The Timely Comics Story


Goodman was pleased with the results of Marvel Comics #1, enough so to order more stories from Funnies, Inc. He was also happy enough that he decided to start hiring a staff for his new comic book line.

He chose Joe Simon, who was a writer, an artist, and an editor, and so could be relied upon to do many different things for Goodman. Joe Simon had started with Funnies Incorporated in 1939, creating for them the character the Fiery Mask, who would later appear in Timely's Daring Mystery Comics. After that he'd come up with the hero Blue Bolt, who was originally published, in an eponymously-titled comic, by Funnies, Inc. itself, before being sold to Novelty Press. Simon then hired on with Victor Fox, redrawing art and supervising Fox's artists and staff. Simon eventually went freelance (not being pleased with Victor Fox), which is when he was approached and hired by Martin Goodman.

Goodman wanted Simon to begin developing new comic books; again, there was money to be made in the field, and Goodman's pulp magazines were still not selling well, and Goodman wanted to capitalize on the success of Marvel Comics #1.

Marvel Comics, meanwhile, became Marvel Mystery Comics as of issue #2. (the reasons for the addition of the word "mystery" remain...well, a mystery) Goodman's ideas about what the comic should include seem, in retrospect, somewhat curious. Issue #2 not only has the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, but also the Angel (who, despite some nice Paul Gustavson art, rarely was more than a weak rip-off of the popular pulp character the Saint), the Masked Raider (an unimaginative Lone Ranger knock-off), the American Ace (a somewhat above-average fighter pilot story), and Ka-Zar the Great (whose Ben Thompson art did not redeem the utter mediocrity of the script). The relatively high quality of the Torch and Sub-Mariner features is obvious to us now, but apparently Goodman wanted to cover as many different genres as possible; the only thing missing is a magician (whose presence seemed to be required in so many Golden Age comics), and Timely would come up with a couple of them soon enough.

Marvel Mystery Comics continued to sell well, with some of Simon's new characters appearing there (the Ferret and Electro, the Marvel of the Age) and near the end of the year Goodman decided to start a second comic book: Daring Mystery Comics, whose first issue was cover dated January, 1940.

Daring Mystery Comics was an odd book. Nearly every comic of the time had a fairly solid cast of characters, who appeared in every issue. Marvel Mystery Comics, for example, had the Torch, the Sub-Mariner, the Angel, and Ka-Zar in every issue, and although features like "the American Ace," and "the Ferret," came and went, those four were always there. Over at DC, the reader could rely upon Batman and Slam Bradley and the Crimson Avenger always being in Detective Comics, and Superman, Zatara, Mr. America, and Congo Bill always being in Action Comics. Regularly-appearing casts were a basic feature of every comic.

Except for Daring Mystery Comics, which had new characters in every issue. Issue #1, for example, featured the Fiery Mask, Monako, John Steele, Doc Doyle, Flash Foster, and Bareny Mullen. Issue #2 featured the Phantom Bullet, the Laughing Mask, Mr. E, Trojak the Tiger Man, Zephyr Jones, and K-4 and his Sky Devils. Issue #3 had the Phantom Reporter, Dale of the FBI, Breeze Barton, Captain Strong, Marvex the Super-Robot, and the Purple Mask. And so on. Some characters appeared in more than one issue, but many were one-shots, and never appeared again.

It's most likely that Goodman was casting about for a hit, along the lines of the Human Torch or the Sub-Mariner, and so had the Funnies, Inc. staff create as many different heroes and stories as possible; Goodman was probably closely watching the sales and the letters, so that if one character seemed particularly popular, he'd feature that character. Too, many of these characters were likely Simon's creation - more of the new heroes that Goodman had asked him to create.

This tactic - throw as many new characters as possible at the readers in rapid succession, see which ones were well-received, and play up that character - was not a success, and Daring Mystery Comics never sold well (it's hard to establish a core audience when you rarely feature a character more than once) and was cancelled (sort of - see below) after issue #8.

At the time, though, Goodman and Simon could not know this. Nor would it have likely deterred them; one good success would make up for a myriad of failures. Which is why they started up a third book: Mystic Comics.

