Marvel Was Timely. Part 1: The Second-Stringers.
(originally published in the Fall
1998 issue of Once Upon A Dime)
the 1940s Marvel Comics weren’t Marvel Comics.
were called Timely Comics, and by and large, their
line was very forgettable. After their big three
heroes of Captain America, the Human Torch and the
Sub-Mariner, most of the rest of Timely’s
heroes were just plain goofy. Unlike DC and Fawcett,
who ruled the roost in that era, none of Timely’s
second tier characters captured the public’s
imagination at all. DC had Hawkman and the Flash
and Starman as second-tier characters, while Fawcett’s
Marvel Family of characters even spawned a funny
animal title in Hoppy
the Marvel Bunny. But Timely, in the 1940s a
second-rate publisher, lagged behind.
good example of Timely’s characters is the
Whizzer. The Whizzer had the amazing power of never
passing a bathroom without stopping – no,
I’m just kidding, he could run really, really
fast. And how did he get this magical power of running
really, really fast? Of course! He was bitten by
a mongoose! Not a radioactive mongoose, that was
for the post-war era. No, it was a plain old mongoose.
I guess mongooses (mongeese?) must run really, really
fast because that’s what the Whizzer did.
Yes, it’s a recipe for disaster, for idiocy
on a really special level. And yet, his origin tale,
a simple little six-page revenge tale, is just charming
and wonderful, naïve in a way that comics today
just couldn’t be.
there’s the Red Raven, a hero who only appeared
once in the Golden Age, in the first and only issue
of his own series. Famously, before Red Raven Comics
#2 was released, publisher Martin Goodman cancelled
the series. It stands to reason that the comic would
have been awful but it really isn’t too bad.
Sure the comic has a goofy premise – a plane
crashes into a mysterious city in the clouds, inhabited
by a race of humans evolved from birds. A young
boy is the only survivor of the crash, and the bird
men raise him as their own. Upon reaching his 20th
birthday, the boy is returned to the world of humans
to fight evil. He immediately encounters the ugly
and evil Zeelmo, who is stealing all the gold in
the world. Thankfully the boy has a costume and
superpowers and can defeat Zeelmo and also save
a beautiful girl. Sure the story is wacky, but who
can resist an evil dictator called Zeelmo?
of Thunderbolts might be familiar with Citizen V.
The Thunderbolts' Citizen V was the grandson of
the hero from the ‘40s. That hero had a couple
of grand, and insanely implausible, adventures.
In one story Citizen V (I just love typing that
goofy old name!) is thrown into jail by the Nazis
after trying to destroy one of their tanks. But
Citizen V’s luck is with him. He happens to
be thrown, Hogan’s Heroes style, into a jail
cell that’s connected to an escape tunnel.
No guards actually watch Citizen V and he has his
costume on in jail, so it’s a small matter
to escape and defeat the evil Nazis with the help
of his V Battalion. Citizen V and his Battalion
only appeared twice in the Golden Age, but obviously
that was enough to stick in some peoples’
Angel has no connection to the X-Men’s winged
wonder except that both heroes occasionally wore
really ugly costumes. (Check
out the modern Angel’s ugliest costume
– complete with a ‘60s Red Raven cameo).
This Angel was a rather goofy rip-off of the pulp
character The Saint, a freelance detective who had
a close relationship with the police. This is one
of the more painful of the Golden Age strips to
read, because the Angel’s stories are uniformly
simple-minded but lack the charm and sincerity of
strips like the Whizzer and Citizen V. Issue after
issue, the Angel would fight sinister Nazi plots
against the United States. And my god, that costume
is ugly! Or perhaps I’ve only read bad Angel
stories. The character had to have been popular
– he appeared more often in Timely comics
than any other second-string costumed hero.
there were a few characters that appeared in very
entertaining stories. Most of those fine stories
were done by Timely’s first string artists.
Bill Everett, creator of the Sub-Mariner, created
a few characters, and the team of Joe Simon and
Jack Kirby created many more. None of them are great,
but all show the talent and enthusiasm of their
the most successful of Everett’s second-stringers
was The Fin. The Fin was secretly Lt. Peter Noble,
a man who could live both above and below water
and therefore had a mission to eradicate as many
ships of the Nazi Navy as he could. True, the Fin
was in many ways a rip-off of Everett’s own
Sub-Mariner, but both characters benefited from
Everett’s outstanding art and wonderful story
sense. The Fin only appeared three times in the
Golden Age, but that’s not because of substandard
story or artwork.
the most successful of all of Timely’s second-stringers
were the characters created by Joe Simon and Jack
Kirby. Simon and Kirby collaborated on dozens of
characters in the Golden Age, none more successful
than their blockbuster creation Captain America.
before Cap came along, Simon and Kirby created the
Golden Age Vision, a mystical entity with a green
face who would fight the forces of the supernatural.
As with all of their stories, Simon and Kirby’s
art is absolutely spectacular: every page seems
to pulse with energy and characters seem constantly
to be exploding out of each page. The stories had
a fun mystical vibe that set them apart from most
Timely series, and the mysterious nature of the
Vision worked very well in short eight-page bursts.
Simon and Kirby also created characters such as
the Destroyer and Hurricane at Timely before moving
to DC to create the Sandman, the Boy Commandos and
many other characters. The pair left Marvel after
DC publisher Jack Liebowitz apparently offered each
of them salaries of $500 a week, over twelve times
the national average at the time.
second-string heroes are neither as wonderful as
DC’s, nor as hokey and stupid as some of their
competitors. Overall they had a solid line of characters.
Marvel’s Golden Age comics are worth seeking
out. The two volume reprint set The Golden Age of
Marvel Comics is a good place to start.