When Stan Lee talked of "the Marvel Age of Comics", he was referring to the period that began with "Fantastic Four #1", cover-dated November 1961. But Stan already had about twenty years of experience with the company before that issue ever arrived on the newsstand. Actually even before Stan, it was his uncle Martin Goodman who, in 1939, published pulp magazines like "Marvel Science Stories" and "Ka-Zar" before (according to Roy Thomas in his introduction) "a business associate named Frank Torpey convinced Goodman to get into comics". Goodman contracted Lloyd Jacquet and his Funnies, Incorporated to create comics for him and because Jacquet had Bill Everett, Carl Burgos and Paul Gustavson in his stable, Goodman ended up with the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and the Angel in his first comic, "Marvel Comics #1" (October 1939). So, right from the start Goodman decided to focus on super-heroes but, as Roy puts it, "not only super heroes, because in 1939 everybody was still hedging their bets. Yeah, there might be a guy in a mask and tights up front and on the cover, but inside he had backup: jungle heroes not named Tarzan and magicians not named Mandrake and masked cowboys not called the Lone Ranger and private detectives not named Sam Spade" resulting in a first issue containing strips of "The Masked Raider", "Jungle Terror", and "Ka-Zar the Great" along with the super-hero three.
That issue (priced at $365,000 NM in the latest Overstreet Price Guide) has been reprinted enough times to be accessible and it offers a tantalizing glimpse into the origins of the Marvel Comics Group but the subsequent issues both became a mystery (with the title inexplicably changing to Marvel Mystery Comics) and remained a mystery (unless you had a few hundred thousand bucks to spare to buy old issues). Until now. For the first time, Marvel has published a hardcover volume in their "Marvel Masterworks" series that reprints from the "Golden Age" rather than the "Marvel Age". "Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Marvel Comics Volume 1" contains not only Marvel Comics #1 but also Marvel Mystery Comics #2-4 (December 1939-February 1940) allowing us to inch a little farther forward in the earliest days of the company's comic books.
So, are these early stories even worth looking at? A quick flip through the book seems to reveal crude artwork, ill-placed captions and lettering that looks almost rushed. There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but it's easy to see how the whole project could be cursorily dismissed... until the skim happens upon any page from Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner. There is still a crudity as seen from 21st century comic sensibilities but there's no denying the power, mood, and excitement that pours out of Everett's pencils and distinctive thick muddied inks. Everett's stories are also distinctive as he grapples with a "hero" who is an enemy to the whole human race. In the course of these four issues, Namor goes from a murderous force to an uneasy ally, thanks to the onset of World War II and the influence of policewoman Betty Dean. I can't imagine reading these four stories and not wanting to know what happens in the fifth.
The Human Torch also begins as a menace, though through no fault of his own. A newborn android with an uncontrollable power, the Torch actually even inadvertently murders his creator, Professor Horton (though this is retconned many years later). He has no qualms about intentionally murdering underworld "rats" by burning them to death. By the time he gets through these four stories, the Torch has gotten his powers under control, become a little more civilized and taken on the name Jim Hammond. Burgos' art is much less dynamic than Everett's but has a constant motion all its own that overcomes any roughness in long distance shots or facial expressions and his stories have a manic inspiration; a feeling that Burgos was drawing as fast as he could but making it up as he went along.
Lower-tier features like Gustavson's Angel and Ben Thompson's Ka-Zar can't measure up to the big two but still have their moments. Ka-Zar's wars with Paul De Kraft, the murderer of his father, have a great pulp novel quality. (I should probably mention that this is not the same Ka-Zar who shows up in the "Marvel Age".) And the Angel story from #4 with the gigantic, super- powered Butch is nicely creepy, made even creepier by the lack of explanation for Butch's existence.
The other stories fair less well. "The Masked Raider:"never does much of anything and "American Ace" is cut off in the middle of the story after only two appearances... to be replaced by the rather clunky "Electro: The Marvel of the Age". "Ferret, Mystery Detective" (in #4) is distinguished only by the fact that it was illustrated by Irwin Hasen and "Jungle Terror" (in #1)... well, I can't even remember anything about "Jungle Terror". Nevertheless, they're all worth reading just to get the full experience of picking up the book in 1939 or 1940 and going through it cover to cover; from super-hero to jungle hero to detective and so on.
The book is labeled "Volume 1" and I certainly hope this means there will be a "Volume 2". I'm anxious to know what happens in "Marvel Mystery Comics #5- 8". At $50, it is a serious purchase, but I do think that anyone who picks up Volume 1 will be looking for a Volume 2 as well. Give it a try. After all, without these early issues, there likely would be no Spider-Man.