60 years of
November 11, 1999
By Franklin Harris
Usually when I mention Marvel Comics in this column, it isn't to say something nice. After all, America's No. 1 publisher of comic books is an easy target, what with its recent financial woes, creative conflicts, boneheaded editorial decisions and slipping circulation.
Oops, there I go again.
But this week, I write not to bury Marvel, but to praise it, as it celebrates 60 years of Marvel superheroes.
Of course, Marvel wasn't Marvel when it started out back in October of 1939. It was Timely Comics. Still, the first comics magazine to roll off Timely's press was called "Marvel Comics."
If you're lucky enough to have a near-mint copy of "Marvel Comics" No. 1 gathering dust in your attic, it is worth around $115,000. And even a battered copy in "good" condition can fetch upwards of $10,000.
That first issue contains the first official appearance of the Sub-Mariner, who had previously appeared in a promotional comic titled "Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly." It also features the first appearance anywhere of the Human Torch.
"Marvel Comics" became "Marvel Mystery Comics" with issue No. 2.
The Sub-Mariner, who debuted the year before DC Comics' more-famous underwater hero, Aquaman, wasn't your typical superhero. Sure, he was super-strong, could breathe underwater and could fly, but his behavior alternated between heroic and villainous, depending on the occasion.
Prince Namor, as the Sub-Mariner was also called, often played the bad guy when the interests of his native Atlantis came into conflict with those of the surface world. But when World War II broke out, petty differences between Namor and us mere surface dwellers were forgotten, as the Sub-Mariner joined the fight against the Nazis.
The Human Torch, meanwhile, was another oddity. For one thing, he wasn't actually human. He was an android who possessed the ability to hurl fireballs and fly.
During Timely's first year of publication, The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner crossed paths numerous times, both as enemies (a classic water vs. fire match-up) and as allies against the Axis powers.
As WWII revved up, numerous patriotic heroes, including Captain America, who would prove to be the most enduring character to arise from Marvel Comics' early years, joined the fray as well.
Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who would go on to become comic-book legends. Kirby, in particular, played a crucial role, along with Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others, in forming the modern-day incarnation of Marvel Comics in the early 1960s.
Even future detective novelist Mickey Spillane wrote comics for Timely, although no one seems certain which stories are his.
Just as Batman had his sidekick, Robin, the Boy Wonder, the Timely characters had theirs. Toro, who also possessed fiery superpowers even though he actually was human, aided the Human Torch. Meanwhile, Captain America smashed Nazi spies with the help of his sidekick, Bucky.
Later, Bucky and Toro teamed up to fight the Axis powers in a comic called "Young Allies."
Other heroes of the Timely era included the first version of the Vision; Miss America; Namor's cousin, Namora; the Destroyer and the unfortunately named Whizzer.
(Before you say anything, the Whizzer's superhuman ability was super-speed, not a hyperactive bladder. And remember: a hyperactive bladder isn't normal at any age. If you suffer from a hyperactive bladder, see a physician.)
In 1949, Timely Comics temporarily abandoned superheroes. Later, Timely, now knows as Atlas, attempted a revival, with Captain America taking on the new commie threat and Namor and the Human Torch each making return engagements. But the revival was brief and ended in 1955.
It wasn't until 1961, with the publication of Lee and Kirby's "Fantastic Four" No. 1, that Timely/Atlas became Marvel Comics. And with that, superheroes were here to stay.
In one of its rare good editorial decisions, Marvel recently published two reprint comics, "All Winners Comics" and "Marvel Mystery Comics" No.1, each collecting stories from the early '40s. There are also two "Golden Age of Marvel Comics" trade-paperback collections in print.
Of course, if you're willing to pay more, you could always try to track down an original "Marvel Comics" No. 1, now couldn't you?