Timely Comics

Originally known as Red Circle Comics, the company which would become better known as Timely Comics (and latterly as Marvel Comics) was founded by Martin Goodman in 1939, and debuted with the launch of Marvel Comics #1. Goodman had previously published pulp magazines (which is where the Red Circle name came from), covering the full gamut of genres of the era - western, detective, science fiction, jungle adventure and so on. In 1939 Goodman was looking for new markets to expand into - he was a publisher looking for stories. As luck would have it, he made the acquaintance of Frank Torpey, a salesman working for Funnies Incorporated, a group of creators looking for a publisher.

At this point in time, the comics field in the U.S. consisted predominately of four publishing companies - Fox Features Syndicate, Centaur Publishers, All-American Comics and National Periodicals (the latter two of whom would later form D.C. Comics). Funnies, Inc. was formed from former staff of Centaur who had left their old jobs with the dreams of foudning their own publishing company. Lacking the finances to do this, they fell back to the option of creating stories for others to own and publish. Since the existing four comic companies already had creative teams producing work for them to publish, Funnies, Inc needed to find someone new.

Marvel Comics, named after Goodman's science-fiction pulp title Marvel Science Stories, saw the introduction of Timely's first superheroes, The Human Torch and The Angel. Ironically, two other heroes in Marvel Comics #1 who were later to be closely associated with Timely / Marvel Comics, the Sub-Mariner and Ka-Zar, actually pre-date the company (see individual entries). Retitled Marvel Mystery Comics with issue 2, the title was a success, and was soon joined on the stands by other titles, such as Daring Mystery Comics. As Goodman's pulps line faded away due to poor sales, his Timely Comics slowly grew. None of the new titles had the success of Marvel Mystery Comics, and Timely might have ended up as just a minor footnote in comics history, had it not been for an idea of two members of the creative team, Bill Everett and Carl Burgos. They decided to have their respective heroes, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, encounter one another and fight, a first for comics, and one that laid the initial building blocks for what would one day become the Marvel Universe. This (for the time) radical concept placed Timely firmly on the map, and saw sales soar, though the company was still small fish compared to the industries' biggies, DC, Fawcett and Quality.

Through the war years Timely rose in eminence as a publisher, helped in no small part by the creation of Captain America, who became their flagship character. However, like their rivals, Timely experienced a sharp down turn in the fortunes of their superhero titles by the end of the decade, caused in large parts by the changing economics of a post-war America. They shifted their focus to other genres.

Another change had happened as the decade progressed. Timely had added a "patriotic shield" to the covers of many of their titles during the war, but this practice died away as time passed. Towards the end of the forties, several of their titles had the logo "Marvel Comic" on them (the final issues of Sub-Mariner Comics, The Human Torch and Captain America [by now retitled Captain America' Weird Tales] all carried this), and the company had basically become Marvel Comics. However, rightly or wrongly, this was not the name that would be associated with them during the subsequent decade. Martin Goodman decided to maximise profits by breaking away from his then-distributor, Kable News, and set up his own distribution company, Atlas News Company, itself a subsidiary of Atlas Publishing. Goodman grouped several companies under this overall banner, including his magazine lines, and, importantly, his comic publishing ventures. By the end of 1951 every title carried an Atlas logo, not a Marvel logo. As a result, however erroneously, the Marvel Comics of the 1950's became known as Atlas Comics.

For a more in-depth history of Timely Comics online, I highly recommend Jess Nevins "Timely Comics Story".

Years later, in the 1960's, Marvel began its big revival and rise to the position of most successful comic book company of them all. At that point some of the Timely characters were revived and brought into this new universe, in much the same manner that D.C. revived their headliners of that past era. D.C. eventually re-started their characters' universe, designating the old stories as having taken place on "Earth-2", in another dimension. Marvel took a different stance. The rule of thumb regarding their characters' earlier adventures became "They probably happened much as they were presented, but not all of them exactly as the comics of the time showed them. Unless and until a modern story confirms them, they are in limbo." Some of the old characters returned to the newstands virtually unchanged, some got only cameos or mentions to acknowledge they had been part of Marvel's history, some underwent significant revisions that established them as virtually new characters, and many have not resurfaced to this day. Please note that while most of these characters were seen to be adventurers in the same era they were published in (e.g. they fought crime and the Axis in the 1940's), some had stories set in other eras (such as the Wild West of the 1880's).

Thanks to Jess Nevins for allowing me to use information from his excellent Golden Age Heroes Directory and his Guide to Golden Age Marvel Characters. Thanks also to Richard Boucher & Darrin Wiltshire @ PR-Publications for permission to use information from their equally brilliant collection of Golden Age Sites, PR Publications. Their knowledge of Golden Age characters far outstrips my own.


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