The Timely Comics Story


Very soon after Captain America #1 was published Timely hired Syd Shores to help with the inking. He became Timely's third employee. It was at this time that Jack Kirby was made art director for Timely.

Goodman, deciding to capitalize on the patriotic success of Captain America Comics #1, started another comic, which hit the stands on the same day as Captain America Comics #2. The new comic was called USA Comics, and was notable for containing not one but two Captain America copies: the Defender (whose first appearance was redrawn Captain America strip, complete with Defender's pseudo-Bucky sidekick Rusty) and Mr. Liberty.

The character charging forward on the cover of USA #1 - the one wearing the candy-striper pants - is the Defender. His stories were as uninvolving and frankly unimaginative as his costume, and he only lasted for four issues. Mr. Liberty was only a little better; he wore the outfit of a Revolutionary War character and could summon up the ghosts of Revolutionary War heroes to help him.

USA Comics was, in some ways, a step backwards for Timely. Rather than follow the model of Human Torch Comics and Captain America Comics, where the comic would center on a strong character, with newer and weaker characters being secondary and tertiary to the stronger, established character. USA Comics reverted to the Mystic/Daring Mystery model, throwing a number of characters at the reader and not concentrating on one.

USA Comics, like Mystic and Daring Mystery, was not entirely without merit. Basil Wolverton did "Rockman" in the first two issues, and much later did "Disk-Eyes the Detective". Readers got to look at Al Avison's Whizzer, with his now-notorious origin (super-speed gained via the blood transfusion of a mongoose). The Black Widow showed up in issue #5. And issue #5 also had the outstandingly-illustrated "Roko the Amazing." But on the whole the heroes appearing in USA for the first five issues were a motley and undistinguished group, and with issue #6 they were shouldered aside by Captain America and the Destroyer, who could be relied upon to bring in readers and increase sales.

One of comics' great What-Ifs takes place during early 1941. During the production of Captain America Comics #2 Joe Simon located some new talent to work for Timely. One of the new artists was Reed Crandall, who had previously been working for the Eisner-Iger shop. His work impressed Simon, who had him ink parts of three stories in Captain America #2. Crandall later went on to achieve comics immortality with his work for Quality Comics, and it's tantalizing to ponder what would have happened had Goodman's page rates been a little higher and had Crandall stayed at Timely.

Around this time, or shortly thereafter, Sub-Mariner Comics #1 hit the newsstands. Sub-Mariner Comics was Timely's third book devoted to a central character, rather than being an anthology title like Daring Mystery and USA Comics. There were some differences between the Torch's title, though, and Sub-Mariner Comics. For one, Namor was not given a costumed kid side-kick, which was almost de rigeur for prominent superheroes during the Golden Age; the kids reading the comics (so the reasoning went) had to have someone to identify with. Although Superman never got one, he did have Jimmy Olsen, who more or less fulfilled that function. But Batman had one, Captain Marvel had a couple (Captain Marvel, Jr., Mary Marvel, and the Lieutenants Marvel), Captain America had one, and the Human Torch had one, among many others. Why the Sub-Mariner was not given one to start his own book (he eventually picked up one - Subbie - see Kid Komics, below, for information on him) is a good question; most likely it's because, at this point in time, Namor was still more of a villain than a hero, and it wouldn't have looked good to have a bad guy with a kid sidekick.

As well, where Human Torch Comics started out in an anthology format, with features like "Microman" and the "Patriot," Sub-Mariner Comics featured only the Sub-Mariner and the Angel. This might reflect Goodman and/or Simon fiddling with the format of the newer book, to see whether Sub-Mariner was a strong enough character to carry a book by himself, without the jungle and western and magician add-on features so common to many books of the time. Or it could be that Goodman/Simon felt that Sub-Mariner wasn't strong enough to carry the book by himself, and so put the Angel in the book (one Angel story appeared for every two Sub-Mariner stories in Sub-Mariner Comics - something of an indignity for the book's title character) to prop up sales. I would tend to believe the former, rather than the latter, is true, given the clearly superior quality of the Sub-Mariner stories, but this is another small, but interesting, question that may never be answered.

