Sunday, September 6, 2009

Retro Review - Marvel Comics #1

Summer is coming to an end. Where did it go? Did we really even have it? Seems like by the time it stopped raining and got hot that it was nearly September. Well the weather may not have been too bright but one of the bright parts of my comic reading summer was Marvel celebrating their 70th anniversary by giving us lots of Golden Age goodness. For the past several months Marvel has been giving us one shots of titles that they published when they were Timely Comics back in the 30’s and 40’s. They have given us Captain America, All Winners, Marvel Mystery, and Mystic just to name a few. Each issue has a story created by a contemporary team in the Golden Age style and a reprint of at least one actual GA story. It is great stuff and I highly recommend grabbing a few next time you are at CBJ! They are well worth your time.

One thing that seems to be common to most comic collectors is a curiosity about the history of comics. It seems that you can’t read comics for more than a short time before you begin to ask questions about the history of this wonderful hobby. Of course the first thing new readers ask about are the various origins of their favorite characters. How did Batman become Batman? How did Spidey get his powers. That sort of thing. But in short order neophite readers become familiar with the fictional histories of their favorite books. Soon they begin to hear phrases like Golden Age, Silver Age, and Bronze Age. They become aware that some comics are worth near a million dollars and want to know why. They hear names like Jack Kirby and Bob Kane and want to know more about them. They hear that Marvel was Timely and then Atlas and THEN Marvel but Timely published Marvel Comics #1. Which just makes them scratch their heads!

I have been collecting comics since 1961 and I am STILL fascenated by all of those things!
So with all this in mind I am going to focus some attention, from time to time, on the history of comics and retro reviews. Today I am going to talk a bit about Marvel Comics #1 which was published in 1939.

Do you happen to have $460,000 sitting in a draw somewhere? Neither do I but that is what a mint copy of Marvel Comics #1 would cost you today. That is if one actually even came up for auction in that condition. I suspect that if one did become available in a higher grade that it might actually top ONE MILLION DOLLARS! Fortunately for me, since I don’t have ane extra mil laying around, Marvel did a lovely hard cover reprint of Marvel Comics #1 back in 1990. It was about the best twenty bucks I ever spent on a hard cover. Instead of just giving us the lead stories, Marvel actually reprinted the entire book!

And what a book it was!

That first issue of Marvel Comics (later retitled to Marvel Mystery Comics) from Timely gave us not one but TWO brand new characters who would be major additions to the pantheon of Superheroes. Heroes who resonate in the Marvel Universe to this day.

I am speaking, of course about The Human Torch and Namor, The Submariner! Imagine two characters of such stature, of such power, of such rollickin charisma getting their start in the same book!!! And Subby didn’t even have a costume, just a bathing suit!

So come back with me now to those halycon days of a Depression riddled America when children ( and a few adults I am sure) plunked down their hard earned dimes for this comic and with trembling hands began to read history!

The first thing that stands out about this book is the marvellous cover. Marvel Comics #1 features a blazing Human Torch melting through what looks like a vault door in pursuit of a rather collegiate looking bad guy. How do I know he is a bad guy? Well he is shooting at the guy who is on fire, that’s how! AND the bullet merely melts away. What a hook! If that was not enough the cover blurb says:

This Month:
“The Human Torch”
“The Angel”
“Masked Raider”

But that’t not all, because in the lower left corner, as if it were a throw in, we see:

“Ka-zar The Great” 12 Pages of Jungle Adventure.

WOW five big stories for a dime!

The lead story was Carl Burgos great creation, the Human Torch.

The story opens with Professor Horton is holding a conference with the press, ready to reveal his creation to the world - the first android. He reveals that there is just a “little” bug in the mechanical man. Leading the press into the lab, Horton points to a man in an air-tight, glass cage whom he calls The Human Torch. When air is let into the chamber, the man's entire body catches fire. The press in the room demand him to destroy his creation.

The Human Torch is sealed within a steal tube which is then sealed in a block of concrete. Horton vows to find the secret to controlling the flame.

Some time later there is an explosion outside Horton's bedroom window. He finds the Torch gone. It is revealed that there was a slow oxygen leak in the steel tube. The Torch runs through the streets of the city, confused as to why everything he touches catches on fire. Some firemen douse him with water, but it just turns into steam. Realizing he is causing damage, the Torch dives into a pool in an effort to put out the flame.

