When Marvel Was Timely, Part II: The Big Three
(first published Winter 1998 issue of Once Upon A Dime)

The king of Atlantis. A robot who could burst into flames. And America’s first super-soldier. The Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and Captain America were by far the most popular heroes to emerge from Timely Comics in the 1940s. Timely, which would in the 1960s become known as Marvel Comics, was a second-tier publisher during World War II. Their line consisted of a number of second-rate characters, as mentioned in my earlier article “Timely Seconds”; only the big three characters really captured the imagination of the comics fans of the era. The big three Timely characters were unique and exciting creations, graced with art that was generally better than what was normal in the era, and full of vibrant action.

No character better exemplified the dynamic style of 1940s Marvel than Captain America. As originally drawn by the legendary team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Cap and his young partner Bucky fought endless battles against Nazi saboteurs and the evil Red Skull. Captain America’s origin is well-known by most comics fans. Milquetoast Steve Rogers, too scrawny and weak to join the military in the days before World War II, volunteers to be bombarded by the mysterious vita-rays and be transformed into America’s first super soldier. Immediately after getting his vita-ray treatment, Rogers sees their inventor, Dr. Reinstein, killed by a Nazi spy. Avenging Reinstein’s death by throwing the spy onto the exploding vita-ray generator, Rogers dons the star-spangled uniform of Captain America in order to fight the Nazi evil wherever it may rise. Soon Rogers is inducted into the Army, where the young camp mascot Bucky Barnes discovers his identity. Those being more innocent times, Cap enlists Bucky as his fighting partner, who would fight at Cap’s side against endless groups of Nazis and the evil Red Skull.

The Skull, of course, would end up being Cap’s greatest enemy after his revival in the 1960s, but his earliest appearances were the spookiest. Simon and Kirby depicted the Skull as a malevolent glowing beet-red spirit of Nazi evil. Always playing Chopin’s Funeral March as he attacked the forces of good, the Red Skull was seemingly intelligent and comprehensive in his plans, making the character seem far more evil than he would under his Silver Age creators.

Cap and Bucky were perhaps the most popular of all the many great creations of the Simon & Kirby team in the Golden Age and it’s easy to see why. Kirby’s art has long been synonymous with action and excitement, and in the adventures of Cap, Kirby may have hit his Golden Age apex. Action seemed to explode out of every panel.

Equally as memorable as Cap and Bucky was the mysterious Namor, the Sub-Mariner, king of Atlantis. As created and sumptuously drawn by Bill Everett, Namor was unique among other "heroes" of the time. He was regal and imperious, an avenging spirit seeking vengeance against the evils done to Atlantis by the dwellers on the surface world. In his earliest appearances, the Sub-Mariner was a marauding super-human spirit of vengeance, loosing his anger at New York City and other large American cities.


As the Second World War approached, Namor changed to the side of the Allies. Most of his stories from that era depicted the Sub-Mariner battling the Nazi menace.

Everett’s art was some of the finest of any artist in the Golden Age. His angular linework and lively rendering helped make the Sub-Mariner into one of the most exotic of all the Golden Age heroes. Few artists have been as successful as Everett at depicting undersea scenes – the setting really comes alive under his penciling.

The final of the big three is the Human Torch. Ironically, the Torch isn’t actually a human, but is actually a robot (or “a synthetic man” as he’s described in his first appearance) created by the genius Professor Horton. The robot is perfect in every way, except for one flaw: when exposed to the air, it bursts into flame. When this fearsome flaw is discovered, it’s decided to encase the Torch in a steel tube and bury him in the ground. That works until an explosion happens near the tube and the Torch escapes, inadvertently creating a trail of terror. Finally, he encounters a gangster and defeats him, in the progress of the battle learning how to control his flame. Almost more the script of a horror movie than the template for an action hero, it’s a unique and interesting origin. Later on the Torch would take on a civilian identity with the New York Police Department. He would also bring in his own teen companion, Thomas Raymond, or “Toro,” who was a former circus performer who also was able to burst into flame and fight evil-doers.

Artist Carl Burgos was nowhere near the level of Everett or Simon and Kirby. The first Human Torch story in Marvel Comics #1, in fact, contains strikingly amateurish artwork. But Burgos improved over the years and eventually became quite competent at depicting action scenes. Besides, the visual of a man on fire fighting crime or Nazis was always an exciting image.

Perhaps the best-remembered Timely Golden Age books are the epic battles fought between the Torch and the Sub-Mariner. It’s only natural that heroes representing fire and water would find themselves at odds with each other, especially since one was a policeman and the other the king of an empire dedicated to destroying the surface world. Their conflicts consumed many pages of Marvel Mystery Comics, with fights in zoos, on skyscrapers and on the Brooklyn Bridge. But soon, a new menace would come to appear, a menace that would cause the men to become friends and allies: the Nazis.

It’s hard to overestimate the extent of the Nazi menace in Timely Comics during the War. The Nazis, and to a somewhat lesser extent the Japanese, were the adversaries of Cap, the Torch and Namor from the days before Pearl Harbor to the period immediately after the war. The three were constantly uncovering evil plots to destroy the American way of life, endlessly fighting bizarre menaces in order to defend America.

After the war, super-heroes began fading. Westerns, romances, crime and horror comics began to move to the forefront. The stories of the big three became more and more lackluster as top talent devoted its talent elsewhere. By 1950 all three characters had faded into obscurity. Cap even saw his solo comic renamed Captain America’s Weird Tales before it was cancelled in 1950. Except for an ill-fated and short-lived revival of the three characters in 1954, all three faded away until super-heroes re-emerged at Marvel in the 1960s.

When they were good, they were outstanding, but when they were bad they could be pretty awful. Timely Comics featured some great art and story by the likes of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, John Romita, Russ Heath, Mike Sekowsky, Mickey Spillane, Stan Lee and many others. They also featured the work of hundreds of journeyman cartoonists and writers who did dull, uninspired work. Still, even if there had never been a Marvel Comics in the 1960s, the Timely books will still be worth reading. They represent a long-lost era.

--Jason Sacks


For more articles by Jason Sacks, check out his personal web site.


Front Page Fan Fiction History Golden Moments Couragous Outtakes