Timely Comics (1939 to 1950)
Timely Comics (1939 to 1950).
Timely Comics is the 1940s comic book publishing company that would evolve into first Atlas Comics, and then Marvel Comics. During this era, called the Golden Age of comic books, "Timely" was the umbrella name for the comics division of pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman, whose business strategy involved having a multitude of corporate entities all producing the same product. The company was founded in 1939 as Timely Publications, based at his existing company in the McGraw-Hill Building at 330 West 42nd Street in New York City. In 1942, it moved to the 14th floor of the Empire State Building, where it remained until 1951.
The first comic, Marvel Comics #1 (Oct. 1939), featured the first appearances of the Human Torch, The Angel and Namor the Sub-Mariner. Marvel Comics was rechristened Marvel Mystery Comics with issue #2 (Dec. 1939). Timely began publishing additional series, beginning with Daring Mystery Comics #1 (Jan. 1940), Mystic Comics #1 (March 1940), Red Raven Comics #1 (Aug. 1940), The Human Torch #2 (premiering Fall 1940 with no cover date and having taken over the numbering from the unsuccessful Red Raven), and Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). Going on sale in December 1940, a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and already showing Cap punching Hitler in the jaw, that first issue sold nearly one million copies.
With the hit characters Human Torch and Sub-Mariner now joined by Simon & Kirby's seminal patriotic hero Captain America, Timely had its "big three" stars of the era fans and historians call the Golden Age of Comic Books. Rival publishers National Comics / All-American Comics, the sister companies that would evolve into DC Comics, likewise had their own "big three": Superman and Batman plus the soon-to-debut Wonder Woman. Timely's other major competitors were Fawcett Publications (Captain Marvel, introduced Feb. 1940); Quality Comics (Plastic Man, Blackhawk, both Aug. 1941); and Lev Gleason Publications (Daredevil, Sept. 1940; unrelated to the 1960s Marvel hero).
Other notable Timely characters, many seen both in modern-day retcon appearances and in flashbacks, include the Angel, the next-most-popular character in terms of number of appearances; the Destroyer and the Black Marvel, two early creations of future Marvel chief Stan Lee; super-speedster the Whizzer; the flying and super-strong Miss America; the original Vision, who inspired Marvel writer Roy Thomas in the 1960s to create a Silver Age version of the character; and the Blazing Skull and the Thin Man, two members of the present-day New Invaders.
Just as Captain America had his teenage sidekick Bucky and DC Comics' Batman had Robin, the Human Torch acquired a young mutant partner, Toro, in the first issue of the Torch's own magazine. The Young Allies — one of several "kid gangs" popular in comics at the time — debuted under the rubric the Sentinels of Liberty in a text story in Captain America Comics #4 (June 1941) before making it to the comics pages themselves the following issue, and then eventually into their own title.
After the Simon & Kirby team moved to DC late 1941, having produced Captain America Comics through issue #10 (Jan. 1942), Al Avison and Syd Shores became regular pencilers of the celebrated title, with one generally inking over the other. Stan Lee (né Stanley Lieber), a cousin of Goodman's by marriage who had been serving as an assistant since 1939, at age 16 1/2, was promoted to interim editor just shy of his 19th birthday. Showing a knack for the business, Lee stayed on for decades, eventually becoming Marvel Comics' publisher in 1972. Fellow Timely staffer Vincent Fago would substitute during Lee's World War II military service.
The staff at that time, Fago recalled, was, "Mike Sekowsky. Ed Winiarski. Gary Keller was a production assistant and letterer. Ernest Hart and Kin Platt were writers, but they worked freelance; Hart also drew. George Klein, Syd Shores, Vince Alascia, Dave Gantz, and Chris Rule were there, too".
