When Marvel Was Timely. Part 1: The Second-Stringers.
(originally published in the Fall 1998 issue of Once Upon A Dime)

In the 1940s Marvel Comics weren’t Marvel Comics.

They 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.

One 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.

Then 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?

Readers 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’ minds.

The 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.

But 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 creators.

Perhaps 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.

But 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.

However, 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.

Marvel’s 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.

-- Jason Sacks

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