The Pre-Marvel Years: A Prelude to the Fantastic

The interconnected Marvel Universe as we know it today was created with Fantastic Four #1 in 1961. But, Marvel has been around since 1939. So…what about those first twenty years?

Marvel as a publishing company began in 1939 when Martin Goodman created Timely Comics. The company’s first comic book was, quite prophetically, Marvel Comics #1. That comic book introduced the world to the Human Torch (created by Carl Burgos) and Namor the Sub-Mariner (created by Bill Everett).

This first Human Torch was an android named Jim Hammond, and has no relation to the Fantastic Four or Johnny Storm, other than being the inspiration for that Johnny Storm reimagining.

In 1941, Captain America and Bucky were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and thrust into this burgeoning playground. Captain America Comics #1 was another early success for Timely, and helped cement their line.

This pre-Marvel Universe actually has a lot of the same hallmarks of what Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the rest of the bullpen would create in the 1960s. It’s an interconnected world (where Namor and Captain America can run into each other), the heroes fight each other (Human Torch vs. Namor), but ultimately put aside their differences to team up in the face of evil (1946 introduced the All-Winners Squad, a team made up of Timely’s most popular superheroes to take on the Axis Powers).

Many elements of this era would be retconned into Stan and Jack’s Marvel Universe continuity later on, making 1939 the arguable start point for everything. But for the purposes of this blog, we’re starting with the Fantastic Four; both because those Silver Age stories are so much more compelling than their Golden Age predecessors, and because those early interconnected moments were more fleeting than foundational.

Another reason to categorize the 1940s as more of a prologue than a true starting point is because of the abrupt way the stories came to an end. In the years following World War II, superhero comic books fell out of favor with the reading public. Captain America, the Human Torch, and all the other costumed heroes were more or less abandoned by the publisher in favor of chasing other industry trends.

Rechristened Atlas Comics in the 1950s, the creators focused on everything else but superheroes. Romance, horror, war – whatever genre was most popular at the time, they followed. The superheroes were given one last chance to prove themselves in 1953 when the Human Torch, Namor, and Captain America all appeared in new adventures. Considering that the books only lasted for several months, it’s almost miraculous to think of how the industry would shift in the coming decade.

These 1953-54 revivals appeared to be the dying breath of a genre. But Jack Kirby’s return to the company in 1958 assured that wouldn’t happen.

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon left the publisher less than a year after creating Captain America in 1941. Stanley Lieber, or Stan Lee as he’s better known, took over as Editor shortly after that and guided the publisher through those rocky twenty years.

Kirby periodically returned to the company in the 40s and 50s, but made a full return in 1958, where he immediately started innovating with his stunning monster comics. The superhero renaissance over at DC convinced the publisher (now finally known as Marvel) to dip their toes back into the genre in 1961.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby took the opportunity and ran with it. The rest, of course, is history.

- Levi Hunt