Inside the house with the pool, there are two men who realize the Torch could be worth a lot of money, if used correctly. They try to con the innocent Human Torch int a life od crime. Of course he quickly discovers that his benefactors are “bad men” and burns down their house before flying off.

By this time The Torch learns to control his flame but explains that humans will always fear him and so he cannot stay with his creator who now only sees him as a way to make money. He flies away to freedom and an uncertain future.

This is a great origin story with all of the elements that would make the Torch such an enduring character. It is important to note, however that after this story the Torch is rarely referred to as an Android or robot. In fact the writers at the time seem to have all dismissed that part of his origin and treat him as if he really were “Human”.

After an adventure of The Angel, who seems to be based loosley on Errol Flynn in a rather silly looking costume, comes the next seismic event in Marvel Comics #1, the introduction of Bill Everett’s Submariner.

A salvage diver is the S.S. Salvage vessel are working a wreck for treasure when he finds an ancient knife and brings down another diver. They search the wreckage and then they are attacked by Namor, the Sub-Mariner! He savagely attacks both men, stabbing one and crushing the diving helmet of the other. Namor then turns his attention to the ship, wrecking the propeller and running it aground. He heads back to his underwater home, where he is greeted by the "Holy One" who commends him on his attack against the humans. Namor brings the bodies of the two divers as trophies. His mother, Fen, congratulates him on beginning his war of revenge in such a decisive manner. Namor asks her to tell him the story of their past once again, and why their people hate the white earth men so much.

She explains that in the year 1920, a research vessel called the Oracle had journeyed to Antarctica and was doing "experiments" with explosives that killed many of their fellow citizens. Since Fen looked most like a human, she was sent to find out more about what was going on. She fell in love with Capt. Leonard McKenzie, and she became pregnant by him. The sailors could not understand how she was able to swim in the freezing water. She learned their language and sent back messages to the undersea army that the white men were too strong for them, but they sent an army to fight them anyway. The white men annihilated the attack force, and now, 20 years later, they are ready once again to press an attack against them, and Namor will begin this war.
Later, he takes his cousin Dorma with him to make an attack on the Cape Anna Lighthouse. Once there, they attack the guards who stand watch on the lighthouse and wreak havoc on the controls and equipment hoping to destroy some of the ships that use it's beacon for safety. Some naval men come on the scene, and in order to escape, Namor and Dorma commandeer a bi-plane which flies nearby, killing the pilot. Dorma wrecks the plane as Namor swims back home in the ocean.

Everett’s art is nothing short of brilliant. Even with the limitations of a four color process and the coarse paper that comics were printed on, Bill is able to make great use of shading, shadows and lighting. His characters show a wide range of facial expression. This sort of output was of uncommon quality at the time. In fact it is STILL wonderful to look at Bill Everett’s art. Bill would actually continue to draw his creation, on and off, well into the 70’s!

Another note on The Submariner is that he was originally created for a book called Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly #1 as a give away at local theaters. However the book never came to press and Bill later used the story here in MC #1. Only a few advance copies of Motion Picture Funnies #1 were ever know to have existed at all.

The rest of the book rounds out with a westerrn story featuring Masked Raider (and we all know what THAT is about), Jungle Terror featuring an Indiana Jones type named Ken Masters who flies off to…the Jungle with sidekick Tim Roberts in order to rescue Roberts’ uncle, Professor…errr…Roberts. Finally we are given a Kazar (Tarzan knock off) story. Ka-Zar was quite popular and still appears in comics from time to time in the modern era.

There is also a TEXT only story called Burning Rubber in this issue. Back in the early days of comics, in order to get the bulk mailing rates given to periodicals the publishers had to include at least one prose only story. Later this requirement would be met by the inclusion of a letters page, but these early stories gave such writers as Mickey Spillane their start.

Well there you have it. Marvel Comics #1. Loaded with high adventure stories, all in color and all original. Even today, MC #1 is great funa and I often flip through my beloved reprint to reacquaint myself with all it’s glory. It was the start for a company that would later dominate comics as Marvel.

For those of you who may be interested, there is an Omnibus edition in print that includes a plethora of early Marvel Mystery comics and of course Marvel Comics #1. Ask our pals at CBJ about cost and availability!

And that is, once again…30!

SMALLVILLE – September 25th! Be there!


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