part of any team, and who had this dark past where he’d been a menace before he was a hero.

I can remember reading the U.S. reprints—in books like Marvel Fantasy Masterpieces—as a kid and I remember how blown away I was by them. I think a lot of people met these characters - the Torch, Cap, and Namor - at a very early age, in those reprints or later ones, and the characters have a certain power because of that.

Jim Hammond is particularly compelling because he’s one of the first non-human superheroes. He’s an artificial man who was created in the early 20th Century—which is fascinating, considering the double helix hadn’t been discovered yet and the first computers haven’t even been invented. So the question raises itself: what is the model, the template, for an aware, sentient being that is neither organic nor digital. There’s a real mystery at the heart of the character that makes him much more appealing to me.

NRAMA: What are some of the more compelling human aspects of Jim Hammond? You’ve discussed a little bit about his background and his origin; but, as a writer, you must find yourself connecting with the underlying humanity in a character like this, right?

MC: I think it’s intriguing that he adopts that name at such an early stage in his journey; there are some characters whose civilian identities are their real identities: it’s when they put a mask and a costume on that they’re creating a new identity for themselves. But then there’s another subset of characters—the Torch would be one of these, and the Spectre would be one, as well as, J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter—whose real self is their superhuman self. They actually have to create a new identity for themselves in order to pass for human, so they build these identities from scratch.

Initially, the Torch takes the name Jim Hammond or, depending on which version you go with, he’s given the name Jim Hammond by Professor Horton – but he has no idea what it means to be human. He has to learn it by doing it. This learning process is really interesting in itself, and it makes it easy to sympathize with the character: in some ways, you recognize that he’s a child in a man’s body; he still has to learn a bunch of the most basic things about being a human, about having a social life and interacting with other people. That’s really a huge part of the hook for me.

NRAMA: How well do you know Alex Ross? Did the two of you hit it off creatively?

MC: I’ve never met or talked to Alex before this project. I’m an admirer of his work but I didn’t know him—we had never bumped into one another at cons or anything. I will say that the creative process has been incredibly smooth; Alex has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the characters, of their pasts, of all of their different phases that they’ve been through—and I’ve been able to draw on that. He, very generously, sent me materials—reprints, photocopies of old stories, and, sometimes, even original issues—for me to work from and fill in the gaps in my knowledge. He’s been very easy to collaborate with on the phone; we’ve had a number of very enjoyable phone conversations. So, yeah, so far, it’s been a lot of fun.

Normally, and people who know me know this: I’m very cautious about co-writing or collaborative projects where somebody else is as deeply and intrinsically involved in the plotting as I am—and now, here I am doing both The Unwritten with Peter Gross and The Torch with Alex Ross. In both cases, I can honestly say that it’s been a really easy and pleasant ride so far.

NRAMA: Why are you cautious?

MC: Well, a part of it is just that I’m a control freak; I like to be at the tiller. Secondly, there’s an awful lot of effort you have to put into communication if co-writing is going to work. When you set out to co-write on a project, you have to know it’s going to take twice as long as a book where you write solo. All of that depends on who you are collaborating with, obviously, but you’re aware as you go in that there are going to be surprises, upsets, frustrations. There will be all sorts of situations where you want to go left and your co-pilot wants to go right. It can be a lot of fun, but it’s always a bumpy sort of journey.

NRAMA: Ross isn’t doing the interiors of the book—but he is providing cover art and design concepts; who is handling the interior artwork for the new mini?

MC: I believe it’s Patrick Berkenkotter, who’s been working on Avengers/Invaders.

Alex is doing the covers and he is doing a number of design sketches; in many cases, he’s coming in with ideas about how a certain scene should be framed. So you could call him cinematographer and art director as well as co-plotter.

NRAMA: Okay, so the last time readers have seen the Torch he was dead and his body was being used for some pretty diabolical purposes in a recent arc in Captain America; where does The Torch mini- pick up? Will any of the previous usage of Jim Hammond be affected by this new story?

MC: Be affected?

NRAMA: You know, like his ret-conned past in West Coast Avengers in 1990…

MC: Well, we’re not ret-conning anything. In terms of continuity, we’re picking up immediately where the recent Captain America story involving the Torch left off. Jim Hammond is buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors; his body has been extremely badly damaged, which some of that damage being done post-mortem when Dr. Chin got hold of the body and experimented on it.