Mystic suffered from the same flaws as Daring Mystery; each of the first five issues brought a new group of superheroes, few of which were done with any quality or appeared more than twice. Some of Mystic's features, like "The Black Widow" and "Merzah the Mystic," were done with a surprising level of skill and craftsmanship, but most were like the thoroughly mediocre "Hercules." Good features were cancelled along with the bad ones, so that something like the incompetently-done Dakor (Marvel's first magician, and a somewhat blatant Mandrake the Magician rip-off) was gone after issue #3, while Merzah the Mystic (a strip of much higher quality) was gone after a single appearance. Too, the rotating creative staffs meant that even the better-done features would not be a success, for the readers could not depend upon the same staff to stick with a character for more than one story. A character like the Black Widow, two of whose three appearances in Mystic are as good as anything done during the Golden Age by someone not named Eisner, Kirby, or Cole, was saddled with Mike Sekowsky (whose work was technically solid but whose style was completely unsuited for the Black Widow). And the Blue Blaze's final appearance, in Mystic #4, was done with a style that H.G. Peters would later make famous (and popular) on Wonder Woman, but because Blue Blaze never appeared again, the style did not have time to catch on with the reading public.

As of the late spring/early summer of 1940, Marvel Mystery Comics was Timely's only real success, and so Goodman decided to launch another book. Which led to infamous Red Raven Comics #1, cover dated August 1940 but produced, in all likelihood, in May or June.

In retrospect, Red Raven Comics isn't truly that bad. It has Joe Simon and Jack Kirby going for it, for one; while their work on "Red Raven," "Comet Pierce," and "Mercury" is not near their best - it was early in the careers of both of them, and neither had really reached their peaks - it still shows a certain vitality. The work of Louis Cazeneuze & Dick Briefer is not truly that bad, either. And the stories and characters - immortals such as Red Raven, Mercury, Comet Pierce, and the even more obscure Human Top, Eternal Brain, and Magar the Mystic - are no poorer than the average Golden Age feature. (Kirby later recycled the idea of Mercury for the "Hurricane" strip in Captain America Comics)

Nonetheless, the comic was cancelled by Goodman almost immediately after its first issue, and it was seen as a failure - and a critical one, at that. The reasons for Goodman's cancellation of the book so quickly remain unclear, but having a book cancelled that soon after the first issue - before the sales data had come in, even - would seem to indicate that Goodman was acting for reasons other than economic. Perhaps he felt so strongly that the book would be a flop that he decided to cut his losses before they got worse?

Timely might have been in trouble because of this, except for an idea that Bill Everett and Carl Burgos had. Why not have their two characters, the Human Torch and Namor, the Sub-Mariner, meet each other? They represented fire and water, two opposite elements, so why not have them meet, and fight each other?

This was a first, something that had not been done before in superhero comics. There were a number of superhero comics out at this point, and even at this early point companies were being known for their families of comics, but the idea of different characters, in different strips and books, inhabiting the same universe, was a new one. It's hard, for modern comic book readers, to understand just how different this idea was; we've all grown up with the idea of shared universes, and so it seems like a natural assumption to us. But in the summer of 1940 this was a new and very different concept.

Everett and Burgos brainstormed the story and then gave them to two writers, John Compton and Hank Chapman, to finish. Whether Everett & Burgos were the only ones to create this story remains, as do so many other questions about this time in comics' history, in dispute. Martin Goodman seems to have had input into the crossover; he seems not to have been behind the idea, but seems to have influenced the content of the stories. And Joe Simon may or may not have had a say in the idea of the fight itself. The creative team cannily made sure that each character was drawn correctly regardless of the story, with Everett drawing the Sub-Mariner in the Torch stories, and Burgos drawing the Torch in the Sub-Mariner stories.

Ever-conscious of sales, the creative team drew the story out over three issues, Marvel Mystery Comics #8-10, with the first two issues ending in cliffhangers.

The story ended in a draw, of course; neither Everett nor Burgos likely wanted their pet character to lose, and they didn't want to disappoint the fans of those characters. They needn't have worried; the fans were so taken with the idea of the crossover, and the fact of their favorite characters having a good old-fashioned slug-fest with each other, that sales of Marvel Mystery Comics increased greatly.