The superheroes were the products of what Timely referred to as the "adventure" bullpen. The company also developed an "animator" bullpen creating such movie tie-in and original funny animal comics as Terrytoons Comics, Mighty Mouse, All Surprise Comics, Super Rabbit Comics, Funny Frolics, and Funny Tunes, renamed Animated Funny Comic-Tunes. Former Fleischer Studios animator Fago, who joined Timely in 1942, headed this group, which consisted through the years of such writer/artists as Hart, Gantz, Klein, Platt, Rule, Sekowsky, Frank Carin (né Carino), Bob Deschamps, Chad Grothkopf, Pauline Loth, Jim Mooney, Moss Worthman a.k.a. Moe Worth, and future Mad magazine cartoonists Dave Berg and Al Jaffee.
Features from this department include "Dinky" and "Frenchy Rabbit" in Terrytoons Comics; "Floop and Skilly Boo" in Comedy Comics; "Posty the Pelican Postman" in Krazy Komics and other titles; "Krazy Krow" in that character's eponymous comic; "Tubby an' Tack", in various comics; and the most popular of these features, Jaffee's "Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal" and Hart's "Super Rabbit", the cover stars of many different titles.
In slightly more grownup fare, Timely in 1944 and 1945 initiated a sitcom selection of titles aimed at female readers: Millie the Model, Tessie the Typist and Nellie the Nurse. Timely also published one of humor cartoonist Basil Wolverton's best-known features, Powerhouse Pepper. The first issue, cover-dated January 1943, bore no number, and protagonist Pepper looked different from his more familiar visualization (when the series returned for four issues, May-Nov. 1948) as the bullet-headed naif in the striped turtleneck sweater.
Future Comic Book Hall of Fame artist Gene Colan, a Marvel mainstay from 1946 on, recalled that, "The atmosphere at Timely was very good, very funny. ... [I worked in] a big art room and there were about 20 artists in there, all stacked up. Syd [Shores] was in the last row on my side, and there was another row on the other side. Dan DeCarlo was there, several other people — Vince Alascia was an inker; Rudy LaPick sat right behind me," with Mike Sekowsky "in another room".
Yet after the wartime boom years — when superheroes had been new and inspirational, and comics provided cheap entertainment for millions of children, soldiers and others — the post-war era found superheroes falling out of fashion. Television and mass market paperback books now also competed for readers and leisure time. Goodman began turning to a wider variety of genres than ever, emphasizing horror, Westerns, teen humor, crime and war comics, and introducing female heroes to try to attract girls and young women to read comics.
In 1946, for instance, the superhero title All Select Comics was changed to Blonde Phantom Comics, and now starred a masked secretary who fought crime in an evening gown. That same year, Kid Komics eliminated its stars and became Kid Movie Comics. All Winners Comics became All Teen Comics in January 1947. Timely eliminated virtually all its staff positions in 1948.The precise end-point of the Golden Age of comics is vague, but for Timely, at least, it appears to have ended with the cancellation of Captain America Comics at issue #75 (Feb. 1950) — by which time the series had already been Captain America's Weird Tales for two issues, with the finale featuring merely anthological horror/suspense tales and no superheroes. Sub-Mariner Comics had already ended with #32 (June 1949), and the company's flagship title, Marvel Mystery Comics, starring the Human Torch, ended that same month with #92, becoming the horror anthology Marvel Tales beginning with issue #93 (Aug. 1949). Goodman began using the globe logo of Atlas, the newsstand-distribution company he owned, on comics cover-dated Nov. 1951.
Atlas Comics I (1950 to 1957)
Atlas Comics I (1950 to 1957).
Atlas Comics is the 1950s comic book publishing company that would evolve into Marvel Comics. Magazine and paperback novel publisher Martin Goodman, whose business strategy involved having a multitude of corporate entities, used Atlas as the umbrella name for his comic book division during this time. Atlas was located on the 14th floor of the Empire State Building.
Goodman began using the globe logo of Atlas, the newsstand-distribution company he owned, on comics cover-dated November 1951. This united a line put out by the same publisher, staff and freelancers through 59 shell companies, from Animirth Comics to Zenith Publications.
