Two companies stand at the forefront of comics book publishing. While this is common knowledge, a good majority of readers may not have experienced the seminal issues that laid so much of the groundwork for what would come in the 80+ years that were to follow.
This time on The Cape Gauntlet we’ll be going back to the late 1930’s. We’ll be taking a look at Action Comics #1 from National Allied Publications and Marvel Comics #1 from Timely Comics. While Action Comics debuted Superman, Marvel Comics debuted the concept of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner; both of which would become staples in each company’s future.
Action Comics #1
As we touched on in the last episode of The Cape Gauntlet, National Allied Publications released Action Comics #1 in 1938. It tells the story most of us know, about a baby being rocketed from his dying planet to Earth, where he is adopted, becomes Clark Kent and Superman, and saves the day. While the story is familiar to many of us, there are some differences that are the basis of what the character would become as more writers and artists got involved in fleshing him out.
For instance, Superman’s power set isn’t as wide-ranging as more recent iterations. We see that he can leap 1/8 of a mile, hurdle 20-story buildings, “raise tremendous weights”, outrun a train, and “that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin”. We also don’t see any mention of kryptonite. We do, however, see the first appearance of Lois Lane, who would become the love interest for Clark Kent and Superman as more stories were published.
One interesting fact is that Action Comics wasn’t just about Superman, as most readers might think, given the current run, in which he is the main focus. No, in 1938, the book was an anthology and Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster was just the first story. While most of the other stories never grew to be much more than a strip in this series of comics, a closer look shows the roots of another character: Zatara, the father of current DC Comics magic-user Zatanna, who would become an ally of Batman, a hero we’ll touch on in a future episode.
Marvel Comics #1
The Human Torch
Timely Publications released their first book, Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. In it, they debuted the Human Torch. He was created by Carl Burgos, but he wasn’t the smart-Alec kid brother, Johnny Storm, when he made his first appearance. In fact, he wasn’t human at all; he was a “synthetic man” built by Professor Horton, who is worried he’s created a monster. Once a couple of press members see the android burst into flames after being exposed to oxygen, they demand the professor destroy it or face “the power of the press”.
After receiving a second opinion from the Scientists’ Guild, Horton realizes he has no control over the Human Torch and decides to “entomb him in a concrete block”. This is supposed to buy him more time so he can find a way to fix the Torch and not destroy his creation. As time passes, however, the concrete block explodes caused by an ever-so-slight leak that gave the Torch oxygen.
As the Torch runs through the town, we see that he is much more human than the professor first let on, as he asks himself, “Why must everything I touch turn into flame?” Firefighters attempt to extinguish him, but to no avail. The Torch runs off to put himself out in a nearby pool which happens to belong to Sardo, a bad guy who decides to use the android’s ability to commit insurance fraud. The Human Torch misunderstands Sardo’s intentions and, after being set free, goes after the crook. During the fight, a canister of nitrogen extinguishes the flames and proves the android is invincible after he’s shot in the head and the bullet melts upon contact. Sardo, as a last-ditch effort, tries to throw a vat of acid on the Torch, only to kill himself in the process as it reacts to the heat the Torch is putting out.
As the issue winds down, the Human Torch figures out, with the help of his creator, Professor Horton, that he can control his flames with some will-power. Sadly, Horton wants to profit off of the android, to which the Torch says, “No Horton. I’ll be free, and no one will ever use me for selfish gain or crime.” “Then with a laugh and a mighty leap, crashing through the unburnt opening in the roof – the Torch sails through space like a comet.”
Like Action Comics #1, Marvel Comics #1 was an anthology. Following the Human Torch’s debut, we get The Sub-Mariner by Bill Everett. The character was developed when Everett decided it would be fun to play on the concept of fire versus water. In this first story, a group of divers on a salvage ship discover some wreckage that has already been gone through. They explore the situation only to find Namor, the sub-mariner, who is confused at what they are and what they’re doing with the sunken ship.
Namor mistakes them for robots and cuts the air hoses, phone lines, and acetylene torch in an effort to stop them. He then attacks the divers directly, stabbing one and crushing the helmet of another. The captain of the ship instructs another sailor to head in armed with a knife. Namor hides and watches as the latest diver is brought back up.
The captain attempts to speed off with the ship, but Namor is faster and grabs the rudder, followed by stopping the propellers with his bare hands. He shoves the vessel forward into the rocks, splitting it in half. Afterward, he returns to his underwater home with two of the divers in-hand to present them to the king. After discovering the divers aren’t robots, but humans, Namor asks his mother about his own father, who was human. We get a brief history of how men invaded Atlantis, how Namor came to be, and his mission as one of the last Atlantians who can live above and below water. The issue ends with Namor and his cousin making an attack on a lighthouse just off the shore.
When you consider these books were written roughly 80 years ago, there will ultimately be things that don’t age well. That said, it’s amazing to see the staying power of the characters – Superman, Human Torch, and Namor. These stories are the foundation for what would come as time rolled on and the interest in superheroes ebbed and flowed.
Next time on The Cape Gauntlet…
Gotham City enters the Golden Age and with it, the Bat-Man.