The Timely Comics Story


At the beginning of 1943, in Captain America Comics #33, Captain America and Bucky announced, on the Sentinels of Liberty club page, that the war's metal shortage was such that Timely would no longer be giving away any more of the Captain America badges which new members of the Sentinels of Liberty received. Bucky suggested that the club members use their dimes to buy war savings stamps, instead. Timely then announced that for every dime their readers sent to the War Department, Timely would also send a dime. Although there's no way of knowing how much Timely's offer of matched contributions actually raised for the war effort, it was still a patriotic, and unprecedented, move.

In the summer of 1943 Timely started two more books. The first was All-Surprise, another of Timely's funny animal books. All-Surprise featured Super Rabbit, Gandy and Sourpuss, and issue #11 and Harvey Kurtzman art, but the book is otherwise unremarkable in most respects.

The second book started in the summer of 1943 was All-Select Comics. All-Select was, seemingly, another of Timely's attempts to cash in on the popularity of its star characters; it began with strips featuring Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner - Timely's Big Three - and later expanded to include the Whizzer and the Destroyer. Martin Goodman's favored publishing tactic has been described as "succeeding in a market by flooding it with product," and All-Select Comics would seem to be another example of that.

Which is not to say that All-Select is not without its redeeming qualities. Issue #1 does have a "Black Widow" strip, but, alas, she did not appear in All-Select - or, indeed, in any Timely book whatsoever - again. Alex Schomburg did the covers for the first ten issues, and the book was worth it just for the covers alone (Schomburg, like too many other Golden Age talents, is mostly forgotten today, but he was quite talented, and his covers were, and remain, sui generis. And, finally, the Blonde Phantom and Miss America appeared in the final issue of All-Select - #11, with the book changing its title to Blonde Phantom with issue #12. But, on the whole, All-Select Comics is a mostly-average Timely comic, with sales to match.

1943 and 1944, though, were years of success for Timely, as a look at the magazines it started in 1944 shows: Tessie the Typist, Funny Tunes, Amazing Comics, Comic Capers, Ideal Comics, Super Rabbit, Ziggy Pig-Silly Seal Comics, Daring Comics (the revival of Daring Mystery), Gay Comics, Mystic Comics (volume 2), Miss America Comics (which became Miss America Magazine with its second issue). That's 11 books - one less than Timely had launched from 1941 to 1943.

Timely had the money and desire to launch all these books. There were a number of reasons for this.

Despite the departure of Simon, Kirby, Lee, and some other notables to the armed services, Timely had other talents to pick up their slack: Otto Binder, Will Woolfolk, Alex Schomburg, Syd Shores, and Mike Sekowsky, among others.

There was a shortage of paper for all publishers, due to the war-time paper rationing, but Goodman's attorney, Jerry Perles, somehow managed to persuade the War Office that Timely needed as much paper during the war as it had needed before the war.

Timely dropped most of its pulps, which had never sold well, and concentrated on its comics, which were selling well.

The funny animal books were seen as being easier to do, and so Timely paid lower page rates to the writers and artists of those books, which meant that they were proportionally more profitable than superhero books.

The books themselves sold decently for Timely, and each had something to recommend them. Tessie the Typist had Basil Wolverton art, with Harvey Kurtzman's work appearing later in the book's run. Funny Tunes, Ideal Comics, Super Rabbit, and Ziggy Pig-Silly Seal Comics, had Timely's funny animals in them, including the very popular Super Rabbit. Amazing Comics had only one issue before turning into Complete Comics, which itself only lasted one issue, but both books had Alex Schomburg covers and featured the Destroyer, the Whizzer, and the Young Allies. Daring Comics volume 2 featured most of Marvel's Big Guns (the Human Torch, Toro, the Sub-Mariner, the Angel, and the Destroyer) as well as having Alex Schomburg covers later in the run. Gay Comics, like Tessie the Typist, was full of the work of Wolverton and Harvey Kurtzman. Mystic Comics volume 2, like the second incarnation of Daring, had many of Marvel's most popular characters (the Angel, the Destroyer, the Human Torch, and the Young Allies later in the run), along with Terry Vance the Schoolboy Sleuth and Tommy Tyme, two strips aimed at kids.

Timely also discovered a new market for comic books: girls. Their first original female hero, Miss America, had debuted in Marvel Mystery Comics #49, in November 1943 (Miss Fury, of course, not being original to Timely, and the Black Widow being more of an antiheroine than heroine). Although she was basically a more powerful version of Captain America, response to her appearances was positive, so much so that in fall of 1944 she got her own book, Miss America Comics. (Later still, in December, 1945, she was given her own, ten-part serial adventure in Marvel Mystery - something almost unheard of, not just in Timely, but in comics in general, in which the long-running serial cliffhanger form, with a few, rare-but-memorable exceptions (such as the immortal "Monster Society of Evil" saga in Fawcett's Captain Marvel Adventures), simply didn't exist during the war)

Miss America Comics proved almost instantly popular. Then, for whatever reason, Timely changed both the name of the book (from Miss America Comics to Miss America Magazine) and the direction (away from superheroics and towards items of interest to teenage girls in 1944 - clothes, makeup, cooking, movies, humor, etc). (It also debuted Patsy Walker, Buzz Baxter, and Hedy Wolfe, characters who would reappear in Marvel Comics, decades later) Miss America Magazine became, if anything, even more popular, and Timely, in 1945, began putting out more books devoted to the teenage girl market, including Patsy Walker, Millie the Model, and Nellie the Nurse.

Captain America's popularity and success even led to a film; in 1944 Republic Pictures, purveyors of fine serials, released Captain America, which although bearing relatively little resemblance to the comic book character (no shield, a female assistant, and Steve Rogers being a District Attorney rather than a soldier) was still a box office success.

In a broader sense, of course, the war years were the high point for the Golden Age of comics (as I define the Golden Age). Despite the shortages of paper and talent, comic books were selling like never before. Funny animal comics sold well with younger children who might not be interested in superhero comics. The government was shipping comics overseas, and those in the armed forces were buying comics at a huge rate (comics, at PXs, outsold "respectable" magazines like Saturday Evening Post & Life by ten to one). Because so many teenagers (and children) had entered the workforce (the war having taken away so many of the adult male workers), they had more cash to spend than had been the case in earlier years.

And, finally, it just seemed to be comics' time. Almost regardless of quality, comics were selling; it may have been the allure of a relatively new type of entertainment, or it might have been the quality of the better books, but comics sold. A lot. Newsweek, in a late 1943 article, stated that comic book publishers sold 25 million copies monthly and totalled $30 million in sales in 1943.

But such success couldn't last, and unfortunately, it didn't.

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