The summer of 1940 was a busy one for Timely. Joe Simon, at this point, was editing all of Goodman's books, and with Goodman had developed a group of talents working at Timely (rather than at Funnies, Incorporated). Goodman, in the late summer, decided to stop using Funnies, Incorporated; the rates he was paying his staff at Timely were lower than what Funnies, Inc. were charging (although what the artists and writers got from Goodman was higher than what they got from Funnies, Inc., as Funnies, Inc. took a cut from what Goodman paid them). Goodman had Simon continually send artwork back for corrections to Funnies, Inc., and eventually Lloyd Jacquet gave in and sold the rights for the characters to Goodman.

In the fall of 1940 Goodman was ready to expand and start several new books. Human Torch Comics was one of them; the Torch's popularity was rewarded by his being given his own book, which began as Human Torch Comics #2 (there was no issue #1; it continued from Red Raven Comics #1).

Human Torch Comics was an important move for Timely, as it was the company's first book that was named for a recognizable and popular character. Marvel Mystery Comics was carried by the Torch and the Sub-Mariner, who were the main reason for the book's good sales, but both Mystic and Daring Mystery lacked a strong central character, and consequently suffered from feeble sales.

Human Torch Comics, though, did not have that weakness. The other features in the book were not particularly good; although it did have Everett's Sub-Mariner, it also had the likes of the Falcon, the Fiery Mask and Mantor the Magician. But with Burgos' Torch and Everett's Sub-Mariner, the book would still sell well, regardless of the poor quality of the back-ups. Moreover, the first issue of Human Torch Comics introduced Toro, the Human Torch's kid sidekick. Toro would prove to be popular, appearing in numerous comics, and would eventually help lead a team of his own.

November 1940 saw something that, while not an innovation, was a first for Timely, and would eventually become widespread, not just at Timely but in comics in general. In Marvel Mystery Comics #15 (cover dated January 1941) Jack Kirby drew the Vision bursting through his panel borders. Kirby got this idea from Lou Fine, but it was Kirby's use of this artistic maneuver that would make it popular, and it eventually became one of Kirby's trademarks.

By December 1940 Timely Publications (as Goodman's group had become known; before this it was known as "Red Circle" because of the logo that Goodman had put on his pulp magazines) was only relatively successful. Quality Comics, DC Comics, and Fawcett Publishing were the three best-selling companies; compared to them, Timely's sales were only mediocre. Marvel Mystery Comics was their only real bestseller. Timely was, though, still selling well enough to keep publishing, and invest money in a new book, if they wanted.

Goodman did. He wanted more heroes; there was lots of money to be made in superhero comics, and Goodman wanted a greater market share. So Goodman told Joe Simon to create some new heroes.

Simon, at this point, was working with a partner: Jacob Kurtzberg, aka Jack Curtiss, aka Curt Davis, aka Lance Kirby - aka Jack Kirby. They met while working at Fox, and Simon took to Kirby almost immediately, seeing a laudable skill and speed in Kirby, and when Simon left Fox to resume freelancing, and do Blue Bolt for Novelty Press, he asked Kirby to come with him. Kirby accepted, and the two were partners when Goodman asked Simon to come up with new heroes. Simon and Kirby had worked for Goodman and Timely before, doing Red Raven #1, and so Goodman had reason to trust both. (This makes Goodman's decision to cancel Red Raven so quickly even more curious; he clearly trusted the creative talents involved, so it couldn't have been that. What, then?) The character Simon and Kirby eventually came up with helped to change the history of superhero comics.

War was in the air in late 1940; it was hard to avoid it, whether in the news or in daily conversation. The Nazis had swept across Europe and were bombing England; Coventry, in November, had been almost levelled by German air attacks, a move that had shocked the world (the idea of civilians being targeted by air forces was quite shocking in 1940). The staff of Timely, being mostly Jewish (Goodman, Simon and Kirby among them), were, of course, very conscious of what Hitler and the Germans were doing, what they intended to do, and what they really were. The tenor of the times was very war-conscious and political, in a way that Americans of the 1990s may find hard to imagine; Americans were either pro-intervention (for the British) or pro-isolation, but almost no one was neutral on the issue.