We come in very shortly after that funeral service, and our launch point, really, is this question of what the Torch is, how he works. I’d like to think that we’re exploring his physical nature more than other stories have done in the past. We’re looking at the Torch’s basic nature and structure, and the implications of that.

NRAMA: Going back to what you had mentioned about the character’s origin; are you going to be focusing on the actual nuts and bolts of the character?

MC: I think to a large extent we are—and we do go back to his original creators. One of the villains in this story has links that go right back to the Torch’s own origin. I’ll go ahead and say that it’s not Doctor Nemesis.

NRAMA: Is retro-Golden Age the hip new trend at Marvel? Is there going to be a lot more rebirth on the horizon? Is there a wealth of material out there that you guys aren’t tapping into?

MC: There is a wealth of older material—and there’s a will at Marvel within the editorial department to do something on a larger scale with these characters because of the significance of the 70th anniversary. I think there’s an intention, or at least a willingness, to go back to these characters and to explore the possibilities of bringing some of them back to the mainstream Marvel Universe. Having said that—I know about one other possible project. I don’t know anything beyond that.

NRAMA: What’s going to be your biggest challenge for this project?

MC: There haven’t been any challenges in a negative sense – problems that have had to be got over. In a positive sense, meaning “what am I spending most of my time thinking about?”, I’d say rhythm and pace. There are a couple of points where my instinct is to go for a verbal explanation of certain things; Alex feels very strongly that the visual dynamic is and ought to be the primary one. In particular, he has an aversion to very heavily caption blocked books—you know, where there are a lot of captions and narrative covering up the artwork…

NRAMA: Of course he’d be adverse, he’s an artist. (laugh)

MC: (laugh) Right! But I’m sure you take the point. The reading of the page can sometimes be obstructed and hampered if you have a couple of dozen caption boxes sitting around. There’s a particular scene in the second issue of The Torch where we’re looking very closely at the Torch’s physical nature. I wanted to put in captions and have a narrative commentary running through this scene, but Alex said, “If we can think of another way to do this, I think we can make it better.” And he was right, what we have done is much cooler. So that’s what I mean by positive challenges. The Torch is pushing me towards unusual narrative strategies.

NRAMA: Earlier you mentioned a villain from the Torch’s past would be returning; what can you tell readers about the new villain who will also be appearing?

MC: The new villain knows much, much more about The Torch than the Torch has ever known about himself. He’s been familiar with Phineas Horton’s project from the start, and he has a project of his own which has been proceeding for the last 70 years unnoticed and unhindered. So when the Torch finally faces this guy, it’s very much on his territory and his terms.

NRAMA: Are there any other obscure characters in the Marvel Universe that you would love to get your hands on to champion a re-launch like this?

MC: Does Daimon Hellstorm, Son of Satan count as obscure?

NRAMA: I don’t know—he’s been in New Avengers lately…

MC: True. Well, I’ve always had a thing for that character—and it’s no secret that I’d like to write a Dr. Strange book…again, though, he’s not what you’d call obscure.

NRAMA: Yeah, but I think fans would like to read a Mike Carey-penned Dr. Strange book.

MC: I’d like to do it all Ditko-style with the magic being shown visually on the page. Well, I’m still trying to think of a really obscure character—I don’t know…Howard the Duck? (laugh)

NRAMA: (laugh) He’s obscure enough, I think.

Alright, to close, where does the return of the Torch weigh in as a 21st Century Sci-Fi/ superhero concept?

MC: I think all the things we talked about earlier in the interview come together here: the fact that the Torch is an artificial life form created in the 1930’s. It’s odd but most of the knowledge base when you’re thinking about robots or androids simply didn’t exist at the time of Jim Hammond’s conception…

NRAMA: Absolutely—the world was still in a transition between steam-punk and transistors at the time…

MC: Exactly! How does a creature of this level of sophistication, the degree of power, how does it get created at all—and then again, how does that power manifest itself happen twice? Toro has the same powers as Jim Hammond—but he has them for completely different reasons. So these two guys meet, but then and only then do Toro’s powers kick in—which is strange, and needs to be explained. There are definitely some very cool science fiction hooks here, and we’re having fun putting all the pieces together in a new shape.

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