Atlas would attempt to revive superheroes in Young Men #24-28 (Dec. 1953 - June 1954), with the Human Torch (art by Syd Shores and Dick Ayers, variously), the Sub-Mariner (drawn and most stories written by Bill Everett), and Captain America (writer Stan Lee, artist John Romita Sr.). Yet they featured the same sort of Communist Red Scare villains as the late-'40s comics, broke no new ground, and looked old-fashioned[neutrality is disputed] — particularly in comparison with the clean, uncluttered, streamlined reimagining of super-speedster The Flash two years later in DC Comics' Showcase #4 (Sept. 1956), which would successfully bring back superheroes and kick off the Silver Age of comics.
The artists — some freelance, some on staff — included such veterans as Human Torch creator Carl Burgos and Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett. The next generation included the prolific and much-admired Joe Maneely, who before his death just prior to Marvel's 1960s breakthrough was the company's leading artist, providing many covers and doing work in all genres, most notably on Westerns and on the medieval adventure The Black Knight. Others included Russ Heath, Gene Colan, and the fledgling, highly individualistic Steve Ditko.
From 1952 to late 1956, Goodman distributed this torrent of comics to newsstands through his self-owned distributor, Atlas. He then switched to American News Company, the nation's largest distributor and a virtual monopoly — which shortly afterward lost a Justice Department lawsuit and discontinued its business. As historian and author Gerard Jones explains, the company in 1956 "...had been found guilty of restraint of trade and ordered to divest itself of the newsstands it owned. Its biggest client, George Delacorte, announced he would seek a new distributor for his Dell Comics and paperbacks. The owners of American News estimated the effect that would have on their income. Then they looked at the value of the New Jersey real estate where their headquarters sat. They liquidated the company and sold the land. The company ... vanished without a trace in the suburban growth of the 1950s."
Stan Lee, in a 1988 interview, recalled that Goodman:
"...had gone with the American News Company. I remember saying to him, 'Gee, why did you do that? I thought that we had a good distribution company.' His answer was like, 'Oh, Stan, you wouldn't understand. It has to do with finance.' I didn't really give a damn, and I went back to doing the comics. [Later,] we were left without a distributor and we couldn't go back to distributing our own books because the fact that Martin quit doing it and went with American News had gotten the wholesalers very angry ... and it would have been impossible for Martin to just say, 'Okay, we'll go back to where we were and distribute our books.' [We had been] turning out 40, 50, 60 books a month, maybe more, and [now] the only company we could get to distribute our books was our closest rival, National (DC) Comics. Suddenly we went ... to either eight or 12 books a month, which was all [that DC's] Independent News Distributors would accept from us."
"It would never have happened just because he opened a closet door. But I think that I may have been in a little trouble when that happened. We had bought a lot of strips that I didn't think were really all that good, but I paid the artists and writers for them anyway, and I kinda hid them in the closet! And Martin found them and I think he wasn't too happy. If I wasn't satisfied with the work, I wasn't supposed to have paid, but I was never sure it was really the artist's or the writer's fault. But when the job was finished I didn't think that it was anything that I wanted to use. I felt that we could use it in inventory — put it out in other books. Martin, probably rightly so, was a little annoyed because it was his money I was spending.
Atlas Comics II. The Great Atlas Implosion (1957)
Atlas Comics II. The Great Atlas Implosion (1957).
By Jim Valdeboncoeur, based on a story uncovered by Brad Elliott from Jack Kirby Collector 18. (Brad Elliott was originally hired to produce the Marvel 50th anniversary book that eventually became Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades by Les Daniels, instead of the true history that Brad has envisioned. Brad had full access to all Marvel records for well over a year and here’s what he learned about Marvel/DC and the late ‘50s).
If you pay attention to the names in the Ownership Statements, you’ll notice that up until 1952, Robert Solomon is listed as the Atlas Business Manager. In that year a new name appears in that position: Monroe Froelich, Jr. Remember him; he created comics as we know then today. Honest! For those of you who may not be completely aware of the magnitude of the events of 1957, let me explain exactly what the evidence of the comics shows.
