The History, Characters, and Legacy of the First Marvel Comic

Marvel Comics #1 hit newsstands in October 1939. And it was the first comic book published by Timely Comics, the publisher that exists today as Marvel Entertainment. Timely quickly changed the title to Marvel Mystery Comics with the second issue, and the book ran for ten years and 90 issues. It has huge historical significance to pop culture. Not just as the first ever Marvel comic, but also because it introduced Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and two other characters whose names still reverberate at Marvel. And it wouldn’t have happened without Superman and Batman. Yes, the Marvel universe owes it all to rival DC Comics.

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The Origin Story of First Marvel Comic: Cashing in on Superman’s Success

Marvel Comics first issue cover featuring the Human Torch
Marvel Comics

Martin Goodman was a successful publisher of pulp magazines in the 1930s, during the heyday of series like The Shadow. One of these pulp magazines was titled Marvel Science Stories, and later, Marvel Tales. He clearly loved that word, and his instincts would prove correct, as Marvel has proven to be a very memorable name for a series or a label. Then, the arrival of Superman in 1938 rocked the world. An instant megahit, DC followed up Superman with Batman a year later. Superheroes were now a craze, and Goodman wanted in on it. So a year later, he began Timely Comics, and its first issue was 1939’s Marvel Comics #1.

The Characters of the First Marvel Comic

Namor, the Sub-Mariner Emerges From the Sea in Marvel Comics #1
Namor in his first appearance in 1939.
Marvel Comics

That issue introduced several new heroes, and one kind of/sort of old one. The headliners were the half-human/half-Atlantean prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. The undersea antihero was a menace to most humans, tearing apart those who would do damage to the oceans. Unlike many superheroes who debuted in the Golden Age, Namor’s backstory and origins have remained largely intact today. And so has his look, as a pointy-eared man in nothing but green shorts and little winged feet. Created by writer/artist Bill Everett, the art for the Namor stories was much better than anything any rivals were putting out at the same time. And years later Namor is in the MCU via Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

The Not-So-Human Human Torch Ignites
The original Human Torch of the 1940s.
Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics #1 also introduced another name you might recognize—the Human Torch. Except, the Torch introduced in this issue might not be the one you know from the Fantastic Four. The original Human Torch was, frankly, a misnomer. Because he was not human at all, but an android. A scientist named Phineas P. Horton created a sentient humanoid machine. Not bad for 1939 levels of scientific know-how. When the android made contact with oxygen, he would burst into flame, making him a menacing fire creature. But soon, he would learn to control it. Taking the name Jim Hammond, the Human Torch began a fairly long stint as one of Marvel’s main superheroes, primarily written and drawn by cartoonist Carl Burgos. And he would fight (and team up with) Namor on more than one occasion.

Marvel Comics #1 and Its Two Forgotten Heroes with Familiar Names
The original 1940s Angel, as he appeared in Marvel Comics #1.
Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics #1 had even more notable debuts. Today, two of them are all but forgotten. But their names sure aren’t. The Angel was a vigilante in a Superman knockoff costume, but had no powers, much like Batman. Regardless of his very unoriginal status, he appeared in over 100 stories. But like many superheroes of World War II, he vanished at the end of the Golden Age. This issue also introduced Ka-Zar, the Jungle Lord, a clear copy of Tarzan. He had appeared already in several pulp magazines, but this was his comics debut. Although those characters are long gone, their names definitely live on.

Fantastic Four Revives the Human Torch and Namor
Namor's infatuation with Invisible Girl caused many problems with the Fantastic Four.
Marvel Comics

What we think of as “the Marvel Age of Comics” really began in earnest in 1961. Much of the decade of the ‘50s saw Timely Comics follow trends, and not set them. They published whatever was hot at the time. Horror books, westerns, romance, you name it. But in the early 60s, Stan Lee saw superheroes were making a comeback. So he decided to make a superhero team his own way, and the first comic under Timely’s new name of “Marvel Comics,”—a nod to their first published title—was Fantastic Four.

The Human Torch becomes the Vision in the pages of Marvel Comics.
Marvel Comics

Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby changed the publisher forever. The name and powers of one of the four members, Johnny Storm, was the Human Torch, just like the android hero of the ‘40s. But the original Torch returned, and they revealed his mechanical body was the basis for the android Avenger known as the Vision. Namor soon returned after a long hiatus, and became one of the main heroes of the Marvel Universe again. He even got a cartoon show with an awesome theme song.

The Angel and Ka-Zar Find New Life in X-Men Comics
X-Men #10 from 1965.
Marvel Comics

As for Angel and Ka-Zar, well, they stayed in the past. But a good name is a good name. And Lee and Kirby named one of their new team of X-Men “the Angel,” since they had the rights to the name. What better name for a winged mutant hero? And Ka-Zar was reworked from a Tarzan knockoff in an African country to the lord of the Savage Land, a secret world where dinosaurs still ruled.

Marvel Comics #1 Characters in the MCU

Namor under water holds up his hand in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Marvel Studios

In the modern era, in the MCU, Namor hit the screen in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. And actor Tenoch Huerta got much acclaim for his take on the character. Certainly, a spin-off is at least a possibility, making the undersea hero even more popular than he’s ever been in 80 years.

The original Human Torch cameo in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Marvel Studios

And the android Human Torch? He’s already made a came appearance, in Captain America: The First Avenger. Sure, it was behind glass, but we know he exits in the MCU. Sooner or later, that story will be told on screen. The legacy of that one issue, simply meant to cash in on the Superman craze, has had a very long and lasting impact. And it will continue to be felt for years to come.

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