The year was 1939. Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman had a hit on his hands with Carl Burgos' Human Torch character. The blazing android had found a leyline of intersecting pulp and science fiction themes that resonated with fans. Goodman urged Lloyd Jaquet, who at this time was the head of Funnies Inc., a comic book "packager" that supplied original content to publishers who were just dipping their toes in the medium, to create another fire-based hero and hopefully emulate and duplicate the success of the Torch. The talented and always dapper Joe Simon (his father was a tailor after all) was tasked with creating such a character.
Simon was a freelance artist whose illustrations could be found on the Paramount Theatre's production photos and in the pages of True Story magazine. Like many artists of the day, Simon even worked under various pseudonyms like "Gregory Sykes" to diversify his workload without alienating a potential employer. The creators were mystery men themselves, rushing from studio to studio handing off samples and completed works. Never wanting to be pigeon-holed in a single genre, the talented Mr. Simon would drop off a jungle-lord story here and western story there, all the while aspiring to make it big with a syndicated strip like the peerless Milton Caniff had done with Terry and the Pirates.
Jaquet asked and Simon delivered with his first heroic creation, the Fiery Mask. History shows the Fiery Mask would never attain the same popularity and longevity that the Torch had, but it certainly could've. The strip featured the same combination of bombastic heroics and science fiction that gave the Torch series legs, but with an even more tangible element of horror. Somehow, the Fiery Mask's world was bleaker and his adventures quite macabre. The first story follows scientist Jack Castle as he aids the police in investigating a disturbing trend among the city’s homeless; they are being repurposed as brainwashed zombies by a twenty foot tall madman called the Zombie Master. The Master is defeated by Castle's cunning and his own exploding ray device, which in turn gives Jack Castle a seemingly random set of superpowers. Castle dons a literal Fiery Mask and uses his Superman-like abilities and deadly pyrokenesis to fight crime and Nazi Saboteurs in the Golden Age. His control over fire is similar to DC's Green Lantern. The Fiery Mask could've been a contender, but it was not to be in the long run. Much of Simon's early work is in the shadow of Burgos's Human Torch; his Red Raven series faltered as well and was replaced by a Human Torch- dedicated title.
Simon's skill set grew, as did his reputation in the comic book field. Transitioning into 1940, Timely is no longer just a publisher outsourcing to freelance offices like Funnies Inc. for original content. Timely is a comic book entity unto itself now, and Joe Simon becomes their very first editor. Simon's specialty was speaking the artists' language, and along with Goodman's money, they lured away a young prospect who was building a reputation of his own at Fox comics: Jacob Kurtzberg. Kurtzberg is probably better known by his handle, Jack Kirby. The Simon and Kirby collaboration produced something bigger than either man could achieve on his own. Similar to the Fiery Mask and Human Torch, Simon and Kirby would try and re-create the success of another emerging hero type: the star-spangled patriot. Captain America, the ultimate super-soldier, would be the result.
Something about a superhero that is practically wearing a nation's flag has always interested me. Nearly all of the masked heroes and mystery men were American patriots, but none as literal as the Captain. Would-be army Private Steve Rogers was deemed 4F and rejected from basic training. Eager to serve his country by any means possible, he is blasted with vita-rays by the enigmatic Professor Reinstein (later retconned to Erskine) and unleashed on the battlefield with a peak human physique and the brain of a master tactician. Dr. Reinstein's Vita-Rays were a heavenly boon and Steve Rogers was an avenging angel against the tyranny of the emerging Third Reich. Comic book heroes would take up the fight against the Axis even before America herself, and for an industry almost entirely made up of Jewish immigrants and second generation immigrants, it should come as no surprise.
Captain America Comics hit the stands in December 1940, a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and was a smash hit, selling nearly a million copies. The very first issue features the good Captain punching Adolf Hitler right in the jaw. Comic books, as usual, were ahead of the curve. Fighting monster and "Zombie Masters" on the home front was getting stale, especially with the biggest super villain in the world rampaging through real life Europe. As I mentioned in my posts about the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, Captain America would eventually team up with these other heroes on the battlefield. Cap's faithful sidekick Bucky would even lead a team of child soldiers called the Young Allies. Between this coalition and the Justice Society of America over at National (who were prevented from joining the fight overseas due to Hitler arming himself with the Spear of Destiny, but that's a story for another time), the concept of the superhero team was gaining traction and Marvel's shared universe was tighter than ever. It began with a clash between the Torch and Namor, and now the heroes were co-starring in each other’s mags more and more often. This would be the Marvel universe.
There are many other Golden Age heroes and creators who deserve a spotlight like this, and I'll cover a few more before I move on. The Timely era was the heyday of the superhero at this proto-Marvel Comics, but it would run out of steam in the post-war years. Other genres would get their turn in the limelight and a new generation of artists would emerge. The superhero (at least on the Timely/Atlas side) would remain dormant for a spell, until Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would blow the roof off the joint with the Fantastic Four.
There's also more to say about the Simon and Kirby duo; their clashes with Goodman over royalties, and the clash they would have with each other over who did what on those early issues. Conflicts raged not only on the page, but in the bullpen as well.