Fifty years after cosmic rays transformed him into a man ablaze, Marvel Entertainment has extinguished the Human Torch's flame and his life, too, as the pop culture purveyor of super heroes and villains embarks on an ambitious story line that ends the Fantastic Four.
In the newest issue of one of the company's longest-running comic books, Johnny Storm's life is taken amid a massive battle that writer Jonathan Hickman has been scripting for a year-and-a-half. Illustrator Steve Epting did the art.
While Marvel has made no secret that a member of the quartet, which was introduced in August 1961, would die, exactly who among the group would fall has been a closely held secret, until the release Tuesday of issue No. 587.
It's the Human Torch, leaving teammates Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman and the Thing to pick up the pieces and move forward.
Hickman, along with his editor, Tom Brevoort, have been unsurprisingly mum on what the future may hold for the characters, but one thing is certain, the end is nigh for the Fantastic Four next month.
Brevoort, senior vice president for publishing at Marvel told The Associated Press that "588 is the final issue of the Fantastic Four. Beyond that, we're not ready to say exactly what we're doing. There won't be an issue 589."
All he would say about the future was that the various subplots and threads that Hickman has written "will converge in a new thing that will be exciting and different and yet, very familiar and very much the same."
Hickman told the AP that the death is part of the natural evolution of his ongoing story line.
"In doing this, we're going to elevate the other three and the family in general and going forward with the story that we want to tell," he said. "I think it makes complete sense. It's kind of a logical move."
Readers have weighed in online, on Twitter and in comic shops about the buildup to the new issue, debating about who should die and who should live.
"Our readers get heavily involved in the lives of these characters. They fight alongside them, they share their triumphs and pitfalls," he said. "They live with them and they grasp them very tightly to their breast. They take them on in a very one to one, very personal sort of way."
But is death really the end and, more so, will it be permanent? After all, death has previously visited the Fantastic Four, which was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman, supposedly died, but that was just a ruse. Similarly, her husband, Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic, was thought dead after being caught in a blast with his archenemy, Dr. Doom. Instead of death, however, Richards and his nemesis were snatched away to another dimension.
Indeed, death is not uncommon in comic books. DC killed Superman in the 1990s, only to bring him back. At Marvel, Captain America was assassinated on the steps of a court house and returned, while Marvel's mutant band of X-Men know death so well that the Grim Reaper is on speed dial — Thunderbird, Phoenix, Nightcrawler and others have been felled.
Roy Thomas, who was a writer and assistant editor at Marvel in the 1960s and, later, its editor-in-chief from 1972-1974, said that since comics try to mirror real life, death is always a specter.
"The thing that is the most unrealistic is that so few people (have) died, good, bad or otherwise," he said. "If they did, they always managed to come back."
Thomas said he hated to see a member of the Fantastic Four die, but the Human Torch may not be gone forever.
"Whether it's Superman, the Thing or Bucky, if someone wants to bring them back to life later, you can't bury them deep enough or tear them into enough pieces" to keep that from happening. "Death is not a permanent condition in the comic book universe."
Joe Quesada, Marvel's chief creative officer, recognized that death, while potent, is not necessarily lasting and that the death of a character in comics has turned out "to be very cliche" in plot developments.
"Whether the human torch comes back or not is really a question that will be answered in time," he said.
"While I will never discount that a character can come back from the dead because it is one of the staples of comic book story telling . I'm not going to tell you if he will, or when he will and if he does, how he will, but I can assure you that it's going to be very, very interesting and not what anyone expects."
Marvel Entertainment is owned by The Walt Disney Co.