Timely's staff was increasing at this point, with the increased work-load requiring more employees, and at some point in that spring a young man by the name of Stanley Lieber, the nephew of Martin Goodman, started work for Timely. He started out as the office gopher, then began doing text pieces, and then moved from there to back-up strips. His first story was in Captain America Comics #3, and while he used a number of pseudonyms for his work during this time, the one that stuck was the one that nearly everyone knows him by: Stan Lee.

Captain America #3 was memorable for two other reasons: it was the great Alex Schomburg's first cover on Captain America, and it featured the return of a character who would become a comic book immortal and icon of pure evil: the Red Skull. The Skull had appeared in Captain America Comics #1, and had died in that issue, but he was apparently such a favorite of both staff and fans that he was brought back in #3, and quickly become Cap's archenemy.

The summer of 1941 was busy for the Timely staff. Goodman's books were turning a profit, and he told Joe Simon to come up with another book. It was originally going to be called All-Aces Comics, and would include characters who were proven winners for Timely - Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Torch, and so on; Goodman most likely was inspired by the sales figures of All-Star Comics from All-American, which featured Hawkman, the Flash, the Spectre, and other stars of the National line (Goodman was not to be inspired by the idea of All-Star Comics centerpiece, the Justice Society of America, for some years). By the time the book hit the newstands it had acquired a new title: All-Winners Comics.

All-Winners Comics did, indeed, feature Timely's proven characters (although for some reason the Black Marvel, a thoroughly unremarkable character, appeared in issue #1 - that's him on the cover of issue #1, above the Sub-Mariner): Captain America, the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, the Destroyer, and the Whizzer. The first two issues of All-Winners also had Joe Simon and Jack Kirby working on them, and Bill Everett worked on the first five issues, which did not hurt sales.

Captain America, by this time, was more popular than any other Timely character, and was selling over a million issues a month. Naturally, spin-offs were warranted. Kirby and Simon came up with a teen gang, the Sentinels of Liberty, led by Bucky. The Sentinels were a hit with the kids, and a real-life Sentinels of Liberty fan club was started, based on the comic book idea, complete with a Sentinels of Liberty news page in the comics themselves. This, too, brought Goodman a tidy profit, and it proved so popular that Goodman ordered a book devoted just to kids. This book was done by Simon and Kirby and was Young Allies#1.

The Young Allies were Bucky, Toro, and a group of kids from New York City: Knuckles, Whitewash, Tubby, and Jeff. Joe Simon got the idea for the book's name from Boy Allies, a favorite childhood book of his, and Kirby drew on his own experience, recreating in a comic book his neighborhood gang. The book was also undoubtedly influenced by the Dead End Kids movies of the late 1930s.

Young Allies #1 was the first of comics' action "kid gang" comics - another of the genres (like romance comics) that Simon and Kirby were instrumental in creating. Young Allies was somewhat different from other kid gang books like Boy Commandos and kid gangs like DC's Newsboy Legion and Lev Gleason's Little Wise Guys, and so was slightly atypical for the genre; nearly every other kid gang group had the superhero in the guardian/father role (the Newsboy Legion had the Guardian, and the Little Wise Guys had Daredevil), but two of the members of the Young Allies - Toro and Bucky - were superheroes themselves. Because of this Young Allies is more of a superhero book than a kid-gang-in-the-city book, as its imitators were. But for all of that, Young Allies still remains the comic that established the kid gang genre, and Simon and Kirby the pair that created the book and the genre. (As a side note, Simon & Kirby tried to duplicate their success with Young Allies later, with Tough Kid Squad, which was cover dated March 1942 and was likely among the last work that Simon & Kirby did for Timely before leaving. Tough Kid Squad was, to quote Steranko, "considerably less distinguished than its predecessor," and was cancelled after one issue.)

