Today, Marvel Comics is a multi-billion-dollar brand name associated with movies, television shows, video games, toys, and, yes – comic books. But fans may be surprised to know that when Marvel’s superheroes first debuted, they did not come from a media giant but a pulp magazine company called Timely Comics.
That company would struggle for years before evolving into the entertainment company that gave fans beloved heroes such as Spider-Man and film franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With so much rich history behind this transformation, let’s take a look at how Timely Comics came to adopt the name and identity of Marvel Comics.
In 1939, pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman saw a rising interest in superhero comic books. Superman had debuted a year earlier in Action Comics #1, and Batman quickly followed suit in Detective Comics #27. Eager to become part of this emerging Golden Age of Comic Books, Goodman hired Funnies, Inc., a new comic book packager, to provide material, and released Timely Comics’ first comic book (prophetically titled Marvel Comics) in 1939. The comic introduced several short stories featuring the original android Human Torch (decades before Stan Lee created his more popular Fantastic Four counterpart), Namor the Sub-Mariner, and even the jungle lord Ka-Zar, the Great (unrelated to the Marvel character later introduced in The Uncanny X-Men).
Marvel Comics #1 sold over 80,000 issues, convincing Goodman to hire writer-artist Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby from Funnies, Inc. for his in-house staff. The two would go on to create the patriotic super solider Captain America, releasing Captain America Comics #1 months before the United States entered World War II, with a cover showing Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw. Meanwhile, Carl Burgos and Bill Everett (creators of The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner respectively), came up with the idea to have the two heroes fight in Marvel Mystery Comics #8-#10. This began a popular trope of superhero battles that would be used constantly in future comics. It also established that these characters existed in the same shared universe, something that would also be used in later Marvel comic books as well as the MCU film franchise.
Eventually, Timely Comics’ most popular heroes Captain America, the Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner teamed up to form the Invaders – to contend with the other “Big Three” heroes Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, who formed their own group at sister companies National and All-American Comics (which would soon be re-branded DC Comics). To make the comparison more obvious, both Captain America and the Human Torch had partners like Batman’s sidekick Robin. In Captain America’s case, his sidekick was a cheerful Robin-like teenager Bucky Barnes, who would be retconned into the grim cybernetic antihero the Winter Soldier decades later.
In 1939, Goodman’s cousin-by-marriage Stanley Martin Lieber, was hired as an assistant at Timely Comics. Lee was assigned to help Joe Simon and Jack Kirby with their art duties on Captain America Comics, and was also given opportunities to write Captain America scripts of his own. When Simon and Kirby left to join DC Comics in 1941, Goodman promoted the still-teenage Lieber to interim editor, giving him writing duties on multiple comic books. Since Lieber wanted to use his real name on the great American novel he would write someday, he decided to use a pseudonym – and began writing his comic book stories under the name Stan Lee.
While Goodman’s comic book division was called Timely Comics, the name Marvel Comics kept showing up on Timely’s comic book covers throughout the 1940s and 1950s. One of the shell companies in the Timely Comics’ division was called Marvel Comics and some comics were published with A Marvel Magazine on the cover. Despite this, the company’s official name remained Timely Comics. As the 1940s ended, however, superheroes and comic books fell out of fashion and Timely Comics focused on publishing other stories, including Western-themed adventures, horror stories, funny animal comics, and romance stories, starring fan favorites like Millie the Model and teen-humor character Patsy Walker (who would one day be reimagined into the Marvel Comics superheroine Hellcat). These stories made up the bulk of Stan Lee’s scripts in the post-World War II years, although some new heroes like the Blonde Phantom (a secretary who fought crime in a mask and a red evening gown) still popped up – and would later find a place in the Marvel Universe.
