By Ryan Michael
While Marvel is unquestionably the top dog in the comic-world today, that wasn't always the case.
During the "Golden Age" of the 1930's and 1940's, National Allied Publications (DC Comics) were the leaders, pioneers and grandfathers of the superhero genre. The birth of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman in Action Comics #1 laid the foundation for a formula that was emulated often in the Golden Age, and during the many decades that followed.
In 1939, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics for National, Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics for Fawcett Publications and Timely unleashed the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner in their first comic book series, Marvel Comics. While Captain Marvel was considered a Superman clone, Timely's characters were of a different breed entirely.
The Human Torch was an android, the Sub-Mariner was a human/Atlantean hybrid and the Angel was a mask-less crusader—all very different takes on National's more traditional superhero formula. Their creators were mavericks—willing to use the comic book medium as a platform to project ambitious stance.
Namor was ripping Nazi submarines to pieces and Captain America was beating Adolf Hitler's face into disfigurement long before the Unites States had even entered World War II. Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Alex Schomburg and others weren't afraid to ruffle feathers by turning real-world threats into a limitless rogue's gallery of villains.
The comic book covers were action packed and stories contained the kind of reckless abandon you wouldn't find in a DC comic. Timely's flavor had spice, if not at the cost of quickly becoming stale. Issues of Marvel Mystery Comics became monthly reminders of an exhausting, bloody reality. A World War was being fought, and the grim reality facing Europe was nothing to be excited about. How many war-covers did readers need to see on newsstands before their enthusiasm for exaggerated fiction began to dissipate?
DC heroes fought the same Axis powers, but also lost themselves within a fictitious world readers could escape to. Batman had the Joker, Catwoman and Two-Face. Superman had Luthor, the Ultra-Humanite and Mr. Mxyzptlk. Sans the Red Skull, who was himself a war-born Nazi, who did Timely's heroes have to face? Where was Timely's rogues gallery of legends?
Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch later turned their attention to fighting Communists and Namora became a "Sea Beauty." Comic sales continued to dwindle until all of Timely's heroes were put to rest. Before DC revamped the Flash and Green Lantern, their superhero roster was trimmed down to just Superman, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman.
DC's revamp, along with the formation of the Justice League, helped put superheroes back on the map. In the battle of comic book publishers, DC walked away from the Golden Age with a gold medal and there was little reason to believe that things would change in the 1960's. Timely changed its name to Atlas, and then to Marvel (a tribute to Goodman's first comic book series). Few could have imagined that a company that was then specializing in "monster mags" would have any chance to win the coming war waged on newsstands.
While the history is somewhat blurry and the debate between who created what continues to rage to this day, what we do know is that between 1961 and 1965, Marvel came out with the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil, the Silver Surfer and more. Considered by many to be the most creatively-fertile time in the history of comics, Marvel catapulted itself ahead of DC—turning their Silver Age into gold while laying a foundation for a universe that would help them dominate pop culture for decades to come.
This "Marvel Age" both prompted, then anticipated a readers' desire to follow characters across titles, month after month, by establishing ground-breaking continuity and innovative human characterization. With Kirby illustrating the majority of Marvel's roster, cross-overs became believable because the art-style matched up with what was already established in prior issues.
Stan Lee's writing style was the perfect compliment to Kirby's powerful illustrations. Readers could relate to his characters—a product of Lee's vision to emphasize the personality behind the mask more so than the image outside of it. Often times, stories had no definitive beginning or end because they were part of something bigger: An ever-growing, continuous plot that ensured the importance of each and every issue. Fans flocked to newsstands to pick up different titles in the hopes of following their favorite characters' latest exploits. It was genius marketing.
Lee littered his comics with film-like credits showcasing the contributions of Marvel's artists, inkers, letterers, plot devisors and script writers. Readers became part of the Marvel family—an inner-circle of fans who felt connected to the enormity creative-expansion.
In a sense, it can be argued that DC has never fully recovered from the impact of Marvel's Lee/Kirby era. While no one can dispute the mammoth success of Batman and the moderate to modest success of his next tier of contemporaries, DC never managed to create a roster with the depth need to rival Marvel's. Built top-heavy, DC's marketability declined heavily after it's first handful of fan-favorites.
As Marvel approaches it's 75th anniversary, it is clear that their journey from upstart publishing house, to "monster comics" specialists, to cultural phenomenon was as improbable is it is now legendary. Face front—or you might miss what comes next.
Ryan Michael is a writer, researcher, Golden Age comic book enthusiast and superhero film critic. You can find his previous Bleeding Cool article on "Batman Vs. Superman: Golden Age Duality During the Great Depression" here.