In 1957 (cover-date time) Atlas published 75 different titles – monthlies, bi-monthlies and one-shots- during the July through October period. In November and December of that year they put out 16 (all bi-monthly). So what happened? And who the heck is Monroe Froehlich, Jr.? Here’s the script.
The Set-up:Atlas, as you may have known, was not really a comics company, but was in fact a distribution company. The comics were published by Martin Goodman’s various corporations (Chipiden, Timely, Red Circle, etc) and distributed by Atlas Magazines, Inc.; all legitimate incorporated entities. Atlas Magazines (wholly owned by the Goodmans, Martin and Jean) was paid a fee to distribute Goodman’s comics – profits, profits, profits.
The Catalyst: Monroe Froehlich, Jr. was Goodman’s golfing partner who somehow finagled himself into the business manager position. He pretty much had a free rein whit the comics, the pulps and the newsstand magazines, but he was kept out of the distribution end of the business. Being apparently an ambitious sort, he wanted to expand his political base in the company to include some measure of control over distribution. Arthur Marchand was the man in charge of Atlas Magazines, Inc. and exerted every effort to prevent this.
The Ploy: As Froehlich was frustrated in his attempts to gain control over the distribution arm, he eventually resorted to some subtle business maneuvering to accomplish what office politics had failed to do. He somehow renegotiated the contract between the publishing arm and Atlas Magazines so that the latter received a lesser percentage of the price of each publication for the distribution service. On paper, Atlas Magazines, Inc began to lose money.
The Sting: Froehlich exploited this apparent change in the distribution situation to convince Goodman that he needed to switch to a national distributor. In the summer of 1956, when Goodman gave the go-ahead, Froehlich negotiated a five-year contract with American News Co. (the ANC on the covers of so many comics in the early Fifties) to distribute comics, magazines and Lion paperbacks. Goodman disbanded his distribution system and Froehlich was apparently “king of the hill”.
The Zinger: American News Co. was Mafia connected and under investigation by the government for less-than-legal transactions of some sort. (ANC was into a lot more than periodical distribution – restaurants, for example – and it was there the troubles lay.) Rumors flew that ANC would soon be out of business. Even before the contract. Arthur Marchand had tried to warn Goodman of the potential problems, but he was viewed as merely playing in office politics against Froehlich.
The Crash: American News Co. Assumed the distribution of the Godman line Nov. 1956. Six months later, American ceased operations. Not having time to re-establish his old network, Goodman was forced to lay off the entire staff with the exception of Stan Lee, while he searched for an alternative distributor. It took about a month (corresponding to the October 1957-dated books).
(Note: Brad Elliott has discovered records which show that cover dates of Atlas titles were not totally accurate. During any given month, shipments could include books with cover dates spanning three months. We hope to eventually show that books like Dippy Duck, which has an October 1957 cover date, were actually shipped with the August and September books.)
The Aftermath: Goodman did find himself a distributor. It was DC-owned Independent News Co. They agreed to take him as a new account, but the terms were tough indeed: Independent would handle all of Goodman’s magazines, but Lion Books had to go (Independent News was already handling New American Library), and since DC wasn’t about to support its biggest and more successful rival, Independent News insisted that only eight comics per month could be accommodated.
Goodman and Lee opted to use that allotment to publish 16 bi-monthly titles. The first eight (Gunsmoke Western, Homer the Happy Ghost, Kid Colt Outlaw, Love Romances, Marines in Battle, Millie the Model, Miss America and My Own Romance) came out dated November 1957, the second batch (Battle, Navy Combat, Patsy and Hedy, Patsy Walker, Strange Tales, Two-Gun Kid, World of Fantasy and Wyatt Earp) in December. With inventory on hand to fill 75 titles, Lee simply cancelled 59 of them and hardly bought a story for over a year. Most 1958 material was produced in 1957.