By 1948, however, Timely Comics eliminated almost all of its staff positions and only published a few comics. Captain America Comics (which no longer even featured Captain America but offered horror and suspense tales) was cancelled in 1950 with issue #75. In 1951, to save money, Goodman broke away from Timely Comics distributer Kable News and used the newsstand distribution company he owned, Atlas News Company. This caused the comic book division to be renamed Atlas Comics. Lee continued to write for Goodman, but in his biography Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A MARVELOUS Memoir, he admits feeling the strain of working in a field that was considered low art.
In 1961, however, two pivotal events happened. Goodman finally changed his comics division’s name officially to Marvel, a brand that first appeared on the covers of the science-fiction anthology comic Journey Into Mystery #69 and humor comic Patsy Walker #95. Goodman also saw a returning interest in superheroes, with comics like DC’s Justice League proving popular. The Silver Age of Comics was starting, which caused Goodman to ask Lee (who was thinking of quitting after decades of writing comics) to come up with a superhero team for Marvel.
Prompted by his wife to create the type of superheroes he wanted to read about, Stan Lee worked with artist Jack Kirby (who had returned to Marvel) and co-created The Fantastic Four #1 in 1961. The comic featured characters with greater depth than past superheroes and personal problems that went beyond fighting super villains. This approach proved a huge hit with readers who could relate to these new characters. Reinvigorated, Lee worked with other artists to create new superheroes, co-creating The Incredible Hulk with Jack Kirby and The Amazing Spider-Man with Steve Ditko. Their popularity inspired Lee to also bring back Timely Comics’ older heroes, such as the Sub-Mariner (an antagonist of the Fantastic Four) and would go on to unintentionally free Captain America, who had been frozen in ice since World War II.
Over the following years, other Timely Comics characters, including the original Human Torch, Blonde Phantom, and one of Stan Lee’s earliest creations, the Destroyer, were reintroduced in the new comics produced under the Marvel name. Lee and other writers established that the adventures these heroes had in the 1940s “really” happened in the world of their comic books, giving a greater sense of history to their expanding Marvel Universe. In keeping with Stan Lee’s approach of granting characters additional depth, these older characters were usually reimagined with greater pathos. Captain America, as a man struggling to adjust to life in modern society when he wasn’t battling super villains, exemplifies this.
Lee also seized upon the company’s new name, using it to create fan clubs for readers like The Merry Marvel Marching Society and Friends of Old Marvel (or FOOM). This, along with his column Stan’s Soapbox, which ran in the comic books, established a sense of camaraderie with readers and helped Stan Lee make Marvel a trusted brand name that fans could connect to. Lee also spoke about Marvel Comics at many colleges, creating a greater sense of respectability for the comic book art form. In 1972, Lee became Marvel Comics’ publisher and continued seeking new ways to promote Marvel’s brand and tell their stories through different mediums.
However, Marvel’s brand name did not initially carry much respect outside of the comics industry. Despite many attempts by Lee, most of Marvel’s initial attempts to break into the movie and television business were limited to animated shows, TV movies, and direct-to-video releases. These included a popular live action The Incredible Hulk TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, several Spider-Man animated series, and a largely forgotten and critically panned 1990 Captain America film. While the characters were still popular in the comics, the movie industry did not have the confidence to invest large budgets into their movies.
This began changing in the late 1990s when movies based on Marvel properties such as Blade and X-Men proved popular and lucrative with audiences. This helped launch big budget film adaptations of Spider-Man and Hulk – and in 2008, Marvel came out with Iron Man, the first film in what would become its incredibly popular film franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU). Much like the comic books they were based on, the MCU films interconnected with the events of other movies in its franchise, while featuring character driven stories that offered cross-generational appeal.
With 23 MCU superhero movies released to date, Marvel Comics has further strengthened its brand name as a leader in the entertainment industry, with properties that go far beyond the comic book medium. While it is unlikely the writers and artists of Timely Comics knew the heights the company would rise to when they created their superheroes, one cannot deny the groundwork they laid helped establish the foundation for what has now become the biggest name in superhero entertainment.
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