Whitewash was Timely's first recurring African-American character, but, unfortunately, he was a stereotype. This was common practice during the Golden Age; when African-Americans characters were portrayed, they were stereotyped as child-like, as with Ebony, in Will Eisner's "Spirit" stories, and with C.C. Beck's Steamboat, Captain Marvel's "valet" in Fawcett's Whiz and Captain Marvel Adventures. One can say that this was the practice at the time, which it was; one can say that the 1930s and 1940s were much less enlightened than the 1990s, which they were; and one can say that Kirby, Eisner, and Beck meant well, and tried to give Whitewash et al positive characteristics. All of that is true, and we shouldn't try to impose 1990s moralities on people from past generations. Even so, Whitewash remains a stereotype.

Young Allies #1 was the first work for Timely of Otto Binder, who would go on to become one of the most prolific and inventive of all Golden Age comic book writers.

Early fall of 1941 saw Human Torch Comics #5 - its second #5. Human Torch Comics, as mentioned above, had started life as Red Raven Comics #1, becoming Human Torch Comics with #2. Human Torch Comics #5 (the first one) had appeared in early summer of 1941, and, apparently, Goodman/Simon decided that a book with the #5 on the cover should have five issues published, so a second Human Torch Comics #5 appeared in the early fall. However, the second #5 was significant for more than just the repeated number; it featured a 64-page battle between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, who (with his Atlantean army) was trying to destroy the surface world. This issue sold very well, and eventually became known as the Torch-Namor battle.

Towards the end of 1941 Simon and Kirby had done ten issues of Captain America and made him Timely's most popular book; it was selling on a level only Superman and Batman could touch. Simon and Kirby were not, however, pleased with Timely. Both Simon and Kirby were acting as editors and art directors, and between those jobs and their work - not only for Timely, but for other companies (Kirby and Simon were continuing to work on Blue Bolt, for one) - their schedules were quite busy - Kirby was doing up to nine pages a day. Worse still, from their point of view, they were getting relatively little money, despite the popularity of Captain America Comics.

Then Morris Coyne, Timely's accountant, let Simon & Kirby know that, despite their contract with Goodman - the one they'd made before they agreed to do Captain America - they still weren't getting their proper share of the book's profits, and that Goodman had been misleading them. (Coyne's reason for telling Simon and Kirby this was simple: he had holdings in the MLJ line of comics, and most likely thought that, if Simon & Kirby left Timely, they'd go to MLJ - whose publisher, John Goldwater, had once already tried to lure the pair away from Timely, during the meeting over the shape of Captain America's shield)

Naturally, Simon and Kirby were unhappy about this. They immediately got in touch with Jack Liebowitz, the publisher of National Comics. Liebowitz jumped at the chance to employ the pair, and he offered to double their salaries, to $500 a week. (To put this in prospective, the median salary, in 1941, was $2000 a year) Simon & Kirby agreed, continuing their work for Timely during the day while secretly doing pages for National at night.

Stan Lee grew suspicious and started investigating, quizzing Simon & Kirby and finally tailing them to the hotel where they worked on their pages for National. He grilled them on what they were doing, and after they swore him to secrecy they told him about their impending move to National.

Lee went to his uncle, Martin Goodman, and told him about Simon & Kirby's imminent departure. Goodman confronted the pair, and when they confessed, he fired them. We can only wonder how comics would have turned out had Goodman paid Simon and Kirby as they deserved; while we would never have seen their Guardian, the Sandman, the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos, and the other characters they did for National and other companies, in all likelihood they would have produced work of equal or higher value for Timely.

With the departure of Simon and Kirby Timely was left without an Editor-in-Chief and an Art Director. Stan Lee took over both positions, completing his move from the bottom of the company, as gopher, to almost the top in less than a year's time.

And then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and everything changed.
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