(yoy can get some idea of just how dominant Atlas was in the comics industry by reading interviews with artists who were working at the time. Every one of them makes a comment similar to Al Williamson’s in a 1969 Heroes Unlimited interview:”…because by 1957, things were pretty grim,” as if industry fortunes rose and fell with those of Atlas – which they did. I have some excerpts from the Ayers publishing guide that lists total monthly comic sales by company by year that show Marvel heading the list in 1952 with 15.2 million issues – twice that of any company except Dell’s 10 million. In 1957, their position falls to 4th with 4.6 million, with Dell now 14 million and DC still about 7.5 million. Assuming these numbers reflect the ’57 fall, comics’ circulation took a big hit that year. Thanks to Mark Carlson for the data.)
It wasn’t until December 1958/January 1959 that Lee gathered around him the core of what was to be Marvel Comics: Kirby, Ditko, Heck, Ayers and Reinman. This lends credence to Kirby’s claim to have found Lee despondent on his desk, ready to throw in the towel. If the inventory was depleted and sales were down and growth was restricted, what was a man to do but give it all up?
The results: Over the next few years Goodman was free to publish whatever he liked, but whenever he wanted to introduce a new title, another had to be sacrificed. (Battle died June 1960 to make way for My Girl Pearl in August, which fades away in April of 1961 to allow Amazing Adventures a slot in June.) They finally added a 17th title in 1961 and ironically enough it was The Fantastic Four. But with the exception of annuals and reprints titles, that number – though Goodman had managed to upgrade most of them to monthly – held until early 1968.
It was time to renegotiate the contract with Independent News. At that point Marvel Comics was a force to be reckoned with in the industry and Independent didn’t want to lose a good client. The restriction on the number of books was lifted and Marvel exploded. The three split books (Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales, and Tales of Suspense) spun off into six individual titles (Iron Man, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, Hulk, and Sub-Mariner) and The Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel, and Mighty Marvel Western were launched. A year later, Independent lost Marvel anyway – to Curtis Circulation Corp., a subsidy of Marvel’s new owner Curtis Publishing – and Marvel really went wild!
Historical Interlude: In 1957, Atlas was simply the largest comics company that had ever existed, but they had never been a leader or innovator. Goodman’s empire had been built on selling paper, not innovation. If one western comic was good, ten were better. If super-heroes were selling, you can bet your boots that Atlas would have been publishing then indiscriminately. Lee had resurrected the Atlas heroes in 1954, dropping most after three or four issues. In fandom lore, DC has been credited in 1956 with bringing super-heroes back from their oblivion in the dark ages with the appearance of Flash in Showcase #4. The reality is that it had been less than seven years since the original Flash comic was cancelled, Batman and Superman had continued uninterrupted during that time, and the marketplace was not clamouring for more of them.
DC was giving their heroes tryouts in Showcase and as back-up features, but none were setting the stand on fire. It wasn’t until Atlas self-destructed in 1957 that rack space opened up for a potential resurgence of the genre. It would still be over a year before Flash got his own book.
The Legacy: Monroe Froehlich’s abortive attempt to manipulate Goodman’s empire left Goodman with a scaled-down operation. Its size was artificially held at a level where it was feasible for one man (Stan Lee) to actually control the content of all the books. He couldn’t get bigger, which had been the goal for the previous seventeen years, so he ended up getting better.
The pre-super-hero Marvel stories were done originally with tongue in cheek, but they soon developed a moral stance reminiscent of EC. Lee was getting interested in comics again. When Goodman asked him to develop a super-hero team, he could easily have brought back all of the old Timely characters with which he was so familiar – just as he’d done in 1954. Instead, he expended some creative effort to think of something innovate for a chance. Those early Marvel super-heroes were indirectly created by Froehlich, whose actions allowed Lee and the Bullpen to devote the time and thought necessary to the creation of interesting characters. If Atlas had continued to expand through the late Fifties, it is extremely doubtful that comics as we know them today would exist. Stan Lee would probably just be a name in an Ownership Statement, as it is only with hindsight that the occasional story he wrote and signed takes on any significance. Lee, or more properly his writing staff, would have continued to churn out a full spectrum of Romance, Teen, War and Western books (just look at the list of titles that continued after the implosion), and super-heroes wouldn’t exist in the same sense they do today. Oh, we’d have heroes aplenty, but they’d be the same stale commodity they had been, with only slight variations on the theme.
