Golden Age Marvel Comics: A Timely Intro To Heroes & Villains

Have you ever wondered how Captain America and Bucky met? Have you ever thought about the origins of what we now refer to as the “Marvel Universe?” Prepare yourselves, True Believers! I, the Timely Comics Watchamacallit, though unable to interfere in Golden Age Marvel events, have watched diligently. I watched as Timely Comics was born in four fantastic colours in 1939. I watched heroes like the original Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner battle mobster after inadequate mobster. I watched the first Marvel hero-on-hero battle. I watched mobsters and con-men cede their roles as Timely villains to foreign leaders like Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. And I watched as these propagandistic issues that encouraged young men to enlist and children to spy on fifth columnists gave way to a renewed sense of innocence that paved the way for funny animal and romance cartoons.

From the fiery introduction of Carl Burgos‘s Human Torch in Marvel Comics #1 (October, 1939) to Namor’s judging a baby contest in Marvel Mystery Comics #89 (December, 1948), I watched. Here’s what I saw …

Golden Age Marvel – Timely Finds Its Niche

Reviewing the contents of Marvel Comics #1, if not for the inconsistent art and the corny dialogue, you might think you’re looking at a Silver or Bronze Age comic for all the familiar names: the Human Torch, Namor, Ka-Zar, and the Angel. But, although Golden Age Namor is simply a younger version of the feathered fish-man we landlubbers see today, the Human Torch, the Angel, and Ka-Zar are not.

Golden Age Marvel – The Original Human Torch

The misleadingly named Human Torch, brainchild of Carl Burgos, is actually an android who eventually names himself “Jim Hammond.” Created by Professor Phineas Horton, Jim  becomes a police officer who routinely goes above and beyond the call of duty. As a template for a superhero, the original Human Torch is an odd one, though typical of Golden Age Marvel heroes. Jim is brutal in his meting out of justice: on more than one occasion he uses his flaming body to scald criminals to death or burn them alive. In fact, though later stories featuring the Golden Age Human Torch sought to amend this chapter in his life, the android actually murders his creator in a Frankenstein’s monster type rage.

Golden Age Marvel – The Sub-Mariner

Bill Everett‘s Namor similarly starts off by showing us his dark side in Marvel Comics #1. Namor happens upon two salvage divers, and, initially mistaking them for robots, severs their oxygen lines, stabs one diver, and crushes the helmet of the other. Both men die at the undersea prince’s hands. When the divers’ shipmates investigate, Namor destroys their ship.

When Namor brings the two dead divers back to his mother Fen, she tells Namor that he is the offspring of a union between herself and Commander Leonard McKenzie, the man in charge of an American scientific vessel named The Oracle. As Namor’s mother describes, during the course of the ship’s scientific investigations, the ship’s crew inadvertently destroyed the majority of their undersea kingdom. So Namor’s mother commands him to wage a war on all “earth-men” to wreak their bloody vengeance. Namor, along with his cousin Dorma, attacks a lighthouse and high-jacks a plane, tossing the pilot out of the aircraft.

Golden Age Marvel – Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great

Golden Age Ka-Zar’s first appearance in Marvel Comics #1 shows a character that readers are more likely to sympathize with. Drawn and illustrated by Ben Thompson and based on the character created by untraced pseudonym Bob Byrd, David Rand is a three-year old boy en route to Cairo with his parents John and Constance Rand when their plane goes down in the Belgian Congo. Constance eventually succumbs to a tropical fever and dies. And, after a tree falls on his father’s head, John tells David the jungle is their home.

David learns how to communicate with animals, and, after rescuing a lion named Zar from a pit of quicksand, he and the lion become respectful comrades. Shortly after the lion’s rescue, David and his father find a group of men sifting for gold and gems in a nearby river. The group of men is led by Paul De Kraft.

John Rand and De Kraft get in an argument. David stops De Kraft from shooting John in the back by shooting De Kraft in the arm with an arrow. But De Kraft, having found emeralds in the stream, vows to take care of John and David. Later, David finds his father wounded by gunfire. But before De Kraft is able to murder father and son, Zar the lion scares De Kraft away. John Rand is too far gone and dies of his wounds. But, Zar, taking pity on the jungle orphan, invites David to share his cave. And, in the language of the animals Zar renames David “Ka-Zar,” meaning “brother of Zar”.

Golden Age Marvel – The Angel

Now for Paul Gustavson‘s creation, the Golden Age Angel. Compared to Namor, the Human Torch, and Ka-Zar, The Angel is likely the least similar to his Silver Age counterpart. Clad in red, white, and blue (later red, gold, and blue), The Angel is Dr. Thomas Halloway, a renowned surgeon who moonlights as a crime-fighter. With no wings to speak of, The Angel leaves a permanent silhouette at the scenes of his capers as a reminder to keep on the up and up.

The Angel’s first effort to clean up the streets results in the deaths of six mobsters (three murdered by The Angel, two who killed each other, and one who fell out a window while trying to escape The Angel’s special brand of justice, i.e. no due process). It’s revealed that the mobsters’ deaths were orchestrated by a secret seventh mobster (interested in 100% of his criminal septet’s take rather than the paltry 14% he agreed to) who is clumsily revealed in a couple of very wordy panels at the end of the story. This practice of wrapping a story up using boring and wordy exposition was, unfortunately, very common practice in the Golden Age.

Golden Age Marvel – And the Rest…

Marvel Comics #1 also featured The Masked Raider (a Lone Ranger type who wears a black bandana over his face and seeks to bring law and order to USA’s old west, created by Al Anders), a relatively racist and, thankfully, self-contained knock-off of the “Ka-Zar” formula named “Jungle Terror” by Arthur Pinajian (pseudonym Tohm Dixon), and, a staple of Golden Age comicbooks, the inevitable prose story (this one by Ray Gill concerning auto racing is entitled “Burning Rubber”).

Golden Age Marvel – Just the Beginning

These classic characters, some more memorable than others, helped shape the Timely Comics model. The heroes-cum-executioners of the Golden Age exhibit the same level of moral aversion to mobsters’ misdeeds as Spider-Man; it’s just their methods that differ.

Over the next few years, Timely’s publisher Martin Goodman pushed his staff to come up with super-powered characters that would rival the “Distinguished Competition‘s,” then operating under two corporate entities, National Allied Publications and Detective Comics, Inc. By the time Marvel Comics #1 hit the stands, National and DC, which eventually merged in 1946, had already introduced what became their two heaviest hitters, Superman (June, 1938) and Batman (May, 1939). As the years went by, artists and writers with names like Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and many others, including the ones mentioned above, added their own marks to the Timely Comics brand, creating characters that would stick around for decades … and some who didn’t.

If you want to know more about some characters that didn’t stand the test of time, check out my article on Timely Comics’ top ten B-Listers and sidekicks! Still not enough? Check out my articles on familiar Marvel names with unfamiliar Golden Age faces, the Golden Age origins of Cap and Bucky, the Golden Age Civil War, and the Golden Age origin of the Marvel Universe. And, never forget to keep ’em flying.

Michael Bedford
Michael Bedford
Under intense scrutiny by the Temporal Authorities, I was coerced into actualizing my capsule in this causality loop. Through no fault of my own, I am marooned on this dangerous yet lovely level-four civilization. Stranded here, I have spent most of my time learning what I can of the social norms and oddities of the Terran species, including how to properly use the term "Hipster" and how to perform a "perfect pour." Under the assumed name of "Michael Bedford," I have completed BA's with specialized honours in both theatre studies and philosophy, and am currently saving up for enough galactic credits to buy a new--or suitably used--temporal contextualizer ... for a friend.