Martin Goodman had a knack for following trends. The son of Russian immigrants, and the eldest of thirteen children, he had spent much of his young life during the Great Depression travelling the USA and living in hobo camps. In 1929 he got into the magazine business, and within three years he had risen to the position of editor with Newsstand Publications. In 1939, however, he saw a growing trend that was to make him his fortune.
Comic books were on the rise, particularly those featuring costumed heroes. Foremost among them was Action Comics, published by DC1, which featured Superman. Depicted on the front cover of his first appearance lifting a car over his head while wearing a colourful strongman's outfit, Superman was many times more powerful than an ordinary person, and he caught the public's imagination like nothing in comic books ever had before. He was the first super-hero, though far from the last. A wave of brightly clad imitators appeared in 1939, and Martin Goodman was quick to seize his opportunity. He formed his own company, Timely Publications, and hired comic book workshop Funnies Inc. to produce his first comic. The result was Marvel Comics #1.
Marvel Comics featured the debuts of a number of super-powered characters. The Human Torch, created by Carl Burgos, was an android whose skin would burst into flame upon contact with air. His intentions were good, but he spent most of his first story rampaging through New York, melting everything he passed by. Namor the Sub-Mariner was the creation of Bill Everett. Namor was the prince of undersea Atlantis, and he was far from heroic. His first act in the story is to murder a pair of American deep sea divers, and from there he declares war on the surface world. In many ways he was the anti-Superman, a powerful being alien to our society who wanted nothing more than to tear it down.
There were other heroes in addition to Namor and the Torch. The Angel was a costumed crimefighter with no special powers. Ka-Zar was a shameless Tarzan knock-off. But it was the Torch and Namor that were the biggest hits. Marvel Comics #1 sold out of its initial print run of 80,000, and the second printing sold a whopping 800,000. Martin Goodman had made it.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Goodman started building his own in-house staff, hiring Funnies Inc. writer-artist Joe Simon as his editor. The line flourished under Simon, and although Timely's comics were often crude in comparison to what was being produced by other publishers, they made up for that lack of polish with an unbridled sense of anarchic glee. The difference can best be summed up by a comparison between the first time two Timely characters crossed over, and the first time characters from DC's stable met. When DC launched the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3, featuring the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and more, their first meeting involved the characters sitting politely around a table, taking turns to tell stories about their adventures. When the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner met for the first time, it was a no-holds barred slugfest which resulted in the flooding of the Hudson Tunnel and the destruction of George Washington Bridge.
Simon, while working for Funnies Inc., had already befriended an artist by the name of Jack Kirby. Kirby had grown up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and was essentially self-taught. He and Simon had already collaborated on stories before, but their next collaboration was to be their greatest. Together they created the patriotic hero Captain America, who was seen punching Hitler in the face on the cover of his first appearance, about a year before America entered the second World War. Though Simon and Kirby received death threats from Nazi sympathisers, there was no chance that Captain America was going to be cancelled: its first issue sold nearly a million copies.
With the comics growing more and more successful, the Timely staff grew, and one addition to that staff was a 17-year-old kid named Stanley Lieber. Lieber was the nephew of Goodman's brother-in-law, and was given a job as a gofer: refilling ink-pots, getting sandwiches, proofreading, and whatever other odd jobs needed doing. Lieber's true ambition, though, was to write the Great American Novel, and within a few months he wrote his first story for Timely, a text page called "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge". He wrote the story under a pseudonym: Stan Lee. The newly-christened Lee worked his way up the ranks, and when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left Timely to work for DC, Lee was promoted to editor-in-chief.
As the second World War ended, the popularity of super-heroes began to decline, and other genres grew to replace them. Goodman had a policy of following whatever genre was popular at the time, and pushing out as much content as possible while it was still turning a profit. Timely flooded the comic racks with cartoon animal, romance, western, crime, horror, and war comics, riding each craze until it burned out, then moving on to the next one. The comics may have been made as cheaply as possible, but they were still selling.
The good times were not to last, however. The first blow came in 1954, when psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book which asserted a definite link between the violent imagery in comics and delinquent behaviour in children. This led to senate hearings, and a widespread suspicion of comic books. Timely (by this time known commonly as Atlas Comics) banded together with a number of other publishers to form the self-policing body known as the Comics Code Authority, but the damage had already been done. Comics would rarely see the same level of acceptance and sales as it had before Wertham's witch-hunts.
In 1956, Goodman decided to stop handling the distribution of his own comics, and began distributing through American New Company. This turned out to be a disastrous move, as within the year American News was sued by the Justice Department for monopolistic practices, and went out of business. Goodman had no other option left to him but to seek distribution with Independent News, who just so happened to be owned by Goodman's biggest rival: DC Comics. Independent News agreed to carry the Atlas line, but only on the condition that Atlas would be restricted to publishing eight titles a month.
Through all of this Stan Lee remained as editor, and it was under him that the down-sized Atlas line was re-focused. Lee gathered a small team of artists, including a returning Jack Kirby, old hand Don Heck, and newcomer Steve Ditko, and concentrated on putting out the best books he could. Westerns and teen humour books aimed at girls were the mainstays, but the most interesting work was appearing in books such as Journey Into Mystery and Strange Tales. In those books Kirby was crafting tales of giant monsters full of wild imagery, and titles such as "Spragg the Living Hill". Steve Ditko was creating odd, often anxiety-ridden sci-fi and fantasy tales with twist endings. They were by no means setting the comics field alight, but the synergy between Lee, Kirby and Ditko was growing.
Meanwhile, DC Comics had rediscovered the super-hero. In 1956 they revived their Golden Age hero the Flash, this time with a sci-fi slant, and had a good deal of success. In 1960 they created the Justice League of America, which united all of their most popular heroes in one team, and this book was even more successful. So successful that, as legend has it, a top DC executive boasted to Goodman about it during a game of golf. Whether the story is true or not, the result was that Goodman went to Stan Lee, and told him to create a new super-hero title.
Goodman's knack for following trends had struck again. But this time, it was a trend that would not burn out after a few years, or even a few decades. This was something else, something that would last for over half a century, with no end in sight. This was the beginning of the Fantastic Four, and the birth of the Marvel Universe
1 DC, much like Marvel, had a number of different names throughout the Golden Age of Comics, such as Detective Comics Inc., National Comics, and National Periodical Publications. For ease of reference, this article will refer to them as DC throughout.↩