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How a Marvel Christmas story ignited one of the best friendships in comics
I'm a sucker for a good Christmas tale.
Be it a movie, stop-motion animated television special, storybook, local theatre production ... it doesn't matter. If it's baked in holiday décor and filled with an inspirational message, I'm in. The sappier the better. Always been wired for Christmas material.
Comics have provided no shortage of fun Christmas stories as creators have often used the holidays to get characters like Batman out of their storytelling comfort zones. And then, the following month, just like many of us who quickly turn the page on the holiday season once all the gifts are unwrapped and the tree comes down, our costumed heroes move on. These stories largely exist out of continuity, or at the very least, are hardly ever referenced.
One exception to this is the story told in the debut issue of Marvel Team-Up back in 1972. "Have Yourself a Sandman Little Christmas" happens to be one of my favorite Christmas-themed comics, and not just because it hits all the notes a seasonal story needs to hit to get all up in my holiday feels. MTU #1 also happens to be a key issue in Marvel continuity, because of its impact on two of its most significant characters. It's the story where the famous friendship between Spider-Man and the Human Torch truly began. They had met several times before, including their first meeting in Amazing Spider-Man #1, when Webs broke into the Baxter Building in order to try and join the Fantastic Four. But their team-ups during the Silver Age largely painted the two teen heroes as frenemies who argued over girls like Dorrie Evans, before eventually putting aside their differences to fight a common enemy.
In the first issue of MTU, the two find themselves working to corral one of those shared foes, Flint Marko, aka the Sandman. The story, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Ross Andru, provides the sort of characterization that made Marvel books of the '70s so irresistible; the melodrama in-between the slugfests was often as compelling as the action beats. (incidentally, the first time I read this was when it was reprinted in the Marvel Giant Superhero Grab-Bag Treasury, because you know I love Treasury comics!)
Thomas also defies expectations with the roles he had each hero play. For once, Peter Parker, Marvel's most melancholy hero, isn't the one drowning in his own sorrows. Johnny Storm, the happy-go-lucky hothead from the Fantastic Four, isn't feeling the holiday spirit at all. But as the pair track down Sandman, the two heroes connect in a way they hadn't, up to that point in comics history.
From this holiday story began a gradual transition for Peter and Johnny to form one of the most enduring bonds in the Marvel Universe. Just two years later, the Torch helped the web-head build the Spider-Mobile. We can debate the silliness of that concept another time. But seeing the duo teaming up to work on the car was a fun reminder of the interconnected mayhem that made Marvel so different from DC.
Roy Thomas may have been the first Marvel creator to see the true potential in their friendship, but he wouldn't be the last. Future creators continued developing the Spidey-Torch bromance, establishing the Statue of Liberty as their usual meeting place. Over time, the FF would become like a second family to Peter, with Johnny playing the role of the annoying but loving brother. As the years went on, new writers added layers to their friendship. One of the best stories featuring the duo is 2005's Spider-Man Human Torch limited series. Writer Dan Slott and artist Ty Templeton used their shared history to bring depth to the friendship, including the unforgettable issue when Johnny learns Peter Parker is his old pal Spidey. The friendship between these two has proven to be strong enough to survive even tense moments like that and when Peter bought the Baxter Building (remember when he was rich and successful for, like, five minutes?). Their bond has been powerful enough to resist comics' notorious penchant for undoing history and wiping slates clean. Why? I don't think there's any other explanation other than creators like writing and drawing their interactions as much as we enjoy reading them. And it all goes back to one weird team-up on Christmas Eve.
The offbeat ending of that Marvel Team-Up issue is part of what makes it so special. I'll avoid spoiling it for those who haven't read it, but suffice to say it's a bit surprising. In many ways, this issue also marked the starting point for the (very) slow "face turn" for Flint Marko. It's even been mentioned at least once in comics that this encounter with Spidey and the Torch was the first step in his redemption process.
But the story endures because it marks a turning point for two heroes with more in common than they know, who eventually would become lifelong friends across Secret Wars, symbiote threats, and disastrous living arrangements. Peter and Johnny have exchanged lots of Christmas gifts in the years since, but none has been as meaningful as the one they both received back in MTU #1: The gift of friendship.
What's your favorite holiday comic book story? Find me on Twitter/ Facebook/ Instagram and let me know.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.