Tuesday, October 22, 2013

All-Winners and Not-Quites

In 1939, Marvel Comics #1 introduced The Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, marking the beginning of the Timely era of comics. With the creation of Captain America a short while later, there formed a trifecta of three mighty super heroes who would storm Nazi-occupied Europe and take the fight to the Axis. The trio of Cap, Torch, and Namor would remain the most popular Timely heroes for the rest of the decade, rivaled only by the mystery men in other publishers' titles. I've talked a little about those three, as well as Joe Simon's Fiery Mask character, in my previous columns. Today, the spotlight falls on some of the lesser characters who co-starred in books like Marvel Mystery Comics, Mystic Comics, and Daring. These characters all had fan bases of their own however, and some would even be revived in the silver age, although sometimes in name only.

Also appearing in the fateful publication of Marvel Comics #1 was the Angel, a powerless and maskless costumed defender of the home front. Created by Paul Gustavon in 1939 and originally envisioned as a pulp character, the Angel was born Thomas Halloway, the son of a prison warden who learns various tricks and trades from the inmates in his father's stead. Angel waged a one man campaign against the foreign saboteur known as the Cat's Paw. He is sometimes aided in his fight by the Mystic Cape of Mercury, that allows him flight, but he would more often ride into battle on his signature motorcycle. Gustavon's Angel is the link between the coming age of super-powered heroes and the mystery men of the past. The Angel is a pulp character at heart and filled that niche quite nicely, remaining Timely's most popular character outside of the the Big Three (Cap, Torch, Namor).
A lesser known heroine of Marvel/Timely's Golden Age is Claire Voyant, the original Black Widow. Her tie to the silver age iteration of the character, Natasha Romanov is in name alone. This Black Widow was a "spiritual medium" who would communicate with the dead and even encounter Satan himself in her adventures. She made a whopping five appearances in the Golden Age, all written and drawn by George Kapitan and Harry Sahle. The first of which was in 1940's Mystic Comics #4, where the narration warns the reader of "the strangest, most terrifying character in action picture magazines!" She is Timely's ultimate femme fatale, and her appearance that of the classic "bad girl" archetype. In her first appearance, she puts a curse on an unsuspecting family at the Devil's request, and is gunned down by the family's sole survivor. After her subsequent journey into Hell and back, she is granted a spider themed costume and an even more frightening set of supernatural gifts. Another leftover from the pulp and horror mags that Martin Goodman loved so much in his early years as a publisher, she never made as big an impact on the Timely readership as her bombastic opening narration promised.

Prior to the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee's most popular superhero creation is The Destroyer, whose adventures he penned with artist Jack Binder. I may be erroneously giving Binder the art credit here, as he and several others including Alex Schomberg all have a claim to the character's earliest episodes. The Destroyer is Keen Marlowe, a journalist trapped behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. He is placed in a concentration camp and given a mysterious formula by a fellow prisoner that, like Captain America, gives him peak human physical prowess. This story appeared in 1941's Mystic Comics #6, at a time when concentration camps were known of but the scope of the Holocaust had yet to be revealed in full. Nonetheless, it's an interesting origin story in retrospect, as his time in the camp, along with the ghoulish skull-themed costume he would later don, makes him out to be a grittier version of the sparkling and shining Captain America. Also like Cap, The Destroyer fought the Nazis on their own turf from the beginning, reinforcing the Timely heroes’ status as freedom fighters on the front line. Like The Angel, he's one of the more popular characters outside of the trifecta, starring in over one hundred of his own adventures throughout the forties.

Not to be confused with the Quality Comics character of the same name, Miss America was one of the most prominent female superheroes since William Marston's Wonder Woman had struck a vein in 1940. Created by Otto Binder and Al Gabrielle, and featuring a cover by female artist Pauline Loth, she first appeared in 1943's Marvel Mystery Comics #49. By this time, the Timely universe of characters was rolling along quite well, but most of the female characters like Blonde Phantom and Venus had faded in favor of career woman characters like Millie the Model. As a matter of fact, not long after this the entire superhero bubble would burst. Miss America would star in her own spin off series entitled Miss America Comics the very next year (1944), but the superhero strips within were soon relegated to back-up features in favor of romance stories and other genres. Madeline Joyce was a socially aware teenage girl who wanted to help the Allies in any way possible and received an array of super powers from an experimental device that belonged to her wealthy father's scientist friend. Armed with super strength and a patriotically themed costume, she would fight alongside heroes like The Whizzer and Captain America in the All-Winners Squad, a team book akin to the Invaders, but with a larger roster and a wider variety of threats to face.
Last but not least, we have Marvel Boy, a character who would exist in several iterations even within the Golden Age and be revived in the Atlas era. The original Marvel Boy debuted in Daring Mystery Comics #6 in 1940. A lad with the powers of Hercules who dons a costume and joins the fight against tyranny. He was a Simon and Kirby creation, but never really took off, only appearing in two stories. Bob Oksner took a crack at revising the characters origin and playing up his role as a demigod of sorts, but again the strip never exploded onto the scene the way Torch and Namor did. I mention him here because I feel Marvel Boy is a sort of predecessor to Lee and Kirby's Thor in the Silver Age. The Golden Age Marvel Boy represents the ever-present link between superheroes and mythology. The character and named would later has cosmic connotations, as his powers and adventures would later be more science fiction and space-travel based. Despite his namesake, Marvel Boy was never the poster child for Timely, but more likely an attempt to cash in on the good name of Fawcett Comic's Captain Marvel and make a side buck off of confused potential readers.

These are just a few examples, and in the cases of Miss America and The Destroyer, the more popular ones. Next time, I plan to reveal some more obscure characters from the Golden Age, including my favorite oddball hero Marvex the Super Robot, and get into some Timely Bullpen politics. Bet you thought making comic books was all fun and games?


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