There would probably be no ‘continuity’, no ‘angst’, no ‘universes’, nothing but that formula which had served so well for decades…until a coercive business contract, precipitated by the actions of Monroe Froehlich, Jr., put spare time into the hands of Stan Lee for the first time in his life. Thanks a lot, Monroe. We owe you one. (Addendum: It’s interesting how history repeats itself. Marvel and distributors today (Jan. 1998) seem to be an unhealthy mix. Maybe after all the current dust clears, Marvel will have to scale back and start creating interesting comics again.)
Atlas Comics III (1958 to 1961). Return of Jack Kirby
Atlas Comics III (1958 to 1961). Return of Jack Kirby.
Goodman's men's magazines and paperback books were still successful — the comics, except in the early Golden Age, were a relatively small part of the business — and Goodman considered shutting the division down. The details of his decision not to do so are murky.
Jack Kirby, after his amicable split with creative partner Joe Simon a few years earlier was not as busy as he would have liked. Joe and Jack dissolved their partnership in the late 1950s after their company Mainline went under, and Jack was back to freelancing. But due to a dispute with DC Comics editor Jack Schiff over royalties for Jack's Sky Masters comic strip, he became persona non grata at DC Comics. Jack recalled in a 1990 interview for The Comics Journal that in late 1958:
"I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! ... Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn't know what to do, he's sitting on a chair crying — he was still just out of his adolescence [Note: Lee, born Dec. 28, 1922, would actually have been about 36.] I told him to stop crying. I says, 'Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I'll see that the books make money'."
"I never remember being there when people were moving out the furniture. If they ever moved the furniture, they did it during the weekend when everybody was home. Jack tended toward hyperbole, just like the time he was quoted as saying that he came in and I was crying and I said, 'Please save the company!' I'm not a crier and I would never have said that. I was very happy that Jack was there and I loved working with him, but I never cried to him. (laughs)".
Kirby had previously returned, in late 1956, to freelance on five issues cover-dated Dec. 1956 and Feb. 1957, but did not stay. Now, beginning with the cover and the seven-page story "I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers" for Strange Worlds #1 (Dec. 1958), Kirby returned for a 12-year run that would soon help revolutionize comics. Atlas gave Kirby a high-profile market, splashing the maestro's work across countless covers and lead stories, with the singular quality and dynamism of Kirby's art elevating such preexisting comics as Strange Tales and the newly launched Amazing Adventures, Strange Worlds, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and World of Fantasy above the other horror/science fiction titles that had proliferated in the wake of the recently defunct master of those comics genres, EC Comics.
A Kirby sci-fi/monster story, usually inked by Christopher Rule initially, then by Dick Ayers following Rule's retirement, would generally open each book. This was followed by one or two twist-ending thrillers or sci-fi tales drawn by Don Heck, Paul Reinman, or Joe Sinnott, with the whole thing capped by an often-surreal, sometimes self-reflexive Lee-Ditko short.
Although for several months in 1949 and 1950 Timely's titles bore a circular logo labeled "Marvel Comic", the first modern comic book so labeled was the science-fiction anthology Amazing Adventures #3, which showed the "MC" box on its cover. Cover-dated August 1961, it was published May 9, 1961. However, collectors routinely refer to the companies' comics from the April 1959 cover-dates onward (when they began featuring Jack Kirby artwork on his return to Goodman's company), as pre-superhero Marvel.
Stan Goldberg on the Atlas Comics staff: "I was in the Bullpen with a lot of well-known artists who worked up there at that time. We had our Bullpen up there until about 1958 or '59. (sic; the Bullpen staff was let go in 1957) The guys ... who actually worked nine-to-five and put in a regular day, and not the freelance guys who'd come in a drop off their work ... were almost a hall of fame group of people. There was John Severin. Bill Everett. Carl Burgos. There was the all-time great Joe Maneely.... We all worked together, all the colorists and correction guys, the letterers and artists. ... We had a great time".
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