This was reflected in the comics of the times. Over at DC the comics from National were, generally, pro-intervention, while the All-American books were pro-isolation. Timely, for its part, was distinctly anti-Hitler. As early as December 1939 the Sub-Mariner (in Marvel Mystery Comics #4, cover dated February 1940) had taken on a Nazi submarine. In June 1940 Simon and Kirby, in Daring Mystery Comics #6 (cover dated September 1940), had had their hero Marvel Boy fight the Nazis (although Martin Goodman, fearing legal action, changed the name of the dictator of the piece to "Hiller," the phrases "Blitzkrieg," "Fifth Column," and "Heil Hiller" are all used, leaving the reader under no illusions as to who the intended target of Marvel Boy, and who the leader of the spies of the story, is). And in January 1941, the Torch and the Sub-Mariner teamed up - their first friendly team-up - to fight the Nazis in Marvel Mystery Comics #17 (cover dated March 1941).

So Simon and Kirby, influenced by current events, created a new character, one who would embody the patriotism that the Timely staff felt. They came up with Captain America. (Who exactly created him seems to be in dispute. Joe Simon claims that he came up with the idea for a patriotic hero, and did the first sketch. Jack Kirby claims that he co-created the character, with Simon)

It should be noted that Captain America was actually created the previous fall, but Simon and Kirby, entertaining offers from Timely's rivals, had had Goodman over a barrel and had managed to get an agreement from him: Simon would get 15% of the profits from the sales of Captain America Comics, and Kirby would get 10%. Such an agreement, needless to say, was unknown in comics at the time.

Goodman was taken with the idea of a patriotic hero and had Simon & Kirby create enough stories for Cap to have his own book - an usual move, as nearly all new characters debuted in anthology books (like Daring Mystery or Mystic) before being given their own title. Captain America Comics #1, cover-dated March, 1941, went on sale on December 20, 1940, and was an immediate best-seller - selling nearly a million issues, at a time when Time magazine sold around 700,000 issues a week.

Captain America was not the first patriotic superhero in comics. That was Irv Novick's The Shield, who appeared in MLJ's Pep Comics, starting in November or December 1939 (Pep Comics #1 had a January 1940 cover date). The Shield had been followed that February by Louis Cazeneuze's the Eagle, in Fox's Science Comics #1 (a book which also featured a character called "Dr. Doom"). The month before Captain America debuted, Fawcett started publishing Charlie Sultan's Minute Man, in Master Comics #11 (cover dated February 1941). And in December, 1940, at the same time that Captain America was making his appearance, Quality started featuring Maurice Gutwirth's USA, comics' first female super-patriot, in Feature Comics #42 (cover dated March 1941).

But those others, and the many imitators that followed Captain America, didn't have Simon and Kirby working on them (although The Shield was selling well for MLJ). Kirby's style - energetic, appealingly exaggerated, fluid, powerful, and displaying strong storytelling skills - leapt off the page, making Captain America compelling reading. And the tenor of the early 1941, with Americans aghast at what the Germans were doing in Europe and strongly moved towards either intervention or isolation, helped Captain America Comics in a way that the Shield never had; Captain America, appearing when he did, gave Americans the chance to identify with an escapist fantasy figure who could make the Germans go away, and in a simple, gratifyingly physical fashion - something that simply wasn't possible in real life.

Naturally, MLJ, seeing similarities between the Shield and Captain America, were upset, and threatened Timely with a lawsuit; a central part of their claim was that Captain America's triangular shield made him look like the Shield, who had a triangular shield on the front of his costume. Goodman decided not to argue the point; he must have been aware of DC's 1939 lawsuit of Fox Comics. DC had sued Fox over Fox's character Wonderman, claiming that Wonderman was a theft of Superman. It was, and Fox lost.

This precedent must have occurred to Goodman, who, after meeting with John Goldwater, the publisher of MLJ's comics, agreed to change the shield, something that Kirby, for one, was happy about (he'd always preferred the round shield as being both more effective and a better design). At the end of the meeting Goldwater tried to hire Simon & Kirby away from Timely - something that did not sit well with Martin